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.

 

Three Random Thoughts on the NBA 11/12

An NBA Efficiency Puzzle

Usually a highly efficient NBA player will fit into one of the following categories: a big man who takes almost of all of his field goal attempts at or around the basket, a role player who is low-usage and therefore doesn’t take or make many shots, or a superstar who simply is able to make a high percentage of their tries. This year, everyone who is averaging at least 17 points on over 50% percent shooting from the field falls into one of these categories, except for three players: Otto Porter, Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon. All of three of these guys are having highly productive career years so far in 2017-18.

To me, Gordon is an outlier in this group. Yes, Gordon’s year four leap has been impressive and he has proven that he can be a quality NBA player. However, he is also a career 29% three point shooter who is all of a sudden hitting 55% percent of his triples. That number would not only lead the league this year, but would be a the highest mark for qualified NBA player in the history of the league. No qualified player has shot over 50% from behind the arc since Kyle Korver in 2009-10.

I can believe that Gordon worked hard on his game this summer, but needless to say, those numbers should come crashing back down to earth as the season progresses. Gordon also has outstanding physical and athletic ability that the other two guys on the list don’t.

Porter and Fournier present one of the most interesting case studies in the NBA. Both have steadily improved their counting stats since they’ve arrived in the league (six years for Fournier, five for Porter), and are now averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, and field goals attempted. Both are clearly somewhat limited basketball players, they are not particularly athletic, or strong, or fast. But they both have created very high floors for themselves. They are smart players, they consistently take the right shots and make the correct plays. They struggle to create their own shots, but their games are without clear strength or glaring weakness.

Fournier has flourished in Orlando after starting his career with two seasons on the Nuggets. He has hit double digits in scoring in all four of his seasons in Florida, and he and Nikola Vucevic have been the only consistent performers on an otherwise dysfunctional Magic squad over the past three seasons. This year, the improvement and patience he has demonstrated may finally pay off, as the Magic are 8-5, with Fournier, Vucevic and Gordon leading the way. Even if they do not maintain their current standing of third in the Eastern Conference, the team looks like it will challenge for a playoff spot, which will be considered a successful season for Orlando following year after year in the lottery.

As a scorer, Fournier is dangerous at all levels. He can shoot from three and is deadly from midrange. This season, he is shooting over 62% from shots between 16 feet and the three point line. In fact, he shoots at least 45% from every distance, including in the paint, between 3-15 feet, and from three point range. Although he is not physically imposing, Fournier can score inside because he has a deceptively quick first step and is a crafty finisher at the rim. He hasn’t gotten to the line much this season, although that number has fallen off significantly since last year. At the line, the Frenchman is one of the league’s best, shooting just under 90%.

On the other side of the ball, Fournier is adequate but is not a plus defender. He is a solid all-around player and among the most versatile complementary scorers in the league. He could easily put up for 20 points per game season for the first time in 2017-18.

Porter continues to improve and round out his game as his career progresses. He has established himself as a member of the Wizards’ big three and no other member of the team really comes close to matching the level of Porter, John Wall, or Bradley Beal. At the same time, Porter remains the clear third option on offense, and he is asked to do most of his damage without the ball, cutting and moving until he finds an open look.

Porter has continued to improve his three point shooting, hitting at a 52% clip thus far this season. Like Gordon, he is unlikely to keep it up, but his hot start demonstrates that last season’s fourth placed finish in three point percentage was no fluke. Porter also consistently hits mid-range jumpers, and this season he has shown the ability to shoot over smaller guards. No longer can opposing defenses hide their worst perimeter defender on Otto Porter. The former third overall pick is learning to exploit mismatches.

He is also a perfect transition partner for the uber-fast Wall, as he runs the floor hard and finds openings in the defense both in and outside the paint. Porter rarely takes a bad shot–that’s one of the reasons why he’s shooting an absurd 57.3% from the field to date–and also rarely turns it over. He’s turned the ball over only 8 times in twelve games for Washington. Defensively, Porter does an admirable job on most nights. However, he is rather wiry and has a history of really struggling with stronger, more physical forwards like LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony. With Washington occasionally employing him as a small ball four this season, this problem runs the risk of becoming even more magnified.

What I find so interesting about these two guys is that they are always praised for being able to do their job well, and not try to go past their respective ceilings. However, Porter seems far more hesitant to look for his own shot when sharing the court will Wall or Beal, and he has found success playing as the primary threat with the bench unit. If Washington ran their offense through Porter a little more, he could very well cross the 20-point threshold without hurting his efficiency too much. Furthermore, this could help Scott Brooks with his biggest problem too, as he could stagger his starter’s minutes a bit more and give Porter a chance to shine as the best player in a unit.

The Magic seem to be trusting Fournier more and more to run the offense–he is second on the team in field goals attempted and third in assists–but don’t be surprised if that trend continues and Fournier separates himself from the pack as the Magic’s leading scorer.

When Trends go too Far

As I’ve discussed before on this blog, the NBA is increasingly becoming focused on going small, spreading the floor,  getting to the rim, and shooting threes. For the NBA big man, modern basketball means that you must be able to fit at least one of the following descriptions:

  1. Be a threat to shoot the three, either on a drive-and-kick or a pick-and-pop
  2. Be able to move quickly enough to contest other bigs shooting from the perimeter and at least somewhat slow guards when switches are necessary
  3. Protect the rim and clean the glass on defense; rim run, finish lobs and create extra possessions on offense

If you can do one, you will typically be a useful backup big (Kelly Olynyk, John Henson). If you can do two, your role should range from low-level starter to low-level star (Tristan Thompson to Rudy Gobert). If you can do all three, you are Kristaps Porzingis, Joel Embiid, DeMarcus Cousins, or Anthony Davis. Some NBA centers don’t fit any of the three categories, and these guys  might soon struggle to find homes in the NBA. For example, Marcin Gortat would probably not be an NBA starter if not for his hefty contract (and the fact that Ian Mahinmi is his backup), while Greg Monroe will likely be traded twice over the course of a single season.

