Saturday, January 31, 2015

Why the NBA center position is alive and well

The plethora of skilled guards in the NBA has led to this myth that the center position is becoming less relevant. While there is no doubt that there is a lack of dominant big men of previous eras a la Hakeem Olajuwon or Shaquille O’Neal, there are still a host of prolific NBA centers. And then there are also bigs knocking on the door.

The establishment

Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, Joakim Noah, and Marc Gasol have set the foundation for what to expect from great players at that position. I would throw Andrew Bogut into that mix, but the nagging injuries make it difficult to put him where The Big Four have gone.

The rebounding and rim-protecting presence are vital to anchor an NBA defense. While Mark Jackson is on record saying that rim protection is overrated, I couldn’t disagree more. In a league predicated on attacking the rim and shooting threes, if you can ask one player to mitigate half of that load, you will be in good shape. Although the offensive game varies among The Big Four, the common thread is a track record of defense. Five out of the past six NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards have gone to these four. (The other was Tyson Chandler, another player who has been coveted around the league for the duration of his career.)

The future

This year alone has seen the rise of two players that can make a huge impact from the center spot: Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz and Hassan Whiteside of the Miami Heat. At 7’0” and 265 lbs., Whiteside in particular made a name for himself after a crazy triple-double against the Chicago Bulls on Sunday…that included 12 BLOCKS. You’d have to roll back the clock to Shawn Bradley in 1998 to find a player who had rejected more shots than that.

Whiteside’s value to the Heat has been instrumental in their ability to string together wins after LeBron took his talents away from South Beach. After losing five in a row beginning in late December, coach Erik Spoelstra entrusted Whiteside with his first 25+ minute game. 11 points, 10 rebounds, and five blocks later, Spo and the team knew they had found something. He’s posted 13-11 and 3.4 blocks in the month of January…in only 24 minutes per game.

Gobert is not an offensive threat (yet) but he’s defensive presence has been a shining spot for the struggling Jazz. Utah is 17-30 in the ultra-competitive Western Conference but is managing to hold opponents to 98.4 points per game. Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, and Gobert man-handled the best team in the West on Friday on the glass. Gobert hauled in 10 rebounds…six on offense. 

I can’t go any farther without mentioning the polarizing DeMarcus Cousins. Cousins has had an interesting week in social media…but not in a bad way.

Boogie finally earned recognition as an NBA All-Star despite the Sacramento Kings struggles. His vocal support of former coach Mike Malone went over well in NBA circles and that bad-boy DMC of previous years appears to have slowly been tamed. He’s even shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc (oh wait, that’s on a grand total of two attempts).

Brooklyn Lopez, Al Horford, Al Jefferson, Andreg Monrommond, DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler…the list goes on and on. As a natural PF who's playing the 5, Anthony Davis is gaining acceptance as a bona-fide superstar.

Why it’s been tough to measure the value of a center

The media’s general affinity for box score statistics does not favor big men. Aside from a 20-rebound game or a 10-block game, it’s difficult to be impressed when Kyrie Irving is going off for 55 and Klay Thompson is setting NBA records. Offense is sexy. Defense is a grind.

Guys like Paul George last year and Draymond Green this year have started to change that trend. Advanced metrics have also had a hand in that change. Player Tracking on is a haven for stat nerds like myself but is also a great place to find the value of the Rudy Gobert’s of the world (opponents are shooting a horrendous 37.1% at the rim against him).

Anthony Davis is well above league average in FG% from virtually everywhere on the floor from less than six feet to greater than 15 feet and is defending all areas relatively equally. The Bird Writes, a New Orleans Pelicans blog, called Davis “basketball’s free safety.

But even advanced metrics have a hard time valuing how big men change shots and often simply their presence alone eliminates or significantly decreases opportunities for opponents to hit the highest percentage shots on the court. 

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So while you won’t see many/any ooh-worthy ball-handling or scoring outbursts from NBA bigs, there is no doubting their value to established teams as well as teams seeking to join the ranks of the playoff teams. And there is plenty of talent in the NBA pool as Kahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid wait in the wings to make their own impact.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

LeBron told Wade on Christmas that they are “gonna re-unite again” [VIDEO]

Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat pulled out a surprising Christmas Day win against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. As if that wasn’t surprising enough, LeBron had some words for his old friend in the post-game.

Start at the 2:44 mark in this video:

It seems pretty clear that LeBron says to Wade “like I said, if we aren’t better this year, we’re gonna re-unite again and do some bigger and better things, alright?”

This goes to show that even when the NBA YouTube account posts something, you never know what kind of trade rumor gold you might find in it. The Cavs have struggled of late, losing three of their last four, including the Christmas Day loss to the Heat.

The highly publicized relationship between LeBron and coach David Blatt has taken such a negative spiral that Sports Illustrated recently published a photo library of the negative body language between the superstar and his coach.

