Saturday, December 5, 2015

Stephen Curry, Michael Jordan, and the Path to the NBA's Greatest of All Time


Steph Curry may one day be known as the greatest NBA player of all time.

Clickbait, right? I should not really be able to put Stephen Curry, a 6’3” 27-year-old, in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Then you think about it and…




A future Hall of Famer is with me in that boat. Don’t get me wrong, this discussion is premature. One NBA title and one NBA MVP is worth a lot unless you’re stacked up against Michael Jordan. At this point, discussion of numbers is irrelevant because Jordan far surpasses Curry.

Where the debate begins is in the poetic originality that KG alluded to in his quote. Where Kobe Bryant failed to become the greatest of all time is in his lack of originality. He duplicated Michael Jordan and earned the respect of the Bulls legend. Kobe gave basketball and the NBA a lot in his career that he recently announced was ending this year. The Laker great took the NBA in a tour de force with an unparalleled determination to destroy anything and everything in his path. His precision in emulating Jordan’s footwork and offensive repertoire was uncanny.  He was the hurricane that three-peated beginning in 2000. His 81-point throttling of the Raptors in 2006 reminded everyone he wasn’t done yet. He validated that claim with a back-to-back title run that began in 2009. But the force of his hurricane could never quite reach the Michael Jordan mountaintop.




LeBron James had always been my pick as heir to the throne of greatest NBA player of all time. Unlike Kobe Bryant, he mixed the best of a variety of NBA players—Jordan among them—in his ascent to the top of the modern-day NBA throne. The fact that he won two consecutive championships and appeared in five straight is almost incomprehensible. I won’t bemoan LeBron’s case because I’ve done so many times already. But with his return to Cleveland, the window is shrinking.

Kobe and LeBron are among the literal larger-than-life cast of characters in the debate for greatest NBA player of all time that include Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Steph Curry does not fit into that mix. He was not a highly-touted and coveted No. 1 overall choice. He does not have that commanding Goliath demeanor. Whereas other great players directly influence player personnel decisions, Curry has elected to trust his front office. This same front office that brought him in shooed out a coach, Mark Jackson, that Curry had clearly bonded well with. (One that also incidentally parted ways this off-season with one of the "OG" Warriors, David Lee.) Curry’s disapproval created a path for Steve Kerr that was not easy. Nonetheless, the Warriors’ superstar was receptive to Kerr's effort, and general manager Bob Myers now has an NBA Executive of the Year award to his name. Supporting Steve Kerr laid the foundation for a championship and a viable dynasty. It was game-changing.

So what is it exactly that sets Steph Curry apart and why am I so set on a premature discussion of his place in the NBA pantheon? Two reasons that I will flesh out—and both that I have alluded to in some fashion: Steph Curry’s mastery of originality and my desire for us to truly appreciate the unfolding of history as it pertains to NBA lore. 


The One Man Revolution

The list of players that have changed the NBA is very short. Steph Curry will be on that list. The small ball “Death Lineup” that has garnered much attention of late is made possible by the versatility of Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, and Harrison Barnes. But there is a very strong argument to be made that none of the younger players would have developed into who they have become without Curry. Draymond’s threes didn’t open up magically. Harrison Barnes’ face-ups didn’t become successful overnight. Veteran Andre Iguodala’s confidence from beyond the arc arose when many of those looks became so open that he had to take them.

The common thread here is Steph Curry, a player who commands so much attention that he frees up open looks for teammates. But unlike LeBron James, who has been known to go into funks offensively when opponents play him to defer, Curry will punish you if you don’t send a second defender his way. Critics emptily claimed that his success last year came from this ability to defer. So what does he do this year? Curry owns a commanding lead of the NBA scoring title despite playing, on average, less than three quarters a game. Efficiency is the name of the game, and he is on pace to comfortably hit the heralded 50-40-90 shooting splits in the 2015-16 NBA season. The dude who won the 2015 NBA Most Valuable Player has a shot to win 2016 Most Improved Player.

He takes difficult shots from what seem like other planets. Half-court and near half-court shots are things that this guy practices. You hear it on every Warriors telecast, “if anybody else took that shot, they would be [insert punishment here].” Steph Curry is successfully doing things that most players are directly instructed to not do. He has redefined what it means to be a bad shot maker because his handles allow him to create any shot. How do you defend someone who can pull up from almost half-court, but if you tenaciously defend him, he will cross you over? Last year, Chris Paul got plastered all over the internet in memes for trying.

Kobe Bryant was often regarded as the league’s pre-eminent bad shot maker. He made a living on making incredible turnaround fade-aways. Nonetheless, they were clearly regarded as bad shots and Kobe’s efficiency suffered. Curry’s efficiency has not suffered because he has transcended the point of bad shots. The title of a recent highlight post reads as follows: “Ignore the fact that it’s Stephen Curry and come to grips with just how abjectly ridiculous and stupid this shot is.” That’s just it, though, the whole point is that you can’t ignore that it’s Steph. FiveThirtyEight showed mathematically: Curry shoots threes as well with a defender two to four feet away from him as the average NBA shooter does with a defender 12 feet away. He is defying every law imaginable.

He owns three of the top-five NBA single season three-point records (first, second, and fifth). And he is on pace to obliterate those records this year. When you’re setting and breaking your own records…that’s the marker of something special. In the words of 2011 MVP Derrick Rose, “He’s been amazing…he pushes, I think not only me, but the whole league to work on their game. The way he’s been working out, the way he’s focused and how consistent he’s been playing, I think he’s pushing the entire league.”



The three-point shot is not a novelty. Ray Allen made a career and an iconic play out of mastering it, but nobody has ever been the primary playmaker and scorer who also happens to be an elite three-point threat. Nobody. Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey geared his team’s offense around acquiring and maximizing the appropriate usage of a ball-dominant scoring guard. Threes and layups, Houston preaches. But just one year after a Western Conference Finals appearance and a month after the firing of the coach, Houston’s philosophy and personnel have a slowly deteriorating future.

