Three Random Thoughts on the NBA, 3/6

In Defense of GOATs

The LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan argument has been at or near the forefront of basketball media pretty much since the day LeBron overcame a 3-1 deficit in the NBA finals to defeat the best regular season team ever, the 73-win Golden State Warriors, in what can only be described as the most heroic performance in NBA finals history.

This gave LeBron not only a third ring, and not only a first ever for his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, but also gave him something that Jordan never had–a finals come back, and one against a team that was favored to win the championship from the time the season tipped off all the way until Kyrie Irving’s three broke Golden State’s hearts.

The debate has picked up recently, perhaps as LeBron’s peak comes to an end (although it probably isn’t), and as more and more people believe that, taking everything into consideration, he may in fact be the best to ever do it. Bill Simmons’ The Ringer dedicated an entire week to Jordan and LeBron, and the debate is practically a daily fixture on sports talk TV and radio nowadays, with Fox Sports celebrities Skip Bayless, Nick Wright, and Colin Cowherd practically rehashing their same arguments every morning.

I have long maintained that LeBron is the best that I have ever seen play the game, but accomplishments and resume do count for a lot in a GOAT debate, since technological advances allow athletes across all sports to do things that their predecessors never could. What matters is how individuals competed and excelled against their opponent during their era.

Jordan presents the best combination of ability and accomplishments of any player. Also, he presents a virtually unblemished record (at least on the basketball court) that LeBron could never match. Jordan almost defines greatness and his iconic stature in basketball lore means he will be difficult to supplant as the GOAT anytime soon.

That’s my view in a nutshell, and I don’t want to dive back into the arguments that can be used to defend one or the other as the greatest. Instead, I want to point out one argument that I’ve heard in both directions that I think could be seen as validation of a GOAT argument rather than a detractor.

It has become a common narrative that while Jordan had a more treacherous path through the Eastern Conference, James has had much tougher matchups when it comes to the finals. This would help explain why the former is a perfect six-for-six in the finals, whereas the latter has reached a stunning eight, but only won three titles. While this is mostly true, it is also unfair to both players.

James had to take out some good teams in the Eastern Conference playoffs, while Jordan also beat some potential dynasties in the championship round. However this are all written off: James beat the ‘old’ Pistons in the ‘07 playoffs, and Jordan’s first title was only possible because the Lakers were well past their glory days.

The 2007 Pistons faced off against the Cavaliers in their fifth of six consecutive appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals, which included two trips to the finals and one NBA championship. Within two seasons, Detroit was swept in the first round by those very same Cavs and the franchise has not won a single playoff game since.

The 1990-91 Lakers were competing in their eighth championship series in ten years, during which time they had captured four rings. Magic Johnson entered that season as the two-time defending NBA MVP. After that season, the Lakers had their first decade-long run without an NBA finals appearance in NBA history.

In both cases, these franchises noticed that James or Jordan were about something different. The teams that had nearly dominated the league or the conference for an extended spell was no longer good enough. Not with these guys around. They were generational talents. Of course, the Lakers situation is a little bit different because Johnson had to quit the game due to his AIDS diagnosis, but both teams revamped their roster because they could not compete with LeBron James or Michael Jordan.

The same thing happened with the Detroit Pistons of the late 1980s, who had won the Eastern Conference three straight times before getting swept by Michael’s Bulls in 1991, as well as the late 2000s Boston Celtics, them of three Hall of Famers and two finals appearances, who lost two consecutive tough series’ to LeBron’s Heat before blowing it up.

A number of other teams have put together experiments with the hope of knocking that era’s greatest off the mountaintop, but almost none have accomplished the ultimate goal, and eventually decided to give it up.

In fact, the San Antonio Spurs in 2013-14 were in only second finals appearance in seven season when they bulldozed LeBron’s Heat, four games to one. They were, by almost any account, older than the teams that we now consider ancient for the sake of the GOAT argument. Since they won, we don’t consider them to be old anymore, even though they haven’t been back to the last round since.

If the Golden State Warriors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers again this year, we won’t say that they did so because LeBron was aging. Twenty years from now though, who knows what the narrative will be.

Cluster in the Middle

Last week I wrote about how there were a number of struggling NBA teams that were going nowhere. Not now and not in the near future. The dilution of talent among NBA lottery teams also means that the NBA draft may be a little more boring than usual.

Not to worry, the NBA playoffs are here to save the day.

The playoff pictures in both conferences are eerily similar. The top two teams have separated themselves from the pack, and then there a bunch of teams within a few games of each other. In the East that is seeds three through eight, while in the West the third and tenth best teams in the conference are only three games apart.

In a time where the NBA finals are seemingly a foregone conclusion (Houston may have something to say about that), the byproduct of the superteam era is a superior regular season product.

Every game, from here on out, matters. Every team is fighting; whether that be for lottery odds, playoff position, or home court advantage throughout the NBA playoffs. Consider: When I last published, the Pelicans were eighth in the West. Now, they sit in the fourth. The Portland Trail Blazers have jumped from seventh to third. In the East, the Pacers have soared into fourth, and the Bucks have tumbled to number eight.

None of the teams are particularly great. Nate Silver’s NBA model predicts that the Boston Celtics will be the only NBA team to win between 50 and 59 games, with 50 usually serving as a barometer for a great team and 60 representing an exceptional one.

What the NBA is left with given this concentration of talent is a number of very solid teams. These teams will face off each other in a high number of remaining games, with each game possibly representing a one or two spot change in the standings.

These head to heads will be of particular importance because the tiebreaker is likely to come into play for playoff seeding. No team in the NBA can have any idea of this point in time of what their path to a championship might look like.

When the Warriors added Kevin Durant last season, fans lamented the possibility of an endless string of matchups between them and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the finals. At least that gave the league one saving grace. Instead of waiting for the second round, or perhaps even the conference finals, for a good series, we will have intriguing and enticing matchups throughout the postseason.

An MVP Moment

Every MVP season must be crowned with an MVP moment. It may not be that player’s best play. It may not even be their most important one. It is simply the one that encapsulates their MVP season the best.

Last season, Russell Westbrook set the record for triple-doubles with his 42nd in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 80th game of the season. He capped off that 50-point performance with a deep three to steal a win. It was the most Westbrook moment of a wholly Westbrook season. He had dominated the opposing Nuggets not only with his 50 points, but also with a triple-double. Although he has never been seen as a marksman from downtown, Westbrook created a reputation for himself as one of the league’s best from downtown in the clutch. That play was Russell Westbrook’s 2016-17 season in a nutshell.

The year before that, Steph Curry cemented his second MVP season with a long three–his record-tying 12th of the game–to beat the rival Thunder during a primetime game. Curry had made tough shot after tough shot down the stretch of that game, it seemed as if everyone watching knew that his shot from between half-court and the three-point line was going to drop. Commentator Mike Breen and Curry’s own enthusiastic responses solidified what everyone knew about the Warriors point guard–he owned that season.

James Harden, twice the MVP runner-up in the past three seasons, is far and away the frontrunner to win the honor this season. Still, he hadn’t yet had his MVP coronation moment.

Until this week.

Harden’s season hasn’t been about clutch performances. Frankly, the Rockets haven’t had enough close games. It hasn’t been about dominant stats, either. Harden’s put up eye-popping numbers ever since he was traded from Oklahoma City to Houston.

Instead, this season is marked by Harden’s sheer dominance as a one-on-one basketball player. He leads the league in isolation possession, and has almost twice as many isolation points as the next highest ranked player, LeBron James. He is an absolutely unstoppable offensive machine, who will get a shot off or get to the tin any time he wants,

On Thursday, Harden went to one of his patented moves, a stepback jumper with a slight push off. Harden has embarrassed a number of defenders with this very move, but none quite like. After Wesley Johnson tumbled to the ground a good 15 feet away from Harden, the Rockets star gathered himself. He looked down and saw Johnson’s eyes looking back at him. Instead of shooting the three right away he stared at his fallen opponent for what seemed like a minute to me and must have felt like a lifetime to Wesley Johnson.

Then, as Johnson’s teammate Milos Teodosic tried to spare Johnson from the ultimate humiliation, Harden let the shot fly. And of course, he drained it.

Harden’s move likely ranks alongside Allen Iverson stepping over Ty Lue and Shawn Kemp pointing at whoever that guy Shawn Kemp pointed at was (seriously, I have no idea who that guy was) after dunking all over him, as the most disrespectful plays in NBA history.

Harden must be angry after these years as second best. In both 2015 and 2017, he had valid arguments for the MVP award, and, both times, he was passed over. He let all of that anger out in that one play. He will be this season’s MVP. He already had the narrative, the team success, and the individual numbers to seal the award. Now, he has the iconic play, too.

 

The Frozen Envelope’s Second Half NBA Predictions: Playoffs

Given that not much has happened NBA-wise since my last post, with the All-Star break taking up much of the time, I will dedicate my post this week to predictions for the second half of the season. In order to do this, I used the NBA playoff predictor to predict every remaining game, which gave me the below bracket. The following paragraphs will be dedicated to breaking down the individual series; why I believe that each team will be seeded where it is and then how every series will play out.playoffpredictions

 

NBA Predictions for Second Half

 

(1) Houston Rockets vs. (8) Utah Jazz

I actually think that Golden State will put together a very strong second half, but the Rockets have looked virtually unstoppable when everyone is healthy this season. Getting the first seed also likely means more to Houston than it does to the Warriors, so I expect them to chase it head on. They probably need to win close to 20 of their last 25 games to get home court advantage throughout the playoffs, and there’s little reason to believe that they won’t do just that.

Utah entered the all-star break on an eleven-game winning streak, but, shockingly, that long run did not improve their relative standing in the Western Conference. They still sit in tenth, but are now only 1.5 games out of a playoff spot. Utah is tied with Golden State for the easiest remaining schedule in the league, with a number of games coming against teams more likely to be chasing the number pick in next summer’s draft than a spot in the postseason, I fully expect Utah to finish strong and overtake both the Los Angeles Clippers and New Orleans Pelicans, both of whom have recently lost star players, for the right to face Houston in round one. With a newfound offensive explosiveness combining with the team’s consistently stingy defense, Utah is the kind of team that will make any team fight to beat it, and they are less susceptible to losing to lesser teams because of that. Unfortunately for them, division rivals Portland and Denver have also impressed of late, and don’t appear to be ready to succumb to a surge from Utah.

