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Just messing around, getting triple doubles
May 24, 2017Posted by on
On May 23rd, Kyrie Irving’s delightful basketball art was once again on full display. The 25-year-old Cavs guard saw an opportunity when reigning GOAT-candidate and teammate, LeBron James, sat midway through the second quarter with his fourth foul and to paraphrase Steve Winwood, he saw a chance and took it.
His final line: 15-22 from the field, 4-7 from three, 8-9 from the free-throw line, a career playoff-high 42 points with 81% true shooting, and the type of third quarter performance that makes you want to support the National Endowment for the Kyries to cultivate this type of genius in all fields of expression. It was the kind of joy and declaration that simultaneously uplifts the audience to new levels of consciousness and reduces us to slack-jawed holy incantations in the same breath.
Take the third quarter which the Cavs went into with a ten-point deficit. Kyrie scored 21 points on ten shots. There was the buzzer beater three that dotted Terry Rozier’s eye. There was the scary rolled ankle that made guts bubble up and cringes rise in basketball fans across the globe. But, there was Kyrie nearly outscoring Boston for the entire quarter (he lost 23-21) with a series of improvisational acrobatic slaloms into the clutches of a green-hued opponent. I say improvisational because there’s so much reading and reacting, but there’s a choreographic element to Irving’s slicing drives almost as if it’s all premeditated. And there he was exploiting mismatches like Tyler Zeller and Kelly Olynyk (very poor souls, how I relate! How I empathize!) for layups. But these Kyrie layups aren’t your dad’s layups. It’s not Earl Monroe or Tiny Archibald or Rod Strickland, Isiah Thomas, Tim Hardaway, Steve Nash or anyone else. They’re elegant, funambulist, time-stopping. It’s beauty. For Kyrie, when it’s cooking like it was on this Tuesday night in May, it feels magnetic. You could cover the man’s eyes with a thick black cloak of midnight and he could sniff out the basket with the right amount of English and some preternatural understanding of geometry.
The crescendo really began at the 4:48 mark in the third when Cleveland was down 69-66. JR Smith found Kyrie in transition for a contested layup against Avery Bradley to pull the Cavs within one point at 69-68.
On the next possession, Kyrie was isolated above the corner against Olynyk, of Kelly Oubre-infamy, who he tortured with jab step threats before calmly sinking three. Score: 72-72, Kyrie at 25.
A minute later he caught Zeller on a pick-and-roll switch going downhill for a layup. Score: Cavs, 75-72, Kyrie at 27.
Less than a minute later, he caught a transition pass from LeBron and easily laid it in. Cavs, 77-72, Kyrie at 29. That’s four straight makes.
Off the ball moments later, he caught Rozier napping for slightest of moments, got just a hair behind him and used his underrated size advantage for a backdoor lob-into-a-layup. 79-74, 31 for Kyrie and five straight makes in about three minutes.
As if to prove he can do more than score in transition or against slow-footed sacrificial lambs, he then found himself on the right wing (his preferred area of operation – he took just one shot from the left side all night) against badass Bradley. Again, with the same fake jabs he used on Olynyk in the corner, he feints baseline and Bradley shifts his stance. In these split seconds of shifting and countering the counters, Kyrie gets over the defender’s top foot, has him beat, and careens downhill where Zeller awaits. Kyrie anticipates, adjusts, re-balances, makes the shot and draws the foul. Cavs, 82-76, Kyrie up to 34 and six straight.
Isolated again on the right wing, this time against the game, but overmatched Rozier, Irving does the exact same thing he just did to Avery: fake right, catch the defender off-guard because the defense must respect the dribble drive and in this case, Rozier nearly trips over his own feet, go left to the center. This time it’s Al Horford waiting and Kyrie casually leaps, brings the ball down and scoops it from a lower angle over Horford’s outstretched hand. And does it all at top speed with grace. Cavs, 84-78, 36 for Kyrie and he’s now hit seven straight.
Finally, the icing on the cake. The cherry on top. The gravy on the mashed potatoes. Whatever you want to call it, young Rozier was stuck all alone on Kyrie yet again with the quarter winding down. The previous slice and dice fresh in his mind, Rozier’s too reactionary on the balls of his feet jumping back nearly three to four feet when Kyrie fakes a dribble attack. At the same time Rozier backs up, Kyrie calmly, cool as you will, steps back creating a good six-plus feet between them. The shot is up, the shot is good and Cleveland goes into the fourth up 87-80 as the buzzer sounds.
Over the final four minutes and forty-eight seconds of the third period, Kyrie scored 19 points and hit eight straight shots.
And as I finish this, what I think I’ve realized is that Kyrie captured a moment, captured the crowd, and captivated us all. It reminds me of a section Jack Kerouac’s On the Road when his main characters Dean and Sal end up at a jazz club in San Francisco and end up under the spell of a tenorman who captured “IT.” As Dean explains it:
Now, man, that alto man last night had IT—he held it once he found it…. Up to him to put down what’s on everybody’s mind. He starts the first chorus, then lines up his ideas…. And then he rises to his fate and has to blow equal to it. All of a sudden in the middle of the chorus he gets it—everybody looks up and knows; they listen; he picks it up and carries. Time stops. He’s filling empty space with the substance of our lives…. He has to blow across bridges and come and do it with such infinite feeling soul-exploratory for the tune of the moment that everybody knows it’s not the tune that counts but IT
For all of basketball’s team-sport ethos, these moments of individual greatness can tilt thousands of people sitting in an arena towards palpable frenzy. You can imagine, or at least I can imagine, a crowd rising to riot levels in these moments. The rising giddiness, the euphoria, the open-ended question imploringly asked: how far can we go? How far will he take us? To which only Kyrie can answer. He owned the time and the moment. For that blissful stretch of the third, he had IT.
May 15, 2017Posted by on
Lloyd Daniels entered my consciousness sometime in the early nineties. I don’t know if it was in 1992 when he made his NBA debut with the San Antonio Spurs as a 25-year-old rookie or if it was sometime before when he flirted with NCAA eligibility and Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV program. As a 12-year-old, I was perplexed about why there was this hoopla around a guy who averaged under ten points and hadn’t played on any college team I knew of. Whenever I first heard of Daniels, it was absent awareness of John Valenti’s 1991 book (co-written by Ron Naclerio), originally titled Swee’Pea and Other Playground Legends: Tales of Drugs, Violence and Basketball; later republished as Swee’pea: The Story of Lloyd Daniels and Other Playground Basketball Legends.
It’s a not a radical title makeover, but it’s enough to raise an eyebrow as the original title and the content within Valenti’s book is flush with the drug abuse and violence that rolled like an avalanche through American cities in the 1980s in the form of crack. Not immune from the drug game and its accompanying violence were New York City basketball players from Earl “the Goat” Manigault in the 1960s to Len Bias and Lloyd Daniels in the 80s.
Valenti and Naclerio are perfectly qualified to tell Lloyd’s story. Valenti, a nine-time Pulitzer Prize-nominated reporter and Naclerio, one of the most decorated coaches in New York’s famed Public School Athletic League with over 700 wins, have the requisite skills and firsthand knowledge (Naclerio had been a Daniels confidant and supporter since the early-80s) to tell Lloyd’s tragic story.
