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Just messing around, getting triple doubles
Tag Archives: basketball
June 27, 2017Posted by on
Russell has a bad beard, barely a beard
So Harden Schmarden
Russell is broad-shouldered, jumps high, runs fast, shoots imaginary pistols, snarls, is the latest embodiment of a made-up mentality called mamba
Man-made of bones and flesh though sometimes it doesn’t seem so like when he’ll
Snatch a board and explode like the Flash or Usain Bolt with basketball
Passing Steven and Enes, and Victor and Billy, and Steve McQueen and Dutch McQueen
It’s impossible though to keep up the high forever
Acid wears off, paint runs dry, the sun grows cold and dim, and Russell, unlike Wilt,
Can’t play 48.5 minutes a game
Sit, rest, sweat, replenish with electric koolaid Gatorade
And witness and watch a wannabe empire crumble on a
Kevin Durant departure, like a
Prairie twister flinging Clay-B into snarling jaws of PNW throngs
Plus, minus, net, zero
Russell has knuckles that bulge, big hands I see during press conferences gripping thin-necked mics
Those same big hands the tools of a furious craftsman shaping a world of leather and wood and glass and steel and nylon
Big heart pumping, big heart probably three times the size of a normal human heart like he’s the human Secretariat
Chasing down Big O, Big Oscar, Big grouchy pants, while the pitched screams of the chorus clash in some unholy demonic din
Love, hate, sober, drunk, we can’t agree on anything
Even numbers lie these days
Down to the subdermal layers to the atoms of Russell’s being, scrutinizing
Stack up all the stats like petty biscuits of achievement and gobble it up without milk
Choke on the numbers
Critical and confused in a day where we know everything and yet still believe in what we can’t see
Everything ends and every ending starts with some sprouting in spring or something
A car crash in Houston on a
Late night in April
Careening into Patrick
Russell MVP rising so far so fast
Commercialized, commodified to sell product
In funny clothes, clownsuits
Prisoner of a musecage of his own design
(Oh, give it a rest, Kobe)
Head to head, I mean rim to rim nuclear-propelled missile bullet rocket projectile thundering sonic boom
Bukkake acid rain all over the NBA
But fizzle fizzle fizzle
No cupcake, no sadness, no victory
Those big hands crinkling, those knuckles crunching
Pupils big like frisbees
A multi-hued splatter on hardwood canvas
Bill Walton Jackson Pollock basketball
Drunk on a tappable fury reserve,
Futuristic basketball player in Joanie Mitchell hats
Validated in losing, but still
Validated, but still
Losing, but still
June 12, 2017Posted by on
This is the third post in our 2017 NBA draft coverage. The previous two posts can be found here: Big Board, Players 1-5 deep dive. While there continues to be some consensus here (we’re all skeptical, but also kind of optimistic on Dennis Smith as we see his middle ground as Eric Bledsoe; which is pretty damn good), our comparisons for Jonathan Isaac against NBA players runs an intriguingly wide range. As always, special thanks to my fellow writers/scouts (Bug, Hamilton) and our super talented artist (Maahs).
Hamilton: De’Aaron Fox emerged as high lottery pick during a solid freshman season at Kentucky in which he averaged 16.7 points, four rebounds and 4.6 assists. His head-to-head dominance of consensus top-two prospect Lonzo Ball in the Sweet 16 propelled him to 2nd tier of the 2017 draft.
Fox has been compared to John Wall for his speed, and it’s possible he’s faster. He changes direction effortlessly without slowing down. While this is a tremendous asset, it can also be a problem. He has a tendency to get sped up in transition and half-court drives, ending up in no-man’s-land without a good shot, or a pass that sets up a shot for a teammate.
Many of Fox’s dimes come from relatively simple drop-off passes and dishes once he has gotten by his own man. His vision isn’t doesn’t appear to be on the level of other top PGs in this class. Playmaking PGs keep a probing dribble alive and change pace while doing so. I would like to see him change pace more than he does both in transition and in the half-court; against NBA level athletes, this is a must. Another problem for Fox as a PG in the NBA will be his well-documented poor shooting. It’s one thing to have a visually unappealing jumper if it goes in. That’s not the case here. Fox’s jump shot is broke and not always for the same reason. As Draft Express notes, sometimes he shoots on the way down, sometimes on the way up. He relies too much on upper body in his shot. Sometimes he floats to his left, sometimes his balance is pretty good. The angle of his elbow is always too narrow, which makes his release more of sling, or flick, than a jump shot. The good news is he’s well-aware of this fact and answered virtually every question in his DX interview in Los Angeles talking about improving his shooting. As it stands, his unreliable shot means defenders can go under on screens and his speed is somewhat nullified at the NBA level.
He also didn’t show much of a right hand at Kentucky and that’s another point of emphasis in his development. For me these factors call his position into question. I can see him developing into a slashing score-first combo guard. Defensively, he should have the ability to guard 1s and smaller 2s. If he can put on weight without compromising his speed, it could translate nicely on the defensive end of the floor for him. He’s not as polished as Markelle Fultz or Ball at this moment but his ceiling is high, and he gets great marks for his work ethic, intelligence, and character. Those things matter. When weaknesses are clear and fixable, a hard-working smart player can overcome. De’Aaron Fox may end up being a top-three player from this draft class, but what the finished product looks like is definitely to be determined.
Fenrich: Jonathan Isaac of Naples, Florida, late of Tallahassee, has a bit of that Anthony Davis thing going on where he played ball in high school as a combo forward before hitting a growth spurt and jumping up to his present height, 6’11”. Like Davis, there’s a natural fluidity in his athleticism. He doesn’t move like a lot of guys near seven feet tall though it seems like young people like Davis, Kevin Durant, Karl-Anthony Towns, among others, are becoming bigger and more athletic. Evolution indeed. When I look at Isaac’s tape though, I don’t see the same transcendent skill so prevalent in those other players I listed (to be fair, I didn’t see it in Towns either). That’s not really a knock on a player though.
Isaac moves great, he has unteachable length, appears comfortable without being the center of attention, has lateral mobility and quickness, can guard multiple positions. In short, he has a combination of physical ability and basketball skills that are ideal for today’s NBA where the ability to guard multiple positions and hit from deep are coveted. That latter piece is my curiosity with Isaac. In his one season at Florida State, Isaac took nearly three threes-per-game and hit close to 35% of them. For a guy who took just eight shots each night, to have nearly 40% of them come from deep is a curious stat.
That said, his three-ball and perimeter game come naturally. He has a nice jab step, but if he’s not an outside threat at the NBA level, I’m not confident how effective it will be. Speaking of using range to set up the driving attack, a favorite method of attack for the more developed bigs in the league, Isaac’s handle isn’t anywhere it needs to be to put the ball on the floor at the pro level. At its current level, I envision his pocket being picked or him being stripped by stronger, quicker defenders than what he’s accustomed to.
Concerns around his handle and how his jump shot translate aside, Isaac has the look of a natural pro defender. This is somewhat contingent on him getting stronger, but the length and agility coupled with the willingness to defend are a great foundation to build on. And I can’t imagine teams are looking at him expecting to be a number one or even number two option. That said, the NBA has a bad habit of miscasting players out of necessity. Just because Isaac can make the three and can occasionally put the ball on the floor doesn’t mean that’s what he should be doing. With any luck, he’ll land with a team patient enough to build on his copious defensive strengths and allow him to develop as a competent, but supporting offensive player.