The Rockets have beaten the Jazz all three times they’ve faced off this season, and have topped 110 points all three times. For all of Utah’s defensive successes, they, like everybody else, have had a hard time slowing Houston down. Of course, Utah has improved since then, and has gotten back a full-strength Rudy Gobert, but they don’t have the kind of necessary firepower to challenge a team like the Rockets. Once Quin Snyder’s offense comes back down to earth (Joe Ingles can’t shoot 51% from three forever), they will have little to no shot at upending James Harden and company. Rockets in five.

(2) Golden State Warriors vs. (7) Portland Trail Blazers

Golden State looked tired by the time All-Star weekend rolled around. For the first time in four years, they are not the top seed at the league’s so-called half-way point. Still, they are 30 games over .500 and remain the prohibitive favorites to win a third title in four years. As LeBron James has proven time after time over the last decade, seeding matters little when you have the best players. Therefore, I expect Steve Kerr to focus more on ensuring that his team is fully locked and loaded for the playoffs instead of battling with the Rockets for the rest of the season. For the first three years of Kerr’s reign, his team was able to coast late because they already had the top spot in the conference sewn up , but this year’s Houston team doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. Golden State learned the lesson of playing too hard late in the season in 2015-2016, when they were chasing 73 wins, and both Steph Curry and Kevin Durant have a history of injury problems. Golden State should be content to figure out their defense and their rotation and settle for the two seed.

Portland, on the contrary, appeared to be finding their groove before the break. Damian Lillard’s last five games or so were clearly his best stretch of the season.  They should comfortably get into the playoffs, but there appears to be a dogfight between the conference’s third and seventh seeds. Due to a combination of their defensive inconsistencies, Denver’s strong play of late, and my gut feeling that Oklahoma City will eventually figure it out, my standings ended up having Portland finishing seventh, one game behind Denver, and just four out of third place.

That is unfortunate for the Trail Blazers. Sure they recently beat the Warriors when Lillard exploded for 44 points, but the last two playoffs give us a solid idea of how this story will end. The Warriors have taken eight out nine against Portland in the past two postseasons, including a perfect 6-0 when Steph Curry suits up. Simply put, Golden State is too good for the Blazers. Portland is a team that prides itself on a hot-shooting backcourt, which the Warriors more than match while adding all-stars Kevin Durant and Draymond Green in the frontcourt. Terry Stotts’ team has recently seemed to stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity, and this year will have a similar end to the past two. Warriors in four.

(3) Minnesota Timberwolves vs. (6) Denver Nuggets

These are two of the teams that I am most excited to watch down the stretch and into the postseason. Minnesota has at times not looked as good as many might have thought when they made the blockbuster move to acquire Jimmy Butler on draft night, but they managed to string together wins, especially at home.

Butler might be the league’s most underrated star this season and deserves to be in the MVP discussion. Karl-Anthony Towns is a scoring and rebounding machine and has recently stepped up his much-maligned defense. Even veteran additions Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson have put together more than respectable seasons. The real issues have been a lack of growth from Andrew Wiggins and especially an overall lack of depth on the roster. The bench has struggled to produce, but, more importantly they haven’t gotten the opportunity to in Tom Thibodeau’s rotation. Still, with Kawhi Leonard seemingly out for the season (more on that later), Butler and Towns are probably the conference’s best duo outside of Golden State and Houston. Considering that along with the fact that their remaining schedule is relatively easy, I see Minnesota overtaking San Antonio and clinching the West’s third seed.

Denver is a lot of fun to watch. It seems as if they have finally realized that they need to run their movement-heavy offense wholly around Nikola Jokic, and the center has repaid them with three consecutive triple-doubles, including an insane 30/15/17 statline against Milwaukee shortly before the all-star break.  The players around Jokic, notably guards Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, are shooting the lights out and playing some of the best offensive basketball of their careers. Of course, most of the Nuggets’ shortcomings come on the other side of the ball, where Denver is the third worst defense among teams currently in the playoff picture and the tenth worst overall. The return of Paul Millsap, hopefully to come in the coming weeks, should change that somewhat, but Denver’s personnel just doesn’t translate very well to getting stops.

Although I see the Nuggets ending the season on a strong note, this is a problem that I expect to haunt them come playoff time. The Timberwolves have scored basically at will in two regular season wins so far against Denver. Minnesota is also an impressive 24-7 at the Target Center this season, so home-court advantage will be imperative to them. In playoff series that are relatively evenly matched, I tend to side with the team that has more star power. Denver is deeper and more balanced, but they don’t have a go-to-guy to get a bucket or a stop down the stretch. The Timberwolves have both in the form of Butler. They eke out what promises to be a highly entertaining series. Timberwolves in six.

(4) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (5) San Antonio Spurs

The Thunder have clearly been one of the league’s biggest disappointments to date. At different junctures throughout the season, they have seemed to figure it out, only to counter a winning run with a losing streak of similar length. Still, with the talent level on the roster, both offensively and defensively, I expect them to eventually put it all together. Russell Westbrook is approaching his MVP form after a slow start and Paul George is making a case as one of the league’s very best two-way players. The Thunder have shown an alarming propensity to play to the level of inferior opponents, but they have also put together a number of impressive showings this season. Late in the season, when wins become more valuable, their veteran roster and the competitive drive of Westbrook should lead them to begin to collect victories at a more consistent rate. San Antonio appears to be the most vulnerable of the West’s top six, and their grasp on the third seed seems feeble at best. With the middle of the conference playoff pack tightly bunched together, a strong finish by Oklahoma City could buoy them into home-court advantage in the first round.

San Antonio spent much of the first half of the season as they often do: Piling up wins and remaining under the radar. However, a rough patch going into the break, and reports regarding Kawhi Leonard’s worsening rapport with the front office has cast a shadow over the franchise that has been the league’s model for stability over the past two decades. Leonard appears unlikely to play again this season due to a quad injury, although reports suggest that he has been cleared by the medical team, and remains on the sidelines on his own volition. The roster without Leonard is not devoid of talent, but it does not stack up well with the rest of the team’s battling it out for a top four seed. LaMarcus Aldridge’s resurgence and the team’s stout defense are incredibly impressive, but they need more offensive options is they want to maintain their current standing. Currently sitting on four straight losses, I see San Antonio struggling to completely turn it around and slipping from third to fifth over the remainder of the season.

As I mentioned in the previous slide, I tend to side with star power in matchups of team’s with similar records. Clearly, the Thunder win that battle. Of course, Gregg Popovich is the great equalizer. His team will be ready for the postseason and he will make the necessary adjustments to keep the series competitive. You can also count of Westbrook to shoot his team out of at least one game. Still, home court makes the difference in this matchup. Thunder in seven.

 

(1) Toronto Raptors vs. (8) Miami Heat

The Raptors and Celtics have done a good job in separating themselves from the pack in the Eastern Conference. With Boston struggling to find sources of scoring, and Toronto streaking into the all-star break, it seems as if the Raptors will clinch the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the first time in franchise history. Demar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry continue to impress, and this year, they finally seem to have to necessary depth to potentially make some real noise come playoff time. Toronto is on pace to be the only team in NBA history to have eleven guys average six or more points, and their bench is filled with athletic guys who play hard, get stops, and move the ball well on offense. Getting the top seed is likely an important goal for Dwane Casey’s guys, and they will probably play hard for the remainder of the season in order to accomplish it.

After predicting all of the remaining games, I had a three-way tie for the East’s seventh, eighth, and ninth spots between the Heat, Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers. As the tie breakers worked out, Detroit got the seventh seed, Miami the eighth, and the Pacers somehow missed out on the playoffs entirely. Honestly, before I embarked on my predictions, I would have confidently said that Indiana would get to the postseason. However, they do have the league’s toughest remaining schedule and I’m not here to argue with my own predictions. At slightly over .500, the Heat squeak into the playoff picture. Miami is well coached, they move the ball well, and their scoring comes from a variety of sources. They had a hot run that momentarily brought them two within a win of the third seed, but they have recently hit a rut that has them on the cusp of a spot in the lottery. If they do get into the playoffs, they will likely be the least talented group of the bunch.

I like Miami, and it would be quite a story to see Dwyane Wade return to the Heat and get them a playoff series win. However, Miami’s strength comes from their depth, and Toronto even has them beat there. The Heat also have no player at Derozan’s level. Just reaching the postseason should be viewed as a success for Erik Spoelstra. Raptors in five.

(2) Boston Celtics vs. (7) Detroit Pistons

Boston started the season red-hot, leading to talk of them emerging as the front-runners in a weak Eastern Conference. However, their play over the last twenty games has demonstrated an offense that struggles to create good looks, and an overall roster that may be nothing more than a slightly improved version of last season’s squad.This team can grind out wins against the league’s very best, but can also occasionally struggle to put away inferior teams.  Kyrie Irving is spectacular, and the team has an exceptionally bright future. However, I expect them to fall behind a motivated Toronto team and barely hold off a challenge from the new-look Cavaliers to hold onto the second seed.

Detroit made a big move to land Blake Griffin prior to the trade deadline, likely in a last-ditch effort to reach the playoffs and perhaps save Stan van Gundy’s job. The team hasn’t been highly impressive so far with the ex-Clipper, but Griffin and all-star Andre Drummond do combine to create the conference’s best frontcourt. They will likely hover around .500 for the remainder of the season, and my predictions have them edging out the tiebreaker with Miami and Indiana to sneak into the seventh seed.

Boston has the potential to get upset early in the playoffs, but Detroit is not the team to pull that off. They don’t have enough firepower in the backcourt or on the wings, or enough overall depth. Brad Stevens is one of the league’s best game-planners, and the Pistons don’t have the kind of talent where they can hurt you in different ways. This is an ideal first round matchup for a vulnerable high seed like the Celtics. Celtics in five.  

(3) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (6) Washington Wizards

The Cavaliers may have saved their season with a flurry of action at the trade deadline. They traded away old, slow veterans for fast, athletic young guys with a lot to prove. The team, and LeBron James in particular, looked completely reinvigorated in dismantling the Celtics and Thunder before heading into the all-star break, where James took MVP honors during Sunday’s showcase. James knows that seeding is of little importance to him, as if he feels that he is playing well and his team has solid chemistry, they will be the clear-cut Eastern Conference favorites. Cleveland not only needs to integrate Rodney Hood, George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance Jr. into their rotation, but they’ll also need to re-incorporate Kevin Love whenever he comes back from his hand injury. Cleveland may lose a handful of games from now until the conclusion of the regular season, but their emphasis, much like the last two seasons, will be on peaking right when the postseason commences.

