Saturday, January 21, 2017

First thoughts on the NBA in 2017

     I haven’t written a thing so far this NBA season.  Actually, that’s not entirely true.  I wrote most of an extensive pre-season preview but I didn’t post it right away.   When Trump won the election writing about basketball and digging into the day by day of the NBA season seemed even stupider and more absurd then usual.  The shock of Trump’s election win made it very hard to be overly concerned with the minutia of a season which feels like it is inexorably marching towards the 3rd meeting of The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors in the NBA finals.  Following the daily absurdity of Trump’s win and his ludicrous cabinet picks and his moronic tweets consumed most of my limited online time.  Given the state of the world, basketball, and sports in general, seem even smaller and more limited in scope then usual.  At this point though, as Trump actually becomes president, I’ve finally decided that escaping into the comforting confines of a world in which Derek Rose being MIA for an evening, or George Karl’s cranky old white man rants about former players (and even more strangely current players who never played for him) constitutes controversy might actually be cathartic. 

     This NBA season has flown by very quickly thus far.  We are already approaching the halfway point and the all-star game.  The all-star game itself holds little to no interest for me but it’s vaguely interesting to think about who is deserving of being named to the team.  At this point I figured I would babble a bit about the state of the season thus far: who has over and under achieved both as individuals and on the team level. 

     I’ve noticed that as I’m going through the games at the end of the night (I’m usually working when the games are live) I gravitate towards watching certain players and certain teams.  Because I love the sport of basketball I generally gravitate quickly towards Spurs games.  Kawhi Leonard is probably my favorite player in the league.  There’s no bullshit to him.  He plays hard and smart and he’s always improving and he doesn’t talk a lot of shit and over-celebrate.  He’s become a great shooter and his handle is constantly getting better.  I love how he went from a defense only player to a good stand still shooter and then gradually honed his one on one skills.  Nothing he does is spectacular.  He’s not a great leaper, which we often confusingly equate directly with athleticism, but his hands and wingspan are incredible.  It drives me crazy when stars are mediocre to poor defensively.  It’s such an integral part of the game and so often we just laud and praise the dudes that are great on the offensive end and completely dismiss the importance of what players do on the defensive end.  A great deal of that probably arises because much of offense is quantifiable while defense is not.  The Spurs as a group play some of the purest basketball in the league.  They move the ball.  Tony Parker has lost a great deal to age but he’s still able to get in the lane and much of their offense depends on him doing so and kicking the ball and they quickly swing it until they have an open shot.  They’re almost at the bottom of the league in 3 attempts but they’re right at the top in 3-point percentage made.  I love that Popovich is not afraid to buck trends.  Just because Golden State wins going small does not mean that every team must follow suit.  The best chance against the Warriors is to pound them inside.  Playing their game isn’t going to work.   They’re just better at it.  In any case, The Spurs are my favorite team because they play my favorite brand of basketball and they have my favorite player and my favorite coach.  I thought perhaps they would take a step back this year but they are clearly in the same league as Golden State and Cleveland.  Having said that, their talent is a bit lacking and I feel like they’re maxed out in the way they play during the regular season so when the playoffs come they don’t have another gear to go to.  They already play as hard as they can play which makes them great for the regular season but not as great in the post season.  Also, and this will come up with some of my other positive picks, there are not as many good teams as there were last season.  The top of the league is a little lonelier and the mediocre middle is a little bigger so thus, the numbers of the pretty good teams (see San Antonio and Houston and Toronto) are going to be slightly inflated.

     I hate to say this (for a number of reasons) but the team I’m gravitating towards in the league pass viewing after the Spurs is the Boston Celtics.  I’m from NYC so it doesn’t feel right saying this.  Mostly I’ll start the Celtics games in the 4th quarter to watch Isiah Thomas do his thing.  It bothers me that he barely plays defense but it’s just so incredible what he is able to do at his height (5’9”? It’s always hard to know for sure the height of NBA players as the official numbers are rarely accurate.  Having said that Thomas looks like a little kid out there on the court).  It’s hard to understand how he gets his shot off so easily.  Right now Thomas going off is one of the most incredible spectacles I’ve ever seen on a basketball court.  In addition, he’s doing it in crunch time when it really matters.  How can a guy that tiny be leading the league in 4th quarter points?  It’s just fun to watch and he seems like a good person to boot.  The Celtics are well coached and they need to be as beyond Thomas there’s not really any one capable of consistently creating their own shot. 

     There were definitely teams I was initially excited to watch and for now that ardor has waned.  I really thought Minnesota would be better under Thibadeaux.  For first halves they’ve been great but they consistently stink in the 2nd half of games.  One can’t lose sight of the fact that this team is very dependent on 21 year olds and it’s probably going to be a few more years until they’re any good.  Their defense is terrible and somewhere Sam Mitchell is screaming I told you it wasn’t just me at the top of his lungs.  As long as Minnesota stays relaxed and thinks long term and doesn’t make panic moves they’re going to be an excellent team soon.  Their talent is just too overwhelming.  But I worry that Thibadeaux is not a patient man and tends to get overly frustrated and whiny on the sidelines.  This is an interesting experiment because a GM would normally be capable of telling the coach to think long term but since there is a trend of coach GMs I can see it being too tempting for the coach to get frustrated and start making poor moves which sacrifice the future for immediate short term gains.  It should be interesting to see what unfolds in Minnesota (and in Detroit where the situation is similar minus the overwhelming talent).

     I was curious about the Knicks but it quickly became apparent that the only interesting thing about them would be the various stupid controversies surrounding Melo and Phil Jackson and Derrick Rose.  Noah is very close to washed up but in an entirely uninteresting way.  He still has moments of being competent.  It’s just tough being reliant on a player that is astoundingly unable to score and is no longer a dominant defensive force.  In today’s NBA if you’re bad on offense you’d better be great on defense.  In fact, it’s really not good enough to be a great defensive player.  A big man like that who is unable to shoot had better be able to slash and score on the pick and roll.  Noah’s passing is good but not so helpful when his man can leave him entirely open even when he has the ball at the elbow and be unconcerned that he will score.  Once again the Knicks are a complete mess.  I suppose the only real interesting thing is how long Phil Jackson stays involved with this leaking ship.

     The Rockets have been an interesting story and I’ll tend to flip on their games.  In the past I’ve found Harden difficult to watch but making him the point guard and surrounding him with shooters was a brilliant move.  There are actually possessions in which Harden will throw a quick pass and thus there are less possessions that involve him pounding the rock for 20 seconds and then parading to the foul line.  Part of that is D'Antoni empowering Harden to run the offense as the point guard and part of that is simply no longer having Howard clog the lane demanding post up opportunities.  I always felt that OKC missed an incredible opportunity not only in trading away Harden but also by not making Westbrook the off guard and starting Harden at the point.  He was an excellent passer when he would come off the bench for OKC and run the show for brief periods of time.  It doesn’t seem like it now because each player dominates the ball but I really think that had they developed Harden and Westbrook properly OKC could have had one of the greatest backcourt tandems in the history of the NBA.  I won’t harp on it anymore but that team blew a chance to win multiple championships.  As a basketball fan it makes me feel sad for the missed opportunity but for the people of Seattle it makes me feel happy.  In any case, the Rockets have been fun to watch and I’m happy for D’Antoni just because I’m sometimes nostalgic for those Phoenix teams.  The Rockets have played well but their numbers are a little inflated because they’re a good team in a league that is full of mediocre teams.  On any given night they’re extremely dangerous but they just don’t have enough talent to beat the Warriors 4 out of 7.

    I’ve started to watch Philadelphia games not because they are very good but because Embiid is fascinating.  He’s gigantic and he moves so well and has so many potential skills.  He already has an incredible affect on the game and yet he has no idea what he’s doing out there.  His talent and enthusiasm are so overwhelming that they can overcome his extremely limited knowledge of what he should be doing on either end of the court.  He’s definitely got superstar potential, which I suppose was the whole point of the process.  If only all of Daryl Morey’s picks had been as courageous the Sixers could now have a really interesting team.  Taking Okafor over Porzingis was unforgiveable.  Also, Noel was perhaps a more understandably bad pick but imagine if they had taken a chance on Giannis or even just hit a single by picking McCollum or Schroeder or even Steven Adams.  The problem Philly ran into was not the concept of the process but the execution.  You can’t just take a bunch of dudes that all play the same position.  You’ve got to think about the team to some extent.  Not simply as far as winning games but also to generate future assets.  You can’t even really trade Okafor or Noel at this point because they barely play.  Especially in Okafor’s case he just doesn’t make sense on a team with Embiid and with every game he loses value across the league.  It’s ok to have young players and lose games but they need to be in an environment in which they can develop and get better else there’s no point.  Much of that environment involves putting players on the court with other players that complement them in some way and allow them to improve.  In any case, though the Sixers are still a disgusting mess, they play hard and Embiid’s talent is so undeniably overwhelming that they’re now worth watching (although I skip any moment of their games in which Embiid is on the bench).

     Lastly, for now, I’m drawn in league pass towards the Bucks because the tandem of Giannis and Jabari Parker is looking like the basis for a team that could at some point challenge the Cavaliers for Eastern supremacy.  There’s not much I need to say here about the Greek freak.  If you can’t recognize how astoundingly talented he is then you’d better get your eyes checked.  On a nightly basis he does things that just don’t seem possible.  It’s Parker that I find so sneakily intriguing.  He’s much better and bigger and quicker then I thought he would be and his talents complement Giannis extremely well.  He’s still incredibly inconsistent but he seems to be rapidly improving.  If Middleton is able to come back from Injury and get back to what he was before being injured the Bucks will have 3 players that are not only extremely talented but whose skill sets compliment each other perfectly.  That’s really the underrated part of team building.  It’s not that hard to get 3 good players to build your team around but it’s hard to get them to all have talents that don’t get in each other’s way.  The Bucks are missing the shooting and the defense of Middleton but when they get that back they are going to be very dangerous.  Their biggest mistake though was signing Greg Monroe to a big contract.  He’s too conventional of a big man and he doesn’t protect the rim or play much defense at all and he’s not a good enough shooter to spread the floor.   His post game, which presumably is his best skill, is not quite good enough to warrant slowing down the game for.  Imagine if they had saved that cap space or signed another long athletic player that fits into the concept of being able to switch at will on defense without exposing weakness.  The only positive here is that Monroe’s contract will be up in a couple years as the Bucks are getting good and hopefully they’ll use that space to lock up their own players and make good future free agent signings.  If the Bucks make the right moves over the next few years and continue to develop the players they already have they might soon be championship contenders…

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