With the evolution of the league and the subsequent desirability for these traits, many centers began extending their range out to the three point line so that they would avoid becoming obsolete. The trend, of course, makes a lot of sense. If you develop a three point shot, not only can you become a threat wherever you catch the ball, but defenders have to respect that ability, giving more space to drive both for the big himself and for his teammates.

However, it seems as if centers have decided that they would rather get beat from long range, where the result is inconsistent, than have to engage in a battle on the low block, especially when challenging supremely gifted scoring centers like Cousins or Embiid. Defensively, opposing centers have elected to mostly sit back in the paint in order to not allow guards to get to the rim, and to somewhat taunt their counterparts into throwing up deep shots.  

So far this season, eight centers launch three or more three pointers per game Only three are shooting above the league average success rate of 36%. Of those three, only one would be considered a star in this league–Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets who is hitting on almost 43% of his threes. The other two are Kelly Olynyk and Nikola Vucevic, neither of whom has ever been considered a dominant force down low.

This thought is directed more at the five other guys on this list, guys who shoot no higher than 35% from long range. These centers, are, in order of three pointers attempted, DeMarcus Cousins, Marc Gasol, Brook Lopez, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Joel Embiid. They are all excellent offensive basketball players, and all can shoot the three ball well enough, even Embiid who has hit only eight of 30 for the 76ers through 10 games. However, even if they can shoot the three, they have started to fall in love with their outside shots too much. Since they are such threats inside, they will be given the space to get a good look from three almost whenever they want.

All of them, especially Cousins, Towns, and Embiid create their biggest mismatches when they are in the post. Here they can utilize their full arsenal of offensive weapons, whether it be back-to-the-basket scoring, passing out of the post, shooting from mid range or taking the defender off the dribble.

When they step out beyond the arc, they relegate themselves to nothing more than another below average three point shooter. Shooting from the outside is an important trait to have and might be necessary for many bigs to succeed in today’s NBA, for those that can score inside, it should be a complementary skill and not a primary offensive threat.

How Easily can a Switch be Flipped?

It’s no secret that the Cleveland Cavaliers have struggled early in the 2017-18 campaign. They are currently in ninth place in the Eastern Conference with a record of 6-7. They have no reliable contributor outside of LeBron James. Their defense has been historically bad.

Derrick Rose has already had to fight off two minor injuries. Kevin Love has been wildly inconsistent and seems hesitant to take on a bigger role in the offense. Dwyane Wade is looking like a 35-year old, 15-year NBA veteran with a lengthy injury history. Tristan Thompson is hurt, and it is still unclear when Isaiah Thomas is going to return from his own injury. Jeff Green has arguably been the roster’s third most productive player. Cleveland looks old, slow, and bored.

Of course, the key is to figure out what how much of the issues are age or speed based and how many will be solved as the team’s veterans round into form. No LeBron James-led team has had a dominant regular season since the 2012-13 Miami Heat won 66 games. Even though he didn’t leave his team this offseason, the Cavaliers nonetheless reconfigured their personnel and every time LeBron has changed teammates his squads have gotten off to slow starts.

To me, this one may be more concerning than usual, but there is still no reason to imagine that Cleveland will not be representing the Eastern Conference for the fourth consecutive season. Against all teams that considered to be potential challengers for conference supremacy, Cleveland is 4-0. LeBron is looking as good as ever, and he alone is enough to at least compete for the conference crown every year. Isaiah Thomas is the team’s second best player and has yet to suit up. When he comes back, the offense will become that much better.

Having said that, as currently constructed this rosters has no shot to capture its second NBA title in three years. Golden State would likely beat them more easily than they did last season, and there is at least one other Western Conference team who may be favored over the Cavs in a finals matchup. The East is weak enough to push through, but if Gordon Hayward were healthy, I would be tempted to pick Boston to upend the reigning Eastern Conference champions.

The team’s biggest weakness is clearly on the defensive side of the ball, where they are currently giving up over 113 points per game. Isaiah Thomas is probably the NBA player who is least likely to reverse that trend. If Cleveland doesn’t make any moves come June, they might have to get some very creative with their lineups in order to challenge the heavy three point shooting teams from out west.

Considering that Cleveland has very few athletic wings outside of LeBron, they might have to go with a Thomas-Crowder-Green-James-Love fivesome that provides them with the scoring punch of the big three along with the defensive capabilities and offensive versatility of Crowder and Green. Isaiah will have to sit in certain lineups so that Cleveland can slow offensive juggernauts, but he is also their second best scorer and will be counted on to provide most of LeBron’s support on offense.

Cleveland player’s are mostly one-way players, either specializing in offense or defense at this stage in their respective careers. In order to have any shot of hanging another banner in the Quicken Loans Arena, they will need to both score points and somewhat slow down Golden State and that means that they may have  to use their two-way guys as much as possible, and that might include going routes that they might not try out that much in the regular season against regular competition. If Cleveland isn’t willing to get original and try new wrinkles, they will have no chance at capturing another ring. The Cavaliers will flip the switch insofar as they will likely be able to recreate last season’s accomplishments, but the notion that this roster is far deeper than last season’s and that it will be able to contend with the Warriors for the title of league’s best is misguided.