Washington has gone an impressive 8-3 in the eleven games since star point guard John Wall began an extended spell on the sidelines. Although they have looked good without Wall, Washington is staring at one of the league’s most difficult remaining schedules, including their next 13 games against teams that are currently in playoff position. That might be good news for Washington, however, who has combined impressive victories with a number of head-scratching losses. I can’t envision Washington coming out of the upcoming stretch completely unscathed. Their current hold on the fourth seed is quite shaky, with the red-hot Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers right on their heels. It will be a tall ask for Tomas Satoransky to fill in as Washington takes on a number of tough opponents while needing to constantly keep an eye in the rear view mirror. Assuming that Wall takes a while to get up to speed once he returns, Washington seems likely to fall in the standings in the coming weeks.

The Wizards have the talent to compete with almost anyone in the Eastern Conference. Their performance last season demonstrated as much. Unfortunately, Cleveland may be the one team that Washington has no chance at taking out in a series. Washington has no player even remotely capable of stopping LeBron, and the Cavaliers are likely to take it a step up defensively come playoff time. The Wizards could keep individual games close, and maybe even steal one, but Cleveland has proven again and again over the past few seasons that they are tough to beat in the early rounds of the playoffs. Cavaliers in five.

(4) Milwaukee Bucks vs. (5) Philadelphia 76ers

Milwaukee appears to have turned the corner and become the team many expected them to be ever since firing Jason Kidd. Interim coach Joe Prunty has simplified the offense and led his team to a 9-3 start under his leadership. Giannis Antetokounmpo has solidified his spot as a top-five player in the league and a legitimate MVP candidate. Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, and a healthy Jabari Parker are perfect complementary pieces who can do damage in different ways. The team is fast, young, and athletic. Their recent run has pulled them to within two games of the third placed Cleveland Cavaliers. Their second half schedule will test them, but it is not as difficult as Washington’s or Indiana’s, two teams I expect the Bucks to overtake in the standings. A fully unleashed Antetokounmpo is near impossible to slow down, and superstars have a way of leading to wins in the NBA. As long as Milwaukee keeps playing the way they have, the end of the season should treat them well.

Philadelphia is in a similar boat. They may currently find themselves in seventh, but they have captured their last six in a row. Ben Simmons has recovered from a mid-season lull and is in an intense competition with Donovan Mitchell for rookie of the year. He continues to hurt teams with his driving ability, passing, and versatile defense. Joel Embiid finally appears healthy (knock on a lot of wood), and he seemed right in place alongside the NBA’s best over all-star weekend. When suited up, Embiid may be the league’s very best big man this side of New Orleans. He and Simmons, surrounded by a number of sharpshooters, including the recently signed Marco Belinelli, will be a scary sight for any opposing defense. The team’s length and height, enabled by the 6’10’’ Simmons playing the point, has also led it to be among the league’s best defenses over the past few weeks. The Sixers have a bright future, but their present looks equally positive.

In other words, this has the potential to be one hell of a first round series. No one doesn’t want to see Embiid and Antetokounmpo go head-to-head for seven games. And that is exactly what I predict will take place. In the end, Embiid may not hold up under the rigors of a seven-game series. Milwaukee has been here before, and they desperately want to win a playoff series. They have more experience, and that what this series will serve as for the 76ers. Bucks in seven.

 

(1) Houston Rockets vs. (4) Oklahoma City Thunder

A rematch of last year’s first round series won by Houston, but with both teams retooled. I like the Thunder’s potential as a playoff squad. Depth isn’t quite as much as an issue, so Westbrook and George can play extended minutes, and can avoid the deadly combination of Harden or Chris Paul going against bench units.

Oklahoma City is stout defensively, but Houston has demonstrated an ability to put up points against anybody. History tells us to not fully trust Harden, Paul, or D’Antoni come playoff time, but something about this team feels a little different. PJ Tucker, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and Clint Capela give the team a stronger defensive identity than last season, and that will give them a better shot to make a deep run in the postseason.

Russell Westbrook will put on a show. James Harden will match him. Houston will struggle, but eventually prevail, handing Chris Paul his first career appearance in the conference finals. Rockets in seven.

(2) Golden State Warriors vs. (3) Minnesota Timberwolves

Minnesota is a tough matchup for Golden State. Jimmy Butler is one of the few players who can at least try to slow down Kevin Durant, and Karl-Anthony Towns is a load to deal with on the low block, an area in which the Warriors struggle. Minnesota will need to improve its defense to have a chance against the defending champions, but they have the offense to at least somewhat keep up.

Golden State will not lose to the Timberwolves, they are simply too talented. However, the team has only once really been challenged in the Western Conference playoffs since their reign over the conference began. Minnesota, with their youth, hunger, and talent, should provide a tough fight. The Warriors defense has shown soft spots this season, and Minnesota is well equipped to take advantage of those holes. Expect a lot of high-scoring games, with the defending champs eventually prevailing.Warriors in six.

(1)Toronto Raptors vs. (4) Milwaukee Bucks

These two teams faced off last season in the first round, with Toronto prevailing in six games. Both sides have improved substantially since then. Toronto has played brilliantly over the course of the season, abandoning their isolation-heavy offense for more cutting and more ball movement. The results so far have been possibly better than even the Raptors themselves could have imagined. However, neither Kyle Lowry nor Demar Derozan has been particularly impressive in their past three postseason appearances. The Bucks for their part haven’t been too good in the playoffs recently, either.

The gap between these two teams are not as great as their records or seeding suggest. In fact, on paper, Milwaukee’s roster may look better. Toronto’s depth will not be as big a weapon come playoff time, when rotations shrink to seven or eight guys. As I’ve said before, I tend to side with superstars when playoff teams are relatively evenly matched. Milwaukee has the best player in the series in Antetokounmpo. I believe in the Greek Freak, and I don’t really trust the Raptors in the playoffs. This guarantees to be a hard-fought series, but I’m going to go out on a limb. Bucks in seven.

(2) Boston Celtics vs. (3) Cleveland Cavaliers

About a month ago, this series would have been far more difficult for me to predict. Cleveland was looking woeful, and Boston looked motivated to knock them off their perch. Cleveland’s retooled roster is far better matched to contend with Boston’s bevy of athletic wings. Boston’s quick start has begun to fade. They struggle to create offense outside of Kyrie Irving, and even their defensive strength may not exist against Cleveland. Last season, Cleveland shredded an equally heralded Boston defense that has since lost Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder.

You can count on LeBron James being highly motivated to take out the former Robin to his Batman in Cleveland. He has also shown a desire to end series quickly over the years. Boston does not have the firepower to contend with the Cavaliers, as last season showed. Cleveland blew out Boston when they met shortly after the trade deadline, and by the time Love comes back, that should be a reoccurring theme in playoffs. Cleveland has made a habit of absolutely hitting their stride in the second round of the playoffs, easily sweeping their past two conference semifinals opponents. Like last year, Boston should take one gritty win, but not much more. Cavaliers in five.

 

(1)Houston Rockets vs. (2) Golden State Warriors

The Rockets are, in my eyes, the only team that has a shot to knock off the Warriors. They can keep up with anyone on the scoreboard, and their defense is greatly improved. They have captured two of three off of Golden State so far this season. However, the playoffs are a different animal entirely. The Warriors will step their game off come playoff time, just like last season, when they looked completely unbeatable.

Houston is clearly the best team that Golden State has faced in the Western Conference in the Kerr era, and they have a shot to hold home-court advantage. However, I am not ready to bet against the Warriors. They haven’t lost more than one game in a series since acquiring Kevin Durant and they are still have the most talent to be assembled on one team.  Houston gives a stiff fight, but Golden State survives. Warriors in six.

(3) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (4) Milwaukee Bucks

Milwaukee is the Eastern Conference team with the best chance to beat the Cavs in a seven games series. The reason? Giannis Antetokounmpo. He clearly isn’t LeBron but he is the East’s closest thing to him. LeBron’s teams haven’t faced a player of the Greek Freak’s caliber before the finals in a long time. Milwaukee also has the athleticism and length to create problems on defense.

Prior the new players coming in, this would have been a tougher choice. However, Rodney Hood and Larry Nance are better pieces to handle Milwaukee’s athleticism. LeBron is still LeBron and he is still surrounded by a number of efficient shooters. Their offense will be difficult to stop. I envision this playing out like the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals against Toronto when the Raptors pulled out a few wins, but were never really a threat to capture the series. Honestly, I don’t really want to see Cleveland and Golden State going at it again, but I don’t see any viable alternatives. Cavaliers in six.

(2) Golden State Warriors vs. (3) Cleveland Cavaliers

For the fourth consecutive season, we seem directly headed for another Warriors-Cavs showdown in June. The Cavaliers are probably a little worse than they were last season, as are the Warriors. Cleveland cannot come close to matching Golden State’s talent, but they do have LeBron James. He makes any series winnable.

Still, we’ve seen this movie before. Kevin Durant is the league’s second best player. He can match up with LeBron. Throw in Curry, Thompson, and Green, and Cleveland just can’t match up. They might steal one game with their hot-shooting or a Golden State off game. There will be a lot of threes, a lot of points, and, in the end, a third title in four years for the Golden State Warriors. Warriors in Five.

Three Random Thoughts on the NBA 2/12

Addition by Subtraction

One of the stories that has appeared all over the NBA media landscape over the past couple of weeks has been regarding the friction between the Washington Wizards and their injured star point guard, John Wall.

Wall, and by extension, the Wizards, struggled for the first half or so of the season. The team was 21-16 in games that Wall played in, and just 26-22 overall through 48 games. A year after coming within a game of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Wizards were falling short of expectations, especially when it came to putting away some the league’s worst teams.

When the team started accumulating losses, they held a players-only meeting to settle things, but that planned backfired and the team’s chemistry seemed to be in absolute shambles. The fact that the team went 6-2 in Wall’s absence thus far (about two weeks into a six-to-eight week spell on the sidelines) did not alleviate the tension in any way.

After one of those six wins, Gortat appeared to call out Wall for not being a team player. The point guard responded by declaring on ESPN that Gortat got “the most spoon-fed baskets ever”. Fans and analysts around the country have begun to wonder if maybe Washington is better without their franchise player, and the atmosphere in the nation’s capital right now is even uglier than normal.

However, there are two big positives to be drawn from Washington’s strong run before the all-star break. Let’s get one thing clear right away: If the Wizards have any hope of accomplishing anything this season, they absolutely need John Wall. Not the John Wall that we saw for 37 games this season, but the player we saw last year. The guy who shredded defenses with his rare combination of speed, strength, and vision.

Now, back to what this injury means. First, the bench has been forced to step up in Wall’s absence, and the trio of Tomas Satoransky, Kelly Oubre Jr., and Mike Scott  have filled in admirably over the past eight games. In particular, Satoransky, who had seen limited playing time over his first season and a half in the league, has played exceptionally well, most recently dropping 25 points on 10-of-12 shooting in a win over the Bulls. The experience he is gaining now will be invaluable come playoff time, as the Wizards suffered through long dry spells in last year’s postseason when Wall was taking a break. Backup point guard has been a gaping hole for Washington for the better part of Wall’s career with the franchise. Perhaps Satoransky is the solution to that problem.

