Dancing With Noah

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Category Archives: Golden State Warriors

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.

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.

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.

Steph Curry in 25-game Chunks (plus historical comparisons)

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.

5 30ppg scorers in 1 place

5 30ppg scorers in 1 place

There are a handful of outliers that were thrown out and three players (Wilt Chamberlain, Walt Bellamy, Oscar Robertson) that averaged 30/game as rookies.

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.

12-16 - 1108_FEA_Curry_opener(1)

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.

stats courtesy basketball-reference.com

stats courtesy basketball-reference.com

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.

12-16-15 - Steph 3s

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.

12-16-15 - steph splits

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.

When every night is the Main Event

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.

stephen-curry-floyd-mayweather-jr-nba-all-star-game-850x560

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.

oracle

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.

The Grandiosity of Steph Curry in Autumn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11-02-15 - Steph YoY FGA

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

11-02-15 - Steph YoY 3pa

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

11-02-15 - Steph YoY FTA

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

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

Dispatches from Des Moines’ first NBA game in 17 Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Courts are Alive (Playoff Edition)

What a night. What a fucking night for the NBA, for the game of basketball, for Nate Robinson, Steph Curry and Manu Ginobili. What a night for Twitter and the screaming woman at the Spurs game. What didn’t happen? Game ones of the second round: Bulls @ Heat in the early game and Warriors @ Spurs in the later game.

The Heat were 11.5-point favorites and for good reason. Coming into tonight, Miami was 39-4 at home (counting playoffs) and was mostly healthy with the exception of Dwyane Wade’s nagging knee injury. We all know about the Bulls: Kirk Hinrich’s out with a calf injury, Luol Deng’s dealing with fallout from a spinal tap gone wrong and we’re all depleted from the media throwing Derrick Rose on repeat and forcing us to listen over and over. So the Bulls rolled out Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer. They did everything. Every damn thing you could ask for from a group of rejects (Robinson and Belinelli), outcasts (Noah), overlooked (Butler) and scorned (Boozer) players.

Down the stretch of this game, with Noah compulsively hustling and diving, scowling at opponents and teammates alike with long tendrils of hair stuck to his sweaty face, the Bulls stared up at a slight fourth quarter deficit of four points; but if felt like a Miami’s game all the way. How many times this season have we seen the Heat cruise through three quarters against lesser-talented teams only to turn up the intensity late in the game and walk away with easy victories. And when Jimmy Butler, all 6’7” and 220lbs of chiseled Jimmy Butler, attempted to wrap up LeBron on a fast break, but was overpowered by Bron’s lefty layup, I was impressed and relaxed, thinking Miami was just closing out another victory against another helpless victim. But I was oh-so-fortunately wrong and had no idea what was about to happen. The Bulls hit three threes (two by Belinelli and one by Butler) in the final five minutes, they shot 9-10 from the line and they frustrated the defending champions into missing all five of their shots in the final 97-seconds of the game. Somehow, the Bulls went down to the hardly hostile American Airlines Arena and beat the Heat 93-86 including a 35-24 fourth quarter.

For all that happened (Nate Robinson) and didn’t happen (Miami scoring points—they had their lowest point total since an 86-67 victory over these same Bulls on 2/21), what stood out most to me was Dwyane Wade’s irrationally selfish decision, coming out of a timeout, to chuck up a contested three at the 1:07 mark of the 4th quarter with his team down two points. On so many levels this was a bad shot. Many of us have become accustomed to the “hero ball” or “toilet bowl” offense where we get Paul Pierce or Kobe or Melo pounding the air out of the ball followed by a contested three. We all know it’s a bad shot, but there’s a level of latitude for the players I just mentioned. And Wade’s earned plenty of latitude in his career as well, but not enough to pull the shit he pulled on Monday night. Miami couldn’t have possibly drawn up the Wade-from-the-top-of-the-key special, could they have? Let’s look at some Dwyane Wade stats:

  • Dwyane Wade shot 25.8% from three this season
  • He was 2-18 from three over his previous 33 games
  • Wade was one of the least accurate three-point shooters in the league; finishing just a few percentage points better than only three other players (Lamar Odom, Reggie Jackson and Kevin Love) who made at least 17-threes this season

 

No Threes Allowed

No Threes Allowed

I’m elated for the Bulls. It feels good and I don’t want to take away from their resilient victory, but I can’t get over Wade’s three; just a baffling, baffling shot.

