Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

Steph Curry as a springboard into the Mind of Karl Malone

Almost 25 years ago to the day, a perturbed Karl Malone nursing hurt feelings and a bruised ego stepped onto the Salt Palace court as the Jazz hosted the Milwaukee Bucks. What ensued was something akin to a pissed off Andre the Giant going off script at a Royal Rumble and tossing all comers out of the ring so quick that the pay-per-view ends two hours early and no one is quite certain what just happened. The game itself was a bloodbath and Malone scored a career-high 61 points on 21-26 shooting while snatching 18 rebounds in just 33 minutes of game play.

The only reason I found this game was thanks to modern-day efficiency king Stephen Curry’s precision in Washington D.C. less than a week ago when he scored 51 in 36 minutes in a road victory over the Wizards while shooting 19-28 from the field and 11-16 from deep. It was peak Curry and peak Warriors in that the reigning MVP needed just 36 minutes to fill it up. In the nationally televised game, he opened the bidding with a 25-point first quarter on 7-8 from three and playing all 12 minutes. In what (as of this writing) Sacramento Kings Coach George Karl refers to as a “California cool” style, Golden State relaxed, turned the ball 15 times through the following three quarters and was outscored over that same period. But the game was close enough that Curry put up his second most shot attempts of the season, tied his most three-point attempts, and exceeded his average minutes/game.

Wizards point guard John Wall described the performance:

It’s like Kobe (Bryant) when he had 81. He couldn’t miss. You keep defending the best way you can. We challenged some shots. He didn’t have too many open looks. He just made them.

Scoring 51 in 36 or less has been accomplished just 12 times since the 1983-84 season with Curry now owning the two most recent occasions. The only other player to appear on the list more than once is Kobe Bryant at four times. What’s unique and I guess predictable is that in all 12 games, the team with the +51-point scorer won. The big scorers are hyper efficient from the field (except Tracy McGrady in 2003) and get to the at least 10 times (except Curry last week who made it to the line just three times).

For me, the most memorable on this list was Kobe’s 62 points on Dallas during his Chamberlain-esque scoring binge of 2005-06 when he had single handedly outscored Dallas through three quarters (62-61). (As a side note, ESPN’s Baxter Holmes reported then-Dallas Assistant Coach Del Harris was the primary motivator for Kobe’s 62-point outburst as Harris had been Kobe’s coach as a rookie and he still held a desire for revenge for Harris “driving him crazy” as a rookie. The unlucky coincidence (for Harris at least) is that Harris was present as the Bucks head coach the night Malone scored his 61. To my knowledge, Del Harris was in no way affiliated with the Wizards during Curry’s performance.)

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The anatomy of 51 in 36 is one thing whereas motivation is something altogether different and in some cases less discernible.

After his single-handed destruction of Washington, Curry described what we most frequently refer to as the zone. There was no other apparent motivation, no driving force, just “some of the shots that you’re like ‘Oh that’s off,’ they end up going in. It’s a fun feeling, and you want to ride that until you can’t anymore.”

But for other players, the motivations are clearer for various reasons:

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(Note: For a thorough reading on athletes and vengeance, Bill Simmons’ Vengeance Scale from ~2004 (?) still holds up pretty well with an exceptionally robust rating scale.)

But no one on this list can reach the grating disrespect the Mailman felt back in 1990 after the results of the All-Star Game fan vote (hat-tip to Danny Hazan for putting me onto this storyline). It was January 26th, 1990 when Malone, the defending ASG MVP, found out the fans had selected the Lakers’ A.C. Green to start the game. Green edged him out by all of 1,226 votes – less than 1% of the total votes Malone received. At the time, the Mailman was an MVP candidate putting up 30.5ppg on 58% with nearly 11 rebounds and three assists/game. His lividity was so great that Kurt Kragthorpe of The Deseret News wrote: “Before the game, Karl Malone called the NBA office to complain about the voting results and told teammates he would boycott the All-Star Game.”

Teammate John Stockton and the aforementioned fan-selected starter Green were less confounded, both offering more contextual responses. Stockton said,

I don’t know that being selected this way (by fan vote) is any better than being selected the other way (by coaches). It’s tough to be thrilled about a selection process when an absolute shoo-in doesn’t make it. That amazes me.

And Green:

I’m surprised to be on the team. I never knew my position in the balloting, and it’s really out of the players’ control who the fans vote for. Neither one of us did any campaigning. On paper, you’d think (Malone) would be on the team. I mean, he does it night in, night out. That’s what you have to do to be an All-Star.

But on a first glance that didn’t matter to Malone. And so the following day on the 27th of January, he came out with bad intentions, powered forth by the conviction that he had been wronged in the most egregious fashion. He scorched and burned the Bucks big men in the paint and around the rim. All of his points have been wrapped nicely into a single 12-minute Youtube post (below) and a couple things are powerfully evident: of his 21 made field goals, just two came outside the paint and the topic of the All-Star snubbery was hot all night evidenced by the condensed clips where the announcers mention it three separate times including references to “that message was sent airmail, special delivery!”

The way this drama unfolded is fascinating in the sense that Malone was enraged by the fan vote which is something we’ve come to accept 25 years later as a completely uninformed popularity contest. Stockton and Green seemed to grasp that from different perspectives and maybe it’s all the Yao voting or some of the oddities we’ve seen over the years have reinforced the notion that it’s all about popularity, but clearly players in 1990 understood that. And on some level Malone did too, which I’ll explore, but the announcers repeatedly stating that he was “sending a message to voters” is revealing of the most MJ manner of allowing a slight (however significant) to become an all-consuming obsession and that obsession isn’t just accepted by the community, it becomes a rallying point.

Malone’s approach to this game – constant post-ups on the right block, relentlessness on the offensive glass (he had nine offensive boards), and tearing up the court like a demonic man-tank on amphetamines – are indicative of a sustained fixation. All that anger not just harnessed by Malone, but reinforced by who? Reinforced by the local media, teammates, coaches? In The Deseret News the day after the 61-point game, there was a paragraph and anecdote from Stockton that provides some of the insight into the kind of mind that propelled Malone forward:

So who said Malone was overrated this time? In Charlotte last month, teammate John Stockton planted a fake story that the Hornets’ Armon Gilliam had downgraded Malone in a TV interview and the Mailman went out and scored 52. Stockton claimed innocence Saturday, smiling and saying, “Who knows what can lurk in his mind?”

Reviewing the story from the Gilliam game in December of 1989, it sounds like Stockton definitely planted the seed that got Malone going and speaks to the power of security and insecurity, respect and disrespect, succeeding and failure, and fiction versus reality in addition to Stockton’s ability to know which buttons to push and how hard to push them. For the Mailman, just the suggestion that Armon Gilliam or some fans misunderstood his proper place as one of, if not the preeminent power forward in the NBA simultaneously sent him off the rails and pushed him to new heights.

On the one hand, being overlooked by the fan vote feels insignificant. Malone was so obviously at the peak of the game that it seems like it shouldn’t have mattered. The other angle to take is that having achieved so much already (ASG MVP, All-NBA first team, playoffs, top power forward status) and being accepted by his peers, the only audience left to convert was the fans. Where Jordan had his Nike contract and Magic his smile and Larry the faithful of the Boston Garden, Malone was still – at least based on the voting – an unknown. What more did he need to do? What more could he do? Losing out to a clearly lesser player in Green had to be discouragingly Sisyphean and unfair. It had to hurt.

Within this intrusive exploration into the mind of Karl Malone is a glimpse into how that mind works which is what I find so intriguing. If we look at the drama of early 1990 linearly, there’s a nice a smooth narrative arc: the release of the ASG voting which shakes Malone and results in him going as far as reportedly calling the league office. Then there’s the response, the attempt to “send a message to the voters” as if they were a singular mind, as if the vote was indicative of his standing relative to Green’s even though Malone at his most rational had to know how little it implied. The 61 points was intentionally symbolic, but most likely sent to an audience the majority of whom weren’t even listening and the people who were listening already knew Malone’s standing. Even before the eruption, his tone was somewhat more revealing:

  • “The first couple of days, it hurts, but after a while you have to take a little time and think about things.”
  • From the AP via Seattle Times: `When you get put into the situation that I’m in, it’s hard. You get hurt. Everyone has a sense of pride, but I’ve had time to think about it and I think I will go if I’m asked.’

