Are We Taking Boston Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas’ NBA MVP Campaign Seriously Enough?

This article was originally published in The Field at scroll.in on January 16, 2017.

With seven minutes and 53 seconds left in the fourth quarter of a close game, the following sequence takes place:

7:53. Player X comes off a screen to receive the ball at the wing.

7:52: He fires a three-point attempt

7:51: Realises the attempt will fall short and runs toward the rim

7:50: Grabs the rebound and attempts a putback while in air

7:49: Makes the shot with a soft touch off the glass

You would be pardoned if you thought player X was a 6 feet 6 inch NBA superstar veteran maybe with a couple of championships under his belt. You would also be very wrong on all counts.

Isaiah Thomas (named after the Hall Of Fame Detroit Pistons point guard) nearly missed making it into the NBA. Picked 60th (the last pick in the NBA Draft) by the Sacramento Kings, Thomas carried no expectations on his small shoulders. Listed among his most glaring of weaknesses were “decision-making ability” and “size”. What could anyone hope for from a 5’9” guard, when even Nate Robinson, who Thomas was compared to, was 5’11” and a journeyman at best?

Well, Thomas had other intentions.

From benchwarmer to starter

In his first season as point guard for the struggling Kings, Thomas quickly established himself as a fiery competitor who showed no mercy if the defense gave him an open lane to the basket. He quickly rose from benchwarmer to a starter, starting 37 of his team’s 65 games averaging nearly 12 points per game and five assists per game finishing seventh in the Rookie of the Year voting behind stars like Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson.

When the Celtics traded for Thomas in February 2015, all they expected of him was to be the off-the-bench offensive burst of energy he was at Phoenix. Thomas complied, marginally raising his scoring to 19.0 points per game for the 21 games remaining that season. The Celtics were satisfied. Thomas was not.

The subsequent summer, Thomas put in the hours, honing his skills and turning himself into even more of an offensive force breaching the 20 points per game mark (22.2 ppg) for the first time in his career. As the starting point guard for the Celtics, Thomas, along with basketball wizard coach Brad Stevens, led a team with mediocre but tough-as-nails talent to the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference and the playoffs before falling to the Atlanta Hawks six games. In the meanwhile, Thomas earned himself a trip to his first All-Star game as one of the 12 best players in the Eastern Conference.

This season, as the famous saying goes, is a whole other ball game.

Thomas has blossomed into an offensive threat that has left NBA defences befuddled. They are just not used to dealing with scoring guards this small. Defenders (guards) are always a step too late to catch Thomas off the dribble or taking a shot, and big men are no match for Thomas’ craftiness around the rim.

A whole other ball game

He is scoring a career high 28.2 points per game (fourth behind Harden, Davis and Westbrook) and dishing out the ball at a career high 6.2 assists per game (leading an efficient Celtics team that is tied third in the league with 24.9 apg). He leads the NBA in fourth quarter scoring with 9.9 ppg. So if anything, he enjoys the attention defences pay to him and finds a way to thrive under pressure.

Wrap those numbers up with Thomas’s free throw percentage (90.7%, leading all players that attempt at least seven free throws a game) and Thomas has squarely placed himself in the conversation about the ten best players in the NBA.

What about the conversation for 2017 NBA Most Valuable Player?

Russell Westbrook and James Harden are putting on a show. Tallying historically great numbers consistently every night, single-handedly keeping their teams in contention and showing no signs of slowing down, both superstar guards could not make their case for MVP any stronger.

In the event of an injury to their respective superstars, both the Thunder and the Rockets would find it difficult to make the playoffs, let alone stay in contention for the Championship.

Which brings us to the Celtics.

Despite the blockbuster move to bring veteran All-Star Al Horford into the lineup, the Celtics most important player is Isaiah Thomas. The offense runs through him and he thrives with the ball in his hands, which works since none of the other Celtics need the ball to be effective and contribute. Also with the arrival of Al Horford’s dangerous inside-out game, Avery Bradley coming into his own at the offensive end, and Crowder continuing to get better, Thomas has multiple people to take the attention off him.

All this points to the fact that the Celtics are worse off without Isaiah Thomas. Maybe more so than the Rockets would be. Thomas is the Celtics floor leader, and when he is not on the floor playing point, the Celtics struggle mightily.

While his numbers are not as gaudy as Westbrook’s or Harden’s, Thomas is critical to the success and championship contention for one of the top ten teams in the NBA That in itself, is sufficient to place him squarely in the conversation for the 2017 NBA MVP.

Not bad for a 5 feet 9 inch guard who almost did not make it to the NBA.

JR’s 2017 NBA All-Star Picks: No Durant, No Curry

This article was originally published in The Field at scroll.in on January 8, 2017.

