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Mark Travis

Mark Travis has 127 articles published.

Back In The Spotlight

in NBA by
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For the first time in three seasons, Chris Paul overshadowed Stephen Curry. Ever since Curry broke out on the national stage in 2013, Paul has become a bit of an afterthought, replaced as the league’s preeminent point guard while the Warriors quickly supplanted the Clippers as the most exhilarating team in California.

Monday night, however, Paul stole the spotlight back. And it could not have been for a worse reason.

Just more than 24 hours after Curry slipped on a wet spot near midcourt at the Toyota Center and suffered a mild MCL sprain, Paul’s innocuous reach on Gerald Henderson produced even more disastrous results, for he a fractured the third metacarpal in his right hand. While Curry’s initial two-week timetable leaves room for optimism, Paul is expected to be out for the remainder of the postseason, giving the Clippers little reason to hope.

And, as the Clippers luck would have it, Paul isn’t only causality they will have to deal with in this series. In Game 4, Blake Griffin aggravated the quad injury that kept him out for a large part of the season out for most of the season, and the team has announced he is done for the year. The cherry on top is J.J. Redick, whose bruised heel is limiting his effectiveness on the heels of the best season of his career. By the end of Game 4, the lineup the Clippers had on the floor looked like one Doc Rivers deployed in the dying days of the season when the seeds were set, and that is going to be how the Clippers look to finish this series.

This was a cruel turn for one of America’s sincerely cursed sports franchises. When the Clippers took the floor in Portland on Monday night, their oft-criticized core had never been in a better position to make the conference finals. The most optimistic timetable for Curry had him returning for Game 4 in the second round at the earliest, and Los Angeles was in a good position to take a 3-1 lead against the Blazers, a team it had dominated for two of the first three games of the series.

By the start of the fourth quarter, that narrative had been completely reversed. Suddenly, the Warriors seemed to escape the possibility of facing the Clippers, a team that consistently pushes them (in large part thanks to Paul’s fight), without Curry and instead a more favorable matchup against the Blazers had become more likely.

This was also an unbelievably traumatic twist for Paul. Paul is one of this generation’s most brilliant and accomplished players, but circumstances and happenings out of his control have robbed him of a legitimate title chance seemingly every season. He had had a fantastic regular season, perhaps his best since his first with the Clippers, navigating choppy waters without Griffin for most of the season and carrying the team to another 50-win season, no small feat for Clipper land. Most importantly, Paul was healthy for most of the year and might have played all 82 for the second straight season were it not for precautionary DNPs and the Clippers resting guys down the stretch. Another of Paul’s prime seasons going to waste because such an unlucky injury in the postseason feels so unjust.

Now that the Blazers have found an offensive rhythm and with the Clippers down their two best players, the pendulum has swung violently in Portland’s favor for the remainder of this series, and Los Angeles shutting down Griffin could easily be interpreted as the white flag on this season. So within two days we went from having two blockbuster, potentially all-time great, second round matchups – Oklahoma City vs San Antonio and Los Angeles vs Golden State – to one great series and another tarnished by injuries.

The pressure has certainly shifted to the Thunder and Spurs, two teams that couldn’t have envisioned this good a shot at the Finals just two days ago. Assuming the Blazers are able to defeat the Clippers, which they should be favored to do at this point, they will face the Warriors without the league MVP, but Golden State will be happier to see the Blazers than the healthy Clippers, for the Warriors have a much better chance to stall against Portland, making Curry’s return while the series is still being decided a possibility. Either way, if Portland can beat the wounded Warriors or if Golden State scraps by the Blazers with Curry barely rounding into form, the Thunder or Spurs will smell blood in the water in the conference finals.

Meanwhile, Paul and the Clippers will likely be at home watching the conference finals yet again, wondering what might have been. In back-to-back seasons the Clippers were a fourth quarter away from their first conference finals birth – first against the Thunder in 2014, then the Rockets last season – only to choke away those opportunities. Maybe they wouldn’t have gotten nearly as close this year, but in many ways a second round victory against the (healthy) defending champions would have been a validation of this Clippers’ core.

But now, because of the unforgiving and untimely nature of injuries, the Clippers won’t have that chance. And who knows how much time Paul has left in the spotlight.

Der Bayern Dusel

in Champions League Analysis/Futbol by
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Juventus, along with their Spanish spirit animal (Atletico Madrid), are the perennial thorn in the side of the Champions League. In an extravagant competition designed to pit star-studded sides that play fast and fluid attacking football against each other, Juve are the antithesis: A defensive-minded side with a speciality in tactics and tackles rather than flicks and flair.

During the past two seasons under Max Allegri, Juve have sapped the elegance from the flamboyant likes of Manchester City, Dortmund and Real Madrid, and they performed admirably in the Champions League final against Barcelona. Juve were certainly a more dangerous side last season, when they had a world class striker leading the line (Carlos Tevez), a destructive presence in the midfield who could also join the attack (Arturo Vidal) and a certain promising prospect who we will get to later. But Allegri has adapted, and on a relatively tight budget considering the club let Tevez return to his beloved Boca Juniors on a free transfer, and he had his side battling for a place in the Champions League quarterfinals Wednesday night.

The first leg of Juve’s Round of 16 matchup against Bayern was only the second time Juve had played a four-goal game in the Champions League under Allegri and it was the second time that an opponent had put two goals past them. Other than Barcelona, this Bayern team is clearly the most talented opponent Juve have faced during the past two seasons, and the Zebras began the tie in typical fashion, sitting back and letting Bayern bring the game to them. The strategy backfired when Thomas Muller scored just before halftime, and the tie seemed over when Robben scored Bayern’s second away goal in the 56th minute. Juve rallied, though, scoring twice in the final half hour to even things up before the scene shifted to Bavaria.

Juve’s comeback in the first leg was surprising, but it was nothing compared to the way The Old Lady started in the return leg. Within the first 30 minutes, Juve had secured two away goals of their own and looked poised to pull off a major upset; the moment Juan Cuadrado’s finesse shot hit the back of the net in the 28th minute, Juventus had outscored Bayern 4-0 during the past hour of play. With Bayern’s goals in Turin stripped of their additional value, Juventus had earned itself a chance to shape up at the back and try to see out the tie for an hour with one of the best attacking teams in world football breathing down their necks.

