Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

A Most Transformative 90 Days in NBA History; alternately 90 Days that Shook the (NBA) World

We were all so much more innocent back on April 13th, 2016. A historic NBA season was coming to a close with dual games competing for the main stage of national TV hoop audiences: In one corner, the final game of Kobe Bryant’s illustrious 20-year-career. In the other, Kobe’s antithesis, the record-setting, fun-loving, three-point-chucking Warriors of Golden State questing for their record-setting 73rd win. That sweet night back in spring may have been the end of the 2015-16 NBA regular season, but it was just the beginning of a 90-day stretch that has laid waste to forward and backward views of the NBA and culminated on July 11th with Tim Duncan’s retirement acting as an appropriate bookend to what Kobe started back in April.

It’s not a knock on Golden State that Kobe stole the show on that Wednesday night. The Warriors hosted a short-handed Memphis team they’d already whooped up on three times. The Grizz were without Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, etc. The game was a formality, a 48-minute procession that lead to crowning the Warriors as the greatest regular season team of all time. It was anti-climactic, but not without massive historical significance.

If Golden State embodied audacity in their pursuit of 73 wins, Kobe’s been radiating his own stubborn brand of nerve dating back to the first references to him in the history books as a competitive savant of sorts playing against grown men in Italy. That brashness is why people tuned in, hoping to get one last memory from Kobe – either something to solidify their notion of his greatness, reaffirm that he’s a ball hogging diva, or just say goodbye to an icon. In his most polarizing approach, he delivered to everyone.

In 25 years of watching basketball, Bryant’s final game with 60 points on 50 shots and 21 three point attempts; with his 37-year-old body gasping for air, visibly fatigued, committed to squeezing in as many shots as possible will always sit near the top of my memories. It was by turns hilarious and awe inspiring, predictable and incomprehensible. I don’t imagine I’ll ever see a player drop 60 in his last game, deliver what felt like a pre-planned speech, and un-ironically wrap it up with, “Mamba out,” but that’s what happened and it should’ve been a reminder to us all that this game, in all its beautiful bouncing and human fragility, is unpredictable.

90 days that shook the world

A few weeks the collective NBA world had shifted focus to the Western Conference Finals. Some people expected Oklahoma City to beat Golden State and maybe the events of May 24th aligned with their thoughts, but I think most of us were surprised to see OKC run the Warriors off the floor in game four: 118-94 to go up 3-1. OKC was faster, stronger, longer, more confident, tougher, better. Something like 10 teams had come back from 3-1 deficits, but OKC had just won back-to-back games by a combined 52 points.

If Kobe’s last game is a shiny performance that demands a place in memory, Klay Thompson’s game six against OKC was probably more impressive given the context. Down eight heading into the fourth, a historic season on the line in a hostile environment, the future of rival Kevin Durant at stake, and Klay comes out gunning with three threes and all nine of GSW’s points to open the period. He would end up scoring 19 in the quarter, 41 for the game. These weren’t just spot up threes or blown defensive assignments, but hair trigger releases against great defense and bombs from 30 feet.

Despite Klay’s classic game, it’s fair to look back at the game six and the subsequent GSW win in game seven as critical dominoes in the Durant sweepstakes. It’s not likely anyone will ever know what KD would’ve decided had OKC won the west, but they didn’t and before game summary stories had been filed, the KD exodus rumors were already trickling out.

About a week-and-a-half after GSW had given Durant an up-close look at what he was missing out on, they took their own 3-1 lead over the Cavs in the Finals.

I don’t know if it’s the omnipresence of connected media and the Twittersphere or the sheer improbability of it all that etched it in my mind so clearly, but the Cavs comeback feels like something that’s been drilled into my memories: the Draymo suspension, Bron/Kryie going batshit crazy in game five, Bron going HAM in game six, and the unceasing rising tension of the 89-89 tie punctured and punctuated by a cascade of hugely historic moments: the block, Kevin Love’s defense on Steph, Kyrie’s shot, Bron trying to jackhammer home the final nail in GSW’s coffin by dunking on Draymo but getting fouled and maybe, possibly hurting his wrist. It’s all there, so clear and incredible, so historic and memorable, but so so foreboding as evidenced by GSW’s owner Joe Lacob’s, “All I can say is I will be very aggressive (in the off-season)” post-game comment.

When Cleveland was down 3-1 after having been trounced in game five at home, a comeback felt so out of reach and improbable. The odds were less than GSW’s comeback over OKC. After all, we’d seen the Warriors break teams and were just a couple weeks removed from Klay and Steph’s bombs away act finishing off OKC. Trading Kevin Love was inevitable, and at times Kyrie looked like a great individual talent that just didn’t comprehend the level of effort required at this level. Obituaries were drafted, LeBron’s window slammed shut, Warrior pressers were jokey events offset by obligatory “the series isn’t over” statements. A comeback wasn’t possible until it was and a month later my mind is still blown by it.

Of all these moments, maybe the most seismic was Durant’s July 4th announcement on the Player’s Tribune that he’d be joining Golden State – joining Steph, Klay, Draymo, Iggy. But what, but how? The stories and the analyses flowed out: if OKC beats GSW then he doesn’t leave, if GSW beats the Cavs then he can’t go. It’s what-if conjecture that can’t be solved any better than generational NBA debates.

In our reality, it happened the way it did and now the 6’11”, jump shooting, all-position defending, long-limbed 27-year-old from DC is joining one of the greatest teams of all-time. All the pieces had to fall just right to even allow it and when I write allow, I mean the cap, OKC losing, GSW losing, the conditions being created that made it rational and acceptable to Durant to leave OKC and join its greatest rival. Amid all this great on-court achievement and drama, the possibility that Durant brings to GSW is what makes it the greatest plot twist of all. Who’s the real Keyser Soze here?

So if Durant-to-the-Warriors is the climactic event, it’s Duncan low-key retirement on July 11th that acts as a coda for this dramatic 90 days that shook the NBA. The turnover is radical; from Kobe going out like a roman candle to Duncan fading into the cold quiet darkness of Spurs space. Two all-timers who played with their franchises for the entirety of their careers retiring against the backdrop of one of the most historic Finals and Finals performances, and all while Durant trades in the blue and orange of the Thunder for the blue and gold of the Bay.

How did we get here and where do we go? Our familiar faces are changing places or leaving us altogether. I don’t have a clue what this new NBA looks like, with the exception of a divisive CBA negotiation next summer. It feels like we’re coming out of an exhausting whirlwind, and entering what? I never could’ve expected a 90-day span like what happened from April 13th to July 11th and I don’t know what I expect the ramifications to be. But where I originally tuned in for a game played between lines drawn on a 94×50 hardwood court, I stick around as much now for the drama that unfolds off the court; in its history and operations, in the shaping of histories and futures by actors who are owners, front office officers, coaches, and self-determining players.

Tim Duncan and Hard Times

A great chapter closed, an era ended, the ink is finally dry on the career of Tim Duncan. Of course, we’ll be arguing legacies and positions played until time immemorial because that’s what we do, but there is no next with Tim Duncan. In the early morning when I found out about his retirement, my mind was clear, not yet polluted by the noise of the day and corporate worries. I trust my morning mind and for some reason, my first thoughts of Duncan were his failures.

Back in 2013 when the Heat battled back from a game six fourth quarter deficit and eventually won the series in game seven, a major footnote of the series happened in the fourth quarter of game seven with Miami up 90-88 and less than a minute remaining in the game. Duncan, guarded by 6’7” Shane Battier, caught the ball on the left block and dribbled across the middle of the lane where he attempted and missed a driving layup. He perfectly timed his miss and used his great length to tip the ball back up, missing that as well. Miami rebounded the ball and went on to win the game. Duncan and the Spurs got the shot they wanted, but he missed. For a guy who’s considered by many to be the greatest power forward of all time, this was a low point.

After that game, Dan Devine of Yahoo Sports wrote of Duncan:

“To be at this point — with this team, in a situation where people kind of counted us out — [it] is a great accomplishment to be in a Game 7,” Duncan said. “Or to be in a Game 6 up one and two chances to win an NBA championship and not do it, that’s tough to swallow.”

But now that the world has turned and left Duncan here, so close and yet so far away from the fifth title he so desperately craves, the Game 6 meltdown isn’t what he’ll remember most.

“For me, no. Game 7, missing a layup to tie the game … Making a bad decision down the stretch. Just unable to stop Dwyane [Wade] and LeBron [James]. Probably, for me, Game 7 is always going to haunt me.”

Tim Duncan’s greatness has never been up for debate. Since he stepped onto the court as a rookie and averaged 21-points with 12-rebounds and 2.5-blocks, he’s been firmly entrenched as a top player in the league. And yet, I’ll always remember his early career bugaboos from the free throw line. He never reached Shaq-level struggles, but battled the yips on multiple occasions over the years; most notably against the Pistons in game five of the 2005 Finals when he went 0-6 from the line in the 4th quarter including 0-3 in the final minute. It was remarkable to see a player who was otherwise so fundamentally sound lose focus or over-focus at critical points in big games. He was a 7-foot expressionless (except when disagreeing with calls) tactician with his own flaws and struggles.

07-11-16 - TD retired

I assume I’m attracted to Duncan’s failures in part because as a Lakers fan during the Shaq/Kobe era, Duncan and his Spurs were a fear-causing foil. If Shaq was a human wrecking ball patrolling the paint, Duncan was the Excellence of Execution, a player whose overall game was so refined as to appear pre-programmed, Terminator style. Some guys are so great that you that their success is assumed. If you root against these players or their teams, you become conditioned to them snuffing out your hope by just doing what they do.

But it was never just about Duncan. In some ways, Duncan and the Spurs were too good to be true, too good to resist. Part of the indelibleness of his and their failures is rooted deeply in the 19-year-long crush of a narrative that trails these Spurs around as a model of virtue and righteousness. It’s this unbudging narrative (and lack of questioning it) that pushed me to write this in 2014 and drove my friend Jacob Greenberg to write this a few months later. Duncan isn’t guilty of crafting these narratives, but Spurs and Popovich exceptionalism have always generated incessant storylines that made any deviation from the flawless particularly enjoyable.

But as I look back and re-watch some of these old misses, there’s no longer any joy. Removed from the passion that accompanies being a fan fully engrossed in the live moment, it’s empathy and feeling that stand out. For all the descriptions of being a stoic and being a robot, Duncan is composed of the same moondust that makes up all of us. And in seeing his failure and the weights of those disappointments, I can’t help but feel some of what he feels even if I only ever hoped his team would be defeated.

So in my pettiness, it’s failure that stands out and it isn’t just the free throws I remember. As has become a theme of this blog, my own personal fan experience is one that relishes the defeat of true foes as much as it celebrates my own team’s victories. May 13th, 2004 delivered an iconic basketball moment and Duncan was a significant figure in the memory. I was at my apartment in Iowa City, a fifth-year senior grinding through his final classes, watching a Lakers/Spurs Western Conference Semifinals grinder from bed while my wife (then my girlfriend) studied or worked or just chilled next to me. The game unfolded on my crappy 19” TV, a low-scoring affair in the 70s of which I remember little except two shots.

With just over five seconds on the clock and a 72-71 Lakers lead in San Antonio, Duncan caught Ginobili’s inbounds at the right elbow and with a 7’1”, 350lbs-plus Shaq draped over him, took a couple hard dribbles to his left and elevated with his momentum carrying him that direction and flung a shot at the basket. He didn’t follow-through, it was just a quick trigger of a line drive that seemed to be magnetically pulled into and through the hoop.