Similarly, Otto Porter and Markieff Morris have been forced into being more aggressive when looking for their own shots, and both have had their best prolonged stretches of the season recently.

Beyond helping the other players find their footing, Washington’s success over the past two weeks could allow Wall to really take his time in rehabilitation and return to the court when he is fully healthy. Too often in his career, Wall has rushed back from injuries prior to reaching 100%, which just puts him more at risk for a more significant future injury. That seems to be what happened this season, as Wall never appeared to be as explosive as last year, and he missed sporadic games with knee soreness. Eventually, he had to opt for surgery and an extended run on the sidelines.

If Washington can keep up the strong play, it will have a roster full of players more prepared to carry the load and a fully refreshed Wall running the show. It must be hard for Wall to watch the team move the ball and play better defense without him, but the truth is that he wasn’t good enough, whether due to injury or otherwise, when he suited up this season. If he can come back and get Washington’s offense to click how it did at times last season, the team still has slight chance to make some noise in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

A Risky Rebuild

By extending the red-hot Lou Williams’ contract and not jettisoning DeAndre Jordan out of town, the Los Angeles Clippers decided against launching into a full-scale rebuild. When they were forced into a Chris Paul trade, which yielded them a collection of solid role players (Williams included), the Clippers expected to stay in the chase for the Western Conference playoffs. They still had a star in Blake Griffin, and the rest of the roster seemed deep enough to provide him with adequate support.

A spate of injuries and a run of poor play consigned Los Angeles to the outside looking in of the playoff picture. Griffin himself, who had signed an enormous five-year extension this summer, got hurt twice and the front office probably feared that they had paid an injury-prone 28-year old too much. Hovering around .500 and sitting ninth in the conference, the Clippers shipped Griffin off to Detroit about a week prior to the trade deadline.

That move led many to believe that Jerry West was ready to complete blow up the roster and start from scratch. Jordan and Williams, who were reportedly on the block even before anybody thought Griffin was going to be dealt, were said to be the next out the door. Instead, both will remain in the fold at least until the end of this season.

The Clippers are clearly in rebuild mode. Over the past six months, they have parted ways with their two best players, both of whom have been in LA  for at least six seasons. With Griffin and Paul, the Clippers reached the postseason six times, but never once made it past the second round.

However, this is not a team that is ready to throw in the towel for the season and keep one eye on June’s draft. They sit just a half game back of the suddenly DeMarcus Cousins-less New Orleans Pelicans for the conference’s final playoff spot.

The Clippers seem to want to rebuild on the fly. By trading Griffin, they not only got back a few solid pieces, but they also freed up significant cap space in order to chase a big-name free agent this summer. If they were land one of these stars, the squad looks like it would instantly be good enough to be in the mix.

The team has a bevy of guards who each play a distinct role, with Milos Teodosic serving as a playmaker, Lou Williams as the scoring spark plug off the bench and Patrick Beverley as a shutdown defender. Austin Rivers is solid all-around is a very good option as a fourth guard. Avery Bradley, acquired from Detroit, is another elite perimeter stopper, but it appears unlikely that the former Celtic will remain in Los Angeles beyond this season.

In the front court, the Clippers can now field a versatile forward combination of Danilo Gallinari and Tobias Harris, both are whom are tall and rangy, but are more natural fits on the perimeter on offense. That means that when they are on the court together, they can both either play the three or the four, and they can seamlessly switch men on the defensive end. Both are confident scorers who shoot the three at a high rate, but can also get buckets from the other two levels.

DeAndre Jordan is a defensive anchor and one of the best rim runners in the game. He is an impending free agent who will likely have a lot of suitors, but reports suggest he is looking for a contract extension although the two sides are not yet near an agreement.

This collection of solid secondary players might be enough to entice someone to sign there. If that offseason strategy doesn’t work out, the Clippers front office will find itself in a tough predicament. Either they will have to run it back with a team that is destined to win about half of its games each season, in hopes that they could land someone in the summer of 2019. Alternatively, they would have to part ways with much of their current roster and revamp on a larger-scale, a move that would likely take them out of the running for star free agents.

Los Angeles chose a middle ground in their rebuild, hoping that they can grab a spot in the playoffs, and then be bigger players in the offseason market. However, if they strike out this summer, the Clippers will find themselves in a situation that no one wants to be in.

In the opposite conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers are playing a similar game. With rumors running rampant that LeBron James is heading out, Cleveland had to make a move at the trade deadline. It isn’t easy to make moves that help both current and future prospects for a franchise, but Koby Altman pulled just that off on Thursday.

Cleveland was built to win now and only now, yet they weren’t winning enough. The team was old and slow. Much of the roster couldn’t shoot or didn’t play defense. Not only were they being written off as championship contenders, but many didn’t believe that the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions were even the favorites on their own side of the bracket.

Now, Cleveland might have found its way back into the driver’s seat. They flipped the aging group of Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Jae Crowder, Channing Frye, and Iman Shumpert for Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., and George Hill, while managing to hold onto their best asset, Brooklyn’s pick in the upcoming draft.

In a series of three separate moves, Cleveland instantly become, younger, faster, and more athletic. The move also puts them on track to fit in today’s NBA, with more shooting coming in on offense on more switchability arriving on the less glamorous end of the court. Cleveland will still be hard-pressed to beat Golden State or even Houston in a best-of-seven series. However, they did not refreshed and re-energized by this move. It not only gives them a better shot at reinvigorating LeBron and perhaps keeping him past this season, the moves also more importantly give them a stronger core if LeBron does choose to flee Cleveland for the second time in the past decade.

Wade, Thomas, and Rose were never going to be useful players to rebuild around. They are all too old and too broken down. However, a team led by Love, and surrounded by Hood, Clarkson, Nance and whoever they pick in June is at least competent enough to win some games while keeping the team in the running for the future if they ever do land another star to replace James.

Much like the Clippers, this revolution could backfire. Had LeBron left this current roster, it would have been easier to blow up. Now, it’s likely that Cleveland wants their trio of 25 year olds to be aboard for the long run. That has the potential to be a recipe for mediocrity.

Both the Clippers and Cavaliers are engaging in risky rebuilds, hoping that they strike lucky, and already in position to take advantage of the situation if they ever do. Only time will tell if they made a wise decision.

Empty at the Top

This upcoming NBA draft class has been lauded as one of the most stacked in recent memory. Yet, the excitement for the draft, at least in my eyes, pales in comparison to recent installments of the event. Ever since 2013, the draft has been extremely exciting. Why? Because the teams drafted at the top were exciting, for a variety of reasons.

In 2014, Cleveland drafted Andrew Wiggins. At the time, it appeared that he would be the third number one overall pick on the roster. Instead, the Cavaliers shockingly brought LeBron James back home and Wiggins was promptly dealt to Minnesota as part of a package to land Kevin Love, a player who complied far better with Cleveland’s win-now timeline.

In 2015, Minnesota itself landed the number one pick, meaning that they could pair two of the league’s best young prospects, Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns together, giving a desperate fanbase a certain level of hope for the future.

In 2016, the Philadelphia 76ers, who had made tanking for top draft picks trendy, landed number one overall pick and were able to copy Minnesota by combining that year’s top pick, Ben Simmons, with Joel Embiid, one of the league’s most exciting players, and the number three pick from a year prior. Also that year, two of the league’s most storied franchises had top three picks, and Boston and the Lakers got two more very intriguing players in Jaylen Brown and Brandon Ingram, respectively.

This past year, the same three teams held the top three picks in the same order. That meant that Boston, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, three of the country’s best NBA markets, along with the aforementioned Timberwolves had at least two young players who could grow together for years to come. The narratives around all four drafts were both intriguing and enticing.

This year?

Not so much.

Tanking has become a phenomenon in the NBA and this year has as many poor teams as any season I can remember. The 76ers and Lakers are progressing nicely and currently project to pick in the lower half of the lottery (or just outside of it in Philly’s case), while the Celtics and Timberwolves are both among the best teams currently, and have strong potential for the future.

That means that the teas projected to pick at the top of the draft are bad. Really bad. They have neither a solid current core nor a group of young players around whom to build. They are either teams that were competitive in the recent past and blew it up (meaning that they haven’t had the chance to get any young guys), or they are teams that have been terrible for years and have swung on and missed on draft pick after draft pick (looking at you, Orlando and Sacramento).

If the season ended today, the teams with the seven worst records would be, from worst to best: Atlanta, Orlando, Dallas, Sacramento, Phoenix, Chicago, Memphis. None of those teams, save for maybe Phoenix, have a star or a clear up-and-coming star on their roster. The rest of Phoenix’s roster is so weak, that having Devin Booker doesn’t even mean all that much.

The only two exciting teams on track to pick in the top 10 are Cleveland (via a trade with Brooklyn) and the 76ers (via a trade with the Lakers), but they are currently poised to miss out on this draft class’ most exciting prospects.

DeAndre Ayton has interminable potential as a big man who can run the floor, protect the rim, and score from anywhere on the court, including beyond the arc. He has the chance to be a version of Andre Drummond with a jump shot.

Marvin Bagley and Michael Porter figure to be NBA ready scorers from the outset, with the potential to develop into even scarier players. Bagley has demonstrated that ability to find the basket at Duke, while Porter figured to be the top pick before getting injured in his collegiate debut. Despite missing most of his only season in college, Porter will still be among the first names called in June.

Luka Doncic is still not a completely known quantity but reports over the summer pegged him as one of the most exciting international prospects in history, and mock drafts have him landing anywhere ranging from first to fifth.

Trae Young is one of the most electrifying college freshman of the past decade, and looks like the first player to have patterned his game entirely after Steph Curry. Although some may scare away from drafting a small scoring guard so early in the draft, but Young’s production alone should guarantee him a spot somewhere in the top five.

Mohamed Bamba also figures to be a high pick and has the potential to be a game changing rim protector at the next level. All of these have, at some point or another over the past six months, been mentioned as a possible number one overall picks. Unfortunately, unless a dramatic change takes place in the standings, they will be headed to teams with little to no prospects for the present or the future.