It’s a story that is as much a sociological study of the impact of drugs on the inner-city boroughs of New York as it is an exploration into the city’s playground basketball legends. Unfortunately, the two have been tragically intertwined. In my reading, I wanted more basketball, more stories, more myths, more descriptions. But the narrative we want isn’t usually the one that was lived. And in the 18-to-20 hours each day that Lloyd Daniels wasn’t aweing basketball coaches or fans from Brooklyn to Mount SAC, from a young age, he was skipping school, sleeping in and getting high. That reality wasn’t unique to Daniels and it’s the story Valenti tells here which is why the title shift feels disingenuous.
Daniels was a 6’7” wing player born in 1967 so he came up around the same time as future NBA players J.R. Reid, LaBradford Smith, and Dennis Scott. His mother died at a young age, and his father wasn’t in the picture, so Daniels was passed back and forth between grandmothers. By age seven, he could navigate the city’s boroughs by public transit and by ten he was selling coke and weed and toking up daily. Ten-years-old, no mother, no father, unable to read with undiagnosed dyslexia, a well-developed con necessary just for survival. That same boy who was failed by the education system and failed by his family, was sneaking out night to play basketball in the dark. As Valenti writes,
He taught himself how to dribble on those darkened, glass-strewn courts. Taught himself how to pass, bouncing the ball off the chain-link fences. Taught himself to shoot jumpers in the park, which had no lights, banking them home in the dark. He said it developed not only his eye for the basket, but his feel for it. He’d take a hundred shots. After a while, despite the darkness, he could make 98, 99.
This balance, the drug hustle and basketball, is the delicate tightrope Daniels kept falling off throughout his life and is the backbone along which the content of the book strides. From the time he’s a young kid, barely a teenager, Daniels is swarmed by hangers-on, people who genuinely care for him, but are also pulled in by his prodigious talents. They let him get away with on and off-court crap because he’s just so freakishly talented. This extremely human conflict, a self-vested interest, is a recurring theme in Lloyd’s life where we see these older, typically well-off white men constantly drawn to Daniels’s talent, his likability, and they develop genuine relationships with the young star. Simultaneously, Daniels picked up pretty early that he was a hot commodity because he was good at basketball and developed terrible habits. He used people to get what he needed and into his 20s, had a teenager’s inability to take accountability for his actions.
People don’t take interest unless you’re one hell of a player and that’s what makes Lloyd’s story so damn compelling. This is a player who, as a junior in high school, averaged 31-points, 12-rebounds, ten assists, and five blocks per-game and was named to the 1986 Parade All-American team. He was regularly compared to Magic Johnson and George Gervin because his feel for the game was so natural, the execution so smooth. Just watching this clip from 1996 when Lloyd was 29 and had beaten his body up with years of drug and alcohol abuse and survived a drug-related shooting that nearly killed him, you can see the fluidity and talent that were so magnetizing when he was a teeThat there is so little video of Daniels playing ball is part beauty, part tragedy. Beauty in the sense that myths and legends are food for the imagination. You can choose to believe or not and even among those who saw Daniels as a teenager and then saw him in his mid-20s when he was well-past his basketball-playing prime have waffled on how good of a talent he really was. It’s tragedy in that a talent so vast and unique was underutilized to the point that, despite the availability of video equipment, a relatively small number of people were able to appreciate his gifts. His greatest lives on via oral tradition or in the locked-up memories of those who saw him when. Valenti, via high school recruiting expert and Daniels aficionado, Tom Konchalski captures this fleeting essence in religious tones:
Stories of Lloyd Daniels and his immense and immeasurable talent, remain like those of apparitions of the Virgin Mother at Lourdes and La Salette, at Fatima and Our Lady of Guadalupe and even Syracuse. That is, that most nonbelievers don’t believe those apparitions existed. But for those who were there, who saw with their own eyes, well … they believe, because they know in their hearts and in their minds what they saw. Truly saw.
Valenti uses a colorful cast of New York ball players to show that, however talented he may have been, Daniels being failed by family and schools and succumbing to temptations was not the exception, but the rule. He uses Tony Bruin III to show that even young men who grew up with a strong family presence and made it to college were still vulnerable to the pull of drugs. There’s the Goat, Richie Adams, Fly Williams, and how many other players who traded the ball for the rock.
On the flip side, there’s Lefrak City’s Kenny Anderson whose uncle was a well-regarded ballplayer caught up in the streets and killed at 27. Anderson’s older brother Ricky, another ballplayer who made a name for himself, but quit in exchange for “other interests.” Anderson is a background character in the broader story, but serves a purpose as a contrast to Daniels. From before he entered high school, Anderson was surrounded by a support team that included Kenny Smith’s brother Vincent, and Archbishop Molloy’s legendary head coach Jack Curran who helped insulate Kenny from all the shit swirling around. It wasn’t different from Daniels having Naclerio, Konchalski, Lou d’Almedia or Arnie Hershkowitz trying to help steer him to places like Oak Hill or Laurinburg; places where, in theory, Lloyd could thrive with discipline and a break from the temptations of the city.
It’s hard to point specifically to what made Anderson and Lloyd different though Valenti, through the stories of Mark Jackson and John Salley, repeatedly points out the steady and influencing role of family that helped some players avoid the street temptations. But it’s not that simple as the Tony Bruin case shows. There’s not always an explanation to why some people succeed and others fail. What makes Lloyd’s story so compelling, and this is no doubt part of the problem, was his rare talent. In July of 1989, just after he had been shot, Lloyd attended the Mike Tyson-Carl Williams fight in Atlantic City and was the toast of the celebrity-filled afterparty. He’s buddy-buddy with Mike Tyson, cool with Rick Pitino and even artist Leroy Neiman, friendly with Charles Barkley and Charles Oakley. He was a defacto celebrity without ever having played in the NBA or the NCAA – that’s how prodigious his talent was.
Swee’Pea is a sociological survey. It’s also a basketball story. It’s a study of human psychology and power dynamics as the substance abusing Lloyd, who was let down by his family and the New York schools, who can’t read, can’t be relied upon for work, can’t commit to putting forth consistent effort, can’t do the basic shit all of us try to do just to get by, is gifted chance after chance at redemption because he has a set of skills that can be packaged up and sold for millions of dollars. On its surface, that’s a miserable, transparent, and heartless exchange. But what makes Swee’Pea worth reading is that it’s not as simple as a heartless exchange. Administration and bureaucracy lead to cold, unfeeling exchanges and on the outer rims of high level basketball, you’re not finding much in the way of administration. It’s not just Jerry Tarkanian using Lloyd to try and better his program or Lloyd conning the owner of his CBA team who took him into his house.
Beyond the brutal zero-sum game of drugs and high caliber basketball are humans worth giving a damn about. That they’re engaged in the endless pursuit of self-interest doesn’t make them different from the rest of us. It makes them more relatable; just sitting at a different table with different stakes, playing games we can all relate to in one way or another.
