NBA’s Big Bet On Basketball Schools To Build A Pipeline For Indian Talent

This article was originally published in The Field at Scroll.in on April 9, 2017

“Grassroots to high performance.” said Yannick Colaco, the managing director of NBA India. “That is our global strategy.”

The NBA on Friday announced the launch of NBA Basketball School, a network of tuition-based basketball development programs around the world open to international male and female players for ages 6-18.

“The NBA Basketball School builds an additional track between the Jr NBA and NBA Academies.” added the vice president of the NBA and the International Basketball Operations & Head of Elite Basketball, Brooks Meek. “The goal is to increase the pool of players who have the talent to attend our academies around the world.”

The first NBA Basketball School was launched on Friday in Mumbai as part of a multi-year agreement announced with India On Track, a sports management, marketing and development company. Additional NBA Basketball Schools will be launched in India and around the world in the coming months.

Technical Director, NBA Basketball School, Ryan Burns, conducts a session at the NBA Basketball School in Mumbai, India. Image credit: NBA India
Technical Director, NBA Basketball School, Ryan Burns, conducts a session at the NBA Basketball School in Mumbai, India. Image credit: NBA India

How the junior schools help

No Indian has suited up for an NBA team in the regular season till-date. Satnam Singh, the first Indian drafted (by the Dallas Mavericks) to the NBA, has yet to play in the regular season. Currently on the Mavericks D-League team the Texas Legends, Singh’s NBA dream seems even more distant as he suited up for just eight of his team’s 42 games this season.

Like Singh, seven other players (three boys and four girls) headed for the IMG Academies on hefty basketball scholarships in 2010. Unlike Singh, most faded into obscurity. Only Kavita Akula and Barkha Sonkar have done well, and continue to do so. It may seem fair to believe that the IMG experiment failed. But that would ignore the deeper problem with sports development in India: the lack of a structured program for the development of talent in India.

Training session underway at the NBA Basketball School in Mumbai, India. Image credit: NBA India
Training session underway at the NBA Basketball School in Mumbai, India. Image credit: NBA India

That is what NBA India hopes to address with the programs they have introduced over the past four years. It is the NBA’s vision to create a pipeline for Indians aspiring to become NBA players. Kids get exposed to the game through the in-school Jr NBA Program, can hone their skills at an NBA Basketball School, and eventually graduate to the elite-level NBA Academy.

What about the journey between graduating from an NBA Academy and getting into the NBA?

“When they graduate from an NBA Academy (at about age 18-20), there are multiple opportunities,” Colaco clarified, “be it applying for a scholarship to a college program in the US, seeking to play professionally in Europe or in the D-League, or if they meet all the criteria declaring for the NBA draft. But we would not want to pigeon-hole players, telling them what to get into”

The lack of a committed development approach

Basketball in India is far behind the mainstream sports. Both football and cricket boast established academies and tournaments right from the grassroots up to the elite level. The lack of a committed development approach from the federation has stalled the growth of basketball in India. Conflict at top was a hindrance as recently as six months ago. The dual-faction matter has settled down for now, allowing the appointed federation to step up their activity.

“Our goal is to have our national teams play at the highest level” said an official from the Basketball Federation of India. “This requires a feeder system in which players are coached the right way. The NBA Basketball Schools venture provides the opportunity to get international level coaching to many. This will help basketball in India, both in the short and long term.”

Does having to go up against an established organisation like the NBA hinder any development plans the BFI has? “No.” he says. “We cooperate with the NBA, but our plans are independent and do not overlap. Our vision is to ensure high coaching standards are implemented across India. If anything, the NBA’s efforts help us.”

The balance between development and marketing

Since 2008, the NBA has sought to find a balance between developmental and marketing initiatives. It has constantly been testing the waters to find out what that works. It has started and discontinued activities, tweaked and overhauled initiatives, all in the hopes of finding the right mix that would have the most impact for its brand in India.

“Sure, marketing initiatives help raise awareness about the game,” added the BFI official, “but the last few NBA initiatives have been development focused, which aligns with our vision.”

The NBA sees India both as a pioneer for these programs, and a market to test them for global adoption. Colaco found this position interesting: “India is first off the block in executing the (NBA Basketball Schools) program, which is part of planned network of basketball schools that we will be starting around the world. This is a reflection of how important the Indian market is for the NBA.”

This won’t be the first time the NBA team in India have pioneered a program. Three years ago, the Jr NBA program, the NBA’s decade-old global grassroots initiative, was modified for the first time in India. The old format focused on simple outreach to young kids, while the new format embraced a more defined curriculum structure to be easily implemented during school hours. This change enabled the program to experience unprecedented growth in three years, reaching 1.5 million kids from 2,200 schools in 14 cities, growth that the NBA has not seen across any of its programs globally.

Image credit: NBA India
Image credit: NBA India

Indranil Das Blah, the managing partner at KWAN, India’s leading sports and entertainment agency said, “You cannot build a brand without helping develop the sport organically. That’s where the NBA’s approach to development stands out from most other international organisations in India.”

Blah, whose agency KWAN has worked closely with the NBA on some of its projects, believed the NBA was getting it right. “The NBA has been in India for ten years. They’ve seen, tried, tested adapted to the market. The time is right for these basketball schools”

Colaco added, “With the Jr. NBA Program, we used the learning from previous programs to design a structure that would make a greater impact. It’s clear that we look at the India to a priority market to launch and lead some of our global initiatives”

International sports clubs and organisations with academies in India aren’t a new phenomenon. Arsenal, Liverpool, Barcelona and Manchester United have all beaten the NBA to the spot. India On Track, the NBA’s partner in the program, also manages the Arsenal Soccer Schools. These schools feature licensed coaches, usually from the clubs’ junior programs. Programs, claimed to be world class, range from one week to a few months. Training sessions happen three times a week and last for about 90 minutes. And how has all this access to world class training worked out?

Not too well.

What NBA India is trying to do differently?

Despite their best efforts, none of the soccer schools have produced a player of note. This is aside from the fact that no player from India has climbed the ranks through the academies to earn a spot on the clubs’ junior teams. Although some of the programs boast of state and national team players, most of them were already at that level upon joining the program. This shortfall in quality has led many to believe that these academies are merely brand building income streams for the clubs. Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to make money off the largest and one of the highest spending middle classes in the world. But to believe that these academies are the hope of young players and their parents is a bit naive.

“Most of the [sports] schools that have opened up in India, are seeking short term goals over long term growth. They are seeking to be profitable immediately,” said Blah. “It’s a top-down approach that is not sustainable. It’s great to have the big names in football [or other sports] open academies in India. But without a holistic grassroots effort, growth will be a challenge”

Kids in action at the launch of the first NBA Basketball School at Jamnabai Narsee School in Mumbai. Image credit: NBA India
Kids in action at the launch of the first NBA Basketball School at Jamnabai Narsee School in Mumbai. Image credit: NBA India

So what is the NBA doing differently? How do they avoid the same pitfalls?

“It is about crafting a basketball development system and building an entire ecosystem.” Colaco explained. “You can’t have a grassroots program like the Jr. NBA without a next level like NBA Basketball Schools. You can’t have both without an NBA Elite Academy to aspire to. No other (sports schools) program in India has an ecosystem like the one the NBA has built across all ages, level and platforms. That’s where our year-long tuition based program is different. It is the pathway for kids, not the end goal”

Spending on sports has never been a priority for a vast majority of Indian parents. Unlike academics, most don’t see any returns, both immediate and future, to invest in a child’s sporting future. While details on costs haven’t been made public yet, Colaco does not see cost as a stumbling block to price sensitive Indian parents.

Colaco had good news there. “I would like to stress, that while this is tuition based program, we are constantly scouting for the most talented. Our program is not just for people who can afford it. We are in a position to subsidise, or provide training at no cost to talented and deserving players.”

The NBA has laid out the pipeline. Now it will play the waiting game to watch the flow. There is quiet but confident hope among the basketball community that if it all comes together, we will see an Indian player in the NBA or WNBA sooner than later.

Till then, we wait and watch.

The Others: Predictions On NBA Awards Not Named MVP

This article was originally published in The Field at Scroll.in on April 6, 2017

There has been more than enough written on the race for this season’s MVP. Kawhi Leonard is making a valiant run at it. LeBron James has put up yet another monster season even by his lofty standards. The award, however, will go to either Russell Westbrook or James Harden.

