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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.

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

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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

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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.

Swingman

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The Eastern Conference playoff picture is a bit like the Republican Primary race: A bunch of uninspiring candidates clumped together chasing a runaway tyrant.

Although LeBron James and the Cavs are not quite as unlikable as Donald Trump, James’ unrelenting control of the conference has probably outlived its term in the minds of his eastern foes.

The problem with calling for at least a one-year intercession during LeBron’s reign in the East is the lack of a worthy challenger. The second-seeded Bulls are just four games ahead of the eighth-seeded Celtics and only six games ahead of 12th-seeded Wizards. Just about the only two teams that can be confidently ruled out of the postseason picture are the Brooklyn Nets and the Philadelphia 76ers.

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Still On Top

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GSWLAC

The Clippers nearly did the impossible. They nearly became the first team in what seems like forever to spot Golden State a 17-point, come back and live to talk about it. Nearly.

Instead, despite getting a 10-point lead of its own with five minutes to play, the Clippers fell short of the Warriors once again. It was the same old story for Golden State: Remove all of the constraints of traditional basketball – ie. a big man – and play free flowing basketball with offensive threats all over the flow. The Clippers are supposed to have one of the most capable frontlines in the league when it comes to countering Golden State’s futuristic lineup, but they were shut down on Wednesday night.

Draymond Green flew around the floor and made plays, and his teammates followed suit. Even when Andre Iguodala wound up switched on Blake Griffin, who is on a tear to start the season, Griffin couldn’t muster much when trying to back him down. As we saw when the chips were down last postseason, Golden State’s trump card changed the game, with its stops fueling its offense, and particularly Curry, who fired in threes from across the bay like it was nothing.

This game had a weird flow to it. Curry was taken out of the game after just three minutes due to foul trouble and didn’t return until the start of the second quarter. In the second half, the same thing happened to Paul, who picked up his fourth foul with eight minutes left in the third and sat almost an entire quarter until he returned. Even still, both teams managed to play tremendous offensive games, especially given the defensive prowess of its opposition.

Griffin was spectacular for most of the game, but his inability to muster a good look when the Warriors had smaller defenders on him down the stretch was worrisome. In a postseason matchup between these two teams, that would be a frequent occurrence, and if Green is going to switch onto Paul, then Griffin has to make Golden State pay. Curry (31 points, 5 boards, 7 threes) and Paul (24 points, 9 assists, 3 steals) were both fantastic, as always seems to be the case in one of the league’s most exhilarating point guard matchups. The same cannot be said for whatever Jamal Crawford was doing last night.

Despite the loss, I think this might be an early-season confidence boost for the Clippers. They got down big in the league’s toughest road environment, fought back with their reserves and got themselves in a position to win. Execute better, and smarter, when the Warriors hand you a size advantage and get out to Curry quicker on his pull-ups and perhaps this result is different. No other team has challenged the Warriors to this point and despite the somewhat deflating loss, I thought this was a good showing for Los Angeles overall.

SASWAS

In the blink of an eye, the Spurs were down 19-2. Then they went on a 21-3 run and took a 23-22 lead at the end of the first quarter. While it was a particularly impressive comeback in the moment, in hindsight it was illustrative of a larger issue that has troubled the Spurs through five games: The starting unit is far from a finished product.

The Spurs starting lineup, while elite defensively (96.1 defensive rating), is only scoring 91.2 points per 100 possessions in their 78 minutes together this season. But once Pop makes his first waves of substitutions – usually Manu Ginobili for Danny Green, Patty Mills for Tony Parker and Boris Diaw for Tim Duncan – the Spurs look like one of the best teams in basketball. The group of Mills, Manu, Kawhi, Diaw and Aldridge is scoring 106.5 points per 100 possessions while only allowing 88 points per 100 possessions on the other end.

Aldridge and Diaw have been the Spurs’ best big man pairing both statistically and aesthetically. Aldridge has shown better prowess as a rim protector than I thought he would, so when Diaw checks in for Duncan and provides his unique blend of passing, cutting and spacing, the Spurs get back to the beautiful game that they showcased in the 2014 Finals. With Duncan and Aldridge, things are more cramped, possessions develop slower and Aldridge really isn’t getting that many touches, which is surprising only because the slower pace seems to be a way to introduce Aldridge’s post-game into the Spurs’ vernacular.

San Antonio looked good for most of this game after the first quarter, but once the starters returned in the final five minutes, the offense went in the tank and its turnovers fueled the Wizards’ transition attack. The Wizards, who were playing small with Jared Dudley at the four, were always going to trouble San Antonio’s twin towers lineup in transition, and the Spurs’ turnovers only made matters worse. Tony Parker nearly saved San Antonio with his game-tying three in the final seconds, but Bradley Beal returned the favor after the Spurs messed up a switch on a high screen designed to free Beal. Beal shook a hurried Aldridge, who was rushing to cover for Leonard, and buried the winner.

In May, I wrote about John Wall’s path to stardom, and he was unbelievable in this game. Shooting 6-of-16 isn’t great, but he orchestrated everything for Washington in this game, dishing out 13 assists with only one turnover while gobbling up four steal that got the Wizards on the break. His ability to read a defense continues to impress, and he caused several breakdowns by the Spurs in this game.

Meanwhile, I may end up writing a similar piece about the growth of Bradley Beal. Beal looks like a legitimate offensive superstar right now, and he’s a good defender as well. Beal scored 25 points on 50% shooting, grabbed give boards, dished out four assists and collected three steals against the Spurs, and he’s averaging 25 points with 48/46/75 shooting splits to start the season. It looks like Washington’s two budding stars are finally coming into their own. And if this team lands a certain local kid in the summer, the East might have a new king.

HOUORL

The Magic are the most entertaining, if not best, 1-4 team I can remember seeing in recent years. Their four losses have been by a combined 14 points (or six points less than the standard Rockets loss this season), two of which came in over time, and they’ve played the Wizards, Thunder, Bulls, Pelicans and Rockets. 1-4 against five playoff teams may be a solid indication that the Magic still have a ways to go before they are legitimate playoff team, but they’ve been right there in every game and Scott Skiles has done a nice job revamping this team on the fly.

Perhaps the Magic would have prevailed in this one had Nikola Vucevic not gone out with an injury in the second quarter. But Aaron Gordon came off the bench and gave the Magic 32 really good minutes. He scored 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting while grabbing eight rebounds and playing really good one-on-one defense when matched up with James Harden on a couple of occasions. Evan Fournier was also quite good for the Magic, posting a 29-6-4 line while spending most of the game attacking Harden on the offensive end.

Harden had another awful shooting game – you know you’re shooting poorly when a 2-of-11 performance from three actually improves your 3-point percentage for the season – but in typical Harden fashion, he got to the line 17 times and helped seal the victory in the closing moments. Interestingly, Gordon’s emergence led to just 21 minutes for Tobias Harris, who played well for the most part. He had 16 points and five boards but didn’t see any time in the crucial moments of the game, save for the final possession. Harris seems like the kind of guy who you want to play as much as possible against the smallball Rockets, but I guess it will take some time for Harris to earn Skiles’ trust after their falling out in Milwaukee when they were both Bucks.

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The Thunder had this game in the bag. They lead by six with two minutes to go, but the Raptors were the most aggressive team down the stretch. They scored eight points from the free throw line and their two crunchtime field goal came inside the paint while Westbrook and Durant couldn’t manage to put home any of their close-range attempts.

This game must have taken place in a parallel universe, because the Thunder, who own time shares at the free throw line, had only 14 free throw attempts while DeMar DeRozan had 15 by himself. As a team, the Raptors had 39 free throw attempts, which helped make up for the fact that Oklahoma city shot 48% from the field in this game. DeRozan put his head down and went at Andre Roberson and Serge Ibaka all game long, and I thought Jonas Valanciunas, off to a fine start this season, got the better of Steven Adams and Ibaka as well.

