Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

A Fan’s Notes on Paul Pierce

As a kid in junior high and high school, I was a basketball fanatic. College, pros, high school, didn’t matter. Late summers and early falls were for consuming glossy-covered pre-season hoop publications like Athlon and Lindy’s, and less aesthetically attractive magazine covers like Sporting News and Sports Illustrated, I was source agnostic. Growing up in the not-so-fertile basketball world of Des Moines, Iowa, I was partial towards the hoop prospects my state produced and none had me as giddy as Raef LaFrentz. A 6’11” knee-knocked kid from some foreign outpost of school called MFL Monona-Marmac. The first I’d heard of Raef was in the Des Moines Register when he was named to the all-state team as a junior after averaging 36-points, 16-rebounds, and six blocks. His senior year was waylaid by a bout with mono, but seeing him at the State Tournament that year, I knew he’d be legit, unlike his fellow big man from the class of ’95, Iowa-commit Greg Helmers.

So it was that in 1996, I was riding a wave of anticipation when my parents picked up tickets to see LaFrentz’s Jayhawks in Ames, Iowa against Iowa State. After all, Kansas wasn’t just LaFrentz. There was Scot Pollard and Jerod Haase, Jacque Vaughn and Billy Thomas, and a talented freshman from Inglewood named Paul Pierce.

At the time I was a skinny fifteen year-old freshman with a full head of short brown hair and round glasses. During a grab ass game of gym class basketball I managed to break my arm and leg, a hideous and painful calamity of injuries that landed me in the hospital hopped up on drugs, constipated and completely incapable of attending of a college basketball game. My buddy Hamilton ended up with the tickets and took another high school buddy of ours, and meanwhile I was bed ridden and crippled, unable and uninterested in some basketball game.

Young Paul Pierce in a giant t-shirt

 

Back then Pierce was a curiosity. My affinity for the Jayhawks started with LaFrentz and ended with the team. The other guys were supporting characters, but characters nonetheless with their own stories on the periphery of my own basketball experience. For me Pierce maintained this role for much of his career before evolving into a hated villain when Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen arrived in Boston.

It’s weird, but before KG and Ray showed up, my most memorable Truth-related tale was his brush with death in a scary off-court stabbing in 2000. I was a college sophomore at the time and too busy being a 19-year-old idiot to fixate on the day-to-day comings and goings of the league, but even though the game was less of a priority, Pierce’s stabbing rose above the socio-academic cacophony. Looking back over the story, he “was stabbed 11 times in the face, neck, and back.” In some versions of the story the only reason he survived was the thick leather coat he wore at the time. Something about that always stuck with me and probably always will. He probably should’ve died, he probably should’ve been a tragic story in the wrong place at the wrong time, but instead this leather coat was his body armor and saved his life.

Then there was the oddball improbable chase for the finals with Antoine Walker and Coach Jim O’Brien in 2002. These Celtics won 49 games and had a 2-1 lead over the Jason Kidd/Kenyon Martin Nets in the conference finals before the Nets won three straight. Even though Boston lost, game three was another in a career of big Paul Pierce moments. The Celtics, down 19 points heading into the fourth, outscored New Jersey 41-16. Of course, the big game bonafides which were so clearly on display in 2015 against the Hawks had already begun taking shape: Pierce keyed that comeback by scoring 19 points in the final frame. And with a hint towards what would grow into a legendary swagger, after the game Pierce had this to say:

If I was on the other end of this, I would be hurting right now. I think this is a chance for us to gain momentum and take control of the series and not look back.

In a diluted, post-Jordan/pre-LeBron east, I thought the Pierce/Walker Celtics were maybe, possibly onto something following that conference finals appearance. It’s also possible my basketball analysis was rudimentary or confused. But whatever my shortcomings as a prognosticator, the ensuing five seasons were lean with Boston missing the playoffs twice and winning a total of seven playoff games in five years. With the Bron/Wade/Melo group emerging as torch bearers for a new generation, Pierce receded further away from the NBA’s mainstream superstardom. From 2002 until 2007, he continued his elite, if unspectacular role as an NBA all-star, but struggled to compete with the better players and storylines of his contemporaries like Kobe, Shaq, Duncan, KG, Dirk, Iverson, and Nash. He was likely overlooked and underappreciated, but fair or not, indicative of individual ability or not, the NBA has historically reserved its ink and camera time for winners, good guys, and players who score 81 points in a game. Pierce wasn’t as good as Kobe, didn’t win like Duncan, wasn’t a media darling like Nash, and didn’t have the culture-challenging chops of Iverson.

After all those years with Boston, the patience finally paid off in the summer of 2007 when Garnett and Allen joined the 30-year-old Pierce and second-year wunderkind Rajon Rondo. Pierce didn’t become a different person with his new team, but rather the cameras and mainstream just started paying closer attention and captured something of a Barkley-lite charisma. Great Celtic teams pull in the media like flies to shit and this was no different. Beyond the feel good story of these three first-ballot Hall-of-Famers finally rendezvousing, a narrative of villainy and bullying accompanied them. What made it all even more compelling was a reborn east with good teams and rivalry. The Celtics, with Pierce and KG as their joint mouthpiece, were front runners. Kendrick Perkins was perfectly cast as an enforcer, KG as the bully known for targeting European-born players and youngsters, and Pierce, the old school crusty veteran chomping at the bit to prove he was every bit the class of LeBron and Kobe.

