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Category Archives: Pacific Division
January 5, 2018Posted by on
I can’t say my first intentional experience with Oklahoma’s Trae Young was as uninterruptedly studious as I would have liked. My face was thawing after shoveling snow in the frigid Iowa afternoon. My nearly-10-month-old son was bouncing, cackling at unintelligible noises I made in attempts to distract him from the teething pain that’s turned our house upside down the past couple days. In the middle of the chaos was my Samsung TV, mounted to the wall above a gas fireplace that doesn’t work, presenting Trae Young to me in all his evolutionary glory.
Young is a 6’2” point guard from Norman, Oklahoma. He just turned 19 a few months ago and has a wispy moustache and hair that makes me think he could be Persian. Or maybe Native American or Indian or Filipino. I can almost picture him astride a horse, speeding across the Norman prairies and parking lots, thinnish hair whipping in the Norman wind, on his way to a game. He’s flirting with a unibrow and while he has a slight build, his shoulders are square and look prepared to carry more muscle and mass. Conventionally speaking, he doesn’t look the part though “the part,” as embodied by Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, or LeBron James, is being rewritten by two-time-MVP and two-time-NBA Champion, Stephen Curry who happens to be the stylistic predecessor to Young.
My timeline is far from definitive, but the first time I recall seeing the trickle down of Currynomics was when LaMelo Ball, late of Vyautas Prienal-Birstonas of the Lithuanian Basketball League, became a sensation as a 15-year-old sophomore for Chino Hills High School during the 2016-17 season. He scored 92 points in one game and audaciously made a half-court shot just seconds into another game. Aside from these attention-grabbing highlights, Ball frequently took and made shots from NBA three-point range and deeper. If you strip away the outspoken divisiveness of his father, Lavar, there’s a supremely talented and skinny young basketball player in LaMelo. My first thoughts when I saw his highlights were of young kids seeing the rise of Curry, with his 30-foot jumpers and “California Cool” (H/T George Karl) approach, and misinterpreting what they saw. Ball, who pointed to his spot before canning the half-courter I mentioned, became a poster boy target of sorts for the get off my lawn crowd most notably represented by Charles Barkley. Barkley, a league MVP as a 6’4” undersized power forward, once claimed Curry was “just a great shooter.”
However far off-base Barkley’s assessment of Curry was, it stands as a representation of a perspective held by many former players, and likely present players, that Curry doesn’t belong at the table with other NBA greats. For Curry, the suspicion isn’t limited to style as I wrote about during this year’s finals, but are inclusive of race via skin color and class with him coming from a well-off, fully intact NBA family. Barkley’s comments and sentiments are coded in the sense that boxing Curry into being “just a great shooter” discount his generational skill level, advanced ball handling, finishing at the rim, his passing, his selflessness and on. By labeling him, or anyone like him, as “just a great shooter,” any threat to Barkley (or those who share his view and comprehension) is neutralized because Curry and his ilk become the “other.”
LaMelo Ball isn’t alone in seeing something in Curry that could be applied to his own game. About a month ago, I attended a high school basketball game in Des Moines, Iowa. For someone who hasn’t attended a high school game in over a decade, the experience of merely walking into the building and being swallowed by giddy teenage energy is one of adjustment. I packed into the doors of North High School with the rest of the human cattle being corralled towards concessions and the gym. If you’ve been away for a while, it’s disorienting to see a mass of teens from a 37-year-old’s eyes and see your former self moving through those crowds in complete normalcy. North’s point guard and their main attraction is a smallish 5’10”, 170lbs junior named Tyreke Locure who looks to be taller than his listed height due to a dyed bushy faux hawk – similar to LaMelo’s. He’s a mid-to-low D1 prospect who posted 56 points on 33 shots just a couple weeks after I saw him. In the game I attended, Locure and his North teammates exhibited a trigger-happy penchant for chucking deep threes. In my most Chuck-ish, I found myself criticizing the game plan until those bombs started falling – which probably says something about my commitment to a strategy. Collectively, they were quick to pass up half-court opportunities in exchange for deep, often contested, threes. Locure’s game did not appear to be defined by hash mark threes. I saw him looking for the small spaces to let fly, but within that were probing drives, dump-offs, and floaters, but the Curry influence was evident.
With North, I find myself needing to justify their liberal bombs by pointing to their success. Under their current coach, Chad Ryan, and with Locure as starting point guard in 16-17, they made the state tournament for the first time since 1991. MaxPreps currently has them ranked 7th in the state. The approach is working. And where instinct pushes me to find justification, intellect tells me question instinct. This is probably where my conventional way of thinking, some inner-Barkley, is running into my embrace of revolution, my inner-Curry/Steve Kerr.
Locure and Ball represent different points on a spectrum of who and how Curry has influenced a culture of ballplayers. Ball is probably at the most polarizing end of the spectrum. A kid whose game built on the notoriety that comes with being something of a Curry-clone – though that’s unlikely how he views himself. Maybe some of that is unfairly worded by confusing the son for the father. Locure and his North teammates, by contrast, have had the game opened by a combination of their abilities, their coaching, and (I’m mildly confident in this assumption) by Steph Curry whose influence has become omnipresent – from the California coast and the Hills of Chino to the tornado alleys of Oklahoma to the cold December gyms of Des Moines and a billion Instagram clips in between.
In April of 2017, Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck wrote a piece making a compelling case as to why the quest for the Next Michael Jordan had been on the decline over the past few years. In the story, Beck refers to the present as “Generation Steph,” and writes of high school coach and former NBA player Penny Hardaway that, “he’s had to admonish his players more than once for launching from 30 feet, like a band of mini-Steph Currys.”