The Spurs, their fans, and of course Duncan erupted. The camera zoomed in on Kobe, on Shaq. They’re stunned, disbelieving. The clock read 0.4 seconds and in my room as a 23-year-old, I am deflated. Even re-watching it now, a stain of disappointment is still there, just barely, but there it is; knowingly bested even if by a fluke shot. Even if it didn’t play out that way, the likelihood of defeat was all too real to the point I still carry it with me more than 12 years later.

The Lakers come back down with Gary Payton inbounding. Shaq peels back checking for the lob, but Rasho Nesterovic denies it. Kobe tries to break away north of the three-point line, but it’s Derek Fisher making a hard cut to the ball, catching and barely turning and shooting all in one motion. From a sitting position, I jumped off my bed, nearly hitting my head on the ceiling. I shrieked or screamed or yelled and my wife nearly had a heart attack. And all those Spurs, Kevin Willis, Bruce Bowen, Hedo Turkoglu, and of course Tim Duncan are struck down by their own incomprehension which is only made more agonizing by the review process that confirms it all: shot is good, Lakers win.

That the most controversial aspect of Duncan’s career is whether or not he was a power forward or center is the vanilla of NBA controversies. He made no waves, just dominated. He won two MVPs, three Finals MVPs, an All-Star MVP, and five NBA Championships. I guess people want to debate if he’s the best power forward ever or how he stacks up against Kobe as the best player of their shared generation, but there’s not much to argue for me. I’ll always remember the failures and even if I understand how and why my memories drift that way, I can’t help but feel that in relishing the losses, I missed out on some great moments from one of the greatest basketball players of my lifetime.

Kevin Durant & the Extinction Level Event

I woke on the morning of July 4th, 2016 fumbling for my phone, looking for Kevin Durant updates. Instead my mom had accidentally butt dialed me and I went back to sleep. It was 7:39 AM PST. I dozed off and assume I checked the phone a couple more times without updates until 8:48 AM when in my holiday morning grogginess, I squinted at the Woj tweets:

8:39 AM: @WojVerticalNBA: Kevin Durant will sign with Golden State, he writes on the Players Tribune

8:42 AM: @WojVerticalNBA: Process w/Durant and Golden State players has been ongoing for months. They sold him on winning multiple titles together, easing Cu…

I had planned on going back to bed and enjoying the rare Monday off, but this was the Woj Bomb of Woj Bombs: Peak level Kevin Durant at 27-years-old, whose only modern statistical peer is LeBron James, is joining the 73-win Golden State Warriors.

07-05-16 - KD ELE

It’s not enough to write it or see it on paper or text with your NBA junkie buddies about it; though that last part is significantly helpful for processing those morning feelings that somehow cause 35-year-old men to pause and think and feel – or if Twitter’s your bag, just tweet through it.

My own preferences were no doubt a source of my conflicted feelings. I loathe this collection of Golden State Warriors. Steph’s mouth guard-chewing half-swagger, Draymo’s muscle flexing and nut striking, Steve Kerr’s “aw shucks” demeanor, their legion of bandwagon fans – you’ve read or heard it all before, it’s nothing new. A large part of my fandom is wrapped up in villainy and sometime during the 2014-15 season these Warriors firmly took a torch that’s most recently been held by the 04-07 Pistons, 07-11 Celtics, and loosely and limply by the 12-14 Spurs. On the other side, I’ve always been a Durant fan dating back to his days in Austin and the 10-15 times I saw him as a rookie in his one season in Seattle.

These 2015-16 playoffs with their history-altering unpredictabilities and hopelessnesses that turned into triumphs were a bonding agent I didn’t even need. The Warriors and all their 73-win glory with their national media hype man in Mike Breen were roundly slugged in the mouth, against the ropes, bloodied and swaggerless down 3-1 to OKC. Hope was palpable; we were given something we could feel. And in game five, there was Durant high fiving teammates, optimistic about a closeout game six in OKC. And there were the turnovers and Klay Thompson’s all-timer game and that hope fizzling, ungraspable. That game six which has the look and feel of a pivotal moment in NBA history and is a game I’ll always remember like game seven of the 2000 Western Conference Finals or game six of the 2013 NBA Finals; but the ramifications of this Saturday night in May something altogether unique in terms of basketball butterfly effects. Finally there was what felt like inevitability in the game seven defeat.

Throughout the playoffs, KD futures rose and fell stock market style: OKC wins and there’s no way he can leave the team now. OKC loses and he’s got to explore the open market; can’t win with Russ playing like this.

At the end of it though, when the wins and losses were stacked up, even in defeat it felt like these Thunder players had broken through. They’d figured out how to beat the bombers from Oakland and it was a matter of execution more than anything else. Hell, it was Billy Donovan’s first year as head coach and Steven Adams was a revelation. After nine long years, it looked like the 10th would be Durant’s.

The morning after OKC’s loss, I remember seeing stories about KD’s pending free agency and scoffing at the idea that he would leave the team with whom he’d just been to war. In my hopeful naiveté I interpreted the stories as clickbait guaranteed to stir conversation and generate more ad impressions. The concept of a departure was alien.

I don’t care to recap the daily play-by-play of Durant’s free agency visits except to say that with each passing hour (which felt like drawn out days punctuated by Twitter and text updates) what once felt like an inevitable return to OKC for a 1+1 deal seemed to ebb away like OKC’s 3-1 lead. With the exception of maybe an upgraded Boston with Al Horford, the other three teams (Clips, Spurs, Heat) were far behind the incumbent OKC. Golden State was the only team that offered some sort of up-level and it was the type of level-up that some think shouldn’t be available and only became available due to this once-in-a-lifetime spike in the salary cap and a perfect storm of events that opened up the possibility for four of the top-15-to-20 players in the league to join forces in their physical primes.

On the afternoon of Sunday the 3rd, I took the news that he would make an announcement by Monday as a sign that the decision had already been made. There was supposedly a second meeting with OKC and the closer call with GSW Exec/NBA logo Jerry West and the news on Sunday night that it was a two-horse race between GSW and OKC and then it was just the wait for what felt like a simple formality of an announcement.

I never preferred Durant stay with OKC. I didn’t care one way or the other. The drama of the meetings and the possibility of NBA shakeups are hugely entertaining, future-altering decisions. Lives change, jobs are won and lost, legacies defined by decisions like these. Durant’s destination only mattered to me as long it wasn’t Golden State. For the villain to be the winningest team in regular season history and then to somehow get better and get better by snatching up their primary rival and all the while to be a supporter of that rival? In all its possibility, it wasn’t comprehensible in the sense that I didn’t want to comprehend it even though the image of a Curry-Klay-Iggy-Durant-Draymo lineup leaves me with some kind of confused attraction. How do you guard that lineup? It’s not unfair, but it is unguardable. The entire plot reads like a WWE script, but without the obvious literal chair in the back.

Here in Seattle and across the basketball-sphere, some folks are celebrating OKC owner Clay Bennett’s loss today as a “how’s it feel to lose something you love?” Screw Clay Bennett. But more than Bennett being the thief in the night, the system of professional sports with its exploitative model that strong-arms cities and states for publicly funded arenas, the former Sonics owners led by Howard Schultz, and of course then-Commissioner David Stern were all complicit in this jacking. My personal experience separates the pro sport monolith (with its own unique dramas) from the game and front office operations. As soothing as vengeance can be, the day-to-day of weight of a 24-7 talk track world infatuated with the Warriors is the greater of two evils. I prefer a world where Bennett gets his comeuppance and the Warriors get theirs as well. But in this reality, Golden State’s now delivered consecutive back-to-back soul crushing blows to the former Sonics franchise.

The remainder of this piece of is a personal log of sorts whereby I offer up a basic analysis and open-ended questions of what this all means:

  • What are the CBA ramifications? The owners and players association will be embarking on new negotiations and one can only imagine that more than a few owners are going point to KD’s departure from small market to large market as a chief reason for finding more ways for incumbent teams to keep their stars. Does this mean changes to the max structure? The league wants parity but as long as stars have a cap on their earning potential and freedom of movement, they’ll continue to join forces in order to win. Hard caps and max adjustments have been tossed around as solutions, but personally the removal a player max is the radical and balanced equalizer. I won’t hold my breath though as the NBA’s bulging middle class is a majority and stands to lose the most in a no max scenario.
  • Before the draft, as the details of what GSW would have to do sign KD came out, it seemed like an overreaction for the Warriros to dump two starters and at least one key reserve for just one player. They won 73 games and were one of the most dominant and popular teams I’ve ever seen at a time when the league is reaching broader audiences all over the world. But it always came back to Durant’s talent. Certain players are worth moving mountains for and 7-foot 27-year-olds who average 27-points, 7-rebounds, and nearly 4-assists in over 600 games in their first nine seasons are worth it. The only other guys who have done this through their first nine seasons are LeBron, Kareem, Rick Barry, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Wilt, and Elgin Baylor. Kevin Durant is that kind of dude. But, it’s not without risk. Bogut’s gone, replaced by Zaza Pachulia. Golden State will sign other ring chasers and fill out a roster the same way we’ve seen the Spurs, Cavs, Celtics, and Heat do successfully. It’s a model that can and does work. Areas that still give me pause about this GSW team are in the paint and on the boards. It wasn’t just OKC’s ability to switch with length or the Cavs utilization of Tristan Thompson on defense that allowed those teams to find success against GSW. It was a relentlessness on the boards that battered and wore them down. That won’t change much if they start Draymo or Zaza at center. The potential for the greatest scoring team of all-time that happens to project as an excellent defensive team is the obvious counter-argument.
  • Golden State was battered and without Bogut for much of the Finals. All those shots Harrison Barnes missed in a series that went seven games and culminated with a five-point difference? Got to think Durant easily covers that type of gap.
  • When LeBron went to Miami there was consternation and hand-wringing over whose team it would be — Bron’s or Wade’s? I don’t anticipate the same type of concern, but GSW has a clear alpha dog leader in Draymo. Curry is its more mild-mannered best player, but Draymo is their heart and soul. How does Durant, another alpha dog, plug into this existing hierarchy? As always, winning cures all and my gut tells me everything will be copacetic.
  • Probably the most impressive and awful part of this signing is the aforementioned complete destruction of OKC as a Western Conference contender. It’s not like Anthony Davis left a crappy Pelicans team or Damian Lillard left a decent Blazers team. The best fucking player on the Warriors’ most dangerous West opponent just joined them. In one fell swoop, KD turned Golden State into an All-Star team while eliminating their top rival. Anything can happen in sports when fragile, imperfect humans are involved, but assuming a modicum of health, these Warriors have just the Spurs and maybe the Clippers as potential West challengers. The Clippers are running back the same squad from last year but without Cole Aldrich while the Spurs appear to be replacing Tim Duncan with Pau Gasol and potentially losing Boris Diaw. On paper, OKC was the challenger. Now? On paper at least, all roads lead to Oakland.

This move wraps up what feels like one of the craziest 2-3 month stretches the NBA’s ever experienced. I can only imagine the shockwaves falling on fans in OKC and the Bay Area right now. Hurt and anger, elation and renewal – and it’s only July. Depending on perspective, is the worst/best behind us or is it yet to come? Is this the burial or the resurrection? Summer is here, the pieces are settling into place, we have three months to rest up and mentally prepare. If pro sports exist to give many of us an escape from daily stressors and the absurdity of existence, then the NBA and Kevin Durant have delivered in spades.

Dancing with Noah Draft Preview – Part II

This is part two of a three-part series on the NBA draft. Part one can be found here.