Your vote depends on what matters to you. Do historically great numbers by an individual at the cost of his teammates matter? Or does a team’s success as a result of a historically great offensive season matter? Westbrook’s season has been beyond everyone’s wildest imagination. My vote, though, goes to James Harden, the player that makes his team better.

Then there are the other awards.

The executive mastermind that assembles the roster and staff to make the magic happen. The rookie that deals with newly found NBA riches, yet stays focused to put up solid numbers. The player who defies common perception about his ability and improves to deliver a breakout season. The defensive specialist, tasked with disrupting the opponent’s game plan. The team’s sixth man, who is tasked with the responsibility to hold fort while its stars rest. The coach, who deftly connects the dots, brings the wins and, hopefully, the championship.

They are not the stars. But they are vital ingredients to the NBA experience. Some we remember. Some we do not. But all are crucial.

Here are my picks for the awards:

Executive of the Year: Bob Myers, Golden State Warriors

There’s nothing easy about losing one of the ten greatest players to retirement and still tallying 60+ wins. That’s the mind of RC Buford.

Nothing easy about assembling the perfect team and coach around your star to unleash an offensive juggernaut. That’s the mind of Daryl Morey.

But.

Convincing one of the four best players in the NBA to join you, after your 73-9 record team has beaten him in an epic comeback from being 3-1 down, is near legendary. It can be, and often is, argued that this was entirely Durant’s decision. That would be too simplistic.

At no point in NBA history has a player of Durant’s calibre joined a rival at his career peak. Myers not only convinced Durant to move, he did so at the risk of gutting his roster of key contributors in the run up to the 2015 Championship and the 73-9 record. It is a General Manager’s duty to seek out the best mix of players and coaching staff in the pursuit of a championship. In that regard, Myers made one of the boldest decisions in NBA history. Either he’s a hero for going all in, or a villain for being too greedy. Either he’ll be vindicated with an NBA Championship, or be mocked for trying to game the system. Either ways, the Durant signing required a ton of courage. Something a great number of GMs sadly lack.

Runners Up: Daryl Morey (Houston Rockets), RC Buford (San Antonio Spurs)

Rookie of the Year: Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks

Everything we saw this summer virtually guaranteed Ben Simmons would lock up the award. Joel “The Process” Embiid was pummelling his way through NBA defences early in the season. Both their campaigns, derailed by injuries, were not meant to be.

In their absence, their promising European teammate Dario Saric is leading nearly every pundit’s column for the the award. However, the impact Brogdon has had in Milwaukee cannot be overlooked. Overall, Saric has better numbers that will swing the vote in his favour. Brogdon, however, has firmly established himself as a threat on both of the floor. He is the only rookie who is a major contributor on a 40 win team.

Runners Up: Dario Saric (Philadelphia 76ers), Buddy Hield (Sacramento Kings)

Most Improved Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

This is precariously close to a Bucks’ fan fest. Antetokounmpo’s improvement, however, cannot be overlooked. He leads the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, all career highs. He is stuffing stat sheets like very few before him have. This season, he’s tallied career-highs in points (41 vs. Lakers) and blocks (7 vs. Bulls). He has also dropped at least 30 points on both the Warriors and the Cavaliers.

Most importantly though, Antetokounmpo has led the Bucks to the third best record (15-7) since the All Star break. Despite losing key players to injuries during the season, the Bucks are taking care of business during the home stretch, quietly moving into fifth place in the East. Given a couple more seasons, the Greek Freak will lift himself out of this awards list into the conversation for MVP.

Runners Up: Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets), Otto Porter Jr (Washington Wizards)

Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

Gobert is a throwback to the old-school defensive big man. The 7’1” center has a 7’9” wingspan, the longest in the NBA. That wingspan is a big (pun intended) reason behind the Utah Jazz’ league’s best defence for most of the season. It’s only in the home stretch that the Jazz have fallen behind the Spurs and Warriors stifling defence.

Gobert leads the league averaging 2.7 blocks per game. Opponents are also making just 45.5% of their shots against him when within 10 feet of the rim, a league leading number. Both Leonard and Green have mounted considerable competition to Gobert’s campaign. While they are exceptional individual defenders, Gobert’s mere presence on the floor completely alters an opponent team’s game plan.

Runners Up: Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio Spurs), Draymond Green (Golden State Warriors)

Sixth Man of the Year: Eric Gordon, Houston Rockets

This will most likely be the easiest of awards. Gordon is head and shoulders above the rest of this sixth men this season. Despite his reduced role, he’s averaging 16.4 points, his best since the 2013-14 season. Thanks to Harden’s brilliance, Gordon is pulling up for 3-pointers 8.8 times a game, third in the league behind Harden and Curry. His biggest contribution is efficiently keeping the second unit in the game, allowing Harden to rest for extended periods of time, thus saving his legs for the playoffs. That alone should qualify Gordon for the sixth-man award.

Runners Up: Zach Randolph (Memphis Grizzlies), Enes Kanter (Oklahoma City Thunder)

Coach of the Year: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs

You you make a case for at least five, if not more, coaches here. D’Antoni has turned the Rockets into an unstoppable juggernaut, Snyder is working with a motley crew of individuals that quietly snagged the fourth seed in the West. Stevens knocked on the No. 1 seed in the East led by a 5’9” guard. Spolestra lost his championship winning trio in LeBron, Wade and Bosh over the course of two seasons and made the playoff despite starting the season 11-30. Give the award to any of these four, and you’d be justified. It is confusing. And when it’s confusing, give the award to Popovich.

In the face of having just one All-Star, losing his team leader to retirement and trotting out an aging roster, Pop has still managed to deliver the first back-to-back 60+ win season in the history of the franchise.

If he does wrap up this award, he will be the first NBA coach to have won it four times (he has won it in ‘03, ‘12, ‘14). Fitting for one of the three greatest NBA coaches ever.

Runners Up: Mike D’Antoni (Houston Rockets), Quinn Snyder (Utah Jazz), Brad Stevens (Boston Celtics), Eric Spoelstra (Miami Heat)

Shaquille O’Neal Immortalized By The Los Angeles Lakers

This article was originally published in The Field at Scroll.in on March 30, 2017.

The Los Angeles Lakers unveiled a statue of the 19-year veteran who brought three Championships to the city between 2000 and 2002. Shaquille O’Neal joins Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West in being immortalised with statues at the Staples Center.

Joined by Jeanie Buss, Kobe, Jabbar and Jackson on stage, Shaq went on to give a shout out to nearly every one of his teammates during his days as a Laker. At the top of the speech was of course, Kobe Bryant with whom Shaq shared one of the greatest love-hate relationships the NBA has ever known.

Shaq arrived in LA in time for the 1996-‘97 season as a result of his failing contract negotiations with Orlando. The Lakers who were rebuilding, also acquired Kobe in a draft day trade in the 1996 Draft. What they did not expect was that these two would go on to form one of the greatest duos the NBA has ever seen. Despite the dysfunction that defined their relationship off court, Shaq and Kobe respected the game and each other enough to lift the Lakers to three championships in the eight seasons they were teammates.

Once-in-a-generation abilities

While with the Magic, Shaq was beginning to understand his once-in-a-generation physical abilities. The NBA had not seen a more imposing physical presence since the great Wilt Chamberlain. Simply put, Shaq was an absolute beast, wreaking havoc upon opposing defences. His high point was disposing off the Chicago Bulls in the season where Jordan returned from his first retirement.

It was with the Lakers, however, that Shaq realised his true potential as a winner, moulding himself into the most dominating centre the NBA has ever seen.

The rap on Shaq has always been his level of seriousness, or rather lack of it. It is what allegedly drove a wedge between an obsessive workaholic like Kobe and some who picked his spots (read: Playoffs) like Shaq. “It used to drive me crazy that he was so lazy,” Bryant said to the New Yorker. “You got to have the responsibility of working every single day. You can’t skate through shit.”

It was common to see Shaq show up to camp overweight from taking the summer off. He’d have a fairly sluggish start to the regular season, then using the games to whip himself into shape right in time for the playoffs. Shaq in the Playoffs, was a different beast.