“I always believed 3 is better than 2,” Steph Curry sarcastically quipped on November 7. He has found the appropriate balance between humility, effort, and humor. And while the elementary arithmetic is obvious, execution of scoring threes is an elusive Snitch. That option is always there, but only few have mastered the art of shooting (or catching) it. And the secret is long out…everybody knows Steph can shoot threes. But again, as we expect from someone who has truly mastered their craft, you know it’s coming and you still can’t stop it. I can count offhand three separate occasions in the past few weeks when I have heard the question posed: “how do you stop Steph Curry/the Warriors offense?” Each time the answer from the paid analyst was the same: I do not know.

He is, like Michael Jordan, a trendsetter. We’ve seen ball-handling magicians. We’ve seen dominant scorers. We’ve seen aesthetically appealing three-point specialists. But we have never seen an amalgam of these traits in a single player. And we have certainly never seen it to this extreme. 

Curry's persona has two uniquely paradoxical qualities. On the one hand, he is very normal. He is 6’3”, a height that the average NBA fan can wrap their head around. Jordan, Kobe, Shaq, Wilt… all, as I mentioned earlier, are rather larger than life. But at barely 190 pounds, Steph is tangible. He’s relatable. Warriors’ fans cheer ironically when he throws down an in-game dunk because the guy averages less than 10 dunks a year. He’s a great shooter and that’s something a 10-year-old can emulate in his backyard. Double-clutch and tomahawk dunks...not so much.

On the other hand, Curry is very abnormal. When you hear analysts proclaim “he pulled up from THIRTY!” it’s not something the average person can do with regularity, if at all. It’s something no other NBA player can regularly do. The obliteration of previous records is insane. Traditionally, 45 percent is a solid mark for overall FG percentage. Curry is nearly at that from beyond the arc. In that sense, he provides is an illusion of duplicability. Dominant big men have been duplicated throughout the course of basketball history. So have traditional point guards. Kobe Bryant even proved that Michael Jordan could be copied to a large extent. Less than a month ago, two-time MVP Steve Nash chimed in: “I think you’d be hard pressed to find a player more skilled than him in the history of the game.”




Appreciating Greatness

Steph Curry is like Mark Watney (Matt Damon) in The Martian. We’ve seen astronauts and we know what Mars looks like. We know how plants grow. But we have never seen an astronaut on Mars grow plants. Out of feces, no less. Steph Curry is the Martian who is putting things together that you thought you would see only in a movie. (And Golden State was a cellar-dwellar not too long ago so that “out of feces” part is relevant to the analogy). 

Let’s stay with The Martian for a minute (or pick your favorite movie). When you’re watching greatness, you really want to be able to appreciate it before it passes. There’s something to be said for being able to pre-emptively know that you’re watching greatness unfold. And within the first 20 or so minutes, I knew that The Martian was going to be a great film. The extra attention and appreciation, in my opinion, is worth something. It allows us to more intricately dissect what we’ve seen on first impression and incentivizes us to watch it again. 

With Steph, it’s even more important to appreciate what he means for the game because he is not a dominating personality. He’s humble and goes about his business as if everything is normal. “It feels natural” he told Rachel Nichols when asked about how ridiculous some of the shots he makes are. “It feels normal [but] I do kind of laugh sometimes.” Curry doesn’t have that patented Shrug or Chest Bump to emphasize how spectacular he is but he is must-watch movie on a nightly basis. He might run back on defense when the ball is still in the air after he shoots, but that's about it. The Curry Show is your favorite TV series with just enough variation and magic to keep you in awe year after year.

Yours truly may be the first to say that Steph Curry has a realistic shot to become the greatest NBA player of all time, but people have caught on. Sideline reporter Ros Gold-Onwude has captured moments of fans gathering around Steph’s pre-game workouts. He’s gracing the cover of every magazine imaginable from Sports Illustrated to GQ to Golf Digest.

Even my own appreciation and fandom was once blurred with my fandom of my hometown Golden State Warriors. Watching a local team win a historic championship was something I knew I wanted to document. I thought of myself as collecting Warriors memorabilia...but then I realized it was Curry’s jersey and pairs of shoes that I owned. It was his face plastered on the covers of those magazines. His exclamations of joy are on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle. 




Discussion of memorabilia and marketing is not irrelevant to the discussion of Steph Curry’s greatness. Michael Jordan created a brand and propelled Nike to becoming a corporation that prints money. No other athlete has had such a broad marketing impact. Under Armour had always been the stepchild in basketball that received only fringe attention. This was until Steph Curry joined and transformed the brand. The astronomical growth of Under Armour since signing the 2015 NBA MVP is undeniable. Currently, it’s growth is roughly double that of Nike. Just go on eBay where you’ll find the value of many Curry 1 colorways have doubled since UA sold out of them. Curry 2s, released in late October, are flying off shelves at an equally unconscionable rate. Granted, it is hard to imagine Curry becoming a brand like Jordan considering both Nike and UA are so well-established. But perhaps it is even more impressive that Curry has provided a surge in sales for a company that’s been around for a couple decades.

Like his coach, Curry will always be one to deflect attention and accolades. He knows that basketball is a team game and without the incredible talent surrounding him, he would not have a championship. But he is rarely one to acknowledge his role in amassing that talent. The Kevin Durant to the Warriors rumors for the upcoming mega-offseason have gained legitimate traction. How? The Warriors franchise player is not egocentric. He has proven he can win without another superstar, but he could also coexist with another once-in-a-generation talent.


Redefining Clutch

Another realm that we may see Curry continue to revolutionize is the concept of “clutch.” We monitor the “clutch gene” as if the last minute of the fourth quarter defines a basketball game. The trail of the Jordan to Kobe “killer instinct” has been praised regularly even by today’s NBA stars. But Curry has solidified what LeBron began. What if you can make that last minute irrelevant? As I tweeted in a recent blowout win, the Warriors have brought garbage time to new heights. Curry and the Warriors dominate games so thoroughly that garbage time is present in even the Western Conference Finals. But don’t make the mistake of assuming that Curry can’t handle the pressure of close late-game situations. Just ask the Pelicans after the first round of the 2015 playoffs or the Jazz in the waning hours of this past November. You’re kidding yourself if you want to face Steph Curry at the end of a close game. 

Jordan and Kobe said “we’ll take the shot because our hands are the right hands.” LeBron said “I’ll put the ball in the right hands.” Steph Curry says “the ball will find it’s way into the right hands.”

