Dec. 17, 2017
Winners & Losers Of The NBA's First Quarter
We all knew this season was going to be special. But I don't think anyone could've possibly predicted the tornado of fun that has unfolded over the opening quarter of the NBA season. Here are just a few tidbits that the 2016-17 season has spat out so far:
- Russell Westbrook is averaging a triple-double.
- The league's leading scorer (Anthony Davis, 31.6 per game) is on a team that is 7-15.
- JaVale McGee was briefly resurrected as a productive NBA player before Andrew Wiggins buried him again.
- People -- apparently, they sound like UFOs to me -- called Mindaugas Kuzminskas and Willy Hernangomez have become key rotational pieces for the Knicks.
- In his first matchup against his old team, Kevin Durant was posterized by Jerami Grant, blocked by Russ and trash talked by Enes Kanter, before he turned into Anakin Skywalker and decided he wanted to destroy the Thunder with the 'Death Star Lineup'.
- J.R. Smith dapped up Jason Terry in the middle of an NBA game, which resulted in this:
AND WE'RE ONLY A QUARTER OF THE WAY THROUGH THE SEASON!!!
After such a hectic start to the season, it's time to have a look at the winners and losers from around the association:
WINNERS: NBA Writers
Take this from a guy who believes he's a somewhat competent NBA writer: writing about the NBA has never been easier!
NBA writers have had everything they need so far this season to write about anything they please. Need a storyline? Look no further than Durant vs Westbrook, 'The Process' in Philly, the post-Duncan Spurs, the insane MVP race or the inevitable third installment of the Cavs vs Warriors trilogy at the end of the season. Want some statistics to write about? Just check out the triple-double machines in Houston, Oklahoma City, Cleveland and Milwaukee, as well as the continuous stream of 50 point explosions coming from around the league. Want to write about a big market team to get some pageviews? Somehow, both the Lakers and Knicks are fun, interesting and winning.
On top of this, the NBA is quickly seizing fan interest away from the No Fun League. Everyone is starting to hop on the basketball bandwagon and because of this, more people than ever want to read about the NBA. If you want to start writing about the NBA, now is the time to do it.
LOSER: Jahlil Okafor and His Trade Value
Don't let Jahlil Okafor's inflated scoring numbers and high field goal percentage fool you; he's an exceptionally poor basketball player.
I don't get why Okafor is still in Brett Brown's rotation, he's just not particularly good at anything. He was drafted third overall because of his silky skills down on the low block and the potential he has to be a dominant post threat. But is he really a dominant post threat when he scores at a rate of just 0.82 points per possession down low? This mark by the way, is good enough to rank in the 40th percentile in the association.
Okafor apologists will point out that the Sixers don't have the spacing necessary to create room for Okafor down low, nor do they have guards that can feed him. But they aren't necessarily the problem. Okafor just isn't as crafty as we once thought, is a black hole when he gets the ball and struggles to get post position:
Please watch how far Okafor gets pushed out on this post up. You can actually see it happening. No resistance. pic.twitter.com/UW0JBnJF3w— Nicholas Sciria (@Nick_Sciria) November 25, 2016
If he's not a great -- or even competent -- post scorer, what exactly is he doing out on the floor? He's the definition of a defensive liability:
On the contrary there's this, where Jahlil Okafor doesn't get back deep enough on a 4v5. pic.twitter.com/n3e0K9L6Ak— Nicholas Sciria (@Nick_Sciria) November 25, 2016
He barely connects when he screens (kind of important for a big):
For me, his screening continues to be the thing that is most frustrating. WHAT IS THAT? pic.twitter.com/9hOylEEHuQ— Nicholas Sciria (@Nick_Sciria) November 25, 2016
And he doesn't offer a whiff of floor spacing for the Sixers (he hasn't made a single shot outside of sixteen feet this season).
With the big man logjam issue in Philly growing each day, having one of those potential trade chips be this awful is not great for your organization.
Shout-out to the great Nick Sciria (@Nick_Sciria) for these Okafor clips by the way, go check him out!
