PBT’s RetroBall: Pistons-Bulls ’89 and Jordan’s good bad day

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Since billionaire owners and millionaire players are bitterly divided over how much money they’ll be splitting over the coming years and have locked us out of actual basketball to talk about, PBT will be regaling you this summer on the weekends with RetroBall. Using the advanced powers of the internet and NBATV, we’ll bring you interesting stories from years gone by. If nothing else, it will provide us an opportunity to make fun of fashion and culture from the past, which is always a giggle.

We begin our RetroBall series by accident. Yesterday I was asked by someone on Twitter if Jordan had ever fouled out as a member of the Chicago Bulls. A reasonable question, considering the insane amount of leeway Jordan got as a Bull when he became, you know, MJ. I dutifully looked it up on play index, curious in my own right, and found it had happened six times in his career. It never happened after the Bulls won their first championship in ’91. But when I looked at the list, I found myself fixating on his lowest point-total game.

On January 31st, 1989, the Bulls hosted the eventual champion Pistons in Chicago. The Pistons dominated the Bulls that season in both the regular and postseason, eventually losing in the Eastern Conference Finals to Isiah and the Bad Boys (4-2). But this January game was interesting in that it was such an example of Jordan being Jordan. He shot 24 times, hitting only seven shots for a 29% field goal percentage. He scored just 21 points, in a season he averaged 32.5. He fouled out of the game. Yet he also had a triple-double, with 12 rebounds and 10 assists. So he had this terrible game… and yet still scored 21 points with 12 rebounds, 10 assists, 2 steals and a block…. but he also had five turnovers. He accounted for 37.4% of all possessions for the Bulls, factoring FGA, FTA, and turnovers. What a bizarre game.

Thanks to the very helpful Vincent Goodwill of the Detroit News, I got my hands on a YouTube copy. Since I was six at the time, and living in rural Arkansas, I shockingly did not receive the TBS broadcast of the game. So I decided to sit down and watch it. What follows are my observations thereof. (Please bear in mind that seeing as how I was six and wouldn’t become interested in the league for another six years, my observations of both teams at this time are incomplete at best, shoddy at worst. Think of it as something to keep in mind before we make incomplete judgment on today’s players.)

  • It’s striking how despite the fact that 37% of the offense in this game goes through Jordan, he primarily plays off-ball for the majority of the first-half. He’s not even scowling at it, really. Though when he does receive the ball, the moves are all instantaneous. They manage to be simultaneously without hesitation and spontaