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The fifth and final installment of our 2017 draft coverage. Man, the deeper you go, the more difficult it is to see consistency in these players. It becomes an exercise in possibility and potential which is kind of funny given that most of the top-players in this year’s draft are fresh 19-year-olds with a single season of college basketball under their belts. Attempting to go even semi-deep on scouting some of these mid-range first founders is an eternal balance between flaws (John Collins’s defense), health (Harry Giles’s knees), and upside (Jarrett Allen’s physical gifts). It’s difficult to project with any confidence who will develop and who will stagnate, but that’s what we’ve attempted to do here, just know that we’re fully aware our success rates will likely dwindle into nothingness and that we’ll look back at our player comparisons three seasons from now like “WTF were we thinking?”
Special thanks to my fellow writers, Bug and Hamilton and our awesome designer, Maahs. Additional thanks to Draft Express, The Ringer, Dunc’d On podcast (Nate Duncan and Danny Leroux) and Basketball Reference. Tons of great resources out there that were critical to us being able to put these scouting reports into existence.
With all that said, let’s get into player’s 16-20 on the 2017 Dancing with Noah Big Board.
Hamilton: By some measures, John Collins looks like he belongs near the top of this draft class. He averaged nearly 29 points and 15 rebounds per-40 minutes and had the top PER in college basketball. He gets a lot of those buckets in the paint using an array of quick half hooks and little push shots that remind me of Antawn Jamison. He really uses lower body well to seal for position on post catches, rolls hard and is a good leaper off two feet when he has time to load up his jump. If Collins has any NBA skills that get him on the floor soon it will be his effort on offense, along with his rebounding. Collins’ catch-and-shoot game from 19-feet is solid for a college big. The form on his shot looks smooth enough to develop into a reliable jumper. His willingness to roll hard and fight for rebounds coupled with that shooting give him a chance to become a serviceable offensive player. He hits the glass hard on both ends, as evident in per-40-mpg rebound number. He seems to have a good second jump when battling in traffic for rebounds and tips a lot of balls to keep them alive. Tristan Thompson has made a ton of money with this as a key skill … That’s some of the good stuff.
The not-so-good is mostly on the defensive end. Collins has just OK size for a five-man even in today’s NBA. He doesn’t have enough awareness to guard many fours, frequently getting caught helping uphill against dribblers. He gets lost too often even against basic movement. These things suggest a steep learning curve against pick-and-roll in the NBA. For how physical he is on the glass he doesn’t seem nearly as comfortable with contact while guarding. Oddly (to me at least) is how much better his footwork is offensively compared to his defensive footwork. And therein lies my concern for his career (at least early). He’s likely to be drafted late lottery or by a so-so playoff team. Those teams are more likely to have shorter leashes with guys who get killed on defense (looking at you James Young) than teams picking in the top-5-10. There’s definitely a path to a long productive career for Collins, but we may see very little of him over the next two-to-three years.
Bug: This isn’t Justin Jackson’s first rodeo with the draft process. After his sophomore season, Jackson threw his name in the hat for the 2016 draft without hiring an agent. However, he was not met with the love from the scouts that he was hoping for last year. Jackson saw the writing on the wall, and pulled his name out to head back to school to put in some more work on his game.
Fast forward to 2017: coming off a national title run with North Carolina, Jackson is now getting the positive feedback he was looking for last year. It’s a great success story for him, but there both positives and negatives to his initial failed draft experience. The obvious pros for the UNC product returning to school are that he played his way into a potential lottery slot, won a national championship, and fixed some of the weaknesses in his game (outside shooting jumped from 29% to 37%). That improvement also shows scouts that he is willing to put in the work necessary to succeed at the highest level of basketball in the world. The downside to coming back for another year is that he is now one of the oldest prospects in the draft and loses a lot of his upside appeal. How much more room does he have before he hits his ceiling?
Based on his size and skill set (6’8” with a 6’11” wingspan), I think he projects as a solid “3 and D” guy in the NBA. Guys like Matt Barnes and Jared Dudley come to mind as comparisons, and they have never had a problem finding a team or a spot in the rotation. As long as he keeps improving his jumper and shot selection, while also keeping the same intensity on defense that he brought his junior season at UNC, he should have no problem sticking in the NBA. Jackson may never become an all-star player, but he should have a long, productive career as a solid contributor and possible starter down the road.
Fenrich: Harry Giles of Winston-Salem, North Carolina just turned 19 a couple months ago and yet his basketball career has already been beset by multiple semi-catastrophic knee injuries. In 2013, Giles tore the ACL, MCL, and meniscus in his left knee. In 2015, he tore his right ACL. Oy!
Recovery for the second ACL bled over to his freshman season at Duke where he averaged under four-points-per-game and nearly eight-fouls-per-40 minutes. Reading and writing that made my head hurt.