What is often overlooked is the fact that, except for his first two seasons in Orlando, Shaq has not missed the Playoffs. Despite his reduced role and a significant drop in production in his last few seasons, Shaq retired with averages of 24.3 points / 11.6 / rebounds / 2.1 blocks while shooting 56.3% from the field. Those are number accumulated over 17 playoffs. No centre has retired with better numbers. Not even the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Optimist or pessimist?

With the Lakers, Shaq averaged 27.7 points / 13.4 rebounds / 2.5 blocks while shooting a blistering 56% from the field during the Playoffs. He was the focus of Phil Jackson’s triangle offense that featured the young and hungry Kobe Bryant. Opponents had to pick their poison for the night: either keep up with Kobe and his relentless style, or contain the 300+ pound force that was Shaq. It’s no surprise then, that the Lakers ended up with three Championships in as many seasons.

There is a school of experts who believe that Shaq failed to live up to his potential. That he was lazy. That his fooling around and lack of commitment (by his own admission) to practice greatly affected his career. That he used the regular season to prepare for the only thing that mattered: the playoffs. That he stubbornly refused to correct his flawed free throw shot to raise his atrocious free throw percentage. That he let his ego come in the way of building a dynasty with Kobe Bryant. His career often gets ranked among the most disappointing NBA careers of all time.

I wholeheartedly subscribe to the above school of thought.

But.

The numbers also matter. The sheer volume of work also matters. He is a four-time champion. He was the best or second best player on all those four championship teams. He played 19 seasons in the NBA, played in 17 playoffs and retired with better playoff numbers than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, arguably the greatest centre in NBA history.

In his seminal book on basketball, Bill Simmons ranks Shaq just behind Hakeem, wrapping up Shaq’s career with this line” “(He) could have earned a top-five Pyramid spot and multiple MVPs, but he happily settled for No 12, some top five records, three Finals MVPs and a fantastically fun ride”. While at it he made a ton of money, released rap albums, made movies, got roasted and almost got killed.

We can look at Shaq’s career through the eyes of the sceptic that believes he underachieved, or through the eyes of the optimist who believes he did just fine for himself. No matter your take on his career, there is one truth: there simply wasn’t and will never be another center as dominant as Shaquille O’Neal.

In The Middle Of Nowhere: Why Being A Mid-level NBA Team Hardly Pays Off

This article was originally published in The Field at Scroll.in on March 21,2017

It’s the final stretch of the season. Teams have anywhere between 11-13 games left in their schedule.

The best teams are fairly secure: Golden State, San Antonio and Houston have secured playoff spots in the west, while out east Cleveland (secured playoff spot), Boston, Washington and Toronto have a comfortable cushion to securing their playoff spots in the coming weeks. Sure, there are valid arguments against a championship for at least five of them, but a few lucky breaks and/or untimely injuries can swing the race in anyone’s favor.

The worst teams are also sure of their lost season: Brooklyn is clearly out of playoff contention, with Orlando (reset mode), Philadelphia (add another year to “The Process”) and New York (but, but, Rose…sigh) closing in on an early summer, while out west, the Lakers are out of contention, with Phoenix (Eric Bledsoe done for the season), Sacramento (largely Randive’s doing) and Minnesota Timberwolves soon to join the pack. After all, tanking is in order for one of the best, and most important, drafts in recent history.

All this while, much like in the real world, the middle class, struggles.

Being a mid-level team in the NBA could mean several things, but for the purposes of this article, we will assume mid level to be a team that has less than 10% chance of landing a top-3 draft pick and has no home court advantage in any round the playoffs. History makes it a bit easier, with teams usually seeded 5 through 11 (at the time of going into the playoffs) usually meeting this criteria.

Going by the above definition we have fourteen mid-level teams:

  • WEST: LA Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks, and New Orleans Hornets
  • EAST: Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls and Charlotte Hornets.

Assuming that making the playoffs and (increasing their chance of) winning a championship is a priority for an NBA team; we can divide the fourteen teams further into four categories:

The established contenders:

Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks’ brought in Wesley Matthews and Harrison Barnes to fortify the team in the twilight of Nowitzki’s illustrious career. They managed to snag Nerlens Noel in a trade-deadline deal. None of these moves have yielded more wins, with the Mavericks on pace to end up with the franchise’s worst record since 2000. They rely on Nowitzki, but the clock’s ticking on his brilliant career, which isn’t good news for a franchise that has a ton of money tied up with stars who are yet to bring the W’s.

LA Clippers

The LA Clippers’ Big Three have made the playoffs in each of their six seasons together. Injuries to Griffin in 2013, and Blake/Paul last season have derailed hopes of a Championship this far. Both Paul and Griffin are free to opt out of their contracts this season. Assuming, both Paul and Griffin re-sign with the team, the window of opportunity to win becomes narrow due to Chris Paul’s aging body. If they decide to leave, it gives Doc the opportunity to rebuild. Question is, rebuild around whom?

Memphis Grizzlies

Coach Fizdale’s masterstroke of getting Randolph off the bench to spearhead the second unit allowed Gasol to take over the first unit to average career-high numbers. Mike Conley is an All-Star when healthy. The problem is Chandler Parsons who isn’t the player the Grizzlies were hoping would solve their outside shooting woes. It also doesn’t help that he had a season-ending injury. Memphis could trade Parsons to stock up on younger wings that, or wait till he regains his form. Question is how long is the team willing to wait?

The solution:

No short term solution. All the teams are stacked with pricey contracts for established players. They can either blow up the current roster (highly unlikely), or make a few smaller moves (likely) and continue to pound away until a stroke of luck has them holding an NBA Championship.

The young guns:

Denver Nuggets

Denver has been blessed with the arrival of Nikola Jokic. It’s a treat to watch Jokic, just 22, to unleash mayhem at the offensive end as he slowly discovers himself. Suit him up with Gary Harris (22, improving y-o-y), and Emmanuel Mudiay (21, injured this season) and the Nuggets have a decent core around which to build a contender.

New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans now have the luxury of having at least one superstar on the floor for all 48 minutes. When Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins figure out how to play with each other, there will be no perceivable way to stop the Pelicans. Both are solid 3-point shooters, can put the ball on the floor like guards, and also possess old-school post-up moves. The Pelicons are also armed with a very competent point guard in Jrue Holiday, an upcoming role-player in Tim Fraizer, and a dead-eye shooter in Omri Casspi. Assuming this core stays intact, this is a championship contender in two seasons

Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks have the most enviable young core of the league in Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, Greg Monroe and Khris Middleton. Fortunately for the Bucks, Middleton returned a few games after Parker went down. Their 12-6 record since the Parker injury (third best in the NBA) is enough of a tease for what is to come when this core plays a fully healthy season in the near future.

The solution:

All also have a their fair share of future stars, veterans both young (5-10 seasons) and established (10+ seasons), to go along with experienced coaches in Mike Malone, Alvin Gentry and Jason Kidd respectively. All that stands between them and an NBA championship is time and experience.

The alpha-dog teams:

Chicago Bulls

A looming Rondo trade/exit and a bigger roster thanks to the Gibson / McDermott trade, the Bulls are in position to trade for, or outright sign a big(ish) name to be Butler’s running mate. Jimmy Butler is hitting his peak which, unless you are LeBron James, only last for about 4-5 seasons. The Bulls would do well to move quick and smart and surround one of the League’s ten best players with a roster that can contend for a Championship.

Indiana Pacers

Paul George is still among the top-20 players in the League and that number climbs if you take into account his ability as a defender as well. However, even with the addition of Jeff Teague, the Pacers are just about mediocre. They are a perennial lock in the postseason as long as George is healthy, but the Pacers will have to dig in deep to find George a running mate who can complement him, before he decides to leave. Jeff Teague is not the answer.

Oklahoma City Thunder

This isn’t a championship team, yet. Much of that can be written off to Russell Westbrook’s quest to prove he can win it all by himself which, of course, he cannot. Westbrook is one of the league’s top-5 players, but isn’t fun to play with. They have interesting pieces in Andre Roberson, Enes Kanter, Steven Adams and of course Oladipo. Playing with a ball dominant alpha dog, however, significantly affects production numbers of those around him. Weak numbers lead to smaller contracts. Just how many of the current Thunder lot stay on with the team, is yet to be seen.