Moreover, consensus is slowly building around the fact that Steph Curry is the best player in the NBA. LeBron James has held the title for anywhere from five to ten years, and everybody thought that that title would eventually be passed down to either Kevin Durant or Anthony Davis. In true Curry fashion, he sneaked his way into the seat as top dog. He was a bench player coming out of Davidson and far, far from projections of this magnitude of greatness. His demeanor may be laid back, but he is relentless on the floor. 



Curry’s appropriate focus on the present contradicts my desire to keep what he is doing in historical perspective. He is performing professionally the way we should live our lives: in the moment. As cliche as it sounds, it is not an accident. Steve Kerr emphasizes four core principles: joy, mindfulness, compassion, and competition. Retaining focus on the present moment and the most imminently important task is what breeds this Warriors brand of success. Steph Curry has managed to do just that in his own whirlwind of success. If there was an award to be won in 2015, that award was won by Stephen Curry.

Individual and team health

Good health is of paramount importance in this pursuit of greatness. While it has gone by the wayside, early in his career there was non-stop talk about Curry’s ankles. It was the main reason the Warriors gambled on what at the time was considered a risky 4-year/$44 million contract. In hindsight, that contract looks like robbery. Ironically, pundits wielded the health card for the exact opposite reason after the 2015 season. Good health became synonymous with good luck. He was the lucky MVP who didn’t even average playing three quarters of basketball per game. Team depth played a tremendous role, but it was in part because of Curry’s efficiency that he played a shade under 33 minutes per game in 2015. Injuries often occur when fatigue sets in. So, the Warriors training staff figured, if fatigue and minutes can be limited, then players are more likely to remain healthy. The logic is simple but the execution has proved to be widely elusive.

Curry's uncanny ability to work within the team concept is another reason he has enjoyed such success. The one-on-five-esque tendencies of previous greats made for fabulous “me against the world” stories, but were they really feasible outside the realm of one-on-one sports? Steph has built off the foundation of LeBron-Popovich school of team ball. He flourishes within this new concept of small and ultra-small ball. He has finalized the transition in the NBA away from that one-on-one approach to winning. I have always been a firm believer that success is not predicated on amassing the next “Big Three” because with superstars often come super-egos. If you can surround greatness with the right pieces, you ultimately have the most sustainable model for elite performance.

Steph and the 2016 Warriors’ model has sustained elite performance so convincingly that they now make history when it shouldn’t even be made. November is NFL season, not NBA season, and yet the sports news cycle is dominated by the undefeated Warriors. The talk that the 2015 NBA championship was only the beginning has been, thus far, backed up and then some. Pat Riley, an NBA legend himself, acknowledged that Curry is part of “the two most dynamic players in the backcourt that I have ever seen,” and that the Warriors “are in the beginning of something that can be dynastic...that’s the scary part, versus somebody that catches lightning in a bottle at one time.” Here, Riley alludes to exactly why I believe that the Warriors model for success is more sustainable. Collecting NBA superstars is like rolling dice. You might hit the jackpot once, but there’s a high chance that it goes wrong. The Steph Curry Warriors have removed the dice from the situation entirely but, like their leader's demeanor, you won’t hear them bragging “not one, not two, not three…”


- - - - - -

The Golden State point guard’s style of play is also built to last. He isn’t a force of nature a la Jordan, LeBron, Kobe, Wade, or Westbrook. He isn’t quite a Ray Allen or Dirk Nowitzki-type, either, because he doesn’t rely on receiving the ball in the right spots to make things happen. The most apt comparison is to that of Steve Nash who played well into his late thirties. A full decade left for Steph Curry’s NBA career is not unreasonable. This is why it is still well within the realm of possibility that Steph enters this discussion as the all-time greatest. I’ve written the Kobe vs. LeBron comparison. I’ve done the Kobe vs. Jordan. LeBron vs. Jordan. Kobe vs. Duncan. But those “traditional” number comparisons fail to speak to the resounding impact that Jordan and now Curry have on their sport. It takes a more well-rounded appreciation and analysis from these aspects to truly measure impact, as should be done when discussing greatness.

Making plays, making your teammates better, winning, and changing the game are four areas where truly great players excel. Steph Curry has emphatically begun to make his mark on each of these. It’s dropping 50+ or throwing crazy dimes. It’s making near half-court shots and hitting clutch shots. It’s winning award after award after award and forcing teams to re-think game-planning and strategy. It’s pushing other players in the league and directing the trajectory for future players at the NBA’s most important position. It’s showing how volume and efficiency are not mutually exclusive. Like Jordan, Curry is the artist and the court is his canvas. The Warriors’ point guard is stretching the boundaries of what should be possible and is not-so-quietly making history in the process.

Steph will need that full decade to become the greatest NBA player of all time. Is it something that motivates him? Who knows. We do know that the fury with which he has been scoring in the early 2016 season has shown he is ready to prove haters wrong. Maybe he is the NBA version of Tom Brady. We have seen before that greatness may come from where you least expect it. The blueprint set by Michael Jordan was written and attempts have been made to duplicate it with varying degrees of success. 

The former Davidson standout is still writing his own blueprint. Even though his daughter may think he is too loud, he has never been one to praise his singular greatness. But his footprint has already been made on the NBA landscape. The epicenter of this NBA-rattling Warriors’ earthquake was set in motion by the other Akron native.

Monday, October 26, 2015

2016 NBA Season Predictions: Playoff Preview, Part II


And finally the moment you've all been waiting for... my fourth consecutive playoff and champion prediction. (For those keeping track at home, I'm two-for-three here predicting on Bases and Baskets.) You can read Part I of my preview here and my awards predictions here.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

FIRST ROUND 

(1) Cleveland Cavaliers over (8) Detroit Pistons

(2) Miami Heat over (7) Boston Celtics

A nice throwback to the 2012 battles of LeBron vs. Paul Pierce but Miami's depth and talent will overwhelm the Boston Celtics in a seven-game series.

(3) Chicago Bulls over (6) Washington Wizards

Injuries will be the only reason this season could get interesting...and yet that always seems to be a factor in the Bulls' playoff potential.

(4) Atlanta Hawks over (5) Toronto Raptors

Coach Bud will pull Atlanta through the most competitive of the East's first round.