Fenrich: Mark Medina of the OC Register wrote recently that Dennis Smith “had a 48-inch vertical.” The highest vertical in Draft Express’s deep database on NBA-prospect measurements is 46” from viral dunkster, D.J. Stephens. I’m not saying Medina got bad info or that someone is embellishing here, but the iota of possibility that Smith could possibly have a 48” vertical speaks to mind-numbing athleticism and explosiveness.
When I watched Smith’s tape from NC State, my first thoughts were “Baron Davis” and that he plays basketball like a football player. At 6’3”, 195lbs, Smith is built like a brick shithouse and attacks the rim like he’s relishing the contact. (As an aside, where I keep seeing Davis, it seems everyone else sees Steve Francis. I think it’s the thicker-looking build that makes me think Davis, but hey, Davis, Francis, whatever, he’s dunking on someone.) It’s one thing to see an explosive athlete dominate skinny college-level big men. It’s another thing to envision him careening into Draymond Green or Kristaps Porzingis or even Robin Lopez for the violent dunk smash.
Smith showed a serviceable jumper in the NCAA where he shot close to 36% on nearly two makes-per-game. That’s a good volume, but I’m lacking a bit of confidence in the shot. He can get the pull up jumper when he wants, but his balance often looks off. On the three, he doesn’t always hold his follow-through.
Similar to being a decent three-point shooter, but failing to instill confidence, Smith averaged over six assists as a freshman; a quality number, but watching his tape, there’s a glut of bad decisions made. It’s not just turnovers (he averaged nearly 3.5), but the shot selection and the seeming obliviousness of when to shoot or make a play. Smith was far too comfortable pulling up early in possessions when better options were available. Draft Express has what almost amounts to a blooper reel of Smith making the kind of decisions that drive coaches crazy (or get them fired).
Probably most disconcertingly, there are numerous questions around his character and leadership. There’s a consistent lack of effort on defense, boneheaded decisions on offense, straight up looking off teammates trying to set screens, and body language that often communicates disinterest. Some of these intangibles can maybe be attributed to his environment. Like Ben Simmons last season, NC State’s program was far from stable. They fired their coach in-season and struggled throughout the year. While Fultz was in a similar losing situation at the University of Washington (their coach was fired after the season), it was stable in that the coach had been in place for several years and, despite a series of one-and-done players, a culture had been established. This is a bit of a cop out for Smith, but still worth pointing out.
Despite all the concerns, I’m bullish on Smith. I acknowledge there’s a level of risk that goes with drafting him and believe he needs to land somewhere where veteran teammates or coaches can hold him accountable. In the top-ten picks of the draft, that’s not always an option. There’s a reason teams end up in the lottery. I don’t know if it’s better to have all the athleticism in the world and struggle with the mental aspects of the game, or, like his fellow draft class peer, Fox, have excellent athleticism with a great head on your shoulders. And even though I ranked Smith higher because the upside is so massive, as I write this, I can’t help but think that a good player with great character may be the better route.
Fenrich: I get the urge to see in Markkanen, a seven-foot, sweet jump shooting giant from the Nordics, a younger, modern version of German great, Dirk Nowitzki, but I don’t see it. I never scouted Dirk, never saw any tape of him back in the summer of 1998. So I went ahead and found this clip of Dirk going against America’s finest teens at the Nike Hoop Summit of ’98. And there are a few things that pop:
- The announcers were comparing Dirk to Detlef Schrempf
- Watching Dirk back then, you can see the badass, but aside from say, LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Durant, I can’t think of many guys you’d scout as an amateur and say, “He’s going to be a top-10 all-time scorer, MVP, and NBA champion.” As good as Dirk was in this clip, I don’t think anyone expected him to be the guy he’s become.
- Lauri Markkanen is not Dirk
But Markkanen is a lot of other things. He’s a big kid with a basketball pedigree. His dad player for Kansas and the Finnish national team. His mom was also a national team player. He’s a legit seven-footer with a big, broad-shouldered frame that occasionally looks even bigger because he wore big t-shirts under his jersey at Arizona. In his single season in Tucson, he shot 42% from three on over four attempts-per-game. His range extends out to the NBA level and he appears to have a strong base. He does have a little hitch when he catches on spot up threes where he’ll catch and bring the ball down before elevating into his rhythm. It’s a small thing and he’s such a great shooter that I doubt it matters but when thinking about a vastly more difficult level of competition, these split seconds matter.
What the three ball opens up is the dribble drive as NBA bigs are often challenged to close out on shooters with a hand up and still defend the dribble drive. Not convinced he’ll be able to put it on the floor at first, but it should be something he develops.Sticking with the dribble drive, it was difficult to discern his ability to pass off the drive. Can he develop to the point where he can put it on the floor against a closeout defender, make a move, see the help and then find the open man? This is the type of skill level that takes a player from Channing Frye rotation-guy to Ryan Anderson-starter or better.
The big differentiator with Anderson though, is that Markkanen is a legit seven-footer while Anderson is around 6’10”. Neither player has great length, but based on those broad shoulders and average athleticism, Markkanen has the potential to be a load around the basket though that appears to be unlikely given his current stylistic approach.
Defensively, I’m not expecting much. To borrow from Jeff Van Gundy, so much of a defense is about effort. Is he willing to put in the hard work and effort to try on the defensive end or is he content to shoot seven threes each night? From the materials I’ve seen, there’s no indication he won’t put the work in, but it’s difficult to project at this point.
What’s most intriguing about Markkanen is that he’s likely the best shooter in this entire draft class. Being seven-feet and having that type of stroke automatically lifts the floor to Channing Frye-type levels. Even with the league evolving in terms of its size/skill versatility, Markkenen has the potential to be among the best shooting big men in the league. And that designation, “best shooting big man,” can mean anything from Channing Frye to Dirk Nowitzki – even though he won’t be Dirk.
Bug: If you’ve never watched Zach Collins play, you might look at the stats and wonder why he’s a projected lottery pick. Ten points, six rebounds, and only 17 minutes-per-game…what’s the fuss about?
Luckily for those of us that can’t keep our eyes open for those late night west coast games, we got a good look at Zach Collins in the NCAA Tournament. He had stretches during in March where he was the best player on the floor, with potential oozing from every orifice.
The correlation between what you see on the court and his stats don’t quite match up though. Why does such a skilled player only play 17 minutes-per-game, and only average ten points and six rebounds? We could blame it on the high foul rate that kept him off the floor, or we could claim that his youthful status on a veteran team held his minutes back. Either way you slice it, there is a mystique about Collins. Everything you see from him just screams “can’t miss prospect,” but the elephant in the room will always be “why did he play so little?”
Based on what I’ve seen from the tournament, and various clips, he has immense potential. He hits the three at a 47% clip, blocks four shots-per-game/per-40 minutes. The inside/outside game brings Pau Gasol to mind. He can bang down in the post, but also take it outside and knock down open jumpers. He compliments the offensive game with more-than-sufficient rim protection. When put in situations where he is required to guard smaller players, Collins shows the lateral movement to not be a liability in pick-and-rolls with good lateral movement for a seven-footer.
Using the term “leap of faith” could be applied to most prospects, but that phrase is the slogan for Collins. I see him play and get excited, but the 17 minutes of playing time is always the footnote. Can he extrapolate his impressive stats over a full game, or did he see limited minutes for a reason? We’ll find out soon enough, but based on what I see on film, it is worth the gamble to make Collins a lottery pick.
