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Analyzing the first month of the NBA season

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As the 2017-2018 NBA season nears the conclusion of its first month, several unexpected and exciting storylines are emerging. In the Eastern Conference, only three of last year’s NBA Playoffs participants would make the postseason if the season ended today (Boston Celtics, Washington Wizards, and Toronto Raptors). In fact, the three-time reigning Eastern Conference champions, the Cleveland Cavaliers, sit 12th in the standings at 4-6, having dropped games to perennial bottom-dwellers such as the Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic. The Cavs have struggled on the defensive end, placing near last in the NBA in several major defensive statistical categories, such as opponent adjusted field goal percentage and opponent three-point percentage. The Cavs have also been sluggish out of the gate in many games, trailing seven of their ten opponents after the first quarter.

Due to their poor starts, tension is mounting within the team. Following Sunday’s loss to the struggling Atlanta Hawks, shooting guard Dwyane Wade, a 12-time All-Star, called out the Cavs’ starters for their subpar performances. Wade recently bought out the final year of his contract with the Chicago Bulls in order to be reunited with Lebron James, with whom he won back-to-back NBA titles in 2012 and 2013.

“It’s no secret we’re starting games off awful. Terrible. And [Atlanta] got it going early, and the effort or the focus just wasn’t there to start off, and you try to battle back, you waste a lot of energy trying to come back from 16-18 down, and it’s tough nightly to do this. And we all know this. It’s no secret in this locker room, but our first unit, we got to start off better,” Wade said to reporters in a post-game interview.

On the flip side, the Boston Celtics, despite losing recently signed star forward Gordon Hayward to a gruesome ankle injury in their season opener, have won eight straight games to sit atop the Eastern Conference standings. Kyrie Irving, acquired from the Cavaliers in a controversial offseason trade in exchange for beloved and hardworking All-star point guard Isaiah Thomas, defensive specialist Jae Crowder, center Ante Zizic, and a 2018 first round pick, has led the balanced charge, averaging 21 points and 5.6 assists per game. Other key contributors include savvy veteran, Al Horford (14.6 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 4.3 assists), rookie Jason Tatum (13.6 points, 6.3 rebounds), and Hayward’s more-than-capable replacement, Jaylen Brown (15.8 points, 6.6 rebounds).

One team in the East that has exceeded expectations up to this point is the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons, a team that finished eight games under .500 last year and missed the NBA Playoffs, currently sit at 7-3, only one game off the pace in the East. Off to their best start since 2008-2009, the Pistons’ success can be attributed in large part to improved offensive efficiency and the drastic improvement in free throw shooting of their star center, Andre Drummond. Prior to the season, Drummond held the record for the worst free throw percentage in NBA history (38.1%) but through ten games in 2017-2018, Drummond is shooting a very respectable 75% from the foul line. Even if Drummond’s “hot” free throw shooting cools down, it is still likely that he has improved substantially from his career averages. Drummond is not the Pistons’ only hot offensive performer, however, as the team’s top seven scorers are all averaging point totals above their career averages.

In the Western Conference, after a shaky start, the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors seem to have righted the ship, winning their last three games by an average of 22.3 points. The Warriors’ potent offense, led by All-Stars Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson, once again tops the league in points per game (120.7). Although still early in the season, all five of the Warriors’ starters are shooting a very impressive 50% or better from the field. NBA General Managers’ overwhelming pick to repeat as NBA champions (93% of GMs selected the Warriors to win in an annual pre-season survey), the Warriors seem to be hitting their stride, and at their best, they are nearly unbeatable.

One team in the West that has failed to meet expectations is the Oklahoma City Thunder. Last season, the Thunder were eliminated in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. Over the offseason, in an attempt to bolster their roster and improve on last year’s results, the Thunder acquired two superstars, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, to assist reigning MVP Russell Westbrook. However, despite a drastically improved supporting cast, the Thunder are a mediocre 4-5. One would expect the team to improve over the course of the season as George, Anthony, and Westbrook gain experience playing with one another, but the three superstars have not yet figured out a way to share the ball. The Thunder are averaging barely over 20 assists per game, only good for 13th in the NBA.

