Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

Random Stats before the Home Stretch (75% of the way there); Alternately: Straddling the Nine with James Harden

Having a child and moving across the country has pushed basketball writing down on my list of priorities, but in these pockets of corporate and domestic living, I’m trying to scratch and claw my way into the word documents and share with you the weird, the strange, the awesome, the historical. We’re some odd three fourths of the way into the season, and as is always the case, the world’s greatest basketball players are venturing into unchartered places where no men (or very few men) have walked, run, jumped or dunked before. And in honor of the Big O, Oscar Robertson, who led the league in scoring and assists 50 years ago, and wore number 14, I have 14* random ass stats for you to consume at your own leisure. As always, shouts to Basketball Reference, a site and group of humans truly doing the lord’s work.

Note: all stats are as of 2/28/18. By the time you click a link, a player’s average or percentages may have moved by a tenth of a point and thus negated the achievement. Such is the fickle nature of records.

*Some of the list items have more than one stat included.

  • Steven Adams, 5.1 offensive rebounds, 17% offensive rebound percentage: Steven Adams isn’t the GOAT offensive rebounder (that’s probably Moses Malone), and he’s not even the best right now (probably Andre Drummond), but he is one of just six players in league history (Malone, Drummond, Dennis Rodman, Larry Smith, Jayson Williams) to average as many o-rebs and as high of an o-reb percentage as he is this season. Beyond his devil-may-care attitude to crashing the glass, no player on this list has a greater percentage of his total rebounds come on the offensive end. 56% of Adams’s total rebounds are occurring on the offensive end. That’s 5.1 offensive boards/game to 3.9 defensive. A portion of the reading audience will point to reigning MVP Russell Westbrook as the sole reason for Adams’s lack of defensive rebounds, but regardless of snarling causes and effects, Adams’s inverted rebounding ratio is rare and probably historical.

  • James Harden 31-8.9: When I first pulled these stats together a few days ago, Harden was sitting at 31 points and nine assists-per-game. Since then, he’s dropped down to 8.9 and will likely straddle the nine (not a term I ever expected to write) for the rest of the season. As it stands, his 31-8.9 places him in cahoots with former Thunder teammate and Steven Adams rebound stealer, Westbrook, Tiny Archibald, and the Big O. I’ve never considered parallels between Robertson’s and Harden’s games, but the physical characteristics and positions are somewhat applicable. Robertson was a physically overpowering guard, much like Harden is; a pair of players who physically defy the flying Jordan paradigm in exchange for blunt force delivered with equal grace.
  • Joel Embiid’s turnovers: 12 times in NBA history has a player 6’10” or taller averaged 3.8 turnovers or higher. Embiid is threatening to make it 13 times and join the ranks of Boogie Cousins (a three-timer), Artis Gilmore, Dwight Howard, Mickey Johnson, Shawn Kemp, Moses Malone, Hakeem, Jeff Ruland and Ralph Sampson. But let’s not stop at just single seasons. In his short, injury-ravaged career, Embiid has played just 78 games and averaged over six turnovers-per-100 possessions which puts him in much more dubious company. Of the five other players included on this list, I’ve only ever heard of one of them: Mark Radford, Dean Tolson, Ernie DiGregorio (he’s the one I heard of), Steve Kuberski, and Dale Schlueter. Who are these people, these friends of Joel’s?

Note that the back of the card tells us that “Steve trades elbows with opposing forwards.” Card found here: http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_665119

  • Ben Simmons 16-7-7: Counting this season, Ben Simmons makes the 36th occurrence of the well-rounded 16-7-7 line. He’s also joining fellow big guards, Magic Johnson and the Big O, as the only rookies to post the line. As we’ll see with the next few stats, the league as a whole is becoming more skilled and that includes our taller players who benefit from copious amounts of shooters, spread floors, and an advanced understanding of how to pick out open teammates. They also just happen to be have more broadly developed games than many of their back-to-the-basket predecessors. If Simmons came along in 1977, I have my doubts that he would’ve wound up as a point guard.
  • 6’7” and taller, +7 assists/game, +5 assists/game: Assists are a somewhat arbitrary stat. If you’ve ever done any assist tracking, what score keepers constitute an assist can vary massively. Additionally, being surrounded by better shooters can rack up high assist counts for an otherwise average passer. Nitpicking aside, tall players are tallying assists in ways we’ve never seen. Three players at least 6’7” (LeBron James, Draymond Green, and Simmons) are averaging over seven assists/game which was last done 31 years ago by Magic, Larry, and Reggie Theus. If we expand our assist thresholds to five-per-game, the current season has eight guys qualifying; the aforementioned Bron/Draymo/Simmons trio in addition to Nic Batum, Boogie, DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Durant, and Nikola Jokic. Al Horford and Jimmy Butler are both sitting at 4.9. The previous record for players of this height picking up this many assists was six in 1986-87. No popping champagne this year, guys.
  • 6’10” and taller, over one 3pa/gm: If we continue exploring the intersection of height and skill, we presently have 21 players at least 6’10” averaging over one three made/game. The list I linked to doesn’t even include the giant, Kevin Durant, who could be as tall as 7’2” after a good stretch but is insultingly listed as 6’9”. We know the game is spacing out further and further. Whether it’s Ryan Anderson bombing from the hash marks or the massive Embiid (a 7’2”, nearly 300lb mountain of a human flesh, bones, polysynthetic fibers, and rubber bands developed in labs) with his almost-set shot, we’re seeing the boundaries pushed out further by our biggest and tallest players which is fundamentally altering the style of play and rewriting the record books.
  • Stephen Curry, efficient shooter: Curry’s the best shooter to play in NBA history. It’s hard to dispute this and somehow, at age 29, he’s having his best season yet in terms of true shooting percentage. At a ridiculous 67.2%, better than his 2016 second MVP season (66.9%), he’s entered into a domain occupied by only big men – and Cedric Maxwell. Not to discount what Maxwell, Artis Gilmore, Rudy Gobert, DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler, James Donaldson, and Wilt Chamberlain achieved, but none of these ultra-efficient big men attempted more than 11 shots per-game. Curry’s crossed the 67% TS threshold on over 17 attempts/game; the bulk of which come outside the paint. If we push outside of the single season, Curry becomes one of just five players (all bigs and again, Maxwell), to have appeared in over 600 games with a TS 62% or higher. This is a somewhat inverse of the previous stats where we’ve seen big men encroaching on the turf of wings and guards. Curry, with his Predator-like accuracy (47-43-90 for his career), deep shooting, and scorer’s volume, has barged his way into efficiency conversations previously limited to dunking big men.

  • Anthony Davis, 28-10-2: If we’re rounding up, this is Davis’s second 28-10-2 season as he was a 27.9ppg scorer last season. If we’re not rounding up, Davis is the first player since Shaq in 2000-01 to have this impact on the game in terms of points, blocks, and rebounds, and just the sixth to achieve it (David Robinson, Pat Ewing, Kareem, Bob McAdoo thrice, and Shaq). He’s also doing it in less minutes-per-game than anyone on the list except 97-98 Shaq. With the rise of Karl-Anthony Towns, Jokic, Kristaps Porzingis, Giannis, and Embiid, combined with Davis’s constant missed games and injuries, it has seemed, at times, like his star has dimmed. Since Boogie went down, the Brow has elevated his everything and reminded us of his place in the present and historic lens of the Association. Pray to the new gods and the old that his health continues.
  • Andre Drummond, rebounder: Are rebounds valuable? Are they an indicator of team success? Should anyone crash offensive boards? Is this a new market inefficiency? I don’t have the answers to any of these questions, but I can tell you that Drummy gets more rebounds than anyone in today’s NBA. Looking all the way back through Basketball Reference’s database, only three times has a player appeared in at least 30 minutes per-game and grabbed at least 26% of the available rebounds: Dennis “the Worm” Rodman did it in 91-92 and 95-96. And now, after having surgery to repair a deviated septum in the off-season, Drummond is doing it. Detroit’s not winning as much as they should, but who cares when their big man is rebounding at Rodmanesque levels? Someone cares, it’s just not me.
  • 42% assists in 700+ games, Russell Westbrook: As stated above, assists are not necessarily indicative of great passing, playmaking, or even of unselfishness. In some cases, maybe they’re just indicative of control. Three players in NBA history have assisted on over 42% of their team’s scored field goals: John Stockton (did it on 19% usage), Chris Paul (24% usage), and now Westbrook on a whopping 33% usage. For context, for players who have appeared in over 700 games, Westbrook is second all-time on usage rate (Michael Jordan is first). I made an assumption that as players get older, their usage would decrease, but looking across Kobe, Jordan, and Wade (all close to Russ on career usage), they each had big usage numbers late in their careers so I have no idea where Westbrook’s goes from here. None of this is to say that Westbrook isn’t an excellent passer, but rather to articulate that his gaudy assist rates are a by-product of a ball-dominant style combined with high level passing.
  • >36 minutes, <1.8 assists, >23% usage, Andrew Wiggins: What an oddball stat I dug up here. Counting Wiggins this season, it’s been achieved 34 times; most recently by Dwight Howard in 2010-11. I don’t know what to make of this list. It includes guys like Moses Malone (an eight-time inductee), Dwight, Antawn Jamison, Elvin Hayes, Alonzo Mourning, Amare Stoudemire, Keith Van Horn (all twice), Rudy Gay, Dominique Wilkins, and Rashard Lewis (all once). And then there are a bunch of oddballs. The combination of high volume minutes and usage with virtually nil playmaking is something I want to attribute to low basketball IQ or perhaps a myopic perspective on the attacking side of the ball; but it’s not that simple as Jamison, Malone, Zo, Nique, Rashard were all dynamic players who were maybe just less-than-average passers. The player has opportunity, but it’s either outside of their skillset or not something the player is willing to do.

If so much of these outlier stats serve as examples of an expanding skill set in the modern player, Wiggins, and Westbrook to a different degree, serve as sore thumbs of stagnation, of stasis. What is interesting in both players is their overwhelming athleticism and the potential opportunity to speculate how dependence on a certain skill can impede development of other skills. The need to evolve or die isn’t applicable because, in these scenarios, the player is already so developed physically, that other weaknesses can be hidden or overlooked. This isn’t to imply that Westbrook or Wiggins are not very good or even great at what they do. Rather, to differentiate their styles through statistical outliers.

Spring is in the air which means the playoffs will be here soon … soon

 

Trae Young and the Long Arm of Steph Curry

I can’t say my first intentional experience with Oklahoma’s Trae Young was as uninterruptedly studious as I would have liked. My face was thawing after shoveling snow in the frigid Iowa afternoon. My nearly-10-month-old son was bouncing, cackling at unintelligible noises I made in attempts to distract him from the teething pain that’s turned our house upside down the past couple days. In the middle of the chaos was my Samsung TV, mounted to the wall above a gas fireplace that doesn’t work, presenting Trae Young to me in all his evolutionary glory.

Young is a 6’2” point guard from Norman, Oklahoma. He just turned 19 a few months ago and has a wispy moustache and hair that makes me think he could be Persian. Or maybe Native American or Indian or Filipino. I can almost picture him astride a horse, speeding across the Norman prairies and parking lots, thinnish hair whipping in the Norman wind, on his way to a game. He’s flirting with a unibrow and while he has a slight build, his shoulders are square and look prepared to carry more muscle and mass. Conventionally speaking, he doesn’t look the part though “the part,” as embodied by Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, or LeBron James, is being rewritten by two-time-MVP and two-time-NBA Champion, Stephen Curry who happens to be the stylistic predecessor to Young.

My timeline is far from definitive, but the first time I recall seeing the trickle down of Currynomics was when LaMelo Ball, late of Vyautas Prienal-Birstonas of the Lithuanian Basketball League, became a sensation as a 15-year-old sophomore for Chino Hills High School during the 2016-17 season. He scored 92 points in one game and audaciously made a half-court shot just seconds into another game. Aside from these attention-grabbing highlights, Ball frequently took and made shots from NBA three-point range and deeper. If you strip away the outspoken divisiveness of his father, Lavar, there’s a supremely talented and skinny young basketball player in LaMelo. My first thoughts when I saw his highlights were of young kids seeing the rise of Curry, with his 30-foot jumpers and “California Cool” (H/T George Karl) approach, and misinterpreting what they saw. Ball, who pointed to his spot before canning the half-courter I mentioned, became a poster boy target of sorts for the get off my lawn crowd most notably represented by Charles Barkley. Barkley, a league MVP as a 6’4” undersized power forward, once claimed Curry was “just a great shooter.”

However far off-base Barkley’s assessment of Curry was, it stands as a representation of a perspective held by many former players, and likely present players, that Curry doesn’t belong at the table with other NBA greats. For Curry, the suspicion isn’t limited to style as I wrote about during this year’s finals, but are inclusive of race via skin color and class with him coming from a well-off, fully intact NBA family. Barkley’s comments and sentiments are coded in the sense that boxing Curry into being “just a great shooter” discount his generational skill level, advanced ball handling, finishing at the rim, his passing, his selflessness and on. By labeling him, or anyone like him, as “just a great shooter,” any threat to Barkley (or those who share his view and comprehension) is neutralized because Curry and his ilk become the “other.”

LaMelo Ball isn’t alone in seeing something in Curry that could be applied to his own game. About a month ago, I attended a high school basketball game in Des Moines, Iowa. For someone who hasn’t attended a high school game in over a decade, the experience of merely walking into the building and being swallowed by giddy teenage energy is one of adjustment. I packed into the doors of North High School with the rest of the human cattle being corralled towards concessions and the gym. If you’ve been away for a while, it’s disorienting to see a mass of teens from a 37-year-old’s eyes and see your former self moving through those crowds in complete normalcy. North’s point guard and their main attraction is a smallish 5’10”, 170lbs junior named Tyreke Locure who looks to be taller than his listed height due to a dyed bushy faux hawk – similar to LaMelo’s. He’s a mid-to-low D1 prospect who posted 56 points on 33 shots just a couple weeks after I saw him. In the game I attended, Locure and his North teammates exhibited a trigger-happy penchant for chucking deep threes. In my most Chuck-ish, I found myself criticizing the game plan until those bombs started falling – which probably says something about my commitment to a strategy. Collectively, they were quick to pass up half-court opportunities in exchange for deep, often contested, threes. Locure’s game did not appear to be defined by hash mark threes. I saw him looking for the small spaces to let fly, but within that were probing drives, dump-offs, and floaters, but the Curry influence was evident.

With North, I find myself needing to justify their liberal bombs by pointing to their success. Under their current coach, Chad Ryan, and with Locure as starting point guard in 16-17, they made the state tournament for the first time since 1991. MaxPreps currently has them ranked 7th in the state. The approach is working. And where instinct pushes me to find justification, intellect tells me question instinct. This is probably where my conventional way of thinking, some inner-Barkley, is running into my embrace of revolution, my inner-Curry/Steve Kerr.

Steph, Tyreke Locure, LaMelo Ball

Locure and Ball represent different points on a spectrum of who and how Curry has influenced a culture of ballplayers. Ball is probably at the most polarizing end of the spectrum. A kid whose game built on the notoriety that comes with being something of a Curry-clone – though that’s unlikely how he views himself. Maybe some of that is unfairly worded by confusing the son for the father. Locure and his North teammates, by contrast, have had the game opened by a combination of their abilities, their coaching, and (I’m mildly confident in this assumption) by Steph Curry whose influence has become omnipresent – from the California coast and the Hills of Chino to the tornado alleys of Oklahoma to the cold December gyms of Des Moines and a billion Instagram clips in between.

In April of 2017, Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck wrote a piece making a compelling case as to why the quest for the Next Michael Jordan had been on the decline over the past few years. In the story, Beck refers to the present as “Generation Steph,” and writes of high school coach and former NBA player Penny Hardaway that, “he’s had to admonish his players more than once for launching from 30 feet, like a band of mini-Steph Currys.”

Curry would be difficult enough to guard if he was, as Barkley said, “just a great shooter.” He’d be Kyle Korver or J.J. Redick – which isn’t to discount their non-shooting skills. Instead, the range and his ability to attack off the dribble, to both find the open teammate or finish around the rim at an elite level, make him, at times, the most disruptive offensive player in the NBA. In Jack McCallum’s Golden Days, he writes about Curry being a revolutionary player in that he’s doing things with range and accuracy that we haven’t seen before. In his notes about the book on his site, McCallum quoted Curry and wrote:

“Nobody talked much about long shots until three years ago,” Curry says. “When my father [Dell, a sharp-shooter who retired in 2002 after 16 seasons] was playing, heck, there wasn’t even much talk about three-pointers at all.”

Well, you pretty much started that conversation, Curry is reminded. He shrugs. “It’s not something I consciously set out to do,” Curry says. “Most of the long ones come when the defense is back-pedaling and I’m in rhythm. I don’t really think about what the exact distance is. It’s basically where I feel comfortable from.”

That is the key word—comfort. When something is new, it feels uncomfortable. Despite the fact that the three-point shot has been in the NBA since 1979, it never became a real weapon until the last decade, and even that is stretching it. Why? Coaches were never comfortable with it. We can always work it closer to the basket, went the thinking. But once Curry demonstrated that he could make the looooong ones, Steve Kerr did grow comfortable with it, and “four-pointers”–those long-range bombs that demoralize opponents to the point that they seem to be worth an extra point–became a big part of the Warriors’ offense … not to mention a big part of the NBA’s entertainment package.

McCallum makes the argument that Kevin Durant or even LeBron James are doing things we’ve seen – scoring, passing, rebounding – but doing it with evolutionary physicality. KD is seven-feet tall handling the ball like a point guard. Bron is built like Karl Malone with the athleticism of MJ and the court vision of Magic. He writes, “I doubt that 30 years ago, even 15 years ago, we could’ve envisioned such a complete player at that (KD’s) size.”

I accept McCallum’s argument that Curry is a revolutionary player. He’s been able to push out the boundaries of what’s possible on an NBA court and do it in a way that’s about as effective as we can fathom. It doesn’t mean that players can’t expand their range further as we’ve seen with Ball shooting from half court, but that, at some point, there are diminishing returns or that the long distance becomes a means in and of itself, not, as Curry says, “something I consciously set out to do.”

It’s unfair to seek out the Next Curry in every long-distance shooting teenager just like was unfair to label every dunking shooting guard as the “Next MJ.” Instead of seeking out the Next Anyone, it’s more accurate to identify the traits of iconic players in the next generation and establish a stylistic family tree of sorts. In terms of a basketball lineage, Ball and Locure are inheriting some of the stylistic genes of Curry. As kids who aren’t yet of voting age, how their futures map out are wildly variable, but in each, the fingerprints of Curry are visible.

The future of Trae Young, at just 19-years-old, is much more clearly defined. In the midst of the madness swirling around me during the Oklahoma-TCU game, what I saw was a point guard bending an entire half of the court to his own will. Young scored 39 points and had 14 assists yet, for me, he didn’t even play a great game. While there wasn’t a single TCU defender who could keep Young out of the lane, on more than one occasion, he left his feet and without a passing outlet, was forced to hopelessly fling a shot at the rim. He shot 9-23 for the game, but six of those makes were from three. Inside the paint, he was 3-7. While he struggled with interior accuracy, all those forays into the paint helped push his free throw attempts up to 18. (For the season, he’s impressively averaging more than one free throw attempt for every two field attempts.) He was able to beat his defenders into the paint with a combination of speed, quickness, the threat of the deep ball (see his shot chart below), and a purposeful handle developed well-beyond his age. (Here he is functionally pulling off the Shammgod earlier this season.)

14 assists is nice and all, but Young easily could’ve had more. He frequently found open teammates both under the hoop and along the perimeter. They made plenty, but missed some gimmes too. That they were so open is testament to Young’s playmaking and vision, his teammates shot making (and occasional shot missing), and coach Lon Kruger’s pro style deployment of personnel around the perimeter. Young frequently had release valves in the corners that he didn’t have to look for; he knew they were there. He had full court assists, no-look wrap around passes, jump passes off slaloms to the rim. More often than not, he made the right decisions. And while the 3-7 in the paint and seven turnovers look ugly, the indefatigable pressure he put on the TCU defense was more than worth the trade off to a teammate or alternative pace of attack. The game was ultra-high pressure, decided by a single point, and yet Young played the entirety of the second half and only sat two minutes all game.

The passing and driving are great, even titillating, but his range and shot release time are where the Curry comparisons become inescapable. I have no idea exactly how accurate the shot chart below is in terms of distance, but it’s accurate in the sense that the distances match up with what I witnessed. There are tracking systems that can tell us how close defenders were, but from my distracted viewing, a couple of those bombs were with defenders in his space, but unexpectant. By the time the defender realized what was happening, Young was already too deep into his motion with a release they couldn’t catch up to. Like Curry, or any deep shooter, this ability opens up mega avenues for penetration.

I don’t know if people look for the “Next” because we’re lazy or have bad habits or because we see points of reference in players. Maybe it’s the never-ending quest for immortality through progeny. Penny was the Next Magic. Eddy Curry was the Next Shaq. Harold Miner was literally Baby Jordan. The excitement I felt watching Trae Young wasn’t in seeing the Next Steph Curry, but seeing the possible evolution of what Curry has brought to basketball. I caught just a glimpse, the kind of glimpse that people turn into Loch Ness Monsters and UFOs and Yetis. Maybe it was just a tease and Young is more Jimmer than Steph. Or maybe it’s the next evolutionary step in audacious offense. I wouldn’t say I’ve seen the future, but I’ve seen Steph Curry and I’ve seen Trae Young and I’m good with that.

An Ignominious Induction: Dwight Howard from the line

About every 15-to-20 years, the free throw gods look down on NBA giants and anoint one of their biggest, bulkiest personalities as a goat; an inept, pretzel-minded, musclebound brute of a free throw shooter. Of course, our NBA giants are more than just poor free throw shooters. They’re humans with dunktastic ferocity, superior sizes, unstoppable phyiscalities, and yet afflicted by some cruel combination of stage fright and giant-hand-small-ball syndrome. But (oh the big ol’ but!), they are at times truly incapable as free throw shooters as we saw from Dwight Howard on the night of October 24th, 2017 when the Charlotte Hornets center shot 0-9 from the free throw line, thus becoming the fourth player since the 1963-64 season* to attempt at least nine free throws and miss all of them.

50 years ago, Wilt Chamberlain delivered one of the more bizarre stat lines in league history, one that highlighted both his transcendent dominance with his neutralizing weaknesses, when he scored 26 points on 11-11 shooting with an inexplicable 0-9 from the line. For good measure, the Big Dipper added 24 rebounds and five assists. Chamberlain, a career 51% free-throw shooter who dropped down to 44% in 1967, had 36 career games where he missed all of his free-throw attempts. Of those 36, he had 15 games with three or more attempts so it wasn’t an aberration the same way it would be if say Rick Barry underhand shot his way to 0-9. But Wilt claimed to not be responsible on this February night. As Jack Kiser of the Philadelphia Daily News wrote: “He (Chamberlain) complained early and often about the use of ‘stickum’ by the Hawks, but he wasn’t about to expound on his complaints afterwards.” This isn’t completely accurate as Chamberlain did expound:

“I said I wasn’t going to say anything about it because when I do everybody says ‘Wilt is a crybaby who is looking for an excuse for his lousy foul shooting.’ If you want to know how much stickum there was on the ball out there today, why don’t you ask some of the other guys?”

Teammate Chet Walker, who must’ve been in earshot, responded, “So much it was ridiculous. The ball was really loaded. They ought to outlaw that stuff.” For whatever it’s worth, Walker, a career 80% free-throw shooter, shot 4-5 that night.

“Stickum” Chamberlain

13 years later in 1980, a 6’7”, 225-pound brute of a rebounder named Truck Robinson led his 19-4 Phoenix Suns against the Bulls of Chicago. Robinson was a former rebounding champion with a career 66% free throw average. On this night he was described by Richard Dozer of the Chicago Tribune as someone “who does a lot of things well but can’t shoot free throws. Against the Bulls, he descended into the pits of ineptitude previously inhabited alone by “Stickum” Chamberlain. It was a close game against the Bulls and even a sub-standard night of free throw shooting, like 30 or 40%, from Truck could’ve alleviated the stress. As Norm Frauenheim of the Arizona Republic wrote, “Phoenix had a chance to stretch its now-precarious lead to six points nine seconds later. (Ricky) Sobers had fouled Robinson. It didn’t matter. Robinson’s long night of futility from the free-throw line continued. He missed his eighth and ninth attempts – the ninth never even touched the rim.”

At this point, my pop-culture, meme-saturated mind immediately hears Homer Simpson’s “D’Oh!” followed by the massive splat of a facepalm. Let’s give the last word on Truck’s forgettable night to Dozer from the Tribune who tells us what happened after Robinson’s final air ball, “Now Coach John MacLeod got smart and took out the Suns’ free-throw patsy.” A night so bad we’re resorting to name calling? Oh, the shame.

“Free-throw patsy,” Truck Robinson

December of 2000, “Stickum” Chamberlain’s cultural offspring, Shaquille “Chamberneezy” O’Neal, in the ultimate show of anything you can do, I can do better, one-upped Wilt and Truck with the worst of the worst, the stinkiest of the stink, a rotten egg of putridity the likes of which the NBA hasn’t seen before or since: 0-11 from the line. In what would borderline as trolling in today’s vernacular, Tim Brown of The Los Angeles Times led off his recap painting an image of utter helplessness, “His right arm draped over his new free-throw coach, Shaquille O’Neal walked stiffly from Staples Center on Friday night. It didn’t work again. He missed all 11 free throws—an NBA record.” It seems some of us, no matter how hard we try or how badly we seek to rectify the errors in our ways, are incapable of salvation, doomed to recurring cycles of relative failure.

And finally, after wandering the halls of bricks, air balls, stickums, and free-throw shooting coaches, we arrive at the Chamberlain-O’Neal torch bearer: Dwight Howard. Seeing Wilt and Shaq on this list, there’s a sense of inevitability to Dwight joining them. For his career, he’s been a better free-throw shooter than his forbears, but there’s the same combination of absurd hulking size coupled with fragile, blot-out-the-sun ego. Dwight had to join this list, but somewhere along the line, we lost our collective desire to examine, through humor or (over)-analysis, the suck. In Rick Bonnell’s recap from the Charlotte Observer, there’s nothing more than reference to the 0-9 shooting. SB Nation’s At The Hive team blog referred to Dwight’s night as “dismal,” but nothing more.

I wanted quotes, acknowledgement, acceptance, something. Maybe this is more my problem than the media’s, but traveling back in time and consuming the colorful quotes, excuses, and descriptions puts the relative inattention to Howard’s crapfest in strange, apathetic context. It’s not just possible, but rather likely that somewhere on these internets or across the airwaves of local Charlotte radio these abysmal attempts at shooting free throws were rightly excoriated and that I’ve just overlooked them. If that is the case, I hope you found those criticisms and enjoyed them. If not, we can only hope that our struggling athletes re-learn the arts of excuse making and our scribes explore negative anomaly with the zeal of positive.

**Bonus: While Basketball-Reference’s database goes back to the 1963-64 season for game logs that include free throw attempts, my research referenced a game on November 4th, 1960 when Chamberlain shot 0-10 from the stripe. In true Chamberlain fashion, he countered the poor night of shooting with 44 points, 39 rebounds, and 22 blocks – this according to Kiser of the Philadelphia Daily News. Chamberlain was comfortable owning his struggles as he said, “That kills me. Missing all those foul shots like that, I know I’m not a good foul line.” Then there’s some references to “the underhand sweep” which is apparently a free throw form Chamberlain toyed around with along with some of the most colorful sports writing. Kiser refers to Detroit’s center Walter Dukes as someone “who sometimes resembles a wrestling octopus in action,” frequently writes his name as “Waltah,” quotes Dukes as claiming, “I could score as many points as Wilt if I took as many shots,” and gets Wilt on the record saying, “Do I play harder against Walter than the average guy? Well, maybe I do … That boy just gets me mad with that rough stuff of his. He throws elbows at you when there’s no need to throw them. He’s just naturally mean.”

Melo & Bron: A Diverging Examination of Player Decisions & Player Power

Maybe it all started back in 2006, 11 years ago when Barack Obama hadn’t even taken office and the future was about as clear as Phil Jackson in room with sage, incense, and other clouds of organic nature. Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James signed extensions with their teams: Bron three years with a player option for the Cavs. Melo, four years with a player option for Denver, and thus began a gradual resetting of courses that at one time appeared maybe, kinda parallel. The ensuing years have revealed not just a gap in on-court skill sets, but a gap in decision making and how these megawatt star players leverage their power to achieve both on and off-court goals.

Artwork by Andrew Maahs, http://www.basemintdesign.com

 

Fast forward to 2010 when James (along with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) declined his player option and infamously took his talents to South Beach. In that fell swoop, the Miami super friends seized power from teams, owners, and front offices. (It’s fair to question how much power was seized as each player took less money to join forces.)

By contrast, Melo was stuck in his remaining year in Denver where the core of the roster was set to enter free agency and watching his friends and fellow 2003 draftees must’ve felt like missing out on the biggest basketball party in the world. That Nuggets core included Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith, and Chauncey Billups who had a team option remaining. Combine roster uncertainty with what was an almost guaranteed lockout in the following season and Melo had motivating factors for leaving that went beyond New York and his wife’s (La La Anthony) professional ambitions.

Where Bron and friends went for the off-season, long-term approach, Melo took a new tact and forced a trade in-season. Because he was set to become a free agent, he held the power as prospective buyers were rightly reluctant to give up assets in exchange for a player who wouldn’t commit to re-signing. This has become a blueprint of sorts which we’ve seen most recently with the Paul George-to-Lakers posturing and if George ends up staying in Oklahoma City, there will no doubt be second guessing in Lakerland over their decision to not pay up for the multi-time all-star when they had the chance.

The Lakers differ from the Knicks trading for Melo in that they weren’t willing to give up certain assets (Brandon Ingram, the second pick) for a player they have a chance at signing in 2018. The Celtics took a similar tact in their George conversations. The Knicks gave up a handful of low spades (h/t Bomani Jones) to acquire Melo including three picks; one of which turned into Dario Saric in 2014 and a pick-swap in 2016 that turned into Jamal Murray.

Let’s pause here and look at where James’ and Anthony’s decisions had landed them heading into the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season:

  • The 2006 decision to re-sign for an extra fourth season pushed Melo closer to financial uncertainty heading into the 2011 lockout whereas James had signed for a highly-flexible six-year deal with Miami in 2010 with years five and six as player options.
  • The 2010 decision by James to join Miami landed him with a proven-winner in Pat Riley, an NBA champ in Wade, and a third all-star in Bosh. It was the ultimate in player agency and self-determination.
  • Melo’s 2011 forced trade didn’t leave the cupboard bare in New York, but placed him alongside a 25-point-scoring Amare Stoudemire, an aging Billups, and a Marcus Camby-type figure in Tyson Chandler. In addition, he agreed to a three-year extension.
  • At this point, neither player had won a title.

While it’s fair to look at how the Knicks have devolved since 2011, at the time, it wasn’t the worst assortment of talent. In December of 2011, using the playbook Melo put together, Chris Paul was reportedly trying to force his way to New York to join Melo and Stoudemire. As NBA players and agents quickly learned from each other how to gain and use leverage, the attempts of Melo, Stoudemire, and Paul to converge in New York was a combination of the Melo leverage play and the Bron/Heat super friends approach. I don’t know if it was quite unprecedented, but it did signal what the future of player movement and team building would look like.

The Paul deal never panned out, Stoudemire was crushed by injuries, Billups fell off and the Knicks didn’t take up his option. Competent executive Donnie Walsh left prior to the 2011-12 season as well, stripping the team of probably its sanest and smartest decision maker.

Melo isn’t responsible for the decisions of the Knicks front office any more than he’s responsible for Stoudemire’s injuries. But positioning yourself as a power player creates a natural, fair or not, over-analysis of your decisions. And the Knicks with James Dolan as owner had a long history of bumbling. That they teased fans with a successful 2012-13 season before spiraling into sub-optimal mediocrity under Phil Jackson is hardly a surprise.

Heading into the summer of 2014, the chasm between James and Melo, which had once been moderate back in 2010, had grown massively and not just because James was the better player, but because he played the decision-making game better. By aligning himself with healthy, in-prime all-stars, and a stable front office, he was fully empowered to excel on-the-court.

In June of 2014, Melo declined his player option with the Knicks and went on a free agency tour that included visits with the Bulls, Lakers, Mavs, and Rockets. Except for the Lakers, the other teams Melo met with offered a combination of proven stars and teams flirting with 50-win seasons – so of course two of the final three teams on Melo’s list were non-playoff teams: the Lakers and Knicks.

In hindsight, bypassing the soon-to-be-ravaged-by-injury Bulls was a stroke of luck and besides, Melo would get his chance to join Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah in New York a couple seasons later. But at the time, opting back in to New York was interesting if unsurprising. In what should have foreshadowed future acrimony, there was strain between Jackson and Melo even during the free agency process as Jackson publicly needled Melo to take less money. For Jackson, the notion of courting a star has always run counter to convention or common sense, but when you have two hands worth of rings as your resumé, leeway is granted.

Meanwhile, after getting smoked in the 2014 finals by the Spurs, James returned to the Cavs, but not without assurances; namely Kevin Love. At the same time, Melo either bought into Jackson’s vision of the future or he went with the creature comforts of home. It’s funny to read immediate reactions from Melo’s signing and see where the focus was so heavily directed at title contention – not in 2014-15, but sometime during the Phil/Melo regime. Sweet hindsight provides a clarity inaccessible to the intoxication of a $122M reunion and a future envisioned by a man referred as the Zen Master. Not everyone was on board with Melo’s choice though as GQ’s Bethlehem Shoals was scraping away at the same Melo issues that have reared their head three years later.

By gaining assurances on landing Love and pairing him with Kyrie Irving, the Cavs didn’t offer James a glimpse of the future. They offered him a concrete present where the path to the finals was visible for the most nearsighted of eyes. Owner Dan Gilbert’s commitment to competing, regardless of cost, made it possible to build a complementary team of shooters and cheap veteran talent to land a championship roster. (This looks a little different three years into the James return as Gilbert has fired championship GM, David Griffin and as of this writing, the front office remains somewhat in limbo and the Kyrie Irving trade demands cast a shadow on the whole of the Cavs [including Bron’s] management.)

By contrast, Jackson continued to insist on the triangle in New York; continued to insist on the team playing his way, not tapping into the skills of its $122M superstar. It’s not that Griffin’s or Jackson’s approaches to team building are right or wrong. They’re different philosophies with different degrees of flexibility and rigidity depending on personnel. That James chose the more complementary team or managed to gain influence over that team is a testament to either his foresight or power or a combination of both. Melo re-upping with New York without an obvious road to future success speaks either what was most important to him (financial security, New York family) or an inability to assess the NBA’s competitive landscape and how that Knicks team fit into it. Ten to 14 years into the Melo/Bron journey, we’ve seen James continually make decisions that align with his off-court interests and his on-court aspirations while Melo awkwardly fights with his GM and soaks in life as one of the most popular athletes in New York.

The big wrinkle in Melo’s 2014 contract was the inclusion of the no-trade clause which gave him the power to veto a deal to any team in the association. For all of Anthony’s questionable decision making over the years, this was one of his shrewder and smarter demands and is the kind that only a few players can make. Unsurprisingly, it became the greatest tool in his belt to fend off Jackson’s repeated attempts to banish him from the Knicks forever.

Alas, even Melo’s better decisions create potential stumbling blocks. Reportedly, Melo refused Phil’s attempts to move him out of New York. For much of the 2016-17 season, an updated Melodrama (Melodrama III if we’re counting, but there’s a minimum amount of relevance required to have your foibles named and Melo’s relevance is nowhere near its peak of 2011) played out across the headlines of New York publications with Jackson doing everything in his power to sink his star’s value while simultaneously trying to trade him. Throughout it all, Melo steadfastly refused to be dealt until Jackson was finally fired in late June. Less than a week after Jackson was dumped, it was reported that Anthony was now willing to waive the no-trade if he was dealt to Houston or Cleveland. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski wrote, “Given that Anthony largely controls the process, it will be difficult for New York to demand significant assets in any trade.” Which makes one wonder what Melo’s true motivations are or were. Did he just want to outlast Phil or did he truly want to remain a Knick? Does winning matter or does it just matter once Melo has everything else Melo wants?

There’s no small amount of irony comparing James to Melo in terms of decision making. After all, Bron is the player who set up an entire televised special to announce he was leaving his hometown Cavs to play for the Miami Heat. His decision and the manner he delivered it exhibited tone deafness and a lack foresight. He’s exhibited passive aggressive behavior towards teammates and front offices, sub-tweeted teammates on social media, taken a shit on fans after losing to the Mavs in 2011. In short, the follies of maturation and shortcomings in interpersonal communication styles have been on loop for all of us to watch for the past 15 years. While his platforms and message have sometimes lacked a broad view, his choices in terms of teams and teammates have been masterful. If you believe him to be a shadow GM, well, his player personnel decisions are much more impeachable.

So we land here in July of 2017 and Melo, after long stating he wants to stick it out in New York hasn’t just lifted the no-trade clause for a couple of teams. Rather, according to Woj, “he’s made it clear to them (the Knicks) that I want to go to Houston. I’m not interested in talking to you about being reincorporated back into this New York roster.” He may have outlasted Phil and resumed his role as controller of his own destiny, dictating his next destination to Steve Mills and Scott Perry. It’s an enviable position to be in and one that he’s managed to land in three separate times in his career. It’s no small thing for a worker to seize the reins of power from management and ownership, but Melo’s done it. And for once, his desire to join a pre-made roster instead of sitting at the center of a future-facing plan looks to be real. Was it all as simple as a power struggle with the ancient Phil Jackson? Or is Melo’s basketball biological clock ticking as sneaks glimpses of pro basketball mortality? We’ll never know. Assuming Melo lands in Houston, without the weight of a franchise on his New York-born shoulders, one only can hope he finds a peace and satisfaction that was always out of grasp at home.

2017 Pro Basketball MVP: Russell Westbrook

Art from Matt Hollister http://www.matthewhollister.com

Russell has a bad beard, barely a beard
So Harden Schmarden
Russell is broad-shouldered, jumps high, runs fast, shoots imaginary pistols, snarls, is the latest embodiment of a made-up mentality called mamba
Man-made of bones and flesh though sometimes it doesn’t seem so like when he’ll
Snatch a board and explode like the Flash or Usain Bolt with basketball
Passing Steven and Enes, and Victor and Billy, and Steve McQueen and Dutch McQueen
It’s impossible though to keep up the high forever
Acid wears off, paint runs dry, the sun grows cold and dim, and Russell, unlike Wilt,
Can’t play 48.5 minutes a game
Sit, rest, sweat, replenish with electric koolaid Gatorade
And witness and watch a wannabe empire crumble on a
Kevin Durant departure, like a
Prairie twister flinging Clay-B into snarling jaws of PNW throngs
Plus, minus, net, zero
 

Russell has knuckles that bulge, big hands I see during press conferences gripping thin-necked mics
Those same big hands the tools of a furious craftsman shaping a world of leather and wood and glass and steel and nylon
Big heart pumping, big heart probably three times the size of a normal human heart like he’s the human Secretariat
Chasing down Big O, Big Oscar, Big grouchy pants, while the pitched screams of the chorus clash in some unholy demonic din
Love, hate, sober, drunk, we can’t agree on anything
Even numbers lie these days
Over-contextualized
Down to the subdermal layers to the atoms of Russell’s being, scrutinizing
Every
Fucking
Rebound
 

Stack up all the stats like petty biscuits of achievement and gobble it up without milk
Choke on the numbers
Critical and confused in a day where we know everything and yet still believe in what we can’t see
Everything ends and every ending starts with some sprouting in spring or something
 

A car crash in Houston on a
Late night in April
Careening into Patrick
(“Your mom!”)
Beverley Schmeverley
Russell MVP rising so far so fast
Commercialized, commodified to sell product
In funny clothes, clownsuits
Prisoner of a musecage of his own design
(Oh, give it a rest, Kobe)
How though?
Head to head, I mean rim to rim nuclear-propelled missile bullet rocket projectile thundering sonic boom
Bukkake acid rain all over the NBA
 

But fizzle fizzle fizzle
No cupcake, no sadness, no victory
Those big hands crinkling, those knuckles crunching
Pupils big like frisbees
A multi-hued splatter on hardwood canvas
Bill Walton Jackson Pollock basketball
Drunk on a tappable fury reserve,
Futuristic basketball player in Joanie Mitchell hats
Validated in losing, but still
Validated, but still
Losing, but still
Validated …

NBA Draft Big Board | Players 16-20

The fifth and final installment of our 2017 draft coverage. Man, the deeper you go, the more difficult it is to see consistency in these players. It becomes an exercise in possibility and potential which is kind of funny given that most of the top-players in this year’s draft are fresh 19-year-olds with a single season of college basketball under their belts. Attempting to go even semi-deep on scouting some of these mid-range first founders is an eternal balance between flaws (John Collins’s defense), health (Harry Giles’s knees), and upside (Jarrett Allen’s physical gifts). It’s difficult to project with any confidence who will develop and who will stagnate, but that’s what we’ve attempted to do here, just know that we’re fully aware our success rates will likely dwindle into nothingness and that we’ll look back at our player comparisons three seasons from now like “WTF were we thinking?”

Special thanks to my fellow writers, Bug and Hamilton and our awesome designer, Maahs. Additional thanks to Draft Express, The Ringer, Dunc’d On podcast (Nate Duncan and Danny Leroux) and Basketball Reference. Tons of great resources out there that were critical to us being able to put these scouting reports into existence.

With all that said, let’s get into player’s 16-20 on the 2017 Dancing with Noah Big Board.

Hamilton: By some measures, John Collins looks like he belongs near the top of this draft class. He averaged nearly 29 points and 15 rebounds per-40 minutes and had the top PER in college basketball. He gets a lot of those buckets in the paint using an array of quick half hooks and little push shots that remind me of Antawn Jamison. He really uses lower body well to seal for position on post catches, rolls hard and is a good leaper off two feet when he has time to load up his jump. If Collins has any NBA skills that get him on the floor soon it will be his effort on offense, along with his rebounding. Collins’ catch-and-shoot game from 19-feet is solid for a college big. The form on his shot looks smooth enough to develop into a reliable jumper. His willingness to roll hard and fight for rebounds coupled with that shooting give him a chance to become a serviceable offensive player. He hits the glass hard on both ends, as evident in per-40-mpg rebound number. He seems to have a good second jump when battling in traffic for rebounds and tips a lot of balls to keep them alive. Tristan Thompson has made a ton of money with this as a key skill … That’s some of the good stuff.

The not-so-good is mostly on the defensive end. Collins has just OK size for a five-man even in today’s NBA. He doesn’t have enough awareness to guard many fours, frequently getting caught helping uphill against dribblers. He gets lost too often even against basic movement. These things suggest a steep learning curve against pick-and-roll in the NBA. For how physical he is on the glass he doesn’t seem nearly as comfortable with contact while guarding. Oddly (to me at least) is how much better his footwork is offensively compared to his defensive footwork. And therein lies my concern for his career (at least early). He’s likely to be drafted late lottery or by a so-so playoff team. Those teams are more likely to have shorter leashes with guys who get killed on defense (looking at you James Young) than teams picking in the top-5-10. There’s definitely a path to a long productive career for Collins, but we may see very little of him over the next two-to-three years.