I hated these Celtics. It wasn’t just because I’m a Laker fan. The best teams are often the easiest to dislike and these Celtics were no different. In retrospect, this was likely the best group in the league for a two-to-four year span and it’s surprising they only squeezed out a single title. Pierce had always been some sort of modern madcap iteration of Clyde Drexler and Charles Barkley, a great player outshined by better peers. Like Chuck and Clyde, his emergence onto center stage brought with it ample opportunity to re-assess his place in my fandom and whether it was easier to lump him into the unlikable whole that was the Celtics or maybe just the ridiculous, if overblown, wheelchair incident, I loathed this new Paul Pierce. But the wheelchair thing didn’t help and it was less about Pierce than the hero narrative the media or Mike Tirico attached to it. With Pierce going down and returning, the theater of the game and the Pierce narrative along with it grew out of control like an ugly media-created Frankenstein. On one hand, Tirico (or a Tirico-type) lionized the event. Meanwhile the public was right to troll it. The disparity between the two views was drastic and while my disdain should’ve been reserved for the media, Pierce was an easier target at whom I could direct my venoms.

From 2007 to 2011 or 2012, the Celtics were my least favorite team in the league. It’s more than likely a telling trait of my personality, but the players I loathe the most are the ones for whom I reserve much of my time. There’s a dark intimacy to embracing the characters you hate. In the same way I looked forward to Joffrey’s death in Game of Thrones, I relish the defeat of my least favorite teams in any sport. This deep loathing lives somewhere in my bones and in the pit of my guts and has been with me since the Pistons were walloping Michael Jordan back in the late 80s. What’s twisted about this relationship is the need for villain to be not just talented, but to be dominant. In order for any level of sustained sporting hatred to develop into anything worth remembering, the opponent needs to leave you salty, almost rub your face in all the things you can’t stand about them. At this point, the fan (me) can start seeing beyond actions and into intentions. Whether real or perceived, the fan who gets his or her money’s worth will have their suspicions validated by facial expressions imagined as arrogance, bumps misconstrued as flagrant shoves, injuries as fakery. I remember these teams and players as well as I remember my favorites over the years. Jordan’s Bulls aren’t Jordan’s Bulls without those Pistons, the Patrick Ewing Knicks, or even the Malone/Stockton Jazz. The Fab Five wasn’t as interesting without Duke as a contrasting foil – and I hated some Duke. For Pierce, with KG by his side, to attain this level after years of middling existence in my fan world is no small feat and for those four or five years he was at the top, I despised him.

But like everything else, nothing lasts forever and with the decline of the Celtics, the most beautiful part of fandom occurred for me: the great thaw. For most (all?) players I’ve despised, after a time, when they are no longer a threat to my team or my existence, the dark frost melts away from me and I can embrace the player with a sense of respect and appreciation. It’s almost sad to see an old foe no longer capable of eliciting the same anger in you, but unless you’re truly hardcore it’s simply not possible.

Before he was even traded to Brooklyn, Pierce was transitioning into this phase for me, but it was the most unfortunate part of the phase, the one where the former foe is an empty shell like Ewing in Seattle or Ewing in Orlando. In Brooklyn, it was boring with LeBron trouncing his old enemies in five games like an in-prime Larry Holmes pounding an outclassed Muhammad Ali into the canvas and that was that. It’s easy to forget and let memories go with a whimper or a fizzle, a something to a nothing without much reason to pause and reminisce.

Cue 2015 and the playoffs. Cue a throwback Paul Pierce, still rocking that pearish-shaped body, but now making appearances at the power forward spot in Randy Wittman’s offense. And suddenly Pierce wasn’t just an old man, but a queer specimen of the Hollywood variety. Our own Crash Davis as a colorfully crustified veteran oozing with savvy and audacity. He shot 52% from three over ten playoff games and that was while taking over six threes per game. As the Wiz scrapped and clawed through their series with Atlanta, a series they would lose in six games, it wasn’t Hawks Coach Mike Budenholzer or even game five hero Al Horford that would be deemed “winner of the series” (assuming such an award existed), but it was Pierce. With his game three buzzer beater for the win, his wide open game four miss, his game five clutch three that should’ve won, and his game six three that was late by the slightest of milliseconds, Pierce breathed life back into the character he’s always played, the character he’s always been and in the strangest of plot twists managed to temporarily snatch the spotlight from young bucks 10-15 years his junior. I watched all four of those final games and for the first time in my relationship with Pierce, I rooted for his slow-mo form to be perfect and on point, I sat at home trying to will his shots into the hoop and experience the other side of watching Paul Pierce.

It feels strange that my consciousness has known the human called Paul Pierce for nearly twenty years. The Pierce I missed out on in Ames back in 1996 is fundamentally the same person I hated for five years in Boston and the same guy I cheered for a week ago. Circumstance thrust him in and out of various roles and he’s the rare character fully capable of existing as her or heel. With his one ring and incomplete splotchy facial hair, he’ll never be Kobe or Duncan, just an infinitely more colorful character who calls his own shots and hits them.