 

Three Random Thoughts on the NBA 11/4

In my post last week, I wrote about the reasons why the Western Conference playoffs are going to be so interesting, with one of the main factors being that the conference is loaded with teams who have bona fide playoff rosters. This week, my three random thoughts will focus on the six teams who are on the postseason bubble out west–the Nuggets, Trail Blazers, Jazz, Clippers, Grizzlies, and Pelicans, and which one of them has the best shot to upset the conference royalty.

As long as Kawhi Leonard comes back relatively soon, I believe that Golden State, San Antonio, Houston, and Oklahoma City are locks for the postseason. For symmetry’s sake, along with the fact that they are probably the conference’s fifth best team, the Minnesota Timberwolves will be excluded from this week’s discussion.

All-Stars aren’t Enough

 

 

The Portland Trail Blazers and New Orleans Pelicans have built their teams with a similar recipe, but the ingredients could not be more different. The Blazers are built around two guards, both of whom are primarily scorers and prefer to do their scoring from the perimeter. They completed their ‘big two-and-a-half’ by dealing for Jusuf Nurkic at last year’s trade deadline, giving them some kind of presence in the middle. These three guys are supported by a cast of role players, mostly versatile athletic wings who can hit the occasional open shot, or rim-running big men who protect the paint. None of them create their own shot, and there is virtually never a time that Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum are not on the floor, and when either run of them are, the offense will always run through them.

The Pelicans had a team that was essentially Anthony Davis and a bunch of role players, before they flipped a bunch of those role players for DeMarcus Cousins. Now, the team is centered on two uniquely versatile bigs, perhaps the two best in the league, both of whom can impact the game in myriad ways. Beyond that, the team has Jrue Holiday, who is slightly above average as a starting point guard, and a bunch of other pieces that can hardly be classified as role players. Even more so than Portland, the Pelicans rely on their two all-stars to carry the entire load on offense.

Thus far, neither team has been particularly impressive, with Portland sitting at 5-4, including a dramatic late win against the Lakers on Friday, and New Orleans struggling at 3-5, despite exceptionally strong starts from both Davis and Cousins. The two bigs are averaging approximately  a combined 57 points, 25 rebounds, and nine assists per game, numbers that are even skewed downward a little bit because Davis exited one of the games very early with a minor knee injury.

Although it is exciting to have two elite talents on your team at once, these teams stand no chance to overcome the West’s super teams, who combine multiple stars with quality depth and, often, great coaching. All four of those guys can fill up the stat sheet, but dependence on two stars and very few other reliable players is not a recipe to defeat the Western Conference’s elite. Simply because of their overwhelming size, the Pelicans could form an uncomfortable matchup for the Warriors, but the team has not shown enough consistency to create any real fear in potential playoff opponents.

Both these teams are in tough spots for the long run. They are both clearly one more relatively big piece away from contending. McCollum, Lillard, Holiday, and Davis are on expensive long-term contracts, and Cousins will unavoidably join them if he re-signs with New Orleans. This means that their ability to maneuver in the future is rather hamstrung, especially if they hope to keep their cores intact.

I believe that both these teams are going to struggle to make the playoffs, and if they get there, they have little to no shot of making any noise against the big dogs. Moving into next summer, they will need to make important decisions, and it would not come as a huge surprise if either or both of these franchises decided to blow it up by the start of next season.

The League is in an Identity Crisis

As the NBA grows into a more analytic-focused league, many teams have transitioned into offensive-focused, pace-and-space, and primarily three point shooting teams. Four of the five best teams in the league last season by record were also four of the top five in three point attempts.

As the league has grown into this more uniform style of play, teams with unique styles of play or identities are disappearing. Most of the great teams are offensive juggernauts who run, spread the floor, and move the ball quickly. Most of the teams that don’t play this way have become somewhat irrelevant, and most of them don’t have their own characteristics by which they can be distinguished. There are very few competitive teams who aren’t either predicated on these ideals or led by a unique NBA star who can compensate for any other shortcomings.

Two teams in the Western Conference this season that have gotten off to strong starts based not on a high-octane offense, but on a defensive identity that aims to slow opponents down, grind the pace to a halt, and make up for somewhat deficient offenses. What makes these two so impressive to me is that they have managed to combine the strong defense that their rosters are built for with elements of the modern NBA in order to increase their potential for success.

The Memphis Grizzlies are, once again, one of the league’s most surprising teams. They have beaten both the Rockets (twice) and Warriors en route to a 5-3 record. Their defense ranks third in the league, giving up only 96.3 points per game, and teams shoot a league-worst 41% from the field against Memphis.

The Grizzlies have been the recognized as among the toughest and best defensive teams in the league for a number of years now, and although the personnel has changed, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley are still around to carry the grit and grind culture. Last season, the team brought in former Miami Heat assistant coach David Fizdale to coach the team, with the aspiration that the Grizzlies could adapt to the modern era: Playing quicker, shooting more threes, and simply scoring more points.

Fizdale did implement some new wrinkles, as Gasol developed into an outside threat, hitting 104 threes after knocking down only 12 in his first eight seasons in Memphis. The Grizzlies also moved long-time power forward Zach Randolph to the bench, giving him a sixth man role in which he eventually thrived. Then, the organization cut ties with Randolph completely as he left town in the off-season, as did “Grindfather”, six-time NBA all-defensive team selection Tony Allen.

These moves permitted the team to move along with the small ball trend that was sweeping the NBA, along with ridding themselves of one of the league’s worst perimeter shooters. Memphis’ changes haven’t yielded much statistical change, as they ranked second to last in points scored and third in points allowed in 2016-17. This year, the Grizzlies rank 25th and third, respectively. The Grizzlies have maintained these results because they have created a culture of a hard-nosed, defensive-minded team, and as long as the pillars of this team remain, that identity will not change.

Utah remains poised to take Memphis’ title as the NBA’s premier defensive squad. They ranked first in points allowed per game last season, and have started well again this season, so far finding themselves just ahead of the Grizzlies and trailing only Boston, giving up 96.0 points per game. Utah’s defensive strength lies, of course, with Rudy Gobert, the league’s most influential rim protector. By surrounding him with length and players that can switch between different positions seamlessly, the Jazz have become a nightmare to score against.

The Jazz, though is even more offensively challenged than their counterparts in Memphis. Points were hard enough to come by last season when the offense was led by all-star Gordon Hayward, but now that he has left for Boston, the team doesn’t really have a go-to guy on offense. As a way to combat that, Utah has preached ball movement, and their offense with littered with guys who are comfortable sharing the ball. Ricky Rubio has been a revelation so far this season, particularly with his outside shooting, and if rookie Donovan Mitchell can continue to develop at the rapid pace he has shown, Utah might find themselves with a reliable scoring threat.

Strong defense always makes for uncomfortable matchups in the postseason. If the Jazz or Grizzlies meet up with one of the conference favorites, which they likely will given that they should be in the lower half of the Western Conference playoff picture, fans can be sure that they will give up a good fight. Ultimately, for these two teams, the talent gap is too wide, but it is good to know that teams short on offensive firepower can still find room in this league if they can develop an identity and stay true to it.

Meet the NBA’s Dangerous ‘2k’ Teams

The next two teams have been two of my favorite teams to watch thus far this season, and are two of the third-tier Western Conference squads that I believe will be most dangerous come playoff time. I have dubbed the Los Angeles Clippers and the Denver Nuggets as the NBA’s ‘2k’ teams. Why? Because they are, as far as I know, the only two teams that could realistically and logically be built via an NBA 2k fantasy draft. Here’s how the round by round picks would go for each squad:

 

  1. Blake Griffin/Nikola Jokic
  2. DeAndre Jordan/Paul Millsap
  3. Danilo Gallinari/Gary Harris
  4. Patrick Beverley/Jamal Murray
  5. Lou Williams/Will Barton
  6. Austin Rivers/Kenneth Faried
  7. Milos Teodosic/Emmanuel Mudiay
  8. Montrezl Harrell/Wilson Chandler

 

(By the way, I actually simulated an NBA 2k fantasy draft, and every player listed fell within one round of where I have them.) So what does this mean? It means that the Clippers and Nuggets both have extremely balanced teams and that the offense can come from a number of different places, even if they both have stars who usually have the ball in their hands and serve as the primary threat.

These are two very well built teams that are versatile and employ creative offenses. The Clippers are 5-3, and have had one of the best offenses in the league to date. Blake Griffin has been able to show his full potential with Chris Paul gone, and he has excelled as the team’s focal point. He is a matchup nightmare against almost anyone, as he is quick enough to take centers off the dribble and he punishes smaller forwards on the low block. Griffin has been both one of the NBA’s most effective scorers as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls and in post-up situations. He has also displayed more confidence as an outside shooter, and he has hit multiple three pointers in every game but one this season.

Outside of Griffin, the Clippers also have Danilo Gallinari, a 6’11’ three point shooter who can handle the ball like a guard. He too creates mismatches all over the floor, especially because of his ability to easily shoot over shorter small forwards. That means that four of LA’s five starters are capable of bringing the ball up the court, making it possible to push the pace and create confusion and mismatches for the defense.

Doc Rivers’ guards also complement each other quite well, with Lou Williams providing scoring, Milos Teodosic (when he returns) playmaking ability and Patrick Beverley defensive tenacity. The team is deeper and more balanced than it was during the Chris Paul era. Paul is still among the league’s best players and a master of the point guard position, but without him to dominate the ball, the Clippers have played quickly and freely, and each player has filled their role impressively through eight games. Defensively, Los Angeles will remain competitive so long as they have DeAndre Jordan and Beverley, who are arguably the best on that side of the ball in their respective positions.  

The Nuggets similarly run an offense that is predicated on speed and decisive ball movement. More than perhaps any other team in the league, their scoring comes from varied sources. Jokic and Millsap are the centerpieces, but they have six guys averaging double figures this season. The 5-4 Nuggets’ offense has failed to replicate last season’s impressive offensive output, but once Millsap and Murray find their touches, the scoring totals should improve. Like he showed in Atlanta with Al Horford, Millsap has the ability to play well with another good passing big, and his partnership with Jokic has shown early promise.

The offense should succeed because both big men can punish one-on-one defense in the post. If they can force defenders to help, they both have passing ability, and they are complemented by guys who can score both in and outside the paint. If the second half of last season is any indication, when this offense hit its stride it will put up points in bunches.

The Nuggets struggled mightily last season on defense, giving up over 111 points per game, good for fourth worst in the league. While they will likely be far from elite this season, Millsap adds an extra dimension because he is solid defender both on the perimeter and inside. The absence of both a rim protector and lockdown outside guy, though, will make stops hard to come by.

These teams combinations of real stars with a solid amount of help from the supporting cast makes these two teams dark-horses to make a run in the postseason. While the Warriors are virtually impossible to beat in a seven games series, the Spurs, Rockets, and Thunder will not want to see Los Angeles or Denver come May. I wouldn’t be surprised to see one or both of them win a round in the playoffs. Blake Griffin is the league’s most underrated superstar, and the Nuggets ability to put so many points without a clear go-to scorer is virtually unmatched in the league. These are both important traits in the playoffs, especially as underdogs. I’m keeping my eyes on these guys.

 

Three Random Thoughts on the NBA 10/28

One of the NBA’s Biggest Voids has been Filled

The dominance that the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers have exhibited over the past three seasons led to dramatic changes across the NBA this past summer. If teams wanted to compete, they had to build rosters that could match up talent wise with the league’s best. That meant that all-stars were on the move and teaming up like never before. Chris Paul joined James Harden in Houston. The Thunder traded for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, giving league MVP Russell Westbrook some much needed help. Jimmy Butler reunited with former coach Tom Thibodeau, whose Timberwolves team already had two of the league’s brightest young stars in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. The Nuggets signed Paul Millsap to play alongside Nikola Jokic. The Celtics brought in both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, completely revamping a team that had reached the Eastern Conference finals just months prior. This sudden movement of big names meant that the NBA would be more anticipated than ever before. It also marked the potential absence of one of the NBA’s most fun occurrences.

In 2016-17, almost everyone knew that the Cavs and the Warriors were going to meet in the finals. There was rarely a time throughout the season where this was not the case. However, the season season remained interesting and fans remained captivated. This was primarily due to two men: Russell Westbrook and James Harden. They were both completely carrying their teams; putting up insane numbers while keeping their teams well above .500. Although Harden seemed to be the MVP frontrunner for much of the year, Westbrook managed to maintain his ridiculous triple-double average for the season and clinched the award, even though Houston won 55 games to Oklahoma City’s 47. If you were to take the worst of their numbers, they would have averaged 29.1/8.1/10.4. They both put up some of the gaudiest numbers in NBA history.

With both of them now teaming up with all-stars, I feared that the one man show on a good team phenomenon may not exist this year. Of course Westbrook and Harden, along with guys like LeBron James and Kevin Durant would put up impressive numbers, but none of them would be doing it by themselves.

Well, for two weeks, at least, that void has been filled. Giannis Antetokounmpo first five games has been so great that he already being touted as not only an MVP frontrunner but the likely heir to LeBron’s throne as the best player on the planet. The Greek Freak is currently putting up 35.0 points, 10.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists on over 60% shooting for the 3-2 Bucks, and already has an iconic moment this season, when he made amends for two missed free throws with a steal-dunk-block sequence to clinch a one point win over the Portland Trail Blazers. It was a combination of plays that very few other players in the league can replicate.

It is unreasonable to expect Giannis to maintain these numbers, especially the astronomical scoring and efficiency rates, but if he can keep up his rebound and assist numbers and score over 30 per game, he will automatically be in the MVP discussion. Watching the Greek Freak play is an unbelievable experience. Only 18.4% of his shot attempts have taken place outside of the paint, and he has made just three three pointers thus far. Defenders try to sag off him, but he uses the head of steam that he create with the extra space to effortlessly drive through opposing defenses. No player other than LeBron can get to the rim with as much ease as Giannis has this season. His length permits him to step around defenders, and he can finish from almost any angle. Antetokounmpo’s physical gifts allow him to make plays that others can’t. In the aforementioned sequence against Portland, Giannis stripped the ball from C.J. McCollum, and then made it to the rim from about half court in one dribble before throwing it down.  The Greek Freak was also blessed with tremendous vision and is an excellent decision maker when attacking the basket.

Defensively, Milwaukee’s entire system relies heavily on length and switchability. The Greek Freak is of course the poster boy of both these traits. He can guard all five positions, and he is averaging 1.2 blocks and twice as many steals per game, both good for top 30 in the league. Even though shooting remains a crutch, the Greek Freak can do almost anything else he wants to on a basketball court. Everything the Bucks do on both sides of the court runs through him and he will once again have a chance to lead them in every major statistical category. He should join the usual suspects and be one of the leading contenders for MVP this season. It seems as if only the Bucks’ record could hamper his candidacy.

Just like Westbrook and Harden last year, Antetokounmpo will be a marvel to watch each time he sets foot on the floor and his game to game performance and out of this world numbers will add an extra layer of intrigue to an already special NBA season.

Fun Players on bad Teams are Fun

Another effect of the crazy off-season that yielded so many talent-laden squads was essentially its opposite. Teams that lost superstars who fled for greener pastures were left without hope for the near future. For the most part, these teams had a star that didn’t have enough help and therefore left to have a better chance at winning. This means that the teams that they abandoned are left without any players who have any experience, or are actually capable of, leading an NBA team. There are four NBA teams, all in the Eastern Conference–which somehow got significantly worse this summer–that are depending almost entirely on complementary guards to carry the load on offense.

The Indiana Pacers ended the Paul George era, which had seen some success, but had faltered in recent seasons, after a first round sweep at the hands of a LeBron James-led Cavaliers team just four seasons after pushing another LeBron-led squad to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals. They flipped George for what seems like two cents on dollar, bringing in only Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis.

The offense was supposed to rely around the solid but far from spectacular Oladipo and up-and-coming versatile big Myles Turner, but the third-year center suffered a relatively serious concussion in the season opener and has yet to return. So, the Pacers, who are 2-3 and have scored over 130 points twice, have leaned very heavily on Oladipo to produce on offense. So, far, he has scored at a high clip, averaging 26 points per game at an efficient 50% from the field. He is taking a career-high 17.2 shots per game, more than guys like Demar DeRozan, Andrew Wiggins, and Kemba Walker. The Pacers offense, nothing more than a collection of career secondary or role players, has looked very good, and that’s mainly thanks to Oladipo.

