We’ve played 20 games, let’s give out some awards

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There’s a lot of people around the league that say you don’t really know much until you’re about 20 games into an NBA season, then the patterns have established themselves.

Well, we’re about 20 games in now, one quarter of the season gone. Patterns are established. So…

Let’s give out some first-quarter awards to players and teams. Take stock of the league.

Most Valuable Player

1. Chris Paul (PG, New Orleans Hornets). This race is going to be interesting because the preseason frontrunners — Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant — are around but kind of a step back right now. They are behind Chris Paul, who is healthy and back to being one of the league’s dominant players. The rest of the Hornets roster isn’t that good, but they look it when Paul is setting the table. We’re overlooking the Hornets recent slide — for now.

2. Dwight Howard, (C, Orlando Magic). The guy gets overlooked every season, but he is the anchor in the middle on a contending team. A defensive force. And before you say, “he doesn’t have enough offensive moves” I suggest you go watch his play again this season. Best he has played in his career so far.

3. Russell Westbrook (PG, Oklahoma City Thunder). Durant who? Okay, maybe it’s not quite that bad but early on this season the Thunder have been Westbook’s team. He is attacking in transition, making shots, setting up teammates and has the second best PER in the league. He’s in the mix.

Others in the mix: Kobe, LeBron, Manu Ginobili, Dirk Nowitzki, Al Horford and Deron Williams.

Biggest Disappointment (Player)

1. John Salmons (G, Milwaukee Bucks). This is very subjective because it is based more on expectations than anything. And Salmons is getting scapegoated here for a disappointing Milwaukee team. But the last two seasons he was the guy traded at the deadline that sparked his new team into the playoffs. Last season with the Bucks he scored 19.9 points per game on 46.7 percent shooting, this season he is averaging 12.6 points on 36.9 percent. Injuries are a part of that, but still.

2. Yao Ming (C, Houston Rockets). Again hopes and expectations dashed by injury. Not that this is his fault, it’s just disappointing.

3. Tyreke Evans (G, Sacramento Kings). His reworked jump shot is no better than his old one so far, he is attacking less, and he is at the helm of the worst team in the NBA right now. Again, injuries play a pretty big role.

Others in the mix: Joe Johnson, Terrence Williams, Brendan Haywood… really, we could go on forever here.

Rookie Of The Year

1. Blake Griffin (PF, Los Angeles Clippers). This would be a runaway right now. Not that other rookies haven’t been good, but Blake has been just a beast scoring inside, rebounding, running in transition. Oh, the highlight reel dunks are in there too.

2. John Wall (PG, Washington Wizards). We all knew he’s a blur with the ball, but Phil Jackson made a good point about him before the Lakers game Tuesday — Wall is just starting to figure out his spots on the floor in the NBA. Every scorer has his spots he wants to get to, Wall is just discovering his, and as he does his shooting numbers will improve.

3. Landry Fields (SG, New York Knicks). Steal of the draft. Out on the West Coast we saw plenty of this Stanford product and thought “he’ll make a nice rotation player in a few years” but he is starting for the resurgent Knicks, giving them 11 points and 7.5 boards a game, and is just playing smart ball. Some guys just get how to fit in the NBA faster.

Most Disappointing Rookie

1. Evan Turner (G, Philadelphia 76ers). He was supposed to be the guy with the NBA-ready game who could slide right in and play. Maybe not the ceiling of others, but he could play now. Or not. He’s not sure how to fit in the system, Doug Collins doesn’t seem to know how to use him, but if he would just make some shots (41 percent overall and 1 of 11 from three) things would look better.

Others in the mix: Nobody is really close to Turner here. Some slow starters but you see potential elsewhere that Turner has yet to show.

Most Surprising Team/Coach of the year

1. San Antonio Spurs/Gregg Popovich. We lump these two together because the coach of the year is usually the guy whose team surprised us the most by exceeding expectations. And so far that is the Spurs – we knew they would be good and solid, but so far they look like contenders. They are pressing the tempo with Tony Parker, forcing turnovers, and counting less on Tim Duncan and more on their fantastic guard play. We’ll see if they can stay healthy, but 20 games in they are the biggest surprise because they are such a threat.

2. New York Knicks/Mike D’Antoni. Hey, who knew — you can run an up-tempo offense in the East. Well, of course you can, it’s a matter of having the talent to do it, and with Amar’s Stoudemire and the fast-improving in the system Raymond Felton the Knicks now have it. Wilson Chandler and others are playing their roles well. The schedule has been soft, but they have been better than advertised so far.

3. New Orleans Hornets/Monty Williams. If one team is really going to fall from this list, my pick is the Hornets. Not because of Chris Paul or the players so much — although the roster’s limitations will catch up with them — so much as teams going through ownership turmoil just tend to crumble.

Just missing out: Indiana Pacers/Jim O’Brien.