It is too early to know how the 2017-2018 season will end, but I expect struggling teams like the Cavaliers and the Thunder to finish the season near the top of their respective conferences, while teams lacking stars, such as the Pistons, the Magic, and the Indiana Pacers, will likely cool down from their hot starts. Anticipate the NBA’s “superteams,” such as the Warriors, Cavs, Thunder, Rockets, and Celtics, to battle it out for the NBA crown. That being said, it will be difficult for any team to wrestle the title away from Curry, Durant, and the rest of the Golden State Warriors. I expect the Warriors to once again dominate the NBA and take home their third title in four years.

Predicting the success of the NBA rookie class

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The 2017-2018 NBA season was highly anticipated, partly because of the frantic free agency period, but largely due to the amount of rookie talent that entered the league. Big name college basketball stars like Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, and Malik Monk inundated sports broadcasts, articles, and talk shows for months in preparation for the season. The only problem, however, was that all of these conversations revolved around pure speculation. While we had seen many of these rookies play in high school or college, it was still largely a mystery whether their play style would translate to the NBA and have a tangible impact on their respective teams. Now, with the first few games of the season in the rearview mirror, it is becoming more possible to discern which rookies have had the biggest impact on their teams, and which rookies will continue to contribute throughout the year.

NBA fans around the globe may be tired of hearing his name already, but I don’t care. Lonzo Ball rose to prominence as one of the most hyped-up talents the basketball world has ever seen, partly due to his father, Lavar Ball. His father became known for going on radio shows, TV stations, calling his son “better than Steph Curry,” and generally making many outlandish claims about him. Regardless, I believe that Lonzo Ball is going to be the truth, and although his opening night performance versus the Houston Rockets was disappointing, it should just be an anomaly. Asking any rookie to show up and ball out in their first game is hard enough, but when Patrick Beverley (one of the best guard defenders in the league) is guarding you the whole night, it’s a completely different story. To see what he’s truly capable of, you have to look at his second game versus the Phoenix Suns where he had 29 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists (one assist short of becoming the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple double). The Lonzo Ball on the court in Phoenix resembled the Lonzo that so many fans fell in love with during his career at UCLA. Ball certainly has a lot of upside, and while only time will reveal the extent of his impact on Los Angeles basketball, it’s safe to say that he is going to be a solid NBA player in the years to come.

Next up is Jayson Tatum. In his first and only year at Duke University, Tatum was an integral component to the team’s success in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). His hard work, confidence, and sheer ability positioned Duke as one of the best college basketball teams in the country. It wasn’t until the ACC tournament that Tatum showed just how good he is. With 25 points against Louisville in the quarterfinal game, 24 versus North Carolina in the semifinals, and 19 versus Notre Dame in the championship, Tatum demonstrated that he is able to elevate his game when it truly matters, much like his current Celtics teammate and fellow former Duke star Kyrie Irving.

After being drafted at the #3 overall pick by the Celtics, many Boston fans were excited for the season to start as they believed that their system, coaches, and winning culture would be the perfect environment for a fresh-faced Tatum to thrive. So far, he has not disappointed, and is currently averaging 15 points, six rebounds, and two assists. While he has shown great flashes of athleticism and a true ability to shoot the ball, perhaps his most impressive quality so far is his efficiency. Shooting just above 50 percent from the field is an impressive statistic for anyone in the league, let alone a rookie. Much like Lonzo Ball, you should expect to see and hear great things from Tatum in the future.

Last but not least is Ben Simmons. Simmons spent a year at Louisiana State University before being drafted #1 overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2016 NBA draft. While this is technically Simmons’ second year in the league, an injury prevented him from stepping on the court for a single game last year, which means that this year is technically his rookie season. Simmons is an unbelievable talent and demonstrates remarkable ball handling and passing abilities for someone who is 6 feet 10 inches tall. What really has separated him from the rest of the pack, however, is his basketball IQ. When he is on the floor and the ball is in his hands, he knows exactly where his teammates are on the court and where they will be going. This has allowed for him to complete incredible passes with ease. What Simmons will continue to struggle with, however, is his inability to consistently hit a 15-foot shot. If he can prove that he can do so, his potential is unlimited.