What a long strange trip it’s been

The 2014-15 regular season is receding from view with haste. The playoffs and awards season are upon us like locusts, but before we’re enveloped in the madness of “Hero Ball,” let us remember what a long, strange trip it’s been in the form of 29 completely random stats that remind us we’re nothing if not anchored to the outliers of numerical histories.

  1. 2,000 points: James Harden was the only player in the league to hit the 2k tally, an otherwise arbitrary number dependent on a combination of scoring prowess and relative durability. With the exception of a bizarre 2003-04 season when no one scored 2,000 points (the only time in league history short of lockout seasons), this was the first time just one player has reached the plateau since the halcyon days of 1958-59 when LSU’s favorite son Bob Pettit stood alone on a mountain of points.
  2. 82 games: Despite all the high-profile injuries that left portions of this season and chunks of entire teams in tatters, 28 players appeared in the full 82 games.
  3. 3,000 minutes: No one appeared in 3k minutes this season. This is the first time since 1958-59 when NBA teams only played 72 regular season games that we’ve had no one cross the threshold.
  4. 1.7 steals/game: Nerlens Noel became the third player in league history 6’11” or taller to average at least 1.7 steals/game. The other two? David Robinson (twice) and Hakeem Olajuwon (nine times). Noel is three years younger than Olajuwon was when he accomplished it for the first time.
  5. 40% free throws: For players who have qualified for the free throw percentage leaderboard, only two have ever shot below 40% for a season: Wilt Chamberlain in 1967-68 when he shot 38% and now DeAndre Jordan at 39.7%.
  6. 32% defensive rebounds: The most motley crew I could’ve possibly assembled is the list of recent players who’ve grabbed at least 32% of available defensive rebounds while qualifying for the rebounds/game leaderboard:  Joel Pryzbilla and Troy Murphy in 2009, Kevin Love and Kris Humphries in 2011, Dwight Howard and Marcus Camby in 2012, Reggie Evans in 2013, and now DeAndre in 2015. Also, Ben Wallace, Dennis Rodman, Swen Nater, and Bill Walton achieved the feat in earlier seasons. How about a free throw contest with this crew?
  7. 250 threes made: Prior to 2013, only three players had made 250 threes in a season: Dennis Scott and George McCloud in the 1996 three point-line shortened season, and Ray Allen in 2006. Steph Curry past three seasons:
    • 2013: 272 threes made (league record)
    • 2014: 261 threes made
    • 2015: 286 threes made (league record)
  8. 55-90-60-25 club: What the hell kind of club is this? 55% eFG, 90% FT, 60% TS, and 25% usage. This exclusive club includes Larry Bird (twice, in 87 and 88), Kevin Durant (2013), and now Curry.
  9. Four turnovers/game: DeMarcus Cousins joined 1978 Artis Gilmore as the only two centers in league history to average over four turnovers/game. Cousins averaged 4.3 while Gilmore was at 4.5. Disturbingly (or amazingly, depending on your view), Cousins had a higher TOV% as a rookie (18.5% in 2011 compared to 16.3 this season).
  10. 34% Usage: Probably not a huge surprise that Cousins averaged over four TOs/game given that he had the highest usage percentage of any center in Basketball-Reference’s database which dates back to 1977-78 for usage: 34.1%. Shaq is next on the list with a 32.9% usage in 1998. Somewhat surprisingly, number 20 and 22 on the all-time list are occupied by Rik Smits.
  11. 267 free throw attempts: the number of free throw attempts the Kings had more than the next closest team in the league, the Rockets. Sacramento shot 2,400 to Houston’s 2,133. 385 teams in league history have attempted more free throws in a season than Sacramento this year.
  12. 658th: that’s where the league’s leader in personal fouls committed ranks all time. The Denver Nuggets committed 1,882 personal fouls this season which doesn’t make a pimple on the ass of all time foul ranks.
  13. 8.6 assists/game: by Russell Westbrook this season; the most assists/game for a league-leading scorer since 1973 when Tiny Archibald led the league with 34points/game while averaging 11.4 assists/game and playing in a ligament-popping 46 minutes/game.
  14. 32.7 minutes/game: Steph Curry hasn’t even appeared in 33 minutes/game this season because Golden State simply hasn’t needed him to. It’s looking and feeling like he’s our 2015 MVP and if that’s the case, he will have appeared in the least MPG ever for an MVP, just edging out 1978 MVP Bill Walton who appeared in 33.3 MPG. Despite the low minutes, he’ll have the most threes made and highest three-point percentage of any MVP.
  15. 27-7-16 club: That’s 27pts, seven assists, and 16 or more WinShares; a new club previously inhabited by LeBron James (three times), Air Jordan (once), and Oscar Robertson (five times). And now those illustrious NBA Champions are joined by the bearded one, James Harden.
  16. 19.7 points/game: Completely random, but that’s the number of PPG both Anthony Davis and James Harden currently average for their careers.
  17. 30 PER: Anthony Davis just recorded the 18th +30 PER in league history with a 30.8 – the youngest player in league history to do it. Of the 18 occasions on which it’s occurred, 14 players made it out of the second round, three were eliminated in the first round, and once a player scored a +30 PER and didn’t make the playoffs although that was back in 1963 when just six teams qualified for the post-season.
  18. 66 games/season: Anthony Davis’s current career average.
  19. .399 eFG%: For any player in NBA history who has started at least 180 games in their career, Ricky Rubio is dead last in career eFG% with the aforementioned .399.
  20. 1.1 FTA/game: Rajon Rondo averaged 1.1 FTA/game while appearing in nearly 30 minutes/night. The only player who made less trips to the line while appearing in as many minutes was JR Smith – a player whose game is predicated on shooting at least six threes/game.
  21. 10-2.5-50 club: Another oddball club? Of course, this one is Chris Paul’s own special, nut-punching, insurance-slanging, point guarding club. In back-to-back seasons he’s the only player in league history to average at least 10 assists, less than 2.5 turnovers while shooting over 50% eFG.
  22. 22 PER: Tim Duncan joined John Stockton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players aged 38 (by February 1st) to reach the 22 PER milestone. Duncan’s was 22.6, Stockton’s 22.3, Jabbar’s 22.7.
  23. Rudy Gobert: Only player in the league to average over two blocks with over nine win shares, and a Defensive Box Plus/Minus (DBPM) greater than five. Worth noting that he’s the youngest player in league history (22) to accomplish this and just the seventh player to put this line together. His illustrious fellow defensive stalwarts include Duncan (once), Kevin Garnett (once), Dwight Howard (once), Dikembe Mutombo (once), Olajuwon (twice), David Robinson (once), and Ben Wallace (four times).
  24. 32 FGA/100 possessions: Westbrook’s 32 FGA/100 were three more FGA than number two – Dwyane Wade. List surprises:
  25. 6.2/16.4 3p/3pa/100: No one shot or made more threes per 100 possessions than … wait for it …. Charlie Villanueva.
  26. Dollars/minute:
  27. 1 steal, 1 block, 5 DWS: Only 14 times in league history have players 6’7” or shorter accomplished a steal and block per game with a DWS of 5 or higher. Draymond Green (1.3bpg, 1.6spg, 5.2 DWS) joined the club this season. Others inductees include: Gerald Wallace, Shawn Marion (king of the club with six appearances), Paul Pierce, Air Jordan (twice), Charles Barkley, and Dr. J (twice).
  28. 18/11/10: Prior to this season only Robert Parish (1989) and Wilt Chamberlain (1971) had reached at least 18ppg, 11rpg, and 10+ WS. Pau Gasol, the nicest man in the league, joined that fine company this season with the Bulls.
  29. 25/6/6: Every season since his rookie year, LeBron James has averaged at least 25ppg, 6rpg, and 6apg. In that time, Russell Westbrook (2015) is the only other player to accomplish the feat. Prior to LeBron pulling it off in 2005, the last players to do it were Clyde Drexler and Michael Jordan in 1992. This is ridiculous.