Russell Westbrook came out of the gates on fire – as a passer. He dished out 16 assists on the night, but he was off from the field, and Kevin Durant’s 27 points on 10-of-18 shooting wasn’t enough for the Thunder to overcome their excessive fouling and 19 turnovers. Oklahoma City is last in the league in turnovers per game at 20.2, more than two more than Philadelphia, who take as good of care of the ball as I do of my pencils. It’s early, but Billy Donovan still has some work to do with his team’s discipline on both ends.

Notebook from OKC’s Opening Night victory over the Spurs

in NBA by
kawhidurant

For more of my coverage of this game, visit the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. For my Spurs’ season preview, click here.

DION WAITERS STEALS THE SHOW

Dion Waiters is far from the first player who comes to mind when you think about Oklahoma City’s end-of-game options.

But Waiters stepped up in the final minutes against the Thunder’s 112-106 opening night victory against San Antonio, knocking down two jumpshots over Spurs’ guard Tony Parker to give OKC the lead.

With Kevin Durant struggling in his matchup with the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Kawhi Leonard, and with San Antonio putting defensive ace Danny Green on Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City went to Waiters, who had a size mismatch on Parker.

“A lot of point guards like to guard our (shooting guard),” Westbrook said. “I think it’s my job to be able to find the mismatch. Dion did a good job of knocking down some big shots.”

Waiters’ first shot was a pull-up jumper late in the clock with 2:11 to play, which tied the game at 103. On the next possession, the Thunder ran a mid-post isolation for Waiters, who faced up Parker and drilled a stepback jumper to put OKC ahead by two.

“(I) got a chance to do what I do,” Waiters said. “We went to the mismatch and I made big shots.”

JUMPMAN, JUMPMAN, JUMPMAN

Hip-hop is the music genre of choice in most NBA lockerrooms.

However, anyone who hasn’t been in the San Antonio Spurs’ lockerroom might assume coach Gregg Popovich has Bethoven’s 5th Symphony playing on an endless loop instead of Rich Homie Quan’s latest single.

In reality, the Spurs are rarely jamming out to anything before games, but that didn’t stop Spurs’ guard Manu Ginobili from learning his name was a lyric in Drake’s hit new song “Jumpman.”

“It’s kind of hard not to be find out about those things nowadays,” Ginobili said.

Ironically, Oklahoma City’s entrance music on Wednesday night was “Jumpman.”

“I hit that Ginobili with my left hand up like woo,” Drake says in the first verse of the song, which is a collaboration with fellow rapper Future.

Although Ginobili, who hails from Argentina and likely has a musical taste more in line with his coach, didn’t seem overly impressed by the mention, one of his younger teammates, guard Ray McCallum, celebrated the achievement for him.

“It’s funny that you say that,” McCallum said, “because he hasn’t mentioned one word about it.

“The rest of us know about it. If that was me, I would embrace it, but that kind of stuff is not really important to him. You wouldn’t know he was on one of the hotest verses out there unless you brought it up to him.”

POP-ISMS

On Friday, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was named the coach of Team USA for 2017-2020. When asked if Thunder star Kevin Durant is a player he’d like to coach with the national team, Popovich responded in a way only he can.

“I don’t know if he is good enough,” Popovich said.

When asked if he was pleased with the way LaMarcus Aldridge has fit in with the Spurs offense, Pop offered up another sarcastic reply.

“Sure, I am,” Popovich said. “And if I wasn’t I wouldn’t say that. I would just lie to you. So, silly question.”

After the game, Thunder coach Billy Donovan said it was special to go up against Popovich in his NBA debut, detailing how Popovich had welcomed him to be around the Spurs last year so he could pick the collective brain of San Antonio’s coaching staff.

This was surprising to hear, for three hours earlier, Popovich had a one-word response when asked if he had ever spoken to Donovan about anything basketball related or otherwise.

“No,” Popovich said.

NBA Preview Podcast With Zach Lee

in NBA/Podcasts by
alddun

Zach Lee, a Sports Media major at Oklahoma State and a writer for House of Houston, joined me for a preview of the 2015-16 NBA season.

