It’s tough to write anything about the NBA without it being about Kobe. But here it goes.
For the last five years, especially in the previous three, NBA fans have been clamoring for more parody. By this time in the NBA calendar, we had a pretty good sense of which two teams would be facing off in the Finals.
This year, with the All-Star Game quickly approaching, it’s the first season since 2015 that the race for the title is truly wide open.
Sure, most of the faces- LeBron, Kawhi and Giannis- are the same but this year the stars aren’t seen as underdogs against the dynastic Warriors.
In the East, the Bucks look head and shoulders above the rest of the conference but are we sure they have enough scoring punch outside of Giannis to make a Finals run?
The 76ers seem like a mess but are they a Chris Paul trade away from figuring out all of their on-court chemistry issues?
Can Boston, Miami or Toronto find a player on the buy-out market (Tristen Thompson) that could catapult them to into real contention? Will Victor Oladipo return to form by April and lead the Pacers on a run?
All of these questions are sure to be answered over the next few months but it’s a new feeling to have this many problems unsolved at this point in the season.
From the start of the season, it’s been clear that the Lakers and Clippers are a cut above the rest of the competition. Their star-power and styles of play will make them hard to beat four times out of seven in a playoff series.
But as the Jazz continues to surge and as Nikola Jokic has found his game those two teams could be troubling matchups for both L.A. teams.
The Nuggets possess a level of size and interior play that the Clippers have struggled to deal with all year.
Though the Clippers are clearly coasting through the regular season, it’s a tad worrisome that their two best big guys are Montrezl Harrell and Ivaca Zubac.
For the Lakers, the shot-blocking ability of Rudy Gobert and the spacing that the Jazz put around him will be tough to deal with.
Even though Anthony Davis has been in the playoffs and made Round 2 once, he hasn’t proven that he can carry the load in a deep playoff run.
I would expect both the Lakers and the Clippers to make the Western Conference Finals and set up a monumental series that could change the course of history for both franchises.
Right now, however, I believe the Lakers’ brute force and ability to protect the rim will carry them over the Clippers and into the Finals where they will face off against a Chris Paul led 76ers that is sorely lacking his shooting ability right now.
The NBA is reaching the annual point in its season that has everyone asking: “Can we just start the playoffs already?”
It’s clear, a longing for more meaningful basketball is a sentiment that is not only prevalent amongst the fans, but also the players. The Eastern Conference’s second-best team got blown out last week by a team who is actively trying to lose games, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Golden State Warriors lost at home to the Phoenix Suns, a team riddled with so much dysfunction that some wonder if they should be relegated to the G-League. These head-scratching results make it clear that teams who have secured a playoff spot are just going through the motions.
So as the season winds to a close, this is also a point where we can look back at the previous 70 games to assess what really happened along the way.
Remember when the Los Angeles Lakers blew out the Warriors on Christmas Day and looked like a formidable contender in the Western Conference. Or when the Boston Celtics entered the season as a serious contender to win the NBA Title but now struggle to remain among the “upper-echelon” of NBA teams.
Let’s take a look at the top 5 most surprising (good and bad) developments of this season.
1. Dysfunction in LA
The dysfunction around the Los Angeles Lakers has been well-documented but over the last few weeks, it has been especially striking to see LeBron James share the floor with guys who are barely hanging on in the league.
LeBron typically goes through stretches in the regular season in which he is disconnected from the rest of his team, but this year has clearly taken a mental toll on The King.
It’s clear LeBron wasn’t expecting Alex Caruso, Jonathan Williams, and Mo Wagner to play extended minutes on the Lakers during his sixteenth season.
Recently, it has been very strange to watch James avoid contact at the rim, lack interest on offense, and generally not really give a shit. It won’t be long now before we all hear a “1-2-3- Cancun!” chant from these Lakers.
2. D’Angelo Russell is on the come up
Do you remember when D’Angelo Russell couldn’t escape the Nick Young-Iggy Azalea drama and it looked like the former No. 2 draft pick’s NBA career wasn’t going to last much longer?