November 23, 2016Posted by on
Aside from being wholly arbitrary and comforting with its round numbers, the 30-point, 10-assist, 0-turnover game is an indelible mark of pro basketball efficiency. Its achievers clearly shoulder the weight of an entire offense, acting as both elite scorer and distributor while taking care to not give away precious possessions. At this early time in the 2016-17 season, James Harden is trekking towards NBA infamy with a turnover-per-game ratio north of 5 which makes his induction into the 30-10-0 club on November 19th, 2016 all the more unexpected, but also all the more possible given his nightly responsibility.
Major League Baseball has an informal mark of master class in starting pitching referred to as “The Maddux,” in honor of Hall-of-Famer Greg Maddux who was known for his ultra-efficiency on the mound. The Maddux is a complete game shutout while throwing under 100 pitches. Not surprisingly, Maddux was the master of The Maddux. He accumulated 13 such performances over 740 career starts – just under 2% of all starts. The next closest pitcher is Zane Smith with 7 Madduxes. Since 1988 when pitch counts were regularly tracked, blogger/writer Jason Lukehart writes that there have been over 300 Madduxes thrown by 190 different pitchers – or roughly 11-per-season.
While it’s nothing near an apples-to-apples comparison, the 30-10-0 club has the feel of a Maddux in its combination of efficiency mixed with excellence. Our dear Player Index resource over at Basketball-Reference tells us that since the 1983-84 season, the 30-10-0 has been accomplished 46 times by 39 different players; or less than 1.5 times-per-season. Given the time constraints and lack of turnover numbers available for historical players, it’s safe to assume 30-10 luminaries like Nate Archibald and Oscar Robertson are grandfathers of the stat, but we’ll just have to move forward with our Reagan-era players.
So if the great Greg Maddux is the godfather of the Maddux, then we’re all inevitably asking, “Who’s the godfather of the 30-10-0? Whose illustrious name shall represent the ultimate in scoring and assisting efficiency?”
My own guesses went the way of Chris Paul, or Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, or Steve Nash. I wasn’t prepared for Stephon Marbury. Maybe it shouldn’t be a shock as the Coney Island Starchild had a 7-season stretch where he averaged roughly 22-points and 8-assists with 3-turnovers, but I was shocked anyway. Here are the top 30-10-0s:
- Stephon Marbury – 4 times
- Larry Bird – twice
- Alex English – twice
- Baron Davis – twice
- Tim Hardaway – twice
Zero turnovers isn’t some ultimate mark of perfection in basketball anymore than differentiating between 99 pitches and 100 pitches is in baseball, but it’s a hell of a benchmark. Coupled with the points and assists, it’s also a good indicator of team success. In the 46 games we’ve seen the 30-10-0, teams featuring said players are 40-6, winning 87% of their games.
There’s no great takeaway other than acknowledging that something extremely rare and unlikely occurred this past Saturday. History is full of these little untold truths that lie waiting to be discovered through the accomplishments of the present. Alex English going for 46-10-0 while shooting 76% from the field? Larry Bird hanging 46-10-0 on the Magic as a hobbled 33-year-old? Or even Baron Davis’s 33-14rebound-10-0 effort in the playoffs back in 2002? These are masterpieces trapped in the memories of fans and beneath the dust of the archives. If Zane Smith can be Greg Maddux for a night, then even Stephen Jackson can be Larry Bird.
November 14, 2016Posted by on
It’s a bit of Captain Obviousness at his most obvious, but after this latest weekend of norm-crushing outputs, it’s still worth acknowledging the statistical rampages on which Russell Westbrook and James Harden are presently embarking.
Harden’s latest salvo was fired across the electorally-commentating Gregg Popovich’s snout to the tune of 25-points, 11-rebounds, and 13-assists which marked back-to-back triple doubles and the third consecutive game of at least 24-points and 13-assists. The last guy to go three straight 24-13s was the Canadian maestro Steve Nash.
Russ responded in kind with an even nervier performance on Sunday (the day of my birth and the day after his own birth so thanks for the bday entertainment) when he unloaded for 41-points, 12-rebounds, and 16-assists while turning the ball over just twice and shooting 67% from the field. That OKC lost to the ever-struggling Magic is just details in the micro, but worrisome in the macro where there’s a collective evidence that disallows celebrating the individual performance in basketball unless there’s a corresponding team success. Aside from the tiresome debates of our day about winning, stats, and the individual in modern basketball, you can be reassured that Russell’s performance was of a most rarefied air. Since 1983-84 which is as far back as Basketball-Reference’s game logs go, only one other player has posted the 40-10-15 triple double and that was three-time NBA champion and ghost chasing coverboy, LeBron James – though Bron needed a full 47 minutes while Russ needed a mere 38. (As an aside, the night Bron executed the 40-10-15, the Cavs lost to Denver in a classic Carmelo-Bron duel where Anthony put up 40 in a game his Nuggets won in overtime. Can we get this on some NBA OnDemand platform? Please? Or is that too much to ask given that we can’t even get a workable version of League Pass?)
We’re a mere 10% into this new season, but inching further away from the small sample size theater and into some world of sustainability. These gaudy stats (32-9-10 with 5 turnovers and a 41% usage for Russ, 30-8-13 with 6 turnovers and 34% usage for Harden) would seem to taper off at some point and yet that assumption is driven by two notions: 1) neither player is physically capable of keeping up these torrid paces, 2) a single player carrying a disproportionate load eventually becomes an impediment to team success.
Physically speaking, Russ has proven his Wolverine-type resiliency over the years as he hadn’t missed a single game through the first five seasons of his career until Patrick Beverley notoriously dove into his leg during the playoffs. This is a man who had his skull dented and continued to play. He appears capable of carrying anything and has the second-highest usage rating in league history at 38.4% in 14-15 which he achieved over 67 games in a season when Kevin Durant was frequently absent with foot injuries.
Harden is a case in stylistic contrast, but has proven himself to be a player with a single-minded emphasis on forward progress. He’s in the midst of a stretch of over 300 games dating back to 2013 where he’s averaging right at 10 free throw attempts-per-game. Despite a bruising style that results in him getting hacked as much or more than any player not named LeBron, his only missed game since the 14-15 season happened in March of 2015 when he was suspended. He’s led the league in minutes played the past two seasons and appears more than physically capable of doing it again year. Iron Man, Iron Beard? So what, get your minutes Harden.
If you’ve seen OKC during one of its 14-minute stretches each game when Russ sits, then you’ve seen a train wreck of a directionless offense flying off the tracks, careening into the fiery depths of basketball hell. They have just one 5-man lineup that doesn’t include Westbrook and has a positive point differential and that lineup has seen just 4-minutes this season. Westbrook leads the league in both box score plus/minus and VORP (value over replacement player) and his on-off difference is a whopping +25.7. Whether you watch or study the data or just close your eyes and imagine, in any scenario, by any measure, OKC needs Russ like the winter needs the spring.
But if you think a +25.7 on-off is nice, Harden’s with the Rockets is +38.6. Like Westbrook, he appears in Houston’s most productive lineups and has become the singular point of propulsion for this potent offensive attack. Maybe the return of the knee-crushing Beverley does something to reduce Harden’s burden, but he’s never been a traditional point guard/playmaker either, so while his return may assuage some of the wear and tear, it’s not likely to limit the role of the bearded one.
By all visual and statistical appearances, these team’s hopes weigh disproportionately on the shoulders of these native Los Angelinos. It may not meet the aesthetic that some have of basketball, but it does create a space for insanity to reign and for us to plumb the depths of man’s ability to mythologize in a most John Henry (or early MJ) way.
Is it sustainable though? Russ is shooting a career-best 35% from three on a career-high 6 three-point-attempts per-game. Harden is averaging over 40% more than his best assists-per-game average. And both guys are rebounding at career-best levels.
Without Durant, OKC is playing the fastest pace of Westbrook’s career which is resulting in around three more possessions-per-game than at any other time in his career. Harden, conversely, is playing slightly slower than last season, but in line with 14-15. The big flip for Harden is that, per BBR, he’s seeing 98% of his minutes at the point guard position versus 1-2% the previous three seasons. He’s surrounded by glorious shooters like Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and even a blossoming Sam Dekker. The variables are in place for both guys to continue churning out offense at gluttonous levels.
Points and assists are so much more in the player’s control than rebounding and while the scoring/assist combinations are the stuff that Oscar Robertson and Nate Archibald can relate to, it’s the rebounding as lead guards that make these players so unique and dangerous. Like LeBron or Magic, both guys can retrieve the defensive board and catch a vulnerable, unset defensive off-balance. As of 11/14, Westbrook leads the league in transition possessions and Harden is tied for 5th. Neither player is exceptionally efficient, which, given the volume of their breaks doesn’t diminish from the overall impact.
All that defensive rebounding-leading-to-breaks aside, Harden maintaining 8-rebounds-per-game or Westbrook at 9 are the most likely stats to fall off.
To put these lines into perspective though, only one player in NBA history has maintained the 30-8-10 line for an entire season. Yep, Mr. Triple-Double himself, Oscar Robertson pulled off the feat three separate seasons: 61-62, 63-64, and 64-65.
Like my presumption of Russ and Harden’s toughest counting stat being rebounding, the Big O’s greatest volatility was on the boards where he dropped from 12.5/game as a 23-year-old to a mere 9-10 in subsequent seasons. What makes the Robertson comparison interesting and what makes Russ and Harden’s outputs so damn ridiculous is the difference in pace between the mid-60s and today. Below I’ve included the same table, but with team pace included at the far right:
The numbers are frighteningly similar despite the massive gaps in both minutes played and pace. None of this should take away from the Big O who averaged a triple-double over his first six seasons in the league which spanned 460 games and a 30-10-10 stat line. But it feels almost like Miguel Cabrera winning the Triple Crown a few years back. There are hallowed numbers that feel out of reach, until the savants of today show up with their beards and fringe fashion statements and make you think the impossible is possible. Dinosaurs can walk again – but can they do it for 82 games? Shit man, you’re asking the wrong guy.
November 2, 2016Posted by on
On November 1st, 2016, Ray Allen announced his retirement from the National Basketball Association, but way back in June of 2013 when I was a wee lad of 32, I was in my living room watching game six of the Finals with my guy Zach, an unabashed LeBron James non-fan. We both claimed indifference to the outcome, but as the series progressed, it became evident that I was outwardly pro-Heat, and he was low-key pro-Spurs – or maybe just anti-Heat. I think our lines of division were cut primarily along a Lebron-drawn border and of course it was the King who lost his headband and went HAM, but it was Ray Allen in his most particular attention to detail who attempted the improbable, impossible, iconic corner three while backpedaling, squaring his feet, catching, rising, and with a posture and form that has always been the envy of jump shooters around the world, actually made one of the greatest shots in pro basketball history.
If I remember nothing else of Ray Allen, that shot will forever be seared in the part of my memory that houses basketball. It’s up there with MJ’s shot against the Jazz and Dave Newman’s shot against Valley High School in 1998 as my trinity of greatest shots of all time experienced live in the moment. (This list is subject to change at the author’s own whims and as memory affords.)
In as much as Ray’s basketball excellence can be boiled down to a single shot that articulates and expresses everything about his basketball greatness, the breadth and depth of his career is vast.
My own personal relationship with Allen dates back to his Big East days where I have recollections (and maybe even a VHS recording) of UCONN battling Allen Iverson’s Georgetown squad and Ray going by the nickname The Candyman which, whenever I’m reminded of this, I hear the refrain from the song, “The candyman can because he mixes it with love that makes the world taste good,” which is fraught with awkwardness. This is back when I was 14 or 15 which means I’ve been conscious and aware of the being called Ray Allen for over half my life.
While his Milwaukee and early Seattle years established him as top-tier and probably the top shooter in the league, my own fondness for Allen developed when I moved to Seattle in August of 2004. Up to that point, I’d never lived in a city with an NBA team. The Sonics were gone four seasons after my arrival, but in my time here they were an ok-to-good team with Allen and Rashard Lewis as their go-to guys and took the eventual champion Spurs to six games in 2005. The game three atmosphere in Key Arena was beautiful, moving enough that my mom, always good for an emotional release, had recently become a US citizen and cried through the rousing national anthem. It’s strange, but my memories of Allen are not profound and certainly not as moving as my mom’s experience during that playoff game. During the three years I watched him at Key Arena (attending roughly 5-10 games/season in-person), he experienced his statistical peak with a three-season average of 25-points, over 4 rebounds, nearly 4 assists, with 3 threes-made-per game and made the All-NBA Second team in 04-05.
There was something rote or maybe even boring to his excellence. That’s not to imply there’s something less valuable about a versatile two-guard with a well-rounded game and the prettiest jump shot of all-time and an incomprehensibly quick release. It’s not to discount the nuance of his footwork curling around a screen and lining his feet up perfectly while catching and shooting in one motion. There was something almost in the vein of Floyd Mayweather; the technical genius who is indisputably great, but semi-predictable and at worst taken for granted. I enjoyed his game most of all when he was acting as a playmaker as he was capable of expanding his game beyond the shooting and attacking style he was known for up to that time. His handle and playmaking ability were given short shrift, but I always wondered what type of ceiling lay lurking beneath that jump shot.
Stylistics aside, my strongest memories of Allen in a Sonics jersey are conflict and performance-related. First there was the long-simmering beef with Kobe Bryant, encapsulated so beautifully by Kobe reportedly calling Ray-Ray before a pre-season game to notify him of a pending ass busting and then telling reporters, “Don’t even put me and dude in the same breath.” How could I forget that kind of old school inter-positional shit talking? Allen was always a yin to Kobe’s yang; an ultra-talented player, athlete and shooter, but all business which isn’t to say without ego. Where Kobe couldn’t coexist with Shaq or be a part of a big three, Allen just went about his craft scoring 20-25-points while setting NBA 3-point records and eventually filling roles on championship teams in exchange for his own individual stats and accolades. Even to the end, Kobe couldn’t share the spotlight with anyone else while Ray was more than comfortable receding without fanfare. One isn’t better than the other, but their contrasting styles and personalities create a natural rivalry that Kobe, for his part, seemed comfortable exploring.
On a winter night in January of 2006, the Sonics hosted the Orlando Magic with reserve combo-guard Keyon Dooling. I was somewhere up high in the rafters of Key Arena watching with my wife. Early in the second quarter, Dooling smashed into Allen with an intentional forearm shiver. From my vantage point, all I saw was the aftermath which was the flurry of activity that accompanies a fight. Allen lifted Keyon and drove him into the front row and from my seat so many hundreds of feet away, I still had that prickly hair-on-end feeling that accompanies live, physical violence. As someone who’s attended 30-some-odd NBA games in person, it’s strange to me that the one fight I’ve witnessed included Ray Allen.
