Friday, January 17, 2014

Durant scores career-high 54 as Thunder top the Warriors, 127-121


In a battle of two of the best teams in the Western conference, the game lived up to the expectations as three of the NBA’s most potent scorers got off to hot starts. Kevin Durant, who finished with a career-high 54 points, started off 10-for-11 from the field and the Splash Brothers started off their night raining down a combined 9-for-12 from three.

The score after one quarter was 39-32 in what was destined to be a shootout all night long. The problems arose for the Golden State Warriors where they have been all year: free throws. There was a stretch in the first quarter where Hack-a-Bogut, Steph Curry, and David Lee combined to miss seven consecutive free throws. It’s beyond me how a team that is so prolific from outside the arc is so poor when they’re at the line. Draymond Green, a guy I believe is one of the most underrated players in the league, has shot down from 82 percent from the line last year to 56 percent this year. And Andre Iguodala, despite his defensive playmaking and offensive facilitating, is just as bad on freebies.

That simply did not bode well but with Curry and Thompson shooting out of their mind, the Warriors stayed in the game. Curry and Thompson combined to finish with 63 points and 12-of-19 from three.

Offensive rebounding was huge for the Oklahoma City Thunder which led to multiple second chance opportunities despite the fact that both teams finished with the same number of rebounds on the offensive glass (12). When Golden State tried to slow down the scoring machine that was Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka was there to hit mid-range jumper after mid-range jumper…a much improved area of his game. Kirk Goldsberry pointed out in a recent article that the man from Congo has the best midrange shot in the game ahead of the likes of Chris Paul, Luke Ridnour, and Chris Bosh. Now, of course he’s not creating for himself like his teammate Kevin Durant or his opponent today, Steph Curry, but it’s impressive nonetheless as this graphic shows.


Harrison Barnes, who leads the Warriors second squad, was non-existent today which really hurt. 0-of-4 from the field and no free throw attempts will not help what is already the league’s worst scoring bench. Golden State should have hope in their recent acquisition of Jordan Crawford, however, who managed eight points on 3-of-4 from the field and 2-of-2 from downtown in limited minutes. There certainly is a chance that this guy can put on his best Jarrett Jack impersonation for this Warriors team. Jack averaged 13 points, 6 assists, and three rebounds for the Warriors in 2013, and thus far this year, Crawford averages a nearly identical 14-6-3 (but in a starting role for Boston).

In the end, though, OKC’s scoring was too much. When a team goes 58 percent from the field and 73 percent from the line…it’s going to be tough to beat that. Kevin Durant was hitting everything from everywhere, from step-back jumpers and threes to backdoor cuts and drives to the rim. He was, as Jon Barry mentioned about 5,412,089 times on the ESPN broadcast, unstoppable. It’s one of those nights that you tip your hat to the player who is favored to win the NBA MVP and is averaging 35 points in the month of January.

Oklahoma City’s next game is Sunday against the Kings as they continue their three-game home-stand and Golden State heads to New Orleans to face the Pelicans tomorrow before a long homestand.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Top 10 NBA players of 2014


Despite Michael Jordan and other retired Hall of Famers repeatedly denigrating this league “easier” to play in than previous generations, the top players in the NBA today are as good as they have been in the history of the game. The guys I’m going to mention in this top-10 list are all box-office, franchise players. Part of the fun of being a fan of the game is ranking the best in the game, so with half of the NBA season completed and 2014 just underway, it’s time to start the debate.

The scary thing is that three big-name players won’t be here because of injuries: Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, and Rajon Rondo. The truth is that even if they were healthy, based on how they played just before they fell to injury, I’d say only one player on that list is worthy of consideration for top-10 and it’s probably the last person you would guess…Rajon Rondo. You can chalk me up to a believer that Kobe’s too old to be in this group and Rose’s body just can’t keep up with him. I’d be happy to be proven wrong but that’s a debate for when they return. Now onto the best in the league right now:

JUST MISSED OUT ON TOP-10 STATUS

Because it took so long to decipher who was worthy of this elite status, I think it would be remiss to neglect the guys who are just below top-10. In no particular order, those five are all franchise players in themselves but just aren’t quite at that top-10 level right now. If he can get and stay healthy, one day Anthony Davis could be the best player in the game. That would be a scary proposition for the rest of the league. There are virtually no elite dual-threat offensive and defensive big men, the last of which was a perennial contender and repeated champion, Tim Duncan (who deserves mention in this discussion even at age 37). Pair a guy like AD with an elite guard and maybe you have Parker-Duncan 2.0.

I originally put Flash at no. 9 but as a fan of his, the truth is that he isn’t as good as the guy I put in his place.

