The San Antonio Spurs’ (Quiet) Pursuit Of A Sixth NBA Championship

This article was originally published in The Field at scroll.in on February 2, 2017.

This happens every season.

The San Antonio Spurs are dismissed from the playoff picture every single season. Either they are too old (2009-2013), or too devastated (2013-‘14).

This season they ought to have been both old and devastated. They brought on an aging Pau Gasol to pair with a sluggish LaMarcus Aldridge, when the league is moving towards lighter, faster, more dynamic offense. They have three key players well into their 40s. And the biggest change of all; they lost Tim Duncan, the greatest power forward in NBA history, to retirement.

Fans would have understood if the Spurs did not do what they always do, quietly dominate the season and make a deep run into the playoffs. After all, despite Leonard’s brilliance, the Spurs did not look like a playoff bound team on paper.

Luckily for them basketball is not played on paper.

The Spurs greatness is the reason why they get taken for granted; people either expect them to be there in the playoff mix, or forgive them for any dip in performance because, well, they (Spurs) are old (and devastated).

For Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, this is routine. The Spurs are a machine that just keeps on going.

A machine that just keeps on going

Take for instance this season.

They have the second best record in the league at 37-11, four games behind the Golden State Warriors (41-7), and the second best road record at 20-5 behind, well, the Golden State Warriors.

They lead the league in three-point field-goal percentage (3P%), with 41% and have the second best field-goal percentage (FG%) at 48%.

Defensively, they hold opponents to 99.2 PPG, second to the Utah Jazz, and rank among the top ten in Opponent FG% (44%, 6th) and Opponent 3P% (34%, 2nd).

In addition to featuring in the top ten in nearly every meaningful statistical category.

More importantly though they are 17-6 against teams that are playoff bound (as off the time of this article), second to the Warriors who are 17-4.

Okay, pause.

Considering all these numbers indicate they are second best to the blazing Warriors, are the Spurs legit title contenders?

So are they really title contenders?

That is where it gets tricky.

Long answer: No, they are not. They go ten deep, which sufficient in the regular season, but the talent to hold off better teams drops off significantly after their starting five. Other title contenders have kept their core intact over multiple seasons, the Spurs have to contend with a roster that is still earning their playoff chops. They have also finished a whopping 16 games with a score differential of five or less (9-7 record) leading all five legit title contenders. That’s dangerous territory in the postseason.

Defensively, their most used and successful lineup features both Gasol and Aldridge who are mediocre at switching on defence, a big drawback when playing a seven game series against longer, quicker, more versatile teams. The Warriors and the Cavaliers, both, have at least two (if not three) high scoring stars. The Spurs do have Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, two elite defenders to cover up for any defensive shortfall on the part of their frontcourt. However, Leonard is now is tasked with the responsibility of carrying the Spurs offensively as well, something that is bound to take a marginal toll on this defence.

Short Answer: Yes. They have Gregg Popovich. And they are the San Antonio Spurs. Do you even remember the last time they were not a contender? Thought so.

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.”

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

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

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

To be precise, there were not any.

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

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

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

And they are clicking like never before.

A brand new team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just ask Charles Barkley.

The Grizzlies Mockery Their Injury Troubles, Piling On The Wins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, there is their defence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And make no mistake, Giannis Antetokounmpo came to play.

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

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

The rise of the Bucks

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

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

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

But what does all this have to do with Antetokounmpo?

‘The Greek Freak’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hinkie’s process bears fruit after his exit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are The Rockets Set To Take Off In The NBA?: Harden And Houston Having Fun

This article originally appeared on The Field at scroll.in on November 19, 2016

This is the most fun Houston Rockets’ James Harden has had in years. Even by his admission.

“I’ve been having fun all year, even in games we lose,” the NBA’s assist leader said in a blowout 126-109 win over the Portland Trailblazers. “This is a special group of guys, coaching staff included, and this locker room is definitely enjoying this ride right now.”

And what a ride it has been.

Harden, the eight-year veteran, picked third by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2009 Draft, is carving up NBA defences, doing so effectively and, more importantly, efficiently. Averaging a near triple-double, Harden’s 28.5 points per game, 8.2 rebounds per game and 12.5 assists per game make him an even bigger all-round offensive threat, with NBA teams unable to figure out how to contain him when he’s firing on all cylinders.