On the performance side, the evening of Sunday, January 22nd will always belong to Kobe and his 81-point game, but it was a game in Phoenix that’s often added as a footnote to that day in NBA history and is my Ray Allen ideal. In a double-overtime contest, Allen led the Sonics with 42 points and 67% true shooting. The final score was a ridiculous 152-149, but Allen was quintessential Ray-Ray late in the game. Maybe it was exploiting the occasional mismatch with Steve Nash or maybe he just put the team on his back like Greg Jennings. Whatever the case, Allen scored 10 through three quarters and went bonkers in the 4th with 21 points on 6-6 shooting including 5-5 from 3. If you watch the clip below, the threes are contested, but Allen, in all his obsessive compulsive nuance, maintains the same form, same footwork, and alignment on every shot. His ability to run in a straight line at full speed or go full speed, curl around a screen, situate his feet just behind the line and catch and shoot with defenders rushing at him like barbarians at the gates is makes him a stylistic father to Klay and Steph. It’s the kind of skill that requires its own targeted defense. The broadcast is comedically highlighted by one of the announcers (Craig Ehlo?) saying, “You know what his mama always told us? ‘Don’t worry about Ray, he’ll get his shots.’”
As if his flawless fourth quarter and a 138-138 tie through four periods and one overtime wasn’t enough, the Suns had the audacity to lose Allen on the final play of the game. Tied up at 149 with 2.5 seconds on the clock, he caught the ball probably 40-feet from the hoop, took a big dribble and stepped in a game-winning shot from somewhere around 30-feet out, nothing but net just for good measure.
Raja Bell summed it up nicely, “How do you explain a guy knocking down a 30-some footer to win a game? It’s not really luck, but it’s a tough thing to explain. It just happens.” Meanwhile, announcer Kevin Calabro held it together, but somehow got stuck repeating, “Break on through to the otherside!”
Through a combination of national exposure, NBA championships, the evolution of the internet and a vociferous online basketball-loving community, Allen’s peak popularity came after his peak as a player. The Boston Big Three was a collection of first-ballot Hall of Famers on a mission – and they delivered. I hated this Celtics team with a passion I’ve reserved for Curry’s Warriors and the “if it ain’t rough it ain’t right” Pistons. Kevin Garnett had evolved into a bully with Kendrick Perkins as his henchman. Paul Pierce was a shit-talking heel. Rajon Rondo was sullen, too big for his britches or something. And they embraced it all! How dare they! But then there was Ray Allen, a steady Eddie if ever there was one. And even though his temperament was the calm day to KG’s tempestuous night, he was perfect for the Celtics model. Unlike KG, he wasn’t angry or demonstrative. He assimilated into the Boston culture without nonsense, without pretense or personality sacrifice. By being his uncontroversial self, he differentiated from his bombastic teammates which also speaks to why Allen’s departure from Boston was met with acrimony by KG and Pierce. Ray went about his business, KG caught feelings.
We finish where we began, in Miami, in his late-30s as a reserve, comfortably and quietly in the background as LeBron, Wade, and Bosh absorbed all the attention. Ray Allen spent his career as a constant, always conforming to roles his team required; be it as an evolving young star with the Bucks, face of the franchise with the Sonics, critical component of Boston’s Big Three, or floor stretching reserve with Miami. His conformity to role and commitment to regiment is the gateway through which his greatest individual play as a basketball player passed. At 37, with any hope for any NBA championship resting on his ability to place a basketball in a rim while opponents distract him, Ray Allen did what he’s done more than any player in NBA history: he made a three. The rest is just epilogue.
October 31, 2016Posted by on
Over the past three seasons, reigning back-to-back league MVP Stephen Curry averaged 79 games-per-season and yet his ankles remain a delicate arc of his historical narrative. From the customized high-ankle-support Under Armour shoes to his lean build to his physical breakdown in the 2016 playoffs, Curry’s health seems to be a talking point that always lingers kind of like the vinegary sweat smell from my buddy G’s high school practice jersey. It’s a funk that still makes Golden State fans and league office employees cringe when Steph hits the deck.
Connected to Curry’s health is the direct correlation to the Warriors’ collective success. Health isn’t an absolute, but from the start of the 2014-15 season to Curry slipping on a wet spot against the Rockets in the opening round of the 2016 playoffs, the Warriors won 156 of 185 games (84%). After Curry’s injury, they went 15-9 (63%).
Steph’s health, among so many other variables, is a critical piece of his team’s success. This isn’t a relationship unique to Golden State or Steph, but something that pervades any team sport, particularly those where each team only fields five players at a time. With that in mind, I looked at missed games over the previous three seasons in some attempt to understand who’s getting hurt, how much time they’re missing, and understand that every time they go away, what part of the team are they taking with them – be it potential or points-per-game or whatever.
Like many NBA fan, I’m intrigued by Anthony Davis’s young career. The most unique talents suffer under the greatest microscopes and so it is that we needle away at Davis’s four-year career. Sticking with the three-year baseline I established, Davis has missed 50 games with 15-16 being his most injurious at 21 games missed. But so what? What do the Pelicans lose when Davis is gone?
Depending on how you look at it, they miss a lot. By traditional measures, Davis takes with him 23-points and 10-rebounds, 2.5 blocks and nearly 1.5 steals while shooting 51% from the field and 78% from the line on nearly 8 attempts-per-game. (Or, he takes with him 50-points, 16-rebounds, and 7-steals; the line he audaciously produced in the 16-17 season opener.) But how does that impact the team? There’s no single measure to identify wins lost, but there are a handful of win-share or replacement-level stats that can be inverted into a form of loss-share.
There’s WORP/WARP which is Wins Over/Above Replacement Player that is an extension of VORP (Value over replacement player). Then there’s team record with and without a player which is a simplistic, raw way to look at impact which I’ve boiled down a single lost wins number based on variance in win-percentage in games the player played versus games he missed (example: in 2014-15, OKC won 66.7% of the 27 games in which Kevin Durant appeared. They won 49.1% in the 55 games he missed. Apply the 66.7% to the 55 games he missed and you land at ~37 wins. Subtract from that 37 the 27 wins OKC had without him and the lost wins comes out to 9.67.) And finally, there’s ESPN’s RPM (Real plus-minus) model which offers up a metric simply titled RPM Wins which estimates the “number of wins each player has contributed to his team’s total for the season” and includes RPM and a number of possessions played.
For each of the above stats (WORP, Raw Won-Loss, and RPM Wins), I’ve created a negative metric – WORP becomes WORP missed, Raw Won-Loss becomes Raw Wins Lost, and RPM Wins becomes RPM Losses. None of these should be viewed as standalone metrics, but rather as directional insights to get a sense of what’s being lost when a player sits.
If we stick with Davis, we see a fairly consistent measure across the three metrics. For the 15-16 season where he missed 21 games, his WORP landed at 2.1, Wins Lost was 2.3, and RPM losses was 2.4. While there are a silly number of variables that play into the actual on-court results (like Jrue Holiday missing 17 games and sitting back-to-backs while playing limited minutes or Ryan Anderson missing 16 games, Alvin Gentry as new coach, and on and on), by current available measures, the loss of Davis, while no doubt a disruption to continuity and scheme, likely cost New Orleans 2-3 wins.