December 5, 2016Posted by on
Last season I had a monthly post to look at how players were pacing against random historical statistical achievements and now that we’re now roughly a quarter of the way into the NBA season, I’m revisiting the concept. It’s no longer the “young” NBA season, but we’ve escaped the doldrums of “small sample-size theater” and can look at trends as markers of potential sustainability like Russell Westbrook preposterously averaging a triple double. The audacity! Let’s dive in and embrace the stats instead of telling the kids to get off our lawn while we spit shine our shrines to Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan because goddamn it, yesterday wasn’t better than today and today isn’t better than yesterday. New frontiers await, let’s go!
- You want efficiency, here’s your damn efficiency: Kevin Durant scoring 27ppg on 17 or less FGA/gm. Since 1946-47, Basketball-Reference (BBR) tells us the only player with comparable volume and efficiency was Charles Barkley in 1987-88 when he averaged 28.3-points on 16 FGA/gm. Everyone said it would be easier in for KD in Golden State and so far it’s been historically easy.
- For just the 3rd time in league history, at least 10 players are averaging 25 or more points/game. Last happened in 2005-06 after a rule change. Additionally, a whopping 28 players are averaging 20 points or higher.
- BBR tracks rebound percentage beginning in the 1970-71 season when young Tom Boerwinkle led the league with 22.6%. Between 1971 and 2016, only four players achieved a 24% or higher rebounding rate. In 2016-17, three players, including Dwight Howard at a career-high 24.2%, are 24% or better – Andre Drummond and Hassan Whiteside are the other two. Dennis Rodman appears on this list seven times and holds six of the top-7 rates.
- Seems like everyone has strong opinions these days on how many threes big men should or shouldn’t be shooting. I may or may not be one of these people, but it doesn’t change the fact that players listed at 6’11” or taller are taking and making more threes than ever before. Prior to 2016-17, big guys had hit 1.5 or more threes/game 18 different times and it been accomplished by just seven players including the king of big man threes, Dirk Nowitzki who did it five times. But the throne is being challenged in 16-17 as six bigs are making at least 1.5 3s/game including Channing Frye who, if he keeps up his current pace, will tie Dirk for most appearances on the list. Also worth noting is that Frye’s on pace to set big man records for most threes made and highest 3pt-percentage.
- With advanced stats like individual defensive-rating, defensive plus-minus, and opponent shooting percentage, we have more and deeper ways to measure defensive impact. This is good, but there’s still some traditional measures that help identify the havoc players are wreaking on that end of the floor and steals and blocks do a decent job. Since 1973-74 when steals and blocks started being tracked, just two players (David Robinson once and Hakeem Olajuwon four times) have accomplished full-season averages of 2-plus steals and 2-plus blocks. A quarter of the way into 16-17 and the dashing young Grecian prince Giannis Antetokounmpo is making a bid to join these Hall-of-Fame legends with his averages of 2.2 in both categories. Fellow basketball savant Anthony Davis isn’t far behind at 2.7-blocks and 1.8-steals. Do these youngsters dare to jointly pull off a feat not seen since 1992? Dare they may!
- In all our years, we’ve only seen the greatest of the great reach the all-around statistical lines so indicative of great versatility as a 22-point, 8-rebound, 6-assist per-game average. These are players like Oscar Robertson (5x), Wilt Chamberlain (2x), John Havlicek (2x), Larry Bird (6x), Michael Jordan, Kevin Garnett, and Lebron James. But legends must make room for new jacks and those include Russell Westbrook (31-10-11) and the aforementioned Giannis (22-8-6). Russ is the headliner, but at 22, Giannis and Oscar (in 1960-61) are the youngest ever to stack these stats.
- From the world of the weird, since the advent of this great game only a single player has averaged at least 25-points while making 8-or-less field goals/game. That lightning rod of making a lot out of a little is James Harden who reached the over-25/under-8 marker thrice is being threatened with new company this season as argyle-sock-puppet-loving Jimmy Butler throws his hat into the ring of mondo-efficiency with 25.6-points on just 7.8-field goals/game.
- Joel Embiid doesn’t currently qualify for league leaders due to his lack of minutes which is a result of nightly restrictions and not playing back-to-backs, but for rookies, he’s embarking on some strange records:
- Usage rate: He’s currently at 37.6% which would easily eclipse Ben Gordon’s record of 30.4% back in 2004-05. NBA usage rates are tracked back to 1977-78.
- Turnovers: No player has ever averaged as many turnovers (3.8) while appearing in as few minutes (under 24). As his playing time and frequency level out, one would expect there to be a balancing out, but until it happens, he’ll remain in lonely, rare company.
- Three-point shooting: For rookies who have attempted at least 30 threes in the first 13 games of their debut season, Embiid ranks 4th overall in accuracy at 51% (18-35) behind well-known shooters Brent Barry, Jason Terry, and Dana Barros.
- Blocks & Threes: With all these unicorns like Embiid, Giannis, and Porzingis galloping around NBA cities, new frontiers are being explored with frequency. Since 1983-84, only one other player (not limited to rookies) has as many blocks (29) and threes (18) made through his team’s first 13 games and that’s Wilson Chandler in 2010-11.
- 28-points-10-rebounds-1.5 3s had never been reached before this season and now we’ve got two players breaking on through to the other side (interestingly enough, a montage of Westbrook drives, dives, and boards could easily be set to The Doors tune) of NBA statistics: Westbrook (31-10-1.8) and DeMarcus Cousins (29-10-1.7). There’s a lot of similarity in how these guys play so while positionally (not a word, but we’ll go with it) and physically they couldn’t be much more dissimilar, they’re both emotionally volatile players fueled by something deep in their guts and chest cavities. They’re wrecking balls with immense responsibilities riding on their shoulders and their carnage is leaving bulk stats and fragile records in their wakes from Sacramento to Oklahoma City.
- A usage rate over 30% will typically land a player in the top-10 in the league in overall usage. But 30% usage and under two turnovers/game? That’s rare. So rare that prior to this season, it’s been accomplished just three times: by Kobe Bryant last year (more a result of his bullish shot jacking), LaMarcus Aldridge in 14-15 (30.2, 1.7), and Dirk in 08-09 (30.3, 1.9). Joining this rare combination of usage and efficiency are Kawhi Leonard (30.6, 1.9) and Zach Randolph (30.9, 1.3). Though I haven’t seen as much Z-Bo as I would like, I’m assuming there’s a lot of catching and shooting with little dribbling and not much playmaking. Kawhi, by contrast, has more assists/game than anyone else on this list.
- Blocking shots and scoring the basketball at an elite level are the domains of Kareem, Hakeem, the Admiral and Pat Ewing, right? I mean those are the first names that come to mind when I think of that joint skillset, but prior to this season, only a single player had ever average 30-points and greater than 2.5-blocks for an entire season. Can you guess who it is? Think, think, guess, guess, don’t skip ahead. This year, Anthony Davis (31.5, 2.7) is flirting with joining Buffalo Brave great Bob McAdoo (30.6, 3.3) in this exclusive club of tall, lean basketball pros.
- After tonight, the Brow of unibrow fame is already up to six 35-point, 15-rebound games. Since 1983-84, the most a player has had in a single season was Charles Barkley with 12 in 87-88. We know the Brow’s susceptible to missing games to aches, pains, strains, sprains and the like, but this is a fun one to watch.