Curry would be difficult enough to guard if he was, as Barkley said, “just a great shooter.” He’d be Kyle Korver or J.J. Redick – which isn’t to discount their non-shooting skills. Instead, the range and his ability to attack off the dribble, to both find the open teammate or finish around the rim at an elite level, make him, at times, the most disruptive offensive player in the NBA. In Jack McCallum’s Golden Days, he writes about Curry being a revolutionary player in that he’s doing things with range and accuracy that we haven’t seen before. In his notes about the book on his site, McCallum quoted Curry and wrote:
“Nobody talked much about long shots until three years ago,” Curry says. “When my father [Dell, a sharp-shooter who retired in 2002 after 16 seasons] was playing, heck, there wasn’t even much talk about three-pointers at all.”
Well, you pretty much started that conversation, Curry is reminded. He shrugs. “It’s not something I consciously set out to do,” Curry says. “Most of the long ones come when the defense is back-pedaling and I’m in rhythm. I don’t really think about what the exact distance is. It’s basically where I feel comfortable from.”
That is the key word—comfort. When something is new, it feels uncomfortable. Despite the fact that the three-point shot has been in the NBA since 1979, it never became a real weapon until the last decade, and even that is stretching it. Why? Coaches were never comfortable with it. We can always work it closer to the basket, went the thinking. But once Curry demonstrated that he could make the looooong ones, Steve Kerr did grow comfortable with it, and “four-pointers”–those long-range bombs that demoralize opponents to the point that they seem to be worth an extra point–became a big part of the Warriors’ offense … not to mention a big part of the NBA’s entertainment package.
McCallum makes the argument that Kevin Durant or even LeBron James are doing things we’ve seen – scoring, passing, rebounding – but doing it with evolutionary physicality. KD is seven-feet tall handling the ball like a point guard. Bron is built like Karl Malone with the athleticism of MJ and the court vision of Magic. He writes, “I doubt that 30 years ago, even 15 years ago, we could’ve envisioned such a complete player at that (KD’s) size.”
I accept McCallum’s argument that Curry is a revolutionary player. He’s been able to push out the boundaries of what’s possible on an NBA court and do it in a way that’s about as effective as we can fathom. It doesn’t mean that players can’t expand their range further as we’ve seen with Ball shooting from half court, but that, at some point, there are diminishing returns or that the long distance becomes a means in and of itself, not, as Curry says, “something I consciously set out to do.”
It’s unfair to seek out the Next Curry in every long-distance shooting teenager just like was unfair to label every dunking shooting guard as the “Next MJ.” Instead of seeking out the Next Anyone, it’s more accurate to identify the traits of iconic players in the next generation and establish a stylistic family tree of sorts. In terms of a basketball lineage, Ball and Locure are inheriting some of the stylistic genes of Curry. As kids who aren’t yet of voting age, how their futures map out are wildly variable, but in each, the fingerprints of Curry are visible.
The future of Trae Young, at just 19-years-old, is much more clearly defined. In the midst of the madness swirling around me during the Oklahoma-TCU game, what I saw was a point guard bending an entire half of the court to his own will. Young scored 39 points and had 14 assists yet, for me, he didn’t even play a great game. While there wasn’t a single TCU defender who could keep Young out of the lane, on more than one occasion, he left his feet and without a passing outlet, was forced to hopelessly fling a shot at the rim. He shot 9-23 for the game, but six of those makes were from three. Inside the paint, he was 3-7. While he struggled with interior accuracy, all those forays into the paint helped push his free throw attempts up to 18. (For the season, he’s impressively averaging more than one free throw attempt for every two field attempts.) He was able to beat his defenders into the paint with a combination of speed, quickness, the threat of the deep ball (see his shot chart below), and a purposeful handle developed well-beyond his age. (Here he is functionally pulling off the Shammgod earlier this season.)
14 assists is nice and all, but Young easily could’ve had more. He frequently found open teammates both under the hoop and along the perimeter. They made plenty, but missed some gimmes too. That they were so open is testament to Young’s playmaking and vision, his teammates shot making (and occasional shot missing), and coach Lon Kruger’s pro style deployment of personnel around the perimeter. Young frequently had release valves in the corners that he didn’t have to look for; he knew they were there. He had full court assists, no-look wrap around passes, jump passes off slaloms to the rim. More often than not, he made the right decisions. And while the 3-7 in the paint and seven turnovers look ugly, the indefatigable pressure he put on the TCU defense was more than worth the trade off to a teammate or alternative pace of attack. The game was ultra-high pressure, decided by a single point, and yet Young played the entirety of the second half and only sat two minutes all game.
The passing and driving are great, even titillating, but his range and shot release time are where the Curry comparisons become inescapable. I have no idea exactly how accurate the shot chart below is in terms of distance, but it’s accurate in the sense that the distances match up with what I witnessed. There are tracking systems that can tell us how close defenders were, but from my distracted viewing, a couple of those bombs were with defenders in his space, but unexpectant. By the time the defender realized what was happening, Young was already too deep into his motion with a release they couldn’t catch up to. Like Curry, or any deep shooter, this ability opens up mega avenues for penetration.
I don’t know if people look for the “Next” because we’re lazy or have bad habits or because we see points of reference in players. Maybe it’s the never-ending quest for immortality through progeny. Penny was the Next Magic. Eddy Curry was the Next Shaq. Harold Miner was literally Baby Jordan. The excitement I felt watching Trae Young wasn’t in seeing the Next Steph Curry, but seeing the possible evolution of what Curry has brought to basketball. I caught just a glimpse, the kind of glimpse that people turn into Loch Ness Monsters and UFOs and Yetis. Maybe it was just a tease and Young is more Jimmer than Steph. Or maybe it’s the next evolutionary step in audacious offense. I wouldn’t say I’ve seen the future, but I’ve seen Steph Curry and I’ve seen Trae Young and I’m good with that.
July 18, 2016Posted by on
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.
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.
July 5, 2016Posted by on
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.
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.
March 1, 2016Posted by on
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?
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:
- Curry performances in high-volume shooting games
- 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.