The Non-Star All-Star

in NBA by
korver

Adam Silver has been pretty busy over the past couple of weeks as the general manager of the All-Star teams. Injuries to Kobe Bryant and Blake Griffin allowed Silver to bestow all-star honors upon DeMarcus Cousins and Damian Lillard, two players that were very deserving of a spot on the team, and once Dwyane Wade was officially ruled out for this weekend’s festivities, Silver was back to work finding someone to take his place.

I don’t think anyone would have minded if Silver decided to add another Western Conference player to the game instead of honoring another borderline candidate in the East, but he did have a couple of decent names to consider before he landed on the final deserving all-star in the East: Kyle Korver.

The 33-year old Korver will make his first career all-star game appearance after an absolutely stunning start to the season on the best team in the East, yet his selection isn’t exactly a crowd-pleaser. Korver’s main competition for the final spot, Milwaukee’s Brandon Knight and Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic, offer more in the way of per game stats and all-star-y arsenals than Korver, which had some wondering why neither of those young guns made the cut.

Vucevic is an advanced stats wonder with an all-star caliber PER (his 22.17 PER ranks 4th against centers behind Cousins, Marc Gasol and… Whiteside!). He averages 19.4 points and 11.2 rebounds per game for the Magic, shoots 54% from the field, utilizes a pretty nice post game for a big man in 2015 and looks to be a franchise caliber player for a Magic team with a lot of potential. He’s also someone compiling stats on a bad team and one of the worst defensive bigs in the league; of big men that face at least five shots at the rim per game, Vucevic allows the second highest percentage in the league at 57.4%.

He’s a good young player that is inching closer to the 20-10 threshold that generally tends to denote that you are pretty talented, but Vucevic’s defensive issues and lack of team success make him the clear outsider here.

The Knight-Korver debate is a little more contentious. Knight is having a career season in his fourth year in the league, blossoming into an above average lead guard under Jason Kidd’s leadership. Knight is averaging 18 points, five assists and four rebounds a game on 43%/41%/89% splits and he’s been a big reason that the Bucks have gone from having the worst record in the league last season (I totally forgot that Larry Drew managed to have his team playing worse than the 76ers last year) to within arm’s length of home court advantage in the East.

There’s a problem, though, and it’s a pretty glaring one. According to NBA.com/Stats, the Bucks merely tread water when Knight is on the floor; Milwaukee scores 100.2 points per 100 possessions and allow 100.7 points per 100 possessions when Knight is in the game. What’s worse: When Knight has been off the court, the Bucks have compiled a net rating of +9.3 points per 100 possessions, easily the best (or worst in this case) off-the-court net rating of anyone on the team. So, using these numbers, one could deduce that Knight is not exactly a positive presence for the Bucks, in spite of his commendable individual stats. The Bucks score and defend better at their best rates when Knight isn’t in the game and they are the definition of average when he’s on the court. Does that sound like an all-star to you?

Look at these same numbers for the Hawks and there isn’t a question about which player has an “all-star” impact. When Korver is on the floor, the Hawks score 112 points per 100 possessions, which would lead the league over the course of a whole season (the Clippers currently lead the league with an offensive rating of 110.6), and they have a net rating of +11.6 points per 100 possessions. When Korver is off the floor, the Hawks score 98.2 points per 100 possessions and have a net rating of -2.1 points per 100 possessions.

So, to recap: Korver on the floor = best offense and No. 2 net rating in the league; Korver off the floor = the Hawks score a tad more efficiently than the Charlotte Hornets, who have the second worst offense in basketball, and possess a net rating of a fringe contender in the East.

That’s a pretty monumental individual impact for someone on a team that is heralded and praised for its lack of reliance on a star player. Truth be told, the Hawks wouldn’t be anywhere near where they are now without Korver. Sure, he may lack the ability to score one-on-one or to break down a defense on the dribble, but even though those things are easier to notice, they aren’t the only skills that can bend defenses.

