Time for our first 2016 installment of Up & Down, a look into NBA teams, players, coaches, etc. that are trending one way or another. The scope of this effort will mostly take into account the month of January.
We’re getting into the time of the season where the contenders separate themselves from the pretenders, and teams figure out their true identity. Injuries are becoming more of a factor as minutes pile up, and certain stars are posting huge numbers after finding their rhythm. In an odd turn of events, two of the four conference finals coaches from last season have been fired, the second firing coming in the same week as a superstar breaking his hand punching an equipment guy. The NBA never disappoints!
The Unbelievable Golden State Warriors – A friend and I were discussing the Warriors this weekend, as we watched them toy with the Pacers in the fourth quarter. While Steph hit threes with his signature swagger attached and darted through the lane en route to circus baskets in traffic, and Draymond Green bent the laws of physics with cross court bounce passes, we mused how awesome it must be to be a Warrior right now. To be the best and know it. To be cocky and back it up. To put on a show for an adoring crowd as a matter of routine. It’s every dude’s dream. It’s also refreshing to see a team have so much fun playing a fun game.
The fun continued last night as the Warriors showed no mercy on San Antonio in what was billed as a clash of the titans. It turned out to be “boys against men” as Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said afterward. Indeed it was one regular season game, but the sheer dominance leaves one wondering if the rest of the season is just a formality before the Dubs’ second straight championship parade. My big question coming in was whose playing style would win out – which team would impose its will on the other? The Spurs bring size, suffocating defense and a slower pace than most teams. On paper they may have the horses to match up with Steph and Klay, and if they slowed the game down to a crawl Golden State may struggle manufacturing points in the half court. But it was clear the Warriors from the start the Warriors weren’t going to change their approach because of their opponent. They pushed the pace off every defensive rebound and even most Spurs makes, Steph or Shaun Livingston racing the ball up the court before the defense could get set. They forced 26 turnovers, turning those opportunities into quick buckets. Green baffled LaMarcus Aldridge, not allowing him to get comfortable in isolations. Kawhi somehow got lost in the shuffle. It was over after three quarters, with Steph scoring 37 of the Warriors 95 points to that point. It should be noted the Spurs came in giving up just 89 points PER GAME.
Before dominating the Spurs, the Dubs crushed the Cavs, Bulls and Pacers in rapid succession. 73-9 is squarely in the crosshairs.
Boogie Cousins – The Kings’ big man is in the midst of an epic January. In his last 10 games, Boogie is averaging 36.6 points and 13.8 rebounds per game. More importantly the Kings are 6-4 in those games and clinging to the 8th seed in the West. It seems Cousins and George Karl have improved their relationship, and Boogie hasn’t melted down on the court yet in 2016. If he ever had justification to, it was last night against the Hornets. Cousins had 56 points and the Internet was rooting for 60. In double overtime, he secured a monster offensive rebound in traffic and made a monster move to the rack for two points. But noooooo. Frank Kaminsky took contact form Boogie and launched himself backward, drawing Cousins’ sixth foul. There’s no way that call should be made, especially not on a bang-bang hustle play in double OT with a guy angling for 60 points. Post men everywhere sympathize with Boogie. I tweeted that I was surprised he didn’t choke somebody out after that garbage call, but to his credit he didn’t make a scene and stayed put on the end of the bench (albeit flanked by an army of team personnel).
James Harden – The bearded enigma of the disappointing Houston Rockets (their new official team name) has some alive of late, putting together some amazing stat lines. It seems he’s played his way into shape after refusing to do so in the offseason. I’ve said it before and I’ll continue to say it, the league is a better place with Harden at the top of his game, stirring the pot literally and figuratively. On Sunday against the Mavericks, Harden put up 23 points, 15 rebounds, 10 assists and 2 blocks; he followed it up the next night against the Pelicans with 35 points, 11 boards and 8 dimes. Last week he had a ridiculous 33-17-14 in that foul-plagued game against the Pistons. Astounding numbers, and the Rockets are playing a bit better as a team, mostly on the back of the Beard.
Kemba & the Hornets – Much has been made of Kemba Walker’s all-around improvement this season. Once feared to be nothing more than a low percentage scorer that takes more off the table than he puts on, Walker has flourished this year with career highs in field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, three point shooting and PER. On January 18 he scored 52 on the Jazz, and four days later dropped 40 versus Orlando. After an early January swoon, the Hornets have won four of five and remain in the East playoff race. With reports that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will return sooner than expected things are looking up in Charlotte, relatively.
