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)

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.

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.

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.

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

The Mighty Warriors Will Be Just Fine

This article originally appeared in The Field at scroll.in on October 29,2016.

It’s understandable. Folks are worried. No one said this was going to be pretty.

The Golden State Warriors are 4-1 in their last five games since imploding in Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals against eventual NBA Champions the Cleveland Cavaliers (No, the pre-season does not count). This would have been just another story, except that the 2015 NBA Champion Warriors were coming off an NBA record 73 regular season wins and rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the Western Conference Finals against Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder.

Yes, the same Kevin Durant who, weeks later, signed on the dotted line to fortify the Warriors’ front line.

Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Kevin Durant and Zaza Pachulia.

Now that is an enviable frontline. Question is, who holds the fort in the second unit?

There isn’t an argument about upgrading a slipping Harrison Barnes with one of the purest scorers the NBA has ever seen in Kevin Durant; and while Zaza isn’t as polished an offensive presence as Andrew Bogut, he doesn’t take anything off the table. Where the Warriors failed, and miserably so, is the inability to assemble a second unit that took care of business while the starters rested.

Shaun Livingston and Andre Igoudala are the only two bench players of any significance that remained in Golden State once the summer frenzy died down. Gone is veteran leader Leandro Barbosa and his playoff chops. Gone is the hustler and rim protector in Festus Ezeli. Gone is the enforcer and floor spacing of Mareesse Speights. More importantly though, gone is the camaraderie that held that championship winning, record breaking core together.

The modern NBA game has spread out even more

The pace and space era is putting more miles on NBA players. NBA coaches now spread out and stagger their stars’ regular season minutes, saving their legs for the playoffs. This shift places greater emphasis on second units that can stand their ground while the starters catch their breath.

Golden State has a unique problem. They have a loaded first unit. Extremely loaded.

Although their bench got drubbed (they were outscored 54-16) against the Spurs, Kerr has enough firepower between Durant-Curry-Thompson-Green to ensure at least one, if not two, All-Stars are on the floor all the time. This may not work in the playoffs, when firing on all cylinders (or All Stars) becomes crucial. And that’s why we have the regular season.

Unlike in the English Premier League where every single game matters in a 38 game season decided on wins / losses / points, the NBA’s regular season games, while critical for that coveted playoff seed, are a playground for coaches to figure what works and what doesn’t, until things get real in during the playoffs.

This is an ever so slight deviation from our high expectations of the 2016-‘17 season for Warriors. Golden State will be just fine. They have two former NBA Most Valuable Players in Durant and Curry, the NBA’s third best two-way player in Thompson (behind LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard), and the NBA’s most versatile player Draymond Green. Most importantly they have a student to two of NBA’s greatest coaching minds, Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich, calling the shots: Steve Kerr.

If you still are worried, go ahead and find solace in this video of Durant’s shoot around on Thursday night as he was preparing to face the Pelicans. He sums up the Spurs’ loss it best: “It’s one game of 82 and you f***ing guys make me feel like the world’s going to end.”

Here’s Why Kevin Durant Isn’t Going Anywhere

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Not going anywhere. (Bart Young / NBAE / Getty Images)

For the past three weeks, the internet is abuzz with stories floating on the speculative nature of Kevin Durant’s impending summer. Rumors range from just plain I-need-to-submit-a-column silly (and admittedly implausible) Durant to the Nets, to the wishful Lakers scenario which was promptly stripped of its legs here and dismissed here, and feel good ideas of Durant playing with longtime USA Basketball colleague Anthony in NYC or even returning home to Washington.

Before we move on, KD addressed free agency at his media availability during the NBA All Star Weekend here. “I want to finish this thing out with my team. I think we got a really good thing going right now”

The biggest, most stupid, and atrociously insane idea is the KD to Golden State rumor. The nightmare it seems. Oooh I’m scared! What a load of rubbish.

Now imagine this scenario. It is mid August and Warriors owner Lacob is addressing the media alongside Coach Kerr and Curry, fresh off beating the Cavaliers in a six game series for their second NBA Championship in a row, coming on the heels of a 75-7 regular season record, the best since the 95-96 Bulls 72-10 season. Lacob is addressing the media, and proceeds to say. “I really like what we have going here. We have one of the three best players in the League, the League’s best regular season record, and I’m confident of seeing ourselves repeating this year. I’m having a lot of fun. But I  need to make this better. So let me lay all rumors and assumptions to rest. Next season, we are going to sign Kevin Durant.” Stop. Hold. I cannot go on. I almost threw up in my mouth. And my fingers want to self amputate.

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“You oughta join us big guy” – said no one ever.

Remember when the Bulls wanted to sign Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway after the 95-96 season? No? Exactly my point.