Perceptions in the NBA can change very quickly. Russell, who was selected to the All-Star Game this year, has finally found his game this year and looks like the cornerstone of the Brooklyn Nets.
Though Russell still struggles to get to the free-throw line, he has been able to use his bevy of off-balance shots and high-arching jump shot to boost his scoring average to 20 points per game.
Russell’s late-game heroics will make the Nets an extremely tough out in the playoffs.
The Philadelphia 76ers have enough talent to make a deep run in the playoffs and potentially challenge the Golden State Warriors in The Finals.
But since they traded for Tobias Harris, the team has faced a litany of injuries and they have yet to establish an identity. Who are these 76ers? Are they a team that wants to push the ball in transition to find easy baskets or do they want to use Joel Embiid’s post game to slow the game down?
If they are able to find a way to blend these two styles effectively before the season ends, the 76ers might just be the team lifting the Eastern Conference championship trophy in May.
4. Can Paul George carry OKC on his back
Paul George is now the best play on the Oklahoma City Thunder.
George has lifted his game to new heights this season and is leading his team on both ends on a nightly basis. After improving his jump shot significantly, George has been able to add more moves off the bounce this year that allow him to blow by defenders and finish at the rim.
And, it’s easy to forget about his contributions on the other end of the floor- PG3 has arguably been the best perimeter defender in the league this season. The Thunder will need a herculean effort from George if they are going to advance past the Houston Rockets or the Warriors, but his 28-8-4 stat line shows he might just be up to the task.
5. The Milwaukee Bucks are looking good
The Milwaukee Bucks struggled mightily against an under-manned Boston Celtics team in the first round of the NBA playoffs last year and didn’t make any high-profile moves this offseason.
But continued progression from Giannis and the additions of Brooke Lopez and Mike Budenholzer have vaulted the Bucks to the top of the East.
They’ve ditched Jason Kidd’s blitzing schemes on pick-and-roll defense and on the other end they complimented the Greek Freak with length and shooting. Brooke Lopez has completely transformed his game this year and it is paying dividends.
From Jimmy Butler’s tirade in Minnesota to Kyrie Irving’s constant comments in the media, this has been an extremely entertaining season. But, as we head into the playoffs are looking down the barrel of another Warriors title.
Meek Mill’s re-brand is one for the ages. He did it in hip-hop by successfully evolving from a battle rapper into a bonified rap star. In his personal life, he shifted the public’s perception and won them over after losing a rap beef to Drake.
It’s almost as if facing two to four years in prison for a petty dirt bike charge turned the tide for Meek. The 2017 citation violated a decade old probation. The charge came from a gun and drug possession case when he was a teenager.
He spent months in prison before a court ordered him released. In one instant everyone was laughing at him and in another, he was the people’s champ.
Along with the tremendous support he’s received from fans, Meek has had the likes of Jay-Z, Robert Kraft, and other powerful names to move on his behalf and get him an early release.
Yesterday (Jan. 24) was the next stage in this journey as he, along with Jay-Z and the owners of the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets, and Super Bowl-bound New England Patriots, announced the launch of an organization that will lobby for changes to state probation and parole laws. Their coalition is called The Reform Alliance and will be led by Van Jones, a CNN host, activist, and former advisor to President Barack Obama.
If the names involved don’t convince you of how serious they are, the $50 million start-up that Sixers co-owner Michael Rubin says the group is dedicating should. They’re serious about making a real impact and they all believe they can.
In a news conference and presentation Wednesday at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the co-founders outlined their purpose and goal, which includes removing one million people from the criminal justice system within five years.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft was among those who spoke. He said meeting Meek opened his eyes to an issue he otherwise wasn’t privy to. Kraft said,
“After meeting him in jail, I felt affection for him. We had developed a nice relationship. And I’ve never been to jail before. Going there and seeing him, I didn’t sleep for the rest of the night when I got home. Because here I’m thinking how out of touch something like myself is with what’s really going on.”
Kraft continued on saying,
“I decided then that I wanted to work with Michael and Meek to do whatever we could to try to change the system. It’s not good for America. And I’m happy I had the chance and the exposure to see it. It’s just crazy. I hope everyone in this room gets behind this effort, and we can make America better if we really deal with this problem,” Kraft continued.