 

Three Random Thoughts on the NBA 2/3

The NBA Can Still Suck

In the very early parts of this season, one that promised to be one of the most exciting in recent memory, the Boston Celtics lost Gordon Hayward to a gruesome ankle injury. Boston was on the shortlist of contenders for Eastern Conference supremacy, having completely revamped a team that had reached the Eastern Conference Finals, and bringing Hayward aboard was one of the most important parts of that transformation. The team was playing its season opener against an opponent who had not not only eliminated Boston from the playoffs, but also one with which the Celtics had swapped star point guards in the offseason. It seemed the perfect opening for a great NBA season. Hayward’s injury ruined that. The league demonstrated that it could still be cruel, and set a precedent for injury that would be difficult to top.

Last week, they might have accomplished just that. On Friday, the New Orleans Pelicans lost their star center DeMarcus Cousins to an achilles tear, an setback from which it is notoriously difficult to recover. Cousins was in the midst of an all-time great season from a statistical standpoint. He was averaging 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, and 5.4 assists, numbers which no player in league history has achieved. He was coming off a stretch of two triple doubles in three games, including a 44-point, 23-rebound, 10-assist outburst against Chicago.

Beyond his individual exploits, Cousins was finally figuring it out with his Pelicans teammates. After more than six frustrating (to say the least) seasons in Sacramento and less than half of one to mesh with fellow versatile big Anthony Davis in New Orleans, Cousins was under immense pressure to succeed this season.

He was in a contract year, and to this point in his career, he was one of the league’s most prodigious talents, but also one of its more maddening personalities. His Kings teams burned through coaches before eventually figuring that they might as well move on from their star in order to truly leave a woeful era behind them. This was Boogie’s first chance to prove that the franchise’s toxic atmosphere–and not his behavior– were to blame for Sacramento’s seemingly endless struggles.

Entering this season, Cousins had never played in a playoff game in his whole career. He was sixth on the all-time list of games played without recording a single postseason appearance. He is second among active players, behind only Omri Casspi, who is bound to break that drought this season as a reserve for the Warriors. The Kentucky product is also second all-time in points per game among all players who have never qualified for the playoffs. Despite finishing his season six games over .500, that streak is now destined to continue.

Cousins will also be a free agent in 2018. It will be difficult for the Pelicans to justify re-signing him. Yes, they had won eight of their last 10 games when he suited up and were comfortably in the playoff picture. However, they had no indication that they were going to seriously compete for anything noteworthy anytime soon, and paying Cousins the max money that he surely feels he deserves will hamstring their salary and leave them with two nearly impossible to move contracts if they ever decide to blow it up in the near future.

Teams will want Boogie. He will find somewhere to play, that goes without saying. However, he will be hard-pressed to convince a team to throw a five year deal at a 28-year old center coming off an achilles surgery.

Cousins was beginning to change the narrative around his career, and it all came screeching to a halt. Here’s to hoping that he comes back quickly and better than ever.  

A League of Dysfunction

The NBA controls the sports media landscape. Even during its offseason, the assortment of trades, both true and rumored, were a constant presence on daily talk shows. Even during Super Bowl week, the most important week of the nation’s supposed most important game, the NBA can dominate news with what appear to be non-newsworthy items.

Consider: On Thursday, ESPN produced no less that eleven pieces of multimedia content dealing with a report that they themselves published claiming that LeBron might be considering taking a meeting with the rival Golden State Warriors when his contract expires in six months.

Not that he was signing there, or even that the Bay was one of the most likely destinations. Just that he was thinking about meeting with them. This story was front and center of every sports media outlet for at least 24 hours.

The NBA is currently putting out a superb product. The talent level of players and teams is higher than ever before. They also have the most engaging trade deadline and offseason of any professional league in the country. However, the NBA also remains in the news one other way.

They make everything a big deal. The LeBron story is just one example. Over the past few weeks, there have been reports of numerous teams in dysfunction. Star players wanting out. Players-only meeting going awry. Clint Capela serving as a decoy as Chris Paul leads a brigade of teammates through the Staples Center’s secret passage in order to confront an injured Austin Rivers in the home locker room. If you were to believe every report, you would think that half of the league was about to go up in flames.

Some teams are clearly in some kind of trouble, however. Cleveland’s rut doesn’t seem like the usual annual January shenanigans, although they are still my favorites to win the East. There’s clearly some animosity between Kevin Love and Isaiah Thomas. Now, one of them is out injured long-term and the other is nowhere near the level he needs to if the team is going to compete. The rest of the team isn’t quite as deep as many thought before the season tipped-off. Even if they do get back to the finals and lose, this season may have cost them a chance at retaining LeBron James.

The Wizards tried to hold a players-only meeting, an event which many teams have historically dubbed as crucial positive turning points. Except, the Wizards version ended up poorly, as both John Wall and Bradley Beal openly admitted. Washington has been a disappointment all season, and they have played their best three-game stretch of the year in the first three games of Wall’s extended spell on the sidelines.

There were hotly contested reports that Kawhi Leonard, he of one the league’s strangest injury rehabilitations, wanted out of San Antonio. That’s how far the league has come. Leonard, the league’s quietest superstar, might have beef with its most stable franchise.

Dysfunction has also been in the headlines in Los Angeles, who have added a strained relationship with Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson to the worldwide, traveling circus that is Lavar Ball; as well as Milwaukee, who’s superstar offered to intervene in order to save the fired head coaches job.

Now, I put together a four team-trade that it is almost as unrealistic as LeBron signing with the Kings next summer, but it looked pretty fair and solved much of the dysfunction problems. Of course, after I played around with the trade machine for a while last week, the two main pieces to the deal went down injured. Still, I have included it here along with a brief explanation.

Wizards Get: Kevin Love

Cavaliers Get: DeMarcus Cousins, Jason Smith

Lakers Get: Marcin Gortat, Channing Frye, Ian Clark, 2018 Wizards 1st Round Pick

Pelicans Get: Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Kelly Oubre, Luol Deng, 2018 Cavaliers First Round Pick (Via Brooklyn)

In this deal, Washington accomplishes three objectives. First, add a third star-caliber player who could push them to the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference. The next part is two-fold. Getting rid of Gortat takes his expensive contract off the books, as well as removing a player who has been accused of criticizing John Wall this season. Losing Oubre and a third consecutive first round draft pick is a big price to pay, but taking the Gortat contract off the books and ridding themselves of a locker room distraction, as well as adding a player like Love, is worth it.

The Cavs move on from Love, who has mostly served the role of scapegoat in his three-plus drama-filled seasons in the Land. They also lose the valuable draft pick, but Cousins (pre-injury) would have pushed the Cavs up a tier this season, and at least given them a shot against Golden State. This type of move may have also convinced James to stick around at least another year.

The Lakers are mostly in this deal to shed cap and add a draft pick (they could probably get some combinations of future first and second round picks in addition in order to sufficiently entice them). They can get rid of Luol Deng, who has an albatross of a contract to move, as well as wantaways Randle and Clarkson. Frye and Clark are on expirings and the team could waive Gortat. The extra space that this deal would create would undoubtedly be used to chase LeBron James or Paul George, among others, this summer.

This whole deal, of course, hinges on whether the Pelicans were looking to trade Cousins. Although it is unlikely that they were actively shopping him, if they were even considering it, this would be a pretty sweet package. Although it may seem an underwhelming return on paper, they get three solid young pieces to team with Davis, along with a likely top-10 pick this summer. All things considered, they would have flipped Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, and Langston Galloway for Randle, Clarkson, and Oubre. It would be a rebuild without completely blowing anything up.

A Shift of Power in the East?

Of course, the first big move of trading season didn’t involve any of the aforementioned teams. The transaction involved Blake Griffin going to Detroit in exchange for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic, and draft picks.

The trade is clearly risky for Stan Van Gundy. His Pistons are currently ninth in the Eastern Conference, but sit just one game back of a spot in the playoffs. Griffin just signed a monster contract extension, and has a long list of injuries, including two this season.

Griffin is a multidimensional star–one of five players this season averaging at least 22 points, seven rebounds and five assists per game. He can score inside the paint and from three, although his midrange game is painfully bad. He is one of the best passing bigs in the game, and he can take over a lot of the ball-handling duties while Reggie Jackson is out. Offensively, he is tremendously versatile and valuable.

His arrival in Detroit instantly gives the Pistons the conference’s best front court pairing. Many have pointed out the similarities between Pistons star Andre Drummond and Griffin’s former Cipper companion DeAndre Jordan, as both are big, athletic bigs who can’t shoot or score from the post to save their lives.

However, Drummond is a far superior passer, and running an offense through two bigs can be hard to stop. Expect to see a lot of pick and rolls between the two bigs, as well as Griffin cutting off of Drummond at the elbow. Drummond has done a good job understanding his role this season, so he won’t interfere when his new partner goes to work on the low block.  

When Atlanta was at its peak under Mike Budenholzer, they ran a lot of offense through a pair of passing bigs, Al Horford in the high post and Paul Millsap handling the ball or playing the low post. Drummond and Griffin can aspire to emulate that.

The only issue is that Horford and Millsap were surrounded by solid talent and, especially, solid shooting. Without Harris or Bradley, the Pistons will have a hard time making that claim. Detroit may be even more dependent on Blake to create offense than the Clippers did earlier this season.

There’s a lack of star power in the Eastern Conference, particularly at the power forward position. Griffin will be the better player in the vast majority of his matchups, and that should make the Pistons hard to stop. Most teams in the East are built around guards and wings, so no one wants to confront Detroit early in the playoffs. However, their lack of guard play will hurt them. In terms of depth of talent, Detroit cannot yet compete with Cleveland, Boston, Toronto, or Milwaukee. Outside of giving a slight scare, it doesn’t look like they could get the better of any of those teams in a seven-game series.

Stan Van Gundy the executive likely made the move in order to save Stan Van Gundy the coach’s job. He couldn’t survive another season without a playoff appearance, so he was backed into making a big move to be the sixth or seventh seed this season. It doesn’t have to be a move that will leave the franchise consigned to the treadmill of mediocrity, but it doesn’t improve the roster in a major way this summer, that’s exactly what it will be.

 

Three Random Thoughts on the NBA 1/21

A Match Made in Heaven?

The Houston Rockets have had an interesting start to their season. They came out of the gates blazing hot, before suffering through a slump that coincided with Chris Paul’s second spell on the sidelines this season due to injury. In games in which the newly acquired point guard has played, the Rockets’ record is a very solid 21-5, although that statistic was a more impressive 14-0 just a few short weeks ago. Rockets star James Harden has also missed time this season, and when the entire starting backcourt has suited up, Houston is an almost unblemished 17-2.

When Daryl Morey shipped off a bevy of role players to acquire the former Los Angeles Clipper in a sign-and-trade this offseason, many questioned whether or not Paul and Rockets star James Harden could coexist, especially given Harden’s highly successful transition to the point guard position in 2016-17. Harden and Paul are known as two of the league’s most ball dominant players, and neither of them appeared ready or able to relinquish their ball handling duties.