But what didn’t make my head hurt was watching Giles’s highlight tape. He has decent height (6’11”) and length (7’3” wingspan) that are bolstered by fluid athleticism. He runs the floor well without any obvious hitches from his knee injuries. The length and athleticism are further bolstered by what appears to be a solid motor. He understands team defense and doesn’t mind mixing it up on the boards or the defensive end. And where we often opt for the cool, unbiased certainty of stats and measures, seeing a guy give a crap and play hard still counts for something.
He doesn’t seem quite ready to be a contributor on the offensive side. Like a lot of players his position and age, he seems like he’d be wise to watch tape of Rudy Gobert and DeAndre Jordan and learn the timing of how and when to roll on the pick-and-roll.
Given that he appeared in just 300 minutes at Duke and has these two knee injuries, it’s challenging to see what he’s truly capable of. In those minutes, he took no threes and shot just 50% from the line on less than an attempt each game. It’s not that his offense is raw, but rather it might just longing for some TLC. I know that’s weird, but there’s a skillset here that’s better than the four-points-per game he showed at Duke.
Maybe it’s just that he plays hard and doesn’t mind doing the dirty work, but I’m a fan of Giles. I have no idea if he can pass or handle the ball or stay out of foul trouble, but agile big men who can switch on the perimeter and don’t mind banging still have a place in the NBA and that means Giles has a home waiting for him in the best basketball league in the world.
Fenrich: The mustache, the little fro, the headband. Jarrett Allen looks like someone straight out of the ABA and for a 19-year-old, he has a mustache that can make grown men envious – at least those longing for mustachioed excellence. Allen is also longer and a better leaper than Giles (his age and positional peer).
And yet, where I find myself excited and hopeful for Giles, I’m unenthused about Allen.
With his length and hops, he can dunk without fear of reprisal. He’s capable of being a plus-rebounder and shot blocker because he’s just so damn long. There’s even a little mid-range set shot that makes me think of Marcus Camby and in his lone season at Texas, he flashed the ability to read double teams.
But there’s a general aversion to mixing it up. In the tape I watched on Allen, he played with finesse (except when he was dunking in someone’s face) and seemed unwilling to bang with opponents. He doesn’t have to be compared to Giles, but where the Duke product went balls to the wall, Allen’s motor is a question mark to me. He’s listed at 235-pounds, but looks just as lean as Giles and without that wiry-type functional strength. It may be there, but he just hasn’t figured out how to leverage it with consistency.
What I worry about with some prospects is that they’re able to get by on talent alone and when faced with equal or better competition, they don’t have the motor or desire to dial up their intensity to match the opponent. Is this the case with Allen or were my expectations just unfair due to his throwback look? Who knows? Is he Trey Lyles or PJ Brown?
Fenrich: If we redid the big board, I think Rabb would likely fall further than anyone else. This kind of bums me out because I followed him over his two seasons at Cal liked what I saw of him around the basket. He’s a plus-rebounder with a good nose for the ball. Like seemingly every other big man in this draft, he’s got NBA height and length, but he’s somewhat limited in how he uses it.
What jumped out to me as a red flag was the decline in his shooting from his freshman to sophomore season where his true shooting dropped from 63% to 54% despite shooting a decent 40% on 8-20 from deep.
As his current skill set is constituted, he doesn’t project as having NBA-level scoring ability. Per The Ringer, he was a below average shooter from nearly every spot on the floor. He likes to play in the post, but at a not-too-strong 220-pounds, he doesn’t have the strength to bang and besides, he’s just not that efficient. Per Draft Express, he shot “a mediocre … 0.75 points per possession” in the post.
He’s a kid who’s willing to work which is best exemplified by his effort on the glass. But the weaknesses are too many and the skill too low to project out as an NBA starter. In a best-case scenario, he’d develop some type of mid-range game-to-three point game, guard fours and fives and mix in some small ball lineups. Absent that, he’s a less athletic Ed Davis or Thomas Robinson.
In the fervor of the moment, three different players have been anointed best player in the world over these playoffs. It’s a fascination we collectively, even the smartest, most well-informed of us, can’t possibly avoid. I’m speaking about San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich who, during the first round of the playoffs, couldn’t help it and said, “Kawhi Leonard, is in my opinion, the best player in the league right now.” Paul Pierce, from maybe a more provocative motivation, said Kevin Durant, “may be the best player in the world today.” And of course, the LeBron James versus Michael Jordan discussion rages on out of boredom, fear, loyalty, and even rational thought.
As it has always been, this is a fluid conversation; one that will be answered today only to be debunked tomorrow. There’s a king of the mountain component to the conversation where the last man atop the hill, at the end of the season, assuming he’s in the conversation and proves himself, can seize the title – at least for the summer.