Meek says the Reform initiative is one of the most important things he’s ever done in his life, adding that he’s speaking “for people who don’t have a voice.” He went on to say,
“If you thought my case was unfair, there are millions of others dealing with worse situations and caught up in the system without committing crimes. With this alliance, we want to change outdated laws, give people hope and reform a system that’s stacked against us.”
Meek is right, about 2.2 million people in the U.S. are incarcerated, and about 4.5 million are on probation or parole, according to government statistics.
Van Jones stresses that the Reform Alliance will break the cycle of probation and parole violations that plague this country and, with this team and backing, should make it easier. Jones said,
“That is the revolving door that keeps people back in and back in and back in. We’re going to dismantle that revolving door.”
This is what change looks like. This is what using your platform looks like. This is what working together looks like.
It’s good to see celebrities own more responsibility in tackling social issues. Kim Kardashian was a big part of getting Alice Marie Johnson clemency. Without Kim K. the 63-year-old woman would’ve served life in prison for a nonviolent drug conviction. Without Kardashian’s influence, Trump wouldn’t even have taken notice. Influence opens doors and this proves it.
After becoming accustomed to seeing celebrities in the news for the drama they bring, it’s nice to see some getting together to do something that will impact the common man. The battles are not over and resistance will surely come, but The Reform Alliance will help someone, and that’s a damn good start.
The Philadelphia 76ers are probably the most intriguing 1-3 team in the history of the NBA.
Last night, in the 6ers first win of the season, a comprehensive 97-86 beatdown of the hapless Detroit Pistons, the 76ers showed a brief glimpse of their potential.
Center Joel Embiid put up 30 points and 9 rebounds in 28 minutes and rookie point guard Ben Simmons recorded his first triple-double of his young career with 21 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists. Simmons became the third player after Oscar Robertson and Hambone Williams (my new favorite player ever) to record a triple-double within his first 4 games in the NBA.
It’s been a long and arduous road for the 76ers to get to this point.
During the 2013 offseason, the 76ers hired Sam Hinkie as general manager. Hinkie has an MBA from Stanford had been working for Daryl Morey in the Houston Rockets front office.
Morey has become one of the most forward-thinking, progressive minds in the NBA, drawing from statistical analysis and data to select personnel and construct his team.
When the 6ers hired Hinkie, they made the decision to go all-in with an analytical and data-driven approach.
Hinkie took over a Philly team that was coming off a 34-48 season and Hinkie identified that the team was basically stuck in neutral, nowhere near good enough to compete at the top of the league and not bad enough to be in the draft lottery.
So Hinkie blew up the team. He traded basically all serviceable players on the roster, including Jrue Holliday, Thaddeus Young, and Evan Turner, mostly for draft picks.
Hinkie’s philosophy was basically if you can’t win the Larry O’Brien Trophy at the end of the year, you might as well suck as much as possible and re-up on draft picks to eventually put your team in a position to win.
To some, Hinkie was a revolutionary. He changed the ways in which NBA GMs evaluate their team and their prospects of improving.
To others, Hinkie’s tanking was an abomination, it was an open revolt against the whole idea of sports, to win as many games as possible. The 76ers sucked on purpose for as long as they needed to in order to one day be competitive.
Ultimately, Hinkie’s tenure with the 76ers came to an end in April 2016 at the tail end of a 10-72 season, the second-worst record in NBA history.
In Hinkie’s three seasons in charge, Philly won a total of 47 games. When Hinkie stepped down in April 2016, he penned a bizarre but compelling 13-page letter that doubled as a philosophical memo outlining his plan in Philadelphia.
Hinkie wrote at length about strategies in other competitive business. He cited revolutionaries in finance and business like Seth Klarman (a hedge-fund manager), Elon Musk, Charlie Munger, and Warren Buffet.
He quoted everyone from Atul Gawande to Jeff Van Gundy. His letter was a massive, rambling, quasi-academic study in forecasting, statistical analysis, and trying to find ingenious ways to fix a broken product.