They’re both variations of the same quote and the same theme of having his pride and feelings hurt. Most of us can relate to being stung – whether it’s being disrespected, not being appreciated, being rejected – and responding first with anger expressed through lashing out – or calling the NBA’s front office and saying we’re not going to participate in the ASG. But what we do next is where people’s individual processes vary. Sometimes when I’m angry, I have an immediate outlet and it’s rarely competitive sports. Maybe I dive into work or writing or I’m unfairly being a jackass to my wife. But whether I channel that anger with or without intention, it doesn’t result in anything resembling 61-point games. Other times I’m able to easily identify that what I’m feeling isn’t even anger, but hurt or sadness and I can skip the anger-manifested-as-fill-in-the-blank step and resolve the damn thing in the immediate.

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Where it would seem our species can walk fine lines is in how much these real or imagined slights grow and fester. For the pro basketball community, Michael Jordan is the standard bearer who leveraged slights and insults as well as any basketball player in history. For anyone who saw Jordan’s Hall of Fame speech, there was a sad bitterness at how MJ articulated his motivations dating back his high school years (sorry Leroy Smith) and carrying through his entire career. I don’t have any desire or intent to judge MJ’s vindictiveness or the benefits or risks of using that mentality as a value principle for succeeding in life other than to observe that it looks fucking exhausting.

What followed Malone’s seeming acceptance and resolution was no less interesting. On January 31st he was chosen as a reserve for the ASG, but awkwardly stated: “Maybe somebody would say, ‘He doesn’t really want to go.’ After all the attention, I don’t think it would have been a big disappointment not to be selected by the coaches.”

He still wasn’t comfortable with having missed out on the fan vote (again, by a ridiculously narrow margin) and it’s not crazy to at least ask if that frustration factored into his comments on February 6th when he said he would retire in five years – after the 1994-95 season when he’d still be 31.

I won’t go deep on the retirement comment other than to say the timing raises an eyebrow if nothing else. The last piece of this particular Malone-driven drama is what actually ended up happening at the All-Star Game in Miami. Malone didn’t end up playing and cited an injury as the reason. This would be one of two games Malone missed between 1989 and 1997 including regular season, playoffs and ASGs. I have no issue with players sitting out the mid-season games, but sitting this game coupled with the retirement talk are at least anecdotal evidence that this enormous chip that helped him achieve so much (like an insane 61-point game) had the power to impede progress.

These two weeks in the winter of 1990 serve as a dramatic microcosm of Malone’s psyche. Always well-respected, but long labeled a choker, Malone was truly a great player, but a great player who on occasion struggled with the mental aspects of the game. In this way, he’s infinitely relatable. Who among us hasn’t struggled with some mental hurdle that seems pre-loaded into our psyches? And who hasn’t accomplished some thing by some inborn flame which is as old as our individual history? Malone in greatness and bitterness is still just a man – who happens to be 6’9”, 270lbs capable of scoring 61 points and grabbing 18 rebounds in 33 minutes of a pro basketball game.

 

Pacing against the record books – volume 3

We’re in the thick of things now. Iowa caucuses are dominating the Twitter and cable periphery. Hell, the caucuses and nauseating Presidential politics are dominating everything, but still the NBA game goes on like the little men and women at the center of the Earth pushing the giant gears that keep this frightening globe spinning. And as long as the NBA goes on, we’ll have stats and contexts and histories to thumb through – which is exactly what we prefer to do here. So damn the elections, let’s check in with the NBA, 2016 style:

[NOTE: All stat comparisons use www.basketball-reference.com’s Player Index Finder which cross-references data going back to the 1983-84 season. Anything that occurred pre-83-84 is not included.}

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  1. Andre Drummond: 720 rebounds in 48 games. When we last checked in with Drummond, he was averaging over 16rpg. Through January and 48 games, the Middleman in Motor City has dropped to 15rpg, but he’s still semi-prolific. We haven’t seen a player board like this since Kevin Love in 2010-11 and Drummond is just the fourth player in this +30-year data set. His new friends include Love, Dennis Rodman (seven times!), and Kevin Willis.
  2. Hassan Whiteside: 158 blocks in 41 games. After averaging over 4 blocks/game for the first 31 games of the season, Whiteside’s subsequent 10 games have dropped to just a shade over 3/game. It’s nothing to sneeze at and I’m unfamiliar with analysis including sneezes so let’s get away from that. Whiteside’s been dinged up with injuries and appears to get a bit sensitive on Instagram when he’s criticizedwhich is often. Dramas aside, no one’s blocked shots as frequently as Whiteside since Marcus Camby back in 2007-08.
  3. James Harden: 221 turnovers in 50 games. The Rockets have been a hot mess this year and some chunk of the responsibility for their suffering falls on the bearded shoulders of Harden. His stats have been gaudy as he’s averaging ~28ppg, 6rpg, and 7apg, but the most consistent element to his play has been turnovers. So many turnovers. If I told you his TOs/game had decreased since early January, maybe you’d nod in approval. But if I told you his average dropped from 4.47/game to 4.42, maybe you’d shake your head in disgust. The last player to mishandle this much through this many games was that ode to anti-efficiency measures, Allen Iverson back in 1996-97. At least that AI was a rookie with mistakes to make and lessons to learn. Harden is … not a rookie. He shouldn’t be making this many mistakes.
  4. Steph Curry: 221 3s made in 46 games. This stat is a video game. Side note, back when I was in college I had NBA 2k-something on Dreamcast. I added classic players (Wilt, Jordan, Russell, Dominique, etc) to all the rosters, then did a draft. I was in college and had a ton of time on my hands, don’t ask. I’d play games with every team and was a bit of a stickler for having at least somewhat realistic stats. My roommates would sometimes play my season when I wasn’t there – I didn’t care much because I was playing games with every But one day I come back and am looking at the records and see my roommate went nuclear with Jerry West and scored 122 points in a single game. The next most threes any player has made through 46 games is also Steph with 154 two seasons ago. His 221 threes so far this season would’ve led the league as recently as 2010-11. Steph is the Jerry West of my Dreamcast 2k. He is Barry Bonds. He is Tom Brady. He is Tiger Woods.
  5. Draymond Green: 445 rebounds and 343 assists in 47 games. These numbers translate into 9.5rpg and 7.3apg which are both improvements on his thru-December averages from last post. Using basketball-references’s game finder to adjust for number of games played, no player since 83-84 has reached these numbers. But if we open the filter to look at entire seasons, Green gets company in the forms of Larry Bird (89-90), Magic Johnson (81-82), Wilt (twice), and Oscar (four times). We know Draymo’s elevated himself to that next, but sweet mother of triple doubles that’s a historic wrecking crew.