SECOND ROUND

(1) Cleveland Cavaliers over (4) Atlanta Hawks

(2) Miami Heat over (3) Chicago Bulls

Hassan vs. Joakim is a battle we need to see. Chris Bosh vs. Pau Gasol is a battle we want to see. Jimmy Butler chasing around either Dragic or Wade will be entertaining. But ultimately, I have more faith in Wade's aging knees than Rose's physical body as well as his recent body of performance. Cleveland vs. Miami in the East Finals.... How great would that be?

CONFERENCE FINALS

(2) Miami Heat over (1) Cleveland Cavaliers

Not only do I think it will be entertaining, I'm ready for an upset. The talent and hunger of this Miami team will match up well against the Cleveland LeBrons. No bold predictions column for this season (at least yet), but Miami in the Finals will be my boldest prediction. I'm all in after naming Whiteside one of my top 20 players in the league, so why not make it all in on Miami this season.



WESTERN CONFERENCE

FIRST ROUND

(1) Golden State Warriors over (8) Utah Jazz

(2) OKC Thunder over (7) New Orleans Pelicans

(6) Memphis Grizzlies over (3) Houston Rockets

BAM! Hit you with two non-surprises and now time for an upset. I've even been talking up Harden as an MVP candidate. But I don't trust him in the playoffs and this is the first time I can go full anecdote, so I have to. I was at Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals. I knew the Warriors were going to lose. After leading for most of the game, Harden had the ball with a couple seconds left...and on a fastbreak. Houston was only down one point. There were two options my mind: 1) Harden creates a shot he KNOWS he will hit and Houston wins. 2) Harden takes it to the rim, gets fouled, and hits two shots. Watching this unfold in slow motion was like fighting Ronda Rousey. You know she's going to win, it's just a matter of how quickly and painlessly she ends it for you. And yet Harden decided to pass it to Dwight at the top of the key. I feel like something's going wrong. Then Dwight passes it back and everything is back to normal. Game-winner in 3...2... Then Curry and Klay all-out double him. The ball gets stripped and I'm just plain confused. The buzzer sounded and it was a feeling of sheer shock. 


Houston is too reliant on Harden to overcome the Beard's shortcomings. Memphis almost dethroned the juggernaut Warriors last year. The Warriors proved to be far superior to the Rockets so you see where this math equation is going. Memphis' grit-and-grind will get it done against Daryl Morey's concotion of new-age talent centered around advanced stat optimization.

(5) Los Angeles Clippers over (4) San Antonio Spurs

Ha! As I'm drafting up the seeding for the West and realized this first round matchup landed in my crystal ball, I thought it was too perfect to change. All those talks last year of how the division seeding threw off a merit-based seeding leading to the removal of division winners from seeding will be meaningless when we see another battle of LA vs. San Antonio in Round 1. And I don't expect the addition of LMA to be enough to allow the Spurs to advance, either. Seven games of thrilling playoff basketball? Definitely. Same result as last year? Yep.

SECOND ROUND

(1) Golden State Warriors over (5) Los Angeles Clippers

The matchup hat never happened last season will happen in 2016. The Bay Area vs. LA rivalry in peak playoff form will be absolute must-watch drama. No Matt Barnes in this series will be disappointing but the antics of Blake have already been brought up by Warriors players this pre-season. Like I said, though, I don't trust the Ballmer organization. Another year without the Western Conference Finals for one of the league's all-time great point guards.

(2) OKC Thunder over (6) Memphis Grizzlies

CONFERENCE FINALS

(1) Golden State Warriors over (2) OKC Thunder

Golden State vs. the Clippers followed up by Golden State vs. the Thunder is like a nail-biting three-week movie for the Bay Area and the NBA as a whole. The secret sauce to the Warriors success in 2015 was depth and that will continue to be their driving force in 2016. Billy Donovan's Coach of the Year run will end in the Conference Finals.




NBA FINALS

Golden State Warriors over Miami Heat

The Warriors have all of the signs of a dynasty. They pulled all of the right strings where previous potential dynasties either did not (Thunder) or could not (Heat). Ironically, I have Miami far surpassing expectations in '16 and even surpassing LeBron. But when you have a team that has weaknesses that you have to manufacture, you know they're good. Look for Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli to make the Warriors improve the most and make strong contributions in the playoffs and in the Finals. Warriors repeat as champs in 6.

2016 NBA Season Predictions: Awards Preview


NBA MVP: James Harden

Harden was so outspoken on his desire to win this award last year and this off-season that I expect his focus to be on winning it this year. The other competitors either don't care about winning another one (LeBron and Curry), are on the same team so their individual greatness is tempered statistically (Westbrook and Durant), or won't win enough games (Anthony Davis). Harden is the winning combination of being a great individual talent on a great team who also strives for individual accolades.

NBA Rookie of the Year: Emmanuel Mudiay

He's a wild card but if the Denver Nuggets perform better than already-low expectations, there's no reason he can't win the award. If he can contain his turnovers, Mudiay is poised to be instrumental in Denver's rebuilding.

Coach of the Year: Billy Donovan

He is in the absolute perfect position to win Coach of the Year. Expectations are low for him personally considering it is his first year in the NBA. His team is loaded with talent. His players seem to be buying into his system. And most importantly, it's easy to compare his value added considering not much has changed in the organization outside of trading Scott Brooks for him. He's not Steve Kerr (who was an NBA player, executive, and commentator before coaching), but he does have the coaching experience that Kerr did not coming into his first stint as an NBA coach. If his value added is measurably large, which I think it will be, the COY is his to lose. 

Defensive Player of the Year: Draymond Green



Tony Allen's shouting "First team all defense!" in the playoffs against the Warriors last year can now be matched by Draymond who earned those honors in 2015. And while Kawhi was a great defensive player, I expect the combination of his already impressive defensive versatility with a championship ring and passion to win the award to propel him to 2016 Defensive Player of the Year. Nobody combines versatility with talent better on that end of the floor than Draymond Green.

