Around the (NBA) World – Feb. 10, 2016

Named after a time-honored driveway shooting game, Around the World takes a look at notable items going on in and around the NBA universe.

A Classic in Dallas

Last night’s best game was Dallas-Utah, showcasing two teams struggling for position in the bottom half of the West playoff race. Utah won thanks to Gordon Hayward’s buzzer beater in OT, and his hair stayed perfect:

What got us to that seminal moment was a typical Dallas thriller. The Mavs tend to play exciting games at the American Airlines Center, with threes flying from all over the place. Dallas is 4th in the NBA in three point attempts per game at 27.7, and made 11-29 last night. Chandler Parsons led the way with 24 points which is encouraging even in a loss. There were many questions about Dallas post-DeAndre and the biggest one was around key players coming off injury. Would Parsons and Wes Matthews get back to form after major lower body injuries? Their play, mixed with Rick Carlisle’s motion and shooting offense, and Dirk being Dirk, is why the Mavs have remained in the playoff mix all season.

The hard-charging Jazz have won seven straight and taken advantage of the Kings’ freefall to finally take hold of a playoff spot. All season I’ve waited for Utah to round into form, but injuries to Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert lowered their ceiling, and the lack of a replacement level point guard is still an issue. Favors and Gobert are back and Hayward has made a leap this season, averaging a career-high 20 points per game and coming through in the clutch like last night. The Jazz have to decide if any of the available point guards on the trade market fit their timeline and budget. But a Jeff Teague or Jrue Holiday could really bolster this team’s competitiveness in the first round. They have to push for the sixth seed to avoid the Warriors and Spurs in Round 1. It’s doable.

Another Curry-gasm, Briefly Interrupted

Anytime the Warriors are on the national TV schedule I know it’s going to be a late night for me, and last night was no different. With the Rockets coming to Oakland you knew the potential was there for anything: a 50-point GSW win, a 60-point Steph Curry game, the single game three point record going down in flames, a 160-150 type barnburner. The first quarter did little to dissuade that thinking, with Curry scoring 19 on 5-6 from three and the Warriors jumping out to a 42-27 lead. But then something interesting happened. For the next two quarters the Rockets found their long-hibernating pride. Rather than succumbing to Curry’s wrath, they decided to make life difficult. Suddenly Steph couldn’t get an open look at a three, and Trevor Ariza, Marcus Thornton, and even Ty Lawson did a great job of ball denial, forcing the rest of the Warriors to beat them. In typical Rockets fashion, they also slowed the game down with some Hack-A-Bogut, and the Warriors’ lead slowly dwindled. James Harden caught fire, scoring 18 points in the last eight minutes of the second quarter.

In the third, Harden continued to score and the Rockets D kept frustrating Curry and Klay Thompson. The Rockets took the lead for a couple stretches and the game was tied at 93 entering the fourth. You knew Curry would start the 4th on the bench, which meant the time was ripe for Houston to make their move. But then the Rockets rockets’d. With Curry draped in a towel on the bench, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Shaun Livingston led the Dubs on an 8-0 run, Barnes scored 17 in the quarter and the Warriors never looked back. They’re too deep, too good at home and the Rockets don’t have four quarter discipline this season. It was fun to see Houston play to their potential if only for a couple quarters. It was scary to see how unbeatable the Warriors can be even on nights when Steph and Klay go ice cold for long stretches.

Also, this sequence was just beautiful basketball –

There Are No Winners in Sacramento

It seems like a long time ago now, but in mid-January the Kings were making headlines for jumping into the 8-seed. But the Kings can’t have nice things. They’ve subsequently dropped eight of nine, gave up 128 to Brooklyn, gave up 128 more to Boston in a laughably bad effort amidst George Karl firing speculation, and completed the 120-point trifecta after losing 120-100 to the Cavs. It seemed for the second straight year the Kings were firing a coach publicly before making it official. Karl was dead man walking, the team stopped even trying to guard anyone, and Boogie Cousins was sulking. Then yesterday news broke that the Kings would retain Karl as coach. What could go wrong there?

The Kings are led by a clueless owner, Vivek Ranadive, who fires coaches and makes strategic changes based on nothing rational; and his minority owners want an uprising.

Cousins has eventually undermined every coach but Michael Malone and Vivek has enabled him.

Rajon Rondo has had a resurgent season but called a gay ref a gay slur, so he’s definitely not a winner.

