Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

Category Archives: NBA Preview

James Harden and the 43-13 Club

Once upon a time in the pre-presidential Obama days of the NBA, young Mr. Michael Jordan showed up for a game in Indianapolis against the Pacers and their funny two-guard, Reggie Miller. Jordan’s Bulls lost by four points, but it was due in no part to Jordan who crapped all over the Pacers for a sizzling 47 points, 11 rebounds, 13 assists, four steals and two blocks while shooting 57% from the field and 13-14 from the line. Egads!

Of course Michael Jordan, he of “commerce over conscience” infamy, is the modern-day NBA (defined as 1985-86 which is the first season basketball-reference offers certain box score stats) pioneer of the 43-13 club; aka 43-points and 13-assists, a truly dominant offensive game mixed of equal parts attack and distribution, but all attack.

So how’d we arrive here? James Harden delivered us to this moment on a Friday night in Sacramento in November with his vintage Hardenesque performance: 43 points on 23 shots with 16 FTAs and 13 assists. Harden was a rock or ogre or something irrepressible. And it was kind of fitting that in a league where all two guards are measured by their ability or inability to emulate his Airness, that the two-guard with the most un-MJish game would be the latest in a short line of NBA greats to repeat his feat from 1989.

James Harden considering Mars

James Harden considering Mars

Here’s the criteria:

  • 43 points or more
  • 13 assists or more

The inductees:

  1. Michael Jordan, 26-years-old in 1989: 47pts, 11rebs, 13asts, 4stls
  2. Larry Bird, 33 in 1990: 43pts, 8rebs, 13asts
  3. Kenny Anderson, 23 in 1994: 45pts, 8rebs, 14asts, 4stls, 20-23 from FT
  4. Antoine Walker, 24 in 2001: 47pts, 5rebs, 13asts, 4stls, 9-14 from 3
  5. Tracy McGrady, 23 in 2003: 46pts, 10rebs, 13asts, 2blks
  6. Allen Iverson, 31 in 2007: 44pts on 16-22 shooting, 15asts
  7. Gilbert Arenas, 27 in 2009: 45pts, 13asts
  8. LeBron James, 25 in 2010: 43pts, 13rebs, 15asts, 4blks, 1-9 from 3
  9. James Harden, 26 in 2015: 43pts, 13asts, 7 TOs

It’s an illustriously exclusive crowd Harden’s just joined, but fitting given the versatility of his game. Long a playmaker and dynamic scorer, the Beard is one of just 12 players in league history to average 27ppg and 7apg over the course of a single season. Where our eyelashes barely bat at the inclusion of MJ, Bird or LeBron, Kenny Anderson and Antoine Walker are more surprising. Anderson’s game was necessitated by an injury to Derrick Coleman while Walker’s was an outmatched team on the road where he caught fire.

Context for games like these matters. In Harden’s case, it was his sixth game of the year, the first three of which had all resulted in 20-point losses with last season’s MVP runner-up shooting a combined 12-54 (22%) from the field and 3-32 (9%) from three. His team has been ravaged by early injuries and the challenge of integrating speedy playmaker Ty Lawson into the attack. On this Friday night, there was no Dwight Howard, no Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, or Patrick Beverley. So against an undermanned (no DeMarcus Cousins) Kings team, Harden seized the reigns and torched the Kings. It was without peer as his best game of the new season with the Rockets largest margin of victory and his own highest usage and ORtg.

Which takes us to the final noteworthy relationship of the 43-13 club; the relationship between usage and Ortg. The 43-13 club means you’re accounting for no less than 60 of your team’s points. A player becomes the catalyzing engine driving the offensive attack from multiple planes much to the defense’s helplessness. I expected higher usage rates which isn’t to say the rates aren’t high, but below we see a consistent relationship: mid-30s usage, mid-130s Ortg – with a couple of truly unique outliers. Allen Iverson’s 44 and 15 on 16-22 shooting stands out as a model of harnessed efficiency which, given his career-long struggles with efficiency becomes the greatest outlier and a likely topic for a future edition.

Stats courtesy of the great Basketball-Reference.com.

Stats courtesy of the great Basketball-Reference.com.

25-25 starring Young Drummond with supporting role from Young Dwight

On November 3rd, Andre Drummond, all of 22-years-old, notched the second 25-25 game of his career with 25 points on 12-17 shooting and 29 rebounds – a career high. In the process he joined Al Jefferson and Dwight Howard as the only three active players in the league with more than one 25-25 game. Guys like Shaq, Tim Duncan, Patrick Ewing only achieved the feat once in their storied careers, but at 22 Drummond’s already done it twice.