2016 NBA Season Predictions: Playoff Preview, Part I


The eve of the regular season is not too late for a predictions…right? Well, after last year’s pseudo-predictions column, I had to do it right this year. So, in true Bases and Baskets fashion, this will be a three-part series that all just so happens to be released on the same day. Let’s start off with my 2015-16 NBA regular season and playoff picture.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

I tweeted it yesterday, but I really think that the fight for the playoffs will be more compelling in the Eastern Conference than the Western Conference. Let’s take the Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks, and Miami Heat as locks. Then you have the Bucks, Celtics, Pacers, Pistons, Raptors, and Wizards—six teams fighting for four spots. The Pacers have Paul George returning and Monta Ellis helping with the load on offense. The Pistons are the true wild card in the East because they had that impossible six wins in eight games stretch in March. And with Porzingis (I actually spelled his name right before Googling it) on the Knicks as a possible impact rookie, I don’t see why the Knicks can’t blow their lowly 30-win Vegas odds out of the water and land closer to 40. Granted, it could implode too, but when you have one of the best scorers in the game (even if he is coming off injury), you always have a shot.

Here are the eight teams that I see making it…

8. Detroit Pistons

Stan Van Gundy has turned it around in the Motor City. Andre Drummond is poised to make a DeAndre Jordan-like stand. Oh wait, he already has. The Pistons were awful so he didn’t attract as much attention as Jordan, but their numbers are eerily similar. Even down to the sub-40 free throw brick laying.

7. Boston Celtics

Brad Stevens at +1200 is a very nice dark-horse to win Coach of the Year, I will say that. He will know exactly how to maximize the off-season acquisitions of David Lee and Amir Johnson. If you’re looking to bet money on a reasonable long-shot in any area, this is your team. Don’t be surprised if they climb up a few slots by the end of the year or make a splash around the trade deadline.

6. Washington Wizards

I love John Wall’s character and I love his game. I think Otto Porter’s trajectory is pointing upward, as well. But I also loved Paul Pierce as the glue-guy veteran who could knock down big shots and keep the locker room tempered. There’s no reason that Jared Dudley who came in from Milwaukee can’t be that guy…but he also doesn’t have that championship pedigree that The Truth does. There’s a good chance I regret putting them this low but at the outset, I see five teams better than them in the East.

5. Toronto Raptors

Maybe it’s all the Drake that I’ve been listening to or the fact that I played as them in NBA 2K14 too much, but I’ve always had a mild bias toward Toronto. Kyle Lowry is a beast. Terrence Ross is an athlete. Amir Johnson had that edge…but is now gone. DeMar DeRozan is a solid scorer and Bismack Biyombo is an excellent interior defender even though he is anemic offensively. Perhaps parallel to Warriors’ big man Festus Ezeli, though, Biyombo will continue to see his stock rise.


4. Atlanta Hawks

They lost DeMarre Carroll to the Raptors but other than that did well to keep their same squad. We saw their magic run out in the playoffs and I expect more of the same in the 2015-16 regular season. They’ll be a contender in the East, but I don’t see them being in the traditional Cavs-and-Bulls elite tier.

3. Chicago Bulls

The Bulls are a mainstay in the elite of this Conference, but I see one team sneaking their way back to the two-spot. Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler, Derrick My-Health-Is-Not-A Rose, Pau Gasol… This team is loaded. They’ve proven to be a regular season machine that finds a way to fizzle out come playoffs.

2. Miami Heat

You’d think it was #ThrowbackThursday with this pick. But Elijah, you say, LeBron left Miami a long, long time ago? This may be the case, but Chris Bosh is back and seems to be healthy. Dwyane Wade still has some juice left. Hassan Whiteside is a going to have a full year to showcase his ability to be an elite center. Goran Dragic, Deng, STAT, Birdman and Gerald Green round out a very capable rotation. Maybe I’m placing undue faith in Erik Spoelstra to make it all work, but this is his year to shine and prove that it wasn’t just a Big Three effort to win two championships. And at +2500 odds to win Coach of the Year, Spo is another good dark horse pick.

1. Cleveland Cavaliers

You’re worried about Kyrie, and so am I. But it’s LeBron James. The man has gotten it done for seemingly his entire lifetime and almost pulled out a legendary upset in the 2015 NBA Finals. I’m not betting against him…yet.

So there’s the East. Two teams that I really like, the Pacers and Bucks, will end up on the outside looking in. And I want Eff-You Melo to make a playoff run but the East is surprisingly decent top-to-bottom in their seeding.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

8. Utah Jazz

Rudy Gobert is an elite center. Gordon Hayward shushed his big-contract haters. And I don’t trust a team that has Deron Williams, an aging Dirk Nowitzki, and JaVale McGee. Depth is a question and I’m really hesitant for them to get to the 45-win mark that’s been necessary to make the playoffs in the West but I’ll take my chances on them over Dallas, Denver, and Phoenix. Sacramento just seems like a poor chemistry experiment waiting to explode, even though they’re easily within the realm of playoff possibility. Next year, DeMarcus. Next year, for sure.

7. New Orleans Pelicans

This will be certainly a story to follow. New Orleans pried Alvin Gentry away from the 2015 champion Golden State Warriors and will hopefully translate some of the Warriors' wildly successful offensive strategy for use with Anthony Davis & Co. Speaking of Davis, most are placing him as an early favorite for the regular season 2016 NBA MVP...I say pump the brakes there. Davis is a monster and one of the best players in the league, but until New Orleans makes a jump into the upper echelon of the West, he will continue to be a fringe candidate unless his numbers are so outrageous you can't help but give him the award. For now, though, I don't see it happening. The quality of players in the West is too high to not allow team success to count for at least something in the MVP race.

6. Memphis Grizzlies

After holding a series lead in the playoffs against the Warriors, Memphis should feel very good about remaining in the thick of the Western contenders. Adding Matt Barnes to the mix will only give the grind-it-out Grizzlies a bigger "edge" in competitive spirit. Without the offensive superstars that each team ahead of them in my predictions has, however, teams still can game-plan for low-scoring games. Tony Allen's ineptitude on offense is a glaring weakness that the Warriors exposed, and it will only be further exploited this year. That's not to say that they won't earn measurable success...just that that success will be tempered.

5. Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers at five just feels low. Two superstars and one defensive stopper seems like it should be worth more. Adding Paul Pierce is valuable but the DeAndre Jordan saga this off-season exposed chemistry issues in LA. Bill Simmons also tweeted about some underlying issues these past couple months. The five seed is the right compromise between innate talent and inability to maximize potential because of chemistry.