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  1. Kristaps Porzingis: 54 3s and 93 blocks in 49 games. It seemed in late December or early January like maybe the Zinger had hit the wall, but he bounced back a 7’3” piece of laffy taffy in January when he played his most minutes, scored his most points, and had his highest true shooting percentage month of any month in his young career. Quite possibly the most popular Latvian man in America, the Zinger’s 54 3s and 93 blocks in 49 games make him one of just five players since 83-84 to put up these stats. The most recent was Serge Ibaka who accomplished the feat as a six-year vet. Porzingis isn’t even 21 yet.
  2. Paul George: 131 3s and 335 rebounds in 47 games. George makes just the third player since 83-84 to average over 2.3 3s/game and over 7rpg and the first since current New Orleans Hornet and trade rumor hot topic Ryan Anderson pulled it off in 2011-12. The other is the king of the shimmy, Antoine Walker with Boston back in 01-02. This has the feel of a replicable line for George and could we see him become the honorary chairman of the 2.5/7 club sometime?
  3. Kawhi Leonard: 48% from three, 88% from FT, 50% from FG in 45 games. As long as we add a filter for minutes played, this is a list of elite players known primarily for their marksmanship. Kyle Korver accomplished it last year and before that it was Steve Nash in 07-08. Then there’s Chris Mullin and Kiki Vandeweghe along with Dana Barros and Jason Kapono. As I mentioned last month, Leonard’s game in no way resembles this company. That’s part of his mystique, his charm, his Spurish magnetism. And a gentle hat tip to David Thorpe for this, but Leonard’s percentages over two years in college were 45% from FG, 25% from three, and 74% from the line.
  4. Karl-Anthony Towns: 485 rebounds and 88 blocks in 49 games. Towns turned 20 two and a half months ago. The last rookie to put up a similar 10 rebounds and 2 blocks/game was a 21-year-old Spur named Tim Duncan. Towns isn’t Duncan, but comparing their rookie per/36 numbers looks uncomfortably similar and Towns is about 20 months younger than Duncan was during his rookie season. Towns is oh so good and I’m happy to admit I had no idea he’d be this good.
  5. Kobe Bryant: 637 field goal attempts and 222 field goals in 40 games. Since 83-84, Kobe’s the only person to make so few shots while attempting so many. It’s shitty and not always fun to watch, but at least we’ve all (Kobe included) settled into an acceptance of what this year is and will be.
  6. Ricky Rubio: 336 FGAs and 118 FGs in 43 games. Kind of like Kobe, there’s a sense of acceptance with Rubio. The guy can’t shoot. He’s in his fifth year and you have to scoot around his percentages to find signs of improvement: His TS is matching his career-high (49%), but his FG% (35%) is at a career-low. His FT% is a career-high (82%) while his eFG% (39%) is below his career average. The last player to shoot this poorly on as many shots was Sebastian Telfair back in 08-09. Rubio’s no Telfair, but they share an affinity for crappy shooting.
  7. Tony Parker: 430 FGAs and 225 FGs in 43 games. It’s kind of amazing that at 33 and in his 15th season, Parker is having one of the most efficient shooting seasons of his career, but that’s what’s happening. Seeing Kawhi on this list and knowing how well Duncan has aged, it’s easy to want to praise the Spurs system and they deserve it, but these players have to be working as hard as anyone in the game to do what they do when they do – IE, putting up ultra-efficient seasons well after their athletic primes have been reached. Dwight Howard and Marcin Gortat were able to shoot as efficiently in the same amount of games last season, but it’s not as impressive a feat for the big man to do it. The only other guards to make as many shots while attempting so few are John Stockton and Maurice Cheeks.
  8. Russell Westbrook: 1181 points and 485 assists in 49 games. Relatively speaking, Westbrook had a down January. His points, minutes, steals and shooting stats were all down from previous months, but he compensated by bumping emphasizing his rebounding and assists. At this point, we all know Westbrook is a heatsinking missile with bad intentions and with the addition of a new Euro-step, he’s even more Westbrookian. It’s popping in the stats too as he’s joined by little Michael Adams as the only players since 83-84 averaging roughly 24 and 10 through 49 games. If Westbrook can make it to the end of the season with these benchmarks, he’ll join Adams, Tiny Archibald (72-73) and Oscar Robertson (five times) as the only players to do so.
  9. James Harden: 507 FTA and 348 assists in 50 games: Sure, Harden’s sloppy with the turnovers, but with all those possessions a lot of good things happen. He’s getting to the line more than 10 times/game while distributing just a hair under 7 assists/game. He’s the first player with these numbers this deep into the season since LeBron back in 07-08.

The All-Star game and trade deadline are coming soon so February’s a light month for the best basketball league in the world, but the games keep coming. It’s the stretch before the last stretch, a time when people can and do fall off as the playoff picture crystallizes, soft tissues strain and tear and NBA Cinderellas turn into pumpkins late at night – is that you Pumpkin Cousins? The onslaughts will continue so let’s rendezvous here in two fortnights with finger sandwiches and refreshments.

Remembering that time DeMarcus Cousins Scored 104 Points in Two Games

The media and Dwight Howard have always positioned the Houston big man as some kind of heir to Shaquille O’Neal in the same way it was en vogue for years to saddle two-guards with the dreaded “Next MJ” tag. It was wrong with Dwight in the same way it was wrong with Vince Carter and MJ. The closest thing we have to Shaq is in Sacramento in big barrel chested DeMarcus Cousins. And for the sake of perpetuity, we must not forget what Cousins did over a pair of games in late January 2016.

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It was a Saturday night, January 23rd to be exact. The Kings were hosting the run and gun (?) Indiana Pacers of Paul George fame. Boogie, as the big man is known, had already been enjoying a pleasant new month of the new year, posting and toasting all comers to the tune of 31ppg. The Pacers were without defensive stalwart, starting center and possible Francophile Ian Mahinmi. Journeyman Jordan Hill, rotation player Lavoy Allen, and young upstart Myles Turner (fresh off a 31-point game against Golden State) manned the ramparts in his absence. And like any Jaws in any sea, Boogie smelled blood in that water.

Cousins is listed at 6’11”, 270lbs, but I swear to shit this man weighs more than 270lbs. His upper body defies NBA body types. It’s broad with massive shoulders, filled out in the way someone who chops down trees and carries stumps around all day would be with big, tattoo-covered arms. But where he deviates is in his trunk. Many NBA players have the classic v-shape with broad shoulders and narrow waists, but Cousins doesn’t thin out like Dwight. He’s thick all the way through and uses his body in the most Shaq-like of ways to create space and room to breathe to get up little jump hooks and lay-ins.

But life as a Boogie Cousins isn’t about playing the traditional back-to-the basket game. Against the Pacers, Cousins more frequently caught the ball on the wing, which is anti-Shaq/Dwight/tradition. In 2015-16, he has three-point range, which is like Paul Bunyan having the domestic sensibilities of Martha Stewart. Cousins catches on the wing, throws in a couple fakes and the defenders – be it Hill, Allen, or Turner – have to respect it. While taller players like Dirk Nowitzki and Kristaps Porzingis are rewriting concepts about what 7-footers can and can’t do, traditional centers shooting threes are still an evolving species. Defending those players is no easy task for semi-mobile 7-footers and so Cousins making over a three/game has opened up dribble driving attacks that maybe weren’t there earlier in his career. (Prior to this season, Cousins’ had taken 69 threes in his career. This year, in 37 games he’s taken 129 and made four times as many threes than in his entire career.) These defenders have to offer a cushion in defense, but Boogie’s handle is good enough to attack which he loves to do. Throughout the game against Indiana, Cousins repeatedly put the ball on the floor and penetrated. He was often off-balance, had his shots blocked from ending up in terrible position under the hoop, but he was still effective. He drew fouls and made at least six of his 17 field goals on these dribble drives.

Cousins has a sure-footedness you may expect in a giant amateur ballerina. He’s not the most graceful, but in addition to attacking defenders off the dribble, he’ll occasionally hit them with spin moves that leave defenders grasping at air where Cousins used to be. Against the Pacers, on three separate possessions, he found different ways to leverage the spin into buckets. In the second quarter, he caught it in the post, set up Lavoy Allen to overplay to the middle of the lane, took a couple dribbles and with his left shoulder pushed the defender deeper out of position, and once space had been established, pulled a quick spin for a dunk. This spin reminded me of Shaq in all the glory of his power and quickness.

Later the spin accompanied one of his many dribble drives and resulted in a lefty layup make. And finally, feeling Allen overplaying on a post-up, he spun baseline for an unmolested catch and score.

The final tally was a career-high 48 points on 29 shots, a single three, 13-20 from the line a team-best +18, and the Kings fifth straight win.

Two nights later on the Monday when most everyone in the NBA solar system was focusing their undivided attentions on the Spurs at Warriors main event, Sacramento decided to host the Charlotte Hornets. Like the Pacers, these Hornets were shorter than normal and short-handed. Perennial double double Al Jefferson was out with knee surgery and his backup Cody Zeller sat with a shoulder injury. Crying MJ’s Hornets went to battle with a front court that included native Pacific Northwesterners Spencer Hawes and Marvin Williams bolstered by Frank Kaminsky and Tyler Hansbrough off the bench. As Shaq so delightfully enjoys exclaiming: Barbeque Chicken!