WINNER: Kevin Durant
I have been one of Kevin Durant's biggest critics since he ditched Russell Westbrook and the Thunder for Oakland. On this very blog I have repeatedly called him a coward and a traitor (something I still stand by today). I believe he deserves all of the hate, boos and Drake bumps he gets after his decision. But no matter how cowardly his switch was, it's hard to critique his move from a purely basketball-oriented viewpoint. After 21 games, the Warriors have unleashed an MVP-caliber version of the Durantula on both ends of the court.
Standing at 7'0'' tall, with a 7'5'' wingspan and elite athleticism, Kevin Durant should have always been a dominant defensive player, but he has never quite lived up to his potential on that end of the court. This season, Golden State is using him in a variety of different ways defensively to get the best out of him, but mainly as a rim-protector, a facet of his game that the Dubs have desperately required without Andrew Bogut. He is blocking 1.8 shots per game as Golden State's chief rim barricade and forcing his assignments to shoot 10% below their averages from six feet and in, per NBA.com tracking stats. In this role, Steve Kerr is beginning to uncover a side to Durant that we have rarely seen.
On the other side of the ball, the Warriors' unselfish, free-flowing offense has given Kevin Durant an ample amount of quality open looks in every game, something that he just didn't get in Oklahoma City with Billy Donovan and Scott Brooks' repetitive, predictable sets that defenses were able to snuff out easily. Durant's looks are of such a high quality that his field goal percentage this season is 56.5%, 8% higher than his career average, while he is shooting 42% from deep, 4% higher than usual. Durant has become an efficiency machine in Oakland and with teammates that will continue to command attention from defenses, Durant's sky-high efficiency is sustainable.
KD is having such a great season that according to Basketball-Reference, he is the first player in NBA history to average at least 27 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists and have an effective field goal percentage of higher than 62%.
Durant is not only winning at a far greater level than he ever did in Oklahoma City, but his move to the Bay Area has turned him into the best version of himself we have ever seen.
When Mike Malone trotted out a starting frontcourt of Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic on opening night, NBA nerds like myself jumped for joy. Two young, meaty Europeans who bang down low, crash the boards hard, throw beautiful passes all over the court and have a fiery attitude in the same frontcourt? Yes please!
It was the hope of Nuggets fans and lovers of good basketball that this frontcourt could work, in spite of the glaring athletic and defensive pitfalls it presented. The hope was that the team would be good enough on offense with their two talented big men, that they would be able to compensate for Jurkic's lack of defensive instincts and versatility. By utilizing their incredible distribution and advanced ball-skills for big men in clever 'Horns' sets like this, Malone envisioned the Nuggets being able to destroy opposition defenses:
But it just hasn't worked out like that. With a serious lack of mobility, lineups with Jurkic have leaked points, while on the other end, their offense has failed to puncture holes in defenses across the league. When together, Jurkic gets outscored by an absurd 17 points per 100 possessions. After only eight games of experimentation, Malone benched Jokic (he actually asked to be benched) and has scraped playing the pairing just about altogether, opting instead for smaller lineup groupings.
Nurkic and Jokic have had to stagger minutes, which has led to both of them averaging less than 24 minutes per night -- a horrific number for players as talented as these two. While it might be beneficial for the team going forward, this is an incredibly sad storyline. Any time that young, budding stars aren't able to share the court together or play a suitable amount of minutes is a travesty.
WINNERS: Buyers at the Trade Deadline
Just as I said at the start of the season, the NBA is the midst of an ideological reform. For years, teams did everything they possibly could to avoid the NBA's hallowed no man's land -- a place where a team is not nearly good enough to be a title contender, but too good to bottom out and garner a high draft pick. If the goal of a franchise is to eventually win the championship, being in no man's land is pointless.
Due to the rising cap (once again, check out the article in which I explained this in detail at the start of the season) more teams than usual have decided to try and be competitive, by adding established talent. This has completely clogged the NBA's mediocre middle class, best shown off by the Eastern Conference standings, where the third placed Charlotte Hornets and the eleventh placed Orlando Magic are separated by just 2.5 games.
With the lack of teams outright tanking, the path to the bottom and a high draft pick has never been clearer. With the 2017 draft class shaping up to be one of the best in recent memory, expect a ton of teams around the trade deadline to realize that their quest for relevancy in such a cramped NBA is ultimately fruitless and for them to attempt to tank out the season. To do this though, they will have to rid their rosters of veterans that make them competitive in the short-term, but don't add much in the long-run.