Currently, Simmons is averaging 17.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 7.5 assists through six games. While his team is a disappointing 2-4, there is only so much Ben can do. Simmons will be required to pick up the slack even more as fellow rookie Markelle Fultz is out indefinitely with an injury. That being said, Philadelphia 76ers fans should be more than happy with what they’ve from him so far.

With all the buzz behind this year’s rookie class, it seems like the NBA will avoid a repeat of last season’s weak Rookie of the Year race. It remains to be seen how this strong class will look years from now. Hopefully for NBA fans, the 2017 class will produce as much talent as the 2003 class, which included future Hall of Famers LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Bosh, among other star players. With the limited preview seen so far, it looks like this might be the case, and another slate of NBA superstars is coming.

Wade Reunites with Lebron

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This NBA offseason has been filled with ample excitement. Blockbuster trades have occurred, new “Big 3’s” have been formed, and old teammates have reunited. While the season’s outcomes are largely unpredictable, one thing is for sure: LeBron James is happy to have Dwyane Wade back on the court with him.

LeBron and Wade have been longtime friends, dating back to their first interaction at the 2003 pre-draft combine at which the two started talking while waiting to be examined by a doctor.

Wade referred to the moment in an interview with the NBA.

“I was in there waiting on the doctors to come in to see me for about an hour. He walked right in and they seen[sic]him. We kind of kicked it off from there. It’s just something that happened – there’s no way to really explain it.” That single interaction has stemmed one of the greatest duos in basketball history as well as a lifelong friendship.

The duos on court success started immediately when James became a member of the Miami Heat for the 2010-2011 NBA season. That year, the two dominantly marched their way past the competition directly into the NBA finals against the Dallas Mavericks. After establishing an early 2-1 lead in the best of seven games series, they ended up losing the title. One year later after another dominant season, the Heat again found themselves in the Finals versus the Oklahoma City Thunder. Fueled by the prior year’s defeat, James, Wade, and the rest of the team stepped up their game. The extra effort paid off when they won four games to one, marking the first championship won by Wade and James on the same team. With a tried and true blueprint from the season before, the team found themselves in the finals for the third year in a row. After beating the legendary San Antonio Spurs in seven games, LeBron and Wade claimed their second NBA title together.

Because their success on the court has been so profound, much of what has been reported in the media about the two relates to just that. Perhaps just as interesting, however, is the bond that the two have established off of the court. Wade and LeBron have been on countless vacations together and even this past month were featured all over Instagram for their combined off-season workouts in Los Angeles. Less well-known is the fact that Dwyane Wade was with LeBron the night that James proposed to his then fianceé, Savannah James.

In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Lebron said “I had D-Wade hold the ring for me all night because I didn’t want Savannah to accidentally bump against me and feel that I had the ring on me. When I asked for the ring, D-Wade looked at me and said, ‘Are you ready?’”.

Perhaps Wade’s wife Gabrielle Union said it best when describing Wade and James’ irreplaceable relationship. “If we played ‘The Newlywed Game’, I don’t know if I’d have more information on my husband than LeBron would,” she said.

While Wade and LeBron have proven multiple times that they are capable of winning an NBA championship, this year’s competition is fierce. Of course, the Golden State Warriors led by superstars Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are a force to be reckoned with. In addition to the Warriors, however, are many improven teams that share the same goal of winning a title. For example, the Oklahoma City Thunder, who lost to the Rockets in the playoffs last year, added superstars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Furthermore the Boston Celtics, last year’s number one seed in the East, appear to be reinvigorated with the addition of Kyrie Irving to their roster by means of a trade that sent MVP candidate Isaiah Thomas and starting small forward Jae Crowder to the Cavaliers.

While the journey toward the ultimate goal of winning the NBA championship is arduous, I am confident that LeBron wouldn’t trade the opportunity to do it all over again with Wade for anything.

 

The rise of the NBA superteam: Carmelo Anthony

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This past week, former third overall pick and New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder. This blockbuster trade included Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and the 2018 Bulls second-round draft pick in exchange for 10-time all star Carmelo Anthony. This trade has major implications for not just the teams involved, but the NBA as a whole. Last year, the NBA season concluded with the Warriors easily handling the Cavs in the Finals. Since then, the NBA has seen many blockbuster trades that have completely changed the landscape of the league.

