This is just something that I’m trying out. I love basketball. I watch a lot of it. I am going to try to write about it. Each week, I will come out with my three random thoughts on the NBA based on that week’s games or transactions. They usually won’t be a specific instance that happened, but rather larger conclusions that can be extrapolated from the week. It will probably mostly end up being a rambling stream of thoughts. Anyway, I hope you enjoy.
The NBA Sucks Sometimes
The first game of the NBA season seemingly could not get any better. Not only was it a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference finals, not only was it Kyrie vs. LeBron but almost every player on the court at tip-off was facing an interesting question or storyline. Could Derrick Rose bring back some of his past magic and be a serviceable point guard for a team with championship aspirations and expectations? Could Jaylen Brown take the necessary leap forward and held Boston challenge the Cavaliers’ conference supremacy? How much did Dwyane Wade have left in the tank? How would Gordon Hayward adapt to playing second fiddle after being the top dog in Utah for the past few seasons? Could Kevin Love adjust his game again to create more for himself after taking a backseat to LeBron and Kyrie for his first three years in Cleveland? Would Jayson Tatum justify Danny Ainge giving up the first pick in order to land him? Could LeBron James continue to play at the incredibly high level he has maintained for more than a decade? And, of course, the biggest one: Would Kyrie Irving be able to succeed as “the man” in Boston, and eventually supplant his former teammate as the King of the East?
Needless to say, I was incredibly excited. Although the game got off to a somewhat slow start, it was almost surreal to watch. There were seven all-stars on the court (with one more sitting out), and in the early going, whenever any player got the ball, I was interested to see what they could do. Then, in a matter of seconds, it was all over. Kyrie threw a backdoor alley-oop, Hayward landed awkwardly, and completely shattered his ankle. Players from both teams were shocked, looking away with pained looks on their faces as Hayward writhed under the basket. If you haven’t or don’t want to watch the gruesome video, the Cavaliers’ bench reaction will tell you all you need to know.
The players recuperated admirably to put together an extremely entertaining basketball game that nearly ended in perfect fashion, as Kyrie got a half decent look at a three to tie the game, with LeBron right in his face, but came up well short. Everyone is excited that basketball is back, but that moment reminded everyone that sometimes the NBA can really suck. A player can work hard the entire offseason to improve his game and adapt to a new team, and it can all be taken away on a freak play. The response from the NBA, including members of the opposing Cavaliers, was quick and strong, which gave an air of positivity to the otherwise heart wrenching moment. Gordon Hayward will come back, hopefully as strong as ever, and the NBA will move on, but that moment reminded us all that sometimes basketball can really let us down.
The whole ‘rest’ thing has gotten out of hand
I’m not one of those people that think that LeBron should be playing 82 games every single season. Over the years, he and the Spurs have shown that it can be effective strategy to rest, especially when you are consistently playing over 100 games every season. Last year, the rest ‘epidemic’ took over more of the league, with multiple teams resting their stars, and many of them would rest their stars together, essentially waving the white flag on that game. This can be a problem when a certain city doesn’t get to see a given superstar for the whole season if he misses a road game, but in the grand scheme of things, the NBA would rather see its stars healthy and playing at their highest level in the postseason.
However, what happened on opening night of this season took this whole thing to another level. The Rockets rested Nene, their backup center, in the first game of the season. Now, Nene is an NBA veteran a long injury history, and the Rockets were playing the first of a back to back set, but resting him actually pointed to something much deeper that’s taking place in the NBA.
In recent years in the MLB playoffs, managers have gotten creative with their pitching rotations. They’ll pull their starters in the second inning just to get a lefty-lefty matchup in order to get out of a jam. They’ll use star relievers to get only one out. They’ll use their closer in the seventh inning so that he can retire the heart of the order. In other words, the MLB is more and more becoming a matchup league.
For the most part, the NBA has avoided this. You put out your best team and see if it can beat the opponent’s’ best on that night. However, in this era of small ball and pace and space, where all five players can shoot and handle the ball, insisting on playing two traditional big men can sometimes be a death wish. Some teams have been forced to adjust their rotations to playing only one big at a time.
Houston and their opening day opponent, the Golden State Warriors, are the two golden boys of modern basketball. They live and die by the three. Neither team ever has more than one guy that can’t spread the floor on the court at once. Still, usually Houston employs two traditional centers: Starter Clint Capela and Nene. Against Golden State, though, Capela played only 18 minutes and Nene zero. Golden State, more than any other team in the league, makes you adjust. Even Houston, known for its desire to go small and spread the floor, had to cut even further into their bigs minutes.
The move paid off. Ryan Anderson, the stretch four turned stretch five, had 13 points and eight rebounds, and new addition PJ Tucker, who became the small ball power forward, had 20 points on four of six shooting from three point range. Capela was a minus -23 when he was in the game. Tucker was a plus-20. The Rockets ended up with the narrowest of victories, one point, and were one tenth of a second away from a loss.
When Golden State zigged, some teams decided to zag by going bigger or building around versatile big men that could play inside and out. In the opening game of the season, Houston tried to opposite approach, to play even smaller, quicker, and shoot more threes than their opponents. The next night, against a Sacramento Kings team that starts two traditional bigs, Capela played 28 minutes. He had 22 points and 17 rebounds. Nene came off the bench, putting up nine and four in his 18 minutes of play. The Rockets won by five. The Rockets are making this more of a matchup league. For two nights, at least, it’s worked.