And while Warriors-Spurs descended into the East Bay Evisceration, the undermanned Hornets and Kings of Cousins ratcheted up intensities with competitive basketballing. With a banged up crew, the Hornets decided to front Cousins if Williams or Hansbrough guarded him with Hawes or another defender helping on the backside. If Hawes was on Cousins, he’d play behind him. This strategy and the overwhelming physical advantage the Kings had allowed for a different exploitation than what Cousins showed against the Mahinmi-less Pacers. With a weakened frontline, the Hornets were like Goldilocks and Cousins was all three of the bears happy to maul his all-too-human opponents. No less than six times the Hornets ended up fronting Cousins and the Kings, particularly with Rondo recognizing the opportunity, took advantage. Even if Hawes was able to help over, Cousins was too big, too quick, too skilled scored easily.

This time it’s not even Hawes able to help out, but 6’4” Troy Daniels who’s maybe slightly more effective than I would be at pestering Cousins (course I’m 6’3″ 250 and run a 4.5 forty):

But later we see Hawes as the help man and even though he anticipates the post entry, he’s powerless and gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and-1 DeMarcus:

As the game unfolded, it had the feeling of some kind of lopsided battle royal playing out on the basketball court. Cousins and his teammates continued to pound the ball inside, almost growing with greed. A mix of jump hooks, dunks, layups and free throws were there for the picking. But all that post work is exhausting for a man carrying what Cousins has. The catches and fouls, scoring with 240lb-men draped over your shoulders can wear on the biggest ox. As the game shifted into overtime, it felt like a battle of attrition and I wondered who would collapse first: Big Cuz or the entire Hornets front line? Williams fouled after Cousins dunked on him on a lob, then it was Hawes and finally Hansbrough went to the bench with his sixth which left the relatively slight rookie Kaminsky to defend the most dominant post scorer in the league. A bully mentality is a great asset to any big man, but that wasn’t enough for Cousins against Frank the (tiny) Tank. He had the audacity to mix in a hesitation dribble on a drive the likes of which I can only assume Kaminsky never saw in the Big 10.

But mercy was on the side of Kaminsky and the Hornets. In the second OT when the world of basketball was firmly united in cheering Cousins towards his 60th point and the team’s sixth straight win, a referee named Zach Zarba bailed out Kaminsky by whistling Cousins for his sixth. In the league’s official review of all calls that occur in the final two minutes or OT, they deemed Zarba had made the correct call, but as any of us who watched the game can attest, it was not the correct call in the sense that Cousins was essentially penalized for being bigger and stronger than his opponent. And what a way to wrap up a night in which a man has appeared to be truly Shaqtastic – by being penalized in a way in which Shaq was oh so familiar.

Final tally was a new career-high 56 points on 30 shots, a single three, 13-16 from the line, a team-best +13, and a Kings loss.

The following night a bedraggled Kings team headed north to take on the Blazers in Portland. They were soundly thrashed, losing every quarter of the game. Our hero Boogie fell back to earth with a thud scoring 17 points while shooting 4-21 from the field. But who reserves space in their memory banks for the second games of back-to-backs? Who has time for such letdowns when we’re given 104 points over a two-game span? Cousins might not be Shaq, but in an evolving NBA where skilled back-to-the-basket big men appear to be a slowly dying breed, Cousins is without peer when it comes to dominant big man. While he may make head scratch-inducing decisions and have the occasional poor judgment on the court, enjoy him while we can and let’s not forget the time he scored 104 points in back-to-back games.

Final two-night tally: 104 points on 38-59 shooting (64%), 2-5 from three, 26-36 from the line (72%), 25 rebounds, 10 fouls, 12 turnovers, 84 minutes, 1-1 record

Kevin Love: Enigma with Needs

It was a week ago I started writing this about Kevin Love. In a Thursday night TNT game against the Spurs, Love meandered around the perimeter keeping his toes tightly behind the three point arc with an effortless commitment as the Cavs succumbed to the San Antonio machine and in my mind Love’s borderline uselessness began to grow. His on/off stats for the night weren’t as bad as my perception but his game had the appearance of something between apathy and anonymity. Then came the Golden State game that created a rippling kerfuffle across the basketball space as the Cavs were shredded by Golden State’s bullying pick and roll versatility. And suddenly Kevin Love is topic du jour of my text message threads and I’m wondering, who the hell is Kevin Love?

01-22-16 - Faces of Love

On that Monday night when Love put up his second-lowest game score (2.8) of the season, the microscope was dialed up to its highest intensity and we all went overboard. It’s something that confounds because what we know to be true of Kevin Love: his first six seasons in the NBA portended a highly decorated Hall of Fame career. Love’s statistical accomplishments (19 points/game and 12 rebounds/game) over his first six seasons have been accomplished strictly by Hall of Famers. His 2013-14 masterpiece when he averaged 26.5ppg, 12.5rpg while dishing 4.4 assists/game and making 2.5 threes/game is nigh inimitable. To find another player who’s done the 26-12-4 in a single season we have to travel to pre-modern NBA (pre-1979-80 for this purpose) to 1975-76 when Jimmy Carter was about to snatch a presidency and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was doling out the impossible 27-17-5 with 4.1 blocks/game. Modern players don’t post this varied statistical gaudiness, let alone do it with over two threes/game. From now until the cows come home, we can build out stat comparisons showing how and why Love’s statistical peers are either residing in Springfield, Massachusetts at the Hall of Fame or they just don’t exist. This is the type of company Love keeps which is part of the reason he’s morphed into an enigmatic pro basketball player.

Between his rookie season in 2008-09 and his final season in Minnesota in 13-14, his combined point and rebound average was 31.4/game. In his 157 games in Cleveland, that number’s dropped to 26.2 – a decline of about 16% in production while his assists have been cut in half. This is and isn’t without precedent. Historically, players who score and rebound like Love don’t experience as significant a drop in production unless they’re injured (see messy chart below). But then there’s the Chris Bosh corollary whereby a big man partners with a pair of ball-dominant guards and experiences a mix of decline in raw production and unfair, poorly contextualized criticism with the tradeoff being the obvious and ultimate: realized championship aspirations.

Stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

Anything above zero is positive as it indicates season-over-season growth. Below zero indicates decline. Including pre-modern players expands the list to 15 total players which makes for a messier chart. Of the 19-12 club, just Elgin Baylor and Willis Reed experience greater season-over-season declines and both of those were the result of injuries. Stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

Where Love dropped from 31.4 to 26.2 (rebounds plus points), Bosh dropped from 29.6 in his Toronto days to 26.5 in his first two seasons in Miami – just over a 10% decline in raw production. This is where Love becomes a victim of his own success. The 26-12-4 has already been established, but back when he was a wide-assed 22-year-old, he averaged over 15rpg – the first player to accomplish that since Ben Wallace in 02-03 and before that, it was Dennis Rodman in 93-94. And if we want to go more exclusive, then factor in the 20ppg that accompanied Love’s 15rpg. To find the last guy to do this, we’re hop-skip-jumping back to the Reagan Administration in 82-83 with the dearly departed Moses Malone. Statistically speaking, Love set the bar so ridiculously high that his 16 and 10 with nearly two threes/game from last season feel inadequate even though he’s the only player in league history to do this – three separate times.

And this is exactly what LeBron James and Cleveland sought to embrace when they traded for Love after his historic 26-12 season – a power forward in his prime vying for the crown of best at his position in the league. What Love lacked in Blake Griffin’s athleticism or Anthony Davis’s length, he made up for in rebounding position, elite passing (from the elbow or full court outlet passes), and the ability to stretch the floor in ways only specialists had previously been able to do.

