Monday, February 29, 2016

NBA Instant Classic Recap

This guy. Credit: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

This is more of an open love letter than a blog post.  Watching the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder engage in basketball combat was extraordinary.  There had been a lot of “showdowns” for the Warriors.  There was the Christmas Day Finals rematch with the Cleveland Cavaliers that had its moments, but was wasn’t much in doubt in its waning possessions. The rematch of that game sparked a series of double digit wins over playoff teams, including a 30 burger they hung on the San Antonio Spurs.

But on February 6th the Thunder sauntered in to Oracle and gave the champs everything they could’ve wanted.  So the rematch tantalized fans’ thoughts with open court genius Russell Westbrook and the slick shooting of Kevin Durant vs the Machine driven by Steph Curry.

And it certainly didn’t disappoint.

OKC jumped on top of the Warriors immediately, going up by double digits in the first. The rest of the game saw the Thunder defending their lead against the ever-surging Warriors.  They lost their halftime lead in the third but Durant’s bombs from outside were enough for the Warriors relent and for OKC to take the lead. In fact, the Thunder had a four point lead with 15 secs left.  After a Klay Thompson layup, OKC had the ball and the lead with 12 seconds left. Then Durant went the full spectrum of the term “goat”. His turnover gave the Warriors a last gasp and they took full advantage.  A surprisingly smooth Andre Iguodola rewarded the fans with overtime basketball from the foul line.
The Thunder let the champs off the mat, and we were all treated to pitfalls of that decision. Russell Westbrook was valiant in his attempt to will his team (without Durant, who had been disqualified for fouls) to victory.  But after a stop on OKC’s penultimate possession, the Warriors had a live ball and around 7 seconds left. 

Now let me say this, I know no one will believe me, but I called the next sequence of events. Draymond Green snagged the rebound and calmly looked for Steph Curry. That’s right, not only does he get the ball and immediately look to outlet, he does so while also having the presence of mind to get it to their best player early in the possession. Curry then proceeds to receive the outlet and slow play it across the halfcourt line.  I sat in stupefied awe of his decision, manely because it was probably the percentage play.  Is Steph Curry better with his feet under him, in rhthym from a really long distance, or hurried into a contested three from a closer distance? I’d take the former over the latter any day—and so did Curry.

There will be plenty of time to laud and decry the performances of the participants, but for now I just want to bask in the glow of a shining example of why this is the world’s best sport.

Friday, February 26, 2016

NBA Metamorphosis: Changing of the Guards..and Wings...

Nicolas Batum is the type of midlevel star that can make a huge impact Credit:Kent Smith Getty Images

There are evolutions consistently in the NBA. For years the adage of “a good big man beating a good little man” dominated as sage advice for any executive with personnel power. Then Michael Jordan happened and Sam Bowie became a cautionary tale. As the Lakers won, the Kobe/Shaq feud escalated to an existential battle for the future of the league; with the wing player eventually wrestling the Most Important Position Award from the Bigs.  With the Celtics and then Heat forming not through the draft but through Free Agency/trades the age of the Super Team had begun.  Now with Golden State’s dominance, teams are looking to go small and shoot three at ever exorbitant rates.

The salary cap will increase around $20 million for next year. And will do the same the next NBA season after that. For many, this has filled their minds with what the top players stand to make.  Players like LeBron James have decided to shorten their contracts to maximize earning potential. But what about those teams that failed to land the big stars? Perhaps now would be a good time for yet another evolution of the sport—deeper teams with a less significant drop-off in talent between the starters and reserves.

An interesting thing happened during the last bit of labor strife in the NBA. In addition to the established adversarial relationship between management and labor, there was an additional friction amongst the owners. Essentially, the large market owners and small-market owners had a schism because small market teams were concerned about holding onto their stars and competing with Super Teams (eventually the problem was alleviated as luxury tax penalties increased and teams were able to hold onto their players with longer, more lucrative contracts).  But with approximately $40 million more to spend, the era of the Super Team may have received an injection of vitality.