During the playoffs last year, after the hand wringing about whether James or the league’s first-ever unanimous MVP, Stephen Curry was the best, Bron demonstratively grabbed the title. Violently, sneeringly, shit talkingly. It was definitive to the point that he rode it into the 2016-17 season and all the way through to the finals where, in the dead week leading up to tip-off, the MJ/Bron debate peaked.
Now though, the Jordan/Bron debate is shelved, and quicker than a KD dunk smash, Pierce’s volley into the national TV consciousness that KD just might be the best player in the world is the topic du jour.
What actually is doesn’t even matter as much as what someone says is. If we’ve learned anything from the spectacle of Donald Trump’s ugly ascension to President of the US, it’s that reality is malleable and just because someone says something, that’s enough to make it worthy of discussion. I’m not here though, to debate who is the best basketball player on the planet.
Regardless of who you think it is, these playoffs, and the finals in particular, have become the tunnel through which the KD bullet train speeds towards inevitability in the form of a finals MVP and a first career title.
Despite amazing performances from Curry and desperate all out efforts from James, it’s KD who’s seized the media’s imagination in saving his best for last. At no point throughout his first season with the Warriors had KD scored 30-or-more points in three consecutive games and yet in these three finals, he’s gone for 38-33-31 including a game-stealing three in game three.
Unencumbered from the historic model of a single star carrying an out-sized responsibility for production, the beauty of Durant’s game has flourished. He’s not forced to hunt shots or isolate. Rather, he’s liberated to exploit mismatches and fluidly find opportunities within a balanced offensive flow. Playing aside another superstar in Curry has created a parting of the defensive seas whereby KD has encountered soft paths of undefended space free for his long-striding forays into one-handed dunks. In game one of the series, seven of his 14 made shots were dunks.
Life isn’t easy just because Cleveland’s defense is poor and they lack a rim defender. Life is easy because the Warriors pack the court with deadly attacking players. KD’s first dunk of the series was a lob made possible by three primary strengths:
- KD’s own range which requires that Bron play him tight
- Steph’s range which forces the defense to attempt to anticipate a downscreen from Curry onto KD’s man
- Draymond Green’s recognition and passing ability which pull the beautiful read together
- Bonus: Bron gets roasted on this back cut
His next bucket came off a Curry screen, the following two off Curry passes and strong Durant drives against Bron. And the fast break dunk after that was probably the most clear example of the Cavs caught somewhere between miscommunication and questionable defensive strategy and, again, the presence of Curry acting as a magnet attracting both Bron and Kyrie Irving towards him while KD flies downhill for his fourth dunk of the first half.
That’s five buckets, all assisted directly or indirectly, by Curry. This is luxury, for the rich and famous. This is the rich getting richer, the basketball equivalent of a tax break for the ultra-wealthy. KD didn’t need the game to be easier, but in its ease, we’ve been able to witness a full range of his game that’s rarely uncovered in this league due to circumstance, team construction, and all the other wonky shit that holds back NBA players and teams. The ideal scenario for any of us is the opportunity to achieve our potential, whatever that may be, and playing for the Warriors has allowed Durant to ascend in ways that most players don’t experience.
We know KD can do it on his own. He won his first scoring title at 21, his first MVP at 24. His finals performances have been less a surprise and a more a Cinderella-in-the-glass slipper moment whereby the most perfect player possible for the Warriors team schemes has slipped into the most perfect offense for his skills.
As Tristan Thompson has struggled through the series and the Cavs have no rim protector on the roster, Durant is often the tallest and longest player on the court. When the Warriors stretch the floor with their shooters, Durant as a ball handler is able to attack with multiple options. He shot four of eight from three in game two and the threat of that jumper keeps the defense perpetually off-balance. Defenders can’t give him space, but if you crowd him he can beat even elite defenders off the dribble and the Cavs aren’t exactly flush with elite defenders. When he puts the ball on the floor, he beats opponents with varying attacks. There’s the slaloming dunk shots, the one-legged off-balance kisses off the glass, and the pull-up jumpers. He’s too long for most any NBA defender, but particularly for a Cavs defense that lacks length.
If game one was a chance for KD and Golden State to show just how easy it can be, for KD at least, game two came with slightly increased degrees of difficulty as he had a stretch of play where he shot 14-straight jumpers from all over the court. Pull-up jumpers, step back threes, one-legged horse shots, fadeaways … it didn’t matter. He had a true shooting of 71% in game two. And when he wasn’t carving up Cleveland’s defenders from the perimeter, he joined Curry on the same backdoor cut off screen motion that he opened the series with. Again, Green with the pass, Curry with the screen attempt, and KD with the cut:
For the finals in the restricted area, Durant is shooting 16-21. He’s at 11-21 from three. I can only imagine Daryl Morey of MoreyBall fame watching this games salivating, fantasizing at the obscene efficiency and concocting crazy schemes to acquire the man. My focus here hasn’t even been his defense (two blocks and over a steal-per-game), rebounding (10-per-game), or passing (six assists-per-game). Despite his ability to both assimilate into the fun-loving Golden State infrastructure while still standing out with his precedent-setting combination of length, size, and skill; despite the fluidity of the socialist democratic team approach of these Warriors, Durant has been a one-man avalanche living in a new world with cool new friends, but doing the same old things and suddenly, somehow viewed differently because of it.