History tells us the Cavs and Minnesota had been kicking around the notion of a deal for Love well before the trade was finally completed. The biggest concern for the Cavs had always been around Love re-signing with the team and they thus strove to make the team compelling enough for either Bron or Love to join and whoever got there first would act as bait. With James on board and Kyrie extended, the team finally had the talent cache to be attractive enough for Love, but Chris Fedor, writing for Cleveland.com conveyed that Bron’s personal recruitment convinced Love to join:

“That (LeBron’s call) had a lot to do with my decision. I knew the Cavaliers had a lot of young pieces in place and a lot of great talent here as well. I knew the city relatively well, but (James’ call) had a lot to do with it.”

Despite all the front office volleys between Cavs General Managers, first Chris Grant, then David Griffin and Flip Saunders, it was James handpicking Love to join him and his merry band of Miami Heat North-Central that cemented the deal. The playbook was laughably transparent with Kyrie playing Wade, Love playing Bosh, and the King staying the King – with obvious individual idiosyncrasies. But whose playbook was it? LeBron’s or Cavs owner Dan Gilbert/Griffin’s? Or does it even matter because everyone was driven towards the same end game: a Cleveland Big Three. LeBron even went as far as bringing along James Gang bandits James Jones and Mike Miller; his fingerprints are everywhere as is often the case. But where the enigmas begin to unravel are all along the road from the summer of 2014 to the present.

Where LeBron’s Miami journey was a unification of super friends all bought into the same end game at similar stages in their careers with a centralized authority in Basketball Godfather Pat Riley, the Cleveland model lacks the basic foundation or spine of Miami. Gilbert appears to be reactionary as an owner while Griffin seems to be serving two masters in James and Gilbert. The new Cavs have achieved nothing but success since 2014. They won 53 games in their formative season, then waltzed through the Eastern Conference playoffs with a 12-2 record despite losing Love in the first round. And it’s fairly inconceivable that a Cavs roster without Love or Irving somehow took a 2-1 lead over an obviously superior Warriors team before collapsing to that suffocating, innovating versatility of Golden State and Andre Iguodala’s full realization. In 2015-16, it’s more of the same with Cleveland ascending the top of an improved East and owning the third best record in basketball.

And yet, the past 18-20 months are littered and streaked with negativity and tumult. LeBron and Love have taken pains to awkwardly communicate through the media or social media. I sat 15 rows from the court in Cavs at Blazers last season when LeBron, fed up with perplexing selfish play from teammates, mailed in the second half. It was James at his passive aggressive worst and presaged the eight-game sabbatical he’d take in the middle of the season. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst recently wrote about James giving Love this type of treatment: “Love has learned this and sometimes when there’s a mix-up, James will glare his way and Love will stare at the hardwood so as not to meet James’ eyes.”

[NOTE: As I write this, David Blatt has just been fired which brings its own massive ramifications for Love, LeBron and the entire franchise. Blatt’s final record (playoffs and regular season combined) was 97 wins and 46 losses (68% winning).]

Of all the basketball players on the planet, to have LeBron James personally recruit you to join him is like a kiss of immortality, the ultimate in acceptance and approval. I have no idea if Love needs approval. He was a multi-time All-Star and Olympian. He knew what he was capable of and yet, it’s possible he still strove to please the King. In a piece written by Jason Lloyd in November of 2015, Lloyd alludes not necessarily to insecurity, but perhaps a touch of uncertainty:

James spent years admiring Love. The two stars didn’t know each other well when James was heaping so much praise on Love’s game during the 2012 Olympics that Love initially thought James was just messing with him. [Italics mine]

Later in the piece, Lloyd writes:

James loves talent and he loves playing alongside elite players. Love’s physical condition (at the start of 2014-15) prevented him from being the player James thought he was getting. As a result, James gravitated toward Kyrie Irving and Love never fit well into this system.

Such is the fickle nature of LeBron James. To be accepted, then to be rejected can wreak havoc on anyone’s confidence, let alone when it’s the greatest player on the planet. In that same piece by Lloyd, he references a clearing of the air between James and Love over the summer and we saw a marked improvement in how Love came out to start the season. In October James went as far as saying Love was the “focal point” and the “main focus” of the Cavs offense. Through November, Love lived up to the billing, averaging nearly 20 and 12 compared to 16 and 10 in his first season with Cleveland. Then in December, Love had his worst month shooting the ball since 2013 when he was playing with a broken hand. His TS for the month was 47.4% and his January trends are improving, but still well below his norms. With the recent avalanche of criticism around his inability to defend Golden State (which somehow morphed into a commentary about his overall defense), the shooting struggles, and Windhorst reporting that Cavs players thought the team meeting on Friday was about Love being traded instead of Blatt being fired, it’s fair to wonder how Love or LeBron respond. Does Bron go “sour” on him again? Does, or is, Love’s confidence shake at the prospect of again letting James down? As Love’s shooting accuracy has declined each month, so too have his shooting opportunities – from ~15 FGAs/game to 12 to just over 10 in January which is no doubt a by-product of the reintegration of Irving into the offense. But regardless of cap implications, does a team intentionally limit a player of Love’s offensive caliber to just 10 shots/game?

For a piece where the primary subject is Kevin Love, LeBron James inevitably becomes subject 1a. As I spent these last days rolling this riddle over in my head, it all kept coming back to LeBron; which isn’t to say Love isn’t accountable for his own play. Above, I talked about Bosh being the prime point of comparison for Love and where Bosh experienced a similar decrease in opportunity (5% decline in USG for Bosh going from TOR to MIA compared to 7% for Love), he counterbalanced it by becoming a savant defending the pick and roll and completely embracing that role – while also putting up 18 and 7. Love is not Bosh and shouldn’t strive to be, but whether in mental approach or direct communication (as opposed to talking to LeBron through the media), there are opportunities for change. Neither should James take full accountability for Love’s decline. Between Blatt’s game planning and last season’s fourth quarter benchings, the evolution of Kyrie from ball-dominant point guard on a lottery team to second option a contending team, to the overall synthesizing of Love and James alongside mid-season trades that brought three significant players to the roster, it’s wholly conceivable that there isn’t a single source of Love’s declines.

LeBron’s shadow looms over the entirety of the Cavs organization. There’s a sense, true or not, despite counter-statements from Griffin, that James is somehow involved in all team personnel decisions. At its most cynical, it is as Woj wrote, that he stirred up an open rebellion against Blatt in order to force a coaching change. He played a powerful role in getting Love to Cleveland and was possibly indirectly involved in Tristan Thompson’s contract. When Zach Lowe quotes Griffin on his recent podcast (~8:20 mark) saying the biggest lesson he learned is that you have to be thoughtful in what ball handlers you place alongside LeBron, I hear the description of a shadow, a glove, a blanket, a presence that exists like oil coating every part of the Cavs machine. From the reshaping of the roster to fit Miami to the firing of Blatt to the prominence of Love in the offense, Bron’s been involved. This is Cleveland 2.0 where the front office still appears to kowtow to LeBron. And Kevin Love, existing somewhere between the future Hall of Famer in Minnesota and a good stretch four in Cleveland, is at the King’s mercy like everyone else. But don’t cry for Kevin, this is just one route on the path championship immortality and as Love’s learning and Bosh learned before him, the sacrifice is real and at times painful as his basketball-playing identity contracts and expands through the never-ending media maelstrom that’s become the Cavs.

The Lovenant

The Lovenant

Bonding over a skinny kid named Jarrod

I spent ten days over the holidays with friends and family in my homeland in Iowa. Somewhere in these annual nostalgic returns, I always find myself coordinating schedules with my dad, trying to find a bar where we can meet up for some sporting event, preferably one where our loyalties lie on the same side. The rising stability of my alma mater’s (the University of Iowa) basketball program has offered that which we seek and so it was on a Tuesday night we descended on a truly gluttonous BBQ joint near the Drake University campus called Jethro’s. Jethro’s specializes in a five-pound artery-clogging burger sandwich named after one of Drake’s recent basketball heroes: Adam Emmenecker. (I will forever be amazed at the glory that accompanies a sandwich-eating event, but that’s what happens at Jethro’s.)

