Basketball Roundup – A Very Cool Pass and Beating The Warriors

A Very Cool Pass

The Los Angeles Clippers spent the earliest part of their summer watching Chris Paul leave for the Houston Rockets. This is a problem, as Chris Paul is really, really, really, good. Replacing him will be next to impossible and anybody expecting the team not to suffer for his absence is deluding themselves. That said, the Clippers did add Milos Teodosic, a 30-year-old Serbian point guard who apparently does stuff like this:

So, yes, not having Chris Paul is a bummer, and yes, the Clippers will be worse off without him, but if they start piling up incredibly fun assists like this one, they will be worth checking out. Because incredibly fun assists are cool, and if this tiny website is about nothing else, it is about the celebration of cool things happening on basketball courts.

Beating The Golden State Warriors

On yesterday’s Lowe Post Podcast – a very good, albeit very dry, podcast – Zach Lowe and Jeff Van Gundy discussed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s offseason moves. Those moves saw the team adding a superstar (Paul George), a star (Carmelo Anthony), and quality-ish roleplayers (Patrick Paterson, Raymond Felton). It also saw the team moving away from its attempt to offensively-rebound its opponents into the ground.

Previous iterations of the Thunder had seen the team simply try to overwhelm opponents with size. This included having Kevin Durant, but also Steven Adams and Enes Kanter, two players who were simply bigger and better rebounders than the frontlines they were going up against. The idea was that the team was gonna shoot a lot, and use its offensive rebounding to get itself more shots. This was very interesting in a modern NBA that tends to eschew offensive rebounding, and it damn near worked against the Golden State Warriors in the 2015-2016 playoffs. Although the Thunder ended up losing that series, after having been up 3-1, the team still showed a way forward for beating the seemingly unbeatable Warriors.

But then Durant signed with Golden State, and Oklahoma City’s strategy was forced to change. It is one thing when one of team’s three seven-footers is also among the game’s greatest ever scoring machines; it is quite another when defenses no longer have to worry about containing a player of Durant’s pedigree. Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook won an MVP last season averaging a triple-double, but the team had nothing in the playoffs. So the team has rebuilt in an attempt to get Westbrook the help that he needs.

Which leads us back to Lowe’s and Van Gundy’s analysis, which looked at everything Oklahoma City Thunder did in the offseason and concluded, “Yeah, but will it really be enough to beat the Golden State Warriors?” Van Gundy was more positive on this possibility than Lowe was, ultimately suggesting that Oklahoma’s roster moves could at least make the Thunder more competitive, but even he ultimately decided that Golden State would still win.

Which, great, yes, Golden State would still win, mostly because Golden State is currently one of the greatest basketball teams ever assembled, full-stop, bar-none. But if all basketball analysis is going to begin and end with, “Will this be enough to beat Golden State?” then what is the point of basketball analysis exactly? Because anybody is capable of answering that question, and answering it quickly too: no, nothing currently will be enough to beat a healthy team comprised of Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green.

It should be noted that this criticism should be understood to be general, and not specific to Lowe and/or Van Gundy. Lots of analysts seem to genuinely believe that the only thing worth discussing is whether or not the Golden State Warriors can be beaten in the playoffs, as if nothing else matters. But basketball isn’t only played to win championships, and a team’s ability to be worth watching isn’t pegged to its ability to beat one of the greatest teams the league has ever seen.

The OKC Thunder have added considerable talent around their MVP, and they will be a fascinating team to watch play basketball. They are beginning a new strategic era, and they have a genuine chance to challenge both the Houston Rockets and the San Antonio Spurs for second in the Western Conference. There is plenty to talk about without focusing on what is going to happen nine months from now.

Because there is more to basketball than what happens in the playoffs after all. So here’s hoping basketball’s talkers adjust accordingly, and stop worrying about what it will take to beat the Golden State Warriors, and start worrying instead about what will make the game worth watching, what will make it interesting, and what will make it compelling. Dismissing everything because it ultimately won’t be enough to be Golden State is none of that.