Basketball purists scoff at its insignificance. Fans vote to watch all their favorite players on court at the same time. Coaches decide who makes the bench, but cannot vote for their own players. Players know it is entertainment and put on a show. Ah, the NBA All-Star Game is coming back.

Started in 1951, the NBA All-Star Game, which features the best players from the respective conferences, turns 65 this year. The annual extravaganza is undeniably the biggest marketing platform for the NBA, arguably bigger than the NBA Finals. Every year, hundreds of thousands of fans from both the USA and around the world descend upon the chosen venue city, all hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite players. Maybe even hoping to snap a last minute ticket, never mind if it were high up in the rafters.

Players, who often take this short break to catch their breath from the rigours of the first half of the season, usually give the fans what they came for. Audacious dunks, crazy layups, wild shots and cheeky passes, are all part of the three-hour entertainment bonanza. Admittedly, it isn’t as competitive as it used to be, but no one is really complaining.

While coaches and fans have always had a say, this year the NBA has included two more crucial stakeholders to the voting process. Players and journalists will get ballots to vote for each conference’s starters. And while I work towards earning that vote as a journalist, I placed my vote as a fan. Here are my starters for the 2017 NBA All-Star Game.

Eastern Conference

The Eastern Conference was comparatively easier. Superstars have clearly emerged, leading their teams from the front to enviable records. Stars such as John Wall and Carmelo Anthony do not make the cut since their teams aren’t even in the top 8. Emerging stars such as Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid, who have been exceptional this season, have yet to earn more wins for their teams. Ageing stars such as Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose (injuries have added years to his body) have not done enough. And legit stars such as Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker have been left out because I have only two guard spots. With that intro, here is my starting five for the Eastern Conference:

LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers, forward: At 32, in his 14th season and fresh off his third championship where he led the Cleveland Cavaliers back from a 3-1 deficit, James has not lost a step. He is still averaging 26 ppg/8 rpg/8 apg, while shooting over 50% from the field. In fact, he has been so consistent over the years that every season henceforth will be a record-breaking one for him. He’s already passed Bob Cousy on the All-Time Career assists list, passed Moses Malone on the All-Time Career scoring list, and became the only player to tally 27,000 points, 7,000 rebounds and 7,000 assists.

Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls, forward: Yes, we’re playing small ball. Nothing small about Jimmy Butler’s season though. The 27-year-old guard continues to find ways to get better in the quest to create his own legacy. He has clearly become an All-Star, breaking the ceiling of the role-player defensive specialist that was thrust upon him when he entered the league. This season, he is averaging a career-high 25 ppg while steadying the streaky Chicago Bulls, who are currently jostling with the Washington Wizards for eighth place in the East.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks, forward: Giannis is shy. Only off the court though. On court, the Greek Freak is tearing up the stat sheets like a 10-year veteran. He is averaging 24 ppg/9 rpg/6 apg, leading his team in nearly every statistical category, and along with Jabari Parker (also deserving of an All-Star spot) is primed to lead the Milwaukee Bucks past the first round for the first time since 2001. Giannis’s freakish athletic ability coupled with the mentorship of Jason Kidd, one of the greatest hybrid guards in NBA history, is assuring fans world over that the sport’s future (and Milwaukee’s) is in good hands.

DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors, guard: Every season, fans get to watch a fringe star elevate himself to be counted among the best players in the league. DeRozan elevated himself to be counted among the greats. Like it did for Butler, the Rio OIympics did more than just put a gold medal around DeRozan’s neck. It allowed both players (both Olympic rookies) get up close and personal with the league’s other biggest stars, taking home valuable lessons on what it takes to be counted as one of the greats. DeRozan, averaging 27 ppg while helping the Raptors sit pretty with the No. 2 seed in the East, is undoubtedly one of the 10 best players in the NBA right now.

Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics, guard: It’s a well known cliche that good things come in small packages. We’re sure no one imagined the package would be this good. While Westbrook and Harden run amok stuffing stat sheets, Isaiah Thomas continues to raise the ceiling for players not at least six-feet tall. He is the NBA’s most prolific and reliable scorer in the fourth quarter, which is saying a lot in a league that features the likes of LeBron, Harden, Westbrook, Durant and Curry. Thomas’s 28 ppg is fifth in the league and his 9.3 ppg in the fourth quarter trails only Westbrook’s 9.8.