There are two primary reasons that explain why they have been so successful through 19 games together. Harden is primarily a scorer, arguably the most unstoppable one in the league, but he has worked hard on developing his ability as a passer over the course of his NBA career. This development concluded with him leading the NBA in assists per game last season. Chris Paul is one of the premier facilitators in NBA history, but he is also underrated as a scorer. He’s mostly been so ball dominant as a necessity, never having played alongside a an all-star guard, much less one of Harden’s caliber. Paul has proven this season that he can fit seamlessly into the Rockets offense because he is an excellent catch and shoot three point shooter, he can create his own shot if need be, and he will keep the ball moving and create better looks for the collection of perimeter threats that Houston has.

More importantly, Houston knows it can succeed without Paul or Harden on the floor. Many of last year’s supporting players, namely Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Clint Capela and Trevor Ariza still reside in H-Town, and last year’s team won 56 games and came within a couple of games of reaching the Eastern Conference finals. Reigning NBA Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni understood that and has found a way to mostly stagger his two star guards’ minutes, mostly only playing them together at the beginning of the game and the second half, and the final seven or so minutes. Both Paul and Harden can operate really well when surrounded by weapons who stretch the floor, and they take turns going at opposing team’s reserves, times in which they have both experienced immense success.

Furthermore, occurrences like game six of last season’s Western Conference semifinals against the Spurs, or the recent meltdown against the Boston Celtics, in which an exhausted Harden resorted to launching a number of ill-advised, contested threes, will no longer happen because Paul can always be there to shoulder the ball handling duties when necessary.

The Rockets have been successful when Paul and Harden share the floor, but they have especially exerted their dominance when one of them is sitting. Paul has taken over the offense when Harden is off the floor, shooting more and running the Rockets patented pick-and-roll, while being surrounded by perimeter marksmen. With Harden hurt, Paul upped his season scoring average from about 14 to close to 19 points per game.

With Harden recently returning to the lineup, Paul will have to spend more time as a low-usage, high-efficiency player that he seemed content to play during Houston’s long win streak. The Rockets have been difficult to beat when Harden and Paul suit up, and both seem to have embraced the role that they are asked to play.

The Rockets are in the driver’s seat for the West’s second seed, and are the frontrunners to challenge heavy favorites Golden State for conference supremacy. Despite their regular season success, the playoffs might present a new and more difficult challenge for Mike D’Antoni’s team.

In the postseason, teams rely more on their stars and backups minutes are slashed down. Houston has found a lot of success this season with their ability to attack other team’s benches with a Hall of Fame point guard led attack. However, in the playoffs, they will need to find a way to play more often with Harden and Paul on the floor together. Moving forward this season, the Rockets will need to experiment more with different offensive schemes to get their stars more accustomed to playing and succeeding together.

The Curious Case of Kawhi Leonard

Kawhi Leonard’s injury in itself has been strange to watch unfold. He missed the first 27 games of the season due to an undisclosed quadriceps injury, and when he returned, he played just over 23 minutes per game over nine contests while intermittently sitting out games when the schedule got too busy. Making the situation even more strange was the fact that the Spurs chose to complete the bulk of Leonard’s restricted minutes in the first half, and he rarely saw the court down the stretch.

Just as it seemed as he was rounding into shape–he played over 28 minutes and scored over 19 points in each of his three most recent games–the Spurs star had to sit again with what seemed like a relatively minor shoulder injury.

However, while he was out recovering, San Antonio announced that he spell on the sidelines would be extended by an indefinite length of time, not because of his shoulder, but due to the quad injury that had been hampering him early in the season. Although Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has never been one to speak too openly to the press, he has been especially reserved when discussing the health of his best player. He had been so coy regarding Leonard’s status that the injury seemed far more serious than originally believed, and that it was not at all surprising that Kawhi will now face another extended period of time off the court.

That narrative alone would contend with Markelle Fultz for strangest injury related storyline of 2017-18. What makes the story even more compelling is San Antonio’s success without their two-time defensive player of the year. The Lamarcus Aldridge-led group is 25-12 in games that Leonard has not appeared in, and only 5-4 when he does play.

San Antonio is on pace for about 53 wins–significantly worse than last season–but still remarkable, especially given that their best player has missed the vast majority of the year so far. Much of the credit goes to coach Popovich, who continues to lead of the league’s stingiest defenses while seamlessly recalibrating the offense around Aldridge, a player who had struggled so much last season that he requested a trade over the summer.

San Antonio, as presently constructed–with or without Leonard–have little to no shot at upending the juggernaut that is the Golden State Warriors in a seven game series. Leonard is one of the league’s five or six best players, as his run in last year’s playoffs proved, but his lack of considerable impact on the team is intriguing.

The Spurs may be in the market for another big move this summer, and rumors will continue to swirl around Aldridge, because despite his success, he has yet to perfectly mesh with his fellow star. Moving on or trading Leonard was never even mentioned as an option before this season. His game and persona seem tailor made to fit into the Spurs’ unselfish, winning culture.

It is still unlikely that the Spurs move on from Leonard, but that option may at least be on the table at this point in time. The other part of this story that is likely unique to Kawhi and his organization’s culture is how under the radar it has flown.

San Antonio sit in third in the west, and no one has batted an eye. On talent level alone, the fact that they have stronger records than, say, the Minnesota Timberwolves or the Oklahoma City Thunder makes no sense. Outside of Aldridge, no player  on the Spurs can come close to claiming star status. On the flip side, Leonard doesn’t seem to be treated like a true superstar and MVP candidate. If any other team was missing its best player and had assembled such a strong record, we would be impatiently waiting for the star to make his return, anticipating that it would make the team that much more of a serious contender.

In the case of the Spurs, they can beat any team in the West, except for the Warriors. Kawhi doesn’t seem to change that equation much. His future on the Spurs seems secure, but the rest of the season in Texas will be fun to track.

Warriors Players Battling for Another Title

The NBA right now has eight players who are, in my opinion, the clear eight best in the league. LeBron James is first, followed by some combination of Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and James Harden. The next four are, in no particular order, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, and Russell Westbrook.

Harden’s white hot start to the season catapulted him into talks of being the league’s second best player, but his relative inefficiency, defensive shortcomings, and tendency to disappear for stretches relegate him to a clear fourth in my personal rankings.

The players battling to follow LeBron on the best player list are Golden State Warriors teammates Curry and Durant. They are the only two players who carry a heavy load on offense, score efficiently, play serviceable to excellent defense and play for a top team.

When Curry went down with an ankle injury, Durant, already the second best (if not the very best) in most people’s eyes, seemed to solidify this ranking. He scored at a higher clip with his point guard out, and his per-36 minute numbers for the season are at least in the same universe as LeBron’s.

Durant per 36: 27.2/7.2/5.6 on a .511/.404/.889 split

James per 36: 26.4/7.8/8.5 on a .554/.369/.754 split

This season, Durant has also made the defensive leap, going from slightly above average on that side of the ball in Oklahoma City to very good last year to Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner thus far in 2017-18. He’s among the league’s top five shot blockers and has consistently guarded the opposing team’s best player, including holding James to one of his worst performances of the season during the Warriors Christmas Day win over Cleveland.

His lessened focus on scoring since his arrival in the Bay Area has led to impressive improvement as a passer, an off the ball threat and on defense. It is hard to dispute that he is the league’s second best all-around player.

Durant can still size up and shoot over anybody, and he can finish from difficult angles due to his insane length. He couples an ability to break down any defender in an isolation situation with being one of the league’s deadliest catch and shoot threats. Durant used all of these skills to put together stunning performance after stunning performance while Steph was out.

However, since his return, Curry has somehow arguably been better than the reigning Finals MVP. Over his past eight games (all Golden State wins), Curry is shooting the ball at a better clip than his historic MVP season two years ago. His hot shooting has put his numbers to the level of James and Durant.

Curry per 36: 30.2/5.2/7.1 on a .495/.418/.918 split

Harden has been incredibly impressive this season. He is likely the MVP frontrunner at this point in the season. Despite his exploits, Durant and Curry’s individual successes have solidified them as the second and third best players in the league.

These are all extraordinary statlines to be putting up, and it is hard to separate Curry from Durant in terms of offensive prowess. Durant’s defensive jump makes him the likely second best player, but with the Warriors exerting their dominance over the rest of the league, perhaps Curry and Durant can develop a more competitive battle for the rest of the season.

 

Three Random Thoughts on the NBA 12/6

Adam Silver Picked the Wrong Game to Attend

NBA commissioners usually attend a few games every season, and they choose to attend games that are worth watching: Whether it be because it is a historic rivalry, it is hosted in a big market, it features two NBA championship contenders, or it features some of the league’s brightest young talent. That last reason is probably why Adam Silver chose to attend last week’s game between the WIzards and 76ers in Philadelphia. This was two teams who figured to be fighting for home court advantage in the first round of the Eastern Conference come season’s end, and it showcased up-and-coming stars Joel Embiid, John Wall, Ben Simmons, and Bradley Beal.

Wall didn’t suit up in this particular matchup due to a knee injury, but the game disappointed in another way. Although the final score and the narrative tell an intriguing story–the Sixers built a 22-point lead before the Wizards, led by its much-maligned bench, rallied to cut it to three before eventually losing 118-113–the game was tough on the eye. With Washington’s defense utterly helpless against a variety of Simmons and Embiid led offensive attacks, Scott Brooks resorted to intentionally fouling the Australian rookie. Simmons broke an NBA record with 24 free throw attempts in the fourth quarter. For the game, he was 15-for-29, en route to a career-best 31. He added a career-high 18 rebounds.

This strategy–and the fact that it almost worked–display two things about the Sixers this season. First of all, their offense is really hard to stop. They have height all over the floor, which they are permitted to do because the 6’10’’ Simmons is able to perform the primary ball handling duties. Not only does the height advantage create mismatches all over the floor–but they also surround Simmons with accurate three point shooters. Getting Simmons on the low block against a smaller guards is a great recipe for success. Simmons combines his physical edge with solid post footwork and an uncommon ability to finish with either hand on layups as well as hook shots. With no help defense, Simmons will score the majority of the time. If the double team does come, Simmons can find the open man. Embiid, Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and JJ Redick can all hit the open outside shot and have the ability to attack a hard close out and get to the midrange or, in Embiid’s case, all the way to the rim.

Embiid’s freakish combination of size and quickness makes him nearly unstoppable on in the mid and high post, and the Sixers offense mostly consists of a screen play involving his two young stars, or getting one of them in an advantageous isolation matchup.