Bug: This isn’t Justin Jackson’s first rodeo with the draft process. After his sophomore season, Jackson threw his name in the hat for the 2016 draft without hiring an agent. However, he was not met with the love from the scouts that he was hoping for last year. Jackson saw the writing on the wall, and pulled his name out to head back to school to put in some more work on his game.

Fast forward to 2017: coming off a national title run with North Carolina, Jackson is now getting the positive feedback he was looking for last year. It’s a great success story for him, but there both positives and negatives to his initial failed draft experience. The obvious pros for the UNC product returning to school are that he played his way into a potential lottery slot, won a national championship, and fixed some of the weaknesses in his game (outside shooting jumped from 29% to 37%). That improvement also shows scouts that he is willing to put in the work necessary to succeed at the highest level of basketball in the world. The downside to coming back for another year is that he is now one of the oldest prospects in the draft and loses a lot of his upside appeal. How much more room does he have before he hits his ceiling?

Based on his size and skill set (6’8” with a 6’11” wingspan), I think he projects as a solid “3 and D” guy in the NBA. Guys like Matt Barnes and Jared Dudley come to mind as comparisons, and they have never had a problem finding a team or a spot in the rotation. As long as he keeps improving his jumper and shot selection, while also keeping the same intensity on defense that he brought his junior season at UNC, he should have no problem sticking in the NBA. Jackson may never become an all-star player, but he should have a long, productive career as a solid contributor and possible starter down the road.

Fenrich: Harry Giles of Winston-Salem, North Carolina just turned 19 a couple months ago and yet his basketball career has already been beset by multiple semi-catastrophic knee injuries. In 2013, Giles tore the ACL, MCL, and meniscus in his left knee. In 2015, he tore his right ACL. Oy!

Recovery for the second ACL bled over to his freshman season at Duke where he averaged under four-points-per-game and nearly eight-fouls-per-40 minutes. Reading and writing that made my head hurt.

But what didn’t make my head hurt was watching Giles’s highlight tape. He has decent height (6’11”) and length (7’3” wingspan) that are bolstered by fluid athleticism. He runs the floor well without any obvious hitches from his knee injuries. The length and athleticism are further bolstered by what appears to be a solid motor. He understands team defense and doesn’t mind mixing it up on the boards or the defensive end. And where we often opt for the cool, unbiased certainty of stats and measures, seeing a guy give a crap and play hard still counts for something.

He doesn’t seem quite ready to be a contributor on the offensive side. Like a lot of players his position and age, he seems like he’d be wise to watch tape of Rudy Gobert and DeAndre Jordan and learn the timing of how and when to roll on the pick-and-roll.

Given that he appeared in just 300 minutes at Duke and has these two knee injuries, it’s challenging to see what he’s truly capable of. In those minutes, he took no threes and shot just 50% from the line on less than an attempt each game. It’s not that his offense is raw, but rather it might just longing for some TLC. I know that’s weird, but there’s a skillset here that’s better than the four-points-per game he showed at Duke.

Maybe it’s just that he plays hard and doesn’t mind doing the dirty work, but I’m a fan of Giles. I have no idea if he can pass or handle the ball or stay out of foul trouble, but agile big men who can switch on the perimeter and don’t mind banging still have a place in the NBA and that means Giles has a home waiting for him in the best basketball league in the world.

Fenrich: The mustache, the little fro, the headband. Jarrett Allen looks like someone straight out of the ABA and for a 19-year-old, he has a mustache that can make grown men envious – at least those longing for mustachioed excellence. Allen is also longer and a better leaper than Giles (his age and positional peer).

And yet, where I find myself excited and hopeful for Giles, I’m unenthused about Allen.

With his length and hops, he can dunk without fear of reprisal. He’s capable of being a plus-rebounder and shot blocker because he’s just so damn long. There’s even a little mid-range set shot that makes me think of Marcus Camby and in his lone season at Texas, he flashed the ability to read double teams.

But there’s a general aversion to mixing it up. In the tape I watched on Allen, he played with finesse (except when he was dunking in someone’s face) and seemed unwilling to bang with opponents. He doesn’t have to be compared to Giles, but where the Duke product went balls to the wall, Allen’s motor is a question mark to me. He’s listed at 235-pounds, but looks just as lean as Giles and without that wiry-type functional strength. It may be there, but he just hasn’t figured out how to leverage it with consistency.

What I worry about with some prospects is that they’re able to get by on talent alone and when faced with equal or better competition, they don’t have the motor or desire to dial up their intensity to match the opponent. Is this the case with Allen or were my expectations just unfair due to his throwback look? Who knows? Is he Trey Lyles or PJ Brown?

Fenrich: If we redid the big board, I think Rabb would likely fall further than anyone else. This kind of bums me out because I followed him over his two seasons at Cal liked what I saw of him around the basket. He’s a plus-rebounder with a good nose for the ball. Like seemingly every other big man in this draft, he’s got NBA height and length, but he’s somewhat limited in how he uses it.

What jumped out to me as a red flag was the decline in his shooting from his freshman to sophomore season where his true shooting dropped from 63% to 54% despite shooting a decent 40% on 8-20 from deep.

As his current skill set is constituted, he doesn’t project as having NBA-level scoring ability. Per The Ringer, he was a below average shooter from nearly every spot on the floor. He likes to play in the post, but at a not-too-strong 220-pounds, he doesn’t have the strength to bang and besides, he’s just not that efficient. Per Draft Express, he shot “a mediocre … 0.75 points per possession” in the post.

He’s a kid who’s willing to work which is best exemplified by his effort on the glass. But the weaknesses are too many and the skill too low to project out as an NBA starter. In a best-case scenario, he’d develop some type of mid-range game-to-three point game, guard fours and fives and mix in some small ball lineups. Absent that, he’s a less athletic Ed Davis or Thomas Robinson.

 

NBA Draft Big Board | Players 11-15

All artwork done by Andrew Maahs basemintdesign.com

Welcome to the third installment of the Dancing with Noah 2017 NBA Draft player analysis featuring players ranked 11 to 15 from our big board. Players one through five and six through ten have been covered already. This round covers Frank Ntilikina, Donovan Mitchell, Luke Kennard, OG Anunoby, and Justin Patton. And as the guy who wrote three of the scouting reports/analyses below, it’s crazy how quickly the quality of prospect shifts from semi-definition to mere outlines and visions based on potential. And it’s not to say none of the top-10 players are “specialists,” but as we shift lower, it seems some of these players have obvious specialty skills offset by weaknesses that lower their ceilings relative to players in the top-10. And as always, special thanks to my fellow writers Hamilton and Bug, and our talented designer, Maahs.

Fenrich: Frank Ntilikina

The only tape I’ve seen of Ntilikina (a difficult name to spell) is against teens in an U-18 European tournament. It’s nigh impossible to comprehend how skills translate from the high school or low-pro level to the NBA or how a 6’5” point guard with monster length translates. In some regards, I imagine this is how scouts felt in the late 1990s and early 2000s watching the likes of Eddy Curry feasting and beasting on 6’4” centers at the high school level.

Enough about Curry though. Ntilikina is super long with a balanced, if slow, catch and shoot jumper. His motion is consistent as he gets square and has strong balance. As that jumper is presently constituted, I don’t see him getting clean looks in the NBA unless he’s able to speed up his release – which he showed on occasion.

In the limited tape I viewed, I didn’t see a ton of footspeed quickness; particularly on the offensive end. However, most scouting reports which point to the defensive end as his greatest strength call out lateral quickness. With an unofficial wingspan near seven-feet, there’s potential to be a damn hellion on that end of the floor. This type of scouting report is applicable to a lot of youngsters as the skill-side hasn’t caught up with their physical gifts. Anunoby, Isaac, and Anigbogu come to mind. Also, there’s no guarantee the skill side does catch up.

I do wonder if he’s really a point guard or if he’ll slot into a combo guard capable of switching onto multiple positions at the NBA level. Bug compared him to a mini version of Thabo Sefolosha and I’m apt to agree with him though I may take it even a step further and extend a high-end comparison to Nicolas Batum. Both players are smart, with defensive versatility and offensive games better-suited as second or third (or further down) options.

Even with that all that defensive potential, I don’t think you draft Ntilikina with the expectation of immediate returns. He’s one of the younger players in this class and while he may be somewhat ready to make plays on the defensive end, the offensive side of the ball is going to take time to develop. If he’s entering his fourth season as a 22-year-old and he hasn’t ascended to starter-level, will a team still be invested? Will he maintain his confidence? These types of variable scenarios are realistic and will shape how adapts to the NBA over time.

Hamilton: Donovan Mitchell

To be quite honest, I didn’t see much Donovan Mitchell during the 2016-17 season. After watching some of his tape, I wish I had paid closer attention because he’s fun to watch. He’s fast (fastest ¾ court combine sprint since 2009), shifty, long-armed, and has incredible leaping ability. Anyone who has played JUCO ball knows this player type … It’s highly unlikely he makes it to Dwyane Wade’s level, but Wade has developed the template for the smallish slash-first scorer with supreme athletic ability in the modern NBA.

Mitchell appears to be a better three-point shooter than Wade was coming out of Marquette and that’s a good thing for him because he isn’t quite as big. He gets his shots off above and around bigger defenders and can make tough ones. His sturdy build along with great two-footed leaping and long arms should help him on drives and finishes in the NBA as well. He protects and hides the ball on drives using long strides and impressive body control to get to his spot. This is where he most reminds me of Wade.

On the downside, he appears to settle for jump shots a lot. Probably won’t ever be much of a PG. Not a great one-foot leaper, which will be somewhat limiting against NBA size. He looks awkward driving to his left and going up off one foot.

Talented enough to be a top player from this class, Mitchell projects as a starter on a bad team or a 2nd unit scorer on a good one. He plays with a flair that reminds of J.R. Smith, Nate Robinson or Nick Young. He’ll do some things that make you cringe and just as easily wow you on the next possession. And that’s what you live with when you have guys like JR, Nate Rob or Swaggy P. He is cut from their cloth. Irrational confidence. Pull-up 3s in transition. Highlight reel shot-making. 20+ points on any given night. Equally likely to be a total no-show.

Bug: Luke Kennard

Going into my analysis of Luke Kennard, I tried to keep an open mind as far as player comparisons go. I didn’t want to take the easy way out and compare him to fellow Duke alum J.J. Redick, but the more I watched Kennard, the more I saw a lot of the tools that make Redick successful in the NBA. The similarities go deeper than them being white guys from Duke that are elite shooters. Both players have wingspans that are shorter than their height, which can make it harder to get shots off in the paint and off-the-dribble.