If we think about how the weight of performance can sway these metrics, let’s compare Davis’s most recent three seasons:
Though Davis missed his most games in 15-16, the performance-based measures of RPM Losses and WORP Missed indicate a more significant impact in 14-15.
Davis is an instructive case for this exercise. He’s consistent both in terms of his on-court outputs and won/loss measures. To-date you can pencil him in for a PER over 25 and somewhere between 15-20 missed games while costing his team 2-4 wins through his absences. And given that he suffered a mild ankle sprain in the pre-season, it’s fair to assume that the trend will continue to some degree.
Conversely, there are players who have missed huge chunks of games that make this exercise completely futile or reveal the weaknesses in these measures. Paul George is the outlier of outliers, a player whose games played have wildly swung in both directions:
For players who miss a handful of games in a season, the resulting impacts are minimized as to barely register by any of the loss-based measures (see PG’s 13-14 and 15-16). Conversely, George’s 14-15 where he missed 76 games recovering from his gruesome broken leg in the Olympic trials, then came back and helped lead the Pacers to a 5-1 (83.3%) record in the six games he appeared, the value of the Wins Lost, while possibly accurate, is grossly skewed. Indiana was 33-43 (43.4%) in 76 George-less games so when applying PG’s 83.3% win rate to the 76 missed games, the model shows the Pacers missing out on 30 wins which means they would’ve gone 63-19. Meanwhile, his overall 6-game output is so small that his overall impact barely register on RPM or WORP.
To add additional context to George, his 30.33 wins lost is laughably higher than anyone else in this data set over the previous three seasons:
The data does help to illustrate some of my own misperceptions and nowhere is that clearer than comparing Davis to DeMarcus Cousins. The biggest knock against Davis to-date has been his inability to stay on the court. For Cousins, it’s his volatility, his lack of emotional maturity which reveals its ugly head in his missed games. Per Sportrac, Cousins has been suspended six games over the past three seasons. That doesn’t account for all 51 he’s missed in that time – which is one more than Davis – but it’s a significant number.
While Davis is the superior player by nearly any measure, particularly any efficiency measure, the overall impact of Cousins’ missed games is on par with or exceeds Davis. Again, this isn’t to say Cousins is a better player as there are countless variables. It could entirely be that New Orleans has had superior coaching, an easier schedule, or are better equipped to maintain some degree of continuity in Davis’s absence. By most available measures though, Cousins is just as likely to miss games as Davis and those absences adversely impact his team more so than Davis’s with New Orleans. This isn’t necessarily how I’ve thought about both players and their impacts or reputations.
One ugly trend that stood out like a pus-oozing sore on a replacement player’s naked big toe was the Pelicans’ magnetism to injury. Five of their top players over the past three seasons have each missed 50 games or more which translates into a rough average of nearly 27 games missed per-player-per-season. The culprits have been Holiday (35 games/season, currently out indefinitely as his wife undergoes brain surgery), Anderson (32 games/season, gone to the Rockets), Eric Gordon (25 games/season, gone to Rockets), Tyreke Evans (23 games/season, out until maybe sometime in December and apparently had blood clotting in his calf), and of course Davis. The volume, consistency, and unpredictability (particularly Holiday) make this team a wild card in terms of predictability. And if the Pelicans’ first three games of the season were an indication, the non-injured supporting cast around Davis resembles a mix of flunkies and rotation players with Lance Stephenson vying with Tim Frazier as Robin to the Brow’s Batman. As I look over these numbers, it’s hard to fathom how they even made the playoffs in 14-15, though the semi-obvious answer is Davis’s historical season as he recorded a PER north of 30 for just the 18th time in league history.
Phoenix’s Eric Bledsoe and Charlotte’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist stood out for their respective impacts and consistency. For players I bucketed as “starters,” they finished 1st (MKG) and 5th (Bledsoe) in total games missed over the past three seasons. MKG missed 75 games last season with a shoulder injury, but it wasn’t exactly a new trend as he missed 27 and 20 games the previous two seasons. For Bledsoe, he’s had multiple meniscus injuries and missed 39 in 13-14 and 51 last season.
Both players accompany those costly missed game counts with significant impacts in the win/loss measures. MKG with his average-to-below-average stats doesn’t fare well in WORP measures (0.3, 0.7, 0), but looks tremendous in Raw Lost wins (3.3, 7.3, and 10.6 – though the last one falls in the Paul George 14-15 bucket given he only played 7 games). Additionally, MKG’s impact almost falls in the historic Shane Battier corollary of intangibles as articulated by coach Steve Clifford: “Last year, obviously, we played well without him. The first two years that we were here, literally when he played, we played well, and when he didn’t, we couldn’t win. He impacts winning in so many ways.”
Bledsoe’s won/loss impact is well-represented across any of the three measures I’m using:
With Bledsoe on the floor, Phoenix is winning roughly 5-8 more games each season. Like New Orleans, the Suns have experienced maddening volatility over the past few seasons. In-season coaching changes, injuries, and locker room deterioration catalyzed by the Suns trading away one of the Morris twins destabilized the hell out of this team. Amidst all that disarray, Bledsoe, aka Baby LeBron, missing 91 games was the icing on the pain cake. As the Suns best player, he has the appearance of being the single most important player to the Suns’ success. What happened to the days of Phoenix’s training squad stitching together the careers of Steve Nash and Grant Hill? Where for art thou Eric Bledsoe’s health?
Injuries are the scourge of sports. They cost teams and cable networks money, muddy the waters of historical context, force us to question the outcomes of competitive contests; they’re annoying, they’re painful, heartbreaking dings, pulls, tears, and breaks that act as a kick to the groin or a slap upside the head. Injuries suck. And yet, our bodies are fallible and fragile; we live in the suck. And every game, every minute missed comes with some cost. Sleep well tonight friends, because we never know when our favorite player might step on a rake and have the handle swing up and smack him in the face and nose leaving them concussed with a broken nose and an uncomfortable seat at the end of the bench in street clothes.
July 11, 2016Posted by on
A great chapter closed, an era ended, the ink is finally dry on the career of Tim Duncan. Of course, we’ll be arguing legacies and positions played until time immemorial because that’s what we do, but there is no next with Tim Duncan. In the early morning when I found out about his retirement, my mind was clear, not yet polluted by the noise of the day and corporate worries. I trust my morning mind and for some reason, my first thoughts of Duncan were his failures.
Back in 2013 when the Heat battled back from a game six fourth quarter deficit and eventually won the series in game seven, a major footnote of the series happened in the fourth quarter of game seven with Miami up 90-88 and less than a minute remaining in the game. Duncan, guarded by 6’7” Shane Battier, caught the ball on the left block and dribbled across the middle of the lane where he attempted and missed a driving layup. He perfectly timed his miss and used his great length to tip the ball back up, missing that as well. Miami rebounded the ball and went on to win the game. Duncan and the Spurs got the shot they wanted, but he missed. For a guy who’s considered by many to be the greatest power forward of all time, this was a low point.
After that game, Dan Devine of Yahoo Sports wrote of Duncan:
“To be at this point — with this team, in a situation where people kind of counted us out — [it] is a great accomplishment to be in a Game 7,” Duncan said. “Or to be in a Game 6 up one and two chances to win an NBA championship and not do it, that’s tough to swallow.”
But now that the world has turned and left Duncan here, so close and yet so far away from the fifth title he so desperately craves, the Game 6 meltdown isn’t what he’ll remember most.