Last season, Oladipo was in a very tough spot. He would often stand around and watch Russell Westbrook run the show entirely by himself. Then, every once in awhile, when Westbrook was tired, he would throw the ball to Oladipo and expect him to create on his own. Oladipo never settled into a rhythm in Oklahoma City and it was good for both sides to end the relationship after one season. Oladipo is thriving in Indiana’s offense, where he has a far more balanced mix of being the ball-handler and playing off the ball in Darren Collison pick and rolls. It will be fun to watch Oladipo and the rest of the Pacers fight for a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs all year.

The Nets agreed to take on Timofey Mozgov’s contract in order a land D’Angelo Russell, who in Brooklyn is being given the reigns to the offense in a way in which he never was in Los Angeles. Despite picking him second overall in the draft, it never seemed as if the Lakers fully trusted him as their guard for the future, especially once Magic Johnson joined the front office. As soon as they knew that they would have a chance to land either Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball in the draft, they shipped D’Angelo off for Brook Lopez.

Now, instead of running their offense through Lopez, where the result is predictable and uninspiring, they are running through a third-year guard who wants to prove that the team that drafted him gave up on him too quickly. Through six games for the surprisingly competent Nets, Russell has taken his usage to new heights, averaging 21.6 points on 17 shots per game. He has hit some big shots late in games for Brooklyn. Both Russell and Oladipo were number two overall draft picks and quickly labelled as busts as they moved on from the teams that drafted them. Now, as the focal points on creative offenses for rebuilding teams, they both have a chance to change the narrative of their careers.

The Atlanta Hawks completely cleaned house, letting the final piece of the 2014-15, 60-win  starting lineup walk, as well as moving on from the Dwight Howard experiment after just one season. Their roster may be the most unimpressive one in the league. All that means that they are counting on Dennis Schroder, who has just begun only his second year as an NBA starter, to be the primary offensive threat.  In his first three seasons, when he served as Jeff Teague’s deputy, he never averaged more than 20 minutes or 11 points per game. Now, he is third in the NBA attempting 21.3 shots per game. Although he is not even fit to be the lead man on an NBA team, led alone the only man, Schroder has played admirably well this season, putting up 22.5 points and 6.5 assists with virtually no help. Taurean Prince is the team’s second leading scorer. Schroder has missed two games for the 1-5 Hawks, and they have lost both, scoring 93 and then 86 points. When the German point guard plays, the team averages 103 points per game. The lightning-quick guard has struggled with his outside shooting this season, but he showed glimpses of that ability in last year’s playoff series against the Wizards. If he can hit from the perimeter more consistently, he will see an uptick in his already solid scoring numbers.

The fourth guard from this category may be the most exciting, but he has also not appeared in a game this season. When Zach Lavine returns sometime in the upcoming months, he will become the Bulls’ best offensive player. Although they will surely bring him along slowly as he recovers from an ACL tear, and as the Bulls season will likely be a lost one by then, he will still be counted on to score in the minutes that he does play. Last season in Minnesota, he displayed a unique combination of outside shooting and explosive athleticism.

None of these four guards are franchise players, or even stars. They are all in reality the second, or even third, best player on a good NBA team. But, for this season, at least, I will enjoy watching these guys put up big scoring totals and trying to lead their teams to wins. In an objectively terrible Eastern Conference, watching these guys try to redefine their careers will be more interesting to follow than, say, the Toronto Raptors or the Detroit Pistons.

I’m Already Gearing up for the Western Conference Playoffs

The Western Conference is going to be great this season because, as a conference, it contains all the ingredients necessary for a terrific season. There is a clear favorite with a big target in its back in Golden State. There are great teams that believe that they have a legitimate shot to tackle the champions in Houston, San Antonio and Oklahoma City. Then, they have depth. A lot of it. The other four spots in the playoffs will be decided between seven teams that would all easily make the postseason in the East. Franchises in Minnesota, Utah, Portland, Denver, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Memphis all could realistically expect to make a run to the playoffs. All have talented enough rosters to do so.

That means that the four conference juggernauts will each have to face an undesired matchup in the first round, whether it be uncomfortable because of youth (Timberwolves), defense (Jazz), star power (Blazers, Pelicans), grit (Grizzlies), or versatility (Clippers, Nuggets). All these teams present tricky matchups for one reason or another and will make for great playoff opponents. Each round will then on should theoretically, get better. So, in other words, it’s going to be one hell of a playoff season out west.

Last weekend, NBA fans were treated to what can only be called the Game of the Year thus far. And this game was a preview for how entertaining the Western Conference playoffs will be. The game was between two teams that will most likely be in the middle of the playoff pack by May, meaning that it is not wholly unlikely that they face off in the postseason. The game ended in a 115-113 win for the Timberwolves over Oklahoma City. Karl Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins had 27 points apiece, and Westbrook led a furious fourth quarter rally to bring Oklahoma City back. He hit a three to tie it at 110, before Towns hit an impressive floater. Westbrook responded by feeding Carmelo Anthony for the go-ahead three. What followed was the first game-winning buzzer beater of the season, as Wiggins, with no timeouts, ran half the length of the floor and banked in a deep three to steal the win.

The game was of a high quality throughout, and it included a dramatic fightback and an even more dramatic conclusion. It was a sign of things to come for the Western Conference, which should see a number of good games this season and very few bad series come playoff time.