Looking back at Redick’s Draft Express profile from 2006, they also had a lot of the same weaknesses and concerns coming into the draft. Does he have enough athleticism to be able to guard NBA players? Is he explosive enough to get to the rim, and when he does get in the paint, will the lack of length make it tough on him to score? These are all legitimate concerns, but Redick has given players with Kennard’s skill-set a blueprint to succeed in the NBA. He’s not going to be a franchise guy and #1 scorer for a team, but he can carve out a role on a team to help provide shooting and spacing, which is huge for the giving primary scorers room to operate.

He made a huge leap from his freshman to sophomore seasons. He went from 12-points on 32% three-point shooting to the second-leading scorer in the ACC at 19.5 points with 53-44-86 shooting percentages. The thing that jumps out to me when I watch Kennard’s tape from Duke is his basketball IQ and an extremely advanced triple threat, face up game. As noted earlier, Kennard doesn’t have overwhelming athleticism, but he makes up for it with crafty moves off shot fakes, step backs and pull-ups. His deadly jumper sets up his offense because the defense is forced to respect his shot. He plays within himself most of the time, and doesn’t try to make plays outside of his capabilities. His 1.6 turnovers-per-game is outstanding for a player that was asked to carry a lot of the offensive load for his team.

Overall, I think Kennard is a very good late lottery prospect that can help out a team that needs shooting. In today’s NBA with smaller lineups and less low post banging, a team can never have enough shooting. Not only will the team drafting him be getting a great shooter, they will also be getting a good basketball player that knows how to play the game with great pace and intelligence.

Fenrich: OG Anunoby

No one seems higher on OG Anunoby than The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks who lists him fourth on his big board. I’m nowhere near that high, but I’m also not as low as my guy Bug who sees him as an “offensive train wreck.”

I’m probably somewhere between those extremes, but closer to Bug than Tjarks. What stood out to me seeing Anunoby’s clips from Indiana were his tree trunk legs. I envision those quads being able to power him to success in a strong man competition pulling a semi-truck in neutral, but a more practical application would be defending both forward positions in the NBA. In addition to the that powerful lower body, Anunoby has a 7’2” wingspan on a 6’8” frame. (I’ve also seen this wingspan listed at 7’5”.)

While he appeared in just 16 games as a sophomore at Indiana due to what was reported as an ACL tear, Anunoby averaged over two blocks and two steals per-40 minutes. I don’t see him as some kind of Andrei Kirilenko defensive wunderkind, but the ceiling for his defensive impact is significant. Not to take away from his work ethic, but it helps to be built like a long pterodactyl-like wings.

Now to the bad: OG can’t shoot. He shot just 52% from the line for his college career and after nearly 45% from three as a freshman on just under one attempt-per-game, that number dropped to 31% on nearly three attempts as a sophomore. It’s not just that the percentages are bad, but his form and release are awful. His footwork is poor and even when the shot goes in, I find myself cringing. I saw no evidence of playmaking.

I tend to downplay the 45% he shot from three as a freshman because the mechanics are so poor. His shooting has scared me into seeing his offensive floor maybe a level above Dennis Rodman’s – which is just horrendous. He can absolutely evolve offensively, but he doesn’t look like he’ll ever be even a top-four option on offense. Coupled with the lack of playmaking and it’s enough to land him in the specialist category which isn’t the worst place to be as a 6’8” combo-forward who can potentially defend all five positions.

Fenrich: Justin Patton

Justin Patton, Harry Giles, Jonathan Isaac, Zach Collins, John Collins, Jarrett Allen, Ike Anigbogu. Who are these young, athletic giants roaming college and high school campuses across the United States? I watched their tapes, read their scouting reports and they’re all unique as snowflakes, complete with their own bags of strengths and weaknesses, idiosyncrasies and TBD-futures.

Patton lands right in the middle of this batch; a nearly seven-foot red-shirt freshman from Creighton where he shot a ridiculous 67% from the field on 13 attempts-per-game. Per Draft Express and Synergy, that number kicked up to 75% around the rim. Those shots around the basket accounted for 77% of his total field goal attempts. 174 of his 200 makes came at the rim. This is on some DeAndre Jordan distribution.

But Patton is no Jordan; in both good and bad ways. He can hit the jumper as he was able to make eight threes on just 15 attempts. His mechanics are funky though and he shot just 52% from the line. In short, there are no guarantees. And that’s the good on the Jordan comparison.

The bad is that he doesn’t rebound anything like DeAndre; not even Texas A&M, raw, unpolished DJ. Where DJ averaged nearly 12-rebounds-per-40 as a freshman, Patton averaged less-than-ten. His per-40 rebounding average is lower than any of the bigs included on this big board. His rebounding rate (under 14%) was 81st in the country – for freshmen.

If he’s not ready to be a reliable jump shooter, with his current defensive ability (good lateral movement, but questionable technique), he’s a five-man in the NBA. And if he’s a center, then he has to be better as a rebounder.

Patton doesn’t have to be DJ anymore than Isaac has to be Kevin Garnett. But unless he’s able to maintain his efficiency from three at the NBA level or proves he can sharpen his defensive technique, then he’ll be a rotation player.

Or, if his copious physical gifts (7’3” wingspan, nearly 31” vertical at just a hair under seven-feet) and skills reach their potential, then he’s a guy who can impact the game on both sides of the ball. The same can be said of most of these big guys. The art for scouts and front offices is figuring out who has the desire and will to be better and then putting them in a position where they can grow at a pace that’s both natural and challenging. If it was easy, everyone would do it.

NBA Draft Big Board | Players 6-10

All art designed and created by Andrew Maahs twitter.com/BaseMintDesign

This is the third post in our 2017 NBA draft coverage. The previous two posts can be found here: Big Board, Players 1-5 deep dive. While there continues to be some consensus here (we’re all skeptical, but also kind of optimistic on Dennis Smith as we see his middle ground as Eric Bledsoe; which is pretty damn good), our comparisons for Jonathan Isaac against NBA players runs an intriguingly wide range. As always, special thanks to my fellow writers/scouts (Bug, Hamilton) and our super talented artist (Maahs).

Hamilton: De’Aaron Fox emerged as high lottery pick during a solid freshman season at Kentucky in which he averaged 16.7 points, four rebounds and 4.6 assists. His head-to-head dominance of consensus top-two prospect Lonzo Ball in the Sweet 16 propelled him to 2nd tier of the 2017 draft.

Fox has been compared to John Wall for his speed, and it’s possible he’s faster. He changes direction effortlessly without slowing down. While this is a tremendous asset, it can also be a problem. He has a tendency to get sped up in transition and half-court drives, ending up in no-man’s-land without a good shot, or a pass that sets up a shot for a teammate.

Many of Fox’s dimes come from relatively simple drop-off passes and dishes once he has gotten by his own man. His vision isn’t doesn’t appear to be on the level of other top PGs in this class. Playmaking PGs keep a probing dribble alive and change pace while doing so. I would like to see him change pace more than he does both in transition and in the half-court; against NBA level athletes, this is a must. Another problem for Fox as a PG in the NBA will be his well-documented poor shooting. It’s one thing to have a visually unappealing jumper if it goes in. That’s not the case here. Fox’s jump shot is broke and not always for the same reason. As Draft Express notes, sometimes he shoots on the way down, sometimes on the way up. He relies too much on upper body in his shot. Sometimes he floats to his left, sometimes his balance is pretty good. The angle of his elbow is always too narrow, which makes his release more of sling, or flick, than a jump shot. The good news is he’s well-aware of this fact and answered virtually every question in his DX interview in Los Angeles talking about improving his shooting. As it stands, his unreliable shot means defenders can go under on screens and his speed is somewhat nullified at the NBA level.

He also didn’t show much of a right hand at Kentucky and that’s another point of emphasis in his development. For me these factors call his position into question. I can see him developing into a slashing score-first combo guard. Defensively, he should have the ability to guard 1s and smaller 2s. If he can put on weight without compromising his speed, it could translate nicely on the defensive end of the floor for him. He’s not as polished as Markelle Fultz or Ball at this moment but his ceiling is high, and he gets great marks for his work ethic, intelligence, and character. Those things matter. When weaknesses are clear and fixable, a hard-working smart player can overcome. De’Aaron Fox may end up being a top-three player from this draft class, but what the finished product looks like is definitely to be determined.

Fenrich: Jonathan Isaac of Naples, Florida, late of Tallahassee, has a bit of that Anthony Davis thing going on where he played ball in high school as a combo forward before hitting a growth spurt and jumping up to his present height, 6’11”. Like Davis, there’s a natural fluidity in his athleticism. He doesn’t move like a lot of guys near seven feet tall though it seems like young people like Davis, Kevin Durant, Karl-Anthony Towns, among others, are becoming bigger and more athletic. Evolution indeed. When I look at Isaac’s tape though, I don’t see the same transcendent skill so prevalent in those other players I listed (to be fair, I didn’t see it in Towns either). That’s not really a knock on a player though.

Isaac moves great, he has unteachable length, appears comfortable without being the center of attention, has lateral mobility and quickness, can guard multiple positions. In short, he has a combination of physical ability and basketball skills that are ideal for today’s NBA where the ability to guard multiple positions and hit from deep are coveted. That latter piece is my curiosity with Isaac. In his one season at Florida State, Isaac took nearly three threes-per-game and hit close to 35% of them. For a guy who took just eight shots each night, to have nearly 40% of them come from deep is a curious stat.

That said, his three-ball and perimeter game come naturally. He has a nice jab step, but if he’s not an outside threat at the NBA level, I’m not confident how effective it will be. Speaking of using range to set up the driving attack, a favorite method of attack for the more developed bigs in the league, Isaac’s handle isn’t anywhere it needs to be to put the ball on the floor at the pro level. At its current level, I envision his pocket being picked or him being stripped by stronger, quicker defenders than what he’s accustomed to.

Concerns around his handle and how his jump shot translate aside, Isaac has the look of a natural pro defender. This is somewhat contingent on him getting stronger, but the length and agility coupled with the willingness to defend are a great foundation to build on. And I can’t imagine teams are looking at him expecting to be a number one or even number two option. That said, the NBA has a bad habit of miscasting players out of necessity. Just because Isaac can make the three and can occasionally put the ball on the floor doesn’t mean that’s what he should be doing. With any luck, he’ll land with a team patient enough to build on his copious defensive strengths and allow him to develop as a competent, but supporting offensive player.

Fenrich: Mark Medina of the OC Register wrote recently that Dennis Smith “had a 48-inch vertical.” The highest vertical in Draft Express’s deep database on NBA-prospect measurements is 46” from viral dunkster, D.J. Stephens. I’m not saying Medina got bad info or that someone is embellishing here, but the iota of possibility that Smith could possibly have a 48” vertical speaks to mind-numbing athleticism and explosiveness.

When I watched Smith’s tape from NC State, my first thoughts were “Baron Davis” and that he plays basketball like a football player. At 6’3”, 195lbs, Smith is built like a brick shithouse and attacks the rim like he’s relishing the contact. (As an aside, where I keep seeing Davis, it seems everyone else sees Steve Francis. I think it’s the thicker-looking build that makes me think Davis, but hey, Davis, Francis, whatever, he’s dunking on someone.) It’s one thing to see an explosive athlete dominate skinny college-level big men. It’s another thing to envision him careening into Draymond Green or Kristaps Porzingis or even Robin Lopez for the violent dunk smash.