- 50-40-90 club but with 48-38-88 thresholds so we can see who’s sniffing around. 20 games into the season and we’ve got four candidates: Stephen Curry (49-42-92), Patty Mills (51-45-96), Terrence Ross (50-44-94), and J.J. Redick (49-46-90). Only once since we’ve been threes came into the game have we seen more than one player reach this dead-eye shooting summit: 2007-08 when Jose Calderon and Steve Nash landed there together.
We’re a quarter of the way in, but this has the making of a legendary season for statistical achievements, driven by those former three Thunders rolling roughshod through the league in their own tradition-defying ways. Usage rates at the individual level are rising in line with individual scoring and the range expansion of big men means more of the court is open to new batches of players which means the entire ecosystem of stats is undergoing historical change. This is fun, it’s unseen, let’s get our sunscreen (I’ll make sure your neck is covered) and venture off into worlds unknown with Boogie and Russ and the Brow. Godspeed!
November 23, 2016Posted by on
Aside from being wholly arbitrary and comforting with its round numbers, the 30-point, 10-assist, 0-turnover game is an indelible mark of pro basketball efficiency. Its achievers clearly shoulder the weight of an entire offense, acting as both elite scorer and distributor while taking care to not give away precious possessions. At this early time in the 2016-17 season, James Harden is trekking towards NBA infamy with a turnover-per-game ratio north of 5 which makes his induction into the 30-10-0 club on November 19th, 2016 all the more unexpected, but also all the more possible given his nightly responsibility.
Major League Baseball has an informal mark of master class in starting pitching referred to as “The Maddux,” in honor of Hall-of-Famer Greg Maddux who was known for his ultra-efficiency on the mound. The Maddux is a complete game shutout while throwing under 100 pitches. Not surprisingly, Maddux was the master of The Maddux. He accumulated 13 such performances over 740 career starts – just under 2% of all starts. The next closest pitcher is Zane Smith with 7 Madduxes. Since 1988 when pitch counts were regularly tracked, blogger/writer Jason Lukehart writes that there have been over 300 Madduxes thrown by 190 different pitchers – or roughly 11-per-season.
While it’s nothing near an apples-to-apples comparison, the 30-10-0 club has the feel of a Maddux in its combination of efficiency mixed with excellence. Our dear Player Index resource over at Basketball-Reference tells us that since the 1983-84 season, the 30-10-0 has been accomplished 46 times by 39 different players; or less than 1.5 times-per-season. Given the time constraints and lack of turnover numbers available for historical players, it’s safe to assume 30-10 luminaries like Nate Archibald and Oscar Robertson are grandfathers of the stat, but we’ll just have to move forward with our Reagan-era players.
So if the great Greg Maddux is the godfather of the Maddux, then we’re all inevitably asking, “Who’s the godfather of the 30-10-0? Whose illustrious name shall represent the ultimate in scoring and assisting efficiency?”
My own guesses went the way of Chris Paul, or Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, or Steve Nash. I wasn’t prepared for Stephon Marbury. Maybe it shouldn’t be a shock as the Coney Island Starchild had a 7-season stretch where he averaged roughly 22-points and 8-assists with 3-turnovers, but I was shocked anyway. Here are the top 30-10-0s:
- Stephon Marbury – 4 times
- Larry Bird – twice
- Alex English – twice
- Baron Davis – twice
- Tim Hardaway – twice
Zero turnovers isn’t some ultimate mark of perfection in basketball anymore than differentiating between 99 pitches and 100 pitches is in baseball, but it’s a hell of a benchmark. Coupled with the points and assists, it’s also a good indicator of team success. In the 46 games we’ve seen the 30-10-0, teams featuring said players are 40-6, winning 87% of their games.
There’s no great takeaway other than acknowledging that something extremely rare and unlikely occurred this past Saturday. History is full of these little untold truths that lie waiting to be discovered through the accomplishments of the present. Alex English going for 46-10-0 while shooting 76% from the field? Larry Bird hanging 46-10-0 on the Magic as a hobbled 33-year-old? Or even Baron Davis’s 33-14rebound-10-0 effort in the playoffs back in 2002? These are masterpieces trapped in the memories of fans and beneath the dust of the archives. If Zane Smith can be Greg Maddux for a night, then even Stephen Jackson can be Larry Bird.
November 14, 2016Posted by on
It’s a bit of Captain Obviousness at his most obvious, but after this latest weekend of norm-crushing outputs, it’s still worth acknowledging the statistical rampages on which Russell Westbrook and James Harden are presently embarking.
Harden’s latest salvo was fired across the electorally-commentating Gregg Popovich’s snout to the tune of 25-points, 11-rebounds, and 13-assists which marked back-to-back triple doubles and the third consecutive game of at least 24-points and 13-assists. The last guy to go three straight 24-13s was the Canadian maestro Steve Nash.
Russ responded in kind with an even nervier performance on Sunday (the day of my birth and the day after his own birth so thanks for the bday entertainment) when he unloaded for 41-points, 12-rebounds, and 16-assists while turning the ball over just twice and shooting 67% from the field. That OKC lost to the ever-struggling Magic is just details in the micro, but worrisome in the macro where there’s a collective evidence that disallows celebrating the individual performance in basketball unless there’s a corresponding team success. Aside from the tiresome debates of our day about winning, stats, and the individual in modern basketball, you can be reassured that Russell’s performance was of a most rarefied air. Since 1983-84 which is as far back as Basketball-Reference’s game logs go, only one other player has posted the 40-10-15 triple double and that was three-time NBA champion and ghost chasing coverboy, LeBron James – though Bron needed a full 47 minutes while Russ needed a mere 38. (As an aside, the night Bron executed the 40-10-15, the Cavs lost to Denver in a classic Carmelo-Bron duel where Anthony put up 40 in a game his Nuggets won in overtime. Can we get this on some NBA OnDemand platform? Please? Or is that too much to ask given that we can’t even get a workable version of League Pass?)
We’re a mere 10% into this new season, but inching further away from the small sample size theater and into some world of sustainability. These gaudy stats (32-9-10 with 5 turnovers and a 41% usage for Russ, 30-8-13 with 6 turnovers and 34% usage for Harden) would seem to taper off at some point and yet that assumption is driven by two notions: 1) neither player is physically capable of keeping up these torrid paces, 2) a single player carrying a disproportionate load eventually becomes an impediment to team success.
Physically speaking, Russ has proven his Wolverine-type resiliency over the years as he hadn’t missed a single game through the first five seasons of his career until Patrick Beverley notoriously dove into his leg during the playoffs. This is a man who had his skull dented and continued to play. He appears capable of carrying anything and has the second-highest usage rating in league history at 38.4% in 14-15 which he achieved over 67 games in a season when Kevin Durant was frequently absent with foot injuries.