The Thunder, now with Carmelo Anthony, Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Steven Adams, join the Warriors and Cavs as the three modern day “super teams” in the NBA. Recently, it seems practically normal for super teams to be assembled, but when did all this start? Was it in 2010 when Lebron “took his talents to South Beach” and won two championships with the trio of himself, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh? What about in 1982 when Moses Malone teamed up with Julius Erving and the 76ers? I would argue that you have to travel all the way back to 1968 when Wilt Chamberlain joined the Los Angeles Lakers to answer this question. A team is typically dubbed “super” when they have 3 or more superstars. Some would think that these teams would be so dominant that no one could compete, and in the Warriors’ case, they have been so far. But over the years there have been countless super teams that have turned out as complete busts. We can look at the ‘09 Lakers with all-stars Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard, Ron Artest, and Kobe Bryant. Going into the season the Lakers were a shoo-in to compete for the title, if not win it all. The team had three future hall of famers in Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, and the legendary Kobe Bryant, but struggled throughout the year and eventually fell short of the elusive title. The problem they experienced and what other super teams have experienced in the past is that superstars often have conflicting personalities and team chemistry doesn’t always come together. This can result in a few skilled players not meshing well together, and actually detracting from the overall team play.

Why do super teams only seem to form in the NBA and not the NFL? Apart from the obvious difference in roster size and people playing at a time, there are a few key reasons why you will never see a an NBA-like team in the National Football League. First, when building their teams, NFL general managers side with the belief that roster depth is more important than having a few superstars. Think of the “Big Three” in Miami. With Bosh, Wade, and Lebron in the starting line-up surrounded by nine role players, the Heat were dominant until Lebron left to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers.  

In the NFL every single position is one-dimensional. Receivers catch passes, lineman block other linemen, running backs run the ball, etc. All 11 players are doing 11 different things that all contribute to a successful play. For example, since 2012, Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt has been the NFL’s best defender. That being said, in the last 5 years, with Watt on the roster, the Texans’ defense has finished in the top half of the league only once. This shows how little of an impact a star player has in the NFL compared to the NBA. In the NBA, one-on-ones happen all the time, but there is no one-on-one equivalent in football, which makes every position extremely important.

With the recent signings of Carmelo Anthony to the Thunder and Dwyane Wade to the Cavs this NBA offseason was definitely one for books. The new salary cap in the NBA has changed the landscape immeasurably, as it is much easier for general managers to attract multiple superstars to one team. With 3 super teams now in the league, it will no doubt be a season to remember.

 

“That’s impossible, even Wilt [Chamberlain] couldn’t do it.”

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“I think these rims will break sir,” a 22-year-old Darryl Dawkins dubiously said to his coach in November 1979. “Don’t be silly,” came the reply, “even Wilt [Chamberlain] couldn’t do it.” Yet sure enough, the next game his Philadelphia 76ers played ended with a dramatic, backboard-shattering dunk, sending teammates and opposition running alike. Three weeks later he did it again. “I had to see if I could do it again,” he confessed with a grin during a recent interview with Astro, and as a result of his ferocity, the National Basketball Association ruled that breaking the rim/backboard was punishable by a fine and suspension. Yet the legend of Darryl Dawkins, Chocolate Thunder flourished.

 I had the privilege of writing an interview for, and meeting, this retired NBA legend in Malaysia this summer where he was working with the NBA’s global youth outreach programs. A towering and attention-grabbing physical presence, Dawkins had a handshake that enveloped my grip and an infectious laugh that boomed. He often found himself at the center of attention, not because of a desire to be there, but because of the natural charisma and presence he had. I say “had” because Darryl Dawkins died of a heart attack last week. It can be hard to appreciate some people’s effects on the world, but when it comes to Darryl, his life struggle and values speak for themselves.

 Dawkins was drafted with the 5th overall pick by the 76ers in the 1975 NBA draft straight out of Maynard Evans High School in Orlando, Florida and is known for his powerful slam dunks and eccentric, yet positive, personality. Beyond merely the strength of the dunks themselves, Dawkins was noted for the unusual and creative names he gave his dunks. He dubbed his first backboard-breaking slam “The Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Robinzine-Crying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump-Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Wham-Bam, Glass-Breaker-I-Am-Jam,” and grinned as he sheepishly said, “I’ve always had a wild imagination.”