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Skal Labissiere – 7’0”, 216lbs, 20-years-old, Bug

Labissiere came in with a lot of hype as one of the prized jewels in another star-studded Kentucky recruiting class. Coming into the season, Skal was projected as a top-3 pick for the 2016 draft, but things didn’t quite work out as planned for the Haitian-born big man. The tumultuous season that ensued leaves us where we are at now, with Skal clinging on to be in the top-10 discussion of this year’s draft. When you watch his highlights, you see a very athletic 7-footer that has a beautiful shooting motion and a nice jump hook that he can finish with either hand. But, when you watched his college games against other top teams, he is barely noticeable on the floor. He probably isn’t ready to contribute right away for an NBA team, but recent workouts have the scouts raving about his skill set and upside. Coach Cal didn’t use a player correctly to maximize their strengths? Where have we heard that before (Karl Anthony-Towns)? Based on his projected draft range of 11-15, I think he would be a great fit for the rebuilding Chicago Bulls. Chicago is most likely going to lose both Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah this offseason, so the center position is going to be a position of need for them this offseason. The Bulls just traded hometown hero Derrick Rose to the Knicks, and the team is looking to get younger and more athletic. Skal would give them a developmental player that can grow while the recently acquired Robin Lopez handles the starting duties for the next year or two.

Floor: Anthony Randolph

Ceiling: LaMarcus Aldridge

Jaylen Brown – 6’7”, 222lbs, 19-years-old, Fendo

Jaylen Brown likes chess and envisions himself as a king and others as pawns. This is just one of the concerns that add complexity to the 6’7” Cal-product with great googly athleticism offset by occasional Hardenistic defensive lapses. Brown slots into that second tier made up of picks 3-8 which has devolved into an unpredictable sellers’ market. Physically, he’s ready. I have no doubt he could step into a Pro-Am and hold his own with NBA players, but like Lamar Odom said of Javale McGee, “It’s called basketball, not run and jump.” Which isn’t to compare Brown to McGee, but to accentuate his hyper physical skills against still-developing game skills. Brown has a 7’0” wingspan, going north-to-south he picks up a hell of a head of steam and looks to be able to finish with both hands. Even at a young age, he’s figured out how to effectively utilize that athleticism as he attempted over 9 FTAs/40 minutes which was the second best in DraftExpress’s top-100. On the opportunity side, his handle and ability to finish in traffic are suspect though these should improve significantly with experience and pro tutelage. Dimensionally and athletically he reminds me of Shawn Marion, but Marion was uncanny defensively and on the glass; areas of current weakness for Brown. It’s not that he can be Marion or even should be, but the comparison is instructive as a way to see how those abilities can be tapped – particularly in the current NBA where defensive versatility has become a necessity. And while he’s long, he doesn’t play big which makes me wonder just how well he’ll be able to defend big, long players or how well he’ll hit the glass. There’s a hell of a player in here somewhere and he should have a high floor based on athleticism alone, but another guy who was 6’7” and 220-some-odd-pounds was a guy by the name of Kedrick Brown. He played on three teams in four years and was finished in the NBA by 23 after Boston picked him 13th overall in the 2001 draft. Somewhere between Marion and Kedrick, maybe we’ll find Jaylen.

Dejounte Murray – 6’5”, 170lbs, 19-years-old, Fendo

When we started this project a couple weeks ago, Murray was pegged as high 10 and as low as 35. I spent this past winter watching his confidence and the confidence of his teammates in him rise game-over-game. He’s a long-limbed 6’5” with a slashing and attacking ability that feels like it falls from the same tree as fellow Seattleite Jamal Crawford. He’s not ridiculously quick, fast or strong, but none of that limits him from getting into the lane or getting his shot off. He attempted 18 free throws in a game against Arizona State and averaged over 7 FTAs/game in March. When he’s not getting hacked, DX cites Synergy’s data to highlight that Murray made more floaters than any other prospect in this year’s draft. He’s the kind of player you’ll watch and ask how in the hell did he just do what he did. There’s a craftiness to his game that exceeds his 19 years. Where he excels at creating his own looks, he was maybe reckless or out-of-control in his playmaking ability as he averaged over three turnovers/game. That’s not to say he can’t pass, but he was thrust into being UW’s primary playmaker and experienced the ups (4+ assists) and downs (3+ TOs) that came with it. He’s not a great shooter (48% TS, 29% from 3) and despite averaging nearly two steals/game, he’s more of an opportunistic defender than a lock-down guy. Despite being four inches shorter and lacking the physical gifts UW teammate Marquese Chriss possesses, Murray out-rebounded his teammate and is one just four freshman since the 1993-94 season to average 16-points, 6-rebounds, and 4-assists-per-game which speaks to his significant versatility and ability to impact the game in multiple ways. He’s not quite Jamal Crawford; doesn’t shoot or handle the ball quite as well, but he has the tools to rebound and defend in ways Crawford never could, it’s just a matter of bending his game that way. He’s probably closer to Michael Carter-Williams in that he can rebound well for his position and is comfortable running a team offensively, but significantly lacking MCW’s defensive commitment. Ideally he’d land in a spot with a well-established coach and front office not facing a “win now” mandate. In the 13-18 range, that looks like Denver and Detroit with the Pistons being a better fit as some of Murray’s skills are redundant alongside Mudiay though SVG prefers veterans off the bench.

Deyonta Davis – 6’10”, 230lbs, 19-years-old, Bug

Deyonta is the rare one-and-done player that came into his freshman season with very little hype as a potential 2016 draft pick. Davis was expected to come in and pay his dues under legendary coach Tom Izzo at Michigan State, while gradually earning a bigger role on the team over 2-3 years. He only averaged 18mpg his freshman season with averages of 7.5 ppg and 5.5 rpg, so the stats don’t jump out off the page by any means. But, the thing that has the scouts intrigued with Davis is his size and defensive ability. He’s equipped with a sturdy frame at 6’10”, 240. As a Spartan he averaged just under two blocks a game (1.8 bpg) in limited minutes, and shows the traits of a plus rebounder by getting off of the floor quickly on 2nd and 3rd jumps to go get the ball. Scouts were pleasantly surprised by the development of his jumper in workouts. He didn’t get an opportunity to do anything outside of the paint at Michigan State, so adding a consistent mid-range shot to his game could make him a versatile player that teams covet in today’s NBA. Davis has the physical tools to play the 4 or 5 spots, and the ability to take on a guard during a switch in pick and roll situations; another plus in the league right now. Davis’ draft slot will most likely be in the 9-17 range along with a cluster of other high-upside big men. He could be a fit in Toronto if the Raptors feel like the Biyombo bidding war is going to be too rich for their blood during free agency. Phoenix at 13 is another possible destination, but it depends on what they do with their first pick at #4. Davis could help Phoenix replenish some of the versatility that they lost by moving on from the Morris twins.

Floor: Ed Davis

Ceiling: Tristan Thompson/Hasaan Whiteside hybrid

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Dragan Bender – 7’1”, 225lbs, 18-years-old, Maahs

After riding the bench for Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel (13 MPG, 4.4 PPG, 2.5 RPG) it’s tough to get a true analysis on the 18-year-old Croatian prospect. Like the Cheick Diallo’s of the draft, scouts are projecting what type of player Bender could become with little to no game action. In the limited time Bender was on the floor, he showed the ability to chase shooters and switch ball screens. That alone doesn’t sound like much but when you add in his height (7’1″), an improved shooting ability (37.5% 3PT) and a high basketball IQ, you’re left with a very intriguing stretch 4 for today’s NBA. While an average-to-below-average athlete, Bender plays with a fluidity that is rare for a player his size. The size combined with a willingness to pass has some comparing Bender to his boyhood idol Toni Kukoc. Many will inevitably compare Bender to Kristaps Porzingis — Bender comes over as youngest player in the draft who will need a few years to add strength to his 225 pound frame and further develop his game, before any “Zinger” comparisons can be made. He’s probably 2-3 years away from making meaningful contributions to an NBA team. Teams like Pelicans, Suns, Kings and Bucks would be ideal fits as Bender could immediately take on a lesser bench role. If he climbs up to #3, it’s reasonable to think that Bender could contribute to Boston in a similar role as Jonas Jerebko or Kelly Olynyk.

Floor: a mobile Andrea Bargnani

Ceiling: Detlef Schrempf / Toni Kukoc hybrid

Cheick Diallo – 6’9”, 220lbs, 19-years-old, Maahs

Averaging 3.0 PTS, 2.5 REB and playing 7.5 minutes per game is not what you’d typically expect for a player being projected in the middle to late first round of the NBA draft. But thanks to the good ol’ National Collegiate Athletic Association, Cheick Diallo missed the first 5 games at Kansas while the organization investigated his academic eligibility. With National Championship aspirations and a frontcourt full of upperclassman, Bill Self didn’t have the patience to let Diallo endure the necessary growing pains to develop throughout the year. Measuring in at 6’9″ with a 7’5″ wingspan, Diallo was impressive at the combine during the five-on-five session, scoring 18 points with 4 rebounds and 4 blocks. With a similar performance at the 2015 Nike Hoops Summit and MVP of the McDonald’s All-American game, GM’s still remain high on the athletic forward. Raw and offensively limited at this stage, it will take a few years for Diallo to develop any resemblance of a post-game. As a high-energy guy, he should be able to contribute on the defensive end, but his offensive limitations will determine the length and success of his career. Only 19, Diallo will be a project for whatever team selects him on draft night. Projected anywhere from 15-25, his ideal landing spot would be with a team like Boston or Detroit, where he could learn offensive and defensive schemes — something that prevented him from seeing significant time at Kansas.

Floor: Tyrus Thomas

Ceiling: Kenneth Faried / Bismack Biyombo

Jakob Poeltl – 7’1”, 242lbs, 20-years-old, Fendo

I watched Poeltl pummel UW twice this season (29-10-4 then 23-6) then watched Domantas Sabonis and Gonzaga destroy Poeltl in the NCAA Tournament. I thought I knew what to expect and was high on the 7’1” Austrian, but the more film I see, the more concerned I am about his lack of explosiveness and ability to finish against pro centers. For a player his size, he runs the floor well with good balance and coordination. He’s decently mobile and his footwork is OK. With his size and comparable length, it’s easy to envision him learning the nuance of the NBA’s verticality rules and being an average-to-above-average rim protector. What kept jumping out to me was his complete lack of leaping power; particularly on the offensive end where he prefers little scoop shots or hooks and somehow plays below the rim. Even at 7’1”, he’s not taking it to the basket with any aggressiveness. The only time he seems comfortable attacking the rim is when he’s able to get a full head of steam and that won’t happen much at the pro level. For post players lacking elite length or explosion, a full arsenal of post moves is the best fallback, but in the clips I’ve seen and analysis I’ve read, he’s lacking here as well. He’s a competent passer and can pick out cutters, but the rest of his offensive game leaves me wanting more. In mocks he’s landing in the 8-13 range and could fit in well with Atlanta and their newly-acquired 12th pick where Budenholzer would likely play him to his strengths without expecting more than the big Austrian is capable of providing.