Harden is a case in stylistic contrast, but has proven himself to be a player with a single-minded emphasis on forward progress. He’s in the midst of a stretch of over 300 games dating back to 2013 where he’s averaging right at 10 free throw attempts-per-game. Despite a bruising style that results in him getting hacked as much or more than any player not named LeBron, his only missed game since the 14-15 season happened in March of 2015 when he was suspended. He’s led the league in minutes played the past two seasons and appears more than physically capable of doing it again year. Iron Man, Iron Beard? So what, get your minutes Harden.
If you’ve seen OKC during one of its 14-minute stretches each game when Russ sits, then you’ve seen a train wreck of a directionless offense flying off the tracks, careening into the fiery depths of basketball hell. They have just one 5-man lineup that doesn’t include Westbrook and has a positive point differential and that lineup has seen just 4-minutes this season. Westbrook leads the league in both box score plus/minus and VORP (value over replacement player) and his on-off difference is a whopping +25.7. Whether you watch or study the data or just close your eyes and imagine, in any scenario, by any measure, OKC needs Russ like the winter needs the spring.
But if you think a +25.7 on-off is nice, Harden’s with the Rockets is +38.6. Like Westbrook, he appears in Houston’s most productive lineups and has become the singular point of propulsion for this potent offensive attack. Maybe the return of the knee-crushing Beverley does something to reduce Harden’s burden, but he’s never been a traditional point guard/playmaker either, so while his return may assuage some of the wear and tear, it’s not likely to limit the role of the bearded one.
By all visual and statistical appearances, these team’s hopes weigh disproportionately on the shoulders of these native Los Angelinos. It may not meet the aesthetic that some have of basketball, but it does create a space for insanity to reign and for us to plumb the depths of man’s ability to mythologize in a most John Henry (or early MJ) way.
Is it sustainable though? Russ is shooting a career-best 35% from three on a career-high 6 three-point-attempts per-game. Harden is averaging over 40% more than his best assists-per-game average. And both guys are rebounding at career-best levels.
Without Durant, OKC is playing the fastest pace of Westbrook’s career which is resulting in around three more possessions-per-game than at any other time in his career. Harden, conversely, is playing slightly slower than last season, but in line with 14-15. The big flip for Harden is that, per BBR, he’s seeing 98% of his minutes at the point guard position versus 1-2% the previous three seasons. He’s surrounded by glorious shooters like Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and even a blossoming Sam Dekker. The variables are in place for both guys to continue churning out offense at gluttonous levels.
Points and assists are so much more in the player’s control than rebounding and while the scoring/assist combinations are the stuff that Oscar Robertson and Nate Archibald can relate to, it’s the rebounding as lead guards that make these players so unique and dangerous. Like LeBron or Magic, both guys can retrieve the defensive board and catch a vulnerable, unset defensive off-balance. As of 11/14, Westbrook leads the league in transition possessions and Harden is tied for 5th. Neither player is exceptionally efficient, which, given the volume of their breaks doesn’t diminish from the overall impact.
All that defensive rebounding-leading-to-breaks aside, Harden maintaining 8-rebounds-per-game or Westbrook at 9 are the most likely stats to fall off.
To put these lines into perspective though, only one player in NBA history has maintained the 30-8-10 line for an entire season. Yep, Mr. Triple-Double himself, Oscar Robertson pulled off the feat three separate seasons: 61-62, 63-64, and 64-65.
Like my presumption of Russ and Harden’s toughest counting stat being rebounding, the Big O’s greatest volatility was on the boards where he dropped from 12.5/game as a 23-year-old to a mere 9-10 in subsequent seasons. What makes the Robertson comparison interesting and what makes Russ and Harden’s outputs so damn ridiculous is the difference in pace between the mid-60s and today. Below I’ve included the same table, but with team pace included at the far right:
The numbers are frighteningly similar despite the massive gaps in both minutes played and pace. None of this should take away from the Big O who averaged a triple-double over his first six seasons in the league which spanned 460 games and a 30-10-10 stat line. But it feels almost like Miguel Cabrera winning the Triple Crown a few years back. There are hallowed numbers that feel out of reach, until the savants of today show up with their beards and fringe fashion statements and make you think the impossible is possible. Dinosaurs can walk again – but can they do it for 82 games? Shit man, you’re asking the wrong guy.
November 2, 2016Posted by on
On November 1st, 2016, Ray Allen announced his retirement from the National Basketball Association, but way back in June of 2013 when I was a wee lad of 32, I was in my living room watching game six of the Finals with my guy Zach, an unabashed LeBron James non-fan. We both claimed indifference to the outcome, but as the series progressed, it became evident that I was outwardly pro-Heat, and he was low-key pro-Spurs – or maybe just anti-Heat. I think our lines of division were cut primarily along a Lebron-drawn border and of course it was the King who lost his headband and went HAM, but it was Ray Allen in his most particular attention to detail who attempted the improbable, impossible, iconic corner three while backpedaling, squaring his feet, catching, rising, and with a posture and form that has always been the envy of jump shooters around the world, actually made one of the greatest shots in pro basketball history.
If I remember nothing else of Ray Allen, that shot will forever be seared in the part of my memory that houses basketball. It’s up there with MJ’s shot against the Jazz and Dave Newman’s shot against Valley High School in 1998 as my trinity of greatest shots of all time experienced live in the moment. (This list is subject to change at the author’s own whims and as memory affords.)
In as much as Ray’s basketball excellence can be boiled down to a single shot that articulates and expresses everything about his basketball greatness, the breadth and depth of his career is vast.
My own personal relationship with Allen dates back to his Big East days where I have recollections (and maybe even a VHS recording) of UCONN battling Allen Iverson’s Georgetown squad and Ray going by the nickname The Candyman which, whenever I’m reminded of this, I hear the refrain from the song, “The candyman can because he mixes it with love that makes the world taste good,” which is fraught with awkwardness. This is back when I was 14 or 15 which means I’ve been conscious and aware of the being called Ray Allen for over half my life.
While his Milwaukee and early Seattle years established him as top-tier and probably the top shooter in the league, my own fondness for Allen developed when I moved to Seattle in August of 2004. Up to that point, I’d never lived in a city with an NBA team. The Sonics were gone four seasons after my arrival, but in my time here they were an ok-to-good team with Allen and Rashard Lewis as their go-to guys and took the eventual champion Spurs to six games in 2005. The game three atmosphere in Key Arena was beautiful, moving enough that my mom, always good for an emotional release, had recently become a US citizen and cried through the rousing national anthem. It’s strange, but my memories of Allen are not profound and certainly not as moving as my mom’s experience during that playoff game. During the three years I watched him at Key Arena (attending roughly 5-10 games/season in-person), he experienced his statistical peak with a three-season average of 25-points, over 4 rebounds, nearly 4 assists, with 3 threes-made-per game and made the All-NBA Second team in 04-05.
There was something rote or maybe even boring to his excellence. That’s not to imply there’s something less valuable about a versatile two-guard with a well-rounded game and the prettiest jump shot of all-time and an incomprehensibly quick release. It’s not to discount the nuance of his footwork curling around a screen and lining his feet up perfectly while catching and shooting in one motion. There was something almost in the vein of Floyd Mayweather; the technical genius who is indisputably great, but semi-predictable and at worst taken for granted. I enjoyed his game most of all when he was acting as a playmaker as he was capable of expanding his game beyond the shooting and attacking style he was known for up to that time. His handle and playmaking ability were given short shrift, but I always wondered what type of ceiling lay lurking beneath that jump shot.