Jordan was a me-first ball hog before he won his rings. LeBron a choker who had to team up with other superstars to win (this narrative still pervades). Curry a gimmicky player who couldn’t possibly have survived the rough and rugged NBA of the 80s. The long list of denigrations and narratives are pre-packaged, ready to be consumed and spewed out at anyone who has the audacity to try and be the best. (How dare you?) But KD was always this guy, his head has always been shaped to wear this metaphorical crown. Between the boos and the cheers, between KD and Russ blowing a 3-1 lead last year and being on the verge of a playoff-sweep this year. Between it all, KD the player has remained steadfastly deadly; a Frankenstein amalgam of Tracy McGrady and Dirk Nowtizki. That he is or isn’t the best doesn’t matter, for a moment of some immeasurable transience in the summer of 2017, the crown is his.
Two games into these NBA Finals of this year of our lord, 2017, and most of the familiar faces are the same, but the game itself, its tone and long-built drama, are from another time, three years past.
In the first two games of last year’s finals, the Cavs lost by 15 and then 33 for an average margin of defeat a cringe-inducing 24-points. A year later, they’ve lost by 19 and 22, or 20.5-points-per-game. Yet somehow, with the presence of seven-foot giant basketball scorer machine man, Kevin Durant, it all feels different. Feel is one of those real stinking human traits that is often debunked by science and data. But it does, it feels different. It’s born out in the data too where the Warriors are over seven points-per-100-possessions better than last year’s playoffs while holding opponents to five points-per-100 less than last season. They’re healthy, they’re better, and there’s Durant.
But it’s still more about the feel for me; the data just conveniently backs that up I guess. Things felt different right at the start of game one during the pre-game inspection of game balls. Stephen Curry and LeBron James stood across from each other, pounding and slapping and squeezing the prospective game ball to test its readiness and durability. Their Hall-of-Fame hands and fingertips likely more qualified than any system or gauge to get a sense of whether or not the ball felt right. Then there was a dap or a nod or something, something agreeable without any mutual dislike or disdain. Not that those things are necessary for competitive basketball, but for all the buildup and the sub-tweet sniping between these teams, I hoped for a hint of the tense edge, but it was absent.
Then there was a brief exchange between Bron and Draymond Green in game one when their bodies tangled, and opportunity arose for conflict. Instead of sneering or pushing or shit talking, there were pats. “We’re good.” We’re friends. I don’t write this and I don’t over-examine the pre-game ball check to advocate for something other than sportsmanship. Rather, a healthy dislike can often create an edge. If you’re pulling on a steel mask of impenetrability and your opponent goes in for the hug, which you reject, suddenly there’s a wedge and disagreement. One man says, “it’s just a game, let’s compete.” The other says, “I’m not here for games.” These are the most minute of psychological edges, but possible edges nonetheless. (Or, possibly petty displays of machismo.)
After game one’s 22-point defeat, Bron’s podium tone was something that had the appearance of honesty. For a man who’s been sitting in front of camera lenses, cell phones, and microphones for the past 14 years, he has the ability to turn on a poker face, to deliver messages, and be deliberate in his word choice, and while some of that was at play after game one, it appeared to be genuine and thoughtful.
When asked if “there was one thing that stands out tonight,” without thinking, without blinking, with even a matter-of-fact expression and tone, he said, “KD.”
This was one small piece of a seven-minute podium appearance. It’s simple, two letters, one man, but in all its simplicity, I can’t help but wonder if losing to KD is somehow more than losing to Steph. Alternately, it’s entirely possible that it’s just easier to accept defeat when the deck is stacked so high against you – and the rest of your league-mates.
Game two, while a completely different complexion with Golden State committing 20 turnovers and Klay Thompson finally finding his rhythm, ended in a 19-point Warriors victory. The details were different, but the outcome was largely the same.
The Cavs cut the lead to four points with just under six minutes left in the third quarter, only to see that four-point deficit mushroom to 14 at the end of the quarter, and 22 midway into the final period. Somewhere in this blitzkrieg, Bron, whose face bore the appearance of fatigue late in the third, suddenly looked like it was all sinking in; that while he may be the best player on the planet, capable of putting forth bruising, forceful efforts enhanced by that beautiful basketball mind, could not beat this version of Golden State. There was too much firepower and his own teammates weren’t capable of making plays with the frequency required to win.
