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The Rebirth of Terrence Jones

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I’m not sure any team will be able to produce a more bizarre pair of back-to-back results this season than the ones the Pelicans just completed. After giving up 143 points and losing by 29 to the woeful Brooklyn Nets at home with Anthony Davis in the lineup on Friday, New Orleans went out and beat the defending champion Cavaliers without Davis on Monday. Though Cleveland would close within two by the final buzzer, the Pelicans never trailed and led by as many as 22 in what was at times a thorough domination.

With Davis out, the Pelicans relied heavily on Jrue Holiday, whose return to the lineup in November has turned the Pelicans season around and made a postseason spot attainable for a team that started 2-10. But, even more so than Holiday, the Pelican most responsible for the surprising victory was Terrence Jones, who is undergoing a renaissance season in his first year in the Crescent City.

In an offseason when even unproven role players were rolling in dough, Jones had to settle for a one-year, veteran’s minimum contract from the Pelicans after fielding no offers during the first few weeks of free agency. It was surprising given the potential Jones showed during his first two seasons with the Rockets, but chronic injury issues kept him out of the lineup last season, clouding Jones’ future. Still though, Jones is clearly talented and it was odd not to see any team, particularly one like Brooklyn or Sacramento, take a moderately expensive flier on him.

Instead it was New Orleans who convinced Jones to sign at way below his market value, though I suppose if Jones had a higher market value he wouldn’t be playing for the minimum. Ironically, it was Ryan Anderson’s departure to Houston that opened up the backup power forward spot in New Orleans, and Jones has stepped into that role and performed well. Jones is a totally different player than Anderson, but he gives the Pelicans a spark and he’s versatile enough to play alongside Davis when he needs to. Only Davis, Holiday and Dante Cunningham have a better net rating than Jones, meaning the Pelicans are generally at their best when he is on the floor.

Jones’ diverse skill set was on full display against the Cavaliers when he tied his career high of 36 points on 13-of-18 shooting while collecting 11 rebounds and three blocks. Jones inability to hit 3s consistently is perhaps the biggest reason the Pelicans found him in the bargain bin this summer, and that trend has continued this season as he is shooting just 27 percent from beyond the arc. But Cleveland learned how dangerous Jones can be when he has his shot going. Jones was 3-of-4 from deep against the Cavs, capitlizaing on the acres of space the Cavs afforded him.

That 3-point shot is so vital for Jones. When he has it going, it frees up the other delightful elements of his game that make him a tough cover for most other power forwards in the NBA. Watch here as Tristan Thompson crowds Jones at the top of the key, extending his arm to dissuade the long jumper. Jones uses the space to get moving toward the basket, stops on a dime and unleashes a gorgeous behind-the-back move to get right to the rim.

Jones is one of the most frequent pump fakers in the NBA. It is almost like a nervous twitch. Sometimes you can tell Jones never had any intention of shooting the ball and few things can irk coaches more than when their defenders fall for a pump fake from someone shooting 27 percent from deep. But when Jones does claim a victim, he takes off and drives into the paint, where can either finish or find an open teammate if the defense helps. Jones is shooting 65.2 percent in the restricted area this season, which is the same percentage as Davis.

On the other end of the floor, Jones is in an unenviable position of ambiguity. He’s not quite quick enough to guard small ball fours and he isn’t long enough to play the five for prolonged stretches. He can do a job on players in his own category, but isn’t an obvious plus defensively. However, forced into the role of rim protector against Cleveland with Davis and Omer Asik out, Jones delivered with solid interior defense, including a devastating rejecting on LeBron James late in the fourth quarter.

Jones was a forgotten man during one of the most player-friendly offseasons in sports history, and he had to settle for a make-good one-year deal in order to get a chance to prove himself as a reliable rotation player. Thus far, Jones has done far more than that in New Orleans. He hasn’t exactly cemented himself as a long term frontcourt partner for Davis, but he has shown that the variety of tools in his arsenal are still there. And if he can manage to become a more consistent outside shooter, he won’t be playing for the veteran’s minimum again for a long time.