What a long strange trip it’s been

 

Young assailants seizing the Spring

Maybe it’€™s happened before like back in the weird forgotten 1970s of America, but rarely have we seen a batch of rookies arrive with such an emphasis on their hair: Nerlens Noel‘s brick top flat top, Elfrid Payton‘s Edward Scissorhands angles, Nikola Mirotic‘s light-swallowing beard. And there’€™s also Andrew Wiggins. If the NBA is a league for its radiant styles, it’s all predicated on deep substance and now that spring is upon us, the aforementioned rookies have combined their obvious talents with money-winning consistency.

The number one pick and boringly-styled hair-having Wiggins hasn’€™t required the same type of learning curve as his cohorts. His monthly splits look like a pyramid of sorts with a steady climb through the holiday season and a peak in January. It’s not that he’€™s fallen off, just that his January with nearly 20-points/game, a 55% TS, 109 O-Rating, and nearly a three/game was better than anything else he’s done this year.

Data from Basketball-Reference. Layout from Tableau.

Data from Basketball-Reference. Layout from Tableau.

 

It’s beyond the stats though. A couple nights ago the young Wiggins (just turned 20 in February –€“ to be young again) delivered one of the dunks of the year when he used every bit of his 40+ inch vertical and smash slammed on everyone’€™s favorite French basketball player, Rudy Gobert:

But Wiggins is the exception and not the rule. Unlike his elaborately-coiffed rookie counterparts, Wiggins’€™s excellence is already old hat (we’€™re in hyper time). Noel, Payton, and Mirotic have needed a combination of time and opportunity to replicate their previous successes at the NBA level.