 One would assume that his iconic nickname “Chocolate Thunder” was generated by this imagination or by one of his teammates. Interestingly, it originated elsewhere. Musician Stevie Wonder, who is famously blind, used to attend 76ers games frequently in the 70s, would often refer to Dawkins as “big chocolate guy” who threw down “another thunder dunk.” Hence, when the two eventually met, Wonder gave him the nickname “Chocolate Thunder.” “If Stevie Wonder can call me that, I can be that,” proclaimed the legend.

 As for why he thought he had a chance to be in the NBA, Dawkins credits his family and his mother in particular. He comes from a family of 11 children, and she pushed him from a young age to be as good as he possibly could. He fondly recounted an anecdote from his childhood, when he strutted into his house and his older brother looked at him and asked, “What you all jacked up for?” Dawkins proudly declared that he had finally beaten his mom in 1-on-1 basketball outside on the driveway. Admittedly, his mother, Harriette, was 6-foot-1 and “would come out and beat you whenever you thought you was good,” even throughout his illustrious high school career in Florida. She taught him that if you believe it, whatever ‘it’ may be, you can live it. This philosophy carried him through his career the NBA.

 Along with his competitive drive and confidence in himself, Dawkins was at his core a true family man.  When talking about the importance of being drafted and making it in the NBA, he glowed when talking about being able to send his brothers and sisters to college and buying his mother a new house. In fact, when he went pro he said that this was his main motivation for skipping college — he wanted to get his mother “out of the project” she was living in. He claimed that his bed was far bigger than a king-size, for whenever there was a thunderstorm his entire family piled in, including his 5-foot-11 11 year old daughter and 12 year old son, yet to hit his growth spurt, who already stands at 5-foot-10, as well as his wife and 19 year old son. And the cat. Dawkins had no issue with this though, and just good-naturedly appreciated that at least the dog stayed downstairs.

 Darryl Dawkins was not just a solid NBA player. He was a building block for the sport, a necessary stepping stone to the high-flying excitement of today’s NBA. He was himself on and off the court and never tried to hide his eccentricities or emotions, but instead, lived them. He was a global ambassador for basketball, traveling around to talk to, coach, inspire, and meet young talents across the world. He was also a self-declared “foodie.” But above all he truly was a family man to his core, in all respects of the word. It was a pleasure to meet him and witness the manner with which he brought everyone around him to ease, the way with which he made people laugh genuinely and how his eyes lit up when talking about his wife or kids. People will never forget Chocolate Thunder, who did the impossible. Twice.

Reviewing the first half of the 2014-2015 NBA season

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Lebroncavs
LeBron James is starting his first season back on the Cleveland Cavaliers since leaving the team in 2009.

The 2014-15 NBA season has been a breath of fresh air for most NBA fans. Teams that have dominated the NBA playoffs the past three years were either broken apart in free agency (Miami) or decimated by injuries (OKC, San Antonio and Indiana), leaving room for Washington, Atlanta, Golden State, Memphis and others to swoop in and vie for the pole positions in each conference. Other than the newfound disparity in the league, there have been several compelling storylines to follow across the Association that make this one of the more exciting seasons in recent memory.

This article could not be started without mentioning LeBron’s “return” to Cleveland and the Eastern Conference’s new Big Three (James and all-stars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving). The four-time MVP left the Miami Heat for the hometown team he spurned in 2010, quickly erasing much of the hostility that had been built up towards him during his four years in Miami. This move, coupled with a pre-season trade for Love, lead many to believe that there was a clear new beast in the East. The truth couldn’t be further off. While the Cavs posted an offensive rating of 113.5 points/100 possessions with the Big Three on the court, the team was a very average 21-20 at the midway point of the season, with glaring chemistry, leadership and defensive issues.

The power vacuum following the Heat’s breakdown did, however, create a different power in the Eastern Conference: the Atlanta Hawks. Last year’s eighth seed, barely making the playoffs — even in the weaker East — has now won 30 of its last 32 games and sits atop the conference by a wide margin. Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap are essentially guaranteed All-Star bids, but don’t sleep on Kyle Korver and Al Horfords’ impact on the team’s offense and defense respectively. Atlanta is dominating top teams from both conferences with regularity and is living proof that team play and effort can trump star power, even in the NBA.