The Old Lady nearly did it, too. Juve nearly pulled off a feat many thought to be impossible. They were as comfortable as can a team can be when putting 10 men behind the ball and giving Bayern Munich an hour to figure out how to score a pair of goals, and their defending was solid. But parking the bus against the top sides in the world can’t last forever, which Juve found out in the first leg when they sat back without a lead to protect and conceded two.

It was only after going down 2-0 at home when Juve picked up their intensity and played more ambitiously, and that spirit carried over in the opening half hour of Wednesday’s affair. Allegri got the tactics wrong out of the gate in this tie, playing in fear of Bayern from the opening kick in their home leg, but it seemed Juve’s strong close in Turin had keyed Allegri in to the benefits of letting his team play more aggressively, particularly against a depleted Bayern backline that has looked shaky when challenged. That mindset didn’t last long, though, for Juve retreated into their shell once they put themselves two goals ahead.

I think Allegri blew a golden opportunity in Bavaria. Juve scored twice because they were putting good pressure on Bayern and creating chances on the break and with possession of their own, yet as soon as they got up 2-0 he decided to switch his team into an even more defensive formation, all but killing Juve’s chances of scoring a third goal without a good bit of luck. I can see parking the bus straight away if you score two quick goals in fluke situations, but Juve were legitimately troubling Bayern and Pep Guardiola’s defense was in shambles. Had the Zebras finished out the half and started the second with the same attacking fervor they arrived in Germany with, they might well have gone through.

Not only did Allegri neuter his team after they had showcased their attacking prowess, he also took out his two top performers well before they were ready to leave the pitch, and his changes directly preceded Bayern’s first two goals. Allegri took Alvaro Morata off for Mario Mandzukic in the 72nd minute, and less than a minute later Robert Lewandowski had headed home Douglas Costa’s brilliant cross to bring Bayern within one. Then Allegri brought Cuadrado off in the 89th minute, and two minutes later Muller had tied the game.

Morata, who came on as a sub in the first leg and created one of Juve’s goals, was brilliant Wednesday. His hold up play was great, he had a tremendous work rate chasing down clearances and his run that created Juve’s second goal was sublime. Picking up the ball deep in his own half, Morata glided past Bayern’s defenders as if they weren’t there, charging down the pitch until the defense committed to him and then slid a perfect pass to Cuadrado, who played a great match himself, for the goal.

Morata should have had a goal of his own, too, but the referee disallowed it on a wrong offside call, making for the second time this tie Juve had lost a goal because of an incorrect decision. Morata was critical for Juve when they got past Real Madrid last season and he was good enough in both of his appearances against Bayern to secure the same result this season. If there is any positive takeaway for Juve from this game, it’s that Morata looked lively once again in the midst of a rather quiet season. The version of Morata that played against Bayern paired with Paulo Dybala, one of the best young forwards in Europe, would give Juventus a great strike partnership for the next few years.

Unfortunately for The Old Lady, Morata was subbed off 20 minutes too early, and while Allegri was submarining his sides’ chances, his adversary helped win the game for his team. Guardiola’s subs were fantastic, with Kingsley Coman entering in the 60th minute and Thiago coming on in extra time. Coman was an energetic presence out wide for Bayern, but more importantly his insertion shifted Douglas Costa into a more central role.

Alex Sandro, a left back by trade who has had good success as a hybrid wide midfielder for Juve, had done as good a job as he could in dealing with Costa, helping cover for the slower Patrice Evra by tracking back and taking up the widest positions. Once Coman came in and drew Sandro’s attention, Evra and Juve’s midfielders were left to defend Costa, a losing proposition for Juve.

Coman was also directly involved in the result, assisting on Muller’s equalizer in the 91st minute and scoring a gorgeous curler on the break to seal the tie in the 110th minute. Coman was a Juve player a season ago, though he never played a meaningful role, and Bayern got him on loan with an option to buy during the summer (for a price that now looks like a steal). Who knows how much Coman would have played had he stayed with Juve this season, but imagining this same Juve team coming into Bavaria with Sandro at left back and Coman taking Evra’s place in the side must be painful for Juve fans. Coman is fantastic on the ball and an excellent playmaker for a 19-year-old. Ribery and Robben have been the star wide players for Bayern for several seasons, but it won’t be long before Costa and Coman displace them.

It is tough to say that the better team didn’t go through from this tie; Bayern are impossibly deep and talented and they managed six goals (albeit with extra time) against a team that hasn’t allowed a goal in Serie A since Jan. 10. But when you consider the two missed calls (one giving Bayern an underserved goal in the first leg, the other taking a legitimate goal away from Juve in Bavaria) and the fact that Juve scored four straight goals in the middle of this tie, one could argue that Juve were just as good, if not better, during these two games.

Juventus will never be able to make that claim firmly, though, because they gave Bayern way too much time to thump their way back into the tie with crosses and longshots rather than staying positive and keeping the pressure on Bayern’s unconvincing defense. Such has been the story for Juve in big games under Allegri.

Juve, while lacking the volume of the other super clubs, are talented and Allegri has a great defensive system that his players buy into. What is separating Juve from the European crown is that their manager has yet to reciprocate the trust his players have in him. Sitting back and making opponents come to them will always be a part of The Old Lady’s DNA, but until Allegri realizes that parking the bus against the best teams in the world is a stopgap, often desperate, solution and not a foolproof plan, Juve will be at the mercy of teams that can dominate possession in the final third in their sleep.

Parisian Prominence

in Champions League Analysis/Futbol by
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For the second straight season, Paris Saint-Germain eliminated Chelsea from the Champions League with an impressive performance at Stamford Bridge, though this time the Parisians’ triumph was less surprising and more convincing. With their 2-1 victory against the Blues last week, the Parisians booked their place in the quarterfinals with a tactical and spirited performance against a Chelsea side that has been decent under interim manager Guus Hiddink.