Those rebounding and assists numbers are career highs by some margin*, yet have barely eaten into his offensive efficiency as he continues to score the ball at a near career-high* while shooting 47% from the field and 37% from three-point land, both career highs for Harden as a Houston player.

Things were not this rosy as recently as eight months ago.

After barely scraping through into the 2016 Playoffs**, the Rockets were pitted against a historic Golden State Warriors team, that would have swept them, if not for a game winning three pointer in Game 3 at Houston by none other than, well, James Harden.

That Houston made the 2016 Playoffs, was in itself a surprise. Discord plagued the team’s locker rooms right from the start of the season as the Rockets began with a dismal 4-7 record***. Harden, the 2015 NBA Most Valuable Player runner-up, showed up for the season disinterested, his fitness (or lack thereof) and body language, making that message loud and clear. Dwight Howard, brought in to be the cornerstone of a dynasty that Rockets’ General Manager Daryl Morey was trying to build, did not help matters as he too played accomplice to the lethargy of the Rockets’ star. The organisation reacted by firing Kevin McHale and replacing him with J.B. Bickerstaff, the former assistant coach.

That move rejuvenated Harden, who went on to post career highs in nearly all categories, and the rest of the team. They still struggled during the season, finding their groove in spurts, but eventually stumbled over the Playoffs finish line.

The Mike D’Antoni masterstroke

It was, however, in the summer of 2016 that Morey did his best work as Rockets GM this far. Recognising the offensive force that Harden is, Morey decided to switch directions and create an offensive powerhouse in Houston. In addition to locking up Harden with a four-year, $118 million contract, he snagged Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, two prolific scorers capable of dropping 30 on a given night. But the master stoke was hiring Michael. That is Mike D’Antoni for the uninitiated.

One of the greatest offensive masterminds to walk the sidelines, D’Antoni’s penchant for quick possessions and blistering offense makes the Rockets the perfect team for him.

D’Antoni’s check list:

  • Highly skilled offensive wingmen – 2. Check.
  • Aggressive big men to set screens and crash the board – 2. Check.
  • Reliable and Effective bench guys – 3 to 4. Check.
  • All-Star Point Guard to spearhead the offensive juggernaut – 1. Double check.

And that’s why this is working.

Offensively, the Rockets feature in the top 10 in nearly every category. They are scoring 108.9 points a game (fourth in the NBA), are shooting 46.4% from the field (fourth) and 37.4% from deep (fifth), and, thanks to Harden’s new found confidence in running an offense, 60.8 % of their baskets have come from assists, good for seventh in the league. More importantly, they have achieved all this with a +/- efficiency of 3.8 (10th).

A mild cause for worry would be their pace (possessions per 48 minutes), which at 99.77 puts the Rockets at just above the middle of the pack ranked at 13th.

Then, there is the Rockets’ defence.

Defensively, the Rockets are still below average. It does not help that the team let go of Howard, brought on two wingmen (Gordon and Anderson) who are not exactly known for their defensive abilities, and a coach who heavily favours the “offence is our defence” strategy.

Trevor Ariza’s 2.3 steals per game (fourth in the NBA) and Clint Capela’s 1.8 blocks per game (11th) keep the Rockets somewhat honest on defence. However, the team can barely hold its opponents to 105 points per game (17th), and gets scorched for 45.4 % from the field (20th).

There is some hope.

Defensive specialist, Patrick Beverly is back and suited up against the Portland Trail Blazers. That should take care of any defensive slack on the second unit. And although he is on the wrong side of 30, the Rockets will take any defensive intensity that veteran Nene brings to the team.

It is important to remember that, the Rockets’ still have to gel as a seamless unit to ensure a smoother flow on offence and better communication on defence. That responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of Mike D’Antoni, and one of the most prolific offensive guards the NBA has ever seen, Harden.

At least, this time around he is having fun.

*His previous career highs: 29.0 ppg, 7.5 apg and 6.1 rpg (2015-16)

**Houston and Utah were tied for a playoff spot up until their last regular season game

***Fresh off a 56-win 2014-15 season, and taking care of both Dallas (4-1) and LA (4-3) before falling to the eventual champions, Warriors (4-1).