It took a while to get over that first game. There was a sense of low-level adrenaline running through my body after the Bulls withstood the Heat’s meager comeback attempts. But during the NBA playoffs, there’s no time for dwelling on the past. I opened my celebratory beers and was pleasantly surprised seeing the Warriors confident and comfortable on the Spurs home court. Up four at the half in the AT&T Center? Well yes, yes of course.

All hell broke loose in the third though. Steph Curry started raining fire from the skies like a light-skinned basketball-playing Zeus firing bolts into the round cylinder. The Spurs crowd cringed with every blow, flinched at every shot release. At one point, the camera showed Gregg Popovich standing still, his eyes closed, his head hung down, but far from out. He looked like he was attempting to visualize the solution to this problem and for a split second I imagined Popovich taking the law into his hands Tanya Harding style and whacking Curry’s knee with a baton of sorts. We both snapped out of it though and after a patented succession of Warriors mistakes to end the third quarter, the dust had settled and Curry’s third looked like this:

  • Minutes: 11 minutes, 56 seconds
  • FG/FGA: 9/12
  • 3p/3pa: 4/6
  • Assists: 3
  • Turnovers: 0
  • Points: 22

Golden State 92, San Antonio 80 (end of third)

There was a sense, I think, in many of us who had been here before, who had sat through the Warriors’ near collapse on Thursday night in game six against the Nuggets, that trouble loomed ahead, that all the Curry-fueled momentum in the world wasn’t going to make this any easier. And it wasn’t. The Spurs used every ounce of savvy and veteran poise and whatever other cliché you want to dress them up with to outscore the Warriors 26-14 in the fourth quarter.

The Curry third quarter, the Spurs comeback; it all evolved or devolved into some kind of brilliant basketball game that etched itself deeper into our minds and stomachs, intertwining itself within the gray matter of our brains and the slimy coils of our intestines. Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, Kent Bazemore, Andrew Bogut, Steph Curry, Jarrett Jack … a professionally-trained youth movement apparently oblivious to the fear that rides shotgun on their road to fate. On the opposite side, it was the familiar faces that have stalked the league so patiently with their secretive wisdom and insider humor: Pop, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and a strange cast of characters that plug into roles that feel tailor made: Boris Diaw, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green. They came and they came and they came. The old men with their flu bugs and bald spots and interchangeable pieces; a group of calm Texans embodying the same ethos of the Bulls. And somehow, after being down 18 points in the third quarter, the Spurs won in double overtime. Do you believe in Boris Diaw corner threes or nights where Manu Ginobili shoots 5-20, but hits the one that really matters? Fuck man, I don’t know, but I saw it happen.

Some notable items from this insane game in San Antonio in May:

  • Golden State shot 14-24 (58%) from the free throw line
  • Golden State is a 79% free throw-shooting team on the regular season (good enough for fourth in the league)
  • Boris Diaw: The big Frenchman had a series of big plays that helped this Spurs team achieve victory:
    • He somehow became the only Spurs player able conceive of not leaving his feet to guard Steph Curry. At the 1:22 mark in the fourth quarter, with GSW up five, Curry attempted a little shake move and pull up on Diaw; likely underestimating his defender’s length and discipline. Diaw blocked the shot without leaving the ground.
    • He went to the line and hit a pair of FTs to bring the Spurs to within one late in the 4th.
    • Diaw set the screen to free up Danny Green for the OT-forcing three.
    • He was on the floor for all of both OTs, contributed rebounds, screens and a clutch three.

There were heroes on both teams. Ginobili, Parker and Curry were special tonight, but in the thick history making moments, Diaw’s hand never shook. He played intelligent, confident basketball and is a big reason the Spurs are up 1-0 in this series.  