The second leg of last year’s tie was full of drama almost from kickoff, with Zlatan Ibrahimović being sent off after just half an hour. Ten-man PSG rallied to level the match and the tie at 2 in the 86th minute, with David Luiz forcing extra time with a thumping header. An Eden Hazard penalty put PSG behind again before their other Brazilian centerback, Thiago Silva, beat Thibaut Courtois with a header of his own, putting PSG through on away goals.

This time around, the Parisians’ place in the next round was never in doubt, particularly after Adrien Rabiot slotted home the opening goal in London, giving PSG a matching away goal and setting them up for a thorough performance that put them through. They won their home leg 2-1 thanks to Edinson Cavani’s late goal, and the Parisians looked even more comfortable on Chelsea’s ground, securing the same result in London.

Midfield Mastery

PSG dominated Chelsea in the center of the park in both legs, which was particularly impressive during the second leg at Stamford Bridge with Marco Verrati out and Blaise Matuidi playing injured. In the deciding matchup, PSG boss Laurent Blanc deployed a sturdy midfield pair alongside Matuidi in veteran Thiago Motta and the ravishing Rabiot. Even against lesser sides, Chelsea can cede possession at home, so Blanc put his faith in a trio capable of recycling possession and doing the dirty work in midfield, necessary qualities in a game PSG merely needed to control, not dominate.

The Parisians were far from complacent, though, looking to add to the 2-1 lead they stepped onto the pitch with. At times, PSG’s passing was as slick and instinctive as you will see in football. Their movement looked choreographed and their triangles were as tight as ever, culminating in some aesthetically pleasing football and a handful of good chances.

Understandably, Matuidi was far from his lively self in this game, straying from confrontation in the midfield and rarely springing forward into the attacking third. With Matuidi slowed, Rabiot was critical for the Parisians, and he played one of the best games of the season. Rabiot was comfortable exchanging short passes with Motta in the middle of the park and he had great success drifting wide and linking up near the touchline, which spurred moves like this one.

Rabiot had 92 passes with a 90.2 percent completion rate, the game’s second highest total behind Motta, who picked 118 passes in this game and helped PSG establish control. Motta did, however, look a bit throw off when Chelsea pressed him intently and he wasn’t tremendous defensively. Without Rabiot buzzing around the field, Motta might have been at fault for a few more mistakes, but the youngster did well in this game to provide an outlet for Motta, and PSG were able to dominate the midfield.

But it wasn’t just the three midfielders Blanc picked that made the difference in this game; an attacking midfielder turned winger in Angel Di Maria had a massive impact in this game by dropping into the hole and helping usher play into the attacking third. Zlatan has played the No. 10 role extensively during the latter part of his career, but he stayed forward against Chelsea, often drifting off the centerbacks just a tad and attacking for wide positions. Di Maria’s central positioning and Ibrahimovic’s slight drift were key in PSG’s first goal, as was Rabiot’s ubiquitous nature in this game.

Di Maria has been brilliant in a lot of different facets this season, and against the Blues he showcased an element of his versatility that will give Blanc a lot of different attacking options as the Parisians progress to the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

Ibracadabra

Zlatan, whose recent comments indicate this will be his final season in France, is doing all that he can to secure his first Champions League trophy as a Parisian. The Swede was integral in PSG’s attacking play against Chelsea, scoring twice and assisting once in the tie. As someone who has been criticized for shrinking in big games, Ibra has refuted those criticisms with his typical stern tone. He was magnificent against the Blues overmatched centerback duo, drifting wide of Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic on both of PSG’s goals – once as a playmaker, once as a scorer – and Lucas worked well as his silent counterpart, making critical runs that drew defenders away from PSG’s talisman.

Ibra is in flying form having had a hand in two goals against Chelsea and scoring another four against Ligue 1 bottomfeeder Troyes. PSG have wrapped up the domestic league with eight games to play, meaning Blanc can save Ibra specifically for the Champions League. If Zlatan can maintain his fitness and form during the next month or so, PSG will have a great shot at winning the one trophy he desires the most.

Sorting out the defense

Blanc might do well to stay away from totally rotated sides in the league, because his defense can use some sharpening. Although they couldn’t get their attack going against them, PSG’s defense was more impressive in its matchups with Real Madrid during the group stage (one goal conceded in two games) than it was in either game against Chelsea. The centerback duo of Luiz and Silva is firmly the Parisians’ best, but Blanc has some options, each talented and flawed, at the fullback spots that he will have to sort through ahead of the Champions League quarterfinals.

Maxwell and Marquinhos started both legs against Chelsea at left and right back, respectively, with Gregory Van der Wiel managing a cameo in the second leg, summer signing Layvin Kurzawa never seeing the pitch and Sergio Aurier rightfully out of the team after his disparaging comments about his manager on Periscope. Maxwell, aka Zlatan’s lucky charm when it comes to trophies, probably won’t be displaced, but Marquinhos might find himself out of the squad should PSG have the misfortune of drawing Ronaldo, Douglas Costa or Neymar in the quarterfinal.

And that, really, is what is most intriguing about the next challenge for PSG. They’ve proven to be one of the five best sides in the world this season, with dominating form in their league and good showings in the Champions League. But PSG have consistently failed to live up to the standards set by the few clubs that boast more lavish teams, living proof of the difference between great and world class sides.

With the addition of Di Maria, the evolution of their midfield and Ibra’s farewell looming, this is PSG’s best chance to prove they belong with the perennial big boys.

Looking On The Whiteside

in NBA by
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The Miami Heat struck gold when they signed Hassan Whiteside last November. Whiteside, a maligned and peripatetic talent, was stuck in a fruitless cycle of D-League contracts and passport stamps when the Heat took a chance on him, and he paid immediate dividends.

Within a fortnight of his first real taste of the rotation, Whiteside posted 23 points and 16 rebounds in a breakout performance against the Clippers. Two weeks after that, Whiteside posted his first career triple-double when he put up 14 points, 13 rebounds and 12 blocks against the Bulls. As the weeks went by, the monstrous statlines piled up, and Whiteside quickly earned a reputation as one of the biggest bargains in the league.