11-05-15 - Drummond in Detroit

As I looked over this list in all its randomness dating back to 1985-86 (which is worth noting because Wilt Chamberlain, that giant NBA version of Babe Ruth, had three seasons where he averaged 25-25 and went for 30 and 23 as a career average), a few things stuck out in their oddball numerical beauty:

  • Hakeem Olajuwon sits on the modern 25-25 throne with five such games
  • One of Olajuwon’s games was a 32-point, 25-rebound, 10-block performance which I’ve previously written about and is one of the more dominant/lopsided individual stat lines I’ve come across.
  • The highest game score on the list is a 48.6 from Olajuwon on a night back in 1987 when he stuck it to the Sonics of Seattle for 49 points, 25 boards and six blocks. What the shit kind of night is that?
  • Kenneth Faried joined the club last year in a game in which he played just 30 minutes – the least minutes of anyone in the club.
  • RIP Lorenzen Wright
  • And finally, the similarities between Dwight’s and Drummond’s appearances on this list.

By the time he was 21, Howard had his two 25-25s and I can only assume that most folks suspected these wouldn’t be the last two such games of his career. And given that he’s just turning 30 in a few weeks, it’s possible he tacks on a few more, but since his peak is well in the rearview, it’s unlikely.

25-25s aside, the young Dwight-young Drummond connection comes with intrigue not because of the similarities: they’re both powerfully built centers that use size, skill, and athleticism to dominate and they’ve both been coached by Stan Van Gundy; but the nearer they become statistically the better the future looks for Drummond.

At the end of Howard’s fourth season he was a two-time all-star with appearances on the NBA All-Defensive second team, All-NBA third team and All-NBA first team. He was highly decorated and more than prepared to take the torch as the league’s best big man. Drummond was named to the All-NBA Rookie second team back in the day and that’s it. Despite his size and athleticism and despite numbers that favorably compare to Dwight, he’s been unable to crack the code of the NBA’s off-season awards.

My friend and esteemed basketball writer and thinker Ian Levy just wrote a nice in-depth piece on the dissimilarities between these two that goes well beyond simplifications of them being large athletes that rebound and dunk. And where Dwight’s defense has long been Hall-of-Fame level (he’s the only player since the inception of the Defensive Player of the Year award in 1982-83 to win it three straight seasons), Andre’s merely a good defender. Though we’re looking at significantly different players, there are intersections and overlaps between their first three seasons. Below, in the most unscientific way possible, I’ve attempted to identify these intersections via my own made up statistic that includes traditional big man stats PPG, RPG, BPG combined with PER minus turnovers to arrive at an arbitrary stat for each of Andre and Dwight’s first three years in the league.

11-05-15 - Drummond vs. Dwight

The above unscientific approach is interesting because it takes a variety of stats and makes a fat stat patty out of them which, when viewed in their entirety is strikingly similar in terms of progression and production. Additionally, through three seasons, both players were 21 and were just getting to know Van Gundy: he didn’t start coaching Howard until his fourth season and Drummond in his third. None of the above is presented to imply that Drummond = Dwight. Drummond is a much better offensive rebounder and plays more to his own strengths offensively which results in less turnovers. Young Dwight was the superior defender, (somehow) had a broader array of offensive moves, and was able to stay on the court for longer stretches without getting in foul trouble.

And yet, even with those copious variations, the statistical similarities are hard to overlook. If we shift forward with a similar eye and the little four-game sample we have of this season, it doesn’t take ultra-optimism to imagine a 2015-16 season out of Drummond. Dwight made significant leaps in his fourth year with improvements in scoring (ppg and FTA/game), rebounding (total boards and rebounding rate), and offensive and defensive impact (career bests in offensive and defensive win shares and offensive and defensive rating). Four games into 2015-16 is too few to plant any flags in Drummond making a similar leap, but with the paint cleared of former running mate Greg Monroe and a hand-crafted SVG roster that creates greater space for Drummond, the magic eight ball indicates sunny days for the big man. Or, if November 3rd’s ridiculous 25-29 game provides some kind of symbolic indicator of the future, then step to the side, lest you be dunk slammed on by the giant Andre Drummond.