Golden State Warriors, Basketball’s Dirtiest Team, Marches To NBA Finals

The Golden State Warriors finished off their 4-4-4 last night, sweeping the San Antonio Spurs after having swept away the Utah Jazz and the Portland Trailblazers. The initially interesting series turned into a laugher after Zaza Pachulia, a big man that Golden State picked up for cheap in the off-season, intentionally injured Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio’s best player, and the only player capable of keeping an otherwise aging Spurs team competitive.

That play was as ugly a thing as it is possible to imagine:

Leonard, who had unexpectedly lead San Antonio to what was then a 21-point lead in the series’s first game, went up for a jumper. Pachulia slid over to contest the shot and then took one final bunny hop, sliding his left foot underneath the returning-to-earth Leonard. As was Pachulia’s intention, Leonard landed on that left foot, badly twisting an already injured ankle. Leonard ended up missing the rest of the series, and whatever competitiveness had potentially existed evaporated. Onward march the Warriors.

The lingering question is one of Pachulia’s intent, and the defenses of him accounted for this, essentially arguing that the step-under simply that it was an unfortunate accident resulting in a terrible outcome. There were those disinterested in issues of intent though. Gregg Popovich famously described Pachulia’s play in the following way, “Who gives a damn about what his intent was? You ever hear of manslaughter?” Popovich was focused on the outcome, obviously, as he was left helplessly watching his team’s only chance writhing around on the floor.

Here’s the thing about though: Pachulia intentionally injured Leonard. There’s simply no denying this. Watch the above video again. The stepback is unmistakeable. That Pachulia has a very long history of doing precisely these sorts of things should also be taken into account. Hell, Pachulia has a history of intentionally trying to injure Kawhi Leonard.

Pachulia has inexplicably asked for sympathy in all of this, claiming that fans have threatened his family after he intentionally injured Leonard. (It should go without saying that fans should not do this sort of thing, but it should also go without saying that intentionally injuring another team’s best player does tend to result in angry fanbases.)

In a juster world, and regardless of intent, San Antonio would have exacted a price from Golden State for that team’s blatant headhunting. Golden State’s best players would have been hit repeatedly, cheaply or otherwise, until one of them was knocked out for a game, or a series, or the rest of the Finals. That would have been the fair outcome. The worst that the Warriors’ endured was Dewayne Dedmon appearing to go into Steph Curry’s knee:

Golden State’s fans don’t want to be seen as cheering for a dirty team. Few fans do – although these sorts of people are out there, and they wear their team’s dirty play like a badge of honor – and so they were ecstatic to find the Dedmon video embedded above. It was their absolution and it wasn’t hard to find Warriors fans using the Dedmon video as an implied justification for what Pachulia had done. “See, SEE!” these fans screamed. “The Spurs are JUST as dirty!” This was a narrative that the Warriors themselves were also happy to glom onto. Here’s Steph Curry calling the Dedmon’s play dirty.

Let’s ignore that to see this Dedmon’s play in its very worst form requires watching it in super-slow motion. Let’s also ignore that the play being referenced here didn’t knock Steph Curry out for the playoffs, the Western Conference Finals, or even the game. Hell, let’s even ignore that Dedmon’s alleged targeting didn’t go after one of Curry’s known weaknesses: his ankles. Let’s take a super-slow motion video at face value, and also accept Curry’s explanation of it, and also ignore that it wasn’t targeted toward one of Curry’s weaknesses. What then?

Hold onto that answer, because it is also worth noting that Golden State fans also pointed to Bruce Bowen, a long-time Spur known for his dirty play. He was the player who famously perfected the art of the “closeout,” the nice name for stepping underneath a landing player, risking that player’s health. The Spurs defended Bowen’s play after all; how could they possibly object to Pachulia’s?

In response to one of the dirtiest plays in the NBA’s recent history, we have Golden State (both the team and its fans) doing everything imaginable to deflect attention away from the Pachulia’s play. “But he didn’t mean to do it!” and “But Pachulia’s family was threatened!” and “But Dedmon went after our guy!” and “But Popovich previously defended his own player!” are all great attempts at deflection, but none deal substantively with the heart of the matter: that Golden State targeted their opponent’s best-player and, upon achieving their desired outcome (his injury), then put their hands up as if to say, “But we’re innocent!”