On the other side of the NBA, the Warriors are proving that you can have star power and team play, showcasing what the best backcourt in the NBA (possibly in NBA history), two potential Defensive Players of the Year (Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut) and an experienced and innovative coach can do. The team has absolutely taken the league by storm and are on track to have the second highest win total in league history.

A part of that backcourt, shooting guard Klay Thompson, deserves his own separate storyline for the greatest shooting display in NBA history. In an impressive win over the Kings, Thompson shattered both his personal career high for points in a game and the NBA all-time record for points in a quarter by scoring 37 points in the third and 52 in the game. He hit all 13 of his field goal attempts, including nine threes in the period. To give this some context, 13 teams in the NBA haven’t had any player score 37 points in an entire game all season and no other player ever scored more than 33 in a quarter.

No stranger to scoring the basketball, Kobe Bryant returned to action after a year and a half on injury leave and tried to bring life to a dead Lakers franchise. Bryant started off as advertised and captured the attention of fans and haters across the nation. High-volume shooting allowed him to lead the league in scoring for the first three months of the season. At the same time, Kobe surpassed his inspiration, Michael Jordan, in total career points scored. However, the Lakers, hit early by season-ending injuries to Steve Nash, Julius Randle and a long absence by Nick Young, resulted in Kobe carrying far more of the load than his old body should. He shot a horrid 37.3 percent from the field, making him the first player since 1961 to shoot that badly with 20 attempts per game. Not that it mattered, as the Lakers lost to nearly everybody in the league. In the end, a rotary cuff tear has ended the season, and possibly the career of the great Kobe Bryant — a hard way for a legend to go down.

In Chicago, Derrick Rose attempted the same by coming back from major surgery on both knees in the past two years, but in a very different situation. Rose returned to a contending team featuring a revitalized Pau Gasol and a blossoming Jimi Butler, and has been able to ease his way into playing like a star. The Bulls, explosive Rose or not, figure to be a contending power in the East, but if Rose and Noah are not playing at their highest, they don’t seem to be able to compete with the Wizards, Hawks or any contenders from the West.

In total, the first half has left us with more questions than answers. Will Cleveland turn it around? Can the young, streaking teams stay hot? How will the MVP race end? Will the Thunder catch the Suns for eighth seed in the West? The beauty of sport, however, is that we know we’ll get the answers; we just need to be patient, watch and enjoy the basketball in the meantime.

The NBA lottery and its side-effects

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NBA lottery
The NBA draft lottery has caused some unwanted side effects, as many teams tank their seasons.

The NBA is a superstar-driven league, and one of the fastest ways to procure such a franchise building block can be through the draft. Every star has to be drafted, and being near the top of the lottery increases teams’ chances of landing a Tim Duncan or a Michael Jordan. So while you can get stars outside of the top five picks (Dirk Nowitzki was picked ninth, Paul Pierce was picked 10th and Kobe Bryant was picked 13th), in general the better players will go earlier in the draft.

Since 1990, the draft lottery has been such that the 14 teams that missed the playoffs that year are considered, with the team with the worst record having a 25 percent chance of receiving the first overall draft pick, second worst having a 20 percent chance, third having 15.5 percent and so on, incrementally decreasing until the team with the best record outside of the playoffs has a 0.5 percent chance of landing the top pick. Only the top three picks are lotteried, with the remaining teams selecting in inverse order of their record, meaning that the worst team in the league cannot land any spot worse than fourth. The idea is to get the better players onto the lesser teams in order to increase league competitive parity and improve consistently awful teams. This can often work, as teams, given the right general manager, a good year and a bit of luck, can rise out of irrelevancy into title contention. The Oklahoma City Thunder (Kevin Durant), Chicago Bulls (Michael Jordan) and San Antonio Spurs (Tim Duncan) are perfect examples of building through the draft.

There have been some unwanted side effects, however, due to the importance placed on a top five pick (and especially the top pick), as teams in order to have the best possible chance at that all-star building block. Recently and infamously, the Philadelphia 76ers gutted their roster of all its veteran, quality NBA talent, trading Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes and Thaddeus Young for bona fide D-league talents and no-name players in the hopes of simply being bad enough to land a franchise changer. At the same time, Milwaukee, Orlando, Utah, Boston and the L.A. Lakers were racing towards this dubious “finish line.”  While this strategy has some merit, it leads to very low-quality basketball, disappointed fan bases and often toxic organizations with no incentive to play, win or entertain.