So what are teams that have failed to show any real chance (either because of inability to pay steep luxury tax penalties or location) supposed to do? Perhaps they can begin to play a different game, a game defined by the totality of talent on the team, and not just that of the starting five. Instead of overpaying for a middling star, what if those teams invested in the bench? Imagine being able to legitimately play 10 quality players and wearing down the opposition which has the bulk of its salary (and talent) starting.

For the longest time in basketball, dynasties have ruled. The NBA’s history is written by star players and the franchises that hosted their greatness.  Perhaps as the tools available to teams increase, the product cultivated can remarkably change. Given that only 9 franchises have won a championship since 1980, parity has never been a realistic NBA quality. With less of a reliance on superstar players, perhaps smaller/less attractive markets like Charlotte have an opportunity to get in the jewelry game come this June.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

NBA Trade Deadline: Look Around The League

Everyone is chasing Golden State, who had 3 representatives at this weekend's ASG (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Here's hoping you’re enjoying the All-Star game hangover, where the entertainment has been consumed and everyone is waiting for things to go back to a normal schedule. There was an exhilarating 3 point contest between (Splash) brothers, and one of the best dunk contests we’ve seen since Toronto had the best dunker in NBA history representing for their franchise. But amidst the jubilation and celebration there are quiet undertones of business transactions being proposed and (perhaps) completed.  Keep in mind that in addition to all the NBA players staying in Toronto this weekend, there were executives up there too.  With the trade deadline looming on February 18th, any moves will need to be made quickly.  And with Golden State completely dominating the league, perhaps even the better teams will be looking to make a splash.  So this Look Around the League is dedicated to trade rumors. It’s like High School gossip, but without the messy lunch period squabble.
Howard could be moving teams...again. Photo:Doug Pensinger Getty Images Sport

Dwight Howard

The biggest name on the block (see what I did there?) is Dwight Howard.  The former defensive player of the year and MVP candidate is averaging his fewest points per game since his rookie season, and has had trouble staying healthy upon returning from injury. He’s still a beast on the boards and has nights where he looks like his athletically dominant self.  He has a player option (meaning he can extend the length of his current contract for what would be $23 million salary for next season), or opt out and hit the free agent market.  With his injuries, it is difficult to say exactly what the most prudent course of action is for the big man.  If he exercises the option, there is a real chance he would be maximizing his pay for that year and would audition for the following year with a better season.  But it is precisely because of his health issues that Howard may want the stability and peace of mind that comes with a long-term deal now, for what will more than likely be the final big contract of his career.

Potential Suitor(s): Miami Heat, Boston Celtics

Al Horford

The Hawks are just a game out of third place and yet there is a consistent buzz that the All-Star could be on the move.  He’s still a versatile scorer and quality defender playing at an awesome level.  His contract is up at the end of the year, so the usual complications with uncertainty about the future will arise for any team looking to add him, but any time a player of this caliber is a legitimate acquisition target, a discussion is merited.

Potential Suitor(s): Boston Celtics

The Wake Forest product, Jeff Teague, could be on the move. Photo: Getty Images

Jeff Teague

Teague is a slick, athletic point guard in a league that nearly demands that a championship team have talent at the position.  Moreover, Teague is better than any point guard that will be available in free agency this summer.  He is locked into making  8 million dollars next year, he’ll be a bargain next season once the increase in TV/internet money increases the salary cap.  His fate may depend on whether the team moves away from Horford. If Horford is moving, the team that won 60 games last year may be signaling a rebuild.
Potential Suitor(s):  Indiana Pacers, Orlando Magic

Rudy Gay

He’s quietly averaging 18 and 7 on 50% eFG (2nd highest of his career).  His contract gets more palatable as the salary cap increases. He’s got a stigma of improving a team only after he is dealt, but a seasoned scorer with big time talent could help some ball club go from good, to a contender.  It’s all an arms race with Golden State, anyway.

Selfishly, I don’t want Gay to leave. I LOVE this team. DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo just work on a real, and natural level. Their transition defense is awful and they turn the ball over way too much, but…I mean, come on it’s Rondo, Boogie, and Rudy Gay all under one roof! Of course I’m going to root for these guys, they’re damn near the Major League of the NBA. Please don’t break up this team, Vivek. Please.