Without audio and strangely surrounded by LSU fans in the heart of Des Moines, Iowa, we settled in with our beers to watch Iowa host then-top ranked Michigan State who was without their All-American, All-Everything forward Denzel Valentine. Iowa led all game despite its best player and the subject of this piece putting together an underwhelming offensive performance. Jarrod Uthoff, a sunken-cheeked 23-year-old from Cedar Rapids, IA came into the game averaging around 18 points/game, but was held to just ten while struggling with foul trouble and committing eight turnovers. In a nod to the two-way nature of his ever-developing game, Uthoff, the Big 10’s leading shot blocker, swatted six Spartan shots. Iowa led the entire game and my dad and I, along with my buddy Hamilton, walked away with feelings of satisfaction and a desire to carry the momentum to another watering hole.

Stats provided by sports-reference.com/cbb

Stats provided by sports-reference.com/cbb

This recent bonding in the motherland coupled with Iowa’s strong play this season (ranked 19th in the country with back-to-back wins over ranked Big 10 teams) has compelled me to explore Iowa through Uthoff. He’s the best player on the team, an Iowa native that went from skinny, gaunt-faced kid who persevered through some ugly transfer nonsense at Wisconsin to Iowa where he bided time behind eventual NBA player Devyn Marble and Wizards draftee Aaron White to a dynamic two-way threat who can apparently carry some sinewy muscle on an otherwise lithe frame.

But it’s not enough to develop physically and it’s not enough to just be 23. At 6’9”, 221lbs, Uthoff plays the four for Iowa where he’s equally at ease attacking bigger defenders off the dribble, spotting up behind the arc, or punishing even narrower opponents in the post. 15 games into the season, he’s averaging over 18 points/game on 50% shooting from the field and 45% from three. And what’s more, at 6’9”, he’s become somewhat of a volume shooter from deep where he’s taking nearly five threes/game and making two. While he slots in at the four, he’s a wing on the Hawkeyes which makes his shot blocking ability so compelling.

His wingspan was measured at just 6’10.5” at the Nike Basketball Academy, but he looks kind of raptorish out there with dangling arms that harass the hell out of opponents. He’s fourth in the country averaging 3.3 blocks/game, second in total blocks with 49 and fourth in block percentage at 11.7%. All these blocks and he’s not in any way a rim protector. He moves well laterally and expertly times when to commit to the block attempt. His blocks appear to come in man-to-man situations where opponents continue to underestimate his ability to close space and on help situations where he swoops around with unbiased menace knocking shots off target. A few days ago, Adam Jacobi of Black Heart Gold Pants of SB Nation went a step further with his analysis:

Uthoff has more than doubled his blocks, and now ranks third nationally in blocks at 3.2* per game, but he’s “only” 17th in block percentage** at 11.68%, per Ken Pomeroy ($). That’s still elite, but we see that part of his ability to accumulate so many blocks is his ability to stay on the court for more minutes than most shot blockers, and he does that with an amazing ability to stay out of foul trouble. In fact, Uthoff commits only 2.6 fouls per 40 minutes, and that is one hell of an accomplishment. Not only is it the lowest of anybody in Pomeroy’s top 100 in block percentage, nobody else is even below 3.0 (and only a handful are even below 3.5).

Part of that ability to stay on the court and avoid fouls is because Uthoff’s not patrolling the lane like so many traditional rim protectors. He’s quicker and lighter on his feet so he’s able to avoid fouls where many college bigs struggle. And that’s what makes his 3.3bpg so damn impressive.

Anyone who’s read this blog with any regularity knows I get particularly giddy when I can marry stat combinations into unique historical context. And this is what sucked me into Uthoff’s strange Iowa City gravity: since 1995-96 (the first season Sports-Reference.com/cbb has these stats), no other player in college basketball has average 3+ blocks and 2+ threes/game. And it’s not even close. (As an aside, Jacobi explores this same topic in his piece and my heart sank when I saw it, but we’re still going to plumb the historical context of the Uthoffian achievement.)

01-06-15 - uthoff blocking shots

Uthoff blocking shots (mostly)

To find statistical comps for Uthoff, we can open up the filter on either criteria – 3s made or blocks. Jacobi already opened up it by dropping the blocks to 2/game which pulls in former Naismith and Wooden award winning Shane Battier. Not bad company for a kid that didn’t even break the top-100 preseason player ranks of CBS or ESPN.

I decided to take a different angle and keep the blocks static (3+) while lowering the threes/game to find someone who at least disrupted defense in a similar fashion. The filter has to be reduced all the way down to one 3/game before we get some company.

Criteria: at least 3bpg and 1 3PM/game:

  1. Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa, 2015-16: 3.3bpg, 2 3pm/g
  2. Chris Boucher, Oregon, 2015-16: 3.1bpg, 1 3pm/g
  3. Alec Brown, Green Bay, 2013-14: 3.1bpg, 1.4 3pm/g
  4. Greg Mangano, Yale, 2010-11: 3bpg, 1.1 3pm/g
  5. Eddie Griffin, Seton Hall, 2000-01: 4.4bpg, 1.4 3pm/g

I’ve never heard of Alec Brown, Greg Mangano, and had to look up Chris Boucher to see if I knew who he was (I didn’t). Eddie Griffin’s another story as his freshman season was one of the few things I remember from 2000-01 when I was a sophomore in college. And as a reminder, none of these other guys was hitting 2+ threes/game.

To beat this dead horse a little more: what Uthoff’s doing is unprecedented in the college game. He’s not a specialist player who can hit a couple spot up threes and get help-side blocks. He’s averaging nearly 19 points/game as the focal point for a potent Iowa offense that averages over 80ppg and ranks 24th in the country in offensive rating (per sports-reference). In three recent games against ranked teams, he’s scored 32 (30 in the first half with four total blocks) against then 4th-ranked Iowa State, the aforementioned 10 points (with six blocks) in the MSU victory, and 25 (with five blocks) on the road against 14th-ranked Purdue. For the season, Iowa’s played five ranked teams, has a 3-2 record in those games and Uthoff has stepped up seeing his season averages go up as the quality of opponent increases: 21.8ppg (+3), 4.4bpg (+1), 34.4mpg (+~6) while his shooting stays flatly solid at 45% from three.

I have this compulsive need to ask out loud and inquire about Uthoff’s NBA prospects. NBADraft.net and DraftExpress have left him off of their mock drafts, but ESPN’s Chad Ford has him 39th overall on his big board. DraftExpress though, has a thorough, fair, and mostly positive scouting report that offers a firm handshake-type reassurance. It’s like, “we’ve got a chance here.” But Uthoff, like all basketball players, doesn’t deserve to have his identity as a player defined by pro prospects. He deserves to have his immense collegiate achievements speak for themselves. And regardless of what the future fates have in store for Uthoff, he’s already finding ways to bring fathers and sons closer and that immeasurable quality is as beautiful, if intangible as any once-in-a-generation stat-lines he might conjure up.

The Fireballs of Winter

Happy New Years, friends. Back in early December, I slogged through a handful of season-to-date performances to see who was performing at historical levels and now we’re here again to revisit those players, their performances and add a few more to the list:

  1. Andre Drummond 531 rebounds in 33 games. Back in December, his company included Dennis Rodman (twice) and Kevin Willis once. In January, it’s four Rodmans and still one Willis. Drummond’s still dominating the glass, but his November/December splits show a two rebound/game dip in production. That’s accompanied by an increase in plus/minus from +2.7 to +6.8 so all’s fair in Drummond and rebounding. For those keeping score, Drummond is 22.
  2. Hassan Whiteside 125 blocks in 31 games. When we last checked in with Whiteside he was averaging 4.7 blocks/game. That’s down to four/game which invites a lot more company than we saw at the end of November. The last player to block at least 125 shots in 31 games was Alonzo Mourning in 1999-00 when he averaged 4.5 bpg through 31 games. The most on record through 31? David Robinson back in 1991-92 averaged 5.2/game. Blah blah blah, this is the Mr. Robinson’s neighborhood.
  3. James Harden 152 turnovers in 34 games. Since 1985-86, just four players in the league have committed more turnovers than Harden has through 34 games. Not too surprisingly, Allen Iverson appears on the list twice along with Charles Barkley, Isiah Thomas, and, oddly, Gary Grant who marshalled moribund Clippers teams back in the early 90s. His monthly splits show a slight decrease in TOs in December, but this is a season that’s been pockmarked with team and individual struggles. I have no idea where Harden goes from here.
  4. Steph Curry 140 threes made thru 32 possible games and 916 points thru 30 games played. Just because I’m not a Curry fan doesn’t mean that he hasn’t put together one of the best openings to a season in recent memory. His 140 threes made thru 32 possible games (he’s sat two, but I handicapped the criteria just because he’s so far ahead of his historical peers) is 29 more made threes than the next closest player: Ray Allen with 111 in 2001-02. At the end of November he was averaging 31.5. That’s fallen a full point and where he was 22nd all-time on total points thru 19 games, he’s dropped to 30th all-time thru 30 games. Injuries, massive margins of victory, and what should be a desire to keep their most valuable player healthy into June make me think this number will continue to drop.
  5. Draymond Green 230 assists and 290 rebounds thru 32 games. When we looked at Draymo’s 130 assists and 150 rebounds thru November, he had a lot of company – LeBron, Bird, Pippen, Magic, Kidd, and Fat Lever. Nice company, ay? A month and 13 games later and Draymo has no company. In 32 games, no other player has ever picked up as many assists and rebounds – 7.2apg and 9rpg. He’s also averaging nearly 1.5 steals and blocks/game. Green’s versatility reminds me most of Jason Kidd and he’s taken the Swiss Army Knife metaphor to some kind of Texas Chainsaw Massacre levels where the knife has motorized blades that hack flesh without discrimination. He’s a nightmare.
  6. Kristaps Porzingis 30 threes made and 67 blocks in 33 games. The Zinger may have hit some sort of rookie wall, but his combination of range and rim protection (looking at you, Jeff Teague) have become even rarer over the past month. Sure, Serge Ibaka accomplished similar stats last season, but before that it was Eddie Griffin (RIP) in 2002-03, then Lamar Odom and Raef LaFrentz (twice) before that. Strange bedfellows indeed.
  7. Paul George 98 threes made and 240 rebounds in 32 games. George’s November vs. December splits reveal some Jekyll & Hyde-lite disparities, but with over three threes and seven rebounds/game, he’s still in lonely historical company with Antoine Walker circa 2001-02.
Stats courtesy of www.basketball-reference.com, a great website.

Stats courtesy of http://www.basketball-reference.com, a great website. NOTE: all non-points stats are 1985-86 to present.

The remaining players are new additions to the list:

  1. Kawhi Leonard shooting 48% from three, 88% from FT, 50% from field in 32 games. One of the more intriguing lists in that it’s made up of guys that were always known as shooters: Kiki Vandeweghe, Steve Nash, Mark Price, Drazen Petrovic, Kyle Korver. Then there’s Kawhi, whose reputation is probably best known as a defender with giant hands and cornrows, but who’s expanded his game into the realm of shooters. The all-enveloping nature of Kawhi’s game is reflected in the steals and block totals on this list where Leonard exceeds every other historical peer thru 32 games and features second in total rebounds to Detlef Schrempf. Kawhi is a diamond with cornrows.
  2. Karl-Anthony Towns 311 rebounds and 62 blocks in 33 games. Towns is the most polished rookie I can recall seeing in some time. His game and athleticism have a refinement that shouldn’t be prevalent in a 20-year-old kid. The last time we saw a rookie put up this many rebounds and blocks thru 33 games, the year was 1997-98 and the rookie was Tim Duncan. The other guys on the list? Zo, Shaq, Mutombo, the Admiral, and Patrick Ewing. For further reading, explore Shaq’s rookie season. In his first 33 games, he was averaging nearly 15 rebounds, over four blocks, and 23 points/game.
  3. Kobe Bryant 499 field goal attempts and 170 makes in 29 games. Kobe’s November-to-December splits show much-needed improvement in field goal shooting, but it doesn’t change the fact that since 1985-86, Kobe’s the only player to take at least 499 shots and hit so few. In 08-09, Baron Davis shot 36% on 501 attempts and 03-04, Quentin Richardson shot 40% on 499 FGAs. Those are both extremely bad and still preferable to Kobe’s 34% thru the end of December.
  4. Ricky Rubio 218 field goal attempts and 73 makes in 27 games. Speaking of horrific shooting, Ricky Rubio’s somehow shooting worse than Kobe from the field although he’s taken less than half as many shots so the impact is significantly reduced. Kobe comparisons aside, we haven’t seen someone shoot as poorly as Rubio on as many shots since Toney Douglas cursed us all back in 11-12 when he shot 32% thru 27 games. The most interesting inclusion this list of sub-standard shooters is everyone’s favorite Canadian back-to-back MVP winner, Steve Nash who spent the first 27 games of 98-99 languishing in shooter’s hell where he shot 36% from the field in his first year as a Dallas Maverick.
  5. Tony Parker 320 field goal attempts and 173 makes in 33 games. I thought Tony Parker was washed up, but like John Matrix in Commando, I thought wrong. Parker’s 173 makes on 320 or less attempts isn’t too rare. Drummond did similar last season and J.J. Hickson the year before, and Nikola Pekovic the season prior. What is interesting though is that Parker’s the only point guard on the list. You have to scroll back to 91-92 (Blue Edwards) and 90-91 (Kevin Gamble) to see perimeter players pop up on this list. How does this happen? Kawhi and LaMarcus Aldridge likely help.
  6. Russell Westbrook 800 points and 300 assists in 33 games. Thru 33 games, Russ put up 854 points and 310 assists. No player since 85-86 has put up those numbers. The only way we can find company for the Oklahoman hero is to open the filter to the nice, rounded 800/300 club and doing so pulls in the little leg-pumping jumper Michael Adams, who back in 90-91 averaged 25 points and nearly 12 assists/game to start the season.
  7. James Harden 358 free throw attempts and 232 assists in 34 games. It stands to reason that Harden appears on this list twice. Once in a positive context and another in a negative. With a game that is the anchor of an entire offense, Harden constantly has the ball in his hands. He takes and makes more free throws than anyone in the league and as part of that attacking barrage, he frequently turns the ball over. Whether charging into defenders, getting stripped or making errant passes, the same tree that yields all those free throw attempts and open looks for teammates contributes to the messiness of nearly five turnovers/game. The Beard giveth, and the Beard taketh, my Houstonian friends.

Meet me back in here February where we’ll compare notes on historical Valentine’s Day performances and see who’s falling off and who’s still going strong.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Rookies, Minutes and 4th Quarters at the 1st Turn

“Just let ‘em go.” With that simple message, Kobe Bryant cracked the hard-assed algorithm of Byron Scott’s face palming rotations. “Let ‘em go,” he told the coach in regards to the Lakers future, embodied by true rookie D’Angelo Russell and red shirt rookie Julius Randle. Both kids played all of the fourth quarter and overtime in a game the Lakers would lose to the T-Wolves with Russell hitting the contested drive to send the game into an extra period. The loss did little to dampen the unanimous feeling that this was the Lakers best game of the season – and almost exclusively because Scott’s arms-crossed drill sergeant act was defused by Kobe.

Rookies can oscillate between futuristic revelations and immature mistakes on a single possession. There’s no playbook for coaches detailing how and when to appropriately develop 19 and 20-year-old basketball players. Should they be given 30+ minutes and allowed to succeed or fail with high volume opportunity? Or should they be given nothing, forced to earn everything, and kowtow to vets by carrying chinchilla coats and fetching donuts while wearing Hello Kitty backpacks? The Lakers are caught in the center of this question with Kobe’s farewell tour adding a contentious element to an already-imprecise process.

Russell was the second overall pick in the draft. Scott’s currently playing him about 5.5 minutes/4th quarter which is 10th overall in his rookie class, wedged between Jerian Grant (19th overall, 5.7 minutes/4th) and Frank Kaminsky (9th, 5 minutes/4th). The Lakers are 3-21 right now, losing by more than 10 points/game and prior to Kobe stepping in and disrupting Byron’s rotation schemes, Russell still couldn’t get court time. But in 4th quarters, Russell’s inefficiencies get worse. His TS% drops from 48% to 44% while his O and DRtg’s (per stats.nba.com) also get worse in the last period.