January 29, 2016Posted by on
The media and Dwight Howard have always positioned the Houston big man as some kind of heir to Shaquille O’Neal in the same way it was en vogue for years to saddle two-guards with the dreaded “Next MJ” tag. It was wrong with Dwight in the same way it was wrong with Vince Carter and MJ. The closest thing we have to Shaq is in Sacramento in big barrel chested DeMarcus Cousins. And for the sake of perpetuity, we must not forget what Cousins did over a pair of games in late January 2016.
It was a Saturday night, January 23rd to be exact. The Kings were hosting the run and gun (?) Indiana Pacers of Paul George fame. Boogie, as the big man is known, had already been enjoying a pleasant new month of the new year, posting and toasting all comers to the tune of 31ppg. The Pacers were without defensive stalwart, starting center and possible Francophile Ian Mahinmi. Journeyman Jordan Hill, rotation player Lavoy Allen, and young upstart Myles Turner (fresh off a 31-point game against Golden State) manned the ramparts in his absence. And like any Jaws in any sea, Boogie smelled blood in that water.
Cousins is listed at 6’11”, 270lbs, but I swear to shit this man weighs more than 270lbs. His upper body defies NBA body types. It’s broad with massive shoulders, filled out in the way someone who chops down trees and carries stumps around all day would be with big, tattoo-covered arms. But where he deviates is in his trunk. Many NBA players have the classic v-shape with broad shoulders and narrow waists, but Cousins doesn’t thin out like Dwight. He’s thick all the way through and uses his body in the most Shaq-like of ways to create space and room to breathe to get up little jump hooks and lay-ins.
But life as a Boogie Cousins isn’t about playing the traditional back-to-the basket game. Against the Pacers, Cousins more frequently caught the ball on the wing, which is anti-Shaq/Dwight/tradition. In 2015-16, he has three-point range, which is like Paul Bunyan having the domestic sensibilities of Martha Stewart. Cousins catches on the wing, throws in a couple fakes and the defenders – be it Hill, Allen, or Turner – have to respect it. While taller players like Dirk Nowitzki and Kristaps Porzingis are rewriting concepts about what 7-footers can and can’t do, traditional centers shooting threes are still an evolving species. Defending those players is no easy task for semi-mobile 7-footers and so Cousins making over a three/game has opened up dribble driving attacks that maybe weren’t there earlier in his career. (Prior to this season, Cousins’ had taken 69 threes in his career. This year, in 37 games he’s taken 129 and made four times as many threes than in his entire career.) These defenders have to offer a cushion in defense, but Boogie’s handle is good enough to attack which he loves to do. Throughout the game against Indiana, Cousins repeatedly put the ball on the floor and penetrated. He was often off-balance, had his shots blocked from ending up in terrible position under the hoop, but he was still effective. He drew fouls and made at least six of his 17 field goals on these dribble drives.
Cousins has a sure-footedness you may expect in a giant amateur ballerina. He’s not the most graceful, but in addition to attacking defenders off the dribble, he’ll occasionally hit them with spin moves that leave defenders grasping at air where Cousins used to be. Against the Pacers, on three separate possessions, he found different ways to leverage the spin into buckets. In the second quarter, he caught it in the post, set up Lavoy Allen to overplay to the middle of the lane, took a couple dribbles and with his left shoulder pushed the defender deeper out of position, and once space had been established, pulled a quick spin for a dunk. This spin reminded me of Shaq in all the glory of his power and quickness.
Later the spin accompanied one of his many dribble drives and resulted in a lefty layup make. And finally, feeling Allen overplaying on a post-up, he spun baseline for an unmolested catch and score.
The final tally was a career-high 48 points on 29 shots, a single three, 13-20 from the line a team-best +18, and the Kings fifth straight win.
Two nights later on the Monday when most everyone in the NBA solar system was focusing their undivided attentions on the Spurs at Warriors main event, Sacramento decided to host the Charlotte Hornets. Like the Pacers, these Hornets were shorter than normal and short-handed. Perennial double double Al Jefferson was out with knee surgery and his backup Cody Zeller sat with a shoulder injury. Crying MJ’s Hornets went to battle with a front court that included native Pacific Northwesterners Spencer Hawes and Marvin Williams bolstered by Frank Kaminsky and Tyler Hansbrough off the bench. As Shaq so delightfully enjoys exclaiming: Barbeque Chicken!
And while Warriors-Spurs descended into the East Bay Evisceration, the undermanned Hornets and Kings of Cousins ratcheted up intensities with competitive basketballing. With a banged up crew, the Hornets decided to front Cousins if Williams or Hansbrough guarded him with Hawes or another defender helping on the backside. If Hawes was on Cousins, he’d play behind him. This strategy and the overwhelming physical advantage the Kings had allowed for a different exploitation than what Cousins showed against the Mahinmi-less Pacers. With a weakened frontline, the Hornets were like Goldilocks and Cousins was all three of the bears happy to maul his all-too-human opponents. No less than six times the Hornets ended up fronting Cousins and the Kings, particularly with Rondo recognizing the opportunity, took advantage. Even if Hawes was able to help over, Cousins was too big, too quick, too skilled scored easily.
This time it’s not even Hawes able to help out, but 6’4” Troy Daniels who’s maybe slightly more effective than I would be at pestering Cousins (course I’m 6’3″ 250 and run a 4.5 forty):
But later we see Hawes as the help man and even though he anticipates the post entry, he’s powerless and gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and-1 DeMarcus:
As the game unfolded, it had the feeling of some kind of lopsided battle royal playing out on the basketball court. Cousins and his teammates continued to pound the ball inside, almost growing with greed. A mix of jump hooks, dunks, layups and free throws were there for the picking. But all that post work is exhausting for a man carrying what Cousins has. The catches and fouls, scoring with 240lb-men draped over your shoulders can wear on the biggest ox. As the game shifted into overtime, it felt like a battle of attrition and I wondered who would collapse first: Big Cuz or the entire Hornets front line? Williams fouled after Cousins dunked on him on a lob, then it was Hawes and finally Hansbrough went to the bench with his sixth which left the relatively slight rookie Kaminsky to defend the most dominant post scorer in the league. A bully mentality is a great asset to any big man, but that wasn’t enough for Cousins against Frank the (tiny) Tank. He had the audacity to mix in a hesitation dribble on a drive the likes of which I can only assume Kaminsky never saw in the Big 10.