Portland Trail Blazers

Nurkic will eventually turn into a front-court mainstay, while Crabbe and Harkless have shown potential to be key rotation players. Yet, one cannot fight this nagging feeling that the Blazers are underperforming, even in a comparatively tougher Western Conference. Thankfully, the Blazers are stacked with assets to make the right moves in the coming offseason, giving Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum the supporting cast he deserves to turn the team into a contender.

The solution:

Trade, trade, trade. All four have get cracking to load up their teams. The Blazers have a core to build around, so it should be easier. The Thunder are banished to Westbrook-Ball Land for now. Until he comes around, there is no helping them. The Pacers and the Bulls have a roster full of players who aren’t indispensable. The clock’s ticking on all the four teams’ stars’ peaks. Trade, trade, trade.

The teams that need to hit the reset button:

Atlanta Hawks

They remain mediocre and don’t have too many trade assets with which to make the team a Championship contender. In related news, Paul Millsap turns 32, and isn’t a franchise player. The Spurs have shown that you do not need a “franchise player” to win a Championship. Hawks’ coach Mike Budenholzer knows that model; he was assistant coach on the Spurs. The Hawks have no choice, but to reset the roster, scout and recruit well at the Draft and build a contender from ground up.

Charlotte Hornets

They overachieved last season. They carried that confidence into this season. Kemba Walker, with a fairly competent roster, can take you to 40 wins. That is the ceiling, though. That is smack in the middle of the pack. If Charlotte wants to compete with the big guns, they would have to make their peace with the current roster, let them go, and go fishing in the Draft.

Detroit Pistons

Like the Hornets, the Pistons overachieved last season. Unlike the Hornets, they have Andre Drummond who has the potential to become the League’s best center. He cannot shoot free throws, though. How do you build around a potential franchise player, when he cannot be on the floor in a close game? Tobias Harris is an exciting prospect and along with Drummond could form the core of a potential East contender. A better roster, though, and a few years of experience can make them Championship contenders

Miami Heat

In Miami, hope is riding on Hassan Whiteside blossoming into one of league’s top-15 players (has the potential). Goran Dragic has risen into one of the league’s elite scoring point-guards. Dion Waiters’ remains one the league’s most polarizing players. Even with the growth of Tyler Johnson and return of Justise Winslow, the Heat are just a 45-win team (sixth-seed) in the East. The Heat have recruited well enough to have a roster of players that could either mature and turn them into a contender in a couple of seasons, or become trade pieces for an All-Star level player.

The solution:

Hit the “reset” button.

  1. Keep one (or two) core pieces: Hardaway / Schroder in Atlanta, Walker in Charlotte, Drummond / Harris in Detroit, Whiteside in Miami.
  2. Trade away older / valuable assets: Howard in Atlanta, Batum in Charlotte, Morris / Jackson in Detroit, Dragic / Waiters in Miami.
  3. Trade for younger legs and potential
  4. Trade for younger legs and potential
  5.   Tank for the high draft pick

There Will Never Be Another Dirk Nowitzki

The 38-year-old Dallas Mavericks legend became the first international player to breach the 30,000 point barrier.

This article was originally published in The Field at Scroll.in on March 16, 2017

Thirty thousand points. The holy grail of scorers. The mark of the greatest.

And then there were six.

Last Tuesday, Dirk Nowitzki, the Dallas Mavericks legend, became the sixth NBA player, and the first international player, to have breached the 30,000 point barrier.

The ones that have done it before him?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,

Karl Malone,

Michael Jordan,

Kobe Bryant, and

Wilt Chamberlain.

Not bad company.

The last of the players from the end of the Chicago-Jordan era, it took Nowitzki nineteen seasons to reach the milestone. A master of the step-back-fade away, it was poetic that he hit the mark in signature style, with a shot that he made his living on.

Dirk’s greatest contribution to the game of basketball would be his signature step-back fade away. The second greatest shot after Jabbar’s transcendent skyhook, Nowitzki’s fade away is unguardable. A shot that he loves to launch this from anywhere near the free throw line, his height combined with exceptional control over his centre of gravity, allows him to release the shot with his shooting hand nearly parallel to the ground. Simply put, when in form, the only way to stop Dirk is to hope he misses.

Greatness is determined by the defining moments in a player’s career. His legacy is crafted by his character both in times of adversity and success. Numbers matter. Champions, however, are rarely remembered by their numbers. Instead it’s the defining moments in their career that set them apart.

Dirk had two such moments.

The 2006-‘07 season

It was turning out to be Nowitzki’s swansong season. Coming off a career high (26.6 PPG) and a tough, controversial loss against the 2006 Miami Heat team led by Dwyane Wade and newly acquired Shaquille O’Neal, the Mavericks pulled together a third 60-win season in five years. They finished with the best record in the NBA (67-15) and set up a first round matchup with the feisty Golden State Warriors who held on to the eighth seed with a mediocre 42-40. This was to be a cakewalk for the blazing Mavericks who had League MVP Nowitzki, surrounded by a group of hard working talented professionals. This was undoubtedly the Mavericks title to lose. And they did just that.

The Warriors pulled off one of the greatest upsets in NBA history, beating the Mavericks in six games and cutting off the journey to what should have been Nowitzki’s first NBA championship. Add this devastating loss to the controversial loss to the Miami Heat in the 2006 NBA Finals and you have an empty handed Dirk Nowitzki after two 60-win seasons and career highs in nearly every statistical category.

While this may have crushed any other player, Nowitzki returned stronger, and kept pounding away, piling on 50-win seasons, averaging 25 PPG / 8.2 RPG, and making the Playoffs every season until…

The 2010-‘11 season

Also known as the season of The Decision, LeBron James took his talents to South Beach, and teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh turning the Miami Heat into instant title contenders. In the West, Nowitzki had become synonymous with the ability to show up in the Playoffs but not get anywhere.

He and his motley crew were the cute kids that showed up to play but always left the winning to the big kids. Not this time around. Leading the Mavericks to their 11th straight season with 50-wins and a playoff berth, the Mavericks began with a 4-2 win over the Portland Trailblazers in Round 1. Somewhere close by, the eighth seed Memphis Grizzlies topped the league leading San Antonio Spurs in six games.

The Mavericks, surprisingly, then proceeded to not only sweep Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, but also dismantle the young Oklahoma City Thunder (led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook), beating them 4-1 to set up a Finals clash with the Miami Heat.

Detractors doubted the Mavericks every step of the way, calling them old, or a fluke, awaiting what they believed was inevitable: a drubbing at the hands of the Big Three. Little did they know, the Mavericks had other plans.

After splitting the first four games at two-a-piece, the Mavericks led by a valiant 32-year Nowitzki and a resurrected 33-year old Jason Terry, took the fight to Miami at both ends of the floor. Defensively, they allowed LeBron to take as many open jump shots as he wanted, knowing it was his greatest weakness. Offensively they stayed efficient, never dropping below 40%, even from beyond the 3-point line. Nowitzki blitzed the disrespectful duo of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, by averaging 26 PPG / 9.7 RPG for the series. They rest as they say is history, as the Mavericks took games 5 and 6 to and carry home the 2011 NBA Championship.

The purest scorer

Drafted ninth in 1998, the seven-foot then-lanky German was relatively unknown amongst basketball experts. International scouting was still nascent and was usually treated as an indulgence. Teams were content with the talent available domestically.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association, the country’s elite college athletics system, had more than its fair share of international players racking up valuable experience of the American style of play. This was important since European players were perceived to be physically inferior. Much of this perception was rooted in the European style of play that relied team play, passing and the ability to shoot. Hero-ball was scoffed at while passers and shooters and pure scorers were heralded.

And Dirk Nowitzki is the purest scorer of them all.

Expanding the range to include all players that have scored at least 20,000 points (41), only four players have shot better than 38% from 3-point range, three of whom were guards: Ray Allen (24,505, 40%) Reggie Miller (25,279, 39.4%), Mitch Richmond (20,297, 38.8%). Nowitzki, the European nobody, is the only forward to average more than 38% from the field AND have tallied at least 20,000 points.