I’ve seen this face from LeBron James before. Back in 2014 when the Spurs met Bron’s Heat in the finals and played what David Thorpe has referred to as the greatest basketball he’s ever seen. Back then, there were moments where it was obvious that Bron was on one level and his teammates another. He shot 57% from the field, 52% from three, 79% from the line with a true shooting of 68% while putting up 28-8-4. His running mate, Dwyane Wade, had never looked older as he shot 44-33-69 with 15-4-2. The Spurs, in all their socialistic team play, were collectively on another plane. Bron knew this and as Wade and the rest of his teammates were torched, the grim awareness was drawn nakedly across his face, visible for the whole world to see. Fast forward to 2017 and through two games, James is averaging 28-13-11 with 63% TS and that ice-cold realization that defeat is inevitable is back again.
Standing shirtless and conducting an interview in the locker room after game two, Bron’s tone wasn’t one of defeat. He answered the questions as they were asked (even if the focus has been his impatient, frustrated answer to a single question) and provided his own team-centric analysis. He took accountability and didn’t point any fingers. But in the midst of it, the KD theme popped up again as he reiterated, “They’re a different team… you guys asked me ‘what was the difference’ and I told you so, they’re a different team.”
A few days ago, Marcus Thompson of the Mercury News and author of Golden: The Miraculous Rise of Steph Curry appeared on ESPN’s The Basketball Analogy podcast with Kevin Arnovitz. One of the topics they touched on was how race and class both impact how Curry is viewed in the league. At around the 15:40 mark, Arnovitz raises the issue which Thompson immediately seizes.
Arnovitz: “Is he culturally different from the rest of the league?”
Thompson: “That was the most fun part to write about; those cultural implications … especially for the current player and previous generation, their paradigm is based on the ruggedness of blacktop, and playing with hardened type (of) hood people and that’s how you gain that credibility … Steph doesn’t get the inherent credibility of being a tough guy.”
Arnovitz: “More than toughness … I don’t want to say resentment, but, look, we gravitate towards people, and we endow people with respect, who can relate to us; who we’ve shared that experience with. Is he seen at a distance from the rest of the NBA?”
Thompson: “I think only because he rose to a certain level and become part of an exclusive club … the issue with Steph is that he has risen to a level and he doesn’t share in their similar story and background … When he’s been put in that class … because now he’s up there with LeBron and them and there’s that question, ‘did you earn this?’”
Arnovitz: “An NBA veteran suggested to me that his skin tone had something to do with it.”
Thompson: “Yes. I agree one thousand percent. Color is a longstanding thing in the black community, this is not something new … The embrace, the rampant and widespread embrace of Steph Curry is partially attributed to the fact that he’s light-skinned which means that he’s more digestible to the white media and white masses.”
If we accept Thompson’s idea that class and skin color are, in some part at least, at play in how Cleveland, and LeBron specifically, compete against Golden State, then the presence of KD as the centralized figure within the Warriors’ dominance begins to take on a different appearance. Going back to last year’s finals, there was a visible tension between Bron and Curry and emanated primarily from James. The same tension is nowhere to be found between James and KD. Yeah, Bron and KD are friends, but to take it back to Thompson’s point; they share similar single-parent and cultural backgrounds. Bron’s comments on KD in these finals deviate from anything he’s said about Curry. With Durant, James has gone out of his way in post-game interviews to pinpoint him as the key differentiator despite what has been elite play from Curry. He’s averaging 30-8-10.5 with five threes made-per-game and 66% TS. Comparatively, he averaged 22-5-4 in last year’s finals on 58% TS. Curry is clearly a different player from the ’16 finals.
But, maybe it’s just more palatable to lose to KD. Maybe KD, in looking the part of what we’ve come to expect from our superstars, is less threatening and challenging than Curry. Wrapped up in all of this are subconscious allusions to masculinity and losing to a darker, taller, more traditional star is just easier to accept than losing to a shorter, scrawnier, lighter-skinned non-traditional star. This isn’t limited to James though. In his interview with Arnovitz, Thompson mentions that there’s a notion that players can stop Curry whenever they want; a sentiment echoed notably by TNT’s Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal who have long advocated for a more physical approach to Curry. As Thompson says during his comments on skin color, the perspective of many darker players is that “he’s not built like us.”
None of the above is to imply that the Cavs have mailed in this series or that James has acquiesced to Golden State’s dominance. And after last year’s finals, it would be strange to write-off the Cavs when facing a 2-0 deficit. It’s also not to discount the absolutely torrid play of Durant as something that’s happening due to him looking the part. The Warriors are, by any measure, one of the most dominant teams in NBA history; a fact that’s made possible by the overwhelming skills of Durant, Klay, Steph, and Draymond. Much of my approach here has been to probe at what I noticed early on in this series as somewhat of a thawing and I believe that varying degrees of all of the above (collection of overwhelming basketball ability, color, class, culture, relationships, perceptions) are at play in these finals. Even in spectacular defeat, the nakedness of vulnerability, that moment late in the fourth quarter when LeBron looked like he wanted to skip the bench and walk straight back to the locker room, will always be a bridge to something we can feel.
