Is This The Year The LA Clippers Get Chris Paul His NBA Ring?

This article was originally published in The Field at scroll.in on December 18, 2016

“The turnovers,” the Los Angeles Clippers’ 32-year-old point guard said. “That’s the first thing I look at every game.”

To be precise, there were not any.

The 12-year veteran, tallied 20 points and 20 assists with zero turnovers in a 133-105 blowout win over the New Orleans Pelicans last Saturday. The first time that feat was achieved in over four decades.

Paul’s numbers over the past decade tell you the story you already know; that he has been one of the most reliable and consistent players the NBA has seen. This season, he is averaging 17.8 points per game and 9.4 assists per game (fourth in the NBA) and a league leading 2.4 shots per game while shooting 46% from the field, including a near career high of 40% from three-point land and 89% from the free throw line, with a career high +/- efficiency of +9.3 (eighth in the NBA).

Led by Paul, the rest of the Clippers are also putting up numbers consistent with (if not slightly better than) their respective career averages.

And they are clicking like never before.

A brand new team

With the defensive-minded Luc Mbah a Moute permanently moving into a starting role, the Clippers have finally turned into the two-way force that head coach Doc Rivers wanted them to become since he took up the job in 2013.

Offensively they continue to play classic Clipper-ball. They are scoring the ball at 109.6 points per game (sixth in the NBA) getting to that mark with just 39.1 shots (fourth best among teams scoring at least 105 points per game). They are still in red-hot form three-point territory shooting 38.2% (fifth). They pass the ball at a 10th best 22.3 assists per game, thanks largely to Paul’s 9.4 apg and Griffin’s 4.6 apg.

Defensively, though, they look like a brand new team that is holding opponents to a very respectable 101 points per game and 44.1% field goals (both eighth in the NBA). Not only that, their transition defence has taken a massive turn for the better with opponents scoring just 13.6 ppg (fourth) off turnovers against them, but they are defending second chance attempts far better this season holding opponents to 11.8 ppg (5th). This enables them to possess the second best defensive rating in the NBA at an enviable 101.3 behind league leaders the Memphis Grizzlies.

All this has led to the Clippers having a +/- efficiency of +8.6 just three points behind league leaders the Golden State Warriors.

They still turn the ball over nearly 13 times a games and have just above average rebounding numbers, which by playoff standards means they are woeful. And as improved as their defence has been, they are too dependant on Moute, and threatens to come crashing do if he were to sustain an untimely injury.

All this, of course, falls apart without their floor general, Chris Paul.

Make no mistake; Paul understands the position he is in and the short window he has as an elite level point guard in a fast changing league. And while he is not suited to play the part of the most important man in the NBA (he is President of the National Basketball Players Association), he continues to cement his legacy on court by doing what he does best, helping his team succeed.

“He is a legend, man.” DeAndre Jordan gushed after the aforementioned win over the Pelicans.

Indeed, he is. But a legend without a rig will forever have that asterix against his name in the annals of NBA History.

Just ask Charles Barkley.

The Grizzlies Mockery Their Injury Troubles, Piling On The Wins

This article was originally published on The Field at scroll.in on December 11,2017

The Memphis Grizzlies continue to eke out wins. Just how are they doing so is a mystery to fans, and unsuspecting opponents.

Well, it’s a mystery to their leading scorer Marc Gasol too.

“I wish I could tell you,” said Gasol said when asked how Memphis’s stayed sharp to close out tight games. “We just keep fighting. You’ve seen it in many games now where we just don’t let go of the rope.”

The Grizzlies are 4-0 on overtime games this season, and are 6-0 in games decided by 3 points or less. Tally that up and the Grizzlies are 12-0 in OT games or games decided by 5 points or less.

More importantly, they are 9-3 in the three weeks since they lost Chandler Parsons (only the Golden State Warriors have more wins with 10 in that period) and 5-1 since they lost Mike Conley.

Conley, who was averaging a career high 19.2 ppg while shooting a career high 47% from the 3-point line, went down in the 104-85 loss against the Charlotte Hornets. He was later diagnosed with transverse fractures in the vertebrae effectively ruling him out for at least six weeks.