The argument against these criteria is that the 38-year-old German is a forward and must be compared to his peers who made a living inside the 3-point line. Even there, only twelve players in NBA history have shot better (2-pt %) than Dirk’s 49.7%. Add the fact that Dirk’s career free throw percentage (the kryptonite of most forwards and centres) is currently 89.7% (ranked 15th All-Time) and you begin to understand why there isn’t a convincing argument against crowning Nowitzki the greatest scoring forward in NBA history.

There will never be another Dirk Nowitzki

The stat that sets Nowitzki apart from the rest, though, is that he scored every one of his points with the same team. An honour he only shares with another legend, Kobe Bryant.

The 38-year-old has already confirmed that he will return for the next season, a decision that would have been helped by the young nucleus that the Mavericks now boast off. They have a young core in Seth Curry, Wesley Matthews and Harrison Barnes, while getting lucky with the emergence of Yogi Ferrell and acquiring Nerlens Noel in arguably the best trade at the 2017 trade deadline. With Nowitzki playing the elderly statesme, the Mavericks, now just three games behind Denver for that eighth spot, have a few interesting pieces to surround this core and make a legit run at the playoffs.

Matthews, who is both older (30) and has had a serious injury, is the only, even if minor, concern for the Mavericks. If the Barnes-Curry-Ferrell-Noel core can make the right leaps, this will be a team that can contend for a spot in the NBA Finals next season. With that ceiling and a few lucky breaks in their favour, the Mavericks could very well send off the greatest scoring forward in NBA history with his second Championship ring.

If you are keeping score at home, Dirk Nowitzki is a 7-foot European sharp-shooter, who shoots 2’s with as much ease as he shoots 3’s, develops the second most unstoppable shot in NBA history, plays at least 20 seasons with the same team, scores over 30,000 points, wins regular season MVP and has at least one NBA championship.

See the pattern?

Yes, I am going there…

There will never be another Dirk Nowitzki.

The Race For The 2017 NBA MVP Is Closer Than We Think

At least, six players have a solid case to win the award this year and none of them are Stephen Curry.

This article was originally published in The Field at Scroll.in on March 6, 2017

We are one year removed from the first time the NBA crowning its first ever unanimous regular season Most Valuable Player. We may not be that lucky this year.

Stephen Curry, also MVP in 2015, averaged 30.1 points a game and led the Golden State Warriors to a historic regular season, tallying a record 73 wins in 82 games. The season would have been capped with a Championship, had the Warriors’ quest not been thwarted by an equally historic, record-breaking comeback by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

This season, things are quite different. At the time of writing this, there are at least six players that have a solid case to win regular season MVP. Two-time MVP Curry, isn’t one of them. Nor is 2014 MVP Kevin Durant.

The case for MVP is simple. If Player X were not to suit up for Team X, would Team X, (a) win as many, if not more games, and (b) make the playoffs?. For Curry, his incredibly talented (and now partially injured) Warriors’ roster, works against his case for MVP this season. Without Curry, a core of Durant/Green/Thompson can, most certainly win as many (if not more) games and would most likely be the favourites to win the title, let alone make the playoffs. Replace Durant with Curry, and you have the 2015 and 2016 Warriors, who were NBA Champions and finalists respectively.

Even without Curry and Durant, the Warriors’ have the luxury of trotting out Livingston/Thompson/Green/Igoudala/Pachulia as their death line-up with Ian Clark (who has been great for them) and David West coming off the bench. That’s a 40-win playoff team in the West in this season (Denver Nuggets, seeded eighth is on pace to finish with 37 wins). There is no doubt that both Curry and Durant rank among the ten best basketball players alive, but is their impact on the Warriors’ more than, say…

6. Kawhi Leonard on the San Antonio Spurs

(25.9 PPG / 3.4 APG / 5.9 RPG / 1.8 SPG / 49%-38%-89% Shooting splits: Field Goal %, 3-point %, Free Throw %)

Leonard’s rise from 2014 NBA Finals MVP has been spectacular. His numbers have soared in the season following the Trophy, and this season is no different. With Tim Duncan gone, much of Spurs’ offence now runs through Leonard, making him the target of double teams every night. Leonard has adjusted well, breaching the 25 ppg mark, a career high, despite a slight dip in his shooting numbers (51-44-87 last season). However, ever since he was blessed with Tim Duncan in the 1997 NBA Draft, Popovich has only seen winning seasons (Winning season = more wins than losses in the regular season and vice versa). While much of the Spurs’ success can be attributed to Duncan, Pop gets due credit for steadying the boat against the tide of an aging roster for years. As great as he is, and will continue to be, Leonard needs Pop as he leads the Spurs to the second best record in the NBA and their quest for a sixth title. Unlike…

5. John Wall on the Washington Wizards

(22.7 PPG / 10.8 APG / 4.5 RPG / 2.0 SPG / 45%-32%-82%)

Wall’s style is similar to that of another great point guard, Chris Paul. He is a pass-first defensive point guard who can score when he needs to take over the game. After six seasons of wading through mediocre, inconsistent rosters, Wall finally has the healthy and competitive roster he needs to complement his talent. The proof? Wall is averaging a career high 10.8 assists per game, second only to fellow MVP candidate, James Harden. Wall’s also leads the Wizards with 22.7 points per game and 2.0 steals per game, both career highs. Under his leadership, the Wizards overcame a mediocre start to the season (16-16 through 31-Dec), to become one of just four teams with 20 wins in 2017 (other teams being GSW, SAS and BOS). Wall’s importance to the Wizards is also evident in the fact that the Wizards are nearly 13 points worse (per 100 possessions) when Wall isn’t on the floor. Even with a healthy Bradley Beal, a breakout season by Otto Porter Jr. and a fast rising Kelly Oubre Jr., it is hard to imagine the Wizards enjoying much success without Wall. Much like…

4. Isaiah Thomas on the Boston Celtics

(29.4 PPG / 6.2 APG / 2.7 RPG / 46%-38%-91%)

The last time the NBA had a more prolific fourth quarter scorer? Never. The 5’9” Thomas is scoring a league-leading 10.8 ppg in the fourth quarter. What seemed like an anomaly at first, is now become routine for the Celtics and Thomas. Anomalies do not last 62 games into the season. Opponents do not matter, as evidenced by his late three against the reigning NBA Champions. Thomas thrives in the big moment and enjoys the pressure that comes with being “the man” in the fourth quarter. However, while this works in the regular season, Thomas and the Celtics will need a sturdier strategy in the playoffs. With refs letting the lighter fouls slip by, a seasoned defensive team like the Cavaliers will get physical with Thomas much before he touches the ball. Couple that with Thomas’ height as a defensive liability (Celtics defensive rating touches a league leading 101.8 when Thomas is off the floor as opposed to 113.0 when he’s on it.), and you have a team that desperately needs a bigger, more physical player to step up in the clutch. That reminds us of…

3. Russell Westbrook on the Oklahoma City Thunder

(31.7 PPG / 10.1 APG / 10.7 RPG / 42%-34%-84%)

Video game numbers. It’s the only way to describe what Westbrook is putting up this season. It’s been a few decades (55 years to be precise) since an NBA player averaged a triple double for a whole season. With just 20 games to go, a repeat of that glorious feat is very real. Westbrook has given new meaning to the term triple-double threat. One could argue that these numbers are warranted in light of the mediocre team that Westbrook has been given. That’s a fair assumption, considering that the Thunder are a league-leading 14 points worse when Westbrook is not on the floor.