Korver is such a remarkably accurate shooter that his mere presence on the floor boost the efficiency of the Hawks offense tenfold, and the fact that he is currently on pace for perhaps the greatest shooting season ever – Korver would be the second player in NBA history to put up a 50/50/90 season (Steve Kerr did it first in 1995-96) – doesn’t hurt either.

This is a player that is shooting 53% from three on six attempts from deep a game, which is absolutely unbelievable when you consider that a lot of his looks are as contested. In fact, per NBA.com’s SportVu data, Korver is shooting 45% from three when he is guarded tightly this season, which by itself would be the third best three-point percentage in the league.

Korver may not fit the typical all-star mold of a ball-dominant high-flyer whose game is constantly immortalized on Vine, but it’s tough to argue that his impact isn’t on par with that of the very best players in the league, and that makes him an incredibly deserving all-star.

The Rising Sun

in NBA by
NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Phoenix Suns

Goran Dragic is having an MVP-caliber season. He’s shattered his career high in PER, posting a 21.78 rating as of today; he has a 61% true shooting percentage, tops in the league amongst starting point guards; he has the 8th best offensive Real Plus-Minus in the NBA (+4.50), ranking him slightly behind Damian Lillard and ahead of Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Love; the Suns’ offense scores 110.6 points per possession with Dragic on the floor (a tick above Miami’s league leading offense) and just 100.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench (a mark that would rank 6th worst in the league); and most impressively, he’s carried the Suns into the playoff picture despite pre-season forecasts that put in the Suns in contention for the number one overall pick and a two month absence from Eric Bledsoe.

What’s more, he may not even be the best player on his own team.

There’s no denying that Dragic has been the Suns’ leader this season, but in the long run, it‘s likely that Bledsoe will be Phoenix’s max player. It’s not a him-or-me situation with these two natural point guards, though. In the 36 games they’ve played together this season, Dragic and Bledsoe have shared the floor for 821 minutes, during which the Suns have played excellent basketball. With Dragic and Bledsoe on the floor, the Suns are scoring 108.8 points per 100 possessions, which would rank fourth in the league over the course of a full season, while surrendering just 97.7 points per 100 possession on the other end, ranking them near Chicago’s defense this season (2nd overall).

Bledsoe and Dragic are both aggressive players and effective scorers, but because Dragic has developed into a great spot-up shooter (he leads the team in catch and shoot eFG% at 64.3%), he’s been able to seamlessly shift into an off guard that gives the Suns’ tremendous spacing whilst having the ability to run secondary pick-and-rolls against bent defenses. And though Dragic is a bit undersized for a two guard, the Suns have more than survived in spite of any mismatches on both ends of the floor.

Phoenix did not expect to be in the position they are in right now — locked in a three-team race for the final two playoff spots with a week left in the season — but as a small consolation prize for the top-five pick they lost out on once Jeff Hornacek’s group decided they were going to go all out for a post-season spot, the Suns have learned a lot about their team this season, thanks in large part to Hornacek’s free flowing spread offense that induces flashbacks to the Nash and D’Antoni days in the Valley of the Suns.

The Morris twins have both made strides as players, with Markieff having a legitimate case for the 6th Man of the Year Award; Gerald Green may be the league’s most improved player, growing into a legitimate rotation player with an NBA Jam-like ability to get hot from deep; P.J. Tucker has developed an accurate three-point shot from the corners, helping him become a more well-rounded player. And, most importantly, the symbiotic relationship that Bledsoe and Dragic have developed has helped Phoenix solidify their core.

And with three first round draft picks (their own as well as Washington and Indiana’s first round selections) and some cap space to work with once they extend Bledsoe this off-season, the Suns are looking at a bright future.

***

bledsoe

Eric Bledsoe may have the best nickname in the league. It’s not exactly clever and it doesn’t roll off of the tongue, but in terms of what the nickname actually means, you can do worse than “mini-LeBron.” Bledsoe’s former teammate Jamal Crawford gave him the moniker back in 2012, and before you brush it off as an exaggeration, know that LeBron himself embraced the nickname, referring to Bledsoe as “Baby LeBron” as they chatted after a Clippers-Heat game that season. Though they were friends far before Crawford made the comparison, who knows if Bledsoe would have found himself in one of LeBron’s Samsung commercials if we were calling him “EB” instead.