This wasn’t easy news for the Grizzlies who not only lost their floor general and highest scorer, but also a player who capped off the teams’ offseason by signing the richest contract in NBA history.

Add that to the deal Chandler Parsons signed, a 4 year / 95 million max deal, and the Grizzlies came into the season with nearly all their money and all their hope on two players, who since the opening game have suited up for just 23 games total (Conley 17, Chandler 6)

Those hopes though, now rest in the hands of Marc Gasol and bunch of role players that surprisingly are springing wins on unsuspecting opponents.

Gasol, who has stepped out of his comfort zone, both literally and figuratively, has now attempted over eighty 3-point shots after having attempted just 66 in the first eight seasons of his career. He is averaging a career high 19.9 points, but his rebounding numbers taken a beating where he is averaging a mediocre 6.1 rpg.

This is where due credit goes to due credit goes to rookie JaMychal Green who has stepped up to the challenge of filling Randolph’s shoes in the starting line up. Averaging 9.4 ppg and 7.8 rpg, the 6’9” Green is perfect complement to Gasol’s new found outside game.

However, consider for a moment the starting five that the Grizzlies have suited up in the last few games JaMychal Green, Troy Williams, Marc Gasol, Andrew Harrison, Tony Allen. Not exactly a playoff contender. As a matter of fact, it can be argued that, with the exception of Marc Gasol, none of the other four will realistically start for a playoff team in the West.

Tell that to their record though. At 16-8 and tied for 5th in the Western Conference, the Grizzlies are 10-3 against their western opponents and are currently one of just two teams on a 5-game win streak, the other being the Houston Rockets.

Then, there is their defence.

Slowing down teams to a bump-and-grind style that suits the Grizzlies perfectly. The dynamics have changed a bit since coach David Fizdale chose to bring Zach Randolph off the bench to power the second unit, instead of trotting out the two-headed monster that was the Gasol-Randolph frontcourt for the last few seasons.

They lead the league in defensive rating* at 99.9 and holding opponents to 36.8 points in the paint, while rank 7th in opponents’ 2nd chance points with 12.1. They rank 9th with 8.5 steals per game, and while their opponents make just 43.1% of their FG’s (4th)

Still, Memphis are far from a perfect team, and have gaping holes in their game that have yet to be addressed.

Parsons, who will likely return this week is the answer to one of Memphis’ most pressing needs, a reliable scorer who can create his own scoring opportunities when the team loses its way on an offensive possession.

Memphis also need a reliable presence at the point guard position, which for now has been addressed by using the injury / hardship exception to sign Toney Douglas. But Douglas isn’t Conley, and the Grizzlies will have to wait another excruciating 5-6 weeks to get their floor general back.

Conley will likely be back in January, by which time, hopefully, Parsons will have integrated himself into the the team’s offensive flow. If all falls into place, Memphis is poised to peak at the right time and make the Western Conference Finals for the first time since their 2012-13 campaign.

*Defensive Rating: Calculated as (Opponents Points Allowed / Opponents Possessions) x 100

When The Freak Met The King: Giannis’ Rise In LeBron’s League

This article was originally published on The Field at scroll.in on December 04, 2017

Earlier this year, ESPN’s True Hoops’ Kevin Arnovitz attempted to make sense of the freak of nature that is Greece’s best import to the NBA this far, Giannis Antetokounmpo (pronounced Yah-niss Andh-deh-toh-koon-boh). He succeeded. Somewhat.

Now the league is attempting to make sense of “The Greek Freak’s” numbers.

As of the date of writing this article, Antetokounmpo is averaging a beastly 22.8 points per game 8.5 rebounds per game, 6.1 assists per game, leading his team to wins in half their games this far in a young season. He is also firing away at 52.5% from the field, second only to Kevin Durant’s 57% for players who attempt at least 16 shots a game. What’s more, all that offensive efficiency does not hamper Antetokounmpo’s production on the defensive end where he averages 2.1 steals (sixth in the league) and 2.1 blocks (seventh) per game.

Let’s add some more perspective by comparing his numbers to Player X.