Stylistics aside, my strongest memories of Allen in a Sonics jersey are conflict and performance-related. First there was the long-simmering beef with Kobe Bryant, encapsulated so beautifully by Kobe reportedly calling Ray-Ray before a pre-season game to notify him of a pending ass busting and then telling reporters, “Don’t even put me and dude in the same breath.” How could I forget that kind of old school inter-positional shit talking? Allen was always a yin to Kobe’s yang; an ultra-talented player, athlete and shooter, but all business which isn’t to say without ego. Where Kobe couldn’t coexist with Shaq or be a part of a big three, Allen just went about his craft scoring 20-25-points while setting NBA 3-point records and eventually filling roles on championship teams in exchange for his own individual stats and accolades. Even to the end, Kobe couldn’t share the spotlight with anyone else while Ray was more than comfortable receding without fanfare. One isn’t better than the other, but their contrasting styles and personalities create a natural rivalry that Kobe, for his part, seemed comfortable exploring.
On a winter night in January of 2006, the Sonics hosted the Orlando Magic with reserve combo-guard Keyon Dooling. I was somewhere up high in the rafters of Key Arena watching with my wife. Early in the second quarter, Dooling smashed into Allen with an intentional forearm shiver. From my vantage point, all I saw was the aftermath which was the flurry of activity that accompanies a fight. Allen lifted Keyon and drove him into the front row and from my seat so many hundreds of feet away, I still had that prickly hair-on-end feeling that accompanies live, physical violence. As someone who’s attended 30-some-odd NBA games in person, it’s strange to me that the one fight I’ve witnessed included Ray Allen.
On the performance side, the evening of Sunday, January 22nd will always belong to Kobe and his 81-point game, but it was a game in Phoenix that’s often added as a footnote to that day in NBA history and is my Ray Allen ideal. In a double-overtime contest, Allen led the Sonics with 42 points and 67% true shooting. The final score was a ridiculous 152-149, but Allen was quintessential Ray-Ray late in the game. Maybe it was exploiting the occasional mismatch with Steve Nash or maybe he just put the team on his back like Greg Jennings. Whatever the case, Allen scored 10 through three quarters and went bonkers in the 4th with 21 points on 6-6 shooting including 5-5 from 3. If you watch the clip below, the threes are contested, but Allen, in all his obsessive compulsive nuance, maintains the same form, same footwork, and alignment on every shot. His ability to run in a straight line at full speed or go full speed, curl around a screen, situate his feet just behind the line and catch and shoot with defenders rushing at him like barbarians at the gates is makes him a stylistic father to Klay and Steph. It’s the kind of skill that requires its own targeted defense. The broadcast is comedically highlighted by one of the announcers (Craig Ehlo?) saying, “You know what his mama always told us? ‘Don’t worry about Ray, he’ll get his shots.’”
As if his flawless fourth quarter and a 138-138 tie through four periods and one overtime wasn’t enough, the Suns had the audacity to lose Allen on the final play of the game. Tied up at 149 with 2.5 seconds on the clock, he caught the ball probably 40-feet from the hoop, took a big dribble and stepped in a game-winning shot from somewhere around 30-feet out, nothing but net just for good measure.
Raja Bell summed it up nicely, “How do you explain a guy knocking down a 30-some footer to win a game? It’s not really luck, but it’s a tough thing to explain. It just happens.” Meanwhile, announcer Kevin Calabro held it together, but somehow got stuck repeating, “Break on through to the otherside!”
Through a combination of national exposure, NBA championships, the evolution of the internet and a vociferous online basketball-loving community, Allen’s peak popularity came after his peak as a player. The Boston Big Three was a collection of first-ballot Hall of Famers on a mission – and they delivered. I hated this Celtics team with a passion I’ve reserved for Curry’s Warriors and the “if it ain’t rough it ain’t right” Pistons. Kevin Garnett had evolved into a bully with Kendrick Perkins as his henchman. Paul Pierce was a shit-talking heel. Rajon Rondo was sullen, too big for his britches or something. And they embraced it all! How dare they! But then there was Ray Allen, a steady Eddie if ever there was one. And even though his temperament was the calm day to KG’s tempestuous night, he was perfect for the Celtics model. Unlike KG, he wasn’t angry or demonstrative. He assimilated into the Boston culture without nonsense, without pretense or personality sacrifice. By being his uncontroversial self, he differentiated from his bombastic teammates which also speaks to why Allen’s departure from Boston was met with acrimony by KG and Pierce. Ray went about his business, KG caught feelings.
We finish where we began, in Miami, in his late-30s as a reserve, comfortably and quietly in the background as LeBron, Wade, and Bosh absorbed all the attention. Ray Allen spent his career as a constant, always conforming to roles his team required; be it as an evolving young star with the Bucks, face of the franchise with the Sonics, critical component of Boston’s Big Three, or floor stretching reserve with Miami. His conformity to role and commitment to regiment is the gateway through which his greatest individual play as a basketball player passed. At 37, with any hope for any NBA championship resting on his ability to place a basketball in a rim while opponents distract him, Ray Allen did what he’s done more than any player in NBA history: he made a three. The rest is just epilogue.
October 31, 2016Posted by on
Over the past three seasons, reigning back-to-back league MVP Stephen Curry averaged 79 games-per-season and yet his ankles remain a delicate arc of his historical narrative. From the customized high-ankle-support Under Armour shoes to his lean build to his physical breakdown in the 2016 playoffs, Curry’s health seems to be a talking point that always lingers kind of like the vinegary sweat smell from my buddy G’s high school practice jersey. It’s a funk that still makes Golden State fans and league office employees cringe when Steph hits the deck.
Connected to Curry’s health is the direct correlation to the Warriors’ collective success. Health isn’t an absolute, but from the start of the 2014-15 season to Curry slipping on a wet spot against the Rockets in the opening round of the 2016 playoffs, the Warriors won 156 of 185 games (84%). After Curry’s injury, they went 15-9 (63%).
Steph’s health, among so many other variables, is a critical piece of his team’s success. This isn’t a relationship unique to Golden State or Steph, but something that pervades any team sport, particularly those where each team only fields five players at a time. With that in mind, I looked at missed games over the previous three seasons in some attempt to understand who’s getting hurt, how much time they’re missing, and understand that every time they go away, what part of the team are they taking with them – be it potential or points-per-game or whatever.
Like many NBA fan, I’m intrigued by Anthony Davis’s young career. The most unique talents suffer under the greatest microscopes and so it is that we needle away at Davis’s four-year career. Sticking with the three-year baseline I established, Davis has missed 50 games with 15-16 being his most injurious at 21 games missed. But so what? What do the Pelicans lose when Davis is gone?
Depending on how you look at it, they miss a lot. By traditional measures, Davis takes with him 23-points and 10-rebounds, 2.5 blocks and nearly 1.5 steals while shooting 51% from the field and 78% from the line on nearly 8 attempts-per-game. (Or, he takes with him 50-points, 16-rebounds, and 7-steals; the line he audaciously produced in the 16-17 season opener.) But how does that impact the team? There’s no single measure to identify wins lost, but there are a handful of win-share or replacement-level stats that can be inverted into a form of loss-share.