I’ll close this with a line from Jim Morrison that embodies unknowing excitement of tonight and hopefully the days to come: I don’t know what’s gonna happen man, but I wanna have my kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames…Alright!

what we can't see

Jarrett Jack: Author of Indispensability

It wasn’t always about Jarrett Jack, but for now at least it will be about him; this burly, hard-headed (in appearance) man with his brick wall frame, compact like a boxer’s, eyes locked in what appears to be a perpetual squint—in anger or humor—eyes given by mom or dad, eyes passed through the gene pool generations ago perhaps, a head that looks almost too big for its body; always cleanly shaven as if he calmly stands in front of the mirror before games and at halftime, straight razor in-hand, head covered with thick white shaving cream, slicing the hairs away from that immense rock-like brown dome with the same precision he’d cut open an adversary’s throat; a face and appearance (particularly in scowl mode) that draws comparisons to emcee Sticky Fingaz and could land him a spot in the aforementioned’s aggression-fueled hip hop group from the 90s, Onyx, with their furious black baldness, black hoodies, black pants, black boots. This is about Jack, who’s traveled the jet streams of the NBA; from and to teams I couldn’t even recall off the top of my head (completely blanked out on the long lost Pacers days). A journey begun back at Georgia Tech with BJ Elder and Paul Hewitt and moved on to Portland and Indiana and Toronto and New Orleans and now Oakland. Always steady, but never anyone’s first choice. Passed over in favor of Jose Calderon, traded for Jerryd Bayless not once, but twice, a multi-time trade casualty …

Typically in the background

Typically in the background

When I see Jack in 2012 playing with Steph Curry (as a replacement of sorts for Monta Ellis) I see indispensability and luxury. In terms of pure ability, it doesn’t matter how he compares to Monta, but in terms of the Golden State Warriors, he’s a flawless fit, pragmatic and versatile, complementary and embraceable. He’s glue, Velcro, a viscous player that appears in 83 games in an 82-game season, oblivious to any limitations. He’s the kind of dude every team needs even though they’re quick to send him on his way. Call him a liberator in that he can relieve Curry of his playmaking duties.

2012 isn’t the Year of Jarrett Jack, it’s just another in a career of underappreciated years. What’s so profound about Jack is that there’s nothing profound about him. He does what he’s called on to do and in a league of specialists and superstars, he’s easily taken for granted—just like the PJ Browns and James Poseys of the world. I’ve been thinking about this all season and now I’m expressing it in full, or maybe just in part because I’m fairly certain Jack will provide plenty more reasons to write and think and consider his uniquely simple place as a backup guard in a league gone mad with awards, titles (of the individual variety) and over-analysis.

(and no, this hasn’t turned into a Golden State Warriors fan blog)

Late Nights with Steph

Don’t get it twisted, this isn’t my foray into a new genre of basketball erotica and I am wearing (sweat) pants while I write this. It’s about me accepting the aesthetic of Stephen Curry’s game: a sweet, sensual convergence of college fundamentals with the boldness of Marvin Gaye on his classic I Want You.

I live on the west coast, so I get the great pleasure of watching west coast teams play at a reasonable time—at least reasonable based on my 32-year-old/married standards. The straight up west coast options we have: Lakers, Clippers, Kings, Blazers, Suns and Warriors. The Lakers are a comedy of errors, a team without a collective identity even though they have players with well-defined identities. The Kings have really disappointed; particularly because of their decision not to re-sign Terrence Williams. I don’t care for the Blazers, but I do like some Nicolas Batum and Young Mr. Damian Lillard is pure joy—regardless of how you feel about point guards. The Suns are another laughable comedy routine on a nightly basis. Shannon Brown as your get buckets guy? It takes a rare NBA roster architect to devise that scenario. Then there are the Clippers and the Warriors, a couple of teams that are entertaining for entirely different reasons. The Clippers are potential-in-the-process-of-being-realized and this kind of maturation is so magnetic because we’re eagerly anticipating their ongoing improvement. Once the ceiling is reached, we can get bored because we’re simple people with short spans of attention living in a world full of attention grabbing experts. As a group, the Clippers are more fun than Golden State and yes, Chris Paul is the PG archetype, but there’s nothing human about Paul single-handedly demoralizing and discouraging defenses or Jamal Crawford heat checks or Blake Griffin or even Los Angeles for that matter. But up in Oakland? Oh, up north it doesn’t get much more human than Bogutian tragedy, the erosion of Andris Biedrins’ confidence, Brandon Rush’s torn ACL, David Lee’s around-the-basket intuitiveness (it’s still underrated) or Steph Curry’s nightly flirtations with basketball death, a dreaded Grant Hill career arc.