  • GA: 22.8 points per game / 8.5 rebounds per game / 6.1 assists per game / 2.2 shots per game / 2.1 blocks per game
  • Player X: 23.5 points per game / 8.1 rebounds per game / 9.3 assists per game / 1.1 shots per game / 0.5 blocks per game / 49.8 Field Goal percentage

Oh yes, Player X is LeBron James, a four-time NBA Most Valuable Player, three-time NBA Champion and is seriously knocking on Michael Jordan’s legacy as the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time).

Most basketball fans would deem it blasphemous placing James, with just three Championships in seven Finals trips, alongside Jordan’s six Championships and perfect Finals record. James’s fans will rightly feel the same way about placing Antetokounmpo in the same conversation as the King just yet.

Yet, against Cleveland on Tuesday, that is exactly what Giannis attempted to prove. That he deserves to be considered the Heir, the Prince, if you may.

“He’s getting better with hard work,” Bucks’ coach Jason Kidd said after the win against Cleveland “He was going against the best player in the world.”

And make no mistake, Giannis Antetokounmpo came to play.

Antetokounmpo matched his career high 34 points shooting a blistering 68% from the field, pulling down 12 rebounds and dishing out 5 assists finishing with a +/- rating of +20. But his most important contribution came at the defensive end, where in addition to stealing the ball five times (also a career high) and blocking the ball twice, he orchestrated the dance of the defensive hydra that is the Milwaukee Bucks’ defence.

Under Kidd’s guidance, and led by the freak-of-nature force that is Antetokounmpo, the Bucks have carved themselves into a match-up nightmare on defense, and the numbers or the past two weeks stand as evidence this rise.

The rise of the Bucks

En route their 4-2 record since November 19, Bucks have allowed teams 101.3 points per game (eighth in the NBA) on just 42.5 FG% (fourth). They have dominated a paint-snatching 75.4% of defensive rebounds (third) while allowing teams only 37.7 points per game in the paint (fourth) and blocking 5.7 shots a game (ninth). They have bullied teams at the half court game by forcing their opponents into committing 15.5 turnovers a game (eighth) and stealing the ball 9.3 times a game (second).

“You can’t simulate how long they are in the passing lanes,” LeBron James said after the loss.

This top-10 defensive grind does not compromise their offence where, in the same two weeks, the Bucks have shot 48.2% from the field (fifth), scoring 107.7 points per game (eighth), and those points coming as a result of 25.3 assists per game (fourth). They are also firing away at 38.7% from beyond the arc (sixth in the NBA), which if adjusted to include teams that attempt at least 26 threes a game, ranks them third behind the San Antonio Spurs (41%) and the Toronto Raptors (48.6%). All these numbers balance out to a healthy +6.3 plus-minus rating (fourth)

But what does all this have to do with Antetokounmpo?

‘The Greek Freak’

No one will readily admit it, but this is undeniably his team. Offensively and defensively, the Bucks look to him for leadership and he, with a calm demeanour and resilient play, shoulders this responsibility, leading the Bucks in nearly every traditional and advanced stats category, both offensively and defensively.

Jason Kidd, a 19-year veteran, accomplished stat sheet filler, and an NBA Champion who finished his career, ranked second all-time in career steals assists, said, “You have special players that we come across, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan. You’ve got different players that are rare and I think Giannis is one of those rare birds that we’ll be able to enjoy for a long time.”

Kidd may be biased, though. He is after all Giannis’ coach. So let us give the last word to a 20-year veteran, five-time NBA champion and one of the 10 greatest NBA players ever?

Here’s what Kobe Bryant had to say: “He has the potential to be a great player. He has the physical tools, the intelligence. Now it’s just a matter of believing in himself and going after it. He has the talent to be a great player.”

And if anyone knows anything about why talent should work hard, it is Kobe Bryant.

Embiid Is Healthy And The Philadelphia 76ers Are Winning, Is The (Rebuilding) Process Finally Working?

This article was originally published in The Field at scroll.in on November 27,2016.

“You know you’re going to have a tough night, no matter what, because they don’t stop playing until that final whistle,” Mike Conley said. “They scrap and claw for every little bit. We’re thankful to get away with a win tonight.”