Malik Beasley – 6’5”, 190lbs, 19-years-old, Hamilton

Malik Beasley is an explosive athlete who shoots it well from the outside and attacks the basket in transition. At 6’5 and 190 he’s not undersized, but certainly needs to get stronger. That shouldn’t be a problem as he won’t turn 20 until after Thanksgiving. His effort level on both ends of the half court and transition is impressive. He has a chance to be a nice two way player in the NBA. Physically, he reminds of Jamal Crawford, long and lanky with limbs that bend as he needs them to. He’ll need to improve his handle in order to maximize his ability to play pick and roll and finish in the paint or get to the line. What’s most notable is how hard he plays. We’ve seen so many guys with high skill level that don’t have the fight in them. Playing hard on every possession is a talent and it’s been enough for some players to stick around longer than they probably should. If his in-game effort carries over to the practice floor and the weight room, Beasley could be a steal in the 15-20 range. The Pacers could use a young wing when the inevitably decide to part ways with Monta Ellis. With Paul George in his prime, adding a young SG who may develop into a starting SG makes sense. Beasley also happens to be from Georgia so the Hawks at 21 might also want to consider him. Their perimeter players are aging (Korver, Thabo) or may move on (Bazemore). Once again, in today’s NBA you can’t have enough wing players who can shoot the ball and give effort on defense.

Comparison: A more athletic JJ Redick Or maybe: Anthony Morrow

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Domantas Sabonis – 6’10”, 231lbs, 20-years-old, Fendo

Sabonis is the anti-Poeltl for me. He plays with a high motor and intensity and attacks the boards like Tristan Thompson but with less spring. Fundamentally, he’s sound in a way you’d expect the son of a legend like Arvydas to be. He keeps the ball high, can finish the jump hook with either hand, and is comfortable shooting from range though he defaults to more of a set shot which could be harder to get off against quicker, longer PFs in the NBA. He also has big, strong hands which he puts to rebounding and passing the ball; which he palms extremely easily. For a player his age, he’s impressively decisive and confident with his post moves which ideally will help counteract his biggest perceived physical limitation – short arms. Current pros of similar height and wingspan are Cody Zeller, the Plumlees, and Jason Smith – not exactly the sample set you want to compare favorably to. Seeing players like Draymond Green, Tristan Thompson, and the entire OKC team excel with great length, it’s easy to feel a pang of anxiety that Sabonis has relatively short arms and there’s not a damn thing he can do about it. But his combination of relentlessness and skill are so good that I still rank him high and as an NBA-ready guy. Projecting at the 12-18 range (like Poelt) he makes a lot of sense to Atlanta at 12 or the Bulls at 14 as a PF/C with some strange concoction part Pau Gasol and part Kenneth Faried.

Brice Johnson – 6’9”, 230lbs, 22-years-old (on June 27th)

At 22-years-old, Brice Johnson is one of the oldest and most experienced players in this year’s draft class. It took some time for his game to develop, but he broke out in a big way during his senior season for NCAA Tournament runner-up, North Carolina, with averages of 17ppg and 10.5rpg. Johnson is a freakish athlete with a high motor. He projects as a high-energy rim runner in the NBA and plays above the rim. He excels at finishing in transition and has a nice touch around the hoop in the paint. The biggest knocks on Johnson, other than his age, would be his wiry 210-pound frame and his jump shot. You can get by with that frame in college, but this is the NBA son! To Johnson’s credit, he bulked up to 225 at one point, but it zapped too much of his athleticism and he dropped back down. He did almost all of his damage at UNC in the paint, so it will be interesting to see if he can develop a consistent jump shot to avoid the beating he will most likely take in the paint. Projecting as a late first rounder, Johnson will probably have a good chance to land on a competitive playoff team. After watching the Thunder make the Spurs look old and slow in the playoffs, San Antonio could use a good influx of youth and athleticism. Johnson could give the Spurs some energy and rebounding off the bench. If teams decide to pass late in the first, he could also be an option for the Celtics with one of their 5 second round picks.

Floor: Ed Davis

Ceiling: Shawn Marion

Juan Hernangomez – 6’9”, 220lbs, 20-years-old, Bug

While many young players in the Euroleague have to bide their time riding the bench before they can earn meaningful minutes, Hernangomez was a big contributor playing just under 24 minutes-per-game last season. Based on recent workout footage that has surfaced, Hernangomez has a nice looking shot and moves well for a 6’9” guy. The knock on him is that he is a bit of a SF/PF tweener. Over the last two seasons, he has increased his 3P% from 25% to 34%, so he is trending towards a stretch-4 from an NBA perspective. He’ll need to add some strength to handle the 4 position defensively in the NBA, but you could probably say the same thing for most young players. It’s tough to project where he will go in the draft with a wide range of projections anywhere from 15-40. Based on their history, Hernangomez has Spurs written all over him. He’s also an overseas stash candidate for the two teams that have three first round picks, Boston and Phoenix. Juan’s brother, Willy, was drafted by the Knicks last year, and decided to stay in Spain with Real Madrid this past season…Juan may do the same.

Tyler Ulis – 5’9”, 160lbs, 20-years-old, Maahs

If only. A floor general, leader, court vision, puts his teammates in positions to succeed — what else do you want in a PG? But only standing 5’9″ and 160 lbs, Tyler Ulis lacks the size to make the same impact at the next level. Ulis could be a top-5 pick, if only he was a few inches taller. With an NBA filled roster the last two seasons at Kentucky, Ulis was a pass-first point guard, the kind that teammates love playing with. He demonstrated the ability to direct traffic on the fly and get players in the right spots in order to maximize scoring opportunities on each possession, similar to Chris Paul. A pesky defender, Ulis routinely guarded opposing point guards the length of the court — making it hard for the opposition to initiate their offense. While having good quickness and defensive instincts, Ulis will struggle guarding in the half court, as NBA guards use their size on post ups or to create space, if only he was four inches taller. Offensively, he’s shifty and gets to his spots easily on the floor, but struggles to create space for his jumper, if only he were a few inches taller. OK, OK, I think you get the idea. Ulis possesses many qualities of a prototypical point guard but the lack of size and strength at the next level will be a challenge for him. Only shooting 34% from 3PT, Ulis will need to improve his shooting to compensate for his lack of size. Add in a hip issue that may require surgery down the line, you have prospect that could be selected anywhere between 15-40 in the draft. Playing with an up-tempo team could help hide some of his size deficiencies. With Derrick Rose gone and Jose Calderon off the books in 2107, a team like the Bulls would be a good fit for Ulis.

Floor: TJ Ford

Ceiling: Muggsy Bogues/Chris Paul hybrid (it felt weird typing that)

2016 Dancing with Noah Draft Preview – Part I

Jonathan Givony from Draft Express was a guest on Adrian Wojnarowski’s The Vertical podcast earlier this week and he kicked off by saying that in the 13 years he’s been covering the draft, every year he knows less. The 2016 All-Star game featured players drafted 15th (Kawhi Leonard), 35th (Draymond Green), 24th (Kyle Lowry), 47th (Paul Millsap), and 60th (Isaiah Thomas) – so by some measure, five of the top-24 players in the league (nearly 21%) were drafted 15th or later. The draft is often referred to as an inexact science, but given the above information and the fact that we’ve seen Anthony Bennett, Greg Oden, and Andrea Bargnani picked number-one overall in the previous 10 drafts, one wouldn’t be considered a mad man to call the yearly process a shot in the dark (but who’s to blame for Bennett?). Even draft gurus like DX’s Mike Schmitz copped to being sky high on Suns big man Alex Len during the 2013 draft cycle. The science and analysis can be spot on while the results can be the slippery banana peel of your favorite mock draft.

With all that in mind, my compadres and I are drifting away from the impossible-to-predict mock draft (I believe we accurately guessed two out of 30 first round picks in 2015 which is a rate so poor even Harrison Barnes can gloat), and focusing on a player-centric analysis that explores 36 players, their skills, and potential fits based on projected pick ranges. We’ve written far too many words and don’t agree on everything, but once upon a time someone deemed Michael Olowakandi the top choice in an NBA draft that featured multiple Hall of Famers so maybe consensus is overrated. This is part one of three, so settle in with your favorite beverage and a bag of chips; the future is waiting:

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Ben Simmons – 6’10”, 239lbs, 20-years-old (on July 20th), Maahs

Sixers Outlook: After a freshman season filled with inconsistent shooting, character concerns and a lack of winning, Simmons has gone from presumably to possibly being the #1 pick. It’s hard to see how any of these questions will be immediately answered after being selected by the Sixers. Projecting as a point-forward, it will be a challenge for Brett Brown to maximize Simmons’ skill set with Sam Hinkie’s “process” filled roster. While the log jam of big men is not ideal, Brown could possibly divide the Embiid/Okafor/Noel trio among the first and second unit. And should Dario Saric (a Toni Kukoc-type player) come over, the Sixers could create some offensive continuity with both units being run through the point forward position. If the Sixers don’t trade any of their centers, they’ll still have approximately $65 million in 2016-17 cap space to surround Simmons with the necessary backcourt shooting. Brett Brown has known Simmons since he was born and coached his dad in Australia. If anyone can establish a rapport with the young Australian born player, Brett Brown is the guy.

Floor: Andre Iguodala with a sprinkle of Giannis Antetokounmpo

Ceiling: Lamar Odom/Blake Griffin/Scottie Pippen hybrid

Brandon Ingram – 6’9”, 196lbs, 18-years-old, Bug

Lakers Outlook: With the 2016 NBA Draft widely considered a “two-man draft,” the Lakers have the luxury here of not being able to mess up this pick. Now that the Black Mamba has slithered off into the sunset, the Lakers can truly start the rebuilding process that Kobe had tried unsuccessfully to fight. The young nucleus of Russell, Clarkson, Randle and Nance Jr. is lacking a small forward, so Ingram slots in as a perfect fit in the starting lineup. Standing at 6’9” with a freakishly long 7’3” wingspan, he’s often compared to the slight-framed Kevin Durant and that length will provide new coach Luke Walton with plenty of options to exploit mismatches on smaller defenders, while his outside shooting will give the Lakers some much needed floor spacing. The addition of Ingram will firmly put the “Farewell Tour” in the rearview, and help usher in the new era of Lakers basketball.

Jamal Murray – 6’5”, 201lbs, 19-years-old, Maahs

After a workout with Boston, in which Murray made 79 out of 100 three-point attempts, Murray was quoted saying, “I believe I’m the best player in the draft, but every team needs what they need.” While he may not be the best player in the draft, every team needs shooting. No team in the top half of the lottery has a more desperate shooting need than the Minnesota Timberwolves. Ranking 31st in 3PT made last season, Murray could provide instant help in that area while playing both guard positions. Seen as an average athlete and a weak defender, a couple of years under Thibs would be valuable for Murray’s development on the defensive end. The ability to play both guard positions, along with his age, has placed Murray ahead of Buddy Hield in the eyes of some scouts. With Eric Gordon hitting free agency and Jrue Holiday inevitability injured for a good chunk of the 2016-17 season, New Orleans has an immediate need for a guard capable of playing both positions. Playing alongside a rim-protector in Anthony Davis would help hide some of Murray’s defensive deficiencies while he adjusts to the NBA game. His hot shooting Boston workout could entice Danny Ainge to take Murray with the #3 pick. Brad Stevens’ position-less style of play would fit perfectly with Murray’s game and he could easily be paired up with a defensive minded guard (Bradley/Smart) while on the floor.

Floor: OJ Mayo

Ceiling: a range of Allan Houston to Brandon Roy (depending how the playmaking skills develop)

Kris Dunn – 6’4”, 205lbs, 22-years-old, Bug

After the top two guys come off the board, the next handful of picks is where things will get interesting. Kris Dunn is the unquestioned number one point guard, and possibly the best two-way player in this year’s draft. Dunn has great size for a PG at 6’4” and the elite athleticism to be an absolute menace on the defensive end. That same size also allows him to be able to guard some 2-guards as well. He is a nightmare to handle in transition offensively, and has developed a dependable jump shot that should only get better as his game matures. Because of his two-way ability, Dunn has a high floor and is probably one of the safest picks in this year’s draft. With the NBA transitioning to a perimeter-oriented league, point guard is a premium position in today’s game. The only problem for Dunn is that the teams drafting in the 3-7 range are pretty much set at the position. This has led to wide speculation that a trade will probably go down to acquire the Providence product. Recent buzz has the Sixers trying to work out a deal with the Celtics to acquire Dunn at #3. The Bulls have also been rumored to be very high on him, but moving up from #14 seems highly unlikely (Ed’s note: Derrick Rose was traded just after this was written). If there’s no trade action, the best fit in terms of need for Kris would be in New Orleans. Jrue Holiday has been a disaster with the Pels (mostly because of constant injuries), and Alvin Gentry’s team needs a young perimeter building block to pair with Anthony Davis.

Floor: Devin Harris

Ceiling: John Wall hybrid

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Buddy Hield – 6’4”, 214lbs, 22-years-old, Hamilton

The most explosive scorer/shooter in the draft, Buddy lights teams up. It only takes a quick half step to get into his shooting rhythm from deep. A hesitation (modeled after Kyrie) would make him even more lethal on the attack. Skilled and strong enough to contribute right away, a team with playoff aspirations won’t have to wait for contribution from the 22-year-old. Scouts have been killing his defense and it needs to get better. But the foundation is there: decent size at SG, hard worker, smart player, raises his game when it matters. There’s no good reason to think he won’t become an acceptable NBA defender. The best fit in this range is New Orleans. Eric Gordon has one more year on his deal, and can’t reasonably be brought back. Physically and mentally mature, Buddy will be ready for big minutes when the Hobbit goes down and ultimately leaves New Orleans. With another high character young guy in Anthony Davis it’s an ideal situation both ways. (Now bring Monty back!) Outside shooting and spacing are so integral to today’s NBA one might expect Buddy to go on the higher side of 4-8, but as we get closer to the draft he’s trending the other way. Feels like a lot of teams might regret passing on him.

Floor: JJ Redick

Aspiration: Some kind of Ray Allen/Dwyane Wade hybrid

Hottest Take: a top-seven all-time SG.

Henry Ellenson – 6’10”, 231lbs, 19-years-old, Bug

It doesn’t take long after turning on the Henry Ellenson tape to realize that this is a highly skilled big man with a lot of offensive tools in his toolbox. The thing that pops the most is the fluid ball handling for a player of his size. Ellenson goes 6’10”, 240, but he has no problem grabbing a defensive rebound and taking the ball coast-to-coast through traffic and finishing with either hand. His post-game is solid, highlighted by a soft touch and ability to score over either shoulder. The former Marquette star is also one of the draft’s best rebounders to bolster his offensive skill. The biggest knock on Ellenson is his lack of explosiveness. This could cause some problems for him defensively, but his overall talent will make the defensive liability more tolerable. Ellenson is projected to go somewhere between 9-15 in the draft, but based on recent workout reports of him shooting the ball well for Milwaukee, it is becoming more apparent that he could be a top-10 pick with the Bucks. Milwaukee is actively trying to move Greg Monroe, and Ellenson could come in and provide them a much needed boost shooting and scoring.

Floor: Josh McRoberts

Ceiling: Ryan Anderson with handles

Furkan Korkmaz – 6’7”, 185lbs, 19-years-old (on July 24th), Bug

This Turkish import has a nice offensive skillset with a deadly outside jumper and better than average athleticism. Korkmaz has an impressive highlight reel with a good mix of outside jumpers, drives to the hoop, and has the ability to finish above the rim. Still only 18-years-old, Korkmaz is a big unknown against top level competition after spending much of his time this past season riding the pine in the Euroleague (11.5 mpg). He flashed enough in the FIBA Europe junior league to have NBA scouts intrigued with his upside. Due to him probably being 1-2 years away from contributing, his ideal fit would be a team that has multiple first round picks and can bring him along slowly. Denver, Phoenix and Boston all have multiple picks in the first round that could see him go anywhere from the 13-23 range. Denver stands out as a particularly good fit out of those three teams. They have a strong international presence on the team and his outside shooting touch would be a good compliment in a backcourt rotation with Mudiay.

NBA Comparison: Nick Young

Denzel Valentine – 6’6”, 223lbs, 22-years-old, Hamilton

The word on Denzel Valentine is a significant right knee issue has his draft stock slipping out of the lottery and into the low 20s. One team went as far as comparing it to Danny Granger’s situation. Having one’s knee compared to Granger’s is almost as bad as it gets for a draftee. If only Portland were picking here, it’d be a no-brainer for them. Most noteworthy of the myriad skills he possesses, is his passing ability. Taking it a step further, his passing ability on the move – both in transition and in pick and roll situations – is NBA level stuff. He makes the right decisions and delivers the ball with precision to cutters, open shooters and alley-oop dunkers. He rebounded well at MSU but that will be tough to replicate in at this level. Boston, Denver and Detroit all pick in this range and all employ good quality NBA head coaches. To borrow a line from Omar Little “Even if I miss I can’t miss.” Though true, it’s the Pistons at #18 where Valentine makes the most sense. He shoots it well enough to space the floor for Andre Drummond and has the passing skills to get him the ball at the rim. Despite being a local guy, the pressure wouldn’t be too much here because he’d start out behind KCP, Stanley Johnson, Morris Twin and Tobias Harris. A chance to further develop his basketball brain under Stan Van Gundy would be a positive way to start a career. As several former SVG players have remarked SVG demands a lot from his players, and they get better and better under his watch.

Floor: Out the league in 4 yrs with a bum knee

Ceiling: an SG/SF Draymond Green

Bold Prediction: Makes at least 2 All-Star teams

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Timothe Luwawu – 6’7”, 205lbs, 21-years-old, Hamilton

The young Frenchman has solid NBA size and a skillset ideal as a rotation player in today’s NBA. His increased 3-point shooting (36% on 5.3 attempts per) from 14-15 to 15-16 is definitely worth noting. He gets good elevation on his 3-point-shot and isn’t shy about letting it fly from deep. With a lot of bounce on the drive and good length he passes the eye test as well. Effort on the defensive end needs to be better but that’s a common critique of young wing players. Hoopshype says Luwawu “is probably more dependent on landing on the right situation …” That’s part of what we’re looking for in this draft and for Luwawu that team is Charlotte picking at #22. Luwawu could do worse than joining a strong competitive leader in Kemba Walker and the chance to play behind his fellow countryman Nicolas Batum (assuming the Hornets re-sign him). Batum’s been around the block a few times and should help Luwawu adjust to life in the NBA and life in these United States. Charlotte can always use affordable NBA potential and Luwawu possesses it although he won’t be ready to play right away. While the Hornets aren’t the most stable environment in the league, it’s far from dysfunctional any longer and most of a competitive nucleus remains under contract for 16-17.

Reasonable comparison: Danny Green

More likely? Back to Europe Rudy Fernandez style.

Malachi Richardson – 6’6”, 200lbs, 20-years-old, Maahs

Those playing the draft night drinking game should get a full beer ready when Malachi’s name is called. Wingspan. Wingspan. Wingspan. At 6’6” with a 7-foot wingspan and a 38-inch vertical, Richardson has the size and length that makes NBA front offices salivate. These measurables combined with a smooth shooting stroke and a quick release, makes it’s easy to see why the 20-year old wing prospect has risen on many draft boards and is one of the 19 green room invitees on draft night. Like many young players, Richardson likes to hold the ball and square up his defender prior to make his first move. He has a nice bounce with the ball is in his hands and is capable of shooting off the dribble at any point during his initial move towards the rim. Consistent shooting was an issue during his freshman season at Syracuse — shooting 35% from 3PT and an abysmal 24% on two-point jumpers. Despite these shooting inconsistencies, Richardson is capable scorer and can rack up points in bunches as was evident during the Elite Eight win against Virginia — scoring 21 points in the second half with many of those coming against Malcolm Brogdon, the ACC’s defensive player of the Year. Playing only zone in college, it’s challenging for GM’s to get a true read on Richardson’s defensive capabilities. Like most rookies, there would be a defensive learning curve but his could be a little steeper. But with his length and a concentration on improved shot consistency it’s reasonable to think Richardson could easily be a 3-D guy at the next level. Once considered a late first/early second round pick, Richardson could be picked anywhere from 9-20 in the draft. Landing on a team like the Pacers with a primary playmaker (Paul George) could help his development — allowing him to focus on 3-D skills before taking on more offensive responsibilities.

Floor: Terrence Ross

Ceiling: Eddie Jones / Jimmy Butler hybrid

Wade Baldwin – 6’3”, 195lbs, 20-years-old, Hamilton

Wade Baldwin boasts good size for a PG at 6’4 and nearly 200 pounds. He has broad shoulders and likes to play to contact. He uses those physical tools along with a 6’11” wingspan to be an effective defender. His 38” vertical is yet another impressive metric. Unfortunately, his limitations are equally significant. He lacks much ability to attack small gaps to get into the paint in half court situations – all his highlights on the dribble are transition plays. His jump shot is from out in front of his face and appears to have a low release point. He makes it at a good clip (40% on 199 3s attempted in 2 years), but it looks easier to contest than that of other big guards. With a loose handle, it’s kind of difficult to see Baldwin ever being really good in pick and roll situations. Mocks show the Bulls like Baldwin at 14 and on some levels this pick makes sense. They may believe Baldwin is their post-Rose PG. They have no other PGs under contract for 16-17. Yet, given the totality of Baldwin’s strengths and weaknesses Fred Hoiberg is not the ideal coach. Defense is barely an afterthought for typical Hoiberg-led AAU squads. Player development appears to be equally important. If the Bulls have a repeat of 15-16, a coaching change should be in the cards. Next level PGs tend to have overachieving college teams. In a down SEC, the 2015-16 Vanderbilt team went 19-12 and lost the play-in game to Wichita State. I watched that game and didn’t even notice the Commodore PG (9 pts on 3-9, 5 ast, 4 TOs). I may be getting the wrong read on this player, but I just don’t see him having a major impact in the NBA.

Comparison: Poor Man’s Bradley Beal

Marquese Chriss – 6’9”, 225lbs, 19-years-old (on July 2nd), Fendo

I’ll be completely honest: I have no idea what Marquese Chriss’s NBA career looks like. He spent his freshman year at the University of Washington as a long-neck/torso having pogo stick of a power forward/center who would alternately shock and awe you with his quick-jumping dunks, then drive you batty picking up unnecessary dumbass fouls. The world exists between laughter and tears though and Chriss is more than his peaks or valleys. But for the teams sitting in the roughly three through ten range where he’s projected, patience is a virtue I hope they have. Lorenzo Romar’s Huskies switched everything on defense last year with the result being point guards on centers and Chriss on point guards. He moves his feet well enough and is gifted with copious athletic gifts, but attempted to adjust to the NCAA’s updated quick whistle officiating, Chriss fouled out 15 times in 34 games and had another 10 games where he picked up at least four fouls. A lot of this can be attributed to biting on shot fakes or just terrible decisions on loose balls or rebounds. Subtly though, there his defensive decision making improved. He continued to pick up fouls throughout the season, but he as he adjusted to the tight whistles, he spent more and more time on the court – going from 21-22 minutes/game in November/December to 27-29 minutes in February/March. I call this out as evidence of an ability to adapt. For a guy who didn’t start playing hoops until later than most of his peers, the immediacy of any pro success is going to correlate directly to how quick he can adapt to NBA-level speed, skill, and physicality. Along with the fouls, the other low-key red flag at UW was a nonchalant dismissiveness. Chriss’s body language frequently communicated a sense of a player annoyed or frustrated at being challenged. If this characteristic is anything more than a blip, he’ll struggle in the NBA where he’ll be challenged every night of the year. But with a quick release on a quality jumper (35% on nearly two three attempts/game) and world class athleticism, he’ll get his chance – ideally with a team like the Nuggets or Boston where he’s in a low-pressure environment with quality coaching. From there, maybe he becomes Tyrus Thomas or Derrick Williams or some hyper-athletic peak Terrance Jones.