But mercy was on the side of Kaminsky and the Hornets. In the second OT when the world of basketball was firmly united in cheering Cousins towards his 60th point and the team’s sixth straight win, a referee named Zach Zarba bailed out Kaminsky by whistling Cousins for his sixth. In the league’s official review of all calls that occur in the final two minutes or OT, they deemed Zarba had made the correct call, but as any of us who watched the game can attest, it was not the correct call in the sense that Cousins was essentially penalized for being bigger and stronger than his opponent. And what a way to wrap up a night in which a man has appeared to be truly Shaqtastic – by being penalized in a way in which Shaq was oh so familiar.
Final tally was a new career-high 56 points on 30 shots, a single three, 13-16 from the line, a team-best +13, and a Kings loss.
The following night a bedraggled Kings team headed north to take on the Blazers in Portland. They were soundly thrashed, losing every quarter of the game. Our hero Boogie fell back to earth with a thud scoring 17 points while shooting 4-21 from the field. But who reserves space in their memory banks for the second games of back-to-backs? Who has time for such letdowns when we’re given 104 points over a two-game span? Cousins might not be Shaq, but in an evolving NBA where skilled back-to-the-basket big men appear to be a slowly dying breed, Cousins is without peer when it comes to dominant big man. While he may make head scratch-inducing decisions and have the occasional poor judgment on the court, enjoy him while we can and let’s not forget the time he scored 104 points in back-to-back games.
Final two-night tally: 104 points on 38-59 shooting (64%), 2-5 from three, 26-36 from the line (72%), 25 rebounds, 10 fouls, 12 turnovers, 84 minutes, 1-1 record
December 17, 2015Posted by on
The Golden State Warriors didn’t make any significant roster changes between 2014-15 and 2015-16 and yet they’ve come into the season a better version of themselves, most notably embodied by Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. Draymond’s been amazing and deserves his own writing which can be found on other parts of the internet, but I keep going back to Steph and trying to understand how a 27-year-old can experience such a statistical explosion.
Contextually speaking, we’ve only seen one (maybe two, but I’ll get to that) scorers go from good to great the way Curry’s done this year. I took a look at every player in NBA history who has qualified for minutes played and averaged over 30 points for an entire season, then looked at their previous season to identify the greatest leaps season-over-season – essentially players going from good scorers to great scorers, or great to greater in some cases.
The outliers were players that experienced massive leaps between their rookie and second seasons as no baseline of performance had been set. Three of the four greatest season-over-season increases in points-per-game were from players in this outlier set:
- Jerry West: 17.6ppg as a rookie to 30.8ppg in year two (+13.2)
- BoB McAdoo: 18ppg as a rookie to 30.6ppg in year two (+12.6)
- Rick Barry: 25.7ppg as a rookie to 35.6ppg in year two (+9.9)
Then there’s Michael Jordan’s second season which I threw out because he appeared in just 18 games and played 25 minutes/game. So instead of comparing Jordan’s year two average (22.7ppg) to his year three (37.1ppg), I used his first season as a baseline (28.2ppg) which gave him an increase of 8.9ppg. I tossed this out as well.
Once we clear out the noise, we’re left with a sample size of 57 occurrences of players averaging 30 or more – 43 of which saw a season-over-season increase, 14 had a decrease. The greatest non-rookie-to-second season leap ever was Wilt Chamberlain in 1961-62 when he set the league record with what is still a confounding 50.4ppg which was a 12-point increase over the previous year when he scored a paltry 38.4.
Next on the list is our subject, young Mr. Curry. At 32.3ppg (as of Saturday night), Curry’s a robust 8.5ppg more than he scored last year. That makes for a 26% season-over-season growth which is the highest percentage growth of the entire sample of 57 30-point seasons (with outliers removed). I don’t care or know who the best scorer is on this list, but through 25 games in 2015, Curry’s experiencing an unprecedented growth rate. If we want to get deeper on how silly his season’s become, he’s averaging the lowest minutes/game of any player to ever score 30ppg at 34.9. George Gervin is second at 35.7, then Michael Jordan in 1991 at 37mpg. And maybe it’s not fair to compare percentages from the three-point era to the pre-three-point era, but by any measure that includes weighting the three-point shot (TS% and eFG%), Curry has the all-time highest accuracy rates – 68.8% TS and 64% eFG – of any players to score 30 or more. Adrian Dantley circa 1983-84 is second in TS at 65.2% and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is second in eFG at 57.7% — a full 6.3% behind Curry. But why stop there when Curry also has the highest 2-pt% of anyone on this list at 58.4%.
This feels awfully Bill Simmonsy to write, but re-read that last paragraph. Within the context of volume scorers in league history, no one’s ever done it anywhere remotely similar to Curry this season.
Which leads to the question: Just what on god’s green earth is happening to Steph this season? I did some work on this in early November when Curry was averaging 37ppg and some of the trends from then still hold up now: Curry’s opportunities are up year-over-year in terms of FGA/game, 3PA/game, and FTA/game while his accuracy for each is at or above his career-bests – only his free throw percentage is below career-best and he’s still making 90% of them.