Historically, however, there has never been an MVP whose team has not finished in the top four of their conference. Even Iverson, whose style of play can be compared to Westbrook’s this season, led the 2001 Philadelphia 76ers to the best record and No. 1 seed in the East. So as great as Westbrook’s season is, he isn’t…

2. LeBron James on the Cleveland Cavaliers

(25.9 PPG / 8.9 APG / 8.0 RPG / 54%-40%-69%)

The famous saying, “He plays chess, while the rest play checkers”, could very well be about LeBron James. Take another look at James’s career numbers and you will realize that, barring his rookie season, they are the epitome of consistency. It is astonishing that at age 32 and season 14, James has found a way to average a career high 8.9 apg while playing 37.6 minutes a game (second behind Kyle Lowry). That spike in assists can either be attributed to the Cavaliers’ lack of depth at point guard, or chalked up to James’ greatness. Except for the slump a few weeks ago (where they lost 7 of 11 games), the Cavaliers continue to play like NBA Champions and look primed to repeat under James’ leadership. Unless their plans are derailed by…

1. James Harden on the Houston Rockets 

(28.8 PPG / 11.3 APG / 8.0 RPG / 44%-35%-85%)

Happy Harden equals Happy NBA Fans. Harden’s ability to score was never in doubt. What is unexpected is this outburst of scoring, not seen in the NBA since the late 70’s / early 80’s when defenses were absent, and nearly every possession was an open layup. Harden’s shot chart, looks like a one-eyed smiling monster. Scoring 50 points in a single game is a herculean task in itself. Harden’s taken it a step further by dropping not one, but two 50-point triple-doubles this season. Harden has proven that the Rockets can make a deep playoff run with him as the best players. On any other team he is just another great scorer. On the 2016-17 season, Rockets assembled precisely for Harden? He is a probable NBA Champion.

My pick for the 2017 NBA MVP: James Harden.

Can Vivek Ranadive Competently Rebuild Sacramento Kings From Here?

This article was originally published on The Field at scroll.in on March 1, 2017

Consider, for a moment, the following statistics for a group of players this season.

Group Purple

(Points / Assists / Rebs/ St’ocks (Steals + Blocks) / FG% / 3Pt% / FT%)

  • Player A (Center / Age 26): 27.6 / 4.8 / 10.7 / 2.7 / 45.4% / 35% / 77.3%
  • Player B (Center / Age 27): 16.7 / 0.7 / 14.1 / 2.9 / 55.4% / 0% / 57.8% (does not attempt 3’s)
  • Player C (Guard / Age 28): 29.6 / 6.2 / 2.8 / 1.0 / 46% / 38.3% / 91.3%

For discussion purposes, let us assume these three players are on a single team. Add three or four reliable role/bench players, a couple of playoff-tested veterans and a competent coach.

The question is, can they make the playoffs in an uber competitive Western Conference? Without doubt.

Can they win 55+ games and take home-court advantage into the Playoffs? Absolutely.

Can they make it to the NBA Finals? Yes, they can (barring untimely injury).

Who is Group Purple? The 2016-‘17 Sacramento Kings, had they not traded away DeMarcus Cousins (A) and Isaiah Thomas (C), and not banished Hassan Whiteside (B) to the NBA Development League, eventually cutting him off.

Do not believe me? Then let us consider another group of players from two seasons ago.

Group Yellow

  • Player A (Guard / Age 26): 23.8 / 7.7 / 4.3 / 2.2 / 48% / 44.3% / 91.4%
  • Player B (Forward / Age 24): 11.7 / 7.3 / 9.5 / 2.9 / 44.3% / 33.7% / 69.6%
  • Player C (Guard / Age 25): 21.7 / 2.9 / 3.2 / 46.3% / 43.9% / 87.9%

They had four reliable role/bench players, three playoff-tested vets and a competent coach.

Let us run those questions again:

Did they make the playoffs in an uber competitive Western Conference? Yes, they did.

Did they win 55+ games and take home-court advantage into the Playoffs? They won 67.

Did they make it to the NBA Finals? Actually, they became NBA Champions.

Who is Group Yellow? The 2014-‘15 Golden State Warriors, featuring Stephen Curry (A), Draymond Green (B) and Klay Thompson (C).

From the frying pan into the fire?

The Maloofs, the Vegas millionaires who owned the Kings before Ranadivé’s consortium, had a strange run. On one hand they oversaw some of the greatest Kings’ teams and would have ended up with a couple of championships if not for untimely injuries, or a historically great shot. On the other hand, the Kings franchise, who were beacons for “honesty and loyalty to core players and local community” (ranked third in ESPN The Mag’s Ultimate Team Rankings) dangled the team in a bidding war and initially agreed to relocate the Kings to Seattle for a deal worth nearly $625 million.

Enter Sacramento mayor and NBA Legend Kevin Johnson, and a group led by Vivek Ranadivé, formerly a minority owner of the Golden State Warriors, who after much intervention from the league (NBA Board of Governors), convinced the Maloofs to keep the franchise in Sacramento and sell it for a then record price of $534 million, with the promise to the league and the city of Sacramento that they would build a spanking new stadium in a couple of years.

Ranadivé delivered on the state of the art and jaw dropping stadium.

But he did not deliver on much else.

A series of questionable decisions

Ever since taking the reins in Sacramento, the franchise has been in a free fall of sorts with instability in everything ranging from coaches to players and front office personnel. The Kings have had three coaches in the three seasons since Ranadivé took over. His first order of business as owner, in a move then widely believed to be a display of prompt action, was signing off on a trade that sent his second best player Tyreke Evans, to New Orleans in a three-team deal that netted the Kings Greivis Vasquez, a guard who is not in the NBA anymore.

Next season he traded away Isaiah Thomas, once again his second best player no less, to the Phoenix Suns to get a $7 million trade exception (basically, save some cash) and someone called Alex Oriakhi (who has never played an NBA game, and is not in the NBA anymore).

He then fired Mike Malone barely six games into the season, only to hire an aging, out-of-tough George Karl mid-season. This is still among the most inexplicable moves he has made considering that Malone was the first coach that Cousins genuinely liked and respected.

After all that damage, you would think Ranadivé was done. But as a New Yorker article said, “He [Ranadivé] was not one to accept losing easily”.

Among the most lopsided deals in NBA history

Amongst the 2017 NBA All-Star festivities, Ranadivé traded away DeMarcus Cousins, his best player, and one of the ten best players in the league to New Orleans for Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans (remember him from earlier?) and a 2017 second round pick. The deal has already been raised to be included among the most lopsided deals in NBA history. It is not hard to see why.

Cousins is downright unguardable. The only chink in his armour was his range, which he has extended well beyond the 3-point line this season. His ability to score at will in one-on-one situations, which at times make him look like a Hall-Of-Famer, is what makes him such a threat in the pick-and-roll as well. Teams cannot switch on him, and if they do, cannot leave the defensive task to just one player. Defensively too, he can be among the league’s elite centres when motivated, even stepping out to get quicker guards to change direction.

There is no doubt the Kings are threadbare at the time of writing this. They would need to tank, and tank soon. Cousins’s brilliance in the first half of the season had left them competing for the eighth spot in the West. With the Kings’ making it clear that they are in rebuild mode, fans of the franchise ought to expect a whole lot of losing in the last third of the season. Why? Because Sacramento has traded away its 2017 first round draft pick, protected 1-3, which means, New Orleans owns Sacramento’s pick it if falls between 4-30.

Yes, Sacramento have a decent record at the Draft. Not enviable, but decent. However, the 2017 draft is loaded, and they are not the only team competing for a bonanza, come June. Even if they begin tanking as early as next month they are way behind Brooklyn, Lakers, Philadelphia and Phoenix in the 2017 Draft race.

Assuming they get that pick, and Hield lives up to his “Steph Curry potential”, the Kings’ front office have done absolutely nothing to assure free agents that they are an organisation worth playing for. The questionable trades aside, the Kings’ biggest blot on their reputation comes in the form of false promise they made just weeks before the trade, both publicly and to Cousins personally, that trading him was out of the question. If the Kings could do this to their star player, and one of the ten best players in the league, what chance do other players stand against the whims of a front office that, at least at this moment, does not seem to know what they are doing.

The fall from grace of this once great franchise has been quite a dramatic one. Try as he can, Ranadivé cannot avoid responsibility for this drama. A drama that threatens to continue at least for a few more seasons if drastic measures are taken to correct the path. The solution had been fairly simple for Sacramento. Hold on to your star player, give him stability in the coach’s corner, and surround him with competent professional players that will show up every night. The Kings had all these lined up for them three seasons ago. They, led by Ranadive’s strange whims, whittled it all away.

It will take nothing short of a miracle to put them in that exact, or similar, enviable position again.

Is The Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony’s Legacy In Jeopardy Without An NBA Championship?

This article was originally published in The Field at scroll.in on February 19, 2017

Numbers. They matter.

Thirteen.