The Grandiosity of Steph Curry in Autumn

We’re in November and the Golden State Warriors have played less than five percent of their total regular season games. The most recent, their fourth of the young year, was punctuated by a violent 119-69 Mike Tyson-over-Michael Spinks type victory over the Grizz – the same Grizz that took a 2-1 lead over GSW in the playoffs just six months ago. In the breezy 28 minutes he played, reigning MVP and pioneer of “new NBA” style basketball Steph Curry incinerated the Grizz for 30 points on 16 shots. Speaking in purely statistical terms, this was a below average game for Curry in 2015-16, but like I cautioned, we’ve got 78 games to go.

But in the young offering of the new season, Steph’s taking what was already a nuclear game and style replete with some kind of next world hand-eye coordination, progressively audacious handle, Doc Holliday trigger finger, and already all-time range and accuracy combination, and building on it.

In 2014-15, his first season under the guidance of Steve Kerr, Curry was a joy to behold, roughly achieving the same averages he had in 2013-14 (pts, rebounds, asts, 3s, stls, etc) while appearing in four less minutes per game. Comparing his 2014-15 to 2012-13 is even starker: he played six more minutes per game that year, but his per-game averages were lower as were his shooting percentages. His per-36 numbers from 2014-15 outshone what had already been all-star caliber numbers. Improvement is expected, but as we’ll see, the type of improvement is mostly unprecedented.

I’m going to paraphrase here and most likely screw this up, but there’s a four-quadrant concept that occurs in learning and task mastery:

  1. You don’t know what you don’t know – you’re unconscious
  2. You become aware of the things you don’t know – your consciousness develops so you can at least identify what you want to improve upon
  3. You consciously begin to tackle those things of which you recently became aware
  4. You unconsciously do the things you recently did in a conscious state

If last year’s MVP/NBA champion season was step #4 for Steph where execution became second nature like breathing and sneezing and laughing, then the four games we’ve seen of him in 15-16 are closer to that scene in The Matrix when Neo is all “What are you trying to tell me, I can dodge bullets?” and Morpheus responds, “No, Neo. I’m trying to tell you that when you’re ready, you won’t have to.”

Was there a point where Steph realized he didn’t have to metaphorically “dodge bullets,” that it would just happen instinctually? On opening night last week, his first quarter should’ve been an indication to all of us that instead of seeing the illusory images on the court, he was deep in some meta coding, interpreting his opponent’s futile defensive efforts as nothing more than unprejudiced attempts designed to deter him. In the first quarter alone he shot 9-13 (would’ve been 9-12 had he not heaved up a 40-footer as time expired) with 24 points. It was lightning, violence, blitzkrieg, all-out attack, a metaphor for war. It was, intentionally or not, a battle hymn that rang out across the TNT-powered sound waves through speakers and pixels into our feeble senses.

11-03-15 - Steph shot chart game 1 updated

But it didn’t stop there and hasn’t stopped. We’re still hibernating in small sample size theater season, but something strange is afoot, like white walker afoot or when the levee breaks afoot. Through these piddly four games, Steph, this time under the substitute coaching of Luke “Son of Bill” Walton, is obliterating his own MVP-level stats and he’s somehow doing it with rarefied combination below:

  • Less minutes/game
  • More shots (more on this)
  • Increased efficiency (very little on this)

Because the Warriors can beat other playoff teams like the Grizz by 50 points on random Monday nights, there’s no need for Curry to play big minutes. This is our loss. In four games, all against playoff teams, GSW’s closest game was a 14-point victory. He’s averaging under 32 minutes/game. What we’re seeing though is that his slice of the offensive pie has grown in 2015-16. Where Curry’s career average for field goal attempts/game has sat right 16 attempts with a career high of just under 18 FGA back in 2012-13 in 38 minutes/game, Curry’s now cramming in 21 shots/game. He’s somehow getting up 32% more shots/game than his career average while appearing in the second lowest MPG of his career.

11-02-15 - Steph YoY FGA

It doesn’t stop with field goals. As part of that 21 FGAs/game, Curry’s pushing an unprecedented nearly 11 3s/game. To put that into context, the most 3PAs a player has ever attempted on a per-game basis was Baron Davis back in 2004 when he put up 8.7/game. Curry’s clearly a prolific gunner himself and holds the top two single-season records for 3s made. His career high of 8.1 3Pas/game is good enough for sixth on the all-time list. But if we compare his current little four-game stretch to his career average of 6.5 3PAs/game, we see a ballsy bold leap of 64%. And if we’re truly interested in blowing our minds all over the walls in blue and gold Warrior-themed blood spatter in queer basketball-themed Rorschach patterns, then layer on the context that Curry’s spike in volume is being accompanied by a career best three-point accuracy (48.8%). He’s hitting five threes/game!

11-02-15 - Steph YoY 3pa

So Curry’s hovering around the perimeter, chucking record-setting threes and hitting them at paces typically reserved for guys who trade volume for efficiency. He’s taking advantage of spacing and passing and ball movement and all that good stuff. Yes to all of that, but for any notion that he’s merely perfecting the areas of already-existing strength while other aspects of his game stay flat or see small rises, he’s again a step ahead. For his career, Curry’s shooting a paltry 3.5 free throws/game. He’s third all-time in FT% just behind Steve Nash and Mark Price, so he’s getting the most bang for his free throw buck, but at 3.5 attempts/game with a career best of 4.5, he’s good at getting to the line for a point guard, but nothing special. In our shortened present season he’s somehow expanded his offensive range to include seven FTAs/game. For a guy that shoots over 90% from the line, seven FTAs/night is free points, a rhythmic bonus that builds on what’s already elite confidence. Where his increase in 3PA/game was a stunning 64%, his increase in FTA/game relative to his career average is nearly double at a 99% increase and the graph below more so than the others above clearly illustrates this spike.

11-02-15 - Steph YoY FTA

While I’ve touched on Steph’s increased makes, I chose to focus on the attempts to show the early tidal change from last season. Maybe it’s having Walton at the helm instead of Kerr or maybe Klay Thompson has a bad back. Perhaps Kerr and company saw something in the numbers or on film, something like, “More Steph is better.” Regardless of the impetus for the jumps in volume, the return Golden State’s seeing on his increased offensive aggressiveness are eye popping and head shaking. Who averages 37ppg in under 32mpg for a team that beats all comers by double digits? It is unprecedented, I swear it is. It has to be.

We’re dealing with the smallest of sample sizes to the degree that every stat called out in this piece should have an asterisk next to it (“Hey man, it’s less than 5% of games, chill!”), but what we’re seeing even through these four games is borderline comical in the way that peak Pedro Martinez or Aroldis Champan were/are comical; we know what to expect and the opponent thinks they know what to expect and it doesn’t matter. The stats tell this truth as well as any verbose language or overused thesauri ever could. And sure sure, it’s probably unsustainable, but what if by some dint in the makeup of things, it is sustainable? If there’s even a shred of sustainability going on here, may god have mercy on all their basketball-playing souls because in this new NBA, the man shooting 50% on 11 3s/game is king.

Melo greets Kristaps at the beginning of a great career

It’s a new season and that means a first edition of the Guess I’m Strange series wherein I track down some completely random oddball stat line like Ricky Rubio’s opening night 28-point, 14-assist, 1-turnover on 58% shooting and attempt to contextualize the feat form a historical perspective.

It seems fitting that on what is the real deal opening night of the 2015-16 season, our first admission to this longstanding (three years and counting – seems eternal in blog years) feature is from a rookie. But not just any run of the mill, taller-than-average NBA rookie, but a gangly 7’3” 20-year-old from the Baltic coastal country of Latvia, a country with a population a quarter the size of said rookie’s new home in New York City. Kristaps Porzingis, aka the Zinger, all swinging arms, legs, and elongated torso with an Ivan Drago-lite styled haircut arrived and made his debut in Milwaukee of all places; a brew-town in the upper Midwest that bears no resemblance to NYC which makes one wonder how in the hell young Kristaps is processing this all this Americana.

There are sayings about first impressions and maybe someone once tried to sell men’s cologne or deodorant based around the importance of first impressions and how you only get one chance to make one. Attempted truisms as such hold little weight at this blog, but since we’re talking about it, the first NBA action I saw this “precocious neophyte” (all praise due to Walt Frazier) partake in was having a loose ball rebound snatched away from his gangly paws by bearded and weathered semi-vet Greg Monroe. It was like some kind of flag bearing American brute stealing Latvian cupcakes from a skinny baby – a frightening thought for all of us, particularly the skinny baby thing.