Those points-rebounds-blocks triple-doubles have become a bit of a calling card for Whiteside. Whiteside has three such triple-doubles this season, giving him four for his career; the only other player with more than one since 2000 is Ben Wallace. As Whiteside so eloquently put it: Ain’t nobody else doing it with blocks.

The illustration for this article was done specifically for this piece by artist Alex Dunbar. You can see more of his work at CourtsideScribbles.com

One would think a player with the potential to put up such cartoonish numbers on a regular basis would be the crucial piece in his team’s playoff push. Instead Whiteside has spent this season being toggled between the limelight and the timeout corner as the Heat try to figure out exactly what they have in this radiant and recalcitrant talent.

Whiteside’s situation is littered with precedents. There aren’t any examples of NBA teams exhuming a former second rounder who had resorted to playing in Lebanon and China, much less cases of that player subsequently becoming one of the most dominant centers in the league within a season and a half. Imagine new Rocket Michael Beasley coming in and challenging for the scoring title during the final two months of the season. That is akin to what Whiteside has done since Miami plucked him from obscurity.

The downside of being plucked from obscurity is that Miami’s flyer on Whiteside came with a contract that didn’t offer any longterm security for either party. The terms of the deal aren’t wholly unique for a 15th man being signed for the minimum during the season, but this particular case, in which Whiteside has stunningly developed into a max-level talent, is certainly a first; it is the kind of rare occurrence that might even have its own exception in the CBA named after it to protect both sides if it ever happens again.

Although the Heat don’t have any contractual right or advantage to lean on when Whiteside hits free agency this summer, they did give themselves the chance to win Whiteside over during this trial run. After all, Miami was the team most eager to sign him when his only other offers paid in yuan instead of dollars. Given the Heat’s sterling reputation, which only shines brighter in light of Joe Johnson’s decision to move to South Beach instead of embarking on a guaranteed trip to the Finals with the Cavs, it would seem they have a massive advantage in keeping Whiteside around. The Heat organization has a ton of clout among players because they take care of their own and Miami offers the NBA’s most scenic residential options. What’s not to like?

Whiteside’s situation isn’t that cut and dry. It doesn’t seem as if the Heat have established themselves as overwhelming favorites to retain Whiteside, which isn’t what you would expect given the circumstances.

There are several relevant sideplots in this impending free agency saga, not the least of which is Whiteside’s personality. Like any talented big man, Whiteside wants more touches and a bigger slice of the possessions pie on offense, and he isn’t shy about it. Were Whiteside to accept the confines of the Tyson Chandler role, which suits him well, then the Heat couldn’t ask for a better pick-and-roll dive man to play alongside Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade (though the fit between Wade and Dragic is still in question).

But Whiteside desires more of the spotlight, and because Whiteside can walk at the end of the season, the Heat are in an interesting position: Do they cater to him or give him stern love? I suppose that question was answered when Miami showed its admirable colors and refused to allow LeBron James and his camp to run the show, which might have been a factor in his decision to return to Cleveland. If Miami’s power brokers aren’t going to budge on their principles for the game’s best player, then they certainly aren’t going to do so for Whiteside.

That said, there is a difference between acquiescing to a player’s wishes and making the sensible decision to make a player who will have no shortage of suitors this offseason feel welcome and wanted. Earlier in the season, Whiteside lost his place in the starting lineup, and even with Bosh out, Whiteside has been coming off the bench. He plays starter’s minutes most nights, but Amare Stoudemire gets the token starts. Perhaps this isn’t significant because Whiteside plays about as much as he would as a starter, but for someone like him, the starter moniker seems to mean something. And, generally speaking, if you are a few months away from offering a player a $100 million deal, you should be starting him, right?

One of the reasons the Heat might demur with committing to Whiteside is that they are one of the foremost analytical organizations in the league. A forward-thinking coach like Erik Spoelstra is probably hesitant to shift the foundation of his offense to suit a big man’s desire to post up more. If we were talking about Marc Gasol, this would be a different story. But post touches for Whiteside means only one thing: A shot is coming. He is a black hole in the post and he adds nothing as a playmaker. This season, Whiteside has 18 total assists and 100 turnovers; for context, Rajon Rondo has had 18 or more assists in a game six times this season.

One would think it inevitable that Whiteside’s efficiency would suffer greatly if he replaced a large number of his pick-and-roll dunks with post touches, but he is as efficient as it gets for possession enders. Whiteside is shooting 65.8 percent on his post touches this season, the fourth highest percentage in the league behind Rudy Gobert, Jonas Valanciunas and Dwight Howard. Mix in Whiteside’s incredible prowess on pick-and-rolls – he makes 74.7 percent of his shots as the roll man – and you can see the framework for one of the league’s better offensive centers. Whiteside has even been showcasing a midrange jumper recently, which could only serve to boost his value (as would passing the ball every once in a while).

And this is without mentioning Whiteside’s effect on the other end of the floor.

Although his block numbers are outlandish, for most of the season Miami has been better defensively with Whiteside off the floor. That trend has reversed recently, though, and now Miami is virtually the same with or without Whiteside on the floor. That isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of his defensive value, nor is the fact that he is allowing 46.4 percent shooting at the basket this season, a solid number, but also not elite. Regardless, Whiteside is the game’s most dominant shot blocker and there is some value in that. Whiteside is averaging 3.92 blocks per game; DeAndre Jordan is second at 2.26. The difference between Whiteside and Jordan is the same as the difference between Jordan and Aron Baynes, who ranks 76th in blocks per game.

Ultimately, this all boils down to one question, which applies to any team that might want to throw heaps of money at Whiteside: Does Miami want to commit $20 million a season to a 26-year-old with two seasons of NBA-level production on his resume?

If Miami’s goal is to maximize its chances during Wade’s and Bosh’s window, then it might be smarter to spend that money elsewhere. If Pat Riley has the bigger picture in mind, which would be surprising considering his own age and Wade’s dwindling prime, then he might see the potential in a Dragic/Winslow/Whiteside core as a starting point. After all, the trio of Wade/Bosh/Whiteside has been average this season (minus-0.8 net rating) while the trio of Dragic/Winslow/Whiteside has been one of Miami’s best (plus-5.4 net rating) three-man groups.