That is the number of full seasons that Carmelo has been in the League. Anthony, a highly heralded college prospect, was drafted third in the top-heavy 2003 NBA draft that included a high school phenom named LeBron James (1), and college stars Chris Bosh (4) and Dwyane Wade (5). The trio (LeBron, Wade, Bosh) would go on to form the modern day Big Three in Miami and romp home to two championships (2012, 2013) in four seasons. The Draft is also historic for the Detroit Pistons infamously picking Darko Milicic second.

Twelve.

Carmelo is arguably one of the purest scorers the NBA has ever seen. Offensively, he is probably the most unguardable player in the NBA today. A matchup nightmare, he is armed with a once-in-a-generation scoring finesse, both around and away from the basket. His shooting averages have not dropped below the 43% he shot in his second season in the NBA. That’s 12 seasons of supremely efficient shooting from the field. He has shot better than 30% for all but three seasons (including 32% this season), and shot over 35% for six of those seasons (matching LeBron James in the bargain).

Eleven.

On January 25, 2014, Anthony exploded for 62 points at the Madison Square Garden. The unsuspecting Charlotte Hornets looked utterly helpless as Anthony drained basket after basket enroute his career high. Only eleven players have scored more points in a single NBA game. That list? David Robinson, David Thompson, Elgin Baylor, George Gervin, Jerry West, Joe Fulks, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Pete Maravich, Rick Barry, Wilt Chamberlain. The only player on that list, not in the Hall Of Fame yet? Kobe. 2021 isn’t far away.

Ten.

Upon his arrival in Denver, the Nuggets became a perennial playoff lock, their best outing coming in 2008-09 where they reached the Conference Finals, losing 4-2 to eventual NBA Champion Kobe Bryant and his the Los Angeles Lakers. Just like he did with the Nuggets, Anthony was supposed to deliver the Knicks to the promised land as well. He hasn’t been as successful, with the deepest playoff run (since the 1999-’00 season) coming in 2012-13, where the Knicks lost to 4-2 to Paul George and the Indiana Pacers in the Conference Semifinals. The good news? Carmelo has missed the postseason just three times this far in his career. The bad news? Carmelo has missed the playoffs for three consecutive seasons since 2013.

Nine.

The number of NBA All-Star Games that Anthony has appeared in till last season. The 2017 NBA All-Star Game was his tenth appearance where he replaced the injured Kevin Love. Many thought this was a knock on Beal, who is having his healthiest season thus far and has the Wizards sitting pretty with the third seed in the Eastern Conference. In reality Beal was just a victim of the voting system.

Eight.

Up until this season, Anthony has had only eight teammates score more than 15 ppg in the respective season. Kenyon Martin (‘05), Allen Iverson (‘07, ‘08, ‘09), Chauncey Billups (‘09, ‘10, ‘11), J. R. Smith (‘09, ‘10, ‘13), Amar’e Stoudemire (‘11, ‘12), Raymond Felton (‘11), Wilson Chandler (‘11), Danilo Galinari (‘11). No matter how you choose to look at the stat, that is not even remotely close the help even a star like Anthony needs to win a title in the modern day NBA.

Seven.

Carmelo has averaged over 25 PPG . Considered by many to be one of the purest scoring machines the NBA has ever seen, Anthony’s scoring average has never dipped below 20 PPG in a single season. His highest average came in his fourth season with Denver when he averaged 28.9 PPG while shooting.

Six.

Surprisingly, Anthony has made it to just six All-NBA teams. He made the All- NBA 2nd Team in ‘10 and ‘13, and the All-NBA 3rd team in ‘05, ‘06, ‘09 and ‘12. Even more surprisingly, Anthony has never made an All NBA 1st team.

Five.

Anthony thrives when he has someone who can not only bring the ball up, but also direct the offense so get him the spots and matchups that make him most dangerous. On that front, Anthony has been fairly unlucky, and had hardly any consistency. He has played with just five point guards that were among the NBA’s top 10 in the respective season. Andre Miller (‘06, ‘07), Allen Iverson (‘08, ‘09) and Raymond Felton (‘11). You could throw in Jeremy Lin (‘12) in the mix, but that would be inaccurate since Lin’s 2012 was an anomaly, as evidenced by his inability to recreate the Linsanity magic. Derrick Rose, who was to be the answer to all of Anthony’s career PG woes, is a shadow of his former self. The 2011 Regular Season MVP showed signs of promise to start the season, but has plateaued, averaging a mediocre 17.7 PPG and 4.5 PPG.

Four.

Only four on Anthony’s teammates have made an All-Star Game in the respective season. Allen Iverson (‘07, ‘08), Chanucey Billups (‘09, ‘10), Amar’e Stoudemire (‘11) and Tyson Chandler (‘13).

Three.

Carmelo, a 3-time Olympic gold medalist, is the most decorated and prolific basketball player in international basketball history. It is no secret that he plays on a whole other level when donning the US colors at the Olympics. It really doesn’t matter who else is on the roster; Anthony de-facto leader at the quadrennial event, and everything (both offensively and defensively) runs through him. Considering the greats that have come and gone before, it is hard to believe that no other basketball player has more Olympic gold medals than Anthony.

Two.

The total number All-NBA teammates that Anthony has ever played a full season with. Billups in ‘09 (All-NBA 3rd Team) and Tyson Chandler in ‘12 (All NBA 3rd Team). Amar’e Stoudemire who made the All-NBA 2nd Team in ‘11 does not count since Anthony had played just half a season with him.

One.

Among the most astonishing facts of Anthony is that, as prolific a scorer as he is, he has led the NBA in scoring just once. Averaging 28.7 PPG in 2012-13, Anthony led the league in one of the poorest scoring seasons in recent history.

Zero.

The number of NBA Championships Carmelo Anthony has won till date.

Numbers matter. They are simple and clear indicators of where a player stands in the pyramid of greatness. It allows us to stack up a player against his contemporaries, against the greats that have gone before, and the legends yet to suit up for the NBA. Numbers are the water required to cement a player’s legacy when he decides to hang up his sneakers.

Anthony’s numbers are inconclusive. Always arguable. He has arguably been among the top-15 if not top-10 players in the league, but has never made an All-NBA 1st team. He is arguably the greatest scorer of his generation, but has never averaged 30 ppg in a season and led the league in scoring just once. He is arguably the best small forward of his generation, but has not been to the NBA Finals, let alone win a NBA championship.

Anyone who watches any single isolated part of Anthony’s career would think he is a lock for one the 100 greatest players ever. Certain seasons an argument for placing him in the Top-50 ever is valid too. Granted he hasn’t had the best of teams (as evidenced in the numbers above), and to his credit has taken an astonishingly mediocre team to the cusp of an NBA Finals. However, Anthony’s career as a whole has fallen significantly short of his ceiling. This isn’t just about an NBA Championship. It is about the legacy that Anthony leaves in the minds of NBA fans. What would we think of when we read his name once he retires? How will we remember Anthony.

Will we remember his gross failing at not having won an NBA title? Or will we remember him as the greatest scoring forwards the NBA has ever seen?

Only time will tell.

The Wizards’ John Wall Seeks To Disrupt The NBA’s Pecking Order

This article was originally published in The Field at scroll.in on February 13, 2017

With four minutes and 10 seconds to go in the fourth quarter of a thriller against the reigning NBA champions, John Wall uses the screen distraction from teammate Bradley Beal to blow past his defender Kyrie Irving, only to be greeted at the rim by two more defenders, Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love.

Everyone senses the play is done. Not John Wall. He splits the two defenders with a slick euro-step, gets them both in the air, and lobs a pretty looking layup off the glass between them, making it seem as though it were part of the plan. The play makes John Wall look like a star. The kind of star that ought to lead his team to the playoffs every year. The kind of star that ought to be playing point guard in the NBA Finals. The kind of star that ought to be the best player on a Championship team.

John Wall ought to be that star. He is not. Yet.

Over the past four seasons, the Washington Wizards have settled into a routine of mediocrity. Keep one of the NBA’s three best backcourts (Beal and Wall) intact, and barely make or miss the playoffs. In NBA speak, this is called “no man’s land”, i.e, not good enough to compete for a championship, and not terrible enough to land a top draft pick.

No man’s land

Coming into the 2016-‘17 season, then, the Wizards were hoping to dramatically alter that routine by snaring superstar free agent Kevin Durant who grew up in Maryland, a state that shares a border with Washington. The preparations began the previous season, when they did not extend Beal’s deal, did not add any talent or contracts of significance to their roster, and even signed on former Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks as their Head Coach, believing that they had a real shot at landing Durant.