In his letter, Hinkie wrote about trying to ‘zig’ when others in the NBA ‘comfortably zag’,
“There has been much criticism of our approach. There will be more. A competitive league like the NBA necessitates a zig while our competitors comfortably zag. We often chose not to defend ourselves against much of the criticism, largely in an effort to stay true to the ideal of having the longest view in the room. To attempt to convince others that our actions are just will serve to paint us in a different light among some of our competitors as progressives worth emulating, versus adversaries worthy of their disdain.”
The former 6ers GM explained how he drew from different fields in order to find success,
“Accordingly, this approach comes from a frequent search into behavioral economics, cognitive science, and a lot of observation and trial and error over my 11 years in the NBA. And mistakes. Lots and lots of mistakes.”
Hinkie’s tanking was a fascinating, if not slightly over-complicated, new way of constructing an NBA roster.
Last year, the 76ers won 28 games, better than any win total from the Hinkie era, but still pretty terrible. Joel Embiid, the crown jewel of Hinkie’s tenure, who actually adopted the nickname ‘The Process’, was the lone bright spot on a pretty decrepit roster.
After 4 games this season, 3 of which were losses, the 76ers finally look like a real basketball team.
Joel Embiid may be one of the best centers in the league despite only being 23.
After continuous back and foot injuries that sidelined him for the first two seasons after he was drafted, the 76ers have been trying to limit Embiid’s minutes, something he says is “fucking bullshit,” but through the first 4 games of the season, Embiid has averaged more minutes than the supposed 25-minute limit. It’s a beautiful thing, we need all the Embiid we can get.
Yesterday, Embiid absolutely destroyed Pistons center Andre Drummond for 30 points off 11-15 shooting and made it look light.
Embiid, who is 7’2″ and 285 pounds, has unlimited offensive ability. His upbringing playing soccer in Cameroon makes him extremely quick and light on his feet and he can drive and shoot like someone 7 inches smaller and 50 pounds lighter than him.
“In my mind, I was like, ‘You want to switch up, because you are playing against me. You want to be all physical and talk shit.’ So I was like, ‘you are going to get your ass beat.’ I love that.”
I love that too, Joel.
Then there’s Ben Simmons, who wasn’t selected by Hinkie but was selected 1st overall in the 2016 draft shortly after Hinkie’s resignation (the product of that 10-72 season).
When Simmons broke his foot last summer right after the draft and had to miss the full season it looked like Philly was in for more misery. But through 4 games this season, Simmons looks like a transcendent talent.
The 21-year-old Australian is a 6’10” point guard drives to the lane with glue-like handles and finishes with either hand in a variety of layups, pull-ups and fadeaways. Simmons can stop on a dime and pull up from mid-range and bury a jumper, and has Magic Johnson court vision. Again, he is a 6’10” point guard.
Simmons can’t shoot 3’s at all, like at all (he’s only taken 2 this season), but his shooting form is solid enough that he should be able to develop an outside shot (just watch white people online, Ben).
Simmons is the sort of talent that can change an entire franchise. Team him up next to Joel Embiid and the 76ers appear to have two of the best young players in the NBA.
Ben Simmons is reeeeaaallllly good, even beyond the obvious stuff. Under control on defense, good balance/footwork when engaged.
The 6ers still have a way to go (they are 1-3), but they’ve surrounded Embiid and Simmons with solid veterans and role players like J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, and Amir Johnson.
It’s been a long half-decade for Philly fans watching their team purposely suck for as long as possible, but it appears all of this, the seemingly endless losing seasons, the injuries to high draft picks, the arguments about philosophy and approach, was worth it.
The 76ers are now the envy of a large majority of NBA teams, they have two potentially franchise-changing players who, if they can stay healthy, will make the 76ers a legitimate power for years to come.
At some point, LeBron James will no longer be the best player in the NBA. The Warriors can’t be the best basketball team ever for that much longer.
In the next period of the NBA, whenever that may come, the 76ers are ready to compete for years.
It almost, almost makes up for the fact that number 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz has forgotten how to shoot.