One could argue Miami has the infrastructure in place to mitigate any damaging effects Whiteside’s ego might have on a franchise lacking such a powerful and renowned hierarchy, and the Heat have a staff well-equipped to extract the most out of Whiteside. Betting on Whiteside again, though it will be much riskier this time, could mean getting one of the game’s 10 best bigs under control for four or five seasons.

There is also the chance Whiteside wants to move and cash his checks elsewhere. As unpredictable as his career was to follow when he was bouncing from continent to continent, Whiteside’s next chapter might be even more ambiguous.

Whiteside has a unique set of potent talents that will have teams flocking to his doorstep in July, but his flaws will give every general manager in the league pause before they make that nine-figure offer. The determining factor will be which general managers aren’t comfortable with his imperfections and which ones decide to look at things on the Whiteside.

A Paradigm Shifted

in Featured/NBA by
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Rarely are sports more confounding than when Steph Curry plays. Golden State’s wunderkind has a way of turning masterful displays of athletic grace into something as bewildering as calculus or neural science. That’s what his performances are, after all: Riveting studies in the mathematic and cerebral requisites for such ambitious and cutting-edge athletic pursuits.

On Saturday, we witnessed the peak of Curry’s personal discovery, the ultimate realization of the power of an earnest mind and enthusiastic soul. His performance against the Thunder, rescuing his team from what seemed a sure defeat at the hands of an eager opponent in one of the few arenas that can turn the “Oracle Effect” against the Warriors, was as demonstrative and elegant as artistic expression gets in the sporting realm.

This game was nearly an odd dramatic turn for the defending champs, what with the third best player on a 52-5 team going on a profanity-laced tirade that required a police inquisition during halftime. On top of that, Curry had has own personal drama to overcome after he exited the game with an injury to his once-troublesome left ankle during the third quarter. Curry returned in the third quarter and proceeded to hit 7 3-pointers during the final three periods of the game. The Warriors were down 11 with five minutes left in a game that was before Curry rattled off two 3s to help the Warriors force overtime, where he added three more 3s, including the breathtaking winner with 0.6 seconds left in the game.

Curry’s final shot might well be the most memorable highlight in what has been a season full of peaks for the reigning MVP. On the fateful possession, Curry leisurely trotted up the floor, perfectly aligning his shot and and the clock in his head. When the ball left his hands, the whole arena knew that they weren’t witnessing some desperation heave; this was the shot Curry wanted to take. He sought out a 38-footer and drained it. This was no fluke. This was the latest in a series of expansions of his range, of his potential, of his control of the sport.

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Grass Is Greener, Pt. 3

in NBA by
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There is some unidentifiable, likely illusionary, quality that Jeff Green possesses that turns NBA executives into overzealous caretakers who are stricken by the belief that they have the necessary infrastructure in place to extract whatever furtive ability still lies beneath Green’s surface.

That unfettered confidence has twice been the justification for trading a first round pick for Green. Memphis dealt a first rounder that is expected to convey in 2018 to Boston for Green in Jan. 2015, and the Los Angeles Clippers traded a lottery-protected first (likely to convey in 2019) to Memphis for Green on Thursday. After dangling Lance Stephenson to a number of teams before the deadline, Los Angeles opted to move him for Green rather than Channing Frye, and the cost of acquiring a more intriguing asset (and an expiring contract with Bird Rights) was a first rounder.

That is, in a vacuum, logical thinking. Frye would have been a nice addition, but his impact would have been muted when Blake Griffin returned from injury and resumed playing 35 minutes a night at power forward.1 Green is younger, can be let go this summer if this trial doesn’t work out and can play a position the Clippers haven’t filled with an above average player in several years.

The troublesome part is that the Clippers are betting on a potentially counterfeit asset, and that the executive who thinks he has the right environment for Green to thrive in is also the coach, spawning some kind of circular logic founded on unsubstantiated optimism. This is the second time Doc Rivers has acquired Green, and though he is in the middle of his prime now, Green is even less of a reliable quantity than he was when the Celtics got him from the Thunder in 2011. Who knows how Green’s career would have turned out if he didn’t have to miss the entire 2011-12 season while he recovered from heart surgery, but his time in the league since has mostly been cloudy and underwhelming.

Green is a combo forward who doesn’t have standout qualifications for either position. He’s a good athlete who can play in transition and has shown some ability to attack the rim against bent defenses and on cuts, but his efficiency has always been lacking (he’s never had a PER above 15.01), he is an inconsistent outside shooter (he’s shooting 31 percent deep this season and his career average is 34 percent), his defense is average for someone with his physical tools and he is not much a ball mover or someone who creates good shots for his teammates.2

But then there are those stretches, those games, those possessions, where Green looks like a player worth salvaging, a patient worth treating with alternative means. There was a stretch at the end of January when Green scored 30, 21, 29 and 24 in consecutive games, shooting better than 60 percent on each occasion. When a coach like Rivers gives up a first rounder for Green, he isn’t looking at modest per game averages and cantankerous shooting percentages; he sees those glimpses, which are sometimes as prolonged as a whole week, and figures that kind of production would be nice to have, even if it comes in spurts.3

For a team that has been on the edge of a conference finals appearance, which should not be treated as some sort of laughable consolation prize given the current state of the West, that is far from the most objectionable rationale, and yet this trade reeks of the kind of move that a desperate team makes.

Contextually, this deal looks much worse than it is because of what the Pistons did Tuesday. Stan Van Gundy, whose front office debut has restored faith in the idea of coaches duel-wielding basketball-related responsibilities after Rivers sabotaged it, acquired a player who is essentially a younger, more malleable version of Green, Tobias Harris, without sacrificing any future assets, instead completing the deal with two expiring contracts as trade chips. Operating under the assumption that Orlando did the deal to clear an expensive cog in its forward log jam and to open up cap space in the summer, then the Clippers might have been able to send Stephenson and Jamal Crawford’s expiring contracts for Harris, who is under contract for three more seasons on a declining contract.