San Antonio Blues II

It was somehow over five years ago, almost to the day that I wrote my first post, titled (with conviction no doubt) San Antonio Blues. It was the opening round of the playoffs and the Spurs, led by a 34-year-old Tim Duncan, were in the process of being unceremoniously dumped by a resurgent Grizzlies team that was making its first playoff appearance in four years.

Back in 2011, I wrote:

The incarnation of the Spurs that we know: the systematic offense (even you, Ginobili, with your behind the backs and violent head fakes, are systematic), constricting defense, the method, practiced and refined, perfectly improvised; this version is gone. It’s the same group of guys wearing the same jerseys and coming up with the same regular season results (61 wins and a number one seed in the west), but with different method.

To look back now, it feels so improbable that in a five-year span San Antonio took that “different method” to its zenith, won two titles; then cut back again and managed to win 67 games with a historically dominant defense. I have no feeling about being right or wrong, but I lacked imagination and an inability to see the possibility of reinvention and regeneration – even though it was in front of my face. (re re re – it feels like Duncan, Manu, Parker and Pop are case studies for pro sport re-imagination which is a fantastical leap of the will of the mind triumphing over ego.)

When I made my first post in 2011 it was with some sense of finality, some foreboding feeling that the book was closing on the Spurs. But it was a two-pronged failure of a prognostication: First, that the Spurs as a Parker-Duncan-Ginobili core were finished, but there was no ending, just a chapter closing. The Spurs layered in Leonard, built Green out of his own best basketball self, seamlessly integrated Boris Diaw, and developed guys like Patty Mills and Cory Joseph. Whether it was R.C. Buford or Pop or both of them ideating on a porch swing on some San Antonian veranda, the Spurs collective hatched an idea and executed against it. My second failure was just an inability as a 30-year-old (was I just 30 then? It feels like another plane of my life.) in 2011 to foresee the inevitability of change without death. As a 35-year-old writing this now, it’s easy to look back at my growth as a human, a man; growth on mental and emotional levels with the comprehension of deep and honest loss and clearly see an inability to transpose that onto athletes or a team. Yet that’s exactly what happened with this group of Spurs – existential growth in the midst of physical decline.

Aside from the past, these playoff Spurs glided into a clumsy landing to the 2016 season. In 2011 I compared their defeat at the hands of a hungry, aggressive Grizzlies team to Biggie’s “Things Done Changed” track off Ready to Die. I’m fresh out hip hop metaphors, but these past six games in the Western Conference semifinals have been reminiscent of that decimation five years ago. Even though they’ve become Western Conference staples, OKC is still a younger, more athletic collection of talent than most of their opponents – particularly the Spurs – but they’ve grown into a more brutally bludgeoning version of themselves. If it was the hunger of Tony Allen and Sam Young symbolizing the fearlessness of those original Grit & Grinders, it was Steven Adams and Enes Kanter in this series. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the thoroughbreds gallivanting through the halls of basketball glory, but it was the thumping insistence of Kanter and Adams that acted as human body blows to Duncan, Aldridge, West, and even giant Boban Marjanovic. Where lesser players may have flinched at the snarls and glares of West, Adams and Kanter treated him like another speed bump on their way to rebounds and the Western Conference Finals.

It wasn’t just victory and defeat, but the manner of victory. It was physical, not executional. It was strength and endurance, not just mental fortitude. I don’t know or care if the Spurs were better prepared because it doesn’t matter now. OKC had too many horses or dogs or Kanters or Adamses. They were unrelenting and somehow inevitable.

And at the five-year anniversary of starting this blog, I find myself impressed by those still blessed by the sliver of youth (Durant and Russ have been in their mid-20s forever it seems) but relating to the unrelenting nature of change and age. I sit often with my leg propped up and an ice pack around my hamstring, going on six weeks nursing an injury that happened in a pickup game – half court no less. And though I don’t have title rings or banners, and though I rooted for OKC, I’ve never before been so capable of relating to the Spurs, that aging core with its calm, but confident acceptance of the passage of time. There isn’t any sadness in this defeat; there’s plenty of that outside basketball. It’s just change, one foot in front of the other, one day after the next with time offering endless opportunities for context and reflection.

Russ and the 25-20 Club

Russell Westbrook spent last spring (Feb-April) averaging 31.4 points-per-game, 9.7 assists, 8.6 rebounds, and two steals while shooting 85% on 11.4 free throw attempts/game. Because of that and because of hundreds of games of visual and statistical evidence, I shouldn’t be surprised when Westbrook unleashes hell’s scorn on opponents like he did against the Clippers tonight when he pulverized Chris Paul of Meet the Hoopers ad campaigns (“Kevin, where you get all them dimes from?”) and his Clipper friends/teammates to the tune of 25 points, 11 rebounds, and a career-best 20 assists.

Dancing with Noah is nothing if not interested in random historical comparisons for the sakes of context and connecting to a shared past – one that often creates feelings of nostalgia in me if we’re being honest. And while it might be a poor carpenter who blames his tools, it’s a resourceful blogger that utilizes the genius gift-giving of basketball-reference’s Player Game Finder tool.

The criteria:

25 points, 20 assists since 1983-84

The list is longer than I expected: 10 players accomplished the feat 22 times since 83-84 with Russ making #23. (Also, NBA TV tells us Oscar Robertson had the 25-20-10+ triple double three times.)

03-09-16 - Russ & 25-20 Club

It was last accomplished by Steve Nash in January of 2006 in a triple overtime losing effort against the Knicks. Nash played 55 minutes scoring 28 points on 3-13 shooting from three with 22 assists. Also of note: Shawn Marion played 60 minutes for the Suns (39 and 14) and Eddy Curry of Baby Bulls fame went for 20 and 15. But painfully (for Bulls fans at least) we digress.

Prior to Nash, it was Stephon Marbury on April 25th, 1999 with 26 and 20 in a winning effort over the Pacers. A New York Times reporter named Chris Broussard led off his recap with:

Perhaps it was a glimpse into the future: Stephon Marbury running the offense to near perfection, Keith Van Horn scoring on jump shots and powerful drives, the other Nets contributing in various ways and, maybe, just maybe, Don Casey on the sideline planning the strategy.

It wasn’t a glimpse into the future, but it was a hell of game from Marbury and he wasn’t hesitant to let everyone know: “A lot of people don’t have enough heart to throw the ball (referring to behind-the-back passes) because they think they’re going to get a turnover. I’m totally different. I know that it’s going to get there if I see him ahead of time and the guy steps to the ball.”

I won’t go through every occurrence, but call out a couple because every impressively unique performance is wrapped in a story. There are a couple more games that stood out for various reasons like John Stockton’s (he of four appearances on the 25-20 list) 26-point, 24-assist, 6-steal on 12-16 shooting effort against the Rockets in January of 1988. He also had just one turnover. In a most Stockton quote ever, Houston Chronicle writer Eddie Sefko reported that Stockton said, “The night means nothing without the win.” Of course not.

There’s a 10:30 condensed version of Stockton’s gem on Youtube which I’ve included below. And maybe it’s the splicing, but the game feels like it’s played at a breakneck pace. There’s something kinetic about it and it’s not just Stockton pushing breaks or Malone filling in those breaks and celebrating with weird fist pumps after dunks (fast forward to 2:00), but there’s constant movement and a radio-style announcer describing every moment of activity.

The condensed clip is worth watching as an artifact of three of our greatest players at or near the peak of their powers. Stockton as the engine, Malone as the body, and Olajuwon and as a lean do-everything center who went for 26-13 with seven steals and five blocks. Stockton is the show-stealer though as he single-handedly dictates how Utah would run in a way which Sefko described as “passing (that) would have made Boomer Esiason envious.” For a team associated in their later years with the Stockton/Malone pick and roll, their fast break was a purple wave rushing with Stockton at its head, flanked by Malone, Darrell Griffith and Thurl Bailey. Oh the breaks! As if Sefko wasn’t enough, one announcer (at 6:35) can be heard saying, “The Cowboys ought to forget about Troy Aikman, they oughta sign up John Stockton to quarterback that ball club.”

We can expand the criteria from merely the paltry, lazy man’s 25-20 to include the double digit boards as well which narrows our list down to Russ, Magic (twice), Isiah once, and the aforementioned Robertson with three.

And our final focus will be Magic Johnson’s 32-point, 20-assist, 11-rebound masterpiece in November of 1988 against Sir Charles Barkley’s 76ers. Magic’s performance was such that it inspired Los Angeles Times writer Gordon Edes to proclaim, “an agnostic might argue that the only religion the Lakers needed was Magic Johnson’s 32 points, 20 assists, and 11 rebounds.” Egads, Edes!

But such was Magic’s game that he evoked highest of praise and who can blame Edes for hyperbole when he writes that Magic scored 12 of his 32 in the last four-and-a-half minutes including a three that put the Lakers ahead for good. Magic’s game only seems appropriate against the backdrop painted by Edes who describes a scene that included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s farewell ceremony in Philadelphia accompanied by Grover Washington Jr. playing sax, Laker Tony Campbell getting ejected for apparently telling the ref “I love you, but that was a terrible call,” Orlando Woolridge getting kicked in the head and being unable to feel his fingers, and Charles Barkley shooting 5-14 from the line to muddy up an otherwise gorgeous 31-point, 23-rebound, 6-assist game with 13-19 shooting from the field. We throw around “what a time to be alive” with vulgar irony, but Christ, November 28th, 1988 was the time to be alive and Philadelphia was the place so sayeth Magic, Charles and Gordon Edes. Edes wraps the piece with a spookily prescient quote from Magic, “Two, three, four years, I’ll be gone. Then I’ll be delivering in a Park and Recreation League.” Magic was right about the timeline, just no one could’ve foreseen the circumstances.

And to take it back to where we started with Russell, he just so happened to be born just 16 days before Magic recorded his game against Philadelphia which was the last time we had an induction into the 25-20-10 club. There’s something oddly circular to the timing here, but let’s not dwell on coincidences. But damn, in some kind of cosmic nod to Stockton, all Russ was concerned with was the win as he said, “Just a win, man. More important just to see all my teammates happy and all see my teammates enjoy the game and enjoy this win.” It’s all too much coincidence or else there are some threads streaking through basketball space-time connecting Oscar to Magic to Stockton to Steph to Steve to Russ. Sometimes the continuity is too great.

Post All-Star All-Stars (and non-stars)

Since the All-Star snubbing of Damian Lillard, one of the more compelling roadshows of the league has been the Damian Lillard does-Kill Bill on the rest of the NBA. He’s averaging nearly 33 points, hitting nearly four threes/game with a TS% of 64% and a pair of +50-point-games to boot. In my worst Clyde Frazier parlance, he’s feasting and beasting on the rest of the league. And most important for the post-season coffers, the Blazers have gone 6-4 in that post All-Star stretch and played themselves into the 7th spot of a crowded Western Conference playoff race.

But alas, the world doesn’t revolve around Lillard. Other players, through transaction, renewed role, or just revitalized visualization, have accepted the challenge of the last leg of the season with vim and vigor.