Smith showed a serviceable jumper in the NCAA where he shot close to 36% on nearly two makes-per-game. That’s a good volume, but I’m lacking a bit of confidence in the shot. He can get the pull up jumper when he wants, but his balance often looks off. On the three, he doesn’t always hold his follow-through.

Similar to being a decent three-point shooter, but failing to instill confidence, Smith averaged over six assists as a freshman; a quality number, but watching his tape, there’s a glut of bad decisions made. It’s not just turnovers (he averaged nearly 3.5), but the shot selection and the seeming obliviousness of when to shoot or make a play. Smith was far too comfortable pulling up early in possessions when better options were available. Draft Express has what almost amounts to a blooper reel of Smith making the kind of decisions that drive coaches crazy (or get them fired).

Probably most disconcertingly, there are numerous questions around his character and leadership. There’s a consistent lack of effort on defense, boneheaded decisions on offense, straight up looking off teammates trying to set screens, and body language that often communicates disinterest. Some of these intangibles can maybe be attributed to his environment. Like Ben Simmons last season, NC State’s program was far from stable. They fired their coach in-season and struggled throughout the year. While Fultz was in a similar losing situation at the University of Washington (their coach was fired after the season), it was stable in that the coach had been in place for several years and, despite a series of one-and-done players, a culture had been established. This is a bit of a cop out for Smith, but still worth pointing out.

Despite all the concerns, I’m bullish on Smith. I acknowledge there’s a level of risk that goes with drafting him and believe he needs to land somewhere where veteran teammates or coaches can hold him accountable. In the top-ten picks of the draft, that’s not always an option. There’s a reason teams end up in the lottery. I don’t know if it’s better to have all the athleticism in the world and struggle with the mental aspects of the game, or, like his fellow draft class peer, Fox, have excellent athleticism with a great head on your shoulders. And even though I ranked Smith higher because the upside is so massive, as I write this, I can’t help but think that a good player with great character may be the better route.

Fenrich: I get the urge to see in Markkanen, a seven-foot, sweet jump shooting giant from the Nordics, a younger, modern version of German great, Dirk Nowitzki, but I don’t see it. I never scouted Dirk, never saw any tape of him back in the summer of 1998. So I went ahead and found this clip of Dirk going against America’s finest teens at the Nike Hoop Summit of ’98. And there are a few things that pop:

  • The announcers were comparing Dirk to Detlef Schrempf
  • Watching Dirk back then, you can see the badass, but aside from say, LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Durant, I can’t think of many guys you’d scout as an amateur and say, “He’s going to be a top-10 all-time scorer, MVP, and NBA champion.” As good as Dirk was in this clip, I don’t think anyone expected him to be the guy he’s become.
  • Lauri Markkanen is not Dirk

But Markkanen is a lot of other things. He’s a big kid with a basketball pedigree. His dad player for Kansas and the Finnish national team. His mom was also a national team player. He’s a legit seven-footer with a big, broad-shouldered frame that occasionally looks even bigger because he wore big t-shirts under his jersey at Arizona. In his single season in Tucson, he shot 42% from three on over four attempts-per-game. His range extends out to the NBA level and he appears to have a strong base. He does have a little hitch when he catches on spot up threes where he’ll catch and bring the ball down before elevating into his rhythm. It’s a small thing and he’s such a great shooter that I doubt it matters but when thinking about a vastly more difficult level of competition, these split seconds matter.

What the three ball opens up is the dribble drive as NBA bigs are often challenged to close out on shooters with a hand up and still defend the dribble drive. Not convinced he’ll be able to put it on the floor at first, but it should be something he develops.Sticking with the dribble drive, it was difficult to discern his ability to pass off the drive. Can he develop to the point where he can put it on the floor against a closeout defender, make a move, see the help and then find the open man? This is the type of skill level that takes a player from Channing Frye rotation-guy to Ryan Anderson-starter or better.

The big differentiator with Anderson though, is that Markkanen is a legit seven-footer while Anderson is around 6’10”. Neither player has great length, but based on those broad shoulders and average athleticism, Markkanen has the potential to be a load around the basket though that appears to be unlikely given his current stylistic approach.

Defensively, I’m not expecting much. To borrow from Jeff Van Gundy, so much of a defense is about effort. Is he willing to put in the hard work and effort to try on the defensive end or is he content to shoot seven threes each night? From the materials I’ve seen, there’s no indication he won’t put the work in, but it’s difficult to project at this point.

What’s most intriguing about Markkanen is that he’s likely the best shooter in this entire draft class. Being seven-feet and having that type of stroke automatically lifts the floor to Channing Frye-type levels. Even with the league evolving in terms of its size/skill versatility, Markkenen has the potential to be among the best shooting big men in the league. And that designation, “best shooting big man,” can mean anything from Channing Frye to Dirk Nowitzki – even though he won’t be Dirk.

Bug: If you’ve never watched Zach Collins play, you might look at the stats and wonder why he’s a projected lottery pick. Ten points, six rebounds, and only 17 minutes-per-game…what’s the fuss about?

Luckily for those of us that can’t keep our eyes open for those late night west coast games, we got a good look at Zach Collins in the NCAA Tournament. He had stretches during in March where he was the best player on the floor, with potential oozing from every orifice.

The correlation between what you see on the court and his stats don’t quite match up though. Why does such a skilled player only play 17 minutes-per-game, and only average ten points and six rebounds? We could blame it on the high foul rate that kept him off the floor, or we could claim that his youthful status on a veteran team held his minutes back. Either way you slice it, there is a mystique about Collins. Everything you see from him just screams “can’t miss prospect,” but the elephant in the room will always be “why did he play so little?”

Based on what I’ve seen from the tournament, and various clips, he has immense potential. He hits the three at a 47% clip, blocks four shots-per-game/per-40 minutes. The inside/outside game brings Pau Gasol to mind. He can bang down in the post, but also take it outside and knock down open jumpers. He compliments the offensive game with more-than-sufficient rim protection. When put in situations where he is required to guard smaller players, Collins shows the lateral movement to not be a liability in pick-and-rolls with good lateral movement for a seven-footer.

Using the term “leap of faith” could be applied to most prospects, but that phrase is the slogan for Collins. I see him play and get excited, but the 17 minutes of playing time is always the footnote. Can he extrapolate his impressive stats over a full game, or did he see limited minutes for a reason? We’ll find out soon enough, but based on what I see on film, it is worth the gamble to make Collins a lottery pick.

2017 NBA Finals Part II: Coronation of a King

In the fervor of the moment, three different players have been anointed best player in the world over these playoffs. It’s a fascination we collectively, even the smartest, most well-informed of us, can’t possibly avoid. I’m speaking about San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich who, during the first round of the playoffs, couldn’t help it and said, “Kawhi Leonard, is in my opinion, the best player in the league right now.” Paul Pierce, from maybe a more provocative motivation, said Kevin Durant, “may be the best player in the world today.” And of course, the LeBron James versus Michael Jordan discussion rages on out of boredom, fear, loyalty, and even rational thought.

As it has always been, this is a fluid conversation; one that will be answered today only to be debunked tomorrow. There’s a king of the mountain component to the conversation where the last man atop the hill, at the end of the season, assuming he’s in the conversation and proves himself, can seize the title – at least for the summer.

During the playoffs last year, after the hand wringing about whether James or the league’s first-ever unanimous MVP, Stephen Curry was the best, Bron demonstratively grabbed the title. Violently, sneeringly, shit talkingly. It was definitive to the point that he rode it into the 2016-17 season and all the way through to the finals where, in the dead week leading up to tip-off, the MJ/Bron debate peaked.

Now though, the Jordan/Bron debate is shelved, and quicker than a KD dunk smash, Pierce’s volley into the national TV consciousness that KD just might be the best player in the world is the topic du jour.

What actually is doesn’t even matter as much as what someone says is. If we’ve learned anything from the spectacle of Donald Trump’s ugly ascension to President of the US, it’s that reality is malleable and just because someone says something, that’s enough to make it worthy of discussion. I’m not here though, to debate who is the best basketball player on the planet.

Regardless of who you think it is, these playoffs, and the finals in particular, have become the tunnel through which the KD bullet train speeds towards inevitability in the form of a finals MVP and a first career title.

Despite amazing performances from Curry and desperate all out efforts from James, it’s KD who’s seized the media’s imagination in saving his best for last. At no point throughout his first season with the Warriors had KD scored 30-or-more points in three consecutive games and yet in these three finals, he’s gone for 38-33-31 including a game-stealing three in game three.

Unencumbered from the historic model of a single star carrying an out-sized responsibility for production, the beauty of Durant’s game has flourished. He’s not forced to hunt shots or isolate. Rather, he’s liberated to exploit mismatches and fluidly find opportunities within a balanced offensive flow. Playing aside another superstar in Curry has created a parting of the defensive seas whereby KD has encountered soft paths of undefended space free for his long-striding forays into one-handed dunks. In game one of the series, seven of his 14 made shots were dunks.

Life isn’t easy just because Cleveland’s defense is poor and they lack a rim defender. Life is easy because the Warriors pack the court with deadly attacking players. KD’s first dunk of the series was a lob made possible by three primary strengths:

  1. KD’s own range which requires that Bron play him tight
  2. Steph’s range which forces the defense to attempt to anticipate a downscreen from Curry onto KD’s man
  3. Draymond Green’s recognition and passing ability which pull the beautiful read together
  4. Bonus: Bron gets roasted on this back cut

His next bucket came off a Curry screen, the following two off Curry passes and strong Durant drives against Bron. And the fast break dunk after that was probably the most clear example of the Cavs caught somewhere between miscommunication and questionable defensive strategy and, again, the presence of Curry acting as a magnet attracting both Bron and Kyrie Irving towards him while KD flies downhill for his fourth dunk of the first half.

That’s five buckets, all assisted directly or indirectly, by Curry. This is luxury, for the rich and famous. This is the rich getting richer, the basketball equivalent of a tax break for the ultra-wealthy. KD didn’t need the game to be easier, but in its ease, we’ve been able to witness a full range of his game that’s rarely uncovered in this league due to circumstance, team construction, and all the other wonky shit that holds back NBA players and teams. The ideal scenario for any of us is the opportunity to achieve our potential, whatever that may be, and playing for the Warriors has allowed Durant to ascend in ways that most players don’t experience.

We know KD can do it on his own. He won his first scoring title at 21, his first MVP at 24. His finals performances have been less a surprise and a more a Cinderella-in-the-glass slipper moment whereby the most perfect player possible for the Warriors team schemes has slipped into the most perfect offense for his skills.