They’re not innocent though. They’re a team that played very dirty to win, and no matter the Finals outcome, that should never be forgotten. What was once a team that won with the beauty of its basketball is now a team that wins playing the dirtiest game imaginable, all while having the outright audacity to demand that everybody look at anything else instead.

 

 

Freaking Millenials

Several years ago, my father had a very mild heart attack. The doctors asked if he had a family history of heart trouble. He replied in the following way, “No, I don’t think so. I mean, my father had a heart attack, but he smoked, and his brother had a heart attack, and his father had a heart attack, and my great-uncle had a heart attack,” and while he was continuing to list every single male family member of his who had, in fact, had a heart attack, the doctors were turning to look at me.

“You’re next,” they said, which was worrisome.

As a result, I have continued to stay…well…passionate isn’t exactly the word…involved in my own health. I go a gym M-F and try to stay active on weekends. My father goes to the same gym – after a triple-bypass, he is likely healthier now than he was before the very mild heart attack.

Anyway, this is a gym at the local university, and it is staffed by both faculty and students. The students are young(er) (than me) which is by itself a criminal act but they are very nice and very helpful and I like going there very much.

Today, I went in wearing an NBA shirt that I happen to own and my student helper asked me, “Hey, are you a Clippers fan?” I said no, but that I loved basketball. “I only asked because I’m from California. I’m a Warriors fan!”

He was understandably very excited about his team. Any Warriors fan should be. The Warriors are great, even if they did blow a 3-1 lead in last year’s NBA Finals. I said as much to him. He said, “We didn’t have much to celebrate before that.”

I said, “Well, that’s true. You did have the Run TMC team, which was one of the all-time great What-If teams, but you’re too young for that, but you also had the Baron Davis Dunk and the Mavericks upset. That must have been pretty cool?”

This is the Baron Davis Dunk:

It is one of the greatest dunks in NBA history. It includes all of the following: an awesome dunk, over an awesome defender, in a playoff environment, in front of what was arguably the most-hyped NBA fanbase ever, with an announcer’s perfect call.

That dunk came after the greatest upset in NBA history.

This one:

Here is more about that upset.

His response to me having cited two of the greatest things about the Golden State Warriors? “Nah man, I don’t really remember any of that.”

So I killed him for being aggressively, unacceptably young.

Two 2nd Round Draft Picks Each Get Historic Triple-Doubles

The rarest players are the ones whose transition to the NBA is a sure thing. Shaquille O’Neal was a sure thing. Tim Duncan was a sure thing. LeBron James was a sure thing. The overwhelming majority of most basketball players are not sure things.

This is part of what makes basketball such an incredible sport. Players who excelled at previous levels can flame out spectacularly at the game’s highest level; players who merely whelmed at previous levels can become literal phoenixes. Within the last week, we have received two remarkable reminders of this second phenomenon.

Draymond Green

Does Green famously kick his opponents in the testicles? Yes. Is Green arguably the most important piece in Golden State’s juggernaut? Also, yes.

But unlike Kevin Durant (2nd overall pick), Steph Curry (7th overall pick), and Klay Thompson (11th overall pick), Green was selected 35th overall. Scouting didn’t see his rise, arguing that he compared favorably to players like Jared Dudley and Luke Harangody. Look at this evaluation of the man:

Weaknesses: One of those great college basketball players that doesn’t excel in any one particular area … Tweener, undersized for a physical forward yet lacks the athleticism of a wing … Lacks explosiveness, agility, elusiveness and quickness off the bounce … Under the rim finisher, which is troublesome when you consider his size … Not a threat to shake his defender off the dribble … Minimal upside … Vulnerable defending quicker guards on the perimeter … Could stand to drop some weight …

Are scouts dumb? No. But they were limited in their ability to imagine what Green might be able to accomplish which, to this point, is an NBA Championship, two All-Star teams, and two runner-ups for the NBA’s Defensive Player Of The Year.

Part of what those scouts were unable to imagine is just how effective a player willing to minimize scoring can actually believe. Green proved the point Friday night, posting the NBA’s first ever triple-double that didn’t involve points. His line – a staggering 4pts/12rbs/10ast/10stl/5blk – is simply unheard of and, to boot, it was one point shy of a 5×5, one of those odd statistical anomalies that only the most multi-tooled players are capable of achieving.