There’s WORP/WARP which is Wins Over/Above Replacement Player that is an extension of VORP (Value over replacement player). Then there’s team record with and without a player which is a simplistic, raw way to look at impact which I’ve boiled down a single lost wins number based on variance in win-percentage in games the player played versus games he missed (example: in 2014-15, OKC won 66.7% of the 27 games in which Kevin Durant appeared. They won 49.1% in the 55 games he missed. Apply the 66.7% to the 55 games he missed and you land at ~37 wins. Subtract from that 37 the 27 wins OKC had without him and the lost wins comes out to 9.67.) And finally, there’s ESPN’s RPM (Real plus-minus) model which offers up a metric simply titled RPM Wins which estimates the “number of wins each player has contributed to his team’s total for the season” and includes RPM and a number of possessions played.
For each of the above stats (WORP, Raw Won-Loss, and RPM Wins), I’ve created a negative metric – WORP becomes WORP missed, Raw Won-Loss becomes Raw Wins Lost, and RPM Wins becomes RPM Losses. None of these should be viewed as standalone metrics, but rather as directional insights to get a sense of what’s being lost when a player sits.
If we stick with Davis, we see a fairly consistent measure across the three metrics. For the 15-16 season where he missed 21 games, his WORP landed at 2.1, Wins Lost was 2.3, and RPM losses was 2.4. While there are a silly number of variables that play into the actual on-court results (like Jrue Holiday missing 17 games and sitting back-to-backs while playing limited minutes or Ryan Anderson missing 16 games, Alvin Gentry as new coach, and on and on), by current available measures, the loss of Davis, while no doubt a disruption to continuity and scheme, likely cost New Orleans 2-3 wins.
If we think about how the weight of performance can sway these metrics, let’s compare Davis’s most recent three seasons:
Though Davis missed his most games in 15-16, the performance-based measures of RPM Losses and WORP Missed indicate a more significant impact in 14-15.
Davis is an instructive case for this exercise. He’s consistent both in terms of his on-court outputs and won/loss measures. To-date you can pencil him in for a PER over 25 and somewhere between 15-20 missed games while costing his team 2-4 wins through his absences. And given that he suffered a mild ankle sprain in the pre-season, it’s fair to assume that the trend will continue to some degree.
Conversely, there are players who have missed huge chunks of games that make this exercise completely futile or reveal the weaknesses in these measures. Paul George is the outlier of outliers, a player whose games played have wildly swung in both directions:
For players who miss a handful of games in a season, the resulting impacts are minimized as to barely register by any of the loss-based measures (see PG’s 13-14 and 15-16). Conversely, George’s 14-15 where he missed 76 games recovering from his gruesome broken leg in the Olympic trials, then came back and helped lead the Pacers to a 5-1 (83.3%) record in the six games he appeared, the value of the Wins Lost, while possibly accurate, is grossly skewed. Indiana was 33-43 (43.4%) in 76 George-less games so when applying PG’s 83.3% win rate to the 76 missed games, the model shows the Pacers missing out on 30 wins which means they would’ve gone 63-19. Meanwhile, his overall 6-game output is so small that his overall impact barely register on RPM or WORP.
To add additional context to George, his 30.33 wins lost is laughably higher than anyone else in this data set over the previous three seasons:
The data does help to illustrate some of my own misperceptions and nowhere is that clearer than comparing Davis to DeMarcus Cousins. The biggest knock against Davis to-date has been his inability to stay on the court. For Cousins, it’s his volatility, his lack of emotional maturity which reveals its ugly head in his missed games. Per Sportrac, Cousins has been suspended six games over the past three seasons. That doesn’t account for all 51 he’s missed in that time – which is one more than Davis – but it’s a significant number.
While Davis is the superior player by nearly any measure, particularly any efficiency measure, the overall impact of Cousins’ missed games is on par with or exceeds Davis. Again, this isn’t to say Cousins is a better player as there are countless variables. It could entirely be that New Orleans has had superior coaching, an easier schedule, or are better equipped to maintain some degree of continuity in Davis’s absence. By most available measures though, Cousins is just as likely to miss games as Davis and those absences adversely impact his team more so than Davis’s with New Orleans. This isn’t necessarily how I’ve thought about both players and their impacts or reputations.
One ugly trend that stood out like a pus-oozing sore on a replacement player’s naked big toe was the Pelicans’ magnetism to injury. Five of their top players over the past three seasons have each missed 50 games or more which translates into a rough average of nearly 27 games missed per-player-per-season. The culprits have been Holiday (35 games/season, currently out indefinitely as his wife undergoes brain surgery), Anderson (32 games/season, gone to the Rockets), Eric Gordon (25 games/season, gone to Rockets), Tyreke Evans (23 games/season, out until maybe sometime in December and apparently had blood clotting in his calf), and of course Davis. The volume, consistency, and unpredictability (particularly Holiday) make this team a wild card in terms of predictability. And if the Pelicans’ first three games of the season were an indication, the non-injured supporting cast around Davis resembles a mix of flunkies and rotation players with Lance Stephenson vying with Tim Frazier as Robin to the Brow’s Batman. As I look over these numbers, it’s hard to fathom how they even made the playoffs in 14-15, though the semi-obvious answer is Davis’s historical season as he recorded a PER north of 30 for just the 18th time in league history.
Phoenix’s Eric Bledsoe and Charlotte’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist stood out for their respective impacts and consistency. For players I bucketed as “starters,” they finished 1st (MKG) and 5th (Bledsoe) in total games missed over the past three seasons. MKG missed 75 games last season with a shoulder injury, but it wasn’t exactly a new trend as he missed 27 and 20 games the previous two seasons. For Bledsoe, he’s had multiple meniscus injuries and missed 39 in 13-14 and 51 last season.
Both players accompany those costly missed game counts with significant impacts in the win/loss measures. MKG with his average-to-below-average stats doesn’t fare well in WORP measures (0.3, 0.7, 0), but looks tremendous in Raw Lost wins (3.3, 7.3, and 10.6 – though the last one falls in the Paul George 14-15 bucket given he only played 7 games). Additionally, MKG’s impact almost falls in the historic Shane Battier corollary of intangibles as articulated by coach Steve Clifford: “Last year, obviously, we played well without him. The first two years that we were here, literally when he played, we played well, and when he didn’t, we couldn’t win. He impacts winning in so many ways.”
Bledsoe’s won/loss impact is well-represented across any of the three measures I’m using:
With Bledsoe on the floor, Phoenix is winning roughly 5-8 more games each season. Like New Orleans, the Suns have experienced maddening volatility over the past few seasons. In-season coaching changes, injuries, and locker room deterioration catalyzed by the Suns trading away one of the Morris twins destabilized the hell out of this team. Amidst all that disarray, Bledsoe, aka Baby LeBron, missing 91 games was the icing on the pain cake. As the Suns best player, he has the appearance of being the single most important player to the Suns’ success. What happened to the days of Phoenix’s training squad stitching together the careers of Steve Nash and Grant Hill? Where for art thou Eric Bledsoe’s health?