Take Payton, the 6’4″€ Louisianan point guard who’€™s about a year to the day older than Wiggins. Payton was Orlando’™s opening night starter, but lost his spot about halfway through November when he his TS was in the low 40s and his Ortg was in the high 80s. Then March rolled around and maybe it was the All-Star break (which he participated in) or turning 21 and finally being able to drink or who knows, but things have come easier including back-to-back triple doubles in March and a seven-game stretch where he averaged 14-pts, 9.5-asts, nearly eight rebounds and a pair of steals while shooting 50% from the field. Orlando only won a single game in that stretch, but … well, let’™s not focus on that.

all the rookies

Mirotic is a bit different and not just regarding ethnicity or age. Mirotic’s rookie season has existed at the mercy of Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau who patrols the sideline with his Cookie Monster voice and stubborn rotations. Only an intervention brought on by injuries have unshackled the Montenegrin Maestro. From October to February he averaged below 20 minutes/game despite the Bulls going 12-2 in games where he played over 25 minutes. March has been something of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Mirotic as his numbers cranked up in a way that would demand PED testing in baseball. His scoring has gone from under six points/game in February to over 20/night in 15 March games. His usage rating was up over 30% for the month which if pushed out across a season would put him in the top-ten in the league. Despite the increased usage and minutes (over 30minutes/game in March), his TS is still a close to 58% on the strength of shooting nearly 84% from the line on over seven free throw attempts/game. It’s almost like the increased reps and opportunity have resulted in Mirotic having even greater confidence and comfort exploring the range of his offensive talents.

And then there’s Nerlens. I’€™m writing about him last because he’s the most titillating of the bunch which isn’t to say he’s the best because I don’t know or care to know who’€™s best. It’€™s just that Noel, with his flat top and baseline-to-baseline high-energy act of harassing opponents like a never-ending human basketball Exxon Valdez disaster covering the opposition in some thick suffocating existence is my favorite. In as much as each of these players has grown and developed from the fall to the spring, Nerlens’€™ growth is the most striking. The increase in on-court opportunity has been light as he’€™s hovered around 30 minutes/game all season, but meanwhile his game has come together in a way that one hopes breathes hope into the fledgling Philadelphian fan base. Noel hasn’t even turned 21 yet, but if we believe in the guy we’ve seen in March, then we’re looking at a kid capable of averaging in the teens in points while grabbing double digit rebounds, getting over two steals and two blocks each night. He’€™s the rare big man with elite agility, quickness, and length that allows him to completely disrupt the other team’s offense. Again, if we have trust that his March numbers aren’t some funky aberration then we’re looking at a kid capable of defensively impacting the game similar to David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, and now Anthony Davis. (Off topic, my phantasmagorical mind can’t help but root for a New Orleans frontline anchored by the Brow and Noel.)

Month over month progress for the ever-rising, ever-evolving human oil spill (that's a compliment!), Nerlens  Noel

Month over month progress for the ever-rising, ever-evolving human oil spill (that’s a compliment!), Nerlens Noel

Spring will soon be over and with the exception of Mirotic, these rookie years will end with the regular season. After all, we can only be rookies once and while people are lining church pews to celebrate Easter Sunday with Jesus and adults in snow white rabbit costumes gnaw on oversized carrots while doling out Cadbury eggs and listening to biblical tales of resurrection, these rookies will be transitioning into summers of work and expectations. With our favorite rookies, we’ll sleep through sunny summers and wake up sunburnt and confused at the falling leaves of Halloween with the presumption that Marches and Aprils are signs of things to come. Okafors and Mudiays will be the new kids, but for our four rookies above, the leeway that comes with being a first timer is forever out the window. It only gets harder from here.

From Zaza to MJ across a bridge of Oakley

Overtime is the realm of the weird in the NBA. Michael Jordan scored 69 against the Cavs in a single OT, it took two OTs for his historic 63 in the Boston Garden, and what has been referred to as “the greatest game ever played” between the Celtics and Suns at the 1976 Finals took three OTs before Boston finally pulled away. And after the Nets-Bucks went to war for three extra periods recently we can add Zaza Pachulia to the list of brain-scrambling beneficiaries of the triple OT.

Pachulia, by some act of effort or opponent ineptitude, accumulated 18 offensive rebounds. The obviously rhetorical and trendy question is: Who does that? The literal answer is that since the 1985-86 season (which is the first season Basketball-Reference provides full box scores), just two other NBA players have achieved the Full Pachulia: eccentric friend of Kim Jong-Un, Dennis Rodman in 1992 and legendary tough guy Charles Oakley in 1986.

For a sucker like me who’s prone to slipping and falling down rabbit holes with an Alice-like expertise, this was all too much to resist. Oakley’s game wasn’t just unique for the 18 offensive rebounds. Instead of resting on the laurels of setting a record, he mercilessly battered a Milwaukee Bucks frontline for 35 points, 26 rebounds, and seven assists with three steals for good measure. It was good enough for Oak’s career high points and second best rebound game. He grabbed 38% of his team’s own misses and 37% of all misses. Comparatively speaking, Zaza was at 37.7% OReb and Rodman was 38.5% — and the Worm also had a ho-hum 34 boards that night.

The Oakley game took place in mid-March of 1986 when a young Michael Jordan was coming back from an early season broken foot and there at the bottom of the box score, playing just 13 minutes in a bench role was Jordan. A bit further digging revealed this was MJ’s first game back after sitting out the majority of the season. Maybe Oak was trying to let his running mate know he had his back or maybe he saw it as his one of his last chances to fire up shots without conscience (indeed, he never got close to the 27 field goal attempts he had that night) or maybe one of the Bucks had the audacity to challenge his Oakhood. Whatever the case, he was more attack-minded than any other game in his career.