Unfortunately for the Wizards, Durant did not even give them a meeting, let alone consider coming back home, putting a huge dent in not only the team’s Championship hopes, but also the probability at landing a superstar in the future. Sensing a semblance of doom to the season if they did not take immediate action, they hastily signed Beal to a monstrous deal for five years at $130 million (approx), and fortified their depth at centre by signing Ian Mahinmi for 4 years at $64 million (approx).

In all this commotion, everyone, including yours truly, wondered if this was fair to John Wall, the Wizards’ only star.

That the Wizards are Wall’s team is beyond any doubt. He has been the team’s most consistent player in the last six seasons, steadily getting better every season. In fact, Wall is the only Wizards player still on the roster from his rookie season 2010-‘11, when he caught the tail end of the tumultuous Gilbert Arenas era. Two of his running mates this season, Marcin Gortat and Otto Porter Jr, have been with him for just three seasons, with Kelly Oubre Jr and Morris joining the roster just last season. Even Beal, one of the NBA’s top five shooting guards when healthy, has struggled to stay on the floor, playing just over 294 out of a possible 410 games in his five seasons with the Wizards.

Washington’s one true wizard: John Wall

With all the instability on the organisational front and on the floor, was it fair to blame Wall for the Wizards’ mediocrity? Irrespective of how easy the East is, it was unfair to burden Wall with the expectations of carrying a team that cannot hold on to talent, whose second best player sits out 30% of the season with injuries, or an organization that does not surround it’s star with the right talent to compete.

Things are looking up since last season. Beal is having his healthiest season (playing in 49 out of 53 games) since 2013-‘14 and showing signs of reaching his potential of becoming the best shooting guard in the NBA. Gortat is a still a pick and roll threat, despite not having added range to his shot over the summer. Add to that the development of Porter (quietly the NBA’s number best three-point shooter at 46%) and Oubre into legit threats on both sides of the ball (offensively & defensively), and Wizards’ fans can be assured that, subject to this core staying healthy and together they have a legitimate chance at going deep into the Playoffs.

Wall has had a ton of reasons to complain. He has not this far. It is not his style. However, with this core in place, he has no more reasons. More importantly, he recognizes the moment. Stepping up to the challenge he is dishing out the ball at a career high 10.5 assists per game, second only to James Harden, while also stepping up his commitment on defense to steal the ball 2.2 times per game, second to league leading Chris Paul. He is also averaging a career highs in 23.0 PPG while shooting a solid 45.4% from the field.

Everything seems to be clicking at the time of this article. Washington are the second best team in 2017 with a 16-5 record (two losses more than the Golden State Warriors who also have 16 wins). They are in the top-10 in nearly every offensive and defensive category, and have quietly climbed into the third spot in the Eastern Conference.

The ball is now in John Wall’s court. Can he disrupt the NBA’s pecking order?

Does NBA Champion, King Lebron James, Really Need A Floor General For The Cavaliers

This article was originally published in The Field at scroll.in on February 7, 2017 

“We’re not better than last year, We need a f***ing playmaker”

LeBron James was in no mood to hold back. The Cleveland Cavaliers had just lost the fifth of their last seven games, the latest loss coming to a short-handed New Orleans Pelicans team that sat out All-Star starter, and the league’s second leading scorer Anthony Davis, due to an injury.

The spate of losses included a 35-point drubbing at the hands of their 2016 NBA Finals rivals, the Warriors, and a narrow overtime 118-115 loss against the San Antonio Spurs, a potential 2017 NBA Finals rival.

LeBron’s words sparked off NBA Hall-Of-Famer and TNT talking head Charles Barkley who questioned James’ competitiveness. “He is an amazing player. He’s the best player in the world. They’re the defending champs. Does he want all of the good players? He don’t wanna compete?”

To cut a long story short, LeBron responded by questioning Barkley’s credibility and brought up Barkley’s spotty past. Barkley stuck by his words, and we are left with the question, does the King need a floor general?

Well, like coins, arguments have two sides as well. So, let us break it down.

LeBron’s wishes have been granted
Ever since his return to Cleveland, the management have made clear this is James’s team. After all, this was a two-time NBA Champion and the world’s best basketball player. They gave him the keys to personnel decisions and went about work immediately. In a letter announcing his return to his hometown, he conspicuously left out both Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett (both No. 1 picks for Cleveland) further fueling the speculation that he wanted Kevin Love on the Cavaliers. The Wiggins-Love deal went through and James now had his super team.

Injuries in the postseason to both Kevin Love (shoulder) and Kyrie Irving (ankle) derailed their Championship hopes in their first season. James became a one man wrecking machine in the Finals (after Irving went down) and single-handedly held off the Warriors, before falling to them in six games.

Play
The following season drama ensued. Despite assurances that he was returning, James took some time to sign on the dotted line. Remember, James had only signed a one year contract upon returning to the Cavaliers. This time he held out for Tristan Thompson, a ferocious rebounder and one of the longest serving players on the Cavalier roster, who not only is very close with James, but also shares an agent with him. LeBron broke his silence on the issue through an Instagram post that kicked the organisation into to gear signing Thompson to an $82 million-5 year deal, which was a bit short of the $94 million max-deal he was expecting. Once assured that Thompson was a done deal, James inked his own $47 million-2 year deal with an option to opt out after the first year.

Fast forward through the historic 2015-‘16 season, which ended with the Cavaliers pulling off one off the greatest feats in the history of sport, coming back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals to topple the record-breaking 73-9 Golden State Warriors.

Then last offseason, there was drama again. James first opted out of his contract, only to re-sign the dotted line of a $100 million-3 year contract. Then, he continued to publicly call-put and pushed the Cavaliers to re-sign JR. Smith. The Cavaliers front office finally relented and offered a $57 million four year deal to Smith. James then also nudged the Cavs in the direction of restricted free-agent Mike Dunleavy, who the Cavaliers traded for. The trade also carried speculation that James asked for the trade on behalf of one of his closest friends Dwyane Wade, whose move to Chicago would not have happened had the Chicago Bulls not traded away Dunleavy’s contract.

So if you are keeping score at home, James got, Kyrie Irving (a result of the Cavaliers abysmal season after James left for Miami), Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, JR Smith and Mike Dunleavy, all while assembling one of the most expensive rosters in the history of the NBA.

And he still wants more
Well, here is why LeBron (and the Cavaliers) need a (at least one) point guard.

At 32, and nearly 1,250 NBA games on his legs, James is averaging a beastly 37.5 minutes per game. Only Kyle Lowry (league leader at 37.7 mpg) comes close at age 30 and even he only about 750 games on his legs. Every other player in the top-50 of minutes played per game this season, is either much younger (average age of the other 49 being just 25.5 yrs) or are James’s age (Carmelo Anthony and Marcin Gortat) but are not remotely as burdened with carrying a team as he is.

The play on court does not paint a rosy picture either. With the departure of Matthew Delladova and the untimely injury to JR Smith, the Cavaliers have a gaping hole at the point guard position. Even Kyrie Irving, while traditionally a point guard, thrives off the ball, and is best when creating his own shot, something he is born to do. That leaves James to not only handle the ball, but to also create his own shot and run the offense the entire game. Add to this his defensive responsibilities, and James is keeping the Cavaliers’ playoff hopes alive almost single-handedly.

James is desperate to make that run at the Championship again. He is in his absolute prime, has not lost a step and has thankfully remained free of grievous injury so far. This makes his frustration even more valid, considering another untimely injury to any one of their big three (love is already sitting out games with back spasms) and the season is over.

Kyle Korver, as incredible as he is, is not the answer. And while, getting a point guard is not going to shield them from the inevitability of a lost season in case of an injury to one of their Big Three, it definitely gives James a fighting chance. That is all that he is asking for. Remember, this is the best basketball player on the planet, someone who single handedly held off the Warriors in an epic six game battle in the 2015 NBA Finals.

It’s clear what the Cavaliers need to do if they want to repeat, give James his fourth ring, and once again create history in sport and for the city of Cleveland. And in case it is not clear, James has already dropped them an expletive-laden hint.