First impressions be damned and flushed down toilets with water swirling both clockwise and counterclockwise. In the land of Lew Alcindor (keep in mind, in the Dancing with Noah mock draft, I compared Zinger’s string bean build to a young Alcindor), the lanky Latvian was determined and aggressive in seeking his own shots while donning the flowing New York Knick blue shorts and shirt which gave the appearance of rivers of copious fabric rolling on his lean frame.

The Zinger’s aggressiveness would soon be rewarded by the law; in this case NBA officials. In 24 minutes of play, he went to the line 12 times and made nine. When the final buzzer sounded, his line read 16 points, five rebounds, a plus/minus of plus-one and a Knicks road victory against a playoff team – and least importantly, a spot in DWN folklore for being statistically unique, statistically strange.

The criteria:

  • 12 or more free throw attempts
  • NBA debut

Once plugging the criteria into Basketball-reference.com’s wonderful game finder database, an astonishingly short list of matches were returned: four players (other than Zinger) since the 1963-64 season have taken 12 free throws in their NBA debuts:

  1. Billy McKinney: 10/15/78 – 12 FTAs, 23pts
  2. Isiah Thomas: 10/30/81 – 13 FTAs, 31pts
  3. David Robinson: 11/4/89 – 14 FTAs, 17rebs, 3blks, 23pts
  4. Lamar Odom: 11/2/99 – 15 FTAs, 44min, 12rebs, 2stls, 2blks, 30pts

Before we get into the illustrious company the Zinger keeps, how about that debut from Odom? At the time, he was only 19-years-old, making his NBA debut alongside a cast of quixotic characters with the Clippers that far exceeds the Zinger’s experience in weird New York. But to open a career with 30 and 12, 15 trips to the line in a whopping 44 minutes is the stuff greatness is built on. Beyond the Odom gem, how about David Robinson and Isiah Thomas? Please don’t hurt us, Zinger.

This is the ultimate in small sample size theater, but it’s theater nonetheless and the 7’3” debutant playing the four, facing up, getting his jumper at will in a way in Kevin Durant can relate to and of course, working his way to the charity stripe 12 times is beautiful, promising start. To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson’s legendary letter to Walt Whitman in which he wrote, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” the Zinger similarly received great praise from the face of his own franchise as Melo said, “you couldn’t ask for more than that.”

81% of Anthony Davis looks like this

After 2014-15, Anthony Davis’s pro hoop trajectory climbed into rare company. His traditional big man stats (points, rebounds, blocks) gained him admittance into a stratosphere known to few at the pro level: +24ppg, +10rpg, +2.5bpg. Only Shaquille O’Neal accomplished the same as a 21-year-old. For players 25 or younger, only Shaq, David Robinson, and Bob McAdoo pulled it off. If we expand the list to remove any age constraints, the list is still less than 30 total seasons and just eight players in league history. Anthony Davis won’t turn 23 until March of 2016 and yet, as some critics take aim at Michael Jordan’s career, I too have a prickle of concern in my gut about the durability of young Mr. Davis.

It’s not hyperbolic exaggeration to say Davis’s early career has the markings of an inevitable first-ballot Hall of Famer. His first three seasons have been that good. But somewhere in that mixing pot of historical greatness is the mildly concerning truth that Davis has yet to exceed 70 games in a single season. He’s never encountered the catastrophic injuries that wracked Greg Oden or Joel Embiid. Rather, he’s been sidelined by one little injury after another.

If we consider the players in the 24/10/2.5 club as some sort of bright and shiny baseline to compare against Davis from a purely durability view, we get the following breakout across each player’s first three seasons:

Anthony Davis and shiny baselines - stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

Anthony Davis and shiny baselines – stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

 

It is certainly isn’t an apples to apples comparison, particularly since primary data linking the players (24/10/2.5) occurred for most guys at a different point in their careers. The other difference is player age though there’s not much we can do about that. Of the eight players on the list, David Robinson (26) was the oldest after three years while Davis (21) is the youngest. And given Davis’s lithe frame (particularly as a 19-year-old rookie), it’s fair to wonder if age and physical maturation have factored into his semi-fragility.

Olajuwon (knee injury in 1986) and Robinson (thumb surgery in 1992) both had 68-game seasons in their first three years, but Hakeem appeared in all 82 his first year while the Admiral hadn’t missed a game in nearly three full seasons. Ewing only appeared in 50 games as a rookie, then 63 his second season before finally finding health (82 games) via a significant reduction in minutes – less than four minutes played per game in his third season. Sticking with Ewing, the bulk of his 32 games missed as a rookie were the result of a shutdown in March after he re-aggravated a season-long knee injury.