Most Disappointing Team

1. Milwaukee Bucks. How does a team with Brandon Jennings, John Salmons, Andrew Bogut and Corey Maggette have the worst offense in the NBA? Yes there have been injuries but this team has been flat out ugly to watch.

2. Portland Trail Blazers. Injuries are the reason here — another season lost for Greg Oden and Brandon Roy’s knees will never be right — but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing. Hopes were high.

3. Houston Rockets. Again injuries, to Yao Ming and Aaron Brooks have hurt. But even when they have played this team just has not molded together well.

Some quick hits on my other votes (well, if I had a vote):

Defensive Player of the Year: Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic. (Kevin Garnett is close behind.)

Sixth Man of the Year: Wilson Chandler, New York Knicks. (Jason Terry will probably win it, and he has earned it, but I wanted to vote for someone different).

Most Improved Player: Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers.

Bucking trend, NBA television ratings up both nationally, locally

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Traditional television ratings are down across the board — in sports, but also in dramas and comedies and just about every other category across the board. More and more people are cutting the cord, and even for people who still pay for cable/satellite, there are countless more options and streaming choices like Netflix that divide the marketplace. That’s why the people trying to pin the NFL’s rating declines on political issues miss the point — America’s most powerful sports league is not immune to market trends.

The NBA, however, is bucking the trend.

From The Business Sports Journal.

Nationally, NBA games on ABC, ESPN, NBA TV and TNT are showing double-digit viewership increases. The combined 15 percent jump puts the league’s TV viewership at its best mark heading into All-Star weekend since the 2012-13 season.

Locally, regional sports networks are seeing a 7 percent increase in ratings so far this season. SportsBusiness Journal analyzed ratings data for 27 U.S.-based teams across the NBA. Seventeen RSNs showed increases; 10 posted decreases. Information for Memphis, Utah and Toronto was not available…

Overall, local NBA games on NBC Sports’ RSNs have seen a 16 percent jump this season. NBA games on Fox’s RSNs are up 5 percent.

The NBC regional sports networks are seeing a massive boost in part because of Boston, which has seen an 82 percent jump in ratings this season.

This is good news for the NBA, which recently signed a massive new television deal with its primary partners, ESPN/ABC and Turner Broadcasting.

Why the increase? Likely a number of factors. One, the NBA has a strong crop of young stars — and those stars are engaging fans on social media. The NBA also embraced technology and other media in a way other sports did not — you can see any NBA highlight you want on YouTube, try that with the NFL. The NBA was more willing to change with the times, but that still doesn’t fully explain why a sport with a younger demographic — more cord cutters — is seeing its ratings rise.

Anthony Davis on Pelicans if Cousins healthy: “We go to the Finals”

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On January 27, the Pelicans were 27-21 and had won seven-of-eight (including just beating the Houston Rockets), and they were solidly in as the six seed in the West. They looked like a solid playoff team in the West, and with Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins they were going to be a tough matchup in the first round.

Jan. 27 was also the day it became official that Cousins had torn his Achilles and was done for the season.

It leads to a lot of “what ifs” in New Orleans. During All-Star weekend ESPN’s Rachel Nichols asked Anthony Davis about that and he was more optimistic than most.

“We could have gone through the playoffs. No one could really stop us as bigs. We go to the Finals if we went,” Davis told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols in an interview over All-Star weekend.

“[Teammate Rajon Rondo] reminds us of it: ‘You guys are the two best bigs. I know what it takes to win championships; we got it.'”

Two quick thoughts here. First, no the Pelicans were not contenders. Second, I want Davis to think like this, to say this if I’m a Pelicans fan or in Pelicans management. The best players always think they can find a way to win.

The big question around the Pelicans now is how the Cousins injury impacts the future of GM Dell Demps and coach Alvin Gentry. Those two were under a mandate to make the playoffs or a housecleaning was coming, and they were clearing that bar before a catastrophic injury. Are they both back now? Neither? There are rumors out of the Big Easy they are leaning toward keeping Demps but dumping Gentry, however, it’s still unclear.

Also unclear, how much do the Pelicans re-sign Cousins for (they will) and for how many years? It’s going to be a hot summer in New Orleans one way or another.

Stephen Curry would love to captain Team Stephen again in 2019

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Stephen Curry would love to be an NBA All-Star Game captain again next year, especially since the game will be in his hometown of Charlotte.

LeBron James would be OK with someone else taking his place, depending on who the top two vote-getters are, although his draft prowess led to Team LeBron beating Team Stephen 148-145 Sunday night.

And there’s a definite appetite for the NBA to televise the captains’ draft rather than conduct it clandestinely like it was this year.

“Televise it,” said DeMar DeRozan of Team Stephen. “Give the people what they want to see. I think everybody wants to see it. At the end of the day, every single person that gets picked, you are an All-Star, so it doesn’t matter where you really go, so I think televise it.”