“For me, no. Game 7, missing a layup to tie the game … Making a bad decision down the stretch. Just unable to stop Dwyane [Wade] and LeBron [James]. Probably, for me, Game 7 is always going to haunt me.”
Tim Duncan’s greatness has never been up for debate. Since he stepped onto the court as a rookie and averaged 21-points with 12-rebounds and 2.5-blocks, he’s been firmly entrenched as a top player in the league. And yet, I’ll always remember his early career bugaboos from the free throw line. He never reached Shaq-level struggles, but battled the yips on multiple occasions over the years; most notably against the Pistons in game five of the 2005 Finals when he went 0-6 from the line in the 4th quarter including 0-3 in the final minute. It was remarkable to see a player who was otherwise so fundamentally sound lose focus or over-focus at critical points in big games. He was a 7-foot expressionless (except when disagreeing with calls) tactician with his own flaws and struggles.
I assume I’m attracted to Duncan’s failures in part because as a Lakers fan during the Shaq/Kobe era, Duncan and his Spurs were a fear-causing foil. If Shaq was a human wrecking ball patrolling the paint, Duncan was the Excellence of Execution, a player whose overall game was so refined as to appear pre-programmed, Terminator style. Some guys are so great that you that their success is assumed. If you root against these players or their teams, you become conditioned to them snuffing out your hope by just doing what they do.
But it was never just about Duncan. In some ways, Duncan and the Spurs were too good to be true, too good to resist. Part of the indelibleness of his and their failures is rooted deeply in the 19-year-long crush of a narrative that trails these Spurs around as a model of virtue and righteousness. It’s this unbudging narrative (and lack of questioning it) that pushed me to write this in 2014 and drove my friend Jacob Greenberg to write this a few months later. Duncan isn’t guilty of crafting these narratives, but Spurs and Popovich exceptionalism have always generated incessant storylines that made any deviation from the flawless particularly enjoyable.
But as I look back and re-watch some of these old misses, there’s no longer any joy. Removed from the passion that accompanies being a fan fully engrossed in the live moment, it’s empathy and feeling that stand out. For all the descriptions of being a stoic and being a robot, Duncan is composed of the same moondust that makes up all of us. And in seeing his failure and the weights of those disappointments, I can’t help but feel some of what he feels even if I only ever hoped his team would be defeated.
So in my pettiness, it’s failure that stands out and it isn’t just the free throws I remember. As has become a theme of this blog, my own personal fan experience is one that relishes the defeat of true foes as much as it celebrates my own team’s victories. May 13th, 2004 delivered an iconic basketball moment and Duncan was a significant figure in the memory. I was at my apartment in Iowa City, a fifth-year senior grinding through his final classes, watching a Lakers/Spurs Western Conference Semifinals grinder from bed while my wife (then my girlfriend) studied or worked or just chilled next to me. The game unfolded on my crappy 19” TV, a low-scoring affair in the 70s of which I remember little except two shots.
With just over five seconds on the clock and a 72-71 Lakers lead in San Antonio, Duncan caught Ginobili’s inbounds at the right elbow and with a 7’1”, 350lbs-plus Shaq draped over him, took a couple hard dribbles to his left and elevated with his momentum carrying him that direction and flung a shot at the basket. He didn’t follow-through, it was just a quick trigger of a line drive that seemed to be magnetically pulled into and through the hoop.
The Spurs, their fans, and of course Duncan erupted. The camera zoomed in on Kobe, on Shaq. They’re stunned, disbelieving. The clock read 0.4 seconds and in my room as a 23-year-old, I am deflated. Even re-watching it now, a stain of disappointment is still there, just barely, but there it is; knowingly bested even if by a fluke shot. Even if it didn’t play out that way, the likelihood of defeat was all too real to the point I still carry it with me more than 12 years later.
The Lakers come back down with Gary Payton inbounding. Shaq peels back checking for the lob, but Rasho Nesterovic denies it. Kobe tries to break away north of the three-point line, but it’s Derek Fisher making a hard cut to the ball, catching and barely turning and shooting all in one motion. From a sitting position, I jumped off my bed, nearly hitting my head on the ceiling. I shrieked or screamed or yelled and my wife nearly had a heart attack. And all those Spurs, Kevin Willis, Bruce Bowen, Hedo Turkoglu, and of course Tim Duncan are struck down by their own incomprehension which is only made more agonizing by the review process that confirms it all: shot is good, Lakers win.
That the most controversial aspect of Duncan’s career is whether or not he was a power forward or center is the vanilla of NBA controversies. He made no waves, just dominated. He won two MVPs, three Finals MVPs, an All-Star MVP, and five NBA Championships. I guess people want to debate if he’s the best power forward ever or how he stacks up against Kobe as the best player of their shared generation, but there’s not much to argue for me. I’ll always remember the failures and even if I understand how and why my memories drift that way, I can’t help but feel that in relishing the losses, I missed out on some great moments from one of the greatest basketball players of my lifetime.
July 5, 2016Posted by on
I woke on the morning of July 4th, 2016 fumbling for my phone, looking for Kevin Durant updates. Instead my mom had accidentally butt dialed me and I went back to sleep. It was 7:39 AM PST. I dozed off and assume I checked the phone a couple more times without updates until 8:48 AM when in my holiday morning grogginess, I squinted at the Woj tweets:
8:39 AM: @WojVerticalNBA: Kevin Durant will sign with Golden State, he writes on the Players Tribune
8:42 AM: @WojVerticalNBA: Process w/Durant and Golden State players has been ongoing for months. They sold him on winning multiple titles together, easing Cu…
I had planned on going back to bed and enjoying the rare Monday off, but this was the Woj Bomb of Woj Bombs: Peak level Kevin Durant at 27-years-old, whose only modern statistical peer is LeBron James, is joining the 73-win Golden State Warriors.
It’s not enough to write it or see it on paper or text with your NBA junkie buddies about it; though that last part is significantly helpful for processing those morning feelings that somehow cause 35-year-old men to pause and think and feel – or if Twitter’s your bag, just tweet through it.
My own preferences were no doubt a source of my conflicted feelings. I loathe this collection of Golden State Warriors. Steph’s mouth guard-chewing half-swagger, Draymo’s muscle flexing and nut striking, Steve Kerr’s “aw shucks” demeanor, their legion of bandwagon fans – you’ve read or heard it all before, it’s nothing new. A large part of my fandom is wrapped up in villainy and sometime during the 2014-15 season these Warriors firmly took a torch that’s most recently been held by the 04-07 Pistons, 07-11 Celtics, and loosely and limply by the 12-14 Spurs. On the other side, I’ve always been a Durant fan dating back to his days in Austin and the 10-15 times I saw him as a rookie in his one season in Seattle.
These 2015-16 playoffs with their history-altering unpredictabilities and hopelessnesses that turned into triumphs were a bonding agent I didn’t even need. The Warriors and all their 73-win glory with their national media hype man in Mike Breen were roundly slugged in the mouth, against the ropes, bloodied and swaggerless down 3-1 to OKC. Hope was palpable; we were given something we could feel. And in game five, there was Durant high fiving teammates, optimistic about a closeout game six in OKC. And there were the turnovers and Klay Thompson’s all-timer game and that hope fizzling, ungraspable. That game six which has the look and feel of a pivotal moment in NBA history and is a game I’ll always remember like game seven of the 2000 Western Conference Finals or game six of the 2013 NBA Finals; but the ramifications of this Saturday night in May something altogether unique in terms of basketball butterfly effects. Finally there was what felt like inevitability in the game seven defeat.