But I don’t feel satisfied just saying volume and efficiency have risen even if those things are true. There are notions and theories at play here that I feel compelled to explore. I went back to the start of 2013-14 (starting with game 11 of that season – the reasoning will become clearer) and broke out Steph’s ensuing 201 games into 25-game chunks that include regular season and playoffs. The patterns are intriguing in that we’re able to see sporadic trends during Mark Jackson’s final year with the team when Curry’s three chunks of 25 games saw his minutes fluctuate between an average of nearly 40 in games 11-35 down to just under 36 in games 36-61. When he was playing nearly 40mpg, his FG% and 3p% were the worst of this 8-set sample, as were his turnovers/game – nearly 5.
As Kerr came on in 2014-15, there’s an immediate shift in Curry’s minutes down to a much-more-manageable 32-34/night with a steady rise in his three-point accuracy and a slight dip in total points. During that first regular season under Kerr, he took less field goal attempts, averaged less assists, and turned the ball over than he did under Jackson the previous year. It’s necessary to call out that Kerr taking over as coach led to a lot more changes than Curry’s role in the Warriors offense, but for the sake of this post and your time, we’ll focus on how Curry responded.
Last year’s playoff run is where we get a preview of what’s to come for Curry. Where he shot around eight threes/game in the regular season, it spiked up to 10.6 in 21 playoff games and final four games of the regular season. His three-point percentage stayed right at his average of this 201-game sample size – 43.6% during playoffs/reg season vs. 43.5% overall.
It’s that rise in the three-ball volume that appears to have carried over to 2015-16. Beginning in the sixth chunk of 25 games – game 52 to 76 of 2014-15 – Curry experienced his most accurate stretch of three point shooting: 107 of 208 – a 51.4% clip which accounted for 54.1% of his total points. For context, his average percentage of points from the three over this entire sample was 39.4%. From that block of games forward, his volume of three-pointers attempted has only increased. Curry was a great shooter before this stretch, but let’s look at the previous 126 games (start of 2013-14 thru game 51 of last season) against the most recent 75 games (game 52 of 2014-15 to present):
- 126 game stretch: 412 threes made on 1003 attempts, 3.3 threes/game, 41% accuracy, threes account for 41% total points
- 75 game stretch: 350 threes made on 751 attempts, 4.6 threes/game, 46% accuracy, threes account for 50% total points
- 25 game stretch in 2015-16: 127 threes made on 277 attempts, 5.1 threes/game, 46% accuracy, threes account for 47% total points
What we’re seeing now is like late-career Barry Bonds crushing all MLB walk records. In 2001, Bonds set the record with 177 walks, then bested it in 2002 by 21, and in 2004 put an exclamation point on his own theater of absurd by walking 232 times. This is Steph with threes – minus the weird head enlargement and freakish physical metamorphosis. Curry is taking a truly great skill (he already holds the top-two single season marks for threes made) and building upon it, but in a way that appears to be a collectively conscious extension of last season’s second half run. It’s not just that he’s taking and making more threes, but that his range is extending – or it was always there and his confidence and the team’s confidence in him taking deeper shots has grown (per stats.nba.com):
- 2013-14: 5.1 3PAs/game from 25-29ft
- 2014-15: 5.5 3PAs/game from 25-29ft
- 2015-16: 7.2 3PAs/game from 25-29ft
He’s already hit as many threes from 30-34 feet (three) as he did all of last season (regular season and playoffs combined) and more than he did in 2013-14 (playoffs and reg. combined). The impact of extending his range out further isn’t lost on his two-point game (again, he’s shooting 58.4% on twos) or his teammates who experience a wider, more open floor. Harrison Barnes approves.
Whatever Golden State saw in last year’s playoffs has carried over into this new season. The volume, the freedom, the carte blanche to shoot from anywhere at any time is open. We’re seeing Curry’s Davidson days replicated at the highest level of basketball in the known universe (when NCAA opponents decided they’d rather lose than have Curry go off on them, they were essentially waving a white flag in the same way MLB pitchers did when they intentionally walked Bonds all those hundreds of times). But what’s most fascinating to me is how Golden State appears to have tapped into an optimal playing time balance for Curry and the rest of the team. As I mentioned earlier when comparing Steph to other 30-point scorers, we’ve never had another 30-point scorer play this few minutes. Last year Curry won the MVP with the fewest minutes ever for a winner at 32.7. This isn’t just happenstance, but occurs when your margin of victory is somewhere between 10-13 points/night and your lead at the end of the third is 20-30 so your starters can kick back and rest during the final period.
If we break out his efficiency and scoring output across five-minute splits, we can see a sweet spot in the 30-40 minute range. The sample below is from 2013-14 to present with playoffs included. It makes sense that in closer games where Curry struggles individually or the Warriors struggle collectively, Curry would play more minutes and see his efficiency dip and indeed his TS and eFG for games where he plays over 40 minutes are below averages in this sample set. What’s interesting though is that Curry’s output is greater in games where he plays 35-40 minutes than 40-45. For some players on that 30-ppg list, there’s a straight forward line between volume (minutes played and shot attempts) and points. For Curry, more doesn’t always equal more and Golden State appears to grasp that.
My suggestion that Golden State may have landed at an optimal spot in terms of Curry’s usage and minutes/game is the last area we’ll touch on. Last year they won 67 games in the regular season and went 16-5 in the post-season. This year, the playmaking responsibilities are increasingly falling in Draymond’s hands and the results are indisputable to-date. I’m curious about how far this envelope can be pushed though. We already see that Curry’s efficiency and even output in some cases takes a hit the more he plays, so pushing the envelope is finding ways to get more shots. It’s easy to look at what this team is doing and suggest that if ain’t broke, don’t break it, but they’ve made changes from last season with nothing but positive outcomes. Steph’s already stolen about two shots/game from Klay and two from somewhere else (David Lee?). Are there two more to go round? Is two more three-point attempts from Steph per game a better use of possessions than a shot each from Bogut and Draymond? Man, I don’t know and I’m not convinced it even matters, but while they’re here they may as well push it to the limit.