4. San Antonio Spurs

Last season, I made the bold prediction that the regular season juggernaut Spurs would falter to a seed that was not top-3 in the West. That turned out to be true, and I think it will follow this year. The addition of LaMarcus Aldridge changed the trajectory of two organizations (Spurs positively and Portland, well... contender to rebuilding says it all). Pop will get it done but, as I emphasized last year, with a lack of focus on winning individual regular season games. That came back to haunt them in the playoffs with the first round matchup against the Spurs, but I don't anticipate the gameplanning changing with most of the organization only getting older. (Worth noting...look who I have them matching up in the first round with again.)

3. Houston Rockets

Ty Lawson completed the exodus of Denver's stars/fringe stars that began with Carmelo Anthony and most recently Andre Iguodala. Could he be what the Rockets needed to make the jump to the NBA Finals? I'm not so sure, but he definitely helps. Harden will come back from an MVP-less season with a vengeance and how entertaining would it be to see three Thunder draft picks vie for the MVP if Durant, Westbrook, and Harden go at it? Take a second to digest the fact that one team had three MVP candidates. Thunder fans are sick of hearing it but it's so mind-boggling that I can't help but to reiterate it.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder

And yet, despite everything I just said, I still see OKC among the very elite in the West. Instead of three MVP candidates, they only have two. Awful, right? Durant and Westbrook, when healthy, are enough to carry an offense. Their battles against the Warriors are almost an old school vs. new school battle: one-on-one offensive superstars vs. a team-oriented mix of talents with one true superstar. I believe that the latter is both more effective and more sustainable, but this year will challenge that theory.

1. Golden State Warriors

As the only person I've seen who put the Warriors as 2015 champs in writing during the pre-season last year, I'm sticking with them this season. No championship hangover, no worry that Kerr will return eventually, and a continual growth of superstar (Curry) and team. Contract-year Harrison Barnes will be fun to watch and you know that a championship Draymond Green will only be more energetically braggadocious. This team is Zach Lowe's most entertaining team to watch in 2016 for a reason.

(My over-under regular season predictions as a bonus are here.)

Now on to the 2016 NBA Awards Predictions and 2016 NBA Playoff Predictions, Part II...

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Best Value NBA Stars in 2015


As promised in Part I of this series, I also thought it would be worth seeing who the best value NBA stars are. It is great to land an NBA player contract at below market value but even better than that is landing an NBA star at a low price. Again, the basic metric that I created and will be using is dollars per win share (DPS). The average DPS in the NBA is 1.6 million (1.6m) and, as you would expect, there are only a handful of stars who earn less than that.

Three big names that are paid at about the going rate of 1.6m DPS are: Draymond Green, Nikola Vucevic, and Kyle Lowry. But in terms of making this ranking, there were two qualifications: 1) the player must have over eight total win shares for 2014-15 and 2) they must make less than the average DPS. Interestingly enough, there are five stars who are paid over 2m DPS: Paul Millsap, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, and…LeBron James. Interpret from that what you wish. You’ll notice a repeat at the top of this list which is why he also made the lede photo of my discussion on why the NBA center position is alive and well.

Steph Curry and Tim Duncan both made the ranking, as expected, but might not be quite as high as you would expect them to be. And Anthony Davis is on here because he is in the final year of his rookie contract before that mega-extension kicks in.

(Note: all contract information and statistics provided by basketball-reference.com.)

10. Marcin Gortat, Washington Wizards - 1.3m DPS

9. Tyson Chandler, Phoenix Suns - 1.2m DPS

8. James Harden, Houston Rockets - 960k DPS


7. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors - 724k DPS

6. Pau Gasol, Chicago Bulls - 716k DPS

5. Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto Raptors - 568k DPS

4. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs - 520k DPS

3. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans - 505k DPS

2. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers - 399k DPS



1. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz - 126k DPS

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Stay tuned for Part III of the "Value Series" where I take a look at the WORST value players in the NBA!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Canada Rise: The Northern Presence Growing in the NBA


If you listen to the radio or even mildly keep up with the latest in popular music, you know that the Canadiens have been atop the charts. With Toronto natives Drake and Abel Tesfaye (better known as The Weeknd) trading off spots in the Billboard Hot 100 and the top 10 in the iTunes charts, music from Canada has risen. But how about in the sports scene?

The U.S. has owned the basketball world for most of the past however-many decades but there are some noteworthy Canadiens looking to continue to represent the North. As Drake shouted out in his single Charged Up, Cory Joseph is the latest Canadien to bring home a championship. (Joseph won a title in 2014 as a member of the San Antonio Spurs and just this off-season signed with the Toronto Raptors.)

Other notable Canadien-born NBA players include the greats Kelly Olynyk and Robert Sacre as well as Sauce Castillo, Tristan Thompson, Anthony Bennett, Joel Anthony, and Sam Dalembert. Canada’s pride, though, rests in the youngster Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins capped off a solid rookie year with nods as both an All-Rookie First Team player and the NBA Rookie of the Year. Wiggins is also a Toronto native with five siblings. One of Wiggins siblings, Nick, is in fact a teammate of Andrew’s on the Minnesota Timberwolves.

While I wouldn’t go betting too much on the Minnesota Timberwolves this season, I would say that there does seem to be an upward trend of Canadiens contribution to the NBA. CanadaSportsBetting.com would be the place if you did decide you wanted to take a chance on the long shot T’wolves at making a significant splash in 2016.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Best Value NBA Players of 2015


We glamorize the biggest contracts and superstars because that’s what brings in the biggest revenue for the NBA. There is, however, a variation on most valuable players that general managers are always scouring for and that is the best value players. Draymond Green, for one, went from little-known role player to a starring role on a championship team. Zach Lowe reported on a summer podcast that he, not LeBron James or any other mega-star, was the name tossed around most. Everyone knows who the big stars are, but it takes a keen eye to spot a player who is well out-playing his contract.

So, with the help of basketball-reference.com, I elected to journey into the large databases of contracts and statistics in search of quantifying the best value players. My brute force effort of matching up player’s stats to contracts probably wasn’t the most efficient, but it was certainly exhaustive. 