On May 23rd, Kyrie Irving’s delightful basketball art was once again on full display. The 25-year-old Cavs guard saw an opportunity when reigning GOAT-candidate and teammate, LeBron James, sat midway through the second quarter with his fourth foul and to paraphrase Steve Winwood, he saw a chance and took it.
His final line: 15-22 from the field, 4-7 from three, 8-9 from the free-throw line, a career playoff-high 42 points with 81% true shooting, and the type of third quarter performance that makes you want to support the National Endowment for the Kyries to cultivate this type of genius in all fields of expression. It was the kind of joy and declaration that simultaneously uplifts the audience to new levels of consciousness and reduces us to slack-jawed holy incantations in the same breath.
Take the third quarter which the Cavs went into with a ten-point deficit. Kyrie scored 21 points on ten shots. There was the buzzer beater three that dotted Terry Rozier’s eye. There was the scary rolled ankle that made guts bubble up and cringes rise in basketball fans across the globe. But, there was Kyrie nearly outscoring Boston for the entire quarter (he lost 23-21) with a series of improvisational acrobatic slaloms into the clutches of a green-hued opponent. I say improvisational because there’s so much reading and reacting, but there’s a choreographic element to Irving’s slicing drives almost as if it’s all premeditated. And there he was exploiting mismatches like Tyler Zeller and Kelly Olynyk (very poor souls, how I relate! How I empathize!) for layups. But these Kyrie layups aren’t your dad’s layups. It’s not Earl Monroe or Tiny Archibald or Rod Strickland, Isiah Thomas, Tim Hardaway, Steve Nash or anyone else. They’re elegant, funambulist, time-stopping. It’s beauty. For Kyrie, when it’s cooking like it was on this Tuesday night in May, it feels magnetic. You could cover the man’s eyes with a thick black cloak of midnight and he could sniff out the basket with the right amount of English and some preternatural understanding of geometry.
The crescendo really began at the 4:48 mark in the third when Cleveland was down 69-66. JR Smith found Kyrie in transition for a contested layup against Avery Bradley to pull the Cavs within one point at 69-68.
On the next possession, Kyrie was isolated above the corner against Olynyk, of Kelly Oubre-infamy, who he tortured with jab step threats before calmly sinking three. Score: 72-72, Kyrie at 25.
A minute later he caught Zeller on a pick-and-roll switch going downhill for a layup. Score: Cavs, 75-72, Kyrie at 27.
Less than a minute later, he caught a transition pass from LeBron and easily laid it in. Cavs, 77-72, Kyrie at 29. That’s four straight makes.
Off the ball moments later, he caught Rozier napping for slightest of moments, got just a hair behind him and used his underrated size advantage for a backdoor lob-into-a-layup. 79-74, 31 for Kyrie and five straight makes in about three minutes.
As if to prove he can do more than score in transition or against slow-footed sacrificial lambs, he then found himself on the right wing (his preferred area of operation – he took just one shot from the left side all night) against badass Bradley. Again, with the same fake jabs he used on Olynyk in the corner, he feints baseline and Bradley shifts his stance. In these split seconds of shifting and countering the counters, Kyrie gets over the defender’s top foot, has him beat, and careens downhill where Zeller awaits. Kyrie anticipates, adjusts, re-balances, makes the shot and draws the foul. Cavs, 82-76, Kyrie up to 34 and six straight.
Isolated again on the right wing, this time against the game, but overmatched Rozier, Irving does the exact same thing he just did to Avery: fake right, catch the defender off-guard because the defense must respect the dribble drive and in this case, Rozier nearly trips over his own feet, go left to the center. This time it’s Al Horford waiting and Kyrie casually leaps, brings the ball down and scoops it from a lower angle over Horford’s outstretched hand. And does it all at top speed with grace. Cavs, 84-78, 36 for Kyrie and he’s now hit seven straight.
Finally, the icing on the cake. The cherry on top. The gravy on the mashed potatoes. Whatever you want to call it, young Rozier was stuck all alone on Kyrie yet again with the quarter winding down. The previous slice and dice fresh in his mind, Rozier’s too reactionary on the balls of his feet jumping back nearly three to four feet when Kyrie fakes a dribble attack. At the same time Rozier backs up, Kyrie calmly, cool as you will, steps back creating a good six-plus feet between them. The shot is up, the shot is good and Cleveland goes into the fourth up 87-80 as the buzzer sounds.
Over the final four minutes and forty-eight seconds of the third period, Kyrie scored 19 points and hit eight straight shots.