December 8, 2015Posted by on
On December 7th, 1973, the Los Angeles Lakers hosted a Bill Russell-coached Seattle Supersonics team in Los Angeles. The game was and should be mostly lost to history with the emphasis of post-game narratives on the Sonics finally catching a win in LA.
As Gil Lyons of the Seattle Times wrote:
The Sonics scrambled and clawed to a 115-111 success, ending a string of 20 frustrating appearances in Jack Kent Cooke’s sports palace. The win also snapped a 13-game Laker domination of Seattle and ended the Sonics’ own six-game string of losses.
For me the game would’ve remained resigned to the minutia of NBA history, a single pixel in an infinitely-sized NBA logo were it not for today’s sport page. Tucked away on the back page beneath the WHL standings and next to the upcoming NFL lines was the “This date in sports history” feature: On December 7th, 1973 Jerry West recorded a then-NBA record 10 steals against the Sonics. If it would’ve been Alvin Robertson setting the record in 1987, I would’ve batted an eyelash but nothing more.
I knew the tracking of steals came along a little later than the standard points, rebounds, and assists, but didn’t realize the stat was tracked as early as 1973-74; which happened to be the first season the league kept track of thefts. For historical context, West’s 10 steals is still good enough for second-most steals all-time in a game. Larry Kenon (1976) and Kendall Gill (1999) each had 11-steal games.
On the night of all those steals back in December of 1973, Jerry West, whose silhouette would eventually be immortalized as the NBA’s logo, was a 35-year-old combo guard in the final season his illustrious career. He only appeared in 31 games that season due to a groin injury, but still averaged over 20ppg, 6apg, and nearly 4rpg. Most interesting in his stat line though was the 2.6 steals he averaged.
It’s fair to assume the 35-year-old West had lost a step by 1973. While still a quality guard with good play left in the tank, his averages and efficiency were down across the board. He appeared in a career-low minutes and games while averaging the lowest points since his rookie season – and still put up 20/game. His combined playoff and regular season minutes were nearly 43,000 and it’s clear to point to age as a contributing factor to his season-limiting injury.
And even with those caveats, West still averaged 2.6 steals/game. For more context, only seven players in league history have reached at least 80 total steals while averaging at least 2.5 steals and less than 32 minutes/game. The rest of those guys were between 22 and 29. At 35, West was stealing the ball at an all-time clip. For a fun exercise in projecting what West could’ve possibly achieved in terms of career steals, Curtis Harris, curator of the great http://prohoopshistory.net/, attempted to estimate West’s career steal numbers. The sensible methodology produces eight seasons with three-plus steals/game and one season with over four steals/game and most ludicrous is that there’s nothing unreasonable about the projections.
This is where I reveal my ignorance in that I haven’t watched West’s clips nearly as much as I wish I had. I have his autobiography, West by West, sitting on a bookshelf, unread and while I can rattle off West anecdotes, I’ve never gone deep on his defensive capabilities. The league started awarding All-Defensive honors in 1968-69 when West was nearing the end of his prime. In the six years he was eligible for defensive awards, he made the second team once and the first team four times – all past the age of 30. While his nickname was Mr. Clutch and damn near any highlight you’ll find of him will be of a steady downpour of jumpers, he had a reputation for being strong defender and reportedly had an 81-inch wingspan which is the same as Rajon Rondo. All this mixed with the hard evidence of 2.6 steals/game as a 35-year-old and anecdotal evidence of his intense approach to defense point a player who should be considered one of the greatest back court defenders in league history.
That game 42 years ago could act as a microcosm for the tortured dissatisfaction that plagued much of West’s life and pro basketball career. The Lakers turned the ball over 30 times and four of their players fouled out. West was masterful in defeat though with 27 points on 15 shots, five rebounds, five assists and of course 10 steals. That’s a line that’s been achieved just four other times in league history. And not to belabor the point, but West was 35 when he did it. West knew he was a great player, but did it give him any measure of satisfaction? I have no idea, but tracing his defensive prowess beyond the threshold of a 10-steal game 42 years ago has given me an even greater sense of appreciation for the Logo.
November 18, 2015Posted by on
Rainy Saturday nights in November against the lowly Brooklyn Nets. Quiet, tired Tuesday evenings when the wind is whipping outside and the Toronto Raptors are in town. We’re 12 games into the 2015-16 season and every game the Golden State Warriors play has become an event.
I don’t mean this in the Bill Simmons sense that that they’re so good they’re can’t miss TV though I also understand approach. I mean it in the Floyd Mayweather sense. (I considered titling this piece The Floyd Mayweatherization of the Golden State Warriors, but opted not to because the click baitishness of it all, but really this post is about a type of Mayweatherization.) I don’t know why people tuned into Floyd’s fights, just that the top-three buys for Pay-Per-View fights are owned by Mayweather. Most people either tune in to see him keep winning or hope tonight’s the night he finally loses. With his unblemished record and bombastic embrace of the villain role, he created an atmosphere where at his peak, each and every one of his fights became a mega event – though one can legitimately counter that his swan song against overmatched Andre Berto failed to meet the can’t-miss-TV status of his previous fights. And he’s managed to do it with unlikable, non-fan-friendly style.
Over a short three weeks, these Warriors have amplified the magnitude of their games from entertaining basketball games to high powered events. It’s not just that they’re 12-0 and threatening both the best opening record in NBA history (15-0) or that they’re a realistic possibility to reach 70 games. It’s that their margin of victory is over 15 points/game. They haven’t just adopted the NBA’s love of the three ball, but have mastered it through a blend of style and personnel. If that weren’t enough, the magnetic dichotomy of the best baby-faced player on the planet in Stephen Curry with the cockily confident/confidently cocky Draymond Green has offered up something for fans or non-fans of various stripes.