THE “WORST” OF THE BEST


Only Los Angeles and Orlando have a right to hate Dwight Howard—and even that is questionable. This guy is a great player and while he may have shot down a couple spots since my top 10 players of 2013 ranking, he’s still the best center in the game. The fact that he’s only no. 10 on this list shows that this has become a league trending away from the traditional center. His per 36 numbers are still incredible at 19 points, 14 rebounds, and two blocks per game. Those bricks he throws up from the free throw line are a liability and while we can laugh that his field goal percentage (57) is higher than his free-throw percentage (54), Howard (and the guy at no. 9) still have the Rockets 10 games above .500 in a very deep Western conference.


The other half of the big duo in Houston, James Harden is a superstar scorer. His defense on the other hand…


But in a league where the solution to winning is often scoring more points rather than giving up less, only a handful of the players ahead of Harden on this list are more capable in that category. In fact, if you throw up Harden’s numbers the past two seasons against some of Kobe Bryant’s during his prime you might just be surprised how comparable they are…


The Knicks are terrible. This is a well-known fact. However, this doesn’t take away from just how potent Melo is offensively. 26 points, nine rebounds, 1.2 steals per game on 45 percent from the field and 85 percent from the line is about as good as it gets. Where Melo is often underrated is his mere 2.2 turnovers per game. You’d have to go down to the 15th ranked scorer, Arron Afflalo, to find another non-big man who turns the ball over as little as Anthony. To compound just how impressive that is, Melo uses (a third-highest in the league) 31 percent of his team’s offensive possessions when he’s on the court. You know he’s going to shoot, and you still can’t stop it. Maybe he won’t end up with the Bulls, like I proposed, but he sure is out of New York after this year.

“YOU WOULD BE CRAZY TO TRADE ME” GROUP


The devastating meniscus injury proved exactly how valuable Russell Westbrook is to the Thunder…and his recent re-injury of that same right knee is worrisome. However, his track record of an injury-free college career as well as an injury-free NBA career up until the freak accident against Houston is great and as such I am not worried for him nor his team. OKC’s recent loss to the lowly Utah Jazz (without Westbrook) proves again that as great as Kevin Durant is, he cannot do it on his own. Westbrook’s 21 points, seven assists, and six rebounds per game are hard to make up for even though he is shooting only 42 percent from the field on 18 FGA per game. Wedged right in at no. 7, Westbrook can claim the throne of the NBA’s most explosive player.


I find it remarkable that a guy who is 6’3” and 185 pounds can be so effective as a scorer. If you look at all of the other great scorers in the game, most are substantially taller (LeBron, Durant, Melo, even Harden is 6’5”…) and bigger. But his smooth stroke is what makes him, in my opinion, the most exciting player in the game to watch. And the guy can’t even dunk!! Curry’s shooting numbers aren’t as eye-popping as they were last year, but that should not come as a surprise after the off-season loss of Jack and Landry, and the more recent Iguodala injury. I do expect his numbers to improve since Iguodala has returned and the grueling part of Golden State’s schedule is over. Although it is sometimes at the sacrifice of turnovers, he is also one of the most creative playmakers capable of keeping his Splash brother teammates involved with almost 10 assists per game.


SUPERSTARS


The second-best two-way player in the league, the impossible argument can be made that PG24 deserves the NBA’s most improved player award for the second year in a row. In the span of two years, he elevated from average to star to superstar…that’s not normal. Moreso than any other player not named LeBron, he can do anything and everything on the basketball court. Although Indiana’s impressive record is inflated by the fact that they play in the Eastern conference, the truth is that the expected 2014 Eastern conference finals matchup will be a battle of two top-five players in the league. The main reason he doesn’t land higher in this ranking is because the four ahead of him are established elite players…come back to me after this season ends and maybe he’s climbed up a spot or two in my books.


If I were to draw up the perfect point guard…never mind, that’s not necessary because this guy is basically just that. Floor general, elite perimeter defender, playmaker, level-headed personality, scorer when he needs to be, reasonable outside shooter, and all in a smaller frame than even Steph Curry at 6’0” and 175. The Clippers will be in the heart of the fight for the Western conference if they can hold on while CP3 nurses his shoulder injury. With Doc Rivers and the best PG in the league, (at least until we can see what Rajon Rondo has to say about that) don't sleep on Los Angeles.


Kevin Love’s loyalty to Minnesota thus far is impressive and also eerily familiar to two stars of this era, LeBron James and Kevin Garnett, who played for subpar teams for too long. Miraculously, Minnesota is hanging around a .500 record in the West. Like LeBron deserved in Cleveland, you can thank Kevin Love for that. Even more frustratingly, that .500 record would be good for a four or five seed in the East. And like the Kevin that preceded him in Minnesota, Love’s legacy is likely tainted by the fact that he has played with insufficient supporting casts.