Certain teams will be mentioned frequently on either side of trade talk; either because they have assets and want to dramatically improve their team right now, or because they have resigned themselves to the fact that this isn’t their year.  With that in mind, here is a list of teams that could be looking to make a deal come the deadline.

One or both of these guys may be gone by the EOB Thursday Photo: Kim Klement, USA Today Sports

Orlando Magic

There have been reports that Victor Oladipo and Tobias Harris are available for the right price.  The right price, in Orlando’s parlance, is probably an established player that can shoot in the backcourt.  While Oladipo and Elfrid Paryton are capable players, the backcourt combo can struggle at times to space the floor . Moreover, the Magic have compiled young talent, but still lack any significant veteran presence. Eventually, this team wasn’t going to be able to take their entire young core with them to prominence, now is as good a time as any with their glutton of forwards to move one or two for the benefit of the franchise.


Dwight Howard has already been discussed, but when a head coach comes out and says that  his team is broken, there is a good chance the squad will look different before and after the trade deadline. This team that was a Western Conference Finals participant last season is now “not on the same page” and would miss the playoffs if they started today. Life came at Houston fast.

Isaiah Thomas will need help if the C's are to improve


A potential suitor comes in the form of the Boston Celtics, with lots of draft picks and David Lee’s salary to trade, they are loaded with attractive assets for any other big talent acquisition the young team would need to improve. Despite its history of excellence in the league, the franchise is having a difficult time with luring free agents to go there.   That realization led management to acquire assets for the possibility of bartering a star-studded future for a realistic attempt at present relevancy.


I didn’t include the Kevin Love rumors because I really have a hard time with the idea of them moving him.  They just gave him a lucrative deal, but with rumors of Horford and perhaps an outside chance of Blake Griffin (not included in-depth here because of the repeated strong, albeit conspicuous denials by Clippers management) being available, a comparable set of talent and skill seems to be at least sort of feasible. Even without a Love blockbuster deal, they have been linked in talks with the Kings’ Ben McLemore.  The  3rd year player is posting career high shooting percentages while posting career low minutes numbers. He is an athletic wing player capable of knocking down the three, a valuable asset for any team that has eyes on beating the Warriors.


It’s amazing that a team that won 60 games last season may be thinking about a rebuild, but here they are.  There are rumors that everyone except Millsap is available.  They may realize that they have maxed out their potential with this roster and desire a completely different look.  Can a team a game out of third place already be giving up? Is this the new NBA where it’s championship or bust for half the league?


The Nuggets have been spinning their wheels for years.  They had a nice run awhile back following the Melo trade, but the pieces have stopped working in concert.  Forwards Kenneth Faried and Danilo Gallinari have been mentioned around the league, but essentially anyone but rookie Emmanuel Mudiay and surprise play-maker Will Barton seem to be available.  Keep an eye on this squad as they look to figure out how not to be an annual “also ran” candidate.

The NBA trade deadline is like second Christmas to basketball fans.  Maybe your team will get the gift of an All-Star under the tree. There is even a website where youcan propose trades to really get yourself into a tizzy. It’s important to keep in mind now that the college basketball season is nearly over and the talent has started to thoroughly be assessed, that the draft picks being floated about as assets are more real in terms of who they may represent.  Before that was a nameless, faceless top 10 pick your team was sheepishly brandying about, now it may be Buddy Hield your team is giving up on. That makes a difference, and makes the potential trades all the more tantalizing.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

GMs are People Too

Lakers currently have the best chance to have the 1st pick in the draft (USATSI)

Ben Simmons will likely be the first pick in the draft this June; he leads freshmen in most statistical categories and is top 5 in the entire SEC in points, rebounds and assists per game. But as the event draws closer, don’t be surprised if Brandon Ingram’s name gets floated as a potential 1st selection. While Simmons is a multi-talented player, Ingram is a more polished offensive threat.  What’s more, his game more closely resembles current NBA forwards than Simmons’ game does (an announcer actually floated the idea of putting the 6’ 10 Simmons at the SG position).

The word “potential” gets brandied about during the NBA draft process. But upside has a way of making some prospects more attractive—the desperation that bad teams feel at the top of the draft could be likened to Last Call at a bar in this respect. It is easy, from the comfort of one’s home, to think that if a team is bad enough to be at the top of the draft that they should take a swing at the player that could change their franchise. 