Then again, Rivers has never coached Harris before, so that move never seemed to be on that table. That Rivers has yet to expand beyond the scope of players he either coached or coached against might be the most concerning part about his tenure as a front office executive. One way to break that cycle is to inject some fresh (and cheap) talent into your locker room via the draft, but Rivers made how much he values draft picks evident in this deal.

To his discredit, Rivers has an embarrassing draft rap sheet, and the fact that he treated a first rounder like the worthless fodder his selections have turned out to be highlights an insensible thought process. The Clippers were the only team to sacrifice a small slice of its future in a win-now move at the deadline, which means they were the only team that thought it could improve enough to have a better shot at Golden State. All the other buyers on the market decided against pushing for contention because they had the sense to recognize how far off they are.

The Clippers have decent reason to believe they can give the Warriors a series, but that isn’t exactly the kind of ringing endorsement that should push a team to sacrifice a first round pick for a slight upgrade at small forward. That leads to the most interesting part of this trade: That Green might not be a significantly better basketball player than Stephenson, if he is better at all.

Stephenson was a spotty performer and never earned a spot in Rivers’ rotation, so Rivers traded for a commodity he was more comfortable with even though the new player might be worse and the opportunity cost of such a transaction was a first round pick.4

Somewhere, in the back of his mind, Rivers has to realize the risk he took with this deal. He has to know that sacrificing a long term asset for a negligible upgrade in talent and fit is such bad business that even Kanye West wouldn’t consider it. He has to realize he has established a troubling trend of acquiring has-been and never-was players whom he has spent considerable time around and against.

Rivers must have considered of all of this before he decided to pull the trigger on a move in which he spent a first round pick on a perennially vague forward whose ideal situation is as hard to discover as gravitational waves. But despite all of the cons listed on his legal pad, Rivers was inebriated by Green’s imperceptible allure, and he is giving Green a third chance to prove that the grass can be greener if you find the proper pasture.

Footnotes


 

Orlando Makes Tobias Disappear

in Featured/NBA by
Orlando Magic's Tobias Harris makes an uncontested dunk during the final seconds of overtime in an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Wednesday, April 10, 2013, in Orlando, Fla. Orlando won 113-103. (AP Photo/John Raoux) ORG XMIT: DOA108

The Detroit Pistons acquired the NBA’s premier Arrested Development trope, Tobias Harris, from the Orlando Magic on Tuesday for Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova. It was a surprising move in which a burgeoning, yet inadequate, team sent one of the league’s most curious young assets packing for little long term support.

The logic behind Magic General Manager Rob Hennigan’s decision to move on from Harris isn’t difficult to uncover.

Harris was a somewhat disoriented, if not fully formed, member of Orlando’s Blue Man Group, and he is likely the least promising between Orlando’s young tweener forwards (Harris and Aaron Gordon). He is a speculative talent with noticeable strengths and flaws, the troubling bit being that his traits are often contrary to any nominal or progressive forward archetype. He has the athleticism and size to be a stretch four, but his lack of an outside shot neuters his effectiveness at that spot. He is physical enough to punish most small forwards on the block, but he has tunnel vision and a tendency to stop the ball when his number is called.

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The Internet Killed The Dunk Contest

in NBA by
vince carter

I was 6 when Vince Carter’s poetic dunk contest routine solidified his reputation as one of the greatest dunkers of all time. I didn’t watch it live and I probably didn’t see the performance in its entirety until I was in high school, but Carter’s dunk contest showing is one of my favorite pieces of sports-related art in my lifetime. I haven’t seen anything remotely comparable sense, and with such an inspiring field in this year’s dunk contest (at least on its face), it is safe to say Carter’s legacy is safe for another year, and likely another generation.

Perhaps this year’s group – reigning champ Zach LaVine, all-star Andre Drummond, athletic marvel Aaron Gordon and sixth man of the year candidate Will Barton – will outperform the modest prestige of the ensemble, but the common retort from fans when a group like this is announced is something like: “Where are the stars?”

A friend recently asked me if it was a matter of ego, if stars were too brand aware in this modern age to risk the humiliation of a first-round exit or, much worse, a failed routine. LeBron James is the most common example of a player who has fought off massive fan interest in his participation because he “has nothing to gain” from entering the contest. Maybe that is so, but what could LeBron, one of the two best basketball players in the world, possibly have to lose against this year’s field? He would have a red carpet to the finals off reputation; are the judges going to let Will Barton advance when he is competing? From there, all he would have to do is pull off one creative dunk in the finals and he would silence everybody who has pestering him to participate for good.

But there is, of course, something to lose. The power of the internet in the digital age is crippling, even for someone with a bulletproof reputation like LeBron. If he were to lose, James would instantaneously become the victim of a social media assault, any bloopers would lead SportsCenter’s not Top 10 plays for a year and the opening shot of the next edition of First Take would be of Skip Bayless wearing a Mr. Burns-like grin. His reputation would be harmed, not nearly as bad as it would if he flopped in the dunk contest and had no championships, but bad enough for someone as socially self-conscious as him to feel the impact. It’s another year’s worth of questions about whether he’ll return to the contest to redeem himself and another 100,000 #HOTSPORTSTAKES spewing the nonsensical and unrelated “LeBron will never be as good as MJ!” rhetoric.

There is another, underlying problem the internet has presented that makes the dunk contest an uphill battle for superstars like James: Access.

Take, for instance, Carter’s regimen. Or my second favorite dunk contest compilation: Kobe Bryant’s winning run as a rookie in 1997. The dunks, the reactions, the struts. It is all ingrained in my memory. Not because I had some intense connection to it in the moment, I am not sure I watched basketball back then, but because I’ve watched both competitions on YouTube enough times to cherish the choreography and re-create the scenes all on my own. The same goes for the individual dunks that live on for decades: Jordan’s free throw line leap, Dr. J’s tomahawks, Dominique Wilkins’ powerful windmills. Creative dunks might be the element of basketball best suited for enshrinement on YouTube, and the internet has allowed Zapruder film-era dunks from NBA legends to live on in a massive public archive.