Over the course of digging to confirm this was MJ’s first game back, I scrolled through a few games before and after Oakley’s 35-26 performance on the 15th of March. On the 17th, the Bulls traveled to Atlanta where a superior Hawks squad beat them by 10. The outcome didn’t do much for me until I saw MJ, again in a bench role, had a DRtg of 67 – in a losing effort. He only played 14 minutes, but was apparently covering the court like a pack of virulent demons (or maybe just an Alvin Robertson on speed acid) for that 14 minutes where his usage rating was 58.7% and he tallied seven steals. The seven steals in 14 minutes is the least amount of time a player’s ever needed to reach that completely random achievement. (To continue would be too much of an affront to even these statistical non-sequiturs, but it’s worth calling out that Marcus Banks had seven steals with the Celtics in 17 minutes in 2004 and Doc Rivers had nine steals in 18 minutes while with the Clippers in 1991.)

But whatever, maybe weird graphical representations are a better way to get these points across:

03-23-15 - Zaza, Oak and MJ

Growing old with a Bang

It’s another Monday morning which means the NBA Power Rankings are rolling out in a state of infinite arbitrariness, but deep down in the western corner of the country, Kobe-colored confetti is raining from the skies celebrating the Lakers fourth win in 17 games this year. We’re about 20% of the way through the 2014-15 season and the Lakers are probably near the bottom of the aforementioned power rankings, but we don’t care because this post is celebrating the weird accomplishment of Kobe last night. No, it’s not becoming the first player in NBA history with 30,000 points and 6,000 assists, although that’s mostly an incomprehensible achievement that speaks to the highly irregular elite play which he’s sustained for so long. But instead of looking at macro-Kobe, we’re going micro-Kobe and exploring his individual performance against power ranking darlings, the Toronto Raptors.

In 42 minutes, Kobe triple doubled with 31 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and repeatedly finding good looks for his teammates while tallying 12 assists – a Lakers individual high this season. If we want to get semi-nitty gritty, Bryant had just two turnovers and attempted only one three while putting up his highest game score of the season at 27. It was a gem of a throwback game from a player putting up one of the best individual seasons we’ve ever seen from a 36-year-old.

In the process, Bryant became the oldest player on record to post a 30-10-10 triple double:

Stats from basketball-reference.com

Stats from basketball-reference.com

[It’s taking a thorough amount of self-restraint to not go full on research mode and dig into that Larry Bird game from 1992 when a 35-year-old Larry Legend executed a 49-point, 14-rebound, 12-assist game on Portland, but we’ll save that for a rainy day.]

In what otherwise feels like a lost season without meaning for LA’s first basketball franchise, Kobe and his MASH unit continue to find ways to make games interesting and add meaning through effort. Kobe’s me-first game and me-first personality have a polarizing effect on fans and people who don’t know diddly about basketball, but all the same, a 36-year-old Bryant is still revealing himself as a professional fully committed winning every night – even if those wins are coming at the most infrequent pace of his career. Sunday night while languishing at the bottom of power rankings, Kobe’s game came together and he willed the Lakers to a victory over a shorthanded, but superior Raptors team. It took a herculean effort from Kobe and quality performances from his mates, but in a season without spoils, even the scraps are easy to savor.

kobe celebrate

 

 

 

Ain’t no Sunshine when Ricky’s Gone

Up in Minnesota where winter is perpetual and ice ages are annual occurrences, the most intriguing pro athlete is banged and bandaged, unable to share his gift with the native Minnesotans who love him. It’s not future Governor and Minnesota Twin, Joe Mauer. Nor is it the switch-wielding Adrian Peterson of the Vikings. It’s not a hockey player either and if it was I wouldn’t know him. Ricard Rubio I Vives (said with the Spanish accent of an American, the words pop with flair and gusto), aka Ricky Rubio, is the most special of all Minnesota’s pro athletes. And after destroying his ankle on the night of November 7th, he’s shelved for no one knows how long as Minnesotans cope by listening to “Ain’t No Sunshine” by the late, great Bill Withers because if Elton John taught us anything it’s that sad songs say so much.

With the immaculate outlet passing of the wide-bottomed Kevin Love gone to the rosy environs of Cleveland, Rubio’s natural joy and effervescence has quickly become the guiding light of the young Wolves’ identity. In the four full games they played before the ligaments of his ankle shredded, Rubio infected his team with fun – laughing, smiling, sharing, competitive fun. They were 2-2 and showing the earliest signs of young definition. Always a great passer, Rubio was assisting even more with a career-best 55.5% assist rate and 11 assists-per-game in the four full games in which he appeared. His rebounding was up, his three-point attempts cut in half. Historically a sub-40% shooter on two-point field goals, he was up over 44%, but most interesting was his scoring on assisted plays. Prior to this season less than 18% of his two-point buckets came on assists, but this season it more than doubled up to nearly 37% which is significantly above the norms we see from point guards. In the tiniest of a sliver of sample sizes, Rubio’s prodigious talents were merging with patience and improved decision making and the entire team was benefiting.