If Green’s triple-double underwhelms, perhaps the only other thing worth noting is this: only one other player has ever gotten double-digits in rebounds and assists and steals, and that player was in the process of producing a quadruple-double. Needless to say, Green’s achievement was exceedingly rare.

Nikola Jokic

Jokic was drafted even later than Green – he was taken 41st overall. Draft experts talked predictably about the Serbian:

 Weaknesses: An average athlete lacking great speed and leaping ability … Foot speed is a big liability. He may struggle to stay in front of NBA athletes at the center position … Needs to improve as a post player, gain strength and develop a repertoire of back to the basket moves … Defense is a real weakness at this point due to lack of lateral speed and lack of strength. His length is a big plus, but he’ll need to continue to work on becoming stronger and learn to anticipate in order to overcome his lack of quickness … Despite being a younger guy, his upside appears limited by his lack of explosiveness and foot speed …

And again, the issue here is imagination, because Jokic achieved his own unheard of triple-double the other night. In an absolute evisceration of, oddly, Green’s Golden State Warriors, Jokic posted 17pts, 21rbs/12ast, making him the only guy who has managed do that. (If you ignore the points, his achievement is still worth celebrating, as he is also the only guy to get 12 or more assists and grab 21 or more rebounds in a single game.) To look more closely at what Jokic achieved, a broadening of the search terms to players who achieved 10pt/20reb/10ast triple-doubles reveals a predictable who’s who of great players: Charles Barkley, Chris Webber, DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Garnet, Pau Gasol, Dennis Rodman and (website favorite) Fat Lever.

Conclusion

In both cases, scouts and their teams failed to imagine a player’s maximal possibilities. This is understandable of course, especially considering how many players fail to achieve even a quarter of what Green and Jokic both have. But if their drafts were redone today, and given perfect vision, it seems quite likely that both of these players would have been top-five picks at the minimum, as both of them have proven value well beyond what was originally imagined. They have also each achieved a little bit of something that this post’s first three players never did.

For No Reason: Sleepy Floyd’s 29-Point 4th Quarter

  1. A guy named “Sleepy” going on one of the all-time hottest runs? That’s good scripting.
  2. Floyd wasn’t beating up on chumps. He single-handedly defeated one of the greatest teams of all time.
  3. The crowd is absolutely electric. (The same crowd would be just as when Klay Thompson went supernova.)
  4. Floyd went for 18/26 for 51 points. That’s great. But in the fourth quarter, he shot 13/14 for 29 points. That’s better.
  5. Here’s a write-up of the performance that better contextualizes the video, with specific attention paid to who Floyd was embarrassing.

Sports Fans Are Awful: Golden State Warriors Edition

Back in the 1990s, fully ensconced in my youth, I somehow stumbled upon reruns of a show called My So-Called Life, one of the great shows for teenagers ever made.* The show seemed like as real a representation of being a teenager that I could at the time fathom, in that it involved young people clumsily adjusting to the world around them.

Perhaps nobody was as bad at doing this as Brian, a serial dork who pined for Angela, the show’s main character. But because this was high school, Angela pined for Jordan while Brian stewed. This was standard issue high school stuff and in a lesser show, Brian would have always been a sympathetic character, forever wanting, forever without. But halfway into the season, the show introduced Delia, a new student inexplicably attracted to Brian, so much so that he asks her to the dance. But when Brian thought, incorrectly, that a chance with Angela had materialized, he abandons Delia, and we’re suddenly forced to reckon with a very obvious thing: teenagers are impossibly flawed.

This though is a website about the NBA, not about mid-1990s genre television, and for that reason, we now need to shift gears abruptly, from great television to great basketball. Enter the Golden State Warriors, owners of the league’s best record, four of the league‘s best players, an almost certainly wide-open road to a third-straight appearance in the NBA Finals, and mounting frustration at the team’s inability to have won its last four games against Cleveland Cavaliers.