You’d be pardoned for thinking that Conley is referring to a playoff contender. Well, he wasn’t. Conley was referring to the Sixers. Yes, those Sixers.

Post the abrupt exit of GM Sam Hinkie, the Sixers have found new life. Watching them play, and win games this season makes it hard to imagine that this is the same team that won just 47 of their 286 games in the past three seasons. It was all part of the “process” that, Hinkie convinced both management and fans, would make the Sixers a powerhouse in the East once again.

A Stanford graduate, Sam Hinkie spent some time in Houston, under the prophet of basketball analytics, Daryl Morey. It could be argued that Hinkie was just as instrumental as Morey, in introducing teams to the benefits of advanced statistics in making basketball and personnel decisions.

The same statistics that allowed the Rockets to put themselves in the enviable position to trade for and snag James Harden on the free market and surround him with the right role players. We now know how well that continues to play out.

Hinkie’s process bears fruit after his exit

There was considerable fanfare when the Sixers hired Hinkie as GM in May 2013. But three seasons into his reign, the wins kept drying up, and Hinkie faced vile criticism from fans and experts alike. He resorted to rigging the system (read tanking) in the hopes of landing high draft picks year on year. When that didn’t necessarily work out (Sixers never got a No. 1 pick under Hinkie), he traded away players for picks, most infamously sending away then-reigning Rookie Of The Year Michael Carter-Williams, and crowd favourite All-Star Jrue Holiday. Even unfortunate injuries to Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid were unfairly blamed on Hinkie, assumed to have been staged to tank and attain that high draft pick.

The Sixers management, fearing irreversible damage to the faith fans had in the organization, moved to hire Jerry Colangelo as Chairman of Basketball Operations during the 2015-16 season. There are unconfirmed reports that Colangelo, one of basketball’s most respected statesman, and Hinkie did not get along, eventually leading to Hinkie putting in his papers in April 2016 and drafting one of the most elaborate resignation letters in the process (no pun intended).

With all the drama behind them, and newly appointed GM and President of Basketball Operations, Bryan Colangelo (Jerry’s son) the Sixers can now work their way back into contention in the East.

It will be a slow and painful journey back though. They are still dead last in the East, a conference that has gotten considerably stronger this season. It is also worrying that they aren’t top 10 in any relevant category, offensively or defensively.

But there is some glimmer of hope. The Sixers have won four out of their 16 games, when it took them 37 games to match that total last season.

Embiid, the Sixers biggest hope at redemption, ranks 9th in points per 48 minutes, ahead of MVP front runner James Harden. His minutes are still under restriction as he works his way back from a foot injury that sidelined him these past two seasons.

Jahlil Okafor carried forward his consistent play that saw him average 17.5 ppg / 7.5 rpg / 1.2 bpg last season, and Gerald Henderson, although not the purest of scorers, has held his own improving to a career high 42% from beyond the arc in his first season with the Sixers.

Ersan Ilyasova is knocking on his career high in ppg at 13.1, Dario Saric is as NBA ready as a European rookie can be, and Sergio Rodriguez, the splashy Spanish veteran, is everything the Sixers hoped he would be and more as he dishes out 7.7 apg.

They are also a ridiculously young team, with four rookies and the rest of the team averaging 3.6 years in the league, an average significantly boosted by the presence of 8-year veterans Jerryd Bayless and Ersan Ilyasova.

Then there is Ben Simmons. The No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, who suffered a fracture before the season, sidelining him indefinitely, has been showered with the highest praise, some comparing him to a young Magic Johnson. Simmons’ performance at the Summer League had fans drooling over the possibility of having him run the floor with this young team and play pick-and-roll with Embiid. He already sees the open court like some of the greats and is steps ahead of the defence. He still needs a reliable jumpshot (not uncommon for rookie forwards), and has to show some patience at the NBA level.

Philadelphia finally have the pieces to turn their fortunes around. Armed with a young nucleus, and backed by a management that wants to win now, the team is hopefully edging towards, once again, becoming relevant in the East.

Guess, we will have to wait and watch the process, play itself out.