Rookies! – As packed as the NBA is in star talent, the last couple draft classes haven’t been spectacular. This year, however, a new influx of potential superstars, future All Stars and quality role players is being injected into the mix. Karl Antony-Towns and Kristaps Porzingis have nearly unlimited ceilings as versatile and athletic big men that can shoot. They fit right into where the league is going and could push the game to different levels in the years to come. Jahlil Okafor and D’Angelo Russell are toiling on terrible teams but producing and offering hope for the near future. Emmanuel Mudiay has been up and down, while battling injuries, but he’s shown flashes of brilliance. Devin Booker is the one bright spot on the Suns and Justise Winslow is an improved jumper away from being a star on both ends. Others that are playing meaningful minutes as key role players for their teams: Myles Turner, Trey Lyles, Willie Cauley-Stein, Stanley Johnson, Cam Payne, Bobby Portis, Larry Nance Jr., Frank Kaminsky and Jonathon Simmons. In all, 11 first rounders are currently averaging over 20 minutes per game.
Nuggets – Denver is 17-28 and likely not going to the postseason, but they’ve been pretty good! GM Tim Connelly was recently given a well-earned extension, after building a team that has Denver’s prospects looking much better than expected in short order. The Mudiay pick was a good one, he’s found diamonds in the rough in Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, Will Barton and Jusuf Nurkic, and the bet on Danilo Gallinari is paying off. With a sharp coach in Mike Malone, the future is bright for the Nugs.
Kings – Mostly covered in the Boogie section, George Karl’s team is coming together against all odds. It should be noted that Rajon Rondo is back to his expert distributing ways – 20 assists last night against the Hornets.
Blake Griffin – First he tore his quadriceps, then he saw his team actually play better on the court, going 12-3 since his injury. Then the dreaded “undisclosed team-related incident” left him with a broken hand that will force him to miss 4-6 more weeks of action. News trickled out today that the incident was actually a fight with a team equipment staffer that started in a restaurant and spilled outside, where Griffin punched the man at least once, breaking his own hand. Now I’m not here to judge, as I have suffered multiple “boxer’s fractures” due to fisticuffs. But with the team releasing a statement that the behavior won’t be tolerated and that they’re conducting an investigation with the NBA, Blake has earned himself a place in the Who’s Down section, to be sure.
Suns – Since Eric Bledsoe went down for the season, they’ve completely fallen apart on the court, fired two assistant coaches, killed most of Markieff Morris’ trade value and saw their owner go on an anti-Millennial tirade. Coach Jeff Hornacek doesn’t really seem like he wants to be there anymore, yet he may not be fired anytime soon. Once a playoff hopeful, they are headed for one of the worst records in the league. Just a weird, toxic situation.
Cavaliers – Though the clear favorite in the East, Cleveland was beaten by the Spurs and demolished by the Warriors, leading to David Blatt’s much-ballyhooed firing. On the heels of the coaching change, word started trickling out from reporters like Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! that LeBron James and Rich Paul had orchestrated Blatt’s fate since the beginning of James’ return to Cleveland. GM David Griffin is between a rock and a hard place, juggling the unprecedented power of his star player with the volatility of owner Dan Gilbert. Respected and accomplished coaches like Rick Carlisle and Gregg Popovich have fired shots at the Cavs hastily ousting Blatt. It seems replacement Tyronn Lue was not James’ first choice (he wanted Mark Jackson of all people) and Lue’s first game was a lopsided loss to Chicago. Problems with Kevin Love’s fit and Kyrie Irving’s ball-dominance and lack of defense continue to hound the team, even as they remain atop the East.
Bradley Beal – The talented 2-guard in Washington just can’t stay on the floor. He’s played just 22 games this season due to more soft-tissue injuries. He’s never played more than 73 games in a regular season. And now he’s suffered a broken nose and concussion thanks to a Marcus Smart elbow, which will force him to miss more time. With his free agency impending, suitors may be scared away by his fragility. Meanwhile, John Wall is left to keep Washington afloat by himself. Their playoff prospects are dimming.
Perpetually Both Up & Down
Bulls – What I imagine the barroom conversations are like in Chicago…
“Wow, the Bulls won six straight in late December / early January? They might be coming on finally…oh never mind they just lost four of five. They suck.”
“Jimmy Butler scored 40 in the second half, in Toronto!? JIMMYYY!”
“They needed OT to beat the Sixers? Oh but Jimmy Butler had 50 points so that’s cool. JIMMYYYY BUCKETS!”
“They only scored 77 against the Mavericks? At home? Nice new offense Hoiberg. We never shoulda fired Thibs!”
“Warriors killed them, OK, but the Celtics? Terrible. I bet the Cavs will kill them tomorrow, even if they have da team mascot coaching them.”
“Da Bulls killed the Cavs! D-Rose is playing like his old self, getting to the rim, they said it on TV and everything! 1-seed here we come!”
“84 points and a loss at home to the Heat? What the? At least Derrick is looking goo…what’s that, D-Rose left with another injury? Pussy…”