Washington couldn’t stop it for three quarters. Even once they had cut the lead to three, a point at which Simmons had hit four of his last six free throws, Brooks kept up the strategy. Usually, once the intended target starts hitting his free throws and you come back to within one possession, you give your defense the chance to get a stop. Free points become too important. Further, by the time the two minute mark hit, the Wizards’ three leading scorers on the night–Beal, Kelly Oubre and Jodie Meeks, who had taken turns guarding Simmons–had committed five fouls each. Before the night was over, Beal and Oubre had fouled out. Brooks didn’t seem to care. He feared having to stop Philadelphia’s offense so much that he maintained the hack-a-Simmons for as long as possible.

However, Philadelphia’s reliance on Simmons as one of only two playmakers on the roster mean that they cannot afford to sit him late in close games, especially given that their other go-to-guy has an injury history and still has never played more than 35 minutes in a game. Simmons, on the other hand, played 41 minutes that night against the Wizards, is averaging 39 over his past 10 games, and about 36 for the season. Brett Brown can’t really get away from the hack-a-Simmons counter even if he wanted to because Simmons is so important to their success as an offense. If Simmons can’t improve his free throw shooting, which has already showed signs of getting better, and the Sixers continue to impress on offense, hack-a-Simmons could be a recurring theme this year. During the game, Adam Silver gave an ultimately ironic interview in which he stated that improving pace of play was a central focus of the league this year and predicted that intentionally fouling was being phased out. Ben Simmons’ emergence as a force could prove those predictions wrong.

Second Bananas no Longer?

When John Wall went down with a knee injury about 10 days ago, it was disheartening for Wizards fans who had already experienced a frustrating start to the season. The one silver lining, though, was that Wall’s spell on the sidelines would allow Bradley Beal to carry the offense over an extended period of time for the first time since he made the so-called “jump” to stardom last season.

Beal started hot in his new role, dropping 22 or more points in each of the first three games without his backcourt mate. Then, teams started to catch onto what Washington’s offensive gameplan primarily consisted of. The Wizards would run a high pick-and-roll for Beal and he would take the first good look if the defender tried to go over the screen. If his man went under the screen and conceded the switch, Beal would go into an iso against the big man.

The pick-and-roll is a staple of the Washington offense even when Wall is healthy, and he typically serves as the primary ball handler. Unlike Beal, Wall has the speed to race around attempted traps and the vision to throw the ball out of double teams to the open man. Beal has never been asked to run an NBA offense before. Asking him to operate as the de facto point guard, Beal began to struggle. He got consistently trapped around every pick-and-roll and struggled to create scores out of them. Washington remained stubborn in its approach.

Instead of trying to free Beal in other ways, the Wizards resorted to their typical secondary scoring options when all else fails; a collection of post ups from Otto Porter, Markieff Morris, and Marcin Gortat. Beal is at his best when he plays within the flow of the offense, when he can catch the ball on the perimeter and then either rise up and shoot or attack the opposition’s closeout. Moved to the playmaker role, Beal often found himself making one pass and then being forgotten in the offense. He attempted 12 or fewer shots and scored 11 or fewer points in three of four games entering Tuesday’s contest in Portland. With the talent level of the team around him, these numbers would never be enough to string together victories and keep Washington afloat in Wall’s absence.

Then, out of nowhere, Beal exploded. The Wizards abandoned the pick-and-roll for the most part against the Trail Blazers, allowing Beal to go right at Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, neither of whom are known for the defense. Beal scored almost at will from all three levels. He only got to the line five times, but hit 26-of-37 shots from the field to total a career high 51 points. It was a high volume and high efficiency performance. When used the right way, Beal showed that he can carry an offense with little to no support.

If Beal maintains this aggression level throughout the season, he can become an elite scorer in this league and at least match up to Wall on the superstar scale. Wall has gotten off to a slower start this season, and even if he remains the primary playmaker for the Wizards, Beal may be slowly overtaking him as the go-to option late in close games.

In the opposite conference, the Oklahoma City Thunder are struggling to find their offense. On that side of the ball, everything still mostly runs through Russell Westbrook when he’s in the game. As Russell Westbrook proved all of last season–and in wins over Golden State and Utah this season–he can carry an offense to solid amount of wins. The Thunder are too talented to not get better on offense, and they already have one of the league’s top ranked defenses. If Westbrook continues to dominate the offense as he has to date, the Thunder can expect a slight uptick in victories from last season. Westbrook, surrounded by the shooting of Carmelo Anthony and Paul George, should be able to guarantee that.

However, this team should have aspirations to give Golden State a run for its money in the Western Conference. Their starpower dictates as much. If they want to contend with the league’s best over a seven game series, it cannot be the Russell Westbrook show. Billy Donovan must install a more complex offense that can put his three offensive stars in favorable situations of offense. Anthony and George cannot be relegated to catch and shoot threats as both are among the best in the league at taking advantage of slower or smaller defenders.

In fact, George may end up being the most valuable player for this team. Unlike Westbrook, he can carry the load on both ends of the court. He is one of the frontrunners for defensive player of the league through a quarter of the season, and he one of the most difficult players to stop one-on-one. Thus far, almost half of his field goal attempts have been threes, compared to just over a third last season. George must be allowed to get the ball and attack the defense. He has value shooting from the perimeter, but he is Oklahoma City’s most versatile scorer. When they need a bucket, it might be time for Oklahoma City to turn to George instead of Westbrook.

A Trade Proposal

Given all of the movement and commotion of the 2017 offseason, it seemed like the season itself would be rather calm. There were no star players constantly in the rumor mill once Paul George, Jimmy Butler, and Carmelo Anthony left their Eastern Conference homes to team up with other stars out west.

Now, however, with Blake Griffin out injured and the Clippers season already completely lost, rumor has it that they are ready to completely blow it up and rebuild. When Chris Paul left, the Clippers felt that their core was strong enough to compete, but a string of bad luck and an 8-14 record say otherwise.

DeAndre Jordan, who is a pending free agent, seems the most logical piece to move on from. Jordan is unquestionably a serviceable NBA starter, he is one of the very best in the league at what he does, but he never grew into the player the Clippers hoped when they usurped the Mavs for his signature and gave him an expensive long-term contract.

Jordan is useful when he is the team’s third or fourth offensive option like was when Paul was in LA, but not when he is the first or second, a role he seems destined to play for the next few months. He is no longer necessary for a Clippers team probably more interested in collecting losses than competing for wins at this point. His contract runs out at the end of the summer, and there is a high likelihood he leaves Los Angeles anyway.

The team that I propose trade for him is the only one to make a trade since the crazy offseason ended. The Milwaukee Bucks’ 12-10 record is disappointing given the high level of talent on the roster. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a bona fide star, and Bledsoe and Khris Middleton are ideal secondary players. Malcolm Brogdon, Tony Snell, and John Henson are solid role players. The Bucks’ second best player, Jabari Parker has yet to suit up this season as he recovers from a second ACL surgery in the past three years.

However, Parker doesn’t fit Milwaukee’s bill of length and speed. This team is built to run on offense and smother teams on defense. The plodding Parker doesn’t add much to either of these elements. I suggest that Milwaukee deal Parker to the Clippers alongside Henson (in order for the salaries to match up) for DeAndre Jordan. Of course, trading for Parker is a huge risk. No one knows exactly when he’ll return, or how good he’ll be once he returns. Plus, he contract expires at the end of the season and he’s suspected to be hunting for a max contract. The Clippers, though have nothing to lose, and they could bring in a potential max-caliber player for the prime of his career. Parker is not a natural fit with Griffin, but Los Angeles is going nowhere with Jordan, and they could even look to eventually trade Griffin and go all-in on the youth movement. Los Angeles will have half a season to gage how they feel about Parker, and if they decide to move on, they will open up a lot of contract space that Jordan’s contract would otherwise be taking up.

With this trade, the Bucks immediately become a contender to challenge Cleveland for Eastern Conference supremacy. The Greek Freak is one of the league’s best at pulling the other team’s center away from their man because he gets to the rim with such as ease. Giannis drives could result in a lot of Jordan alley-oops and putback dunks.

Even scarier, the team suddenly becomes elite defensively. A Bledsoe-Snell-Middleton-Giannis-Jordan lineup can switch at will, and fly around the court to create deflections. They can be even more aggressive than currently because Jordan is an elite rim protector. The few things that Jordan does he does at an extremely high level, and they are exactly the attributes Milwaukee could use to take the next step.

 

Three Random Thoughts on the NBA 11/18

 

The New Coach Effect is Real

 

The Phoenix Suns’ start to the 2017-18 season is likely one of the worst three game stretches to begin a campaign in NBA history. The team lost all three games by an average of 30.7 points, losing two of them by more than 40, and giving up at least 124 points in all three games.

That slow start prompted the Suns to fire head coach Earl Watson, and led star guard Eric Bledsoe–one of the team’s two best players–to tweet out “I don’t wanna be here”. Watson was replaced by former Toronto Raptors head coach Jay Triano, and Bledsoe was benched and eventually traded to the Milwaukee Bucks for Greg Monroe, a protected first round draft pick, and a future second rounder. In other words, the season could hardly have gotten off to a worst start.

This is a franchise that has whiffed on multiple personnel moves in recent years, whether it be the failed Bledsoe-Isaiah Thomas-Goran Dragic three-headed point guard experiment or the Alex Len draft pick in 2013. It was a team that was already seemingly headed for a trying season that would end in a seventh consecutive lottery pick. They finished last season at 24-58, and were now in absolute shambles, and the team’s former franchise player was not playing. It was not hard to consider Phoenix the worst team in basketball.

This roster is too void of talent to truly compete for anything but the first pick in next summer’s draft, but the changes under the new coach have so far yielded positive results. Triano won four of his first five games in charge to get the team back to .500, and overall the team has put together a 6-8 record under his leadership. That is by no means a great record, and it is obviously impossible to tell how much of an impact Triano has had, but there have been some encouraging signs through these 14 games.

Devin Booker, one of the league’s most promising young scorers and now unquestionably Phoenix’s best player, got off to a slow start under Watson, struggling to find his shot and averaging only 16.6 points per game through three. Of course, that is an extremely small sample size, but Triano has completely handed the reigns of the offense to the University of Kentucky alum. Booker has put up 24.9 points per game over the last 14, including dropping in 33 or more in three of the the team’s last four games.