The most versatile big man in the game, what’s brought Kevin to the next level of superstardom is his passing. While averaging a career-high points per game, threes made per game, and FG percentage, he’s also nearly doubled his assists per game output. Adrien Kaeslin of Squeeze the Orange delved further into the nuances of his versatility as a passer but here’s a quick glimpse into what he can offer as a passer:


Hey guys, it’s…Kevin!


Seriously though, Durant has had been on another planet this season. The scoring leader had a four-game stretch in December where he put up 30 points on 61 percent from the field, 65 from THREE and 91 from the line. You can’t do that in NBA 2K14. Not only has he been putting up superhuman scoring numbers in the West but he’s also sporting career highs in rebounds, assists, and steals. Durant is the favorite to win the MVP and the clear second-best player in the league, but here’s an interesting thought experiment: put Durant on the Timberwolves and Love on the Thunder…could that answer change? It’s a lot like the Kevin Garnett vs. Tim Duncan debate where what team you’re on matters more than you might think to our perception of an individual player.


Maybe he’s playing it a bit more conservative this year than previously but playing about 100 games in each of the past two seasons allows you to do that. In career low minutes per game, LeBron still averages 26 a game and the usual 7-and-7 assists and rebounds. The real transcendent number would be if he could up his 59 percent from the field to 60 even though almost 50 percent of his shots are from more than eight feet from the basket (per NBA.com/stats). He reminded everybody on Christmas that he’s still a freakish athlete who’s the best, and greatest, player in the NBA in 2014.



Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Even Stevens: The Emergence of Boston’s New Head Coach


On July 3rd, I was walking down Commonwealth Ave. in Boston when I got a text from one of my friends. It read something like this:

“BRAD STEVENS!!!!!!!”

For a moment I was confused. Why was my friend texting me about the Butler basketball coach? I also noticed I had some Team Stream notifications on my phone. Then it hit me. The Celtics had been looking for a replacement for Doc Rivers, and they had just found it. I let out an audible expletive in celebration. Where the hell did this come from? How had the Celtics landed one of the brightest coaches in the NCAA, and how did it go completely under the radar? Surely there would have been some kind of leak days before the hiring, or at least word that the Celtics had talked to Stevens. Nope. There was nothing. In terms of best kept secrets of 2013, it was right up there with Beyonce’s album dropping and the Breaking Bad finale.

The response around the league was overwhelmingly positive. Everyone agreed Stevens was a fantastic coach. The consensus in Boston was that the Celtics had made a brilliant move.  Fans had something to be excited about for the first time after the draft night trade that sent Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett (and Jason Terry, too, I guess) to the Nets. That night was a heartbreaking one for Boston fans, but the signing of Stevens was a beacon of hope for the future.

But seeds of doubt had been planted before the training camp had even started. The track record of college coaches succeeding in the NBA was against the new coach, and people claimed that he and all-star point guard Rajon Rondo would not get along, their relationship doomed from the start. Claims, I might add, that were made before Stevens ever so much as picked up a phone to call Rondo.

I was at the TD Garden for the Celtics first preseason game back in October. I bought a ticket for eight dollars (yes, on purpose) and found a nice seat in the first row on the floor right at the end of the Celtics’ tunnel. I snapped this picture of the first time Stevens walked onto the court.

Still waiting for that call from SI’s photo department..
I wanted to be there that night, in that building. I wanted to be a part of ushering in the new era: The Brad Stevens Era. The Celtics lost to Toronto that night, but I spent more time watching Stevens than the actual game. His actions, his reactions, his mannerisms, everything. He just looked like he belonged.

Flash forward four months, and the Celtics are flip flopping nightly with Toronto for the Atlantic Division. (It’s funny to watch them switch back and forth from the fourth seed to the eighth seed on a daily basis.) Their record may not impress many, but it has certainly impressed the city of Boston. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year, and fans and analysts everywhere had decreed them lottery-bound before opening night. The over-under for win total was twenty-seven games.  A quarter way through the season, they have nearly half that, and that’s without Rajon Rondo as well. It is entirely possible that this Celtics team wins 40 games.