Throughout the playoffs, KD futures rose and fell stock market style: OKC wins and there’s no way he can leave the team now. OKC loses and he’s got to explore the open market; can’t win with Russ playing like this.
At the end of it though, when the wins and losses were stacked up, even in defeat it felt like these Thunder players had broken through. They’d figured out how to beat the bombers from Oakland and it was a matter of execution more than anything else. Hell, it was Billy Donovan’s first year as head coach and Steven Adams was a revelation. After nine long years, it looked like the 10th would be Durant’s.
The morning after OKC’s loss, I remember seeing stories about KD’s pending free agency and scoffing at the idea that he would leave the team with whom he’d just been to war. In my hopeful naiveté I interpreted the stories as clickbait guaranteed to stir conversation and generate more ad impressions. The concept of a departure was alien.
I don’t care to recap the daily play-by-play of Durant’s free agency visits except to say that with each passing hour (which felt like drawn out days punctuated by Twitter and text updates) what once felt like an inevitable return to OKC for a 1+1 deal seemed to ebb away like OKC’s 3-1 lead. With the exception of maybe an upgraded Boston with Al Horford, the other three teams (Clips, Spurs, Heat) were far behind the incumbent OKC. Golden State was the only team that offered some sort of up-level and it was the type of level-up that some think shouldn’t be available and only became available due to this once-in-a-lifetime spike in the salary cap and a perfect storm of events that opened up the possibility for four of the top-15-to-20 players in the league to join forces in their physical primes.
On the afternoon of Sunday the 3rd, I took the news that he would make an announcement by Monday as a sign that the decision had already been made. There was supposedly a second meeting with OKC and the closer call with GSW Exec/NBA logo Jerry West and the news on Sunday night that it was a two-horse race between GSW and OKC and then it was just the wait for what felt like a simple formality of an announcement.
I never preferred Durant stay with OKC. I didn’t care one way or the other. The drama of the meetings and the possibility of NBA shakeups are hugely entertaining, future-altering decisions. Lives change, jobs are won and lost, legacies defined by decisions like these. Durant’s destination only mattered to me as long it wasn’t Golden State. For the villain to be the winningest team in regular season history and then to somehow get better and get better by snatching up their primary rival and all the while to be a supporter of that rival? In all its possibility, it wasn’t comprehensible in the sense that I didn’t want to comprehend it even though the image of a Curry-Klay-Iggy-Durant-Draymo lineup leaves me with some kind of confused attraction. How do you guard that lineup? It’s not unfair, but it is unguardable. The entire plot reads like a WWE script, but without the obvious literal chair in the back.
Here in Seattle and across the basketball-sphere, some folks are celebrating OKC owner Clay Bennett’s loss today as a “how’s it feel to lose something you love?” Screw Clay Bennett. But more than Bennett being the thief in the night, the system of professional sports with its exploitative model that strong-arms cities and states for publicly funded arenas, the former Sonics owners led by Howard Schultz, and of course then-Commissioner David Stern were all complicit in this jacking. My personal experience separates the pro sport monolith (with its own unique dramas) from the game and front office operations. As soothing as vengeance can be, the day-to-day of weight of a 24-7 talk track world infatuated with the Warriors is the greater of two evils. I prefer a world where Bennett gets his comeuppance and the Warriors get theirs as well. But in this reality, Golden State’s now delivered consecutive back-to-back soul crushing blows to the former Sonics franchise.
The remainder of this piece of is a personal log of sorts whereby I offer up a basic analysis and open-ended questions of what this all means:
- What are the CBA ramifications? The owners and players association will be embarking on new negotiations and one can only imagine that more than a few owners are going point to KD’s departure from small market to large market as a chief reason for finding more ways for incumbent teams to keep their stars. Does this mean changes to the max structure? The league wants parity but as long as stars have a cap on their earning potential and freedom of movement, they’ll continue to join forces in order to win. Hard caps and max adjustments have been tossed around as solutions, but personally the removal a player max is the radical and balanced equalizer. I won’t hold my breath though as the NBA’s bulging middle class is a majority and stands to lose the most in a no max scenario.
- Before the draft, as the details of what GSW would have to do sign KD came out, it seemed like an overreaction for the Warriros to dump two starters and at least one key reserve for just one player. They won 73 games and were one of the most dominant and popular teams I’ve ever seen at a time when the league is reaching broader audiences all over the world. But it always came back to Durant’s talent. Certain players are worth moving mountains for and 7-foot 27-year-olds who average 27-points, 7-rebounds, and nearly 4-assists in over 600 games in their first nine seasons are worth it. The only other guys who have done this through their first nine seasons are LeBron, Kareem, Rick Barry, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Wilt, and Elgin Baylor. Kevin Durant is that kind of dude. But, it’s not without risk. Bogut’s gone, replaced by Zaza Pachulia. Golden State will sign other ring chasers and fill out a roster the same way we’ve seen the Spurs, Cavs, Celtics, and Heat do successfully. It’s a model that can and does work. Areas that still give me pause about this GSW team are in the paint and on the boards. It wasn’t just OKC’s ability to switch with length or the Cavs utilization of Tristan Thompson on defense that allowed those teams to find success against GSW. It was a relentlessness on the boards that battered and wore them down. That won’t change much if they start Draymo or Zaza at center. The potential for the greatest scoring team of all-time that happens to project as an excellent defensive team is the obvious counter-argument.
- Golden State was battered and without Bogut for much of the Finals. All those shots Harrison Barnes missed in a series that went seven games and culminated with a five-point difference? Got to think Durant easily covers that type of gap.
- When LeBron went to Miami there was consternation and hand-wringing over whose team it would be — Bron’s or Wade’s? I don’t anticipate the same type of concern, but GSW has a clear alpha dog leader in Draymo. Curry is its more mild-mannered best player, but Draymo is their heart and soul. How does Durant, another alpha dog, plug into this existing hierarchy? As always, winning cures all and my gut tells me everything will be copacetic.
- Probably the most impressive and awful part of this signing is the aforementioned complete destruction of OKC as a Western Conference contender. It’s not like Anthony Davis left a crappy Pelicans team or Damian Lillard left a decent Blazers team. The best fucking player on the Warriors’ most dangerous West opponent just joined them. In one fell swoop, KD turned Golden State into an All-Star team while eliminating their top rival. Anything can happen in sports when fragile, imperfect humans are involved, but assuming a modicum of health, these Warriors have just the Spurs and maybe the Clippers as potential West challengers. The Clippers are running back the same squad from last year but without Cole Aldrich while the Spurs appear to be replacing Tim Duncan with Pau Gasol and potentially losing Boris Diaw. On paper, OKC was the challenger. Now? On paper at least, all roads lead to Oakland.
This move wraps up what feels like one of the craziest 2-3 month stretches the NBA’s ever experienced. I can only imagine the shockwaves falling on fans in OKC and the Bay Area right now. Hurt and anger, elation and renewal – and it’s only July. Depending on perspective, is the worst/best behind us or is it yet to come? Is this the burial or the resurrection? Summer is here, the pieces are settling into place, we have three months to rest up and mentally prepare. If pro sports exist to give many of us an escape from daily stressors and the absurdity of existence, then the NBA and Kevin Durant have delivered in spades.
March 8, 2016Posted by on
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.
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:
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.
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.
March 2, 2016Posted by on
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.