Toughest Omissions: Kyle Lowry, John Wall, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving

Western Conference

The Western Conference is loaded this year. So loaded that you could fill both teams with players from the Western Conference and no one would bat an eyelid. Personally, my votes have always gone to those who deserve to be on the starting five, and not the most popular player. I also avoid putting more than two players from a team (I sincerely believe this should be a rule). So that naturally left me with omissions that I still cannot come to terms with. How do Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, two of the five best players in the league, not make my starting five? How does the 2014 NBA Finals MVP and Tim Duncan’s heir-apparent, Kawhi Leonard, who leads the Spurs towards yet another (possibly deep) playoffs, not get to start in this annual celebration of the best? And how does Chris Paul, one of the greatest point guards of all time, still putting up All-Star numbers, not make the cut? I present my case(s):

DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings, forward: This is probably my most controversial choice. How does one go from claiming “small ball” and avoiding All-Stars whose teams are not yet playoff-bound in the Eastern Conference, to selecting a big man who has difficulty switching on defense and has yet to push his team into the top 8 in the West? That is simple…without DeMarcus Cousins, the Kings would not even be in playoff consideration. Cousins is averaging a career high 28.5 ppg and added a potent three-point shot, which he is knocking down at 37.3% from the field. But what is even more remarkable is that, for someone who has a reputation of being a head case, Cousins continues to push himself to improve every single season despite the gross instability his organisation has saddled him with in terms of teammates and coaches. Simply put, Cousins is a phenomenal basketball player. And that is all that matters at the All-Star.

Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans, forward: This is the second player in a row to make the list when his team isn’t in the running for the playoffs. In any other season, I’d concede my lack of consistency. But it is hard to overlook the fact Anthony Davis redefining the forward/centre position. He is near unguardable, blowing past bigger defenders and bangs up against the smaller ones. And when his outside shot is falling, he just shoots over everyone. His evolution is astounding, even more so when you consider that this kid is just 23. There are already comparisons to Davis mirroring Kevin Garnett’s career, a once-in-a-generational star whose team failed to assemble the right pieces for success around him. Barring an untimely injury, look for Davis to finish his career as one of the greatest ever.

Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors, forward: Another tough choice. When the team has Kevin Durant, one of the purest scorers in NBA history, and Stephen Curry, one of the greatest shooters in NBA history, and Klay Thompson, who dropped 60 points in a game, how does one ignore them all and pick Draymond Green. This is because without Green the Warriors aren’t well…the Warriors. His numbers may not show it, but his intangible worth to the team cannot be emphasised enough. Draymond is the catalyst that allows all the stars, rookies and role players to come together to create the juggernaut that is the Warriors. He fuels the team much like Steve Nash did with the Phoenix Suns in his MVP seasons. Make no mistake, while individually Durant, Curry, and Thompson are great, it is Green who is the Warriors’ most important and indispensable player.

James Harden, Houston Rockets, guard: What a joy it is to watch a happy James Harden wreck all kinds of havoc on the Rockets’ opponents this season. Not only Rocket GM Daryl Morey get him Mike D’Anotni, the coach most suited for Harden’s style of play, he also stocked up on two prolific shooters in Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon to compliment Harden’s drive and kick style. Harden’s numbers are deliriously close to Westbrook’s in terms of dishing the ball and getting to the line. And much like everyone on this starting line up, he is the sole reason for his team’s success this season.

Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder, guard: The Harden and Westbrook picks could not have been easier. Together, they altered the perception of what an NBA player ought to accomplish in a single game. Westbrook is still on pace to average the first triple-double season (31 ppg/11 rpg/10 apg) since Oscar Robertson did it in the 1961-’62 season. And despite the added workload (due to losing Kevin Durant) and the manic pace he is playing at, he is showing no signs of slowing down. There is the criticism that he has the ball way too much in his hands, but like Harden, he is the engine of this team. Without Westbrook, there would be no Thunder. Pun intended.

Toughest Omissions: Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Marc Gasol

Chicago Bulls’ Jimmy Butler Wants To Create His Own NBA Legacy

This article was originally published in The Field at scroll.in on December 25, 2016

Jimmy Butler is not interested in small talk. Which, depending on whom you speak with, makes him either the most difficult person to interview, or the most interesting. What he definitely is not, though, is boring; much like his 2016-’17 season.

The six-year veteran two-time All-Star forward will be playing in his sixth Christmas Day game when he leads Chicago Bulls against Kawhi Leonard’s San Antonio Spurs, who, ironically, have been struggling at home.

It is not far-fetched to compare the two mid to late first round picks in 2011, who came into the league with the ceiling of being effective role players at best. The two forwards, however, had other plans, becoming two-way threats (both at the offensive and defensive ends) and legitimate stars in the league.