While putting “mini” in front of something may generally have a negative connotation, the only implication it has here has to do with Bledsoe’s size, not his production or skill level. And it’s true: Bledsoe is a chiseled box score stuffer with out of this world athletic talent, or what LeBron would be were he compressed to fit a point guard’s paradigm. Bledsoe’s even experiencing the same growing pains that LeBron did during his first years in the league, having to adjust to defenses that compensate for their inability to contain his speed and strength by playing off of him and forcing him to shoot jumpshots. To Bledsoe’s credit, he has been an improved and more comfortable shooter this season, knocking down 40% of his mid-range shots and 34% of his threes (on 3.3 attempts per game).

Those aren’t great numbers, but they culminate in a career high 57.1% true shooting percentage (up from 51.3% last season) for Bledsoe, good for sixth in the league amongst starting point guards. Given that true shooting percentage gives more weight to three-point shots and free throws, two areas where Bledsoe is below average amongst his peers, it’s impressive that he ranks as highly as he does. He evades those parameters by being so efficient at the rim. Even as teams scheme to prevent him from getting penetration, Bledsoe is still very good at getting into the lane, and he’s even better at finishing. He’s shooting 63.4% in the restricted area this season, the third best figure in the league amongst point guards with at least 150 field goal attempts at the rim behind Dragic (1st at a ridiculous 67.8%) and John Wall.

Bledsoe did a great job picking Chris Paul’s brain during his time with the Clippers, and he’s implemented some of those nifty hesitation fakes that make Paul a terror to deal with into his own game. And while CP3 is a tough son of a gun, he isn’t the physical or athletic freak that Bledsoe is, and the combination of speed and strength that Bledsoe unleashes on his treks to the rim make it extremely tough for defenses to stop him.

Bledsoe also has a great touch off the backboard with his lay-ups, a fundamental skill that even some of the game’s most graceful athletes like Paul George or Damian Lillard don’t always master. According to SportVu data hosted on NBA.com, the Suns are scoring 8.8 points per game on Eric Bledsoe drives, or just a bit less than Miami scores per game on LeBron drives and a bit more than the Rockets score per game when James Harden goes to the basket.

As he’s been given his biggest role to date, Bledsoe is having a career year, posting a career high PER of 19.22 to go along with his career high usage rate. For a player that struggles with his outside shot, it’s a great sign than his increased usage didn’t lead to a dip in efficiency, similar to how players like Monta Ellis (or at least the old Monta Ellis) and Brandon Jennings saw their effectiveness drop when they were put in charge of more possessions.

The only thing that Bledsoe lacks when being compared to the elite point guards in the game is a huge assist ratio. Bledsoe isn’t in the top 50 amongst point guards in assist rate this season and even his career best mark in his rookie year was just slightly above average. I don’t see this as an issue, though, because if you view both Bledsoe and Dragic as combo guards that can function as scorers and point guards at any time, and often on the same possession, then neither one of them has to assist on the same percentage of baskets that Chris Paul does. And even with his mediocre assist rate, Bledsoe still ranks higher than noted score-first point guards like Russell Westbrook or Damian Lillard.

While there is always potential for Bledsoe’s numbers to regress next season when his stats will reflect a full 82 game sample, nothing Bledsoe has done in his 39 games this year has seemed fluky or out of the ordinary. If anything, another off-season to work on his game is likely to lead to more improvement for Bledsoe. And that’s scary for the rest of the league. Because at 24, Bledsoe has put per game stats of 18 points, six assists and five rebounds, attacked the rim ferociously and with excellent efficiency and taken the first steps towards an improved jumpshot.

And I haven’t even touched on the most valuable part of his game.

***

1 oTlsnVn0fJQeFFdUHyOFVgBledsoe’s physical archetype defies convention. At a stout 6’1″, Bledsoe not only possesses instinctive footwork, supple speed and a celestial vertical, he has disproportionately long arms that bolt onto his broad shoulders, giving him the reach of a swingman. It’d be hard to sculpt a better prototype for a new age NBA point guard. While Bledsoe’s athleticism allows him to do some very valuable things offensively, his defensive prowess as a guard is unparalleled throughout the league.