And Karl, as great of a career as he’s had, has failed this team. He’s tried to fit a square peg in a round hole. He wants to force whatever personnel he’s given to play his style – up-tempo, fast breaking, free wheeling defense. The Kings are playing with the league’s fastest pace even though they have Cousins, who plays best in a half court set, Rudy Gay, a traditional ball stopper and no true shooters other than Omri Casspi. This is not the Warriors. But Karl, who once said he’d have to think about whether he’d rather win playing someone else’s style or lose playing his style, is the latest example of coaching hubris getting in the way of team success. Gregg Popovich coaches to his players’ strengths. If the Spurs have two giants in the post, they’ll play slow and deliberate. If they’re undersized but filled with unselfish shooters, they’ll run and gun. Pop has been pretty successful over the years. Karl is the NBA’s Chip Kelly. Grab your popcorn for the rest of this shitshow of a Kings season.

All-Star Weekend Picks

NBA All-Star Toronto is almost upon us, and the contests are set. Here are my picks for the Slam Dunk, Three Point and Skills Contests:

Slam Dunk Participants – Zach LaVine, Aaron Gordon, Will Barton, Andre Drummond. This contest has taken its lumps over the years, as format changes and contrivances on the Blake Griffin Kia commercial have undermined the entertainment value. This year, LaVine is the odds-on favorite, and it seems like there should be more contestants. I don’t see Drummond doing much to dazzle the crowd, but Gordon is Plastic Man, so that could be exciting. Barton is the wild card. I’ll take LaVine to repeat as champion.

Three Point Participants – Stephen Curry, Kyle Lowry, Klay Thompson, James Harden, Chris Bosh, Devin Booker, JJ Redick, Khris Middleton. This event should be awesome. Curry looks to defend his crown but will face stiff competition from Redick, Thompson and keep an eye out for rookie Booker. I don’t see Harden, Bosh or Lowry making it very far but it will be cool to see them give it a try. At the end of the day it’s 2016 and we’re talking about 3-point shooting, so I’ll take Curry, thank you.

Skills Challenge Participants – Patrick Beverley, DeMarcus Cousins, Draymond Green, Anthony Davis, Isaiah Thomas, Jordan Clarkson, CJ McCollum, Karl Anthony-Towns. A new wrinkle this year, as big men will compete in the challenge. It’s unclear whether there will be a big man winner and a small man winner, but I’ll make two picks here. I’ll go with Thomas and Draymond.

Injury Bummers

The Grizzlies were dealt a big blow yesterday with news that Marc Gasol will be out indefinitely with a broken foot. Currently the Grizz sit 5th in the West at 30-22, but Dallas, Houston and Utah could leap frog them with their best player sidelined. The Grizzlies weren’t going to go very far in the postseason, yet I have a soft spot for the grit n grind bunch, and it’s a treat to watch Gasol operate in the post. This is a shame.

Speaking of bummers, Jimmy Butler may have dodged a bullet by not doing any serious structural damage to his knee in a nasty fall at the hands of a Joffrey Lauvergne hack job. But he will miss 3-4 weeks as the Bulls are in the midst of a freefall in the East standings. Timing couldn’t be much worse, and Chicago is in danger of missing the playoffs in Fred Hoiberg’s first season. This team can’t escape the injury bug year after year. Derrick Rose is in and out of the lineup, Mike Dunleavy is finally returning after back surgery forced him out all season, and Joakim Noah is out for the year. Yikes.

Playoff Picture Coming into Focus

After this weekend’s All-Star break, there will be about 30 games left for each team in the regular season. The stretch run will determine who makes it in and who falls out of the bottom seeds of the playoff picture, but the top seeds are already solidified. In the West, Golden State, San Antonio, OKC and the Clippers seem locked in at 1-4. In the East Cleveland and Toronto have distinguished themselves as the top two seeds. It looks like Boston, Indiana and Atlanta will earn a spot. The Heat have a tough schedule but I’m betting they’ll hang on as well. That leaves two more spots, with Chicago, Charlotte, Detroit and maybe Washington vying for position. With the injury and chemistry issues in Chicago I will take Charlotte and Detroit at this point. A lottery pick may be the best thing for the Bulls at this point, anyway.

The 5-8 seeds in the West come down to the following teams: Memphis (30-22), Dallas (29-26), Utah (26-25), Houston (27-27), Portland (26-27) and Sacramento (21-31). I think Dallas grabs the five seed after the Gasol injury, Utah takes the six seed, Memphis hangs on for the seventh and Portland/Houston is a toss up for the 8. I want to take Portland since they’re such a more uplifting story than Houston this year, but the Rockets still have Harden and Dwight Howard, and may have a small run left in them.