I’m not entirely sure that Danny Ainge counted on Stevens having this much success in his first year. The way the roster was put together indicates that Danny’s intention was not to make the playoffs. That doesn’t mean he is intentionally trying to lose, just that his goal is not to win. With the combination of young coaches, young players, and accumulation of assets, the goal is development. Now, nearly half way through the season, it seems development is happening far more quickly than anticipated

It’s not unfair to give most of the credit to Brad Stevens. For the most part, the players that are playing well were there last year: Crawford, Sullinger, Bradley, Green, Bass. Now, some of this increased production can be attributed to increases in minutes and opportunity. This Celtics team has a new look, so players are carving out new roles for themselves. But most of these guys are doing things they probably wouldn’t be doing under other coaches.

Jordan Crawford is playing point guard, and he’s playing it well. He is a key factor in this team’s success, and his performance so far this year has been  a revelation for a team that’s had habitual backup point guard problems. Would any other coach have made the call to play Crawford at point? It’s possible, but not probable. Stevens coached against Crawford when he as at Xavier, so he knows what he’s capable of. He trusted Crawford and Crawford rewarded him.

Jared Sullinger is shooting three pointers this season. Sullinger had an impressive rookie campaign that was cut short by back surgery, so it’s tough to say whether or not that shot would have come eventually. Given Doc Rivers’ history with bigs shooting the three, I’m going to guess no. Back in November, I remember seeing a tweet that Stevens had the entire team taking threes at the end of practice. Not even the bigs were supposed to pass up an open three. Not Vitor Faverani, not Kris Humphries, and especially not Jared Sullinger. Is he shooting it well? Not really. He’s just at 30% from the arc so far this season, but that will only improve. This is the season for him to develop that shot, and adding the three to Sully’s arsenal will make him a bona-fide scoring threat.


Avery Bradley has become a shooting machine. As a player known almost solely for his lockdown defense, this comes as a surprise. But Bradley was given the green light by Stevens, and is averaging more than 13 shots per game, the highest on the team. That’s more than offensive centerpiece Jeff Green (12.6 FGA) and the trigger-happy Jordan Crawford (11.2 FGA). What’s more is that he’s shooting it well too. He’s 46% from the field and 40% from behind the arc. Bradley has received much criticism for his lack of offense in previous years, but not this year. He’s doing it on both ends of the floor.

These are just a few highlighted examples of  major improvements guys have made. Really, the whole team is playing well, not only individually but collectively. Their defense has been surprisingly effective for a young team. Through November, Boston’s defense was ranked 8th in the league. It has since slipped in overall efficiency, but is still good enough for 12th. Not bad for a team with exactly zero rim protectors. But when the defense is on, Boston is really good. In wins, opponents average just 92 points per contest. As the season goes on, they will get more consistent and will probably hover around the top-10.

My point in all of this isn’t that Crawford, Sullinger, or Bradley wouldn’t have made their respective jumps, or that the team as a whole wouldn’t be playing as well, with anyone but Stevens. My point is that they are accomplishing all of it with him. While ultimately it is the players who go out there every night and play, the responsibility lies with the coach. After all, it’s not the players that are fired after disappointing seasons. (Okay, they can be traded, but you know what I mean). Stevens is the one who is going out there and setting these guys up to do well.

Sometimes people forget how valuable a good coach really is. But even if they do forget, they are reminded quickly. Don’t believe me? Just ask Brooklyn. They have over 101 million dollars on the books this season (For reference, the next highest is New York at just over $85 million.) For a team that spent so much on the players and has a huge “win now” mentality, they sure skimped on the coaching. Jason Kidd was still in the league last season, and is now coaching many players who still view him as their equal. They are 10-20. How the Nets organization never saw this coming is beyond me.


If you want to understand the value of a good coach, just look at what the best coaches in the NBA have accomplished in recent years. Gregg Popovich led a team of senior citizens to within 16 seconds of an NBA title. George Karl led a starless Nuggets team to 57 wins last season and won Coach of the Year (And then was promptly fired!) Doc Rivers led Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, and some D-League fillers to within 6 minutes of the NBA finals in 2012! And now Brad Stevens has a very real chance to get the Boston Celtics to the 2014 playoffs. And without any superstar talent, I’d say it takes a pretty special coach to be able to get what Stevens gets on a nightly basis.

I’m not saying Brad Stevens is Gregg Popovich, or George Karl, or even Doc Rivers. The man has coached 30 NBA games and has a losing record. But if you take the time to look past just the numbers, you can see that he is a truly special coach. He has the ability to be one of the best in the game. If the Celtics can remain patient during the rebuild, they will succeed under Stevens. He has a bright future as an NBA head coach, and I for one am just glad that he’s on my side.

Kevin Cronan is a guest contributor from Squeeze The Orange, where you can read more of his analysis on a variety of Celtics-centered topics including the Evolution of Jordan Crawford and a few entertaining game recaps.