There have been several critiques of tanking and the system as a whole by fans, media and even NBA executives, with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban among the most vocal. As a result of these complaints, the NBA has seen a series of reform proposals, all aimed to incentivize teams not to throw seasons away before they’ve started and keep playing for the playoffs. On October 22, the GMs voted down a new proposal for lottery reform. This proposal would have had interesting implications.

How would this radical proposal eliminate tanking? Instead of only the top three picks being lotteried, with the rest being in order from worst record to best, the lottery would include the six top picks, with the worst overall team getting no worse than seventh place. Additionally the top four teams would have an equal, 12 percent chance of winning the top pick and the best four non-playoff teams (who now have almost no shot at a top three pick) would have a 13 percent chance of landing in the top three picks.

What does this mean? Theoretically it would lessen the incentive to be the worst team in the league, as instead of being almost guaranteed a top pick, there would be almost as good a chance of landing the seventh pick and thus the cost of losing fans, respect and games would not be worth the chance of winning the lottery. Also, it incentivizes teams to stay in the playoff hunt for longer. The last couple of years, teams would compete through around 30-40 games and, if at that point they were not in the playoffs, would trade away key players in the hope of landing a better draft pick. A team like Phoenix, who was in the race until the final day of the regular season, ended up losing out a lot more than a team like Milwaukee who, once they realized they were bad anyway, lost nearly every game and ended up with a potential all-star in Jabari Parker. Within the new system Phoenix could win 48 games and still have a 13 percent chance of drafting in the top six.

This would seem like a positive development and NBA reporter Zach Lowe, before the voting, even expected a 29-1 result. However, 13 teams voted against the reform. One might have presumed that it was the smaller-market teams and worse squads that voted against the reform, but Chicago, Miami, San Antonio and Oklahoma City also voted “no”. Most of this was allegedly because several teams began to wonder about “unintended consequences” and wanted to do further study, but one GM reasoned that teams like the current system because they can “still be as shitty as possible” if the need arises.

Both these reasons are valid, as there is definitely comfort and safety in knowing that no matter how disastrous a season they endure, there’s a good chance of a light at the end of the tunnel. Also no decision in sports, financial or otherwise, goes without side effects. However, on the surface, this reform seems like a solid way to tackle the recent trend towards further polarization of the league standings, with the bottommost teams falling out and the top teams rising. We as fans, all want to see better basketball, and this reform seems like a positive inevitability towards that end.

Positional growth opens the NBA up to excitement, change

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There are some realities in life that we don’t question, for good reason. 1+1= 2. The sun rises and sets. Ross and Rachel never made sense. Swarthmore is the best college in the country. Then there are some realities that we just take for granted and, bang, they’re changed and never coming back. Pluto anyone? Marijuana legalization in the U.S.?

The same principles apply to sports. On one hand, the New England Patriots and San Antonio Spurs will make the playoffs, MLB players will use performance enhancing drugs and Duke will have an early upset loss to some school nobody’s heard of.

On the other, Manchester United went from ruling the Premier League to collapsing to seventh, beneath Tottenham and Everton, in the span of one season. The Los Angeles Lakers, having missed the playoffs just 4 times ever, appear set for mediocrity for the next half-decade. And there are more than 5 NBA positions.

Wait, what?

Historically, the sport of basketball has had five players on the court with distinct roles. The point guard’s, otherwise known as “the one”, job was to bring the ball across half-court, call a play and pass. The shooting guard’s (two) was to do just that: shoot and shoot accurately. The small forward (three) was an overall athlete, capable of defending and driving for vicious dunks. The power forward (four) filled space in the paint and rebounded. The center (five) was as big as possible and bulled his way to the rim for layups, dunks and put-backs. It all seemed simple.

Today, due to the NBA’s obsession with efficiency, the traditional basketball systems are evolving. General managers want to find the next revolutionary formula to rule the NBA. This has shattered the five-positions model. There are already four new NBA positions and we can already see more coming.