As Tristan Thompson has struggled through the series and the Cavs have no rim protector on the roster, Durant is often the tallest and longest player on the court. When the Warriors stretch the floor with their shooters, Durant as a ball handler is able to attack with multiple options. He shot four of eight from three in game two and the threat of that jumper keeps the defense perpetually off-balance. Defenders can’t give him space, but if you crowd him he can beat even elite defenders off the dribble and the Cavs aren’t exactly flush with elite defenders. When he puts the ball on the floor, he beats opponents with varying attacks. There’s the slaloming dunk shots, the one-legged off-balance kisses off the glass, and the pull-up jumpers. He’s too long for most any NBA defender, but particularly for a Cavs defense that lacks length.

If game one was a chance for KD and Golden State to show just how easy it can be, for KD at least, game two came with slightly increased degrees of difficulty as he had a stretch of play where he shot 14-straight jumpers from all over the court. Pull-up jumpers, step back threes, one-legged horse shots, fadeaways … it didn’t matter. He had a true shooting of 71% in game two. And when he wasn’t carving up Cleveland’s defenders from the perimeter, he joined Curry on the same backdoor cut off screen motion that he opened the series with. Again, Green with the pass, Curry with the screen attempt, and KD with the cut:

For the finals in the restricted area, Durant is shooting 16-21. He’s at 11-21 from three. I can only imagine Daryl Morey of MoreyBall fame watching this games salivating, fantasizing at the obscene efficiency and concocting crazy schemes to acquire the man. My focus here hasn’t even been his defense (two blocks and over a steal-per-game), rebounding (10-per-game), or passing (six assists-per-game). Despite his ability to both assimilate into the fun-loving Golden State infrastructure while still standing out with his precedent-setting combination of length, size, and skill; despite the fluidity of the socialist democratic team approach of these Warriors, Durant has been a one-man avalanche living in a new world with cool new friends, but doing the same old things and suddenly, somehow viewed differently because of it.

Jordan was a me-first ball hog before he won his rings. LeBron a choker who had to team up with other superstars to win (this narrative still pervades). Curry a gimmicky player who couldn’t possibly have survived the rough and rugged NBA of the 80s. The long list of denigrations and narratives are pre-packaged, ready to be consumed and spewed out at anyone who has the audacity to try and be the best. (How dare you?) But KD was always this guy, his head has always been shaped to wear this metaphorical crown. Between the boos and the cheers, between KD and Russ blowing a 3-1 lead last year and being on the verge of a playoff-sweep this year. Between it all, KD the player has remained steadfastly deadly; a Frankenstein amalgam of Tracy McGrady and Dirk Nowtizki. That he is or isn’t the best doesn’t matter, for a moment of some immeasurable transience in the summer of 2017, the crown is his.

2017 NBA Finals Part I: Thawing and Acceptance

Two games into these NBA Finals of this year of our lord, 2017, and most of the familiar faces are the same, but the game itself, its tone and long-built drama, are from another time, three years past.

In the first two games of last year’s finals, the Cavs lost by 15 and then 33 for an average margin of defeat a cringe-inducing 24-points. A year later, they’ve lost by 19 and 22, or 20.5-points-per-game. Yet somehow, with the presence of seven-foot giant basketball scorer machine man, Kevin Durant, it all feels different. Feel is one of those real stinking human traits that is often debunked by science and data. But it does, it feels different. It’s born out in the data too where the Warriors are over seven points-per-100-possessions better than last year’s playoffs while holding opponents to five points-per-100 less than last season. They’re healthy, they’re better, and there’s Durant.

But it’s still more about the feel for me; the data just conveniently backs that up I guess. Things felt different right at the start of game one during the pre-game inspection of game balls. Stephen Curry and LeBron James stood across from each other, pounding and slapping and squeezing the prospective game ball to test its readiness and durability. Their Hall-of-Fame hands and fingertips likely more qualified than any system or gauge to get a sense of whether or not the ball felt right. Then there was a dap or a nod or something, something agreeable without any mutual dislike or disdain. Not that those things are necessary for competitive basketball, but for all the buildup and the sub-tweet sniping between these teams, I hoped for a hint of the tense edge, but it was absent.

Then there was a brief exchange between Bron and Draymond Green in game one when their bodies tangled, and opportunity arose for conflict. Instead of sneering or pushing or shit talking, there were pats. “We’re good.” We’re friends. I don’t write this and I don’t over-examine the pre-game ball check to advocate for something other than sportsmanship. Rather, a healthy dislike can often create an edge. If you’re pulling on a steel mask of impenetrability and your opponent goes in for the hug, which you reject, suddenly there’s a wedge and disagreement. One man says, “it’s just a game, let’s compete.” The other says, “I’m not here for games.” These are the most minute of psychological edges, but possible edges nonetheless. (Or, possibly petty displays of machismo.)

After game one’s 22-point defeat, Bron’s podium tone was something that had the appearance of honesty. For a man who’s been sitting in front of camera lenses, cell phones, and microphones for the past 14 years, he has the ability to turn on a poker face, to deliver messages, and be deliberate in his word choice, and while some of that was at play after game one, it appeared to be genuine and thoughtful.

When asked if “there was one thing that stands out tonight,” without thinking, without blinking, with even a matter-of-fact expression and tone, he said, “KD.”

This was one small piece of a seven-minute podium appearance. It’s simple, two letters, one man, but in all its simplicity, I can’t help but wonder if losing to KD is somehow more than losing to Steph. Alternately, it’s entirely possible that it’s just easier to accept defeat when the deck is stacked so high against you – and the rest of your league-mates.

Game two, while a completely different complexion with Golden State committing 20 turnovers and Klay Thompson finally finding his rhythm, ended in a 19-point Warriors victory. The details were different, but the outcome was largely the same.

The Cavs cut the lead to four points with just under six minutes left in the third quarter, only to see that four-point deficit mushroom to 14 at the end of the quarter, and 22 midway into the final period. Somewhere in this blitzkrieg, Bron, whose face bore the appearance of fatigue late in the third, suddenly looked like it was all sinking in; that while he may be the best player on the planet, capable of putting forth bruising, forceful efforts enhanced by that beautiful basketball mind, could not beat this version of Golden State. There was too much firepower and his own teammates weren’t capable of making plays with the frequency required to win.

I’ve seen this face from LeBron James before. Back in 2014 when the Spurs met Bron’s Heat in the finals and played what David Thorpe has referred to as the greatest basketball he’s ever seen. Back then, there were moments where it was obvious that Bron was on one level and his teammates another. He shot 57% from the field, 52% from three, 79% from the line with a true shooting of 68% while putting up 28-8-4. His running mate, Dwyane Wade, had never looked older as he shot 44-33-69 with 15-4-2. The Spurs, in all their socialistic team play, were collectively on another plane. Bron knew this and as Wade and the rest of his teammates were torched, the grim awareness was drawn nakedly across his face, visible for the whole world to see. Fast forward to 2017 and through two games, James is averaging 28-13-11 with 63% TS and that ice-cold realization that defeat is inevitable is back again.

Standing shirtless and conducting an interview in the locker room after game two, Bron’s tone wasn’t one of defeat. He answered the questions as they were asked (even if the focus has been his impatient, frustrated answer to a single question) and provided his own team-centric analysis. He took accountability and didn’t point any fingers. But in the midst of it, the KD theme popped up again as he reiterated, “They’re a different team… you guys asked me ‘what was the difference’ and I told you so, they’re a different team.”

A few days ago, Marcus Thompson of the Mercury News and author of Golden: The Miraculous Rise of Steph Curry appeared on ESPN’s The Basketball Analogy podcast with Kevin Arnovitz. One of the topics they touched on was how race and class both impact how Curry is viewed in the league. At around the 15:40 mark, Arnovitz raises the issue which Thompson immediately seizes.

Arnovitz: “Is he culturally different from the rest of the league?”

Thompson: “That was the most fun part to write about; those cultural implications … especially for the current player and previous generation, their paradigm is based on the ruggedness of blacktop, and playing with hardened type (of) hood people and that’s how you gain that credibility … Steph doesn’t get the inherent credibility of being a tough guy.”

Arnovitz: “More than toughness … I don’t want to say resentment, but, look, we gravitate towards people, and we endow people with respect, who can relate to us; who we’ve shared that experience with. Is he seen at a distance from the rest of the NBA?”

Thompson: “I think only because he rose to a certain level and become part of an exclusive club … the issue with Steph is that he has risen to a level and he doesn’t share in their similar story and background … When he’s been put in that class … because now he’s up there with LeBron and them and there’s that question, ‘did you earn this?’”

Arnovitz: “An NBA veteran suggested to me that his skin tone had something to do with it.”

Thompson: “Yes. I agree one thousand percent. Color is a longstanding thing in the black community, this is not something new … The embrace, the rampant and widespread embrace of Steph Curry is partially attributed to the fact that he’s light-skinned which means that he’s more digestible to the white media and white masses.”

If we accept Thompson’s idea that class and skin color are, in some part at least, at play in how Cleveland, and LeBron specifically, compete against Golden State, then the presence of KD as the centralized figure within the Warriors’ dominance begins to take on a different appearance. Going back to last year’s finals, there was a visible tension between Bron and Curry and emanated primarily from James. The same tension is nowhere to be found between James and KD. Yeah, Bron and KD are friends, but to take it back to Thompson’s point; they share similar single-parent and cultural backgrounds. Bron’s comments on KD in these finals deviate from anything he’s said about Curry. With Durant, James has gone out of his way in post-game interviews to pinpoint him as the key differentiator despite what has been elite play from Curry. He’s averaging 30-8-10.5 with five threes made-per-game and 66% TS. Comparatively, he averaged 22-5-4 in last year’s finals on 58% TS. Curry is clearly a different player from the ’16 finals.

But, maybe it’s just more palatable to lose to KD. Maybe KD, in looking the part of what we’ve come to expect from our superstars, is less threatening and challenging than Curry. Wrapped up in all of this are subconscious allusions to masculinity and losing to a darker, taller, more traditional star is just easier to accept than losing to a shorter, scrawnier, lighter-skinned non-traditional star. This isn’t limited to James though. In his interview with Arnovitz, Thompson mentions that there’s a notion that players can stop Curry whenever they want; a sentiment echoed notably by TNT’s Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal who have long advocated for a more physical approach to Curry. As Thompson says during his comments on skin color, the perspective of many darker players is that “he’s not built like us.”

None of the above is to imply that the Cavs have mailed in this series or that James has acquiesced to Golden State’s dominance. And after last year’s finals, it would be strange to write-off the Cavs when facing a 2-0 deficit. It’s also not to discount the absolutely torrid play of Durant as something that’s happening due to him looking the part. The Warriors are, by any measure, one of the most dominant teams in NBA history; a fact that’s made possible by the overwhelming skills of Durant, Klay, Steph, and Draymond. Much of my approach here has been to probe at what I noticed early on in this series as somewhat of a thawing and I believe that varying degrees of all of the above (collection of overwhelming basketball ability, color, class, culture, relationships, perceptions) are at play in these finals. Even in spectacular defeat, the nakedness of vulnerability, that moment late in the fourth quarter when LeBron looked like he wanted to skip the bench and walk straight back to the locker room, will always be a bridge to something we can feel.

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