Other young players have seen an uptick in productivity since Triano took over. Dragan Bender continues to struggle, but he has had a handful of games recently where he has looked like a competent NBA player. TJ Warren, who is still only 24 years, and who scored in single digits in two of the first three games, is all of a sudden averaging over 18 points for the season. This number is aided by a 40 point outburst against the Wizards, but Warren has now hit double figures in eight consecutive games. Even more young players, like rookie Josh Jackson and second-year player Marquese Chriss, are still trying to find their footing in the pros, but perhaps Triano will be able to coax more production out of these two guys, too.

What this all means is that teams need the proper motivation in order to succeed. It is tough to tell what exactly Triano has changed except for being a new voice, and giving players a new chance to prove themselves.

This has been a recurring theme in this NBA season. Teams need to be challenged in order to find success. The most obvious example are the Cleveland Cavaliers, who got off to slow start and have only recently showed signs of turning it around. A team full of veterans that for the most part have been there and done that, it’s occasionally hard to find the proper motivation. Early in the season, Cleveland would get up against teams that were supposed to challenge them in the Eastern Conference, as they went 4-0 against the Celtics, Raptors, and Wizards. More recently, it appears as if LeBron James has made it his personal mission to prove to the league that he–and his team–still have it. The Cavaliers battle against boredom might be their biggest roadblock as they look for a fourth consecutive Eastern Conference title.

On the flip side, when the Boston Celtics lost Gordon Hayward for the season, and then dropped their first two games, they were mostly written off as challengers to Cleveland’s crown. Led by two young players trying to make a name for themselves (Tatum and Brown), one of the league’s most underrated all-around players (Al Horford), and a star trying to prove that he can lead a team on his own (Kyrie Irving), all the Celtics have done since the 0-2 start is rip off 14 consecutive wins, most recently taking down the defending champion Warriors, coming back from 17 down to capture a 92-88 slugfest.

Elsewhere, the Washington Wizards, a team that thrived on their underdog status last season en route to 49 wins and a spot in the conference semifinals, has gotten off to a slow start now that they have crept into the national discussion and are getting the respect that the team always felt they deserved. Even if their 9-6 record looks respectable, the team has thus far had an easy schedule and has dropped a handful of very winnable games.

James Harden, who has been the MVP runner-up in two of the past three seasons and had a legitimate argument for winning them both, has come out this season with all guns blazing. He leads the league in both scoring and assists for the highly impressive Rockets. So far, he looks well on his way to the MVP trophy. Being motivated and having something to prove have always been important to success in sports, and this NBA season has provided multiple examples to support this idea.

 

Who is the next Greg Monroe?

After a little more than two anonymous years in Milwaukee, Greg Monroe finally moved on when the team traded him to Phoenix as part of the package to acquire Eric Bledsoe. Monroe was a notable acquisition for Milwaukee in the summer of 2015, as the franchise is not used to enticing big name free agents, and they were facing stiff competition from teams in bigger cities, notably the New York Knicks who aggressively pursued Monroe when he was on the market.

After one year of productive play as the Bucks’ starting center, Jason Kidd realized that the Georgetown product did not quite fit into the team’s identity of length, speed, and switchability on defense, or their fast-paced offensive system, either. After trying hard to trade him, Kidd settled on moving him to the bench, handing him a sixth man role in which he eventually thrived.

However, Monroe’s minutes were dropping and with the possible emergence of Thon Maker–a young center who fits the Bucks’ system like a glove–as a backup five, Monroe was deemed to be dispensable. Before the trade, he was averaging about 15 minutes per game in five games played.

Monroe is clearly a skilled basketball player. He can score with his back to the basket or while facing up, he is a solid rebounder and a good passer for a center. His game just doesn’t fit in today’s NBA, and particularly not with the Bucks. His first start in Phoenix was a positive one as he finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds in a loss to Houston. Monroe can still find success in this league, likely as a sixth man, if he can find the right place for him.

There are two young players who are in similar situations, and might be part of a trade before February’s deadline. What is interesting about these two cases is that, even if they don’t really fit on their respective teams, both of these guys have games that contain elements that are perfectly suited to today’s NBA.

Nerlens Noel entered the NBA as a relatively hyped prospect, as likely only a pre-draft injury dropped him out of the top three picks. After sitting out what would have been his rookie year, Noel showed signs of what he could be in 2015-16, when he averaged just over 11 points and eight rebounds per game. However, Joel Embiid’s return from injury and subsequent emergence as a potential superstar in this league made Noel expendable.

He was shipped from Philadelphia to Dallas for what seemed like an underwhelming return, but Noel looked to be moving into a favorable situation with the Mavericks, another rebuilding team, and this one was without a quality center.

Instead of making a leap, Noel saw his playing time drop in Dallas, where he played just 22 minutes per game, putting up 8.5 points and about seven rebounds. Noel’s difficult season was followed by an even more tough offseason in which no team other than Dallas offered him a long-term contract. Given that Dallas had not shown much interest in his development, and the fact that Noel felt lowballed by their offer, the restricted free agent ended up signing the Mavericks’ 1-year qualifying offer in order to test the free agent market again in 2018.

Had Noel signed on for the long-term, perhaps Rick Carlisle would have felt the need to insert him into the starting lineup in order to justify the contract. However, with the center likely to leave at the end of this season, the team has opted to give him under 15 minutes of playing time per night. With Dirk Nowitzki now playing mostly the five, the Mavericks roster now rosters an incredible seven centers, although none of them are clearly better than Noel. Noel has fallen behind not only the legendary German, but also Dwight Powell and Salah Mejri in the league-worst Mavericks’ rotation. Carlisle’s moves somewhat make sense given that the team’s plus/minus numbers are significantly worse when Noel is on the court.

Although Dallas may now feel no need to develop Noel given their history, it seems strange that no other teams have tried to trade for him, especially given that his value is likely now next to nothing. If you read my post last week, you might remember the three qualities of a modern day NBA center. Noel, for all of his offensive deficiencies, is a solid rim-runner, and defensively he can both protect the rim and guard quicker players on the perimeter. He could serve as a low-level starter on a number of NBA teams.

I imagine Noel will be a part of trade rumors for the remainder of the season, and any team looking for help at the center position should consider bringing him aboard.

The other player’s lack of minutes is even more perplexing to me. Much like Noel, the Los Angeles Lakers’ Julius Randle was a top-10 pick who missed basically the totality of his rookie season due to injury. However, since his return, Randle has averaged double digit points and at least 6.7 rebounds in each of his two-plus pro campaigns.

This season, though, Randle has seen his minutes drop from 29 to 20 per game, even though his per 36 stats are way up almost across the board. The continued growth of Larry Nance, and the surprise emergence of Kyle Kuzma, two versatile, athletic fours, have limited Randle’s ability to see the court. Randle has yet to start a game this season. Although his playing time seems to be turning the tide recently, as he played a season high 29 minutes on Wednesday against the Sixers, his minutes may decrease again whenever Nance returns from a broken hand.

Randle’s game does have some holes, for example, he is neither big enough to guard centers nor quick enough to guard today’s quicker power forwards, he has consistently proven that he is a useful player in this league. He is a rebounding machine, especially for his size, and offensively he can shoot from midrange, handle the ball, pass, and is an absolute load to deal with on the low block.

Randle’s game reminds me of a modern evolution of Zach Randolph, an undersized, relatively unathletic left handed four with good footwork and a soft touch around the rim, as well as from mid range. Randle, however, adds a passing and ball handling ability that Randolph never had. Both of these skills make him a more logical fit in the modern game. Like Noel, Randle has the chance to develop into a very useful player. Perhaps not a star, but definitely a starter and an important complementary piece. Maybe all they need is a change of scenery.

 

The Future is Here, and it is Bright

The future of the league arrived in a big way last Wednesday night at the Staples Center. Joel Embiid, in only his 43rd NBA game–roughly the equivalent of half of a season–transformed all of his tantalizing potential into a complete performance, one of seemingly many to come.

Already coming off a 32-point, 16-rebound performance two nights prior on the same court against the Clippers, Embiid exploded for 46 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists and seven blocks, numbers that have before been put up in a single NBA game. The Cameroonian center hit 14 of 20 shots from the field, including two for three from downtown, and 16 of 19 free throws. Late in a close game, the Sixers force fed Embiid the ball down low again and again against Julius Randle, and he either scored or got to the line time and time again.

He scored on turnaround jumpers, face-up midranges, catch-and-shoot threes, baseline spin moves and one incredibly picturesque, Olajuwon-like dream shake that made Randle look foolish. He contested or altered almost every Laker attempt at the rim. He absorbed double teams and consistently found the right pass to get of out them. Perhaps most importantly, he played over 35 minutes for the second time in three nights after never having previously done so in his NBA career. It was probably the most dominant performance I have seen for a player with so little professional experience.

Think what you will about the so-called ‘process’, after all, it has taken the Sixers five years to field a competitive squad, but one thing is becoming more and more clear: For all of their struggles, Philadelphia now has likely the two best young prospects in the league.

Embiid, to me, has demonstrated the most superstar ability of any player with three or fewer years of experience, and his performance in LA was only the icing on the cake. Lost in Embiid’s dominant performance was another high quality performance from Simmons, who on top of all his other positive traits, has shown an impressive maturity early in his NBA career. It is rare to see a player settle into NBA basketball as seamlessly as the Australian rookie has.

He rarely makes a bad decision, and he can almost do it all on the court. Although an outside shot would be nice, as long as he can master the midrange, he can be a devastating offensive force. He has an unnaturally good handle for his size, and couples it with tremendous vision and an ability to finish in the paint in a variety of ways with both hands. He is currently putting up approximately 18 points, nine rebounds and eight assists per game on better than 50% shooting. He doesn’t have many ups or downs, as his game to game numbers hover near those averages. He is already a triple double threat every time on the court, and he should only improve as he continues to get experience at this level.

The next night, another up-and-coming star had a coming out party on national TV, as Celtics sophomore Jaylen Brown put up 22 points, seven rebounds, two steals and two blocks all while bothering Kevin Durant throughout the contest. Brown figured to be among the league’s best defensive players, but his rise to that status has come incredibly quickly for a guy who didn’t know how many minutes he would play this season. He has also continued to display an impressive aggressiveness on offense, and even Boston must be surprised that he is already averaging 15 points per game. Combined with Jayson Tatum, the Celtics young duo will hope to compete with the Sixers’ and Timberwolves’ young cores in upcoming years, although they are still a step behind those two.

Perhaps the only team that has had such a grouping of high draft picks that is falling behind the competition, is the Lakers, who haven’t yet nailed any of their three consecutive second overall picks. The team has already moved on from the D’Angelo Russell pick, and neither Lonzo Ball nor Brandon Ingram has developed as the Lakers hoped. Regardless of how they progress from now on, other young players have shown that the league is in good hands.