The first position to be radicalized was point guard. This started during the mid-1990s, but the change is most visible today. I’m referring to the change from the Bob Cousy, John Stockton-style pure facilitators to athletic scorers. Tim Hardaway, Baron Davis and Stephon Marbury started this movement with their “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality, but it wasn’t until Allen Iverson started leading the NBA in scoring annually at 6’1” that point guards really took note and started working as much on their scoring repertoire as their defensive and ball-handling skills. In recent years, we have witnessed the takeover of hyper-athletic guards such as Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose and John Wall, who foray to the rim to challenge bigger men as often as they defer. Then you have Damien Lillard, Kyrie Irving and Steph Curry who shoot 600 three-point attempts a year, making over 250 of them, further demonstrating the shift towards scoring three instead of one.

This, in turn, leads to the development of the complementary players on teams built around these scoring guards. Teams now have specialists at the two and three positions: players known as “three and D” guys. Teams are paying for players such as Trevor Ariza, Chandler Parsons and Klay Thompson to shut down the opposing team’s stars, come down to the other end and chuck up a high volume of ranged jump shots to keep defenses honest. This opens up the court and lanes for the ones and threes to slash through.

Another interesting byproduct of this is a position known as the point forward. Much like the traditional point guards, point forwards are players who specialize in setting up their teammates and running a team. The LeBron Jameses, Andre Igoudalas and Paul Pierces of the NBA are often defensive stalwarts and solid rebounders. However, they can bring the ball up, call plays and lead teams. This adds depth to NBA attacks, allowing players like Irving and Curry to take possessions off the ball and spot up for jump shots or cut.

The center has also officially died out according to the All-NBA and All-Star teams, as a “front-court” position has replaced forwards and centers. The monsters of the ’90s, behemoths like Shaq, David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon, are simply not patrolling the paint anymore. Instead the NBA requires hyper-athletic 7-footers to block from the weak side, gobble up rebounds and catch alley-oop passes from anywhere in the arena. DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard, Andre Drummond and Tyson Chandler have extremely limited offensive arsenals and miss more free throws than they make; however, they are in high demand and are paid multi-million dollar annual contracts, because of their athleticism rather than their skill or size.

The fourth and probably most drastic change from the players of yore is in the power forward position. No longer is the NBA filled with players whose names are forgotten before they retire, who live five feet from the basket and who need a point guard to set them up. Rather, NBA fours are being dragged further from the rim and towards the three-point line in order for the wings to dive at the basket. This started in the early 2000’s during Dirk Nowitzki’s reign over the basketball world. People simply couldn’t guard 7-footers who could shoot from 30 feet away. Suddenly, it’s become a prerequisite for power forwards to have an outside shot. Almost every team has a four that can hit three-pointers like Kevin Love, Ryan Anderson or Nowitzki. Even players whose games live closer to the rim are berated by critics and coaches until they develop a midrange jumper. Just ask Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge.

So, it is pretty apparent that the NBA currently has at least 9 positions and that new developments have led to a faster paced and more spaced NBA game, meaning higher scoring and more action. So, the NBA makes more money. Yay! “But is this it? What else can these guys do?” you may ask between shaking your head and writing the number ‘five’ fervently on a piece of paper.

Well, the center position is starting to develop in more than one direction and is the most likely position to change next. In addition to these hyper-athletes, there is a growing breed of centers spearheading offenses themselves, not with ball handling, but with passing and court vision. Joakim Noah and Marc Gasol have recently begun seeing more touches without an increase in shooting volume. The reason? They’re the primary facilitators on their team. In March this year, Noah incredibly averaged eight assists per game, which, over the course of a season, would be more even than elite point guards Tony Parker and Westbrook’s best assisting seasons ever. That’s amazing. Now this trend is not definite, because these ex-defensive players of the year are exceptional talents. However, if NBA coaches increasingly begin running offense through the high post, players will, seeing the demand for those skills, work on them. It’s an interesting proposition for the position that used to be the NBA’s primary scoring option to develop in a completely polar opposite direction, towards defense and passing.

In general, the world is moving towards efficiency and specialization at a higher level and this is true in sports as much as elsewhere. Thus, the NBA’s positional growth is not unusual and is opening the game up for excitement and intrigue. What’s next?

 

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