The sample sizes are small, just 5-10 games, but the trends are intentional in some cases (Alex Len, Devin Booker, Jabari Parker). Less clear in others (Luol Deng, Draymond Green, James Harden).

Thank you to the creators of Excitebike for the time I spent playing your game as a child.

Thank you to the creators of Excitebike for the time I spent playing your game as a child.

I’m happy you dumped me, my new friends are great: The Hawks and the Jazz are often connected for some strange reason. Pistol Pete Maravich enjoyed success with both franchises, Dominique Wilkins was drafted by Utah then traded to Atlanta, Demarre Carroll and Paul Millsap both left Salt Lake City for the ATL, and now we can add Shelvin Mack to the great culture shock pipeline. In what Kevin Arnovitz described as the Hawks “doing (Mack) a solid,” the team sent the Butler point guard on his way on the trade deadline day. The Jazz might be 2-6 since acquiring their new guard, but Mack’s had a positive plus/minus in five of those games and has appeared in more minutes in every game with the Jazz than he did in any game with Atlanta. More John Stockton or more Raul Neto? Let’s move on.

Speaking of players reaping personal benefits of changing scenery, everyone’s favorite New Yorker nicknamed “Born Ready,” (Lance Stephenson for the uninitiated) has been enjoying a renaissance in Memphis where he was dealt (along with a 2019 first rounder) in exchange for Jeff Green. Stephenson’s appearing in seven more minutes/game with a 9% increase in usage rate (15% to 24%) while also seeing an improvement in TS% (from 57% to 59%). The Grizz are 5-3 since Lance joined and he’s no doubt tickled pink to be out of Doc Rivers’ doghouse once and for all. (Note: Memphis went into Cleveland as I wrote this and despite being painfully shorthanded, beat the Cavs as Stephenson scored 17 in 27 minutes though he did have the Grizz’s worst plus/minus.)

Just gimme a chance, I’m the right one for you: The Suns have descended into a crustiness where players are injured, the coach was fired, Earl Watson (he of very little coaching experience) has been given the keys to the car which he may or may not be able to drive and nothing seems to be going right (except they’ve won back-to-back games). But then there’s some glimpse of the future wrapped in the body of 7’1”, 22-year-old Ukrainian Alex Len. Now in his third year, Len has had these mini-spikes throughout his time in the league where he’s strung together double doubles and swatted shots with impunity. So what to make of his latest run? Post-ASB he’s averaging 11 more minute minutes/game, scoring 12 more points (19ppg), and has recorded as many double doubles (five) in eight games as he has all season. On the flipside his net-rating is -11.3 and his plus/minus is -6.1. His counting stats are up, but his rate stats are down or flat. Things are ultra-shitty in Phoenix right now though, so maybe the jury’s still deliberating on Len.

Speaking of youngsters, a few of last year’s rookies have been given green lights galore: Jabari Parker, Zach LaVine, and Aaron Gordon have had their collective training wheels removed and are being thrown into the wide world of Excitebike. Dunk contests hold some level of basketball cultural meaning, but at the same time, dunk contests don’t score points and defend the pick and roll. Maybe they build confidence though and for a trio of kids that are legally too young to drink, confidence is as critical as legs. Like Len, these youngsters have experienced sporadic successes, poor coaching, and injuries in their 1.75 seasons in the league, but this post-ASB has hints and hopes of something sustainable:

Pre-post ASB variance

Pre-post ASB variance

They’re all getting more playing time, scoring more and shooting better. None is more notable than the rest, but Parker’s becoming the scorer we thought/hoped he could be with running mate Giannis Antetokounmpo picking up triple doubles in a most Draymond Green manner. LaVine’s accuracy and shooting are seeing spikes as crackpot coach Sam Mitchell does the unthinkable and plays the evolutionary Gerald Green at off guard instead of point. LaVine’s usage is down 5%, but he’s shooting so much better – for once the armchair coaches were right! And All-Star weekend’s big winner in Aaron Gordon is seeing more minutes which is coinciding with a swing in NetRtg (per NBA.com) from -1.7 pre-ASB to +4.7 post-ASB alongside a -1.2 to +2.7 improvement in plus/minus. He’s able to defend multiple positons as well as take the defensive board and push the break himself. Oh the places you will go, Mr. Gordon.

Y’all must have forgot! (the Roy Jones Jr. version): Even though trainers and sports scientists need injuries and destructible human bodies in order to stay employed, injuries are no good. But the occasional silver lining that accompanies an injury is the return from said injury. Chandler Parsons muddled through an injury-riddled season in 2014-15 and struggled to find the form that earned him a three-year, $46-million deal in the summer of 2014. An off-season knee surgery (something described as “hybrid microfracture”) slowed his 2015-16 season with minute restrictions, but with an ASB to recharge (perhaps mentally as well as physically), Parsons has come out guns blazing. He’s taking and making more attempts with fat upticks in 3p% and TS%, but most impressive has been a jump in plus/minus from -1.3 pre-ASB to +17.2 post.

And sometimes it’s not just a player rediscovering his own motor or touch, it’s an injury-generated opening that creates circumstances where a formerly-injured pro seizes the opportunity. That’s what it feels like in Miami where Chris Bosh is unfortunately undergoing complications related to the same blood clots that knocked him out of last season, but meanwhile super-pro Luol Deng is stepping into a much-needed role. His post-ASB numbers show a beefy 5.3% increase in rebound percentage (nearly doubling his rpg from 4.7 to 9.3) and he’s getting to the line for three more attempts/game while scoring 17/game compared to under 11 previously. The Bosh-hole is huge and gaping, but Deng, along with Hassan Whiteside, Amare Stoudemire, and Josh McRoberts are finding ways to fill it as best they can. Miami’s 8-2 post-ASB.

Speaking of unfortunate blood clots, Mirza Teletovic has had better fortune with clots that ended his 2014-15 season than Bosh. And like Len, he’s a beneficiary of the Phoenix flop. It’s not enough to just have an opportunity, but those who shine on like crazy diamonds are the ones who grab the opportunity and Teletovic’s done that. Since the ASB, he’s making over three threes/game while pulling down nearly 6rpg. For context, there’s not a player in the league who’s averaging that combination.

I never dreamed my game would leave in spring: As much as it’s fun to celebrate success, it’s only fair to recognize the struggle because it’s real. Let’s start with Draymo Green who’s seen his post-ASB shooting touch flushed straight down some East Bay sewer. Post-ASB he’s 5-26 from three (19%). Anything scoring related is down – FG%, FT%, PPG, eFG%, TS%. Golden State keeps winning games, but as Draymo has struggled, so too has the team. For a player that appears to be powerfully driven by his own confidence, whatever it is that’s impeding his return to pre-ASB shooting would ideally be rediscovered prior to May.

Stats via basketball-reference.com.

Stats via basketball-reference.com.

Speaking of performances tied into coaching changes, all we heard in Cleveland was how Tyronn Lue was going to get the Cavs running and take full advantage of Kevin Love’s elite skill set. That hasn’t necessarily been the case though as Love’s post-ASB splits have taken some odd turns. He’s getting less three-point attempts/game (not necessarily a bad thing), but his accuracy has dipped from 37% to 23.5%. His rebound percentage is down over 5% resulting in a pedestrian 7.5rpg. The Cavs have lost four of 10 games and each loss results in internal reflection and LeBron admonishments. All is not well in The ‘Land.

It’s a small sample size, but every trend starts somewhere. Now if we can just follow Lillard’s lead, I suppose we’ll all end up in a decent place. Even you, Ty Lue.

Lords of February Town – volume 4

Except for October, February’s the leanest, lightest month in the NBA season. There’s the All-Star break, a short month, and the trade deadline throwing wrenches into players and their pursuits of historical nobility, but what applies to today’s players applied to the players of yesteryear and so the locomotive pushes forth down the tracks headed to the inevitability of an 82-game stopping point. Niceties aside, let’s get into the cold inflexibility of the numbers:

03-01-16 - Pyramids of Success

  1. Andre Drummond: 902 rebounds in 60 games: For a while it felt like maybe Drummond’s pace was slowing but that was back in the day, back in January when he averaged just 12.6rpg in 15 games. February was a new month and like the first buds sprouting on the branches of spring, Drummond’s arose with his consumption of 24.3% of all rebounds with a 15.2 average for the month. The last player to rebound like this was Kevin Love in 2010-11 and before that Dennis Rodman did it thrice and Kevin Willis once. Sadly, Drummond is the worst free throw shooter of the bunch.
  2. Hassan Whiteside: 195 blocks in 50 games: He’s not starting anymore, but he’s blocking more shots. February was Whiteside’s best shot blocking month since November as he swatted 37 shots in nine games while turning in a DRtg of 89 and his best plus/minus of the season at +3.1. Honestly, he was a beast across the board with season highs in TS%, ppg, and rpg all while playing his least minutes/game. Whiteside’s blocking the most shots since Marcus Camby back in 2007-08, but it doesn’t mean the enigma of his emotional volatility is any clearer. Someone’s rightly going to pay that man his money, but is this the guy you want as the defensive anchor for your team? I’m unconvinced, but I’ll listen.
  3. James Harden: 268 turnovers in 60 games: By some measures like points, rebounds, and assists, Harden’s having the most prolific season of his career. By other measures like turnovers, he’s having the worst. But one thing we can say for Harden is that he’s been steady Eddie when it comes to turning the ball over. He took a cool 4.42 TOV/game average into February, turned the ball over 47 times in 10 games and cranked that average up to 4.5 – the type of ball control messiness not seen since Allen Iverson in 2004-05. Before that it was Charles Barkley and Isiah Thomas in 1986-87. The Rockets went 4-6 over that stretch and Dwight Howard was not traded.
  4. Stephen Curry: 288 3s made in 58 games: I’m all Steph’d out. 288 threes in 58 games (he’s only played 56, but I’m handicapping his number by including his team’s total games) is 90 threes more than the next closest player – Ray Allen from 2005-06 when Seattle used to have a pro basketball team called the Sonics.
  5. Draymond Green: 551 rebounds and 421 assists in 58 games: Averaging nearly 10 rebounds and 7.5 assists, Draymo has no company on this list. (As a reminder, all stats are pulled from basketball-reference’s game finder tool which has games dating back to 1983-84). But if we want to explore his statistical peers, then we’re looking at guys who’ve averaged 13ppg, 9.5rpg, and 7apg. It’s a small list that includes Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson (four times) and Wilt Chamberlain (twice). Draymo’s shooting went in the tank in February (18% from three), but that didn’t stop him from shaping the hell out of the outcomes with averages of ~10-10-8 for the month.
  6. Kristaps Porzingis: 67 3s and 116 blocks in 61 games: He’s no Karl-Anthony Towns, but big fucking deal. Not everyone can be the heir to Tim Duncan. Instead Porzingis is just a 7’3” kid making over a three/game while blocking nearly two shots/night. For a 20-year-old kid unaccustomed to the grind of an 82-game season with travel and living in a new country, the Zinger’s been impressively consistent. Last month he had four peers within this stat set, but this time around it’s just three; the most recent Serge Ibaka last season.