When The Cubs Become Wolves: Minnesota’s Rise In The NBA

This article originally appeared on The Field at scroll.in on November 13, 2016

“This is a unique opportunity for us to go for the championship again. Not for one year. Not for two years. But over many years if we can put this together right”: Glen Taylor, owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

If.

Things are not right just yet.

This past summer, while other teams were in the hunt for a meeting with Kevin Durant, or maybe even Al Horford, the Timberwolves shook things up by strengthening their sidelines. Taylor dished out a whopping $10 million to lock up Tom Thibodeau as Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations. The move, he believed, could lead them to the Promised Land, an NBA Championship, especially with the incredibly young but exceptionally talented roster they put together.

Karl-Anthony Towns has three double-doubles this season and has breached the 30 point mark twice (32 vs Denver and 33 vs Oklahoma City) this season. His decision making ability has matured, as he moves the ball around at 2.9 assists per game and is shooting 52% from the field. He has also added range, lighting it up at an unreal 44% from beyond the arc.

Andrew Wiggins, with the exception of the outing against Oklahoma City, is averaging 24 points a game while shooting a blistering league-leading 64% from beyond the arc, and doing everything right this season to hit the All-Star All-NBA ceiling that both experts and NBA personnel have raised for him, well in time.

Minnesota is ranked fourth in offensive rating and are scoring nearly 107 points a game (ranked 11th). They lead the league in 3-pt percentage (41%) and shooting 46% from the field. On the flipside, they rank 19th in defensive rating with opponents dropping 104 points per game against them (ranked 17th). They have a -1.9 plus-minus rating and, most worrying of all, are allowing opponents to shoot 47% from the field, nearly tying them with Indiana’s league-worst record.

Therein lies the problem. And the confusion.

The inexperience is hurting

Tom Thibodeau, the defensive savant who relied on airtight defence to help Boston to its first championship in 22 years and who made the Bulls relevant again, has not been able to get his young core to buy into his defensive philosophies.

This should not have been hard at all. After all, as President of Basketball Operations, Thobideau assembled the roster to suit his vision. With all the length and versatility they possess, and nearly every player on their roster capable of switching defensive assignments with relative ease, turning the Timberwolves into a defensive juggernaut should have been easier.

Not that this glaring failure is lost on Thibs.

“Unless we correct the defensive end, it’s going to be a struggle,” he said in a 110-119 loss against the Nets. “That has to become a priority by everyone, otherwise nothing positive is going to happen.”

So what is the problem? Well, experience. Or rather the lack of it.

Minnesota’s most used line up of GorguiDieng/Kris Dunn/Zach LaVine/Towns/Wiggins, does not feature a player who has played more than three seasons. Switch Dunn for Ricky Rubio (who is struggling this season, both with numbers and injuries) and you still have a five-year veteran at best.

Not only does this manifest itself on the defensive end, but also on the offensive end. Minnesota averages just 19.7 points in the third quarter. That average was helped greatly by the 35 points they put up against an underhanded Memphis team, the only third quarter battle they have won this season.

“The third quarter is haunting us right now,” Wiggins said after a narrow 99-102 loss against Denver.

Nikola Pekovic, their most reliable veteran who is out for the season, is sadly, not the answer. While Dieng does not bring the quality that Pekovic does, he is not a pushover. He is averaging career highs in every category, and whatever he leaves off the table can be chalked up to Towns’ and Wiggins’ stats column.

To be fair, we are seven games into the season. And save for Denver, Milwaukee and (maybe) the Sixers, no other team has a better young nucleus to build upon for the future. League veterans know the dearth of teams with young legs and eager hearts to carry them to a ring, and also know the toughness and experience that Coach Thibodeau brings.

All that is needed is to turn some of the chips that Minnesota has, into a couple of reliable battle-tested veterans that help this immensely talented roster to stand their ground in tough game situations.

Safe to say, Thibodeau is not done, and if the management manages to keep the core of Wiggins/Towns intact, the Timberwolves are not way off to becoming the title contenders Taylor said they would.