“He’s (Leonard) a great player overall.” said Butler who made himself available to global media in the build up to the Christmas Day matchup. “He plays both sides of the ball extremely well and I just think that the amount of work that we both put into it in the summer and every single day, is the reason our careers have taken off the way that they have.”

While Butler’s resumé is not as colourful as Leonard’s, he will have none of the comparisons that fans and experts thrust upon the two stars. “I don’t compare myself to anybody else,” he clarified, “I have to play well and do whatever it takes for my team to win. It’s not who’s better than who…it’s all about the team winning the game.”

No beating around the bush

That team, the Chicago Bulls, came into the 2016-‘17 season with no one being able to make sense of their offseason moves. The Bulls faced much scepticism, most notably when trading away All-Star point guard and Chicago favourite, Derrick Rose. The No. 1 pick in the 2008 season and the 2011 Most Valuable Player carried the hopes of the Windy City for eight seasons.

Those hopes stood on shaky ground for four of those seasons (2012-‘2016) after Rose tore his ACL (anterior Cruciate Ligament) in the 2012 playoffs, never quite recovering to full health until last season. Sensing that his value could only drop, the Bulls pulled the trigger on a trade that saw five players and one draft pick change hands.

“I can’t say that I was surprised,” said the straight talking Butler, who often walks the fine line between the truth and diplomacy, “but I knew that it had to be one of us to tell you the truth.”

With Rose gone, the responsibility that ought to have shifted to Butler, the 2015 NBA Most Improved Player, who was coming off career highs in points (20.9), assists (4.8) and field goals made/attempted (7.0/15.4), was marginally threatened when three-time NBA Champion and 12-time NBA All-Star Dwyane Wade shockingly decided to bring “his talents” back to his hometown Chicago.

Any doubts, however, about whose team it was were immediately addressed by Wade in his introductory press conference.“This is Jimmy’s team,” Wade said. “It won’t be a tug and pull whose team it is.”

“He’s been amazing. He’s been great.” Butler remarked about his teammate and fellow Marquette alma mater, Dwyane Wade. “He knows what it takes to win a championship. The young guys and me, we are paying attention how he takes care of his body, because that’s how you get to play as many years as he’s played. Everybody knows him for the person and the basketball player that he is, but off the floor, with his family and his community, he gives so much love to everybody, just a great human being. He can then flip a switch and be a fierce competitor on the court. That’s what makes Dwayne Wade Dwayne Wade.”

Even 2008 NBA Champion Rajon Rondo, brought in to address the gaping hole at point guard left by the departure of Derrick Rose, echoed Wade’s sentiments when asked who the leader of the Bulls was.

Which brings us back to Butler, who is touching career highs in nearly every statistical category this season, some of those highs leading all Bulls players. Already an elite defender, Butler continues to grow as a scoring threat, scoring 24.4 points per game (10th in the NBA), trailing only Durant (25.9) among players who average 17 or fewer field goal attempts (shots) in a game.

He is, however, quick to caution, “I’m not perfect in any aspect of the game (and) continue to work on all aspects of my game. I want to be really, really, really good at everything, so the only way to go about that, is continue to work on everything as much you can.”

The work he’s put in, though, has not reaped favourable results for the team just yet. Chicago have been lurking in the middle of the Eastern Conference and at the time of writing this, are ninth behind the equally mediocre Indiana Pacers. “Some games, we come out flat.” said Butler about the team’s struggles. He’s optimistic though. “We’ve proven that we can win games even with just one 3-pointer in the whole game. For us, it’s all about on the defensive end. If we guard the way that we guard on the premier teams. I don’t think we’ll have a problem beating anybody.”

Creating his own legacy

His rumoured feud with coach Fred Hoiberg last season aside, Butler also does not mince his words when asked why how he feels about calling out his team that has faltered against younger, faster opponents this season.

“I think we’re all grown men within this locker room, so you know, if you criticise somebody, hopefully they take it for the right way. You got to do your job and play your role, but if you’re not doing that, somebody needs to tell you because if nobody does, you don’t know that you’re doing anything wrong. You’re a grown man. Nobody feels sorry for you, so we all got to go out there and do our job.”

And what about the responsibility that has fallen squarely upon Butler’s shoulders; the responsibility that the de facto leader of the Chicago Bulls has to give the city its first NBA Championship since a certain Michael Jordan brought home the trophy in 1998?

Butler stopped us right there. “I damned sure would never compare myself to Michael Jordan. I want to win a championship here for this city and we’re very capable of doing so, but I want to have my own legacy and write my own story. I want to be known for me winning games, not just being in the same organisation as Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan, and Dennis Rodman. I’m trying to be the best version of myself that I can be.”

And in true Jimmy Butler style, he reminds us, “I’m not living in the MJ shadow.”