Consistency Still Counts For Something
To say that this past offseason was a wild one would be a gross understatement. Besides the Golden State Warriors, who sat comfortably on their perch and added useful complementary pieces, most of the NBA contenders made big moves to challenge the Bay Area juggernaut, while others completely threw away any hope of competing in the present
The teams that everyone wanted to see in the opening few days of the season were those that had seemingly upgraded or revamped their roster over the summer: The Celtics, Cavs, Rockets, Timberwolves, and Thunder.
The Celtics and Cavs had an entertaining opening game. Of course, judging Brad Stevens’ new collection of toys is difficult to do, because Gordon Hayward, their clear second best player, went down so early in the first game. Individually, the Celtics all looked okay. But collectively, something was off. Stevens is a coach known for being able to put his players in the best situations to succeed on offense. On Tuesday, many of the possessions ended with ill-advised threes for Marcus Smart or Terry Rozier. The Celtics’ comeback materialized when they turned to Smart bully ball on the low block or Kyrie isolation. Boston is now 0-2 with both losses against teams against which the Celtics will likely be compared to all season.
Cleveland won their opening game, although they blew a 17-point lead and never seemed to get into a great rhythm offensively. It is hard to run the same offense when your guards are Kyrie Irving and JR Smith compared to Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade. Only once last season did Cleveland attempt fewer than the 22 threes they took against Boston. Fortunately for Ty Lue, the Cavs can rely on LeBron’s brilliance to get them out of almost any situation.
Minnesota added Jimmy Butler to their Timberpup core of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Expectations for the team jumped, with many penciling them in for 50 wins and the Western Conference’s fifth seed. The first game, against the San Antonio Spurs, did not go according to plan. Yes, they were going up against the best coached team in the league, but that team was also missing its best player. It was clear what Minnesota’s shortcomings would be this season. There isn’t enough shooting, there isn’t enough space, and there’s very little ball movement. All of their primary rotation players like having the ball in their hands. There will be a lot of ugly possessions and tough shots at the Target Center this season.
Growing pains are to be expected. But none of these newly put together teams seemed cohesive on offense this week. On the flip side, some of the units that have had the opportunity to play and develop together looked like they didn’t miss a beat. The Bucks completely handed the reigns the the Greek Freak and handed the Celtics their second loss of the season. The Bucks rotation is intact, and it looked like it in their first win of the season.
The Wizards first six also remains unchanged. Although John Wall struggled to find his stroke, the Wizards offense was clicking on all cylinders. Wall was dissecting the defense, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter hit their outside shots and Marcin Gortat looked like the perfect roll man he was two season ago. Kelly Oubre, another young player that the Wizards are developing, looked far more confident than at any point during his first two seasons. His putback dunk off of Beal’s missed three was one of the highlights of the opening week.
The Spurs were without their superstar, but the organization has been the strongest model of consistency and stability over the past two decades. Even if some of the players change, the core remains and the system will never changed. Led by LaMarcus Aldridge, Dejounte Murray and the ageless wonder Manu Ginobili, the Spurs dismantled the new-look Wolves in a seven point win.
Of course there are two exceptions to this rule. And not just any exceptions. The Rockets, with their newly formed all-star backcourt are 2-0 and beat the world champion Warriors. However, in this game, new addition Chris Paul looked like an awkward fit. Granted, he was hobbled, but he finished with only four points and a plus/minus of minus-4. In fact, Paul did not play the last four minutes and change as Houston came back to take its first lead since 2-0 and then held on for a slim win. Houston’s offense looked by far its best when it went back to its bread and butter: Spreading the floor with three point shooters and running everything through Harden. The former Rockets outplayed the new-look ones.
Oklahoma City is the most glaring exception. The Thunder looked great in dismantling Kristaps Porzingis and his collection of G-League level teammates as Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony all played their roles to perfection.
A quick side note on the Thunder before I go into why this experiment worked so well, at least for the first night. The big three played the whole game as if they were just having so much fun. As if they were each realizing Wow. I forgot that basketball could be this much fun. It was hard not to root for this new big three. Westbrook played with the same rage as always, but as far as I can remember, he didn’t take a single free-throw line pull-up. He drove the lane and either finished or kicked. He took only 12 shots, hitting seven. He recorded his 80th career triple double, and it was clearly one of his easiest ones. Paul George slithered around the court, moving without the ball, and ended up with six threes and 28 points. At one point in the game, Carmelo Anthony hit a three, smiled, and shrugged. He had struggled to that point, but he was getting good looks. He was so thankful to close the chapter on the New York years and move on.
This game was against the Knicks. Oklahoma City’s talent was always going to be able to win that game. They didn’t run an intricate offense. When Russ was in the game, it was much like last year. He would go right to the rim and the defense would collapse. Except that this time, when he threw it to the three point line, he teammates actually made the shot. When he wasn’t in, it allowed George and Melo to get some of the iso looks that they have grown accustomed to getting. If all three of them are content with playing these roles, Westbrook mainly as a distributor, and the other two primarily off the ball, this team will be successful.
Now, we shouldn’t read too much into one game, and the retooled teams have a long time to figure this thing out. But for this week, we were reminded that what we know best is sometimes what works best.