And as I finish this, what I think I’ve realized is that Kyrie captured a moment, captured the crowd, and captivated us all. It reminds me of a section Jack Kerouac’s On the Road when his main characters Dean and Sal end up at a jazz club in San Francisco and end up under the spell of a tenorman who captured “IT.” As Dean explains it:
Now, man, that alto man last night had IT—he held it once he found it…. Up to him to put down what’s on everybody’s mind. He starts the first chorus, then lines up his ideas…. And then he rises to his fate and has to blow equal to it. All of a sudden in the middle of the chorus he gets it—everybody looks up and knows; they listen; he picks it up and carries. Time stops. He’s filling empty space with the substance of our lives…. He has to blow across bridges and come and do it with such infinite feeling soul-exploratory for the tune of the moment that everybody knows it’s not the tune that counts but IT
For all of basketball’s team-sport ethos, these moments of individual greatness can tilt thousands of people sitting in an arena towards palpable frenzy. You can imagine, or at least I can imagine, a crowd rising to riot levels in these moments. The rising giddiness, the euphoria, the open-ended question imploringly asked: how far can we go? How far will he take us? To which only Kyrie can answer. He owned the time and the moment. For that blissful stretch of the third, he had IT.
Last season I had a monthly post to look at how players were pacing against random historical statistical achievements and now that we’re now roughly a quarter of the way into the NBA season, I’m revisiting the concept. It’s no longer the “young” NBA season, but we’ve escaped the doldrums of “small sample-size theater” and can look at trends as markers of potential sustainability like Russell Westbrook preposterously averaging a triple double. The audacity! Let’s dive in and embrace the stats instead of telling the kids to get off our lawn while we spit shine our shrines to Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan because goddamn it, yesterday wasn’t better than today and today isn’t better than yesterday. New frontiers await, let’s go!
- You want efficiency, here’s your damn efficiency: Kevin Durant scoring 27ppg on 17 or less FGA/gm. Since 1946-47, Basketball-Reference (BBR) tells us the only player with comparable volume and efficiency was Charles Barkley in 1987-88 when he averaged 28.3-points on 16 FGA/gm. Everyone said it would be easier in for KD in Golden State and so far it’s been historically easy.
- For just the 3rd time in league history, at least 10 players are averaging 25 or more points/game. Last happened in 2005-06 after a rule change. Additionally, a whopping 28 players are averaging 20 points or higher.
- BBR tracks rebound percentage beginning in the 1970-71 season when young Tom Boerwinkle led the league with 22.6%. Between 1971 and 2016, only four players achieved a 24% or higher rebounding rate. In 2016-17, three players, including Dwight Howard at a career-high 24.2%, are 24% or better – Andre Drummond and Hassan Whiteside are the other two. Dennis Rodman appears on this list seven times and holds six of the top-7 rates.
- Seems like everyone has strong opinions these days on how many threes big men should or shouldn’t be shooting. I may or may not be one of these people, but it doesn’t change the fact that players listed at 6’11” or taller are taking and making more threes than ever before. Prior to 2016-17, big guys had hit 1.5 or more threes/game 18 different times and it been accomplished by just seven players including the king of big man threes, Dirk Nowitzki who did it five times. But the throne is being challenged in 16-17 as six bigs are making at least 1.5 3s/game including Channing Frye who, if he keeps up his current pace, will tie Dirk for most appearances on the list. Also worth noting is that Frye’s on pace to set big man records for most threes made and highest 3pt-percentage.
- With advanced stats like individual defensive-rating, defensive plus-minus, and opponent shooting percentage, we have more and deeper ways to measure defensive impact. This is good, but there’s still some traditional measures that help identify the havoc players are wreaking on that end of the floor and steals and blocks do a decent job. Since 1973-74 when steals and blocks started being tracked, just two players (David Robinson once and Hakeem Olajuwon four times) have accomplished full-season averages of 2-plus steals and 2-plus blocks. A quarter of the way into 16-17 and the dashing young Grecian prince Giannis Antetokounmpo is making a bid to join these Hall-of-Fame legends with his averages of 2.2 in both categories. Fellow basketball savant Anthony Davis isn’t far behind at 2.7-blocks and 1.8-steals. Do these youngsters dare to jointly pull off a feat not seen since 1992? Dare they may!
- In all our years, we’ve only seen the greatest of the great reach the all-around statistical lines so indicative of great versatility as a 22-point, 8-rebound, 6-assist per-game average. These are players like Oscar Robertson (5x), Wilt Chamberlain (2x), John Havlicek (2x), Larry Bird (6x), Michael Jordan, Kevin Garnett, and Lebron James. But legends must make room for new jacks and those include Russell Westbrook (31-10-11) and the aforementioned Giannis (22-8-6). Russ is the headliner, but at 22, Giannis and Oscar (in 1960-61) are the youngest ever to stack these stats.