How many of the most memorable dunk contest throw downs of all time came from the past decade?

Moreso than the actual dunks, what I recall about the last seven or eight dunk contests is the props. There was Blake Griffin and the Kia, Dwight Howard in a cape, Nate Robinson and Dwight Howard in a cape, Jeremy Evans and a painting, Paul George’s turning off the lights. Unless the idea is ingenious, like Gerald Green’s cupcake dunk, props are generally a losing proposition. In 20 years, will anybody remember Serge Ibaka rescuing a child’s Rumble the Bison doll from the rim with his teeth while dunking the ball? Are you sure any of that actually happened?

Access is responsible for this trend. If at any given moment fans can relive the first iteration of the most stunning athletic achievements in the sport, chances are a 2015 version with a selfie stick or hoverboard thrown in isn’t going to blow them away. If Barton re-created every dunk from Jason Richardson’s amazing 2002 routine, that would be incredibly impressive. But there is a massive hesitancy to do so. He would be called a poser and his dunks wouldn’t hold up over time or remembered as fondly as the originals. Some players have tried to skate around this with “tribute dunks” by putting on a throwback jersey and re-creating that player’s dunks. It makes for a cool moment, but do any of those dunks stick out to you as an athletic feat the way the prototype did?

There unfortunate reality is that there is a finite number of dunks, and the best ones have probably already been done. The most memorable dunk contest submissions are instantly (or belatedly in the case of the pre-2000s) trademarked and cataloged online. Any infringement on those works is plagiaristic and vacuous. It is content aggregation in its most aesthetically pleasing form.

There are essentially two avenues left to give fans the sensation of witnessing something never seen before: 1) Either a player tests human limits and accomplishes something that hasn’t been done before (like jumping from even farther behind the free throw line, setting a new hangtime or vertical record or something truly insane like a 1080 dunk), or 2) You incorporate props and bits and theater into the equation. I don’t mind the latter, but when it is all said and done, if the dunks are analogous to previous works or not entirely enthralling, the feedback won’t be fond.

There is an alternative option the fans would love to see and that would inject that new car smell into the Air Canada Centre and the all-star venues that follow: Superstars performing any version of any dunk, even if they have to put up with Kias and church choirs. It is inherently cooler to watch (prime) Howard and Griffin compete in the dunk contest than Evans and Iman Shumpert.1

But with so few avenues left unexplored, superstars like LeBron are in the detrimental position of having to imitate legends of yesteryear. So they are making the safe, and not totally objectionable, decision to concede to the luminaries of the game, for they possessed the most enviable quality in the search for finite creative expression: The power of going first.

Hawk Down

in NBA by
USATSI_9090272_154512334_lowres

The Atlanta Hawks had a dream 2014-15 season. They won 60 games and made it to the conference finals for the first time in franchise history, they were the seventh team in NBA history to have four All-Stars in one season and they were the poster boys for a proposed philosophical shift in the way teams without superstars would construct their rosters.

Atlanta was legitimately good last season. They had plus starters at every position and Mike Budenholzer, a Pop disciple, is one of the game’s better coaches. But after a solid start to their sequel campaign that had the team as high as the second seed a month ago, the Hawks just completed an underwhelming 15-game stretch that saw the Bulls and Heat surpass them in the standings and the Raptors firmly supplant them as the second best team in the East.

Atlanta went 6-9 in January1 and posted an offensive rating in line with Philadelphia’s (99.7, sixth worst in the NBA last month).2 After establishing such fantastic chemistry last season, Atlanta’s starters haven’t been quite as good this year, and they have been especially bad lately. The Hawks’ starters played 166 minutes together last month; they had a minus-7.4 net rating and conceded 108.1 points per 100 possessions.3

The loss of DeMarre Carroll figured to set the Hawks back a bit, but the emergence of Kent Bazemore, who has been fantastic this season (he has 46/41/84 shooting splits), has filled the gap as well as the Hawks could have reasonably hoped from an in-house solution. Paul Millsap is an all-star for the third straight season and Al Horford was one of the “last players” out in this year’s East field. After accounting for the drop off from Carroll to Bazemore, Atlanta’s frontcourt has mostly played up to the standard it set last season.

Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver, on the other hand, have not followed up their all-star seasons quite so well.

Korver’s sudden decline is one of the most shocking and under-discussed stories in the NBA this season. He has gone from the obvious fulcrum on a proportional team to a one-dimensional wing with a muted impact. After flirting with 50-percent shooting from deep on six 3-point attempts a game last season, Korver is shooting 12 percent worse from beyond the arc (37.1 percent).4 Korver’s impotence has severely hurt the Hawks’ offense, which has dropped from sixth last season to 15th.

Teague’s struggles have also impacted Atlanta’s decline. Teague is shooting 42 percent from the field, down from 46 percent last season. He has a 25.0 assist rate, the lowest of his career, and a 12.6 turnover rate, the highest of his career. In January, opponents outscored the Hawks by 6.7 points per 100 possessions and their offense was barely functional when he was on the floor.

On the other side of the coin, the Hawks blitzed opponents by 15.5 points per 100 possessions with Dennis Schroder on the floor in January. Schroder isn’t a better scorer than Teague, but he has the same speed when turning the corner on pick-and-rolls, and the team undeniably performs better when Schorder is on the floor. Schroder has been Atlanta’s best player this season by net rating and at 22, he figures to have considerable more potential than Teague.

With Schroder waiting in the weeds, the Hawks are said to be shopping Teague as the trade deadline nears. The problem for the Hawks is that the market for a borderline all-star point guard has never been worse.

Case and point: Teague made the all-star team last year and was not even in the conversation this season while six other East point guards (Kyle Lowry, John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Isaiah Thomas and Reggie Jackson) were. Look around the league and try to find a team that does not have a point guard better than Teague or a significant investment in a point guard younger than Teague (like the Magic with Elfrid Payton or the Nuggets with Emmanuel Mudiay).