What people fail to take into account is that there are real people at the helm of these organizations.  While Simmons may be the lever that turns a slumping NBA organization around, his lack of a jumper (or any real consistent way to score) could frighten people.  Moreover, there are no easy comparisons to successful players in the league.  Jack-of-all-trades players like Simmons can turn out to be masters of none…like fellow LSU player Anthony Randolph.

While some may look at taking the more known quality as “playing it safe” there are some things to keep in mind. One, “upside” is really just a hypothetical. It doesn’t take into account the drive of a player to appreciably improve (who would’ve picked Steph Curry to have gotten this much better?).  Upside also assumes that a player will one day be capable of performing a skill he has yet to display with any sort of consistency—in short, upside icould be nothing more than agreed upon fallacy. Secondly, with the logos, legacies, and history of these franchises, it is easy to forget that humans are the ones making these decisions.  People with mortgages and families decide who a team will select in the draft. Things like comfort and fear of public ridicule are real considerations. It could come down to what a GM would be comfortable with missing out on.

In the end, it is likely Simmons and Ingram will both have productive careers.  There are still a number of teams which might appear at the top of the draft; which means that all of them will have different needs to fit. So before you overreact at your favorite team’s draft decision, know that they are taking plenty into their own futures. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

NBA Knockout: A Look Around the League

It'll be all smiles as the NBA hits its midway point in Toronto next weekend

The Super Bowl is upon us, which means only one thing…you’ve already started having anxiety about what happens when the NFL season is over. Admit it, you looked at the calendar and saw the vast wasteland of your football-less life; it may have even driven you to catch a few plays of the Pro Bowl. Don’t fret, this NBA season is in full-throat and since the All-Star game is nearly here (February 14th) now is a great time to check on some of the more interesting storylines around the league.

New York Knicks

The New York Knicks are finally relevant again.  This is good news, because their poor play didn’t keep them from being a topic of discussion, or from being featured on national television. Their immediately maligned rookie pick, Kristaps Porzingis, has been a talented shot in the arm. At 7’3 he is a shot-blocking presence and his shooting stroke is good enough to make nearly 35% from behind the arc.  But perhaps more surprising than his skill, is the demeanor that defies his novice NBA experience.  He is comfortable in big situations and confident regardless of the environment; he’s an early candidate for Rookie of the Year.

Porzingis has been so good, that no one is noticing exactly how awesome Carmelo Anthony has been.  More than just his usual 20+ points per game that he is contributing, he is averaging the most assists per game of his career.  He has been a leader for a surprising NY Knicks team that is currently battling for the 8th spot in the East.  You can’t reasonably make a case for anyone other than Steph Curry for MVP, but the best pro basketball player in the state of New York has somehow become underrated…weird.

I mean, maybe it was David Blatt's fault Mandatory Credit: USATSI

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavs are 5-1 since they jettisoned Head Coach David Blatt.  Replacement Tyronn Lue has stressed that the team must play faster, defend harder, and do more to get Kevin Love involved in the offense.  So far it seems to be working.  The team has scored 110+ points in each of its last five games, the overall effort (particularly from their best player) seems to be up, and Love has averaged more touches at the elbow than he did under Blatt. 

The capes came out for Blatt in a surprising fashion.  The guy that was universally made fun of for not knowing the timeout situation or forcing LeBron to scrap a late game play call in the playoffs suddenly became indispensible because the team won with him while he had the job title of “coach”. The most disappointing part about his firing is that Blatt was brought in there because of his offensive prowess and IQ. He never implemented his system and failed while implementing a boring and heavy ISO offense.  After reports of a players only meeting, the Cavs seemed to have turned the corner.  Maybe it really was Blatt…

Phoenix Suns

Speaking of coaching changes, at around 4AM Monday morning ET, Jeff Hornacek was fired from the Phoenix Suns. This team has been in a downward spiral after a surprising 2013-2014 season that left the team right outside of the playoffs.  Despite various front office moves, there has been no correction in trajectory.  While not particularly good, they are laden with young talent.  Former NC State star, TJ Warren combines with dark horse Rookie-of-the-Year candidate Devin Booker to form an offensively daunting wing pair. Combine that with ACC/Big Ten legend Alex Len’s development at the Center position and Phoenix may be entertaining pretty soon.