Players raved about the new format of having captains draft the teams rather than the traditional format of East vs. West.

And James finally revealed his draft order: Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, his former Cleveland teammate Kyrie Irving and DeMarcus Cousins, who missed the game due to a season-ending injury.

“I know who I like watching and I had a draft board. I had a process,” James said. “Some of it went according to plan. A couple of them fell through, but I was satisfied and happy with the guys that I got.”

James’ original roster was dramatically altered by injuries to Cousins, John Wall, Kristaps Porzingis and Kevin Love, who all missed the game.

“Even with the four guys that got injured we were able to get four new guys that came in and played well for us.”

James was named the game’s MVP after making the go-ahead, finger-roll layup with 34.5 seconds left and scoring a game-high 29 points.

Where did he hide his draft board?

“Ain’t none of your business. You’re going too far, man,” James said with a laugh.

Curry didn’t divulge his draft order.

“As the draft kind of unfolded, you start to game plan around positions,” he said. “For me, I tried to get the best shooters. It was kind of cool to see both teams come together as me and LeBron were picking. So that part, that vibe of the format and having two guys select from your peers will be a fun show as it unfolds year after year.”

The All-Star draft led to interesting dynamics on court.

Curry chose his Golden State teammates Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, but the trio had to play against Durant. James also chose Oklahoma City duo Westbrook and Paul George to play along with Kyrie Irving, who forced a trade away from James in Cleveland just last summer.

Irving and James had no obvious friction, even laughing and joking on the bench. Neither did Durant and Westbrook, who broke up in 2016 when Durant left Oklahoma City for Golden State.

Durant helped James smother Curry in the final seconds to prevent him from getting off a potential tying shot.

And then there was Toronto’s Dwane Casey coaching Team LeBron against Raptors star DeRozan.

“I think that having the captains and selecting the guys and being able to mix them up gave it a more authentic feel of kind of what us players want to be part of in an All-Star Game,” Irving said.

“It’s great to play with guys in your conference, East-West. But when you get a chance to have Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and you know they’re teammates already, and then you mix them with myself and Kemba (Walker), and LeBron, and you could see the mix and it just worked.”

 

Will Sam Hinkie ever be an NBA GM again?

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The buzz around the NBA is that Sam Hinkie would like to get back in the game. He’s a bright guy who is teaching graduate business classes at Stanford, he’s investing in and helping some startups in the Silicon Valley. Like smart people in every walk of life, NBA GMs have interests outside of just their profession. Hinkie can live a very good life outside the NBA world if he so chooses, but the buzz is he wants back in.

Will a team let him?

Ric Bucher of Bleacher Report asked other executives about the potential of a Hinkie return, in a story about his legacy. There was caution.

One owner of an Eastern Conference team said (Hinkie’s 13-page, esoteric resignation) letter—which was not intended to be shared publicly—damaged Hinkie’s chances of being hired to run a franchise again as much as anything he did while with the Sixers. Still, sources both close to Hinkie and around the league said owners and executives routinely reach out to him for counsel. Several basketball operations vice presidents and owners said they would hire him, but they wouldn’t put him in charge.

Others believe Hinkie and The Process weren’t given a full trial, and that he didn’t do anything wrong as much as the league turned on him.

“They clearly changed the rules on Sam,” the longtime front office executive said. “That wasn’t all on him. If he lasts five more months, maybe it all looks different and he is given credit for what they’re doing now.”…

“Once you stockpiled all those talented players, was Sam capable of flipping the switch and becoming a real GM?” the second Western Conference GM asked. “Because you don’t hire the demolitionist to do the remodel. Those are two different jobs with two different skill sets.”

Hinkie gamed the system in Philadelphia — with ownership’s blessing, at first. Until the pressure from the league and other owners, and the weight of the losses, became too much. Jerry Colangelo came in and the writing was on the wall for Hinkie and “The Process.” Every team has “tanked” to improve draft position and gain financial flexibility at some point, but nobody was as naked and extreme in their ambitions as Hinkie’s 76ers. Most Sixers fans seemed to get it, but other owners didn’t like what it said about the business of the NBA.

The Process also worked — Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz (who has yet to play but will make a difference) have the Sixers as an on-the-rise team that makes the playoffs this year. Whether they get there depends on Embiid’s health and if the right players can be put around them, but he started a process that works.

At some point, I expect a team will give Hinkie another shot, a team near the bottom of the standings in a smaller market with an owner ready to gamble. It may be, as the one executive suggested, Hinkie in some kind of executive role setting the tone while another “GM” handles the day-to-day and relationships, but I expect Hinkie will get his shot. He learned some lessons the first time around, and his model in Philly is not one size fits all (especially with the draft lottery changes that kick in for 2019).  But he deserves another turn in the big chair somewhere.