Much like a Floyd fight, the beginning of every game starts out with an iota of hopeful anticipation. For the Warrior supporter, a relaxed expectation that they will witness greatness yet again, further cementing a growing confidence of both fan and team. Where this begins to coincide with the Floyd fan is the zero in the loss tally. Over 82 games, perfection appears to be unattainable, but our species can’t help but rise and fall within the moment and as long as they’re 11-0, 12-0, 13-0, 14-0, the weight of each game will elevate. And if/when the Warriors finally lose and creep and climb through the winter and spring months, the emphasis will shift towards 70 wins and the weight will come back – probably soft and slow, like a small earthquake (hat tip Neil Diamond). For the Warrior opponent, the hopeful iotas are aimed at an opposite result – the Warrior loss. The non-fan views Warrior wins through the lens of the give-away. The Kings, the Nets, the Raptors had their chances and they gave it away. But they/we will tune in and hold on waiting for the knockout punch and pending desperate, satisfying catharsis.
And what of the connoisseur? The objective critic of Mayweather or Golden State is hard-pressed to find fault in the execution. The results speak for themselves. Championship rings, championship belts, flawless records. My Twitter timeline lights up with gushy excitement when the Warriors ride the improvised waves of basketball circumstances. Steph catches an intended receiver napping and finishes a righty layup in traffic. Floyd rolls his shoulders back, his opponent’s goal (a brutal headshot) less than an inch away but may as well be in Turkmenistan and he counters with a peppering jab to remind the hopeless that the goal, the purpose is and will remain unattainable. The analyzing fan and writers smile in appreciation.
Even the space is part of the event. Oracle Arena tucked along a random highway in Oakland, a strange neighbor to industry, nothing close to a theater of dreams, but a house of worship nonetheless. Despite an ever-growing disparate fan base split between expensive courtside seats and less expensive upper-level seats, the attendees rise and fall in harmonious agreement. As I resided comfortably in my climate-controlled apartment watching the opening of Golden State-Toronto, I was inspired by the moment and the moment finally resonated (after the pre-game Ernie/Webber/Anthony chatter and the post-east coast games) when I recognized the fans. From the opening tip there was a palpability to the game and it started with the fans grasping the sense of the moment and raising their energy accordingly. Some have said that the real Warrior fans are being priced out by the fair weather Silicon Valley crowd and that may be the truest of the trues, but these past couple games where the undefeated start is at stake has produced May-level excitement from Warrior fans regardless of economic status.
This is peak Warriors. Steph Curry is at his other worldly best and Draymond Green is the clear cut second best player on the team. Andrew Bogut is leaner and bouncier. The team can play better, but they can’t be anymore 12-0 than they are 12-0 today. And as long as that zero sits in the loss column and as long as 70-73 wins is in place, every Golden State game will be an event in the Mayweather sense of things.
November 3, 2015Posted by on
We’re in November and the Golden State Warriors have played less than five percent of their total regular season games. The most recent, their fourth of the young year, was punctuated by a violent 119-69 Mike Tyson-over-Michael Spinks type victory over the Grizz – the same Grizz that took a 2-1 lead over GSW in the playoffs just six months ago. In the breezy 28 minutes he played, reigning MVP and pioneer of “new NBA” style basketball Steph Curry incinerated the Grizz for 30 points on 16 shots. Speaking in purely statistical terms, this was a below average game for Curry in 2015-16, but like I cautioned, we’ve got 78 games to go.
But in the young offering of the new season, Steph’s taking what was already a nuclear game and style replete with some kind of next world hand-eye coordination, progressively audacious handle, Doc Holliday trigger finger, and already all-time range and accuracy combination, and building on it.
In 2014-15, his first season under the guidance of Steve Kerr, Curry was a joy to behold, roughly achieving the same averages he had in 2013-14 (pts, rebounds, asts, 3s, stls, etc) while appearing in four less minutes per game. Comparing his 2014-15 to 2012-13 is even starker: he played six more minutes per game that year, but his per-game averages were lower as were his shooting percentages. His per-36 numbers from 2014-15 outshone what had already been all-star caliber numbers. Improvement is expected, but as we’ll see, the type of improvement is mostly unprecedented.
I’m going to paraphrase here and most likely screw this up, but there’s a four-quadrant concept that occurs in learning and task mastery:
- You don’t know what you don’t know – you’re unconscious
- You become aware of the things you don’t know – your consciousness develops so you can at least identify what you want to improve upon
- You consciously begin to tackle those things of which you recently became aware
- You unconsciously do the things you recently did in a conscious state
If last year’s MVP/NBA champion season was step #4 for Steph where execution became second nature like breathing and sneezing and laughing, then the four games we’ve seen of him in 15-16 are closer to that scene in The Matrix when Neo is all “What are you trying to tell me, I can dodge bullets?” and Morpheus responds, “No, Neo. I’m trying to tell you that when you’re ready, you won’t have to.”
Was there a point where Steph realized he didn’t have to metaphorically “dodge bullets,” that it would just happen instinctually? On opening night last week, his first quarter should’ve been an indication to all of us that instead of seeing the illusory images on the court, he was deep in some meta coding, interpreting his opponent’s futile defensive efforts as nothing more than unprejudiced attempts designed to deter him. In the first quarter alone he shot 9-13 (would’ve been 9-12 had he not heaved up a 40-footer as time expired) with 24 points. It was lightning, violence, blitzkrieg, all-out attack, a metaphor for war. It was, intentionally or not, a battle hymn that rang out across the TNT-powered sound waves through speakers and pixels into our feeble senses.