Things have come to a head after a Christmas Day loss to the Cavaliers.  In that game, the Cavaliers, as they have so often done against the Warriors, came back right at the very end to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. That the win came on an absurd shot from Kyrie Irving only rubbed the salt in deeper, what with how things ended last June and the NBA, knowing damned well where its bread is buttered, released a video commemorating the whole thing:

That stings.

Suddenly, Golden State fans and media are growing restless. As a result, heaving criticisms in all directions. “The problem is Steph Curry’s defense!” versus “The problem is Kevin Durant’s inclusion!” versus “The problem is Steve Kerr’s coaching!” versus “The problem is Draymond Green’s absurdity.”

Or – and this is a completely different option than the ones discussed this far – some Golden State’s fans are losing all perspective entirely. Somehow, the team’s 2015 championship (its first since having won its one in 1975) caused these fans to forget the intervening years, ones in which every imaginable thing went wrong, and only one substantive thing went right. These are fans who witnessed their team struggle to win that 2015 championship against a badly hamstrung Cleveland team (it was a 4-2 championship that should have been a 4-0 sweep given how little Cleveland had in the tank), then watched the Warriors lose to the Cavaliers when it had its full complement of players, and somehow seemed to conclude that the Warriors were an invincible super team incapable of losing.

To be fair, it might be the case that Golden State is as close as the NBA has come in a long-time to having such an unbeatable team, but it is one with very specific (and attackable) weaknesses. Teams that can slow down the Warriors offensive juggernaut can have success against them, and Cleveland has proven, time (2015) and time (2016) and time (Christmas Day) again, that it can trade punches with the Warriors. Surely the most reactive of that team’s fans are smart enough to understand this.

Or maybe they’re not. Maybe they’re Brian Krakow, not satisfied with the attainable (the team’s already established greatness) when the unobtainable seems so tantalizingly close (literal invincibility). Maybe it makes a certain sort of sense to pursue that sort of immortality, but it is off-putting as hell to anybody watching from afar.

*My sneaking suspicion is that this show wouldn’t withstand a repeat viewing as an adult, so unlike the mistakes I made with MacGyver – that show is terrible – I steadfastly refuse to repeat the error.

Do Not Overcoach It (Klay Thompson Edition)

Klay Thompson averaged 20 points a quarter last night. He finished the third quarter with 60 points on an absolutely incendiary 21/33 shooting, including 8/14 from beyond the arc. He had only played 29 minutes to that point.

But his night was over. Steve Kerr, Thompson’s coach, benched him for the fourth quarter, presumably knowing that his team was both comfortably ahead and not in a position to risk injury to any of its Big Four. But Kerr also benched him because he is apparently an ahistorical killjoy who hates fans.

To put Thompson’s binge into proper perspective, it is worth noting that NBA players have scored 60+ points 56 times in league history. If Wilt Chamberlain’s 32 times having done it are dropped, that number drops to 24 times. By the time that list’s other big men have been excised, there were only nine guards to have ever scored 60+ points in a game before Thompson’s night last night: Allen Iverson and Gilbert Arenas (60), Tracy McGrady (62), Jerry West (63), George Gervin (63), Pete Maravich (68), Michael Jordan (69, nice), David Thompson (73), and Kobe Bryant (81).  To put Thompson’s scoring into additional perspective, Tom Haberstroh observed* that before last night’s supernova, Larry Bird’s 43 points represented the league’s scoring record in an equivalent number of played minutes.

Because Thompson had 60 points after three quarters, and because he was shooting absurdly well, it seems reasonable to believe that he had a legitimate shot at doing (considerably) more in a wide-open fourth quarter against an Indiana Pacers team that had, with all due respect, simply given upon on being competitive.

Projection is a fool’s game given the vagaries of sport. But if he had been given even half a quarter’s worth of run, Thompson might have passed McGrady, West, Gervin. If he was still hot, he might have snuck by Maravich and Jordan too. Scoring 70+ points turns Thompson – already one of the game’s greatest ever shooters – into an absolute legend. Only five players have ever scored 70+: David Robinson, Elgin Baylor, Thompson, Bryant, and Chamberlain.

And nobody anywhere is advocating that Thompson deserved the Robinson treatment. Robinson’s 71-point binge came on the day’s final season in a blatant attempt to win the 1994 scoring title, and featured a fourth quarter in which the Spurs were instructed to intentionally foul the Clippers so that Robinson could get a few more shots.