An Extra Thought

Now, as I wrote this post, I realized that a lot of the players I focused on, especially the young players, were international. Giannis, Schroeder, Wiggins, even Towns, who played for the Dominican Republic when he was 16 and maintains that he will continue to represent them. Then, as I thought more about the best young players, I realized that a lot of them, in fact, most of them, were international. Jokic, Embiid, Simmons, and Porzingis were probably the first four names I thought of. And none are American. In terms of international competition, this is no problem, both because these international players don’t play for the same countries, and also because there are still a bevy of players in their prime  like Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, and John Wall who will continue to play for team USA after LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Steph Curry no longer do. It’s the next generation after that one that doesn’t look quite as dominant. Of course, it’s still early, but try to think of who the best under 23 American player is right now. Is is Russell? Devin Booker? Jabari Parker? And where would these guys fit into a league wide ranking of the best young players. Just something to keep in mind as the NBA season begins to gain steam.

 

Three Random Thoughts on the NBA 10/22

This is just something that I’m trying out. I love basketball. I watch a lot of it. I am going to try to write about it. Each week, I will come out with my three random thoughts on the NBA based on that week’s games or transactions. They usually won’t be a specific instance that happened, but rather larger conclusions that can be extrapolated from the week. It will probably mostly end up being a rambling stream of thoughts. Anyway, I hope you enjoy.

The NBA Sucks Sometimes

The first game of the NBA season seemingly could not get any better. Not only was it a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference finals, not only was it Kyrie vs. LeBron but almost every player on the court at tip-off was facing an interesting question or storyline. Could Derrick Rose bring back some of his past magic and be a serviceable point guard for a team with championship aspirations and expectations? Could Jaylen Brown take the necessary leap forward and held Boston challenge the Cavaliers’ conference supremacy? How much did Dwyane Wade have left in the tank? How would Gordon Hayward adapt to playing second fiddle after being the top dog in Utah for the past few seasons? Could Kevin Love adjust his game again to create more for himself after taking a backseat to LeBron and Kyrie for his first three years in Cleveland? Would Jayson Tatum justify Danny Ainge giving up the first pick in order to land him? Could LeBron James continue to play at the incredibly high level he has maintained for more than a decade? And, of course, the biggest one: Would Kyrie Irving be able to succeed as “the man” in Boston, and eventually supplant his former teammate as the King of the East?

Needless to say, I was incredibly excited. Although the game got off to a somewhat slow start, it was almost surreal to watch. There were seven all-stars on the court (with one more sitting out), and in the early going, whenever any player got the ball, I was interested to see what they could do. Then, in a matter of seconds, it was all over. Kyrie threw a backdoor alley-oop, Hayward landed awkwardly, and completely shattered his ankle. Players from both teams were shocked, looking away with pained looks on their faces as Hayward writhed under the basket. If you haven’t or don’t want to watch the gruesome video, the Cavaliers’ bench reaction will tell you all you need to know.

The players recuperated admirably to put together an extremely entertaining basketball game that nearly ended in perfect fashion, as Kyrie got a half decent look at a three to tie the game, with LeBron right in his face, but came up well short. Everyone is excited that basketball is back, but that moment reminded everyone that sometimes the NBA can really suck. A player can work hard the entire offseason to improve his game and adapt to a new team, and it can all be taken away on a freak play. The response from the NBA, including members of the opposing Cavaliers, was quick and strong, which gave an air of positivity to the otherwise heart wrenching moment. Gordon Hayward will come back, hopefully as strong as ever, and the NBA will move on, but that moment reminded us all that sometimes basketball can really let us down.

The whole ‘rest’ thing has gotten out of hand

I’m not one of those people that think that LeBron should be playing 82 games every single season. Over the years, he and the Spurs have shown that it can be effective strategy to rest, especially when you are consistently playing over 100 games every season. Last year, the rest ‘epidemic’ took over more of the league, with multiple teams resting their stars, and many of them would rest their stars together, essentially waving the white flag on that game. This can be a problem when a certain city doesn’t get to see a given superstar for the whole season if he misses a road game, but in the grand scheme of things, the NBA would rather see its stars healthy and playing at their highest level in the postseason.

However, what happened on opening night of this season took this whole thing to another level. The Rockets rested Nene, their backup center, in the first game of the season. Now, Nene is an NBA veteran a long injury history, and the Rockets were playing the first of a back to back set, but resting him actually pointed to something much deeper that’s taking place in the NBA.

In recent years in the MLB playoffs, managers have gotten creative with their pitching rotations. They’ll pull their starters in the second inning just to get a lefty-lefty matchup in order to get out of a jam. They’ll use star relievers to get only one out. They’ll use their closer in the seventh inning so that he can retire the heart of the order. In other words, the MLB is more and more becoming a matchup league.

For the most part, the NBA has avoided this. You put out your best team and see if it can beat the opponent’s’ best on that night. However, in this era of small ball and pace and space, where all five players can shoot and handle the ball, insisting on playing two traditional big men can sometimes be a death wish. Some teams have been forced to adjust their rotations to playing only one big at a time.

Houston and their opening day opponent, the Golden State Warriors, are the two golden boys of modern basketball. They live and die by the three. Neither team ever has more than one guy that can’t spread the floor on the court at once. Still, usually Houston employs two traditional centers: Starter Clint Capela and Nene. Against Golden State, though, Capela played only 18 minutes and Nene zero. Golden State, more than any other team in the league, makes you adjust. Even Houston, known for its desire to go small and spread the floor, had to cut even further into their bigs minutes.

The move paid off. Ryan Anderson, the stretch four turned stretch five, had 13 points and eight rebounds, and new addition PJ Tucker, who became the small ball power forward, had 20 points on four of six shooting from three point range. Capela was a minus -23 when he was in the game. Tucker was a plus-20. The Rockets ended up with the narrowest of victories, one point, and were one tenth of a second away from a loss.