Heart and Hustle

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It is hard to decide whether the circumstances surrounding the Los Angeles Clippers’ latest postseason disappointment makes their fate easier to swallow than their last surprising playoff exit.

Last season, a franchise that had barely even sniffed second round in its existence was a quarter away from a conference finals berth that would have greatly altered the perception of the franchise and its core before choking it away. This year, a seemingly cursed franchise suffered two cataclysmic injuries just when promise seemed to be on the horizon.

What is more painful: Having firm control of your situation and failing to meet expectations or never even getting that opportunity?

At the end the day, the details won’t matter for the Clippers. They don’t change the bottom line, which is that this was another lost season for a franchise in desperate need of a breakthrough, a lost season for a core that might not have another season together and a lost season for a point guard whose prime is closer to its end than its beginning.

But the details do matter, at least in one respect.

The poignant difference between the final games of the Clippers’ season during the past two years was their disposition. This time around, the Clippers did not go down without a fight. They were not befuddled by unexpected circumstances like they were when the Rockets made their furious comeback last year in Game 6. Even without their two best players and with J.J. Redick looking like a shell of himself, the Clippers scrapped, clawed and fought back against the Blazers, and they were on level terms with Portland for seven of the final eight quarters of this series.

Doc Rivers and his players said all the right things about trying to move on from the injuries to Paul and Griffin. They talked about coming to terms with the situation and trying to fight through it. It wasn’t an unfamiliar rhetoric; what was surprising was that the Clippers actually lived up to their words. It would have been natural and completely forgivable for the Clippers to fold once their postseason dreams turned into heartbreaking nightmares. Instead, they tried to persevere and did not concede an inch to the Blazers.

The two players who most embodied the Clippers’ undying pride in the final two games were DeAndre Jordan and Austin Rivers.

Jordan played a fantastic series altogether. Los Angeles came into the series with a staunch dedication to its gameplan for Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, which required its bigs to extend high to trap Portland’s star guards before scurrying back to the paint in time to protect the basket. For a player who has become synonymous with the prevalent “ice” coverage, which allows him to sag back in the paint on pick-and-rolls, Jordan showcased an ability to pressure the ball well beyond the 3-point line while still acting as an effective rim deterrent. Things did not get easier for Portland once Paul and Griffin went down, which is a testament to how good Jordan was on the defensive end in this series.

Then there was Rivers, who took an elbow to his left eye during the first quarter of Game 6 and was a bloody mess as the trainers ushered him to the locker room. Rivers only missed about a quarter of the game before returning with 11 stitches under and above his eye. There were times when you could see blood streaming down his face from the fresh wound, but Rivers didn’t care. He managed to pour in 21 points to go along with eight assists and six rebounds with one eye practically shut, a la Steve Nash in the 2010 semifinals against the Spurs.

When the final buzzer sounded, Rivers was emotional. You could tell he mustered up everything he could to get back in the game and play through his impairment for his teammates, and he literally left his blood, sweat and tears on the court.

Given that his coach is also his father and that his tenure in New Orleans didn’t go particularly well, Rivers has been one of the league’s most maligned players during the past two seasons. Many believe he wouldn’t have a spot in the league if it weren’t for his dad’s role as coach and general manager, but this game helped confirm that isn’t the case. This was the fourth time he has scored 15 or more points in a postseason game for the Clippers, and his defense on Lillard was phenomenal. Rivers has a player option for next season, but don’t be surprised if he opts out in search of a better deal.

What happens next for the Clippers will be one of the biggest stories of the offseason. Or maybe it won’t. Much like this season, when the Clippers were an afterthought hidden in the footnotes of historical seasons for the Warriors and Spurs, Kevin Durant’s free agency (and who knows, maybe LeBron’s, too) might push any shakeup in Los Angeles to the backburner.