That query produces few results: Brooklyn and New York, mainly. You could make the case for Dallas because Teague is younger than Deron Williams and Teague’s speed makes him a prime candidate for the coveted Dirk bump. Perhaps you can extend as far as Utah, a team with a potential-laden point guard, Dante Exum, who is recovering from a serious knee injury. If the Jazz wanted to make a playoff push this season, bringing in Teague and moving Trey Burke to a backup role would probably improve their chances.

But then we get to the question that makes this situation doubly difficult for the Hawks: What team is dying to give up valuable assets for a point guard who only has one or two seasons on record of being an all-star caliber guy?

Teague is a good player, but in the modern NBA, the standard for starting point guards is higher than that, at least for playoff teams.

Dallas is too smart to leverage what few future assets they have for Teague, and the Hawks are not going to want a Williams-for-Teague swap. Although Brooklyn has made some irrational win-now moves in the past, it is hard to see them giving up anything significant for a 27-year-old point guard while the team is in the midst of a regime change. Utah is a team with a bright future, so trading any of their young pieces to get Teague, who would be a one-year rental in a best-case scenario, would be a mistake.5

The Knicks, who were interested in Teague around this time two seasons ago, make the most sense. Langston Galloway and Jerian Grant have had their moments, but Teague would be a substantial upgrade. The problem is that New York has little to offer Atlanta unless the Hawks are simply looking for a way to get Schroder the starting job as soon as possible. The Knicks could do something like Jose Calderon, who has a contract analogous to Teague’s and would be a decent second or third string option for a Hawks team that loves spacing, Lance Thomas, an intriguing role player, and a pick for Teague. But if the Hawks accepted that offer, they would be low on a player who has been good for them for many years.

Even as the Hawks fought their way to the conference finals last season, there was a feeling amongst the NBA public that their Finals candidacy was fraudulent. The Cavaliers did not help the Hawks build up any legitimacy when they swept them in the conference finals, with only one game being close.6

Now Atlanta is struggling to put the pieces back together and its magical run last season is starting to look more and more like an aberration. At this point, it might be logical to conclude that the Hawks hit the their ceiling under a perfect set of circumstances last season, and if that wasn’t enough, it might be time to reconsider their approach. And that might be as simple as finding a way for Schroder to take over the team.

Shelvey’s Service

in Futbol by
shelvey

In the first few weeks of the Premier League season, Swansea City looked in line for a top-half of the table finish. Gary Monk’s side was playing glorious football, Bafétimbi Gomis was scoring for fun and Jonjo Shelvey was running games in the midfield. In Swansea City’s early season match at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea, Shevley dominated the midfield against all-world talents in Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas, helping the Swans secure a 2-2 draw against the defending champs.

Three months later, the only thing about that scene that doesn’t seem surprising is that Chelsea were outclassed at home. Since then, things have fallen apart for Swansea, who went from competing for a Europa League spot to the relegation zone rather quickly. Monk is gone and now so is Shelvey, who was shipped off to Newcastle for a modest $17 million transfer fee.

Shelvey was a very good player for the Swans, but the end of his time at the Liberty Stadium seemed to be coming to an end when Monk was sacked. He always seemed to be out of favor with interim manager Alan Curtis, and disciplinary and injury-related issues made for good excuses for Shelvey to be kept out of the lineup even when he was fully fit.

Shelvey has traversed a fare amount of Premier League territory for someone who is 23. He was an Arsenal and West Ham youth product before playing his first professional football for Charlton Athletic. Liverpool signed him in 2010 but mostly kept him on the bench for three seasons, making Shelvey’s stay at Anfield a rather uneventful one. Swansea came calling in 2013 and his tenure in south Wales seem to be going well. He signed a contract extension in July to keep him at the club until 2019 and he was a big part of the team’s flying start this season, but by the end of his Swansea stint he was complaining about critical fans and rarely featuring even in league cup matches.

Now Shelvey finds himself at a new club, one where the fans will adore him and where he will be afforded ample opportunities to see that his massive amount of potential is finally realized. Shelvey has the look of a repugnant ball winner, and though he has a penchant for rowdy and often unnecessary antics, he does possess a peculiar creative sense that is going to bolster Newcastle’s attacking prowess.

He is an organizing presence the likes of which Newcastle have been sorely lacking this season. Georginio Wijnaldum, who arrived at St. James’ Park from PSV in the summer for $22 million, brought a spark and a strong will to score goals, but even players as good as Wijnaldum, who is now operating as the Magpies No. 10, have their productivity capped without a reliable quality of service.

Enter Shelvey, an impossibly youthful and stabilizing presence who can pick a pass any where on the field from his perch in the middle of the park. When he gets on the ball, defenders all over the pitch must be aware of their surroundings, because his range of vision extends beyond the touchlines. In his debut for Newcastle, Shelvey picked apart his boyhood club, completing 91.7 percent of his team-high 60 passes while getting  71 touches, just one off of the team high.

Shelvey didn’t have any official box score stats, but he did make both of Newcastle’s goals with stunning passes. Ayoze Perez’s opener came at the end of a move where Shelvey switched play to the flanks, then stepped into the hole to link up with Wijnaldum, who slid the ball over the Perez for the goal.

 

Ten minutes later, Shelvey found himself on the ball 10 yards behind midfield without a defender in his zip code. With so much space in front of him, Shelvey picked out an unthinkable pass and delivered the ball with impeccable precision to Daryl Janmaat, whose first touch helped put him in position to cross the ball to Wijnaldum for the match-clinching goal.

With Janmaat flying forward and making runs down the touchline, Shelvey was active and ardent in giving his centerbacks an outlet by dropping near the backline. When play moved forward, so did he, and he became an oft-available reference point in the middle of the field. Newcastle boss Steve McClaren likened Shelvey to the offensive organizer in American football, aptly describing his play against West Ham as quarterback like.

Paired with a disruptive force like Jack Colback, who will do a lot of the dirty work in chasing down the ball while helping keep the backline in tune, Shelvey has the freedom to control the game in the midfield. Newcastle will benefit from Shelvey’s incisive passing and his democratic distribution. He won’t change the way Newcastle play, but he will dictate the Magpies ability to execute their style.

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