As we look at Davis’s spate of missed games over his first three seasons, we’ll see the shutdown factor slightly skew his number of games played as well. Over his first two years in the league, Davis was shut down with three games to go as a rookie due to a sprained MCL and bone bruise, then five more as in year two due to back spasms. Those eight games combine for 17% of the total missed games in his career – small volume, but it’s fair to wonder whether he may have played through injury had the playoffs been a possibility.

It shouldn’t come as a big surprise, but New Orleans is a significantly better team with Davis on the court. For his career, when Davis plays, the Pelicans’ winning percentage climbs nearly 14% — from ~32% to ~46%. While the team’s winning percentage has grown each season he’s been on the team (with or without Davis), the disparity between with and without Davis has never been greater than it was in 2014-15 when their winning percentage climbed 14.5% when Davis played. This shouldn’t shock anyone, but rather continue to highlight how critical a healthy Davis is to any New Orleans success.

10-26-15 - with or without anthony

Beyond just winning and losing, there’s the impact of continuity. How well did the Pelicans play in games following a Davis injury? Looking at his first two seasons, the games immediately following his injuries were miserable. There’s a lot of noise when drawing these attribution statements such as opponents, New Orleans personnel, and other injuries, but at its base level, the message is clear that New Orleans repeatedly struggled to re-integrate Davis into their schemes following injuries in years one and two:

  • 2012-13 (rookie year): Davis missed 11 straight games from 11/20 – 12/8 and upon return, the team struggled losing 11 of 13 games (won 15% of games)
  • 2012-13: Davis missed back-to-back games and upon his return, the team dropped seven of eight (13%)
  • 2013-14: Davis missed seven straight and when he came back they lost 12 of 16 (25%)

Aside from being small sample sizes, the stretches above are directional indicators that New Orleans took time to rediscover their pre-Davis-injury winning rate. In each of those three stretches the team performed worse off than even without Davis in the lineup.

Year three revealed a different trend that should alleviate some of the uncertainty around the direction of the Pelicans:

  • 2014-15: Davis misses three straight games and upon return, the Pelicans win four of five (80%)
  • 2014-15: Davis misses five straight games, but when he returns the team wins five of seven (71%)

As the team and Davis have both evolved, New Orleans has improved; learning to live better without their star while simultaneously establishing a system stable enough to provide some level of continuity with or without him. Replacing former coach Monty Williams with veteran Alvin Gentry isn’t likely to disrupt too much as off-season changes left the team about as intact as any other in the league.

(As an aside, for all the teeth gnashing about how basketball is a team game, pro basketball with its radiant stars is hugely dependent on their in-game availability and ability to excel. Players like Davis that impact both offensively and defensively are capable of reshaping history singlehandedly.)

Finally, there are types of injuries. Davis hasn’t sustained a trademark injury like Steph Curry’s ankles, Derrick Rose’s knees or Steve Nash’s back. Since his rookie season, his injuries stretched from head to toe ranging from a concussion to a sprained toe. He’s sprained both shoulders, fractured his fifth metacarpal, experienced back spasms, sprained his MCL among various other dings picked up in nightly battle sessions. As someone without a background in sports health or injuries, it’s difficult for me to say if it’s a good or bad thing that Davis’s injuries are completely random instead of identifiable. I don’t know if it matters that his label is injury prone or just plagued with a bit of bad luck.

It doesn’t take intellectual curiosity to realize less Anthony Davis is bad for the Pelicans. But despite the obviousness of it, Davis has still missed 18, 15, and 14 games in each of his first three seasons as a pro basketball player and his team suffers mightily without him. The injuries are just random and fluky enough to think luck has played a role, but just recurrent enough to make me, you, and Dell Demps wonder. Winning 42% of their games without him is strong year-over-year improvement, but with Davis out for any extended period of time Pelican playoff dreams are crushed like a bag of Doritos in the mitts of Omer Asik. But maybe it’s all nothing more than a human impulse to search for the little blemish in perceived perfection. On the eve of a new season where someone somewhere is ready and willing to anoint Davis the next great thing, let’s bow our heads and clasp our hands and cry out to the Pagan gods of Walton and Ming that we’re dealing with another Ewing and not a Ralph Sampson.

anthony

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.

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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