The crowd in Oakland pleads a great case for watching the Warriors, but Lee’s interior aptitude and the development of Harrison Barnes are entertaining too. The primary reason to watch, the main event … that’s Curry.  There’s a reason he’s still the (baby) face of the Warriors despite missing nearly 25% of his team’s games through his first three seasons (of course, part of that reason is that they were never able to find a trade partner willing to take on those papier-mâché ankles). They’re still going to war every night with Curry as their lead guard because the kid (he’s still just 24) is disruptively good and can get better.

I’m not positive if the NCAA’s and ESPN’s and Dick Vitale’s infatuations with Curry during his Davidson days soured me on him or if I was too distracted following the explosions of Monta Ellis (fiery spectacle one night, snap pops the next), but I only studied Curry from afar for his first few years. His ankle(s—was it both?) turned last season into one long, depressing sputter. And if it was frustrating for fans, imagine how Curry felt riding that physical and emotional roller coaster: special shoes, protective boots, ice bags on ice bags in ice baths, multiple doctors, fear that something’s wrong, that maybe it’s somehow his fault … failure; letting down your teammates, fans, the people who pay you huge checks to be on the court performing. So when he rolled his ankle (again!) in the pre-season, I think there was a part of me that lightly erased Curry from the NBA panorama. He wasn’t a ghost yet, but he was fading.

This is a terribly unfair thing to do, particularly given the steadily impressive performances of Curry’s first two seasons in the league which compare better than favorably with Derrick Rose’s and Russell Westbrook’s:

Advanced stats on top, per game on bottom

Advanced stats on top, per game on bottom

Not too many people put Curry in the same echelon as Rose and Westbrook and there are a couple of obvious reasons why:

  • The Third Season: While Curry spent his third season on crutches, in walking boots and enduring a bombardment of tests on his ankle(s), Westbrook and Rose made a motherfucking leap in theirs. Remember how similar these three guys were through their first two seasons? The third seasons created a massive chasm:
Per game stats

Per game stats

  • Playoff Appearances: Rose was a black NBA version of Rocky Balboa as a rookie when he led the 8th seed Bulls to a memorable seven-game series against the defending champion Boston Celtics in the opening round. Westbrook made a name more violently for his volatility—eruptions of athleticism versus decision making follies and the unique ability to forget Kevin Durant was on his team (and in the damn game!). Where Russell made the playoffs three of four years and has Rose has advanced to the postseason every year, the ill-fated Curry is still awaiting his first appearance.

I didn’t set out to write a story about how Steph Curry does or doesn’t compare favorably to two of the best young point guards in the game, it just organically occurred this way and I’m happy with that. Beyond the inconclusive stats we have above, the Curry I’ve seen this year is a smooth ball handler with great court awareness, passing ability and a hyper fast shot release. His handle is so much better than I realized, but it looks like he’s still figuring out how to fully utilize this skill. You see Rose and Westbrook combine their ball handling with raw speed and quickness: Rose more lateral quickness with the ball in-hand and Westbrook more straight ahead speed. Steph’s handle is so often used on the perimeter to keep defenders at bay instead of attacking with it. If and when he improves that part of his game, he’ll be able to create more space and get to the rim more frequently than he already does which would make him close to indefensible. Of course, the more he penetrates, I feel like the odds of rolling an ankle increase (is that true?).

So while the rest of you east coast and Midwest fans are sleeping away the nights or blowing rails just to stay up for the west coast games, your brothers and sisters on the left are settling in on couches and recliners from San Diego to Blaine with beers and green teas while our spouses and partners and roommates flit in and out, oblivious to our fascinations with a guy named Steph…and even more oblivious the fingers we have discretely crossed under a pillow or blanket, vainly hoping those tender ankles hold up.

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