Injuries are the scourge of sports. They cost teams and cable networks money, muddy the waters of historical context, force us to question the outcomes of competitive contests; they’re annoying, they’re painful, heartbreaking dings, pulls, tears, and breaks that act as a kick to the groin or a slap upside the head. Injuries suck. And yet, our bodies are fallible and fragile; we live in the suck. And every game, every minute missed comes with some cost. Sleep well tonight friends, because we never know when our favorite player might step on a rake and have the handle swing up and smack him in the face and nose leaving them concussed with a broken nose and an uncomfortable seat at the end of the bench in street clothes.
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 11, 2016Posted by on
A great chapter closed, an era ended, the ink is finally dry on the career of Tim Duncan. Of course, we’ll be arguing legacies and positions played until time immemorial because that’s what we do, but there is no next with Tim Duncan. In the early morning when I found out about his retirement, my mind was clear, not yet polluted by the noise of the day and corporate worries. I trust my morning mind and for some reason, my first thoughts of Duncan were his failures.
Back in 2013 when the Heat battled back from a game six fourth quarter deficit and eventually won the series in game seven, a major footnote of the series happened in the fourth quarter of game seven with Miami up 90-88 and less than a minute remaining in the game. Duncan, guarded by 6’7” Shane Battier, caught the ball on the left block and dribbled across the middle of the lane where he attempted and missed a driving layup. He perfectly timed his miss and used his great length to tip the ball back up, missing that as well. Miami rebounded the ball and went on to win the game. Duncan and the Spurs got the shot they wanted, but he missed. For a guy who’s considered by many to be the greatest power forward of all time, this was a low point.
After that game, Dan Devine of Yahoo Sports wrote of Duncan:
“To be at this point — with this team, in a situation where people kind of counted us out — [it] is a great accomplishment to be in a Game 7,” Duncan said. “Or to be in a Game 6 up one and two chances to win an NBA championship and not do it, that’s tough to swallow.”
But now that the world has turned and left Duncan here, so close and yet so far away from the fifth title he so desperately craves, the Game 6 meltdown isn’t what he’ll remember most.
“For me, no. Game 7, missing a layup to tie the game … Making a bad decision down the stretch. Just unable to stop Dwyane [Wade] and LeBron [James]. Probably, for me, Game 7 is always going to haunt me.”
Tim Duncan’s greatness has never been up for debate. Since he stepped onto the court as a rookie and averaged 21-points with 12-rebounds and 2.5-blocks, he’s been firmly entrenched as a top player in the league. And yet, I’ll always remember his early career bugaboos from the free throw line. He never reached Shaq-level struggles, but battled the yips on multiple occasions over the years; most notably against the Pistons in game five of the 2005 Finals when he went 0-6 from the line in the 4th quarter including 0-3 in the final minute. It was remarkable to see a player who was otherwise so fundamentally sound lose focus or over-focus at critical points in big games. He was a 7-foot expressionless (except when disagreeing with calls) tactician with his own flaws and struggles.
I assume I’m attracted to Duncan’s failures in part because as a Lakers fan during the Shaq/Kobe era, Duncan and his Spurs were a fear-causing foil. If Shaq was a human wrecking ball patrolling the paint, Duncan was the Excellence of Execution, a player whose overall game was so refined as to appear pre-programmed, Terminator style. Some guys are so great that you that their success is assumed. If you root against these players or their teams, you become conditioned to them snuffing out your hope by just doing what they do.
But it was never just about Duncan. In some ways, Duncan and the Spurs were too good to be true, too good to resist. Part of the indelibleness of his and their failures is rooted deeply in the 19-year-long crush of a narrative that trails these Spurs around as a model of virtue and righteousness. It’s this unbudging narrative (and lack of questioning it) that pushed me to write this in 2014 and drove my friend Jacob Greenberg to write this a few months later. Duncan isn’t guilty of crafting these narratives, but Spurs and Popovich exceptionalism have always generated incessant storylines that made any deviation from the flawless particularly enjoyable.
But as I look back and re-watch some of these old misses, there’s no longer any joy. Removed from the passion that accompanies being a fan fully engrossed in the live moment, it’s empathy and feeling that stand out. For all the descriptions of being a stoic and being a robot, Duncan is composed of the same moondust that makes up all of us. And in seeing his failure and the weights of those disappointments, I can’t help but feel some of what he feels even if I only ever hoped his team would be defeated.
So in my pettiness, it’s failure that stands out and it isn’t just the free throws I remember. As has become a theme of this blog, my own personal fan experience is one that relishes the defeat of true foes as much as it celebrates my own team’s victories. May 13th, 2004 delivered an iconic basketball moment and Duncan was a significant figure in the memory. I was at my apartment in Iowa City, a fifth-year senior grinding through his final classes, watching a Lakers/Spurs Western Conference Semifinals grinder from bed while my wife (then my girlfriend) studied or worked or just chilled next to me. The game unfolded on my crappy 19” TV, a low-scoring affair in the 70s of which I remember little except two shots.
With just over five seconds on the clock and a 72-71 Lakers lead in San Antonio, Duncan caught Ginobili’s inbounds at the right elbow and with a 7’1”, 350lbs-plus Shaq draped over him, took a couple hard dribbles to his left and elevated with his momentum carrying him that direction and flung a shot at the basket. He didn’t follow-through, it was just a quick trigger of a line drive that seemed to be magnetically pulled into and through the hoop.
The Spurs, their fans, and of course Duncan erupted. The camera zoomed in on Kobe, on Shaq. They’re stunned, disbelieving. The clock read 0.4 seconds and in my room as a 23-year-old, I am deflated. Even re-watching it now, a stain of disappointment is still there, just barely, but there it is; knowingly bested even if by a fluke shot. Even if it didn’t play out that way, the likelihood of defeat was all too real to the point I still carry it with me more than 12 years later.
The Lakers come back down with Gary Payton inbounding. Shaq peels back checking for the lob, but Rasho Nesterovic denies it. Kobe tries to break away north of the three-point line, but it’s Derek Fisher making a hard cut to the ball, catching and barely turning and shooting all in one motion. From a sitting position, I jumped off my bed, nearly hitting my head on the ceiling. I shrieked or screamed or yelled and my wife nearly had a heart attack. And all those Spurs, Kevin Willis, Bruce Bowen, Hedo Turkoglu, and of course Tim Duncan are struck down by their own incomprehension which is only made more agonizing by the review process that confirms it all: shot is good, Lakers win.
That the most controversial aspect of Duncan’s career is whether or not he was a power forward or center is the vanilla of NBA controversies. He made no waves, just dominated. He won two MVPs, three Finals MVPs, an All-Star MVP, and five NBA Championships. I guess people want to debate if he’s the best power forward ever or how he stacks up against Kobe as the best player of their shared generation, but there’s not much to argue for me. I’ll always remember the failures and even if I understand how and why my memories drift that way, I can’t help but feel that in relishing the losses, I missed out on some great moments from one of the greatest basketball players of my lifetime.
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.