Then there’s this tweet:

To say the least, things have gotten very interesting in Ohio…

h/t for the LeBron-Wade interactions to Heat Nation.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Most Entertaining Players in the NBA, Part II

Back for Part II of our most entertaining NBA players (2014-15 edition), Daniel Fotinich and I finish off our top-5 in the league and it’s going to get a bit crazy by the end. That initial thought Fotinich had that this project would be boring? Well, we saved the best for last. Let me just say some claims have been made… Read for your entertainment!

5. Russell Westbrook

Elijah Abramson: Let me start off by saying how ecstatic I am that he is back on the court. Russell Westbrook is one of the most electrifying players in the game. When this concept for this column first popped into my mind, the former UCLA star was one of the first players that came to mind. In only his fourth game back, he threw down a MONSTER jam against the Pistons and notified the league that he’s baaa-aaack.

I’ve been a huge critic of the way that Westbrook plays but there’s no denying his talent. I think if he had a competent coach, he and Kevin Durant would have a lot fewer moments like this:

Watching the KD-Westbrook dynamic in this play is straight comedy. But you know what? It’s also entertaining!! I gave him 9s across the board in our ranking and will thoroughly enjoy watching him and Durant vie for the eighth seed in the West.

On the note of comedy, watching Stephen A. Smith proclaim the Thunder would finish in the top-five in the West was comedy in its own right. The fifth-seed is around a 54-55 win spot in the West and that means OKC needs to win 76 percent of it’s final 62 games. I don’t see it happening.

Daniel Fotinich: I agree, I love watching Westbrook play. He’s the highest ranked of my“athletic freak point guards” (which also includes John Wall and Kyrie), primarily because of the raw emotion he shows. The celebrations he makes after game-changing plays are extremely entertaining. Nobody else in the league celebrates like he does. I believe that at some point in his career, he will be an alpha dog on a championship team. We need Westbrook to win a ring just to see that post-game celebration, as well as the post-game outfit.
In regards to the playoffs, I agree that the Thunder are unlikely to get the fifth seed or higher. However, do you think they’ll make the playoffs? The West is loaded, and in 2008, the most lopsided year I can remember (can you remember a single decent team from the East that year besides Boston and Cleveland?!), the eighth seed had 50 wins. I imagine it’ll be similar to that this year. I can’t find any odds on the Thunder making the playoffs, but the odds on them winning the West right now are +400, higher than for the Houston Rockets (+900). That might be because if they do make the playoffs, it meant that they peaked at the right time, so I don’t know if its relevant to analyzing if they get in. I think they just sneak in as the 8th seed, and upset the no. 1 seeded Golden State Warriors in the first round.

Abramson: Watching him and KD dismantle the Cavaliers (minus LeBron James) as I write this has been fun. He threw down another one of those highlight reel dunks and manhandled the smaller Irving. Shaq was unsure of whether Irving or Westbrook was better during the Inside the NBA halftime show. And he’s considered a basketball analyst… Anyway....

I actually think the only way that Westbrook wins a championship is as a number-one scoring option. I’m sticking to the position I have held since the inception of Bases and Baskets in mid-2012 that Westbrook and Durant aren’t winning a championship together (especially with Scott Brooks at the helm).

I think the seven- or eight-seed is reasonable which does scare me if the Warriors remain atop the conference. I was actually hoping the Thunder’s odds would drop to around +1500 or so and then very seriously consider throwing down on them as conference champions or even NBA champs. There might be some late-season “tanking” where teams jockey for match-ups. How the rest of OKC’s regular season pans out will have a lot to do with that.

3. LeBron James

Fotinich: There isn’t much that hasn’t been said about LeBron James. Not only is he an athletic marvel, but he’s one of the very few players that has matched the hype that preceded his rise. Without a doubt, expectations for LeBron were sky high coming into the league, and his narcissistic tattoos (“King James,” really?) didn’t necessarily help things. And you know what? He’s matched and likely exceeded anything people reasonably expected of him. If he retires today, he’s one of the top 10 players in league history. He’s a four-time MVP. And in regard to entertainment, I hold my breath every time I see LeBron careening to the basket like a runaway train. If you’re a top-10 player of all time, you’re on this list.

The main reason that LeBron isn’t ranked slightly higher is that we are so used to his greatness. It’s hard to believe, but this is actually his 12th NBA season. If he were to retire after this season, he would’ve already played more minutes than Larry Bird. The recent flood of articles that ask the question “Has LeBron peaked already?” only highlight his greatness further, because if he hasn’t peaked yet, you might as well give Cleveland the championship already.