111714 - Rubio faces

But what does it mean to lose the jewel of the 10,000 Lakes, that bright and shining beacon of the great snow blanketed north? Aside from the young Wolves (seventh-youngest team in the league) going from one of the most exciting teams to watch with Rubio they’re suddenly like a canoe of fisherman floating through the frigid Great Lakes with frozen snotsicles hanging from noses, men without spears and without oars, hunting for game which they can’t find, lost in the chilling mercilessness of a brutal voyage. Minnesota is a winless basketball team without Ricky, his absence felt in nearly every aspect of the game, but most notably his infectious positivity which can keep a team sane through the leanest of times.

111714 - rubio stats

The Wolves are now shooting more threes, but making less, unable to find the easy shots which Rubio creates. They’re guided by a 19-year-old wing miscast as a point guard in uber-athlete Zach LaVine. Not surprisingly, turnovers are up and assists are down. ORtg and points-per-game are falling like sad snowflakes alongside dips in shooting percentages. Most telling is the hit to DRtg. With Rubio, the team had a 104.5 DRtg which is better than the league average, but without the maestro that number leaps to 121.6 which is worse than the Lakers’ miserable 117.8. To be fair, the two drivers of that spike are a couple of blowouts against New Orleans and Dallas, but with Rubio, those blowouts are maybe mere six-point losses with character building competitiveness.

Stats from Basketball-Reference.com

Stats from Basketball-Reference.com

The timetable for Rubio’s return from this severe Grade three ankle sprain has been listed as 7-8 weeks which puts Minnesota at a Rubio-less disadvantage until sometime around Christmas or New Year’s. While 7-8 weeks can fly by in metaphorical blinking of eyes, that same time for a maturing team can seem like ages, particularly if the losses keep piling up like thick layers of ice. No one had great expectations for the Wolves this year, but missing out on 25 or more games of prime gelling opportunities is sickening and saddening for Wolves disciples and b-ball fans alike. So as much as Ricky is missed and we want him back as soon as physically possible, let’s hope he doesn’t rush and risk further injury. To paraphrase Mr. Withers, “ain’t no sunshine when Ricky’s gone, only darkness every day.”

 

A Detroit Brouhaha

Brandon Jennings‘s incomparable Cali-born swagger is part of the reason he’s in the NBA. When we’re finally able to measure player confidence, we’ll find that Jennings’s confidence in Jennings borders on the absurd and so far that’s been enough. Despite miserable shooting that’s followed him from Italy to Milwaukee to Detroit, he keeps finding work as a starter, but how long will it last under the no-nonsense regime of Stan Van Gundy? Just three games into the 2014-15 season and incumbent journeyman point guard/tight beard-line wearing D.J. Augustin is creeping into Jennings’s minutes like a spider nibbling away at his ink-covered skin in the night. And Brandon is not happy! Or is he?

Like point guards passing through an identity crisis-having team, these are the days of Stan Van Gundy’s life. And while I’m certain SVG has the pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses of each point guard narrowed to the granular details, what offers a guide to competition better than boxing’s tried and true Tale of the Tape format? Nothing, so let’s get to the tape and see who’s really the best fit for Detroit’s lead guard spot. To quote the great Liquid Swords, “you don’t understand my words, but you must choose one. So come boy, choose life or death:”

 

Thanks to www.basketball-reference.com for all these great stats.

Thanks to http://www.basketball-reference.com for all these great stats.

Proxy Wars of Kobe Bryant

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Dispatches from Des Moines’ first NBA game in 17 Years

Two nights ago, NBA preseason made a stop in Des Moines Iowa for the first time in 17 years. Denver vs. GSW was the matchup hyped as Harrison Barnes‘ homecoming of sorts. Despite two mostly ho-hum seasons as a pro, central Iowa loves itself some Harry B. Iowans turned out in huge numbers and overwhelmed the Wells Fargo arena staff (more on that in a bit) … If I recall, the last game here was between the KG/Marbury T-Wolves, and Ray Allen‘s Bucks. Fendo (Ed’s note: Fendo has little recollection of this) and I attended that game together. The only vivid memory I have is KG making some ridiculous facial expression for a child behind the bench taking photos. I remember nothing else about it. Three years earlier, Denver and GSW played here and I was entered into a contest (without my knowledge) to be a ball boy. I won and had an experience that was … unforgettable. Anyway, here are a few things I noticed the other night.

Security was wanding people on their way into the arena, which is annoying enough on its own but to make matters worse, they only had one dude with a wand for every set of DOUBLE doors. There were seriously hundreds (thousands?) of people at each of the three entrances waiting to get in. We waited 15 minutes and only missed three minutes of game. Some folks had to have missed nearly the entire 1st quarter or more. A man scanning tickets – who appeared to be in charge – had a look on his face like he wanted to vomit. He just knew a shit storm was coming his way … Never seen wands at WF Arena, or an NBA game. It appeared they were looking for guns and while I can’t be certain, I’m guessing the number of firearms they found was zero.

Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, where an NBA game was played recently

Every time I go to a game, I’m amazed at how thin these guys are. This was the closest I’ve sat, and man, they all look damn skinny. Even the dudes that look beefy on TV are lean.

Kenneth Faried‘s lucky if he’s 6’6″. I noticed him standing next to Arron Afflalo, and he couldn’t have been more than two inches taller. Faried closed out on a Klay Thompson shot (all net despite a good contest) and they jogged back together chatting it up. He’s shorter than Klay, but he’s everywhere on both ends which appears to make up a bit for his size. Plays like a guy that just loves to hoop. He’d be fun to have on your squad as a coach or teammate.

Barnes hasn’t improved. He showed no indication he’s added anything to his game.

Denver’s got an interesting mix of bigs. Mozgov’s got a nice looking stroke. He hit his FTs and buried a three from just off the top of the key. Jusuf Nurkic is huge. Each of his legs probably weighs at least 100 pounds. He needs to adapt to the speed of the NBA (got caught slow on some rotations and picked up dumb fouls) but he’s so big that once he gets it down, he could be one of the better interior defenders in the league. Pretty decent spring off the floor too. He worked hard to post up, but didn’t get as many touches as he should have. Denver Coach Brian Shaw really coached him up before he checked in and when he came off. I’d bet Shaw would love to get rid of Javale and wouldn’t feel too bad if he got hurt. There’s no way he likes that guy. He and Hickson didn’t play a single minute, but appeared to be enjoying themselves.

Nate Rob didn’t play either, but was into the game – except for during the Q1 break when he and Hickson spent a team huddle staring at, and discussing, the Iowa Energy (D-League team) dancers. They must have seen something they liked because they were laughing as they nodded in agreement and gave each other dap.

Golden State Coach Steve Kerr looks like he wants to run Andre Iguodala at PG with the 2nd unit. Had him out there handling the ball a lot with guys that won’t even make the team. Shaun Livingston did NOT look happy during timeouts. I don’t know if he was being held out for some reason, but his displeasure very well may have had to do with Iggy playing that role.

Kerr’s suit looked like it cost $10k. What’s a $10k suit look like? I can’t really describe it, but you just kind of know an expensive one when you see it.

Gary Harris is a small guy. He may not be taller than Steph Curry and has a young guy’s body (Curry’s got some definition to him nowadays). My first thought when I saw Harris was, “This guy might be too small to play SG.” And then he got the ball in transition and SMASHED on some poor GSW big man, plus the foul. It was the most impressive play of the night. He got open and hit some jumpers too. He’s fast and athletic and could be a nice player (both in real life and fantasy) this season if Denver loses a guard or two.

James Michael McAdoo had 20. He’s fighting an uphill battle to make GSW and has to kick himself daily for not coming out after his first year at UNC … Jason Kapono played for GSW late in the game and buried a three (or two). I didn’t know he was there until he got into the game. It was like that scene in Major League where Willie Mays Hayes wakes up in the parking lot and smokes those dudes in that race. “Get him a uniform.”

Aside from the metal detector debacle, it was great. Better ball than I expected from a preseason game, and very well attended. Des Moines and WF Arena should be pleased. They’ve got an application in for March Madness for ’16-’18 and drawing 10,000 for preseason NBA certainly doesn’t hurt that cause.

Nasty Nurkic on Display

There are giants smaller than Jusuf Nurkic. At 6’11”, 280lbs, and having just turned 20, the massive Bosnian takes up space in ways that call to mind an Eastern European Jahidi White. He’s a rookie for the Nuggets, just drafted this past summer by the Bulls, but immediately traded to the Denver. It’s only pre-season so all this evidence we’re piling up is merely a miniscule sampling of a kid dipping a giant big toe in the paint of American pro basketball, but the early returns are cause for intrigue beyond the Mile High City.

Nurkic on left

Just ask Taj Gibson, the 6’9” all-world sixth man, ball of quick energy who’s held down the Bulls bench units since before Nurkic was even playing ball. Gibson was tasked with bodying up Nurkic in Monday night’s pre-season game and was soundly manhandled. In some ways it’s not surprising since Nurkic outweighs him by around 50 pounds, but if mass and weight were the only indicators of post-play success, then Luther Wright and Oliver Miller would’ve been enshrined in Springfield long ago. But there was Nurkic, a basketball beast in high tops, making seven of his nine shots, scoring 15 points in just 14 minutes on what SB Nation’s Denver Stiffs blog described as “very nifty post moves.” On the flip side, he also committed six fouls. If anything, I guess we know he was active.

Having seen snippets of Nurkic play in Denver’s pre-season opener against the Lakers, his feel for the game was evident even in a night where he shot a crummy 1-8. Laker reserve center Ed Davis looked like Billy Madison against a bunch of little kids as he repeatedly rejected Nurkic’s predictable interior attempts, but the big man still found ways to impact the game with nine rebounds, three assists and a blocked shot in 20 minutes.

It’s still too early to make declarations about a guy who projects to be the Nuggets’ third-string center, but his size, feel, and ability to improve game-over-game are positive indicators for the Denver faithful. We don’t love you just yet, Jusuf, but we’re happy to get to know you and see where it goes.

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