Trade Deadline

I encourage readers to listen to Nate Duncan’s Dunk’d On Podcast for some great insights into what each team needs and may be willing to do going into the deadline. I will have more thoughts as we inch closer to the deadline. I’d like to wait until after the All-Star break to see where the standings are, and what injury situations look like, before diving deeper on potential trades. More coming soon.

It’s All Star Time

Welcome to the halfway point of the 2015-16 NBA season! We have two teams playing at historic levels in the Warriors and Spurs, an oddly desperate conference champion favorite in Cleveland and two surging teams in OKC and LAC. In other words, order has been somewhat restored on the West vs. East Conference front. There is still a giant middle class of good-not great teams out East but, as we will see with the All Star rosters and later with our Olympic picks, most of the top talent and thus upper crust dwells in the West.

The Fan Voting is in for All-Star, but this space will ignore that fact. These picks are based on who has played the best in the first half of the season, pretty novel idea, right? Like everything, we tend to overthink these rosters. Here is my effort to make sense of what I’ve watched this year. The starting lineups are based on two guards and three front court players, with the reserves sort of organized along positional lines. Without further ado:

DotB Eastern Conference All-Stars

Starters

G – Kyle Lowry, Raptors

G – Jimmy Butler, Bulls

FC – LeBron James, Cavaliers

FC – Paul George, Pacers

FC – Andre Drummond, Pistons

The only one here I needed to think twice about was Drummond, the other four were locks for me as starters. Hurting his case the most is his horrid free throw shooting, but I couldn’t ignore the massive rebounding numbers (15.5 per game, 5.5 offensive rebounds, whopping 33% defensive rebounding rate). Drummond has anchored Detroit’s resurgence, still getting better as a post scorer and can protect the rim when energized. Drummond gets extra love in this space as an old-school post force down on the block.

Skinny Kyle Lowry has been an offensive technician and leader for the Raptors, helping them stay in the upper half of the East playoff race much of the year. His weight loss hasn’t hurt his ability to compete on defense and if anything has given him more stamina on that end.

Butler is having a stunning season for the wildly inconsistent Bulls. He’s been their rock and one of their only constants. The 40-point second half against Toronto and the 50-point effort against Philly carved his spot in stone and made the league take notice. He’s jumped up a level this season and is earning his new contract in a big way.

LeBron and George are no-brainers, two of the top 10 players in the sport. A lot has been made of James’ supposed slippage this season and it’s sort of fair. Still 80 percent of LeBron is one of the best basketball players in the world. He’s carrying Cleveland to a runaway top seed even without Kyrie Irving for much of the season and an up and down Kevin Love performance. James is averaging 25 points, seven rebounds and six assists per 36 minutes – another master stroke in his 13th NBA season. George, meanwhile, has carried the surprising Pacers in a monster comeback season after a terrible leg injury. He’s tailed off a bit since his white-hot start but is still putting up 24, 7.5 and 4 per 36 minutes and a 20.8 PER.

Reserves

John Wall, Wizards

DeMar DeRozan, Raptors

Carmelo Anthony, Knicks

Pau Gasol, Bulls

Chris Bosh, Heat

Reggie Jackson, Pistons

Paul Millsap, Hawks

The perennially underrated Bosh was a lock, as were Wall, DeRozan and Gasol. Wall is single-handedly keeping the Wizards afloat and has overcome a slowish start nicely. DeRozan is getting to the rim with abandon and gets to the line eight times a game. In an era of jump shooters, he’s playing like a Clyde Drexler throwback slasher and I love it. Gasol is the other constant on the Bulls, he gets in even though his defense drives me nuts. Sure he’s getting blocks but he turns his nose up at pick-and-roll defense and is allergic to rotating. However, his 19 and 12 per 36 is too hard to ignore.

Carmelo has exited his prime as a pure scorer but is transitioning nicely to more of a facilitator role and stepped up his defense this season. The Knicks are actually a feel-good story and it’s not all Porzingis…Melo is still the engine in New York. I had to get a Hawk on the team and Millsap edges out Al Horford just barely. Jackson edges out Isaiah Thomas because of the huge responsibility he has shouldered as the key-turner in Detroit’s pick-and-roll heavy attack. He has a 29.0 usage rate, and he and Drummond’s rapid chemistry is one of the stories of the season.