During a golden age of point guard play, the tangible effects that a point guard can have defensively have been neutered by their supremely talented offensive counterparts. Only a select few lead guards — Chris Paul, Ricky Rubio, Patrick Beverley and Mike Conley — can claim to be above average defenders. The NBA is a pick-and-roll league filled with a plethora of dynamic point guards, so often forcing guard defenders out of the picture and putting the emphasis on the lumbering bigs.

But Bledsoe flips the script. He forces the emphasis on himself, applying pressure to his man at every opportunity, even as he lurks in the passing lanes, praying for the ball to swing his way.

I’ll never forget watching Bledsoe defend Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili during the 2012 Playoffs. The Clippers were totally overmatched in that series in every way, but during the stints when Bledsoe was on the floor, he completely changed the complexion of the game. On one possession he would corral Parker’s dribble with his long arms and impossibly quick feet, the next he would stick with Ginobili throughout all of his quirky dribbles and fakes and force him to fire a fadeaway jumper. And, based on the numbers, he was even better in the Memphis series that season, with the Clippers possessing a stunning +29.2 net rating with Bledsoe on the floor (and a +14.8 net defensive rating).

ESPN’s newly released Real Plus-Minus stat also portrays how valuable Bledsoe is defensively. Bledsoe has a +3.64 DRPM (defined as a player’s estimated on-court impact on team defensive performance, measured in points allowed per 100 defensive possessions), the best mark of any point guard in the league by a big margin. The results don’t change when going by NBA.com’s on-off court data: With Bledsoe on the floor, the Suns give up 100.4 points per 100 possessions compared to a 105.5 defensive rating when sits, making for a +5.1 net defensive rating for Bledsoe.

Bledsoe uses his brawny upper body to ward off dribble penetration, his quick hands to incessantly poke at the ball like a woodpecker on a tree. He uses his quick feet to stick with his man’s each and every dribble, like a drummer that’s in perfect unison with his lead singer. And when opponents try to get a shot off, Bledsoe shoves his Inspector Gadget arms into the air, an overwhelming resistance for just about every point guard in the league, deterring their shot like he’s Serge Ibaka protecting the rim. Bledsoe owns the game’s most terrifying defensive skillset for a point guard since Gary Payton. A few players have been said to have the tools that could one day make them a stopper like Payton — John Wall is a name that comes to mind — but Bledsoe is a first to put those supernatural physical assets and innate defensive instincts to good use.

Even if his offensive growth stalled out, an unlikely occurrence for a 24-year old, Bledsoe would still be a major asset for the way he’s able to hassle opposing guards. Bledsoe is about as big of a difference maker on the defensive end as you’ll find for someone that doesn’t patrol the paint, and it’s hard for me to imagine Bledoe not supplanting his former tutor on the All-Defensive First Team once his reputation catches up to his game.

***

With four games left in the season, Hollinger’s NBA Playoff Odds give the Suns a 57.1% chance of making the post-season, and it is all likely to come down to the head-to-head matchups that Phoenix has with both the Mavericks and the Grizzlies over the next few days (the Mavericks play the Grizzlies as well). The Suns currently sit in the seventh seed, but their post-season odds are the lowest of the triad because they’ve already lost the season series (and thus the first tiebreaker) to the Grizzlies.

Should Phoenix make the post-season, it will be one of the most remarkable finishes in league history. The Suns will have gone from a team projected to tank for a top pick to a playoff team that’s likely going to make the Spurs fight their way out of the first round (and, based on their regular season meetings, a 2/7 matchup with Thunder would be thrilling television).

But whether or not the Suns make the playoffs this season will wind up being just a footnote in the grand scheme of things. That’s because the sun isn’t set to rise in Phoenix for another couple of years. But when it does, it’ll likely be lifted up on the vast, yet compact, shoulders of Eric Bledsoe.

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