I expect a number of teams, including, the Dallas Mavericks, Miami Heat, New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings to realize this and become sellers at the trade deadline. With so many teams setting up shop, the trade deadline could become a buyers' market.
As long as teams continue to cluster no man's land, this will almost certainly happen, which makes for happy viewing for the likes of Danny Ainge and others who will look to strengthen their squads for a title challenge around February.
LOSER: Mark Cuban's Will-To-Win
The Dallas Mavericks have had a .500 or better record every season since Mark Cuban bought the team back in 2000. Even if he has been riding the aforementioned treadmill of mediocrity for most of those years, Mark Cuban has stubbornly resisted any temptation to rebuild and/or tank.
Right now, the Mavericks are 4-16 and sit dead last in the Western Conference, seven games back of the eighth seed. Cuban's disinterest in acquiring or developing young talent and reliance upon signing bottom-of-the-barrel veteran free agents has finally caught up to him. Not even Rick Carlisle -- who has made a living off of turning inferior rosters into playoff contenders over the past decade -- and his basketball magic can salvage the Mavs this time.
Yet, Cuban remains opposed to tanking. For a man that knows nothing but winning, accepting that he may have to rebuild his beloved Mavs and endure a few losing seasons is going to be tough (it's like trying to teach Gollum not to love the ring). But he has to do it. Trying to revive a dead season is going to do nothing but devalue their draft pick and set them up for continued failure in the long-term. Whether Cuban likes it or not (he definitely doesn't like it), it's time for a rebuild in Dallas.
I think we should all pour one out for Mark Cuban, because this is going to be a rough season for him.
WINNERS: Lakers Fans
Lakers basketball hasn't been bearable in over four years. From the 'Dwightmare', to Kobe's body breaking down before our own eyes, to Kobe's farewell tour, to Kobe's shot selection during his farewell tour (in case you haven't noticed, I'm not a huge fan of Kobe's last few seasons), to Byron Scott being an imbecile, it has been a rough few years for Lakers fans. (Then again, Lakers fans don't usually go through a lot of suffering, they have 16 freaking championships and they should have 15, since THEY STOLE THEIR 2010 BANNER FROM MY CELTICS, but I digress.)
Luckily for Lakers fans, they have something to smile about again. And that something, is Kobe's former towel rail:
Luke Walton has changed everything for the Lakers. He has created an inviting team culture that has gotten his squad to work together as a unit, installed a Warriors-esque playbook that has gotten the best out marginal talent and has revived the career of Nick Young -- a feat that so impressive that he should win Coach of the Year for that alone.
All of this hasn't just led to winning for L.A., but fun basketball. The Lakers are easily a top 5 League Pass team. Their offense is fast, smooth, delightful and relies heavily upon the League Pass requisites of ball movement and floor spacing. Their whole team is long, athletic and love to get up and down the floor, making for hellishly entertaining basketball. Add that on to the depth this squad possesses that makes for a full 48 minute experience and the intricate, detailed offensive sets that Walton draws up for a basketball connoisseur to enjoy, and you've got a ridiculously fun team.
Watching Lakers basketball is fun again, which makes every Lakers fan a winner.
LOSERS: NBA Fans Who Don't Like Staring at Stupid Hairstyles
Ugh, NBA players' hairstyles are usually pretty awful, but this season we have reached a new low. You can basically find a terrible example on every team.
On the Pistons you've got the horrific duo of Beno Udrih, who has decided to add a random blonde ponytail to his head and Aron Baynes, who with the manbun/shaved sides/mask/beard combo, I can only assume told his barber that he wanted the 'axe murderer' look:
Matt Barnes on the Kings just confuses me with his:
I presume that Gerald Green wanted to be a helicopter when he was younger:
Gerald Green got rid of the shamrock hair way too soon. pic.twitter.com/RYEevqoYQ7— Taylor C. Snow (@taylorcsnow) November 7, 2016
Then there's this:
Wtf is Meyers Leonard doing with his hair pic.twitter.com/Amib1qEboY— Tony Markovich (@T_Marko) December 6, 2016
Honestly, any more of this and I might not be able to watch the NBA.
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