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Meanwhile in Miami, Justise Winslow is leading all rookies in 4th quarter minutes played at 9.2/game. The Heat are 13-9, yielding the 2nd least points to opponents with the 4th best defensive rating. He appears in all (5-man, 4-man, 3-man, 2-man) of Miami’s best lineups based on point differential and is defining himself as an updated mold of fellow Duke player Shane Battier as an indispensable defender whose impact exists beyond two-dimensional statistical measures. The only Heat player getting more 4th quarter minutes is perennial all-star, Chris Bosh. While Winslow’s NetRtg comes in at +6.8 (best of any Heat player getting at least 20 minutes/game), that number jumps up to +14.2 in the 4th. For all players appearing in at least nine minutes/4th quarter, Winslow ranks second to LeBron James (+23.4) in NetRtg.

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Erik Spoelstra uniquely deploys Winslow in almost an inverse of how Scott uses Russell. Where the Lakers point guard has started 22 of 24 games, he gets the bulk of minutes (~7/quarter) during the first three quarters of the game before Byron’s thousand yard stare narrows and his moustache tightens and he relegates Russell to the bench in favor of some combination of Kobe, Jordan Clarkson, and Lou Williams. Winslow hasn’t started a single game, yet sees his highest volume of minutes come in the 4th quarter.

Winslow is the exception and not the rule for rookies. Number one overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns sees his NetRtg boost from -1.4 overall to +5.7 for 4th quarters, but still only sees six minutes/4th – much to the consternation of Wolves Twitter. Emmanuel Mudiay is second in mpg for rookies (29.9), but ranks fifth in 4th quarter minutes at 6.3 where his NetRtg drops from bad (-8.9) to worse (-9.5). Philly’s top choice Jahlil Okafor is getting 32 minutes/game and typically saves his best for last. In the final quarter, he averages his highest points while shooting 60% TS – up 11% from his overall TS. And any rookie conversation would be incomplete without the Lativian Gang Banger, Kristaps Porzingis. The Knicks are 11-14 and only one player on the roster with any impactful playing time has a positive NetRtg: the Zinger at +0.1.

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A quarter of the way into a rookie’s inaugural season is probably too early to start seeking out trajectory-threatening trends. Teams, coaches, and players walk a developmental balance with their young players that become interpreted by media, writers, and passionate fans. What works for Towns with Sam Mitchell and Kevin Garnett isn’t likely to be replicable with Russell and Byron and Kobe. What Spoelstra does with Winslow in Miami can’t be copied by Derek Fisher and Phil Jackson in New York. What we can see in the numbers above and when we vainly try to read between the lines of coach-to-media communications are trends and then attempt to draw conclusions from those trends, but lacking a clearly-defined intent, even that can become confusing and noisy. What’s left but to (over) analyze and project and wonder in amazement at the rising arcs and sleeping valleys of kids not even old enough to legally consume alcohol.

King Me at the end of November

It’s December now and the new season is nearly a quarter of the way done with the Golden State’s Warriors stealing the show then having their own show improbably stolen by power-mad Kobe Bryant enabled and emboldened by an out-of-touch cuckoo coach. Everything else except the Zinger is on the NBA periphery, except that it’s not. I take it all back except the part about Kobe; shit’s gone mad and he’s basking in the madness dropping fortune cookie knowledge in post-game pressers. Let’s peel back the layers of the headlines though and see what kind of historic non-headline-snatching are blessing this early season (all stats thru 11/30):

  1. Andre Drummond: 305 total rebounds and 105 offensive boards through his first 18 games. We haven’t seen this type of boarding destruction since Dennis Rodman back in 93-94. For context, Drummond has 70 more boards than his closest competitor, DeAndre Jordan and is snatching 25% of all rebounds and 36% of defensive rebounds.
  2. Hassan Whiteside: 75 blocks (4.7bpg) through 16 games. Sure, Whiteside’s prone to biting fakes and attempting to swat the ball into stands, but since 1985-86, just three other players have blocked more shots in their first 16 games: David Robinson, Dikembe Mutombo, and Mark Eaton.
  3. James Harden and Russell Westbrook: At least 85 turnovers thru 18 games. One is reckless, the other unfocused or complacent. Both are averaging at or near five turnovers/game becoming just the sixth and seventh players since 85-86 to do this. Most notable on the short list is a 23-year-old Charles Barkley. In 1986-87, the Round Mound of Barkley was averaging nearly six turnovers/game through his first 18. He was also averaging 24ppg, 14rpg, 6apg while shooting 63% from the field. This reads like a bigger, beefier, but more rampaging Westbrook.
  4. Steph Curry: 94 3s and 600 points thru 19 games. Every volume record associated with the three-point shot will be attached to Curry’s name sooner than later. Thru 19 undefeated games this season, he’s made 94 3s (nearly 5/game) which is 22 more than the next closest shooter in the same amount of games since 85-86: Antoine Walker with 72 in 2001-02. Steph’s also scored 600 points, becoming just the 22nd player to score 600 (31.5/game) this fast and the first since Allen Iverson in 2005-06. For historical context: MJ averaged 38.9 thru 19 in 86-87 and Wilt averaged 40 in 64-65.
  5. Draymond Green: 130 assists and 150 rebounds thru 19 games. I’ve watched a lot of Warriors basketball this season because I’m desperate to be there when they lose so I’m familiar with Draymond’s increasing role as a playmaking facilitator on this team, but I didn’t realize he was averaging over seven assists. The 130/150 has been done nine other times to open a season – nearly all of whom are Hall-of-Famers: LeBron (12-13 and 11-12), Jason Kidd (twice), Scottie Pippen, Larry Bird (twice), Fat Lever, and Magic Johnson.
  6. Kristaps Porzingis: 15 3s and 34 blocks in 18 games. Zinger’s the 11th player to record 15 and 34 since 85-86. Serge Ibaka did it last year and the previous list is a mix versatile post players and combo forwards: Wilson Chandler and Shawn Marion (twice), Rasheed Wallace and Raef LaFrentz (twice), Donyell Marshall and Lamar Odom and of course, Spencer Hawes. No one’s done it with the zest and fanfare of the Zinger though unless we’re considering underground GOP’s love affair with Hawes.
  7. Blake Griffin: 450 points, 150 rebounds, and 80 assists in 18 games. Blake’s game has developed into something borderline unstoppable and it’s showing in the stats he’s putting up thru 18 games. His PER is over four full points greater than his best season and he’s averaging a career-high in points. The 450-150-80 hasn’t been accomplished since Bron in 2012-13 and before that it was Kobe in 02-03 when he started the season with 28/8.5rpg/6.5apg. The Mailman, Barkley, and Bird (twice each for Larry and Charles) are the other admissions.
  8. Paul George: At least eight rebounds and three 3s/game thru 16 games. The increasing emphasis on the three-ball means we’ll continue to see the game evolve as bigger guys are encouraged to add distance to their arsenal. Per basketball-reference, prior to this season Paul George had appeared at power forward for about 2% of his total on-court time. In 2015-16, that number has swelled to 57%. That hasn’t stopped him from drifting outside and spreading the court where he’s hitting over three 3s/game on 45% shooting. Counting Curry and CJ Miles this season, three 3s/game has been reached 13 times since 85-86. Of those three point shooters, PG13 is the only one to ever average over eight rebounds/game, or seven, or six. His combination of rebounding and threes is something we’ve never come close to seeing.

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Nearly 20 games into the season, we’re finally free from the “small sample size” qualifier that comes attached to early season wonders. We’ll still see what’s likely to be regression to the mean like Dirk’s three-point percentage sliding from 53% to 46% over a five-game span. But the trends above are worth monitoring and at the end of each month I’ll check back in to see how these guys (and others) are progressing relative to history. Onward to the winter, you kings.

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