Friday, April 4, 2014

Why Steph Curry is the best point guard in the NBA

Whenever discussion of the best point guard in the NBA comes up, the answer usually defaults on either Chris Paul or Rajon Rondo. Although the love for Rondo this year has diminished as a result of his early-season injury, his championship pedigree has earned him the position among the NBA’s elite. Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker are also premiere point guards who are in the debate for that top tier but something is still missing with both, a thought we'll hold onto for later.

But when you look at a guy that you could unequivocally build a contender around, you have to give the edge to Warriors point guard, Steph Curry.

Despite his small stature, Curry improved in scoring output in each of his five seasons in the league while simultaneously improving his playmaking for teammates by dishing out dimes at a higher rate as well. Once he was given reigns of the organization after the Monta Ellis trade, the team has improved astronomically.

The front office from owner Joe Lacob to GM Bob Myers has certainly been pivotal in saving basketball in the Bay Area, bringing in pieces that fit well with each other and under Mark Jackson. But the foundation of the improvement is Steph Curry. Unlike any other point guard in the league, Curry possesses the unique capability of being an unselfish leader…who can also score from anywhere on the floor. You can watch a Warriors game and wonder why Curry isn’t shooting more than he already is.

He reminded us, too, that he can do things like this with the game on the line…in overtime and in a critical game in the playoff race. And finishing it off with grounds for a new hashtag trend never hurts either. #WeOut

That scoring capability is something that Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo simply don’t have. Neither are really go-to scorers in the final minutes of the game like Curry is. He possesses the LeBron James-esque nature to flash back and forth between facilitating and scoring. This brilliance is both effective from the team’s standpoint and also from a pure entertainment standpoint. Stephen A. Smith has pointed out multiple times on First Take that there isn’t a more fun team to watch.

Tony Parker is a tough case to look at because while he is individually talented, the Popovich system has endowed success on a whole generation of Spurs players surrounded by Pop and the greatest power forward of all time, Tim Duncan. I think of Pop’s Spurs a lot like Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots in the NFL: the coach and his superstar run the show, and everyone else fits in. Somehow you can always book on their teams being competitive. Always. Even if their star is a future Hall of Famer is 37 years old going on 38. Parker is in that limbo state where you can’t quite make up your mind on his individual talent because the team he runs is a classic example of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

But with Kawhi Leonard’s recent surge to the center of the organization, Parker has to be in that top second tier of point guards in the NBA today that you want to both a) win now and b) have to help you win in the future.

Russell Westbrook is a monstrous competitor and a perennial All-Star but he is really more of an undersized shooting guard running the point who can have a tendency to get into his own head a bit at times. High energy has led him to some boneheaded turnovers in the past and a career-high TO per game this year at 4.0.

Curry’s prowess is second-to-none, but I would be remiss to neglect the areas where he still can—and will—improve. Crazy one-handed overhead passes off of pick-and-rolls have led Curry to a career-high 3.7 turnovers per game. That highlights some poor decision-making of his which has been a problem for the Warriors in their home losses to some of the league’s bottom-tier teams. This is something that will be remedied with time because the increased load on Curry’s shoulders is new to the 26-year-old.

The demand to support his team in all facets of the game offensively has strained his efficiency from behind the three-point line to the point where he’s shooting a “terrible” career-low of 42 percent on threes. All of this while hovering around the top of the league in usage rate at almost 30 percent.

Defensively, Curry takes a lot of heat, and I would argue unfairly so. The eye-test certainly leans you to believe that he isn’t quick enough to keep up with guys like John Wall and Chris Paul, but he still fairs rather well in all defensive metrics. Hauling in four rebounds a game and 1.5 steals per game is rather remarkable for a guy who is 185 pounds. If you buy Ben Morris’ study that found a steal is worth nine points and is by far the most irreplaceable box score stat, then Curry fairs quite well, trailing only CP3 in this category among star point guards. Even in defensive win shares, one of a host of advanced metrics measuring a player’s defensive value, Curry just barely falls outside of the top-20 players in the league.

Steals are clearly something that are rare (and apparently 96 percent irreplaceable per

I don’t think even the most ardent Curry supporter would argue he is a wizard on the defensive side of the ball but he is far from terrible.