East Breakdown – I’ve got just one Cav (James), since Kyrie has been hurt; two Raptors, two Bulls, two Pistons, a Hawk, a Knick, a Pacer, a Wizard and a Heat. Only the Wizards and Knicks are outside the top-8 in the standings.

 

Western Conference

Starters

G – Stephen Curry, Warriors

G – Russell Westbrook, Thunder

FC – Kevin Durant, Thunder

FC – Kawhi Leonard, Spurs

FC – Draymond Green, Warriors

Notice a theme here? The top three teams in the West are so far above everyone else and it becomes self-evident in the All-Star Starters. This devastating small-ball lineup would wipe the floor with the East starting five. We won’t have this starting five in real life since Kobe was voted a starter by the fans, but here’s hoping this group gets some minutes together. Draymond and Kawhi will play lockdown, versatile defense, while the other three light up the scoreboard. I can’t wait.

Curry is proving he’s the greatest shooter of all time and figures to repeat as MVP. The fact Kawhi is in the conversation for MVP is remarkable, given how transcendent Curry has been. Kawhi is the best defender in the league and has been among the league percentage leaders in three point shooting, drives to the rim and midrange shooting. There’s nothing he can’t do at an expert level. Durant and Westbrook are generational talents that happen to play on the same team. Durant’s comeback from foot injury has been a blessing to basketball fans and a reminder of his brilliance. Westbrook is the human highlight reel. His shoes should be checked for bottle rocket implants. I’ve talked about Draymond a lot in this space before, but it bears repeating – the Warriors are not the Warriors without him. His ability to guard five positions, while running the “read option” off Curry pick-and-rolls and filling up the stat sheet (including three straight triple-doubles) makes him a new category of NBA player.

I love this starting five so much.

Reserves

Chris Paul, Clippers

Klay Thompson, Warriors

Blake Griffin, Clippers

LaMarcus Aldridge, Spurs

Anthony Davis, Pelicans

James Harden, Rockets

DeMarcus Cousins, Kings

I tussled with the decision between Cousins and Dirk Nowitzki more than any other in this whole exercise. At first glance it seems like a classic stats vs. team success conflict. Cousins’ numbers are gaudy and much higher than Dirk’s (26 to 18 points per game; 11.4 to 6.1 rebounds; 23.8 to 19.9 PER). Yet Dirk’s Mavs have been a pleasant surprise this season, at 25-19 led by its German star, brilliant coach and smoke and mirrors. Meanwhile the Kings are under .500 and may earn the dubious prize of sneaking into the 8th seed in the West. But when Boogie hasn’t played, due to injury or suspension, his below-average team becomes horrid. The Kings are 18-16 with Boogie in the starting lineup, and just 1-7 without him, losing those seven games by an average of 12 points. They crater without their star big man. Hurting Boogie’s case is his 44% shooting from the floor and the fact that Dirk has slightly more win shares; again due to his team being higher in the standings. It hurts to leave Dirk out, especially the way he’s stepped up in clutch situations and led his team in his 18th season. But I can’t ignore Boogie’s production.

Similarly, cases can be made against Harden and Davis but come on, they’re All Stars. Both have led their teams to massively disappointing seasons, and Harden in particular has been frustrating with his regression on defense and overall lackadaisical approach. But he’s putting up 28, 6 and 7 and the Rockets have gotten mildly better since a disaster start. Davis hasn’t met the astronomical expectations this year but is still probably the first or second player I’d pick to start a franchise. He’s 22 years old and putting up 23 and 10, with 2. blocks and 1.3 steals a game. I can’t hold him out just because his team is poorly constructed and devastated by injury.

Thompson is the Warriors’ third All-Star – I have a rule that any 39-4 team gets at least three All-Stars. He’s been great. Paul and Griffin are locks. While Aldridge has adjusted seamlessly to his new team, giving the Spurs a devastating front court on both ends, leading to one of the best team defensive seasons of all time.

Last ones out – Damian Lillard, Karl Anthony-Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, CJ McCollum

West Breakdown – Three Warriors, two Spurs, two Thunder, two Clippers, a Pelican, a Rocket and a King.

I’ll be at the Mavericks-Thunder game tonight, where hopefully Dirk makes me look foolish for leaving him off my roster. Looking forward to seeing him do battle with Westbrook and Durant. Pics to follow!