- From the world of the weird, since the advent of this great game only a single player has averaged at least 25-points while making 8-or-less field goals/game. That lightning rod of making a lot out of a little is James Harden who reached the over-25/under-8 marker thrice is being threatened with new company this season as argyle-sock-puppet-loving Jimmy Butler throws his hat into the ring of mondo-efficiency with 25.6-points on just 7.8-field goals/game.
- Joel Embiid doesn’t currently qualify for league leaders due to his lack of minutes which is a result of nightly restrictions and not playing back-to-backs, but for rookies, he’s embarking on some strange records:
- Usage rate: He’s currently at 37.6% which would easily eclipse Ben Gordon’s record of 30.4% back in 2004-05. NBA usage rates are tracked back to 1977-78.
- Turnovers: No player has ever averaged as many turnovers (3.8) while appearing in as few minutes (under 24). As his playing time and frequency level out, one would expect there to be a balancing out, but until it happens, he’ll remain in lonely, rare company.
- Three-point shooting: For rookies who have attempted at least 30 threes in the first 13 games of their debut season, Embiid ranks 4th overall in accuracy at 51% (18-35) behind well-known shooters Brent Barry, Jason Terry, and Dana Barros.
- Blocks & Threes: With all these unicorns like Embiid, Giannis, and Porzingis galloping around NBA cities, new frontiers are being explored with frequency. Since 1983-84, only one other player (not limited to rookies) has as many blocks (29) and threes (18) made through his team’s first 13 games and that’s Wilson Chandler in 2010-11.
- 28-points-10-rebounds-1.5 3s had never been reached before this season and now we’ve got two players breaking on through to the other side (interestingly enough, a montage of Westbrook drives, dives, and boards could easily be set to The Doors tune) of NBA statistics: Westbrook (31-10-1.8) and DeMarcus Cousins (29-10-1.7). There’s a lot of similarity in how these guys play so while positionally (not a word, but we’ll go with it) and physically they couldn’t be much more dissimilar, they’re both emotionally volatile players fueled by something deep in their guts and chest cavities. They’re wrecking balls with immense responsibilities riding on their shoulders and their carnage is leaving bulk stats and fragile records in their wakes from Sacramento to Oklahoma City.
- A usage rate over 30% will typically land a player in the top-10 in the league in overall usage. But 30% usage and under two turnovers/game? That’s rare. So rare that prior to this season, it’s been accomplished just three times: by Kobe Bryant last year (more a result of his bullish shot jacking), LaMarcus Aldridge in 14-15 (30.2, 1.7), and Dirk in 08-09 (30.3, 1.9). Joining this rare combination of usage and efficiency are Kawhi Leonard (30.6, 1.9) and Zach Randolph (30.9, 1.3). Though I haven’t seen as much Z-Bo as I would like, I’m assuming there’s a lot of catching and shooting with little dribbling and not much playmaking. Kawhi, by contrast, has more assists/game than anyone else on this list.
- Blocking shots and scoring the basketball at an elite level are the domains of Kareem, Hakeem, the Admiral and Pat Ewing, right? I mean those are the first names that come to mind when I think of that joint skillset, but prior to this season, only a single player had ever average 30-points and greater than 2.5-blocks for an entire season. Can you guess who it is? Think, think, guess, guess, don’t skip ahead. This year, Anthony Davis (31.5, 2.7) is flirting with joining Buffalo Brave great Bob McAdoo (30.6, 3.3) in this exclusive club of tall, lean basketball pros.
- After tonight, the Brow of unibrow fame is already up to six 35-point, 15-rebound games. Since 1983-84, the most a player has had in a single season was Charles Barkley with 12 in 87-88. We know the Brow’s susceptible to missing games to aches, pains, strains, sprains and the like, but this is a fun one to watch.
- 50-40-90 club but with 48-38-88 thresholds so we can see who’s sniffing around. 20 games into the season and we’ve got four candidates: Stephen Curry (49-42-92), Patty Mills (51-45-96), Terrence Ross (50-44-94), and J.J. Redick (49-46-90). Only once since we’ve been threes came into the game have we seen more than one player reach this dead-eye shooting summit: 2007-08 when Jose Calderon and Steve Nash landed there together.
We’re a quarter of the way in, but this has the making of a legendary season for statistical achievements, driven by those former three Thunders rolling roughshod through the league in their own tradition-defying ways. Usage rates at the individual level are rising in line with individual scoring and the range expansion of big men means more of the court is open to new batches of players which means the entire ecosystem of stats is undergoing historical change. This is fun, it’s unseen, let’s get our sunscreen (I’ll make sure your neck is covered) and venture off into worlds unknown with Boogie and Russ and the Brow. Godspeed!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.