03-01-16 - Hoop

  1. Paul George: 161 3s made and 423 rebounds in 60 games: Maybe more impressive than George being the third player since 83-84 to average 7+ rebounds while making over 2.5 3s/game through 60 games is that he hasn’t missed a single game in his first full year returning from injury. All season long it’s been George and Antoine Walker holding down the fort for this club, but a steady month-over-month decline in 3PM/game has opened the door to the inclusion of Ryan Anderson (2011-12) of stretch four trade rumor fame.
  2. Kawhi Leonard: 51% FG, 48.8% 3pt, 88.2% FT in 59 games: With the Spurs getting their asses kicked a couple times in the past month or so, some of the clamor around Leonard quieted a bit, but in the meanwhile (aka, February), he had a 65% TS on the strength of 50% from three and 54% from the field. Through 59 games (the number of games his team has played – Kawhi’s played just 54), the only other player that has shot as well (51-48-88) is Fred Hoiberg back in 2004-05 when he went for the remarkable 52-53-88 through 59 games.
  3. Karl-Anthony Towns: 615 rebounds and 106 blocks in 60 games: The best rookie in nearly 20 years, Towns is proving Duncan-esque in his consistency and that’s appropriate since Tim Duncan’s the last rookie to rebound and blocks shots as well as Towns. But if we want to get super exclusive, we could just expand the criteria to include Towns’s 20 made threes and we’ll filter out Duncan, Shaq, Hakeem, etc. That feels unfair though since the game is entering a period of evolution so let’s add free throw accuracy to the mix instead. If we set the FT% at 80% (Towns shoots 82%), Karl-Anthony will be singing “one is the loneliest number” all by his damn self. Karl-Anthony Towns: Only rookie since 83-84 (and possibly ever) to average 10rpg, nearly 2bpg while shooting over 80% from the line. You sweet bastard, you.
  4. Kobe Bryant: 288 FGs on 822 FGAs (35%) in 49 games: Every month this one stings just a bit as Kobe’s the only player (since 83-84) who has needed 822 shots to make just 288. He had his best TS month of the season at a paltry 48%, driven by a season-best 32% from three, but even his best this year is well below average. (Note: At this moment on March 1st, Kobe has made as many FGs as Steph has 3s.) Old Kobe is grossly inefficient, but he’s still a human so let’s just move on.
  5. Ricky Rubio: 149 FGs on 411 FGAs (36%) in 54 games: Rubio’s game couldn’t be much more different from Kobe’s which makes the fact that the 2016 versions of each both shoot like shit a weird kind of coincidence, but it’s still true. If you want to find silver linings in Rubio’s shooting, you need to look at his free throws (shooting career-best 83%) because everything else is bad or sporadic. While we’re grasping for straws, it’s worth mentioning that in 11 February games, Rubio had his best FG%, FT%, and TS% of the season while averaging a season-high points for a month with a 124 ORtg – also a season high. Maybe some of that can be traced to the addition of Zach LaVine to the starting lineup or maybe it’s just part of Rollercoaster Rubio’s peaks and valleys. The last guy to shoot this bad through 54 games was Eddie House in 2003-04.
  6. Tony Parker: 285 FGs on 553 FGs (51.5%) in 54 games: The only other guard to make 285 or more shots on 553 or less attempts is John Stockton; a player probably as steady as any in history though Tim Duncan and Karl Malone may have bones to pick with that idea. Whatever, Parker’s shooting his eyeballs out this season. He’s extra-selective in his shot selection as evidenced by his taking less than a three/game, but making 47% of them including 57% in February on 14 attempts. I still don’t see him being a significant contributor in a Spurs/Warriors series, but there’s a reason I’m here writing this and not giving snarky answers to sideline reporters in between quarters of NBA games.
  7. Russell Westbrook: 1458 points and 619 assists in 60 games: Since 83-84, the only other player to go for at least 24-10 was little Michael Adams, but this is all about Russ (sorry, Michael). In addition to the rare 24-10, Russ is leading the league in steals and averaging nearly 8rpg. He’s second in the league in triple doubles (has 9 to Draymo’s 10) and has somehow found a way to be the Russ the pundits always wanted him to be while doing it his own way – and no, I’m not referencing his pre-game fashion eccentricities though that is an implicit part of the package. But two thoughts on Russ: I’ve always considered him a modern version of Barkley in his violently raw athleticism that allows him to impact every part of the game at a high level. And now I’m wondering if, like Barkley with MJ, Russ is doomed to the shadow of Steph. It’s too early for this kind of talk though, the future is a doorway to tomorrow in the shape of a question mark. After you, my friend. I insist.
  8. James Harden: 614 FTA and 417 assists in 60 games: Speaking of the great unknown, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see Harden pop up twice. Harden’s one of our most skilled players and because of that he’s in select company with LeBron James and Iverson as the only three players since 83-84 to average at least 7apg while shooting 10 FTA/game. These are true attackers of the basket, a rare breed of player that batters defenses with body shots instead of the one-punch KOs of Curry/Pacquiao. Also worth noting, 2015-16 Harden and 2004-05 Iverson both averaged over 4.5 TOV/gm along with their 7apg and 10 FTA/gm.
  9. Draymo, Russ and Triple Doubles: This is a new addition to the list. Draymo and Russ have combined for 19 triple doubles this season and with a quarter of the season remaining, NBA players have already registered the most triple doubles (47) since 1996-97 when players combined for 50; led by Grant Hill’s 13. For context, the most in a season since 83-84 was 88-89 when players put up 78. Magic had 17, MJ 15, and Fat Lever 9.

03-01-16 - triple doubles

When do we normalize? (Alternately, Steph from the Abyss)

Like millions of basketball fans on Saturday night, I sat on my couch watching Oklahoma City’s lead squirt out of their hands like a slippery fish refusing to comply with a hungry human stomach or sportsman. And on the other end of that wriggling was Stephen Curry just waiting to create an iconic moment in the form of a 38-foot game-winning three that, to my understanding, everyone expected to go in. The supreme in athletics is when everyone knows what will happen and is powerless to stop it and this is what Steph created on Saturday.

In the process, he set the NBA single season record for threes made – even though he’s appeared in just 56 games of an 82-game season. But big deal, because it became clear sometime in late November that he had about as much regard for his own three-point record as I do for olives. He’s pacing to make more threes this season that Magic Johnson did his entire career and in the past week has hit nearly as many threes at the Chicago Bulls entire team. His wake is littered with discarded adjectives and comparisons, but it’s mathematically evident that there is no precedent for his season, which is the natural segue to asking what’s next?

02-29-16 - Guru Steph

Back in December I explored how Curry was experiencing such an explosion and concluded that a mix of increased volume and accuracy were the primary drivers and this continues to be the case as Curry’s FGAs and 3PAs/game are both at career highs while his FG%, 3p% and 2p% are all significantly above his career-bests. (It’s not that simple in the sense that ball movement, Draymond Green acting as primary playmaker, collectively elite passing, lineup versatility, etc are contributing.)

That’s how we got here and while those factors will continue feeding into what Steph does next, I started thinking this morning that his recent road trip could be indicative of what’s next to come.

For reference, over the seven-game trip he averaged 36-points while shooting 56% from the field and making 48 of 85 threes for a 56.5% clip and seemed to have reached some perpetual zone over the final three games of the trip when he shot 28 of 43 from three (65%) and averaged 46ppg. That’s a 9 of 14 average from three and somehow, in the same way that everyone expected him to sink that 38-footer to kill off OKC on Saturday night, in some way it doesn’t feel unsustainable. This isn’t at all to say that it will happen, but to explore whether it, or something like it, could happen.

When I wrote back in December, I operated under an assumption that the Warriors had achieved some sort of perfect balance between minutes and usage for Curry. I thought that 11 or 12 3-point attempts in 35 or less minutes was ideal. What this road trip has revealed is that maybe there’s room to bump up the three-point attempts so I started looking at two pieces of information:

  1. Curry performances in high-volume shooting games
  2. Shooting distance

Using basketball-reference’s handy dandy player game finder, I took a look at all games in regular season history where a player has taken at least 15 threes. It’s happened 129 times and includes everyone from Steph to Jeff Green to Gerald Green to Nick Van Exel. Not surprisingly, Steph appears on the list 16 times – seven more than J.R. Smith who’s second and ten more than George McCloud at third. In 11 of those 16 games, Steph shot over 50% and if we really want to find a reason to cock an eyebrow, he’s never shot over 16 threes in a game. For all the “that’s a bad shot for anyone other than Steph” comments out there, a sober man could counter that he should be taking more of any shot he can get.

Now let’s push the hypothesis a bit more. Of Steph’s 16 games with 15 or more attempts, 11 have occurred this season. This lines up nicely with the increase in volume, but what makes it more impressive is the accuracy. In these 11 games in 2015-16, he’s shooting 48% from deep on 300 attempts which is a full percentage point above his season average which is also his career-best. While it’s fair to assume a player who’s shooting well will shoot more, this 11-game sample shows that Steph still has room to increase volume without potentially sacrificing any of that accuracy. For historical comparison, only one other player who’s taken at least 15 threes in more than one game has a higher percentage and that’s his teammate Klay Thompson who’s shooting 56.4% on three career high-volume 3PA games. Steph’s is 53.2%.

But how do you get more attempts if defenses are playing you smarter? Oklahoma City switched on all screens that involved Steph and did a surprisingly decent job of it. Occasionally it left Steven Adams or Enes Kanter defending Curry, but more often than not, OKC was able to contain Curry from deep. There was a concerted effort to defend the arc and yet he still got off 16 threes and tied the record with 12 makes. (Quick aside, has a single game NBA record ever felt more vulnerable than the 12 threes made in a game record does now?) His quick release and ability to exploit the slightest defensive lapse created windows of daylight that few basketball players in the history of the game could exploit. And finally, just the threat of the deep three, the 28-foot and deeper bomb creates opportunities.

The expanded range is gaudy in the same way his fat 3PM/game is fat. It’s freakish and obvious in the way booming homeruns and knockouts are and has the appearance of being indicative of both an exploration and evolution of his game. An evolution in the sense that, year-over-year, he’s taking and making deeper threes. An exploration in the increased volume by distance. February and January accounted for 11 of his 22 +30-foot attempts. Is he getting bolder?

Less than 4% of Curry’s threes this season have been from 30-feet or deeper. That number is super small, but it’s also more attempts than five of his nearest peers in terms of deep shooting. Thompson, Damian Lillard, James Harden, Kobe Bryant, and J.J. Redick are a combined 3-20 from beyond 30-feet this season while Curry’s hit 11 of his 22 attempts. He’s shooting 50% to his peers’ 15%. It’s unfair and borderline useless to keep making these comparisons, but contextualizing something abnormal remains necessary.

But it wasn’t always this way for Curry. Last year he was 3-16 (19%) beyond 30-feet and that was the best season of his career; prior to that he was an underwhelming 5-53 for his career. That type of inaccuracy is enough to make a coach or your teammates ask you in what the devil’s going on in your thick skull, but nope. In 2016, he’s still bombing with low frequency, but frequently enough to be relatively prolific. It’s one thing to rain area code jumpers in warmups when children are crying like the Beatles are about to perform, but it’s something altogether different when an above average NBA defender is guarding you, thousands of fans are shrieking cacophonously in your ears and the damn game is on the line. Hitting that shot? What is that? In game for Steph, it’s a 50% shot.

So what’s next? Is he pushing the envelope, taking opportunities the defense gives? In a world of vulgar, offensive certainty, not knowing what’s next creates a magnetic sense of anticipation. We knew that game-winner was going in, but really who hits a game-winner like that? The crystallization of our hopes and fears lands us somewhere between numb and elated at the improbable inevitability of it all. I was going for Oklahoma City and Russ and Durant and even Enes Kanter. The last thing I wanted to see was a season-defining from a player in the midst of a historic run and yet here I am sucked into the vortex, levelheaded and whole with all my bearings making sense of that which makes no sense and wondering, with mixed emotions, what in the Land of Chamberlain comes next.

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