When Golden State zigged, some teams decided to zag by going bigger or building around versatile big men that could play inside and out. In the opening game of the season, Houston tried to opposite approach, to play even smaller, quicker, and shoot more threes than their opponents. The next night, against a Sacramento Kings team that starts two traditional bigs, Capela played 28 minutes. He had 22 points and 17 rebounds. Nene came off the bench, putting up nine and four in his 18 minutes of play. The Rockets won by five. The Rockets are making this more of a matchup league. For two nights, at least, it’s worked.

Consistency Still Counts For Something

To say that this past offseason was a wild one would be a gross understatement. Besides the Golden State Warriors, who sat comfortably on their perch and added useful complementary pieces, most of the NBA contenders made big moves to challenge the Bay Area juggernaut, while others completely threw away any hope of competing in the present 

The teams that everyone wanted to see in the opening few days of the season were those that had seemingly upgraded or revamped their roster over the summer: The Celtics, Cavs, Rockets, Timberwolves, and Thunder.

The Celtics and Cavs had an entertaining opening game. Of course, judging Brad Stevens’ new collection of toys is difficult to do, because Gordon Hayward, their clear second best player, went down so early in the first game. Individually, the Celtics all looked okay. But collectively, something was off. Stevens is a coach known for being able to put his players in the best situations to succeed on offense. On Tuesday, many of the possessions ended with ill-advised threes for Marcus Smart or Terry Rozier. The Celtics’ comeback materialized when they turned to Smart bully ball on the low block or Kyrie isolation. Boston is now 0-2 with both losses against teams against which the Celtics will likely be compared to all season.

Cleveland won their opening game, although they blew a 17-point lead and never seemed to get into a great rhythm offensively. It is hard to run the same offense when your guards are Kyrie Irving and JR Smith compared to Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade. Only once last season did Cleveland attempt fewer than the 22 threes they took against Boston. Fortunately for Ty Lue, the Cavs can rely on LeBron’s brilliance to get them out of almost any situation.

Minnesota added Jimmy Butler to their Timberpup core of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Expectations for the team jumped, with many penciling them in for 50 wins and the Western Conference’s fifth seed. The first game, against the San Antonio Spurs, did not go according to plan. Yes, they were going up against the best coached team in the league, but that team was also missing its best player. It was clear what Minnesota’s shortcomings would be this season. There isn’t enough shooting, there isn’t enough space, and there’s very little ball movement. All of their primary rotation players like having the ball in their hands. There will be a lot of ugly possessions and tough shots at the Target Center this season.

Growing pains are to be expected. But none of these newly put together teams seemed cohesive on offense this week. On the flip side, some of the units that have had the opportunity to play and develop together looked like they didn’t miss a beat. The Bucks completely handed the reigns the the Greek Freak and handed the Celtics their second loss of the season. The Bucks rotation is intact, and it looked like it in their first win of the season.

The Wizards first six also remains unchanged. Although John Wall struggled to find his stroke, the Wizards offense was clicking on all cylinders. Wall was dissecting the defense, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter  hit their outside shots and Marcin Gortat looked like the perfect roll man he was two season ago. Kelly Oubre, another young player that the Wizards are developing, looked far more confident than at any point during his first two seasons. His putback dunk off of Beal’s missed three was one of the highlights of the opening week.

The Spurs were without their superstar, but the organization has been the strongest model of consistency and stability over the past two decades. Even if some of the players change, the core remains and the system will never changed. Led by LaMarcus Aldridge, Dejounte Murray and the ageless wonder Manu Ginobili, the Spurs dismantled the new-look Wolves in a seven point win.

Of course there are two exceptions to this rule. And not just any exceptions. The Rockets, with their newly formed all-star backcourt are 2-0 and beat the world champion Warriors. However, in this game, new addition Chris Paul looked like an awkward fit. Granted, he was hobbled, but he finished with only four points and a plus/minus of minus-4. In fact, Paul did not play the last four minutes and change as Houston came back to take its first lead since 2-0 and then held on for a slim win. Houston’s offense looked by far its best when it went back to its bread and butter: Spreading the floor with three point shooters and running everything through Harden. The former Rockets outplayed the new-look ones.

Oklahoma City is the most glaring exception. The Thunder looked great in dismantling Kristaps Porzingis and his collection of G-League level teammates as Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony all played their roles to perfection.

A quick side note on the Thunder before I go into why this experiment worked so well, at least for the first night. The big three played the whole game as if they were just having so much fun. As if they were each realizing Wow. I forgot that basketball could be this much fun. It was hard not to root for this new big three. Westbrook played with the same rage as always, but as far as I can remember, he didn’t take a single free-throw line pull-up. He drove the lane and either finished or kicked. He took only 12 shots, hitting seven. He recorded his 80th career triple double, and it was clearly one of his easiest ones. Paul George slithered around the court, moving without the ball, and ended up with six threes and 28 points. At one point in the game, Carmelo Anthony hit a three, smiled, and shrugged. He had struggled to that point, but he was getting good looks. He was so thankful to close the chapter on the New York years and move on.

This game was against the Knicks. Oklahoma City’s talent was always going to be able to win that game. They didn’t run an intricate offense. When Russ was in the game, it was much like last year. He would go right to the rim and the defense would collapse. Except that this time, when he threw it to the three point line, he teammates actually made the shot. When he wasn’t in, it allowed George and Melo to get some of the iso looks that they have grown accustomed to getting. If all three of them are content with playing these roles, Westbrook mainly as a distributor, and the other two primarily off the ball, this team will be successful.

Now, we shouldn’t read too much into one game, and the retooled teams have a long time to figure this thing out. But for this week, we were reminded that what we know best is sometimes what works best.