Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

San Antonio Blues II

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

Back in 2011, I wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russ and the 25-20 Club

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

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

The criteria:

25 points, 20 assists since 1983-84

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pre-post ASB variance

Pre-post ASB variance

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

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

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

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

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

Stats via basketball-reference.com.

Stats via basketball-reference.com.

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

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

Lords of February Town – volume 4

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

03-01-16 - Pyramids of Success

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

03-01-16 - Hoop

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

03-01-16 - triple doubles

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

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

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

02-29-16 - Guru Steph

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

02-08-16 - steph to malone

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.

02-02-16 - 3s company

  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.

01-28-16

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.

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