I hope this isn’t the end for the Clippers as we know them, though. Doc Rivers talked before the season about change being necessary if a core becomes stale, but the way this season ended was obviously not a product of that. Los Angeles certainly needs to upgrade to stay on course with the Warriors, and Doc’s extremely spotty record as a GM leaves little room for hope on that front, but after all this team has been through, it doesn’t deserve for its present era to be ended by untimely injuries.

But if this was the last time we see this iteration of the Clippers, even if Paul and Griffin were absent, at least they went out fighting like a team that believed it could overcome its certain demise. For the Clippers franchise, that is a victory in and of itself.

Back In The Spotlight

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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 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, 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.

Looking On The Whiteside

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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

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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, but he does train a lot on a trampoline.

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 the fourth 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 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

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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

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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 since, and with such an uninspiring 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
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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.

Get That Ish Out Of Here

in NBA by
USATSI_9045479_154512334_lowres

It is not very difficult, nor is it especially flattering, to be considered a “breath of fresh air” on a team with a 1-30 record. But for Ish Smith, any welcoming admiration is received with open arms.

Smith is everybody’s favorite peripatetic. His resume is built on 10-day contracts, D-League assignments and end-of-the-bench roles. Only once in his six-year career has he spent an entire season with one team. He’s been waived six times and traded five times. In a 10-month span, Smith was traded to the Pelicans and waived on the same day, signed by the 76ers, signed and waived by the Wizards, claimed by the Pelicans and traded to the 76ers.

Philadelphia’s recent acquisition of Smith is the most promising move for Smith in terms of sticking around for longer than a couple of months. Whereas those other trades included Smith as an inconsequential and purely financial asset, the Sixers gave up two second-round picks to get Smith. It was a bit of an odd move for a team so focused on building from the draft to give up two high second rounders (Philly’s own and one from Denver), but new chairman Jerry Colangelo wanted to bring in a player with experience with his first act in charge of the team and Smith certainly has that.

The Sixers were not exactly phlegmatic before Smith’s arrival; they are a spirited young team that plays hard for Brett Brown that happens to produce depressingly bad results. Smith has given this team a bit of direction and corrected a bit of the chaos. The Sixers have won three of their nine games since his arrival and were within 10 points against the Cavs, Lakers and Jazz. Smith had a career-high 28 points on 55 percent shooting against the Raptors and he compiled double-digit assists against the Cavs, Wolves, Clippers and Jazz.

Even before he was traded to the Sixers, Smith was playing well. The Pelicans started the season without Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans, so Smith filled in and averaged 30 minutes a game for the first month of the season. He was scoring 12 points per game and was close to the league lead in assists with an average of eight a night. When Holiday and Evans returned, Smith was banished to the back of the rotation. Although New Orleans got a very nice haul for an end of the bench guy on a one-year deal, Philadelphia was happy to get Smith back into action.

Smith has a spartan skillset and most of his success can be attributed to his speed. He drives as much as Russell Westbrook (10.6 times a game) and averages 1.4 assists on drives per game, the second most in the league behind Rajon Rondo. Smith’s divisive pick-and-roll game, as well as the hiring of pick-and-roll guru Mike D’Antoni, has helped both of Philadelphia’s young big men become more efficient players. Rookie Jahlil Okafor is shooting 60 percent when sharing the floor with Smith, a good 12 percent increase over his season average (47.8 percent), and Nerlens Noel is shooting 68 percent (compared to 50.5 percent for the season).

Smith has shown flashes of being a useful bit player at almost all of his stops, but third-string point guards on minimum deals don’t have much of a shelf life. As a result, Smith has a more colorful costume closet than the late David Bowie. But in Philadelphia, where the goal is to create a semblance of structure whilst maintaining a strong lottery presence, Smith fits perfectly as the 76ers’ engine. With a speedy player like Smith who can break down defense and open up gaps for the bigs to attack in the paint, Okafor and Noel are getting some genuine pick-and-roll reps, making the acquisition of Smith a developmental supplement if anything else.

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