To be sure, there is no clear-cut way to measure value. 2014-15 total win shares was my statistic of choice to measure against 2015-16 contract value. As PER is known to bias offensive and scoring players, I figured that it would overvalue scorers and undervalue defensive players. I am not claiming this to be perfect but it certainly helps give us a good idea of value.

The average dollars per win share (DPS) in the NBA is 1.6 million (1.6m). To factor out the noise, I made a lower qualifying limit of two win shares to be eligible for this ranking. With that in mind, here are the top 10 best value NBA players:

10. Jordan Clarkson, Los Angeles Lakers - 352k DPS


9. Tyler Hansbrough, Charlotte Hornets - 348k DPS

8. David West, San Antonio Spurs - 348k DPS

7. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks - 315k DPS

6. Gorgui Dieng, Minnesota Timberwolves - 300k DPS


5. Mason Plumlee, Portland Trail Blazers - 294k DPS

4. Tarik Black, Los Angeles Lakers - 272k DPS

3. Robert Covington, Philadelphia 76ers - 250k DPS

2. Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat - 185k DPS

1. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz - 126k DPS


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Stay tuned for parts II and II of this series where I take a look at the best value NBA stars...and the worst value players in the league.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Top 10 NBA Players, 2016 edition


Time for my fourth annual top 10 players in the NBA…something that’s undoubtedly going to get some debate going. Now, before we begin, a few clarifications: 1) I’m going to leave Paul George and Kyrie Irving off. It’s too hard to predict where they might fit among these stars coming off their injuries. Kyrie won’t even be back until January. As for Derrick Rose…he just isn’t there anymore. Sports Illustrated ranked him 60th in the league and 18-3-5 on 40-28-81 shooting splits is not worthy of anywhere near the top-10. Hopefully Rose can find a way to get himself fixed sooner rather than later but his post-injury history is not promising. Just a few years back, in my first player ranking on Bases and Baskets, I had him fourth-best in the league.

Second, this is a predictions article first and foremost. Seeing as it is not 2016, this is a forecast of who will be the best 10 players in the league for 2015-2016. And part of being one of the 10 best players in the league means, to me, that you are a player who you can build an organization around. This means that one of my personal favorite players in the league, Draymond Green, doesn’t (yet) make the cut. He’s arguably the best second or third player you could possibly dream up, but he isn’t yet a first option. Basketball is a scorer’s game and these top 10 players #GETBUCKETS. So here’s my ranking of the top 10…


10. Jimmy Butler

The 2015 Most Improved Player went from being known as a hounding defender to one of the league’s premiere two-way players. 13 points per game on 39-28-76 shooting splits to 20 points per game on 46-37-83 splits. He made a jump from mediocrity to borderline elite offensively and we already know he is one of the league’s best perimeter defenders (2x All-Defensive Second Team player). The newly-minted $92 million man is one of the league’s best 10 players.

9. Blake Griffin

The Clippers couldn’t pull it out in the 2015 conference semis against the Rockets but Blake Griffin absolutely made his presence felt. 27-12-5 for the series after just averaging 24-13-7 against the Spurs in what was arguably the playoffs most scintillating series. Blake is only behind Anthony Davis as the league’s best (traditional) power forward.


8. Carmelo Anthony

The Knicks were a couple losses away from being the league’s worst team last season. Melo did take the year off once he realized the situation was not going to improve but it says something about either Anthony or New York that one of the league’s best 10 players is on such a horrible team. He followed the money and Phil Jackson was supposed to right the ship but for now Melo’s biggest chip is 2016 free agency and hoping New York will lure another one of the players on this ranking. When a future Hall of Famer says you’re one of the five toughest players he’s ever guarded and probably the most well-rounded scorer, you should be winning championships not lottery tickets.

7. Chris Paul


Chris Paul was formerly known as the best point guard in the league, but one Stephen Curry has been coronated after a season of destroying Paul’s ankles. The meme-worthy double behind-the-back that made CP3 look like he was playing Twister was the final straw. Nonetheless, the Clippers PG is still a mainstay in the top-10 best players in the league at age 29. For the season, he mailed in 19-5-10 with 1.9 steals per game on very nearly 50-40-90 shooting. He’s definitely below the four mega-stars in the NBA and as for the other two, he just hasn’t got it done in the post-season. Maybe the Clippers got shafted with a brutal first round matchup in 2015—of which CP3 performed like a magician—but both of the other two players have managed greater post-season success.

6. James Harden

Last season’s near-MVP validated Daryl Morey’s plan to build around a guy who the Oklahoma City Thunder thought was disposable. 27-6-7 on 44-38-87…those are eerily LeBron James numbers. (LeBron’s four years in Miami: 27-8-7 on 54-37-76.) Just imagine…Oklahoma City could have had three of the best six players in the NBA. Wow.

5. Russell Westbrook

Anyone who has read this blog knows that I have a love-hate relationship with one of the league’s most electrifying players. I wrote back in May 2012 that OKC needed to trade Westbrook to win the title. “The Thunder will only be a Conference Final team with him on the roster,” I wrote. So far, that has proven to be true but no one would have foreseen the horrendous injuries that OKC has battled since then. And for February, March, and April, Westbrook put up nearly 30-10-10. For the season, he was 28-7-9 on 43-30-84 shooting. As an individual talent, he’s easily a top-tier player. If that talent can translate to team success remains to be seen. Maybe this year is OKC’s year…but then again we’ve been saying that for the past three years.

4. Anthony Davis

There isn’t much to say about Anthony Davis that hasn’t been said already. A point guard in a 6’10” frame with a polished jumper and now weighs in at 253? With the $145 million extension to match his talent, expect nothing less than 25-10 with 3 blocks a game from the league’s premiere (traditional) power forward.


3. Stephen Curry


2015 has been Steph Curry’s year. If there’s an award to win, he has won it. And while the Warriors were far from favorites to win the title at the beginning of the year, Curry led them to notoriety rather quickly. FiveThirtyEight statistically anointed them one of the greatest teams in NBA history. While it would be remiss to ignore the All-Star caliber supporting cast around Curry, he was the engine that drove the team (even if Draymond Green was, as Steve Kerr said, the heartbeat of the team). Until Anthony Davis is able to realize some post-season success, Steph Curry has to sit comfortably ahead of him. One could even make a strong argument for Curry landing in the No. 2 slot ahead of KD.