What Kerr did was deprive not only Thompson of his opportunity for immortality but deprive the game’s fans of an opportunity to witness history. It can be easily argued that Kerr does not receive a paycheck to concern himself with either – and that would be a very fair response – but on the other hand, come on. This would not have been Ricky Davis shooting on his own basket to get a triple-double; this was a player’s opportunity to approach the precipice of his own potential withering away on the bench instead.

There is obviously no fixing it now. What is done, as they say, is done. But be aware that it is unlikely that we will ever see Thompson do again what he just did. It is an absurdly rare event that factors come together in precisely the way that they did against last night, and rarer still that they involve a player in a position to fully maximize them.

*Thanks to @CK_MacLeod for providing Haberstroh’s tweet.

 

The Golden State Warriors Are Great…But?

On the NBA’s Opening Night, the Golden State Warriors rolled out their Death Star, a starting lineup packed as tightly as any in imaginable memory.

  • Steph Curry: last year’s MVP, greatest shooter of all time
  • Klay Thompson: top-five shooter of all time
  • Draymond Green a leatherman of a player whose proficiency for the game is matched only by his proficiency for kicking other men in the gentlemen’s region
  • Zaza Pachulia: because they needed a fourth guy
  • Kevin Durant: a top-three player in the league that the team signed in the offseason.

That team then proceeded, because turnabout is always fair play, to get kicked very hard in its gentlemen region by the San Antonio Spurs. For a few hours, everybody got to wonder if maybe the team’s Death Star was fully operational. Then the team won 16 of its next 17 games, pushing its record to an awesome 16-2, although that number still seems underwhelming after last year’s 24-0 start. All was right with the world.

But then the Warriors lost again last night. The team sits at 16-3. Everything is still right with the world – the Warriors are the best team in the league! – but…

If somebody went looking for dings in the armor, it might be worth starting with the quality of that record. The Warriors’ 16 wins have come against teams with a 133-168 (.441) record. The Warriors’ 3 losses have come against teams with a 37-21 (.637) record. Golden State has played, at best, a middlingly difficult schedule. Their best win might be one over the Toronto Raptors in a game that saw the Canadian franchise win three of four quarters.

The bigger looming issue is one of health. The Warriors have been remarkably resilient these last two-and-a-half years, with Curry, Thompson, and Green rarely missing time. But we know what happens when any of them do, having witnessed what their absences can cause. Curry went down in the third game of the playoffs last year, returned quickly, but played injured, and the 73-9 regular-season Warriors promptly lost 5 of 12 games (before rallying against the Thunder). Green got himself suspended for the Finals’ fifth game and his absence was enough to breath life into the teetering Cavaliers.

The stanch against injury has always been the Warriors’ bench, itself a fierce unit capable of exceedingly competent basketball. Andre Igoudala, Shaun Livingston, Mareese Speights, Brandon Rush, Leandro Barbosa, and Festus Ezeli averaged 38 points-per-game last season. Between them, they were often able to fill the gaps.

But the offseason saw the Warriors sink everything into Kevin Durant. Although he too has battled significant injuries, including terrifying ones that affected his feet, Durant is Durant, a monstrous apparition known by some as the Slim Reaper. Getting him was a no-brainer, the obvious thought being that adding the fourth (Durant) to the Warriors’ big three (Curry, Thompson, and Green) would make them virtually unstoppable.

Every strategy has its cost, and what the Warriors gave up to get Durant was its more competent bench. Scoring by the team’s top-six bench players is off 10 points per game, with Igoudala, Livingston, Ian Clark, the 10,000-year-old reanimated corpse of David West, JaVale McGee (?!?), and Kevon Looney averaging less than 28 points per game, thus setting the team up to pay a potentially higher price were one of its big four to get injured.

That then is the extent of the nail that the league’s other 29 teams have to hang their hat on: the Warriors having faced a weak schedule and having performed (relatively) badly against its more competitive teams, and a bench that is less impressive than it used to be.

Although that isn’t much, it is something, and it might be slightly more than the league expected to have going for it at the start of the season.