The team is still finding itself, but watching Warren's scoring prowess in the NBA is fun

Golden State Warriors

This isn’t new, but the defending champs are pretty darn good.  So far they’re ahead of the ’96 Bulls’ record-setting win pace.  They keep winning, and (in most cases) demolishing teams.  That 30 burger they hung on the Cavs probably aided in Blatt’s departure, and Curry is playing like the best player on the planet.  They are quite simply revolutionizing the game with their rate of three pointers, small lineups, and unselfish play.  Perhaps their consistent winning would be boring midway through the season if the team wasn’t so much fun to watch.

San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs keep Spurring. Of course, they are doing it in an even more Spurs fashion than usual.  While the trend seems to be to “go small” and shoot the 3s, the Spurs start two 7 footers and are 26th in 3 pointers attempted per game. Kawhi Leonard has emerged as one of the best players in the league; a guy they traded George Hill for. Their much-hyped meeting with Golden State turned quickly into a drubbing, but the 40-8 record that they have amassed would normally be big news if not for the Warriors’ magical run.

Los Angeles Lakers

     The Lakers are on national television FAR too much.  I know the depth to exactly how low they would sink this season is a bit of a surprise but they were always going to be unwatchable. There’s no reason I should know the Lakers roster as well as I do.
The Lakers are in a precarious position. Due to their Steve Nash acquisition years ago, the Lakers will cede their first round pick unless it is in the top three.  So there is not only an incentive to lose, but an incentive to be undeniably terrible—an absolute low for such a prestigious franchise.  In addition to losing, there is a need to cultivate their young talent.  Between Jordan Clarkson, D’Angelo Russell, and Julius Randle, the team has some hope for the future.  Handling these two potentially divergent interests would be difficult for a good coach, but what of a subpar one? While Scott is dutifully leading the Lakers to the basement of the league standings, he’s retarding the development of the young players at every turn; whether he is mysteriously benching them, or just tearing into them publicly, he seems to be incapable of nurturing talent. The conundrum of the situation is that if management gets rid of Scott for the sake of their future, then they may accidentally empower a coach that would win them more games.  It’s a fascinating soap opera that is playing out in the perfect locale.
DMC finally has channeled that passion more positively (USATSI)

Sacramento Kings

Around four years ago I loved to stay up late and watch the Warriors.  They weren’t the fully formed juggernauts they are now, and they didn’t play the free-flowing style they’ve since made popular thanks Mark Jackson.  Still, they were a fun group to watch and I savored every opportunity that I got a chance to watch them—that’s how I feel about these Sacramento Kings. When DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo, and head coach George Karl were first put together by management, there was a general consensus that there would be an implosion somewhere in the near future.  Instead, Rondo’s championship pedigree has given fellow Kentucky Wildcat Cousins a mentor.  And after a rocky start, Karl has found his footing with the best big man in the league. Right now, the Kings are on the outside of the playoffs looking in; a first round meeting with the Warriors would mean an early trip home and no pick in the lottery.  Still, wouldn’t a Sacramento vs Golden State matchup be the most fun one the Warriors could possibly see?


At the Cavs’ lowest, I began to look for teams that might be able to supplant them as the Eatern Conference’s representative in the NBA Finals.  While Toronto is riding a 11-1 12 game run, Chicago is probably in the best position to give the King a run for his money.  Jimmy Butler has emerged as a legitimate star on both sides of the ball, Derrick Rose seems to finally be rounding into shape after a slow start, and Pau Gasol might as well have shown up in Chicago in a Delorean the way he has turned back the clock. And, in a surprise to no one outside of former coach Tom Thibodeau, the team has a reliable bench.  Between Doug McDermott, Tony Snell, and Bobby Portis, the team’s secondary options can keep them in games when the starters go to the bench for a rest. Maybe this year is the one where they finally get over the hump.

So enjoy the big game on Sunday, just know that there is plenty more athletic action on the horizon as the NBA season hits its midway point in The Six next weekend.