Abramson: The man who landed a job at ESPN because of LeBron, Brian Windhorst, actually wrote an interesting piece recently on the decline of the King’s athleticism. Like you said, even now we still expect grand things from him and his singular brilliance influences ticket prices. He’s a statistical, athletic, and entertainment anomaly. And I think calling him a top-10 all-time great is actually underselling him. In one of my new-age analysis rankings, I compared the greats and wound up with him sitting among the top FIVE greats of all time...and keep in mind he STILL hasn’t hit age 30 yet!!

I agree with the premise in Windhorst’s column, though. His flashy athleticism has waned to a degree. We don’t see the same frequency of jaw-dropping freak-of-nature plays as much as we did four to six years ago. That’s why he was fourth in my ranking of most entertaining players today.

Fotinich: In regard to whether he is in decline, we need more information, but its certainly possible.. The 30-point loss to the Hawks the other night was embarrassing, and while that isn’t all on James, he’s failing the eye test in regard to his strength. The Paleo diet may have been the wrong choice, since he’s sacrificed his signature brute strength for athleticism, which might not have been an appropriate choice given his age and wear/tear. I think your prediction of LeBron shooting 57% from the field this year is working out just as well as my “Lance Stephenson the All-Star” prediction.

While I disagree with you that LeBron is a top-5 player of all-time if he retires today, I will admit that even 50 years from now, people will remember that they saw him play. His stats look like they’re from a video game. On another note, Windhorst should definitely be paying at least a 25% royalty on his paycheck to LeBron.

Abramson: Shhhhh, 57 percent? Who said that?

3. Kevin Durant

Abramson: Watching him go down in the Warriors-OKC game on December 19th was brutal. He was LIGHTING up the best defense in the league. 30 points in 19 minutes… that’s just not normal. He toys with defenses like Ron MettapeacePanda would with anyone who physically challenges him. Hopefully he's back from RE-injury soon.

Basketball, at it’s finest, is an art. Durant has the mastery of the offensive game like one of two players in the game today (the other whom I gave a perfect 30 in this ranking…). It’s beautiful to watch someone like him pull-up from three, step-back at the elbow, then throw down an alley-oop. For a slender figure, he sure has proven you can succeed even if your upper body doesn’t look like Michelangelo chiseled it from some ideal basketball physique. There’s a lot to love about the OKC superstar.

He was no. 2 in my ranking for all of these reasons. I love me some LeBron James but offensive basketball as an art is Kevin Durant.

Fotinich: I still remember when Kevin Durant couldn’t bench 185 pounds before the NBA draft in 2007 and everybody wondered, “Wait, is this guy trying to play small forward?” Fast forward seven years, and Portland taking Greg Oden over KD seems as bad of a mistake as taking Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan (that was Portland too?! Oh, ok).

The first time I watched KD play for an extended period of time was the Lakers-Thunder first-round series in the 2010 playoffs. The eighth seeded Thunder took the Lakers to six games, and were one Gasol offensive rebound away from going back to Staples Center with a chance to pull off the shocking upset. However, Metta World Peace (then known as Ron Artest) locked KD down throughout the series, holding him to 35% shooting and an even lower % from 3. I watched the series wondering how KD would ever shoot 45% from the field, given the types of shots that he was being forced to take. Since then, he has refined his game in every aspect and has become the best offensive player in the league. Shooting 50% from the field is already incredible in the NBA, but its even more incredible when you’re mainly shooting jump shots while being double-teamed. The best adjective I could use to describe KD’s game is “smooth." It has been amazing watching KD grow, and I still believe that he could average 35ppg in a full season.

Abramson: There’s no doubting he was a premiere defender in his heyday but Metta WorldArtest is now known as The Panda’s Friend...but realistically who can keep up with his name changes? He’s definitely his own man and has had an interesting path of nicknames while The Slim Reaper never caught on with Durant. I think he’s okay with that though, his Nike deal was astronomical.

1. Steph Curry

Fotinich: Non-biased opinion here - Steph Curry might be my favorite player to watch today. I’ve always been a fan of great shooters, and Curry might be the greatest shooter of all time. Here’s the most fascinating part about Curry’s career 43.4% three-point percentage. Just about all of the guys historically known for their three-point shooting have been exclusively catch-and-shoot guys (Kyle Korver, Steve Kerr) or primarily catch-and-shoot guys (Reggie Miller, Ray Allen). Curry is the primary ball-handler on this Warriors team, so he catches-and-shoots about once in a blue moon. I don’t have any “next generation stats” on this, but I’m pretty sure that almost all of Curry’s three-point attempts are contested. And he’s still shooting 43%? That’s amazing. In advance of Kobe’s retirement, I’m also nominating “Curry!” to become the phrase to shout when somebody makes a crazy shot in a pick-up game. He’s that good.

Abramson: Hmmm… You had one player ranked higher than Steph on the most entertaining players ranking so I need a bit of clarification on how he can also be your favorite player to watch. I equated most entertaining with favorite to watch hence why I gave Steph the only perfect 30 and my top spot in this ranking. In my basketball-watching lifetime, the most entertaining players to watch (no particular order) to me are: Shaq, Steph, Durant, Westbrook, The Answer, Wade, and the Suns rendition of Amare (still have a poster of him somewhere in my room…).

I’ve written extensively on Steph here on Bases and Baskets, most recently on a well-received feature on his much improved defense. Not sure if I’m the captain of the boat but I have to be up there leading the S.S. Steph in saying he’s the best PG in the league (since April), a top-five player in the NBA, and I even wrote up a specific comparison saying that he’s better than Russell Westbrook. Not sure how that Westbrook comparison is looking right now, but to me, Steph has to sit atop the ranking of most entertaining NBA players.

Fotinich: I’ll clarify exactly why I put one player ahead of Steph in a moment, but its absolutely a close call. He’s a solid no. 2 in my opinion. It also makes me relieved that his ankle problems seem to be an issue of the past; we haven’t been hearing about that in over a year. Golden State didn’t give him the full max mainly due to those recurring issues, and since that extension, he’s been the best value non-rookie contract in the league. Steph ($10.6m) is making less than JaVale McGee ($11.3m) this year!

I saw Steph play in person during Kobe’s 34-shot game earlier this year, and he makes shooting threes look so effortless. His shot gets off faster than most guys in the league (I don’t think I’ve seen a Steph three get blocked), and he can shoot it from anywhere. Its amazing to watch.

1. Blake Griffin

Abramson: Although I had him third, the law of averages brought up him to no. 1 and I can’t say that I’m surprised. We’ve both jockeyed for our own guys (I have Steph and KD ahead of BG) but in the end, the finishing half of Lob City got the no. 1 spot. This is hard for me because as a Warriors fan, I detest the Clippers. However, it’s hard not to like Blake and DeAndre as a tandem. (One of the ESPN guys compared DeAndre to Bill Russell on Christmas but that’s the subject of a whole different column.) When you think of star factor (he’s in LA), unique factor (daily posters), and WTF factor (did he pull up from 20 and then just take Draymond to the rim off the dribble for a flush?) he has each going for him.

Now...there is some drama stirring that Bill Simmons pointed out just a couple days after Christmas. Pull up the popcorn to see what happens...

New Hollywood soap opera anybody?

Fotinich: I picked Blake first, and to me, its an easy choice. Having been to several Clipper games since they drafted Griffin, I know the unwritten rule: “Never leave your seat when Blake is on the court”. I broke this rule during my first Clipper game, and when I returned to my seat, my little sister was sitting with her mouth agape. Of course, I missed a signature Blake Griffin jam.

Without a doubt, Griffin has evolved into a more complete player over the past few seasons. He’s averaging 4.7 assists/game (seriously) and shooting more consistently from outside of ten feet. As for his entertainment value, however, its his ridiculous dunking ability that earns him my no. 1 spot. I’ve never seen any of the greatest dunkers in person, but from watching highlights and reading articles, I agree with many that Blake Griffin is the best dunker in history. Dunking has been central to NBA entertainment for years, so it makes sense that the best dunker is ranked as the most entertaining player in the NBA. His near-fight arguments with opponents (seemingly during every game) boost his entertainment value even further.

In regard to the Clippers themselves, I can’t believe that they’re only sixth in the West despite being on pace for a 55-win season. I still think they have  as good of a chance as anybody to make it out of the West, but it will be a bloodbath throughout. Regardless, Blake Griffin is the most entertaining player in the league.


HOLD UP. There can be debate over many things in the NBA, I’ll give you that. But if we’re talking about best dunkers in modern era players and not including the game-changing value of guys like Dr. J and Clyde the Glyde or The Human Highlight Reel, this question is a can of corn. Vince Carter is hands down the greatest of all time. There is no debate.

And somehow THIS dunk didn’t even make it on there!!

Blake Griffin, the greatest of all time? You should be disqualified from basketball analysis for saying that. The combination of power and acrobatics from this guy was bar NONE. And what about Jason Richardson??? I’m still shaking my head. We’ll see if anyone reads this far and comments on this subject. I do appreciate the nostalgia of re-watching some Vinsanity, though, so thank you for that. This guy was a piece of work and man...if only he and T-Mac stayed together in Toronto. The Raps would hardly need the publicity from Drake.

As I’m recovering from the shock of reading Blake is the greatest of all time, I must say this has been an enjoyable 5,000+ word double-column. In the end, basketball needs entertainment to fill the seats. And Steph Curry, BG, KD, LeBron, and Kobe are a privilege to watch.

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Our combined score for the players that we ranked in the top-5 were as follows:

5. Russell Westbrook (53)
3. LeBron James (54)
3. Kevin Durant (54)
1. Steph Curry (56)
1. Blake Griffin (56)