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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the junior schools help

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lack of a committed development approach

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

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

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

The balance between development and marketing

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

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

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

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

Image credit: NBA India
Image credit: NBA India

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

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

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

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

Not too well.

What NBA India is trying to do differently?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Till then, we wait and watch.

The Others: Predictions On NBA Awards Not Named MVP

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

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

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

Then there are the other awards.

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

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

Here are my picks for the awards:

Executive of the Year: Bob Myers, Golden State Warriors

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

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

But.

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

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

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

Rookie of the Year: Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks

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

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

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

Most Improved Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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

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

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

Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

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

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

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

Sixth Man of the Year: Eric Gordon, Houston Rockets

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

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

Coach of the Year: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs

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

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

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

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

Shaquille O’Neal Immortalized By The Los Angeles Lakers

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

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

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

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

Once-in-a-generation abilities

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

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

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

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

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

Optimist or pessimist?

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

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

I wholeheartedly subscribe to the above school of thought.

But.

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

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

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

There Will Never Be Another Dirk Nowitzki

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

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

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

And then there were six.

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

The ones that have done it before him?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,

Karl Malone,

Michael Jordan,

Kobe Bryant, and

Wilt Chamberlain.

Not bad company.

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

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

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

Dirk had two such moments.

The 2006-‘07 season

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

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

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

The 2010-‘11 season

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

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

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

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

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

The purest scorer

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

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

And Dirk Nowitzki is the purest scorer of them all.

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

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

There will never be another Dirk Nowitzki

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

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

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

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

See the pattern?

Yes, I am going there…

There will never be another Dirk Nowitzki.

Can Vivek Ranadive Competently Rebuild Sacramento Kings From Here?

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

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

Group Purple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Group Yellow

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

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

Let us run those questions again:

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

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

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

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

From the frying pan into the fire?

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

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

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

But he did not deliver on much else.

A series of questionable decisions

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

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

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

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

Among the most lopsided deals in NBA history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Numbers. They matter.

Thirteen.

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

Twelve.

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

Eleven.

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

Ten.

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

Nine.

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

Eight.

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

Seven.

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

Six.

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

Five.

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

Four.

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

Three.

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

Two.

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

One.

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

Zero.

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

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

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

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

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

Only time will tell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

No man’s land

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

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

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

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

Washington’s one true wizard: John Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.