2. Kevin Durant


He had a tough year due to injury, but Durant has earned and proven to be the second-best player in the league until further notice. It’s really that simple.

1. LeBron James

He almost mailed in a superhuman win in the 2015 NBA Finals. Once Kyrie went down it was simply LeBron vs. A Powerhouse Team. It wasn’t a fair matchup and the Warriors showed that even when you have a blueprint for LeBron (make him a scorer not a facilitator) you have to change that up. The best plan against LeBron is two-fold: 1) change your plan and 2) hope he’s having an off-night. Switching Draymond, Harrison Barnes, and ultimately Andre Iguodala onto the greatest player in the world worked but that was the luxury that no other team in the NBA has. 36-13-9 in the NBA FINALS. 30-11-9 in the PLAYOFFS. Somehow this dude still manages to get bombarded with criticism… But we all know who the best player in the world is.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Top 20 NBA Players of 2015-16, Part I


As we sit here dragging through the off-season, watching anything and everything NBA-related, I think it’s high time to talk about some actual basketball. Enough with the DeAndre Saga and the ensuing NBA emoji battle, the Morris twins’ stubbornness, and gawking at the gobs of money that this recent class of free agents received.

Last season, I was a bit late on my predictions pieces so let’s get it started right here with about two more months to go before the regular season tips off. Everyone always has something to say about the best players in the NBA, so here are my top 20 NBA players of the 2015-2016 NBA season. (And yes, there was quite a lot of jockeying from last season’s rankings of which you can view the three parts here: ranks 30-21, 20-11, and top 10 NBA players of 2014-15).

20. Damian Lillard

Lillard is left with the remnants in Portland after a mass exodus of his teammates from last season. LaMarcus Aldridge, Arron Afflalo, Nic Batum, and Wesley Matthews headline the departures from what was a Western Conference powerhouse just a season ago. Expect the numbers of one of Oakland’s best products to jump without the presence of the player that I ranked one spot ahead of him. He’s out to prove that he is worthy of a third consecutive spot on the All-Star team.

19. Pau Gasol

Gasol wasn’t playing off of Kobe Bryant, but in 2015 he certainly exhibited flashbacks from his back-to-back championship self. Although the Bulls lost to the eventual Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round (in large part due to Gasol’s absence in games  4 and 5), Pau proved that he still has plenty left in the tank. A healthy Chicago Bulls team is a championship caliber team.

18. LaMarcus Aldridge

It remains to be seen how Gregg Popovich will implement the 30-year-old heir to the Tim Duncan throne in San Antonio. But if Tim Duncan’s past and present are any indication of where LMA has the potential to go this coming season, we’re in for a monster season from a guy who already has a track record of 20-10 on a nightly—and yearly—basis. The Spurs leapfrogged the 2015 NBA champion Golden State Warriors as favorites to win the 2016 NBA title, and this guy had everything to do with that.

17. Marc Gasol


The grinding Grizzlies earned their reputation in large part due to the presence of their tandem of bigs. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol serve as the enforcers on the interior, and Z-Bo has acknowledged that Gasol is the better offensive big man. Gasol, now a two-time All-Star, saw his numbers improve across the board last season and Memphis was one of Golden State’s greatest challenges in the 2015 playoffs. Gasol anchors perhaps the only remaining team that is still run through their bigs offensively, and they proved last year to be very effective doing so.

16. Hassan Whiteside

There was that one guy who predicted Jeremy Lin’s ascension to fame and that other guy who predicted before the 2014-15 season the Warriors would win the title. But I haven’t seen a soul come out of the woodwork who predicted a player who hadn’t seen NBA action since 2012 was going to put up a 20-20 game and multiple 20 rebound games during last season. But this dude showed time and again that he is a freak of nature who can play at a very high level. He’s one of the main reasons I believe that at +1800, Miami is a good sleeper pick to win the East.


A photo posted by Hassan whiteside (@hassanwhiteside) on

15. Chris Bosh

It’s relieving to hear that Bosh is once again in great physical condition (per Miami Herald). A scary bout with blood clots in his lungs last season stopped what was a ferocious start to his post-LeBron era.  Bosh averaged 21-8-2 with a respectable 35 percent from three in November prior to discovery of the life-threatening clots. There is no LeBron James, yes, but Pat Riley gave the  $118 million dollar man an excellent supporting cast that the Heat will show off starting this November. Maybe some people are starting to write him off, but at age 31, Bosh still has elite talent to showcase.

14. John Wall

One of the fastest players in the league, Wall was a half-second away from seeing overtime action against the Atlanta Hawks in Game 6. Paul Pierce’s second effort in the series at a buzzer-beating shot did not count, but Washington’s shaky foundation does have a rock solid point guard. Wall’s ability to facilitate saw marked improvements in 2014-15, peaking at a three-game streak in April where he averaged almost 16 assists. Wall has cemented his spot in the discussion of today’s best point guards.

13. Klay Thompson

A 37-point third quarter heat check was enough to get Klay Thompson a vote for MVP…and no it wasn’t from a Warriors personality, either. With the incredible run that the 2015 Warriors had, Klay finally got national attention for being more than a prolific three-point threat. An excellent and elite on-ball defender at the two-guard and a developing passer, Klay Thompson is one half of the Splash Brother tandem that won an NBA championship.

12. DeMarcus Cousins


Boogie Cousins’ involvement in trade rumors this off-season has added noise to support the already rampant dislike that he receives. But there is no doubting his improved character and slow-but-steady decrease in technicals assessed over the past three years (17 to 16 to 14…hey it takes baby steps). His on-court production, however, is undeniable. 24-13-4 with 1.7 blocks and 1.5 steals is as good as it gets. The only question mark for 2016 is how he, Rudy Gay, and Rajon Rondo will coexist in an already tumultuous system under new Kings ownership. What isn’t a question is that he is the best pure center in the NBA.

11. Kawhi Leonard

Already with an NBA Finals MVP to his name, Kawhi proclaimed this off-season that he wants to be both an All-Star and a regular season MVP. Not only that, but the Spurs star is on the short list of elite two-way wing players with LeBron James and Paul George. His personality, like his teammate Tim Duncan, will always make him fly under the media radar, but any even mild NBA fan knows the value that Kawhi brings to a team.