Numbers hardly give the full picture of what a player does but Curry clearly ranks among the league’s best in a host of critical categories, including scoring (sixth in the league), assists (fourth), threes made (first), minutes (15th), FT percentage (sixth), and even turnovers (second. Oh wait, that’s not a good thing). Sometimes he can be a little spacey on the floor looking like he's thinking about who knows what (maybe Klay has rubbed off on him in that realm?) but he clearly has mutual respect going with his coach and the respect of all his teammates.

So mark me down as the first player who lays claim to the belief that Curry's vast skillset makes him the most valuable, and thus best, point guard. You could build a roster will many types of players and work around him as the featured scorer or featured facilitator and succeed more than any other point guard. The only other floor general close in this debate would be Chris Paul.

And, of course, you could do what the Warriors are doing right now which is use him as both...and make him what Bill Simmons called a future MVP candidate.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Kobe vs. LeBron: Why 61 was more impressive than 81

To say that LeBron James’ 61-point performance is more impressive than Kobe Bryant’s 81 might, at first glance, appear to defy mathematical logic. On Monday night, LeBron scored from everywhere. But he was still a staggering 20 points behind what Kobe poured in on a January night in 2006 against the Toronto Raptors.

I’m here to say that even with that differential in mind, LeBron James scoring 61 points is more impressive and important to his legacy than Kobe’s 81.

One of the huge (and valid) critiques of his game earlier in his career was the fact that LeBron couldn’t hit a three if he could jump far enough to dunk from behind the three-point line. His rookie season he shot less than 30 percent from beyond the arc and only averaged 33 percent there for the first eight seasons of his career. For a man who could rebound, facilitate, play outstanding defense, his one major flaw was the fact that he couldn’t shoot...from outside.

This performance put a stamp on LeBron’s effort to improve his three-point shot. Since losing to the Mavericks in 2011, he has shot 39 percent (!) from deep. And in his 61-point effort, he hit 8-of-10…a number that would be considered absurd shooting for a game, LeBron did from 3 as part of a 61-point show. By comparison, Kobe hit 7-of-13 in his 81-point game. In Michael Jordan’s 69-point game, he was 2-of-6.

Here is a one-minute clip with all eight of LeBron's threes from Mondaywith the final one being a good 30-feet from the basket.

Keith Olbermann went on a rant just a couple days ago proclaiming all of the reasons why LeBron’s performance was far from memorable. He was quick to mention that Carmelo Anthony scored 62 just 38 days earlier. (Of note: Anthony, too, did not make more or shoot more efficiently from three than LeBron.) That was also followed up by a discussion of Kobe’s brilliant scoring performances. Olbermann forgot one big thing that most other people neglect, as well.

Kobe, Carmelo, and Jordan all are shoot-first players whose teams depend on them to put points on the board. While LeBron gets his shots, he is known for being an efficiency player. His FGA per game has decreased over each of the last four years. His FG% on the other hand has increased in each of the previous eight seasons.

For an efficiency scorer, as opposed to a volume scorer, you wouldn’t expect a LeBron James-type player to score 60+ simply because that’s not what his game is predicated on. We know that LeBron brings to the table a playmaker’s mentality as opposed to just a scorer’s mentality. This is well exhibited in the fact that LeBron already has more triple doubles (30) than Michael Jordan did in his entire career (28) and Kobe Bryant thus far (17).

High scoring performances are needed to validate the greatness of someone like Kobe Bryant. One of the defining moments in Bryant’s career is that performance because it is the top of the mountain of a career built on scoring. LeBron’s 61, on the other hand, validates the fact that he can score in bunches. It adds another piece to the growing masterful puzzle of a great career.

LeBron’s 61 may not be more than Kobe’s 81, but it is more impressive.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

2014 NBA Trade Rumors: Kevin Love to the Golden State Warriors

Kevin Love’s monstrous numbers carried Minnesota to some impressive victories in the month of February. Although the Timberwolves started off just 1-6, they finished strong behind the lead of Love. Wins over the Indiana Pacers and rising Phoenix Suns helped quiet anyone who said Kevin Love’s numbers are "just numbers." But when you put into context just how ridiculous his performance last month (and this season) is, it is easy to paint the picture of how the former UCLA star is one of the best players in the NBA today.