But it didn’t stop there and hasn’t stopped. We’re still hibernating in small sample size theater season, but something strange is afoot, like white walker afoot or when the levee breaks afoot. Through these piddly four games, Steph, this time under the substitute coaching of Luke “Son of Bill” Walton, is obliterating his own MVP-level stats and he’s somehow doing it with rarefied combination below:
- Less minutes/game
- More shots (more on this)
- Increased efficiency (very little on this)
Because the Warriors can beat other playoff teams like the Grizz by 50 points on random Monday nights, there’s no need for Curry to play big minutes. This is our loss. In four games, all against playoff teams, GSW’s closest game was a 14-point victory. He’s averaging under 32 minutes/game. What we’re seeing though is that his slice of the offensive pie has grown in 2015-16. Where Curry’s career average for field goal attempts/game has sat right 16 attempts with a career high of just under 18 FGA back in 2012-13 in 38 minutes/game, Curry’s now cramming in 21 shots/game. He’s somehow getting up 32% more shots/game than his career average while appearing in the second lowest MPG of his career.
It doesn’t stop with field goals. As part of that 21 FGAs/game, Curry’s pushing an unprecedented nearly 11 3s/game. To put that into context, the most 3PAs a player has ever attempted on a per-game basis was Baron Davis back in 2004 when he put up 8.7/game. Curry’s clearly a prolific gunner himself and holds the top two single-season records for 3s made. His career high of 8.1 3Pas/game is good enough for sixth on the all-time list. But if we compare his current little four-game stretch to his career average of 6.5 3PAs/game, we see a ballsy bold leap of 64%. And if we’re truly interested in blowing our minds all over the walls in blue and gold Warrior-themed blood spatter in queer basketball-themed Rorschach patterns, then layer on the context that Curry’s spike in volume is being accompanied by a career best three-point accuracy (48.8%). He’s hitting five threes/game!
So Curry’s hovering around the perimeter, chucking record-setting threes and hitting them at paces typically reserved for guys who trade volume for efficiency. He’s taking advantage of spacing and passing and ball movement and all that good stuff. Yes to all of that, but for any notion that he’s merely perfecting the areas of already-existing strength while other aspects of his game stay flat or see small rises, he’s again a step ahead. For his career, Curry’s shooting a paltry 3.5 free throws/game. He’s third all-time in FT% just behind Steve Nash and Mark Price, so he’s getting the most bang for his free throw buck, but at 3.5 attempts/game with a career best of 4.5, he’s good at getting to the line for a point guard, but nothing special. In our shortened present season he’s somehow expanded his offensive range to include seven FTAs/game. For a guy that shoots over 90% from the line, seven FTAs/night is free points, a rhythmic bonus that builds on what’s already elite confidence. Where his increase in 3PA/game was a stunning 64%, his increase in FTA/game relative to his career average is nearly double at a 99% increase and the graph below more so than the others above clearly illustrates this spike.
While I’ve touched on Steph’s increased makes, I chose to focus on the attempts to show the early tidal change from last season. Maybe it’s having Walton at the helm instead of Kerr or maybe Klay Thompson has a bad back. Perhaps Kerr and company saw something in the numbers or on film, something like, “More Steph is better.” Regardless of the impetus for the jumps in volume, the return Golden State’s seeing on his increased offensive aggressiveness are eye popping and head shaking. Who averages 37ppg in under 32mpg for a team that beats all comers by double digits? It is unprecedented, I swear it is. It has to be.
We’re dealing with the smallest of sample sizes to the degree that every stat called out in this piece should have an asterisk next to it (“Hey man, it’s less than 5% of games, chill!”), but what we’re seeing even through these four games is borderline comical in the way that peak Pedro Martinez or Aroldis Champan were/are comical; we know what to expect and the opponent thinks they know what to expect and it doesn’t matter. The stats tell this truth as well as any verbose language or overused thesauri ever could. And sure sure, it’s probably unsustainable, but what if by some dint in the makeup of things, it is sustainable? If there’s even a shred of sustainability going on here, may god have mercy on all their basketball-playing souls because in this new NBA, the man shooting 50% on 11 3s/game is king.
December 1, 2014Posted by on
It’s another Monday morning which means the NBA Power Rankings are rolling out in a state of infinite arbitrariness, but deep down in the western corner of the country, Kobe-colored confetti is raining from the skies celebrating the Lakers fourth win in 17 games this year. We’re about 20% of the way through the 2014-15 season and the Lakers are probably near the bottom of the aforementioned power rankings, but we don’t care because this post is celebrating the weird accomplishment of Kobe last night. No, it’s not becoming the first player in NBA history with 30,000 points and 6,000 assists, although that’s mostly an incomprehensible achievement that speaks to the highly irregular elite play which he’s sustained for so long. But instead of looking at macro-Kobe, we’re going micro-Kobe and exploring his individual performance against power ranking darlings, the Toronto Raptors.
In 42 minutes, Kobe triple doubled with 31 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and repeatedly finding good looks for his teammates while tallying 12 assists – a Lakers individual high this season. If we want to get semi-nitty gritty, Bryant had just two turnovers and attempted only one three while putting up his highest game score of the season at 27. It was a gem of a throwback game from a player putting up one of the best individual seasons we’ve ever seen from a 36-year-old.
In the process, Bryant became the oldest player on record to post a 30-10-10 triple double:
[It’s taking a thorough amount of self-restraint to not go full on research mode and dig into that Larry Bird game from 1992 when a 35-year-old Larry Legend executed a 49-point, 14-rebound, 12-assist game on Portland, but we’ll save that for a rainy day.]
In what otherwise feels like a lost season without meaning for LA’s first basketball franchise, Kobe and his MASH unit continue to find ways to make games interesting and add meaning through effort. Kobe’s me-first game and me-first personality have a polarizing effect on fans and people who don’t know diddly about basketball, but all the same, a 36-year-old Bryant is still revealing himself as a professional fully committed winning every night – even if those wins are coming at the most infrequent pace of his career. Sunday night while languishing at the bottom of power rankings, Kobe’s game came together and he willed the Lakers to a victory over a shorthanded, but superior Raptors team. It took a herculean effort from Kobe and quality performances from his mates, but in a season without spoils, even the scraps are easy to savor.