I will come back to the Durant angle, so let’s look at this from the Warriors point of view. You do not need to be a basketball expert to see why any change of any sort in the makeup of this team is illogical. Hell, you don’t even have to be a basketball fan to witness the joy and fun with which this team gels together and plays the game of basketball in the most beautiful way possible. The right way. Every piece fits, Curry is transcendent as a player / teammate / leader, and through some sheer stroke of luck gets to play with the second best shooter in the league in Thompson, all the while their hybrid forward Draymond Green causes all kinds of havoc running, passing and shooting like a guard and playing center in crunch time, defending players that have anywhere between 3 – 5 inches and 10-15 pounds on him. Proof that these guys are doing it right? Despite all that talent ahead of him Igoudala, a premier D & 3 guy nevertheless, was Finals MVP in a Championship year! Barnes, drafted by Golden State, has been there from the beginning,  Bogut (despite the career low in MPG and PPG) is shooting a near career best from the field because of impeccable ball movement, Livingston has found his element showing us traces of what could’ve been had it not been for that nasty injury in ’07. Rounding off the team with Ezeli, Barbosa, Speights and occasionally Ian Clark and Brandon Rush, and you have the near perfect basketball team. So perfect, in fact, that aside from Klay and Curry, none of these players would thrive on any other NBA team the way they thrive in Golden State. Individually they may have faults, but as a team they are near perfect. Just like those 95-96 Bulls. To even suggest that there is an inkling of an intention to blow this up  by trading and / or renouncing nearly 1/4th the team to sign another alpha star, who everyone knows will not move to Golden State (more on this in a bit), is not just ridiculous, but borderline stupid. And I would completely be in support of Lacob calling a press conference with Kerr by his side and the team at his elbows, telling the world where exactly they can put this Durant to Warriors idea. Hint: It is a dark dark place.

But I digress.

Anyone who has followed Durant’s career, even fleetingly so, knows he is exceedingly loyal. To a fault.:

Flashback to 1995. After reeling off  three back to back 50+ wins regular seasons, the latter two of which ended in an NBA Finals loss to the Houston Rockets (’95) and a loss to eventual NBA Champions the Chicago Bulls (’96), Shaquille O’Neal had two choices. Stay on and continue to build on his legacy in Orlando, or move to L.A. to start afresh with the Lakers and young high school phenom, Kobe Bryant.

Flashback to 2010.  After reeling off two back to back 60+ wins regular season records both ending in losses to eventual NBA Finalists the Orlando Magic (’09) and the Boston Celtics (’10), Lebron James had two choices. Stay on in Cleveland and continue build on his legacy in Cleveland, or move to Miami to form the Big Three there by increasing his odds of winning an NBA Championship.

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The (unfulfilled) Legacy.

Flashback 2012. After reeling off three 45+ wins regular season records seasons where they went deeper in the playoffs every year, eventually losing to NBA Champions Miami Heat, Kevin Durant had two choices, stay on in OKC and continue to build on his legacy in OKC despite losing one of his closest friends and one of the OKC big three James Harden in one of the worst deals in NBA history, or force a trade to a better situation on any team he wanted. Literally, any team.

We all know what happened in each of the three situations. Lebron scooted to Miami and reeled off two championships in four years, Shaq moved to the Lakers and won three championships.

Durant? Well, Durant stayed loyal and stayed put, fighting his way till this very day all the while carrying the burden of terrible management decisions year-on-year. Now yes, pundits will argue, and I will agree that Lebron and Shaq were free agents, and Durant had just signed his first max contract post his rookie contract. But to dismiss the fact that Durant could’ve thrown a “superstar tantrum” and forced his way out of OKC, considering that the OKC management did not know what it was doing as evidenced by the Harden fiasco, is being naive. Instead, Durant chose to stick by his team and his running mate Westbrook, who felt just as let down in the Harden fiasco.

Fast forward to 2016, the Thunder have the third best record in the league, behind the Warriors and the Spurs who are boasting historically great runs, and finally have a team where the pieces fit.

Ibaka has gotten better with each passing year, Kanter is turning out to be better than expected, and the usual suspects in Adams, Payne and Morrow are doing their bit.

FILE - In this March 8, 2015, file photo, injured Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant, left, pumps his fist as teammates Enes Kanter, center, and Steven Adams, right, cheer during the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Toronto Raptors in Oklahoma City. Durant will have bone graft surgery next week to deal with a fractured bone in his right foot, and he will miss the rest of the season, the Oklahoma City Thunder announced Friday, March 27, 2015.  (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)
The pieces are there (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

But the most important bit is, no matter who they are matched up against in the playoffs, they will have two if the three best players in that series. Simply put, do you really want to meet OKC in a Game 7, when they have two of the three best players in the series suiting up for them? Didn’t think so.

There are a bunch articles explaining why KD renewing for year makes the most financial sense for him. But I don’t believe its about money for KD. This is about chasing a legacy that very few players can boast off…winning a championship with the team that drafted you. And that is what, I believe, KD cares about the most.