Minnesota’s All-Star power forward led the league in the month of February in points (34 per game) and rebounds (14 per game) and also made 3.0 threes per game. He averaged more PPG than three-time scoring champion, Kevin Durant, more RPG than Dwight Howard, and more 3PM per game than sharp-shooter Kyle Korver. In an 11-day (three game) stretch, he hit 17-of-31 threes—at least five in each game. The numbers go on and on, but the outlook is that his career in Minnesota is coming to a close.

According to the 2011 NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement, teams cannot trade until the final game of their season has concluded, but the wheels should already be turning in the Minnesota front office. If they don’t, the Timberwolves risk the same fate that the Lakers had in losing Dwight Howard for nothing…and the fate of the 2014 Knicks as Carmelo Anthony likely bids New York adieu.

Rumors have already swirled around the Lakers maneuvering for Kevin Love. First instincts say it makes sense since Love is both a UCLA alumnus and a Santa Monica native. But when you look at the state of the Lakers courtesy of Kobe Bryant’s huge contract, Love would be re-living a miserable experience in another franchise in the midst of rebuilding. More importantly, Los Angeles has nothing to bring to the table on their end of a potential trade.

Unless the Lakers get a top-draft choice, this is all but impossible.
Golden State, on the other hand, would be a perfect partner for the T'wolves in a trade of the three-time NBA All-Star. The Warriors have deep roster ready to contend in the Western conference both now and into the future with a young core. They also can afford to give up a couple pieces to the Timberwolves to land the league’s premiere power forward. My trade scenario:

Golden State Warriors get Kevin Love
Minnesota Timberwolves get David Lee and Harrison Barnes

The Warriors should say yes to this trade in a heartbeat. Although Kevin Love is another big contract on the books, trading away David Lee helps mitigate that problem and even though Harrison Barnes has shown flashes of his potential, the Warriors could manage without him. With the pieces they already have, Mark Jackson could give more minutes to Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala at the 3 and even Klay Thompson, as necessary. Barnes' next contract would also likely strain the Warriors finances.

David Lee is Steph Curry’s primary pick-and-roll partner, and while I am a firm believer in Lee’s value to the Warriors, his jump-shot has taken a turn for the worse. Kevin Love brings a flexibility to run not just the P&R, but also the pick-and-pop. This frees up the paint for Curry to operate as a playmaker because Kevin Love’s jumper has to be respected.

David Lee's 2013 (left) and 2014 (right) shot charts. That mid-range game has decreased dramatically...
A starting lineup of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Love, and Andrew Bogut would be shooters galore. And with the recent addition of Steve Blake, the Warriors could conceivably have three of the best shooters in the league roaming around for catch-and-shoot opportunities. Kevin Love on the perimeter gives Thompson/Curry/Iguodala/Crawford a chance to take the ball to the basket and Love on the inside opens up the perimeter. As Grantland’s Chris Ryan said, Love isn’t a franchise cornerstone. What he could do for the Warriors is give them a more powerful shot in the Wild West.

Would Minnesota say yes? Although the Timberwolves aren’t receiving a Love-caliber All-Star, they are buying potential with Harrison Barnes. The Black Falcon has a calm, cool attitude on the court that is exactly what you want in a scorer. His inconsistency in 2014 mirrors that of the Warriors, but regaining a starters role could really benefit Barnes in the long-term because he did have success there with the 2013 Warriors.

In case you’ve forgotten, Barnes put up two 25+ point performances vs. San Antonio in the 2013 conference semifinals (also two double-doubles, and two 50+ minutes played games). He also had a pair of 20+ point performances in the first round against Denver.

David Lee helps give Harrison Barnes some familiarity on a new team and gives the Timberwolves assurance that they have a consistent player who can put up 20-10 on a nightly basis. Don't forget he was a 2013 NBA All-Star.

Barring a three-team trade, not only is this a reasonable deal for the Timberwolves, but it’s also probably the best one they are going to get. The only chance that Minnesota receives a player of higher trade value is if the Clippers agree to a Love for Blake Griffin deal—which looks increasingly unlikely after Griffin’s drastic improvement in the first months of 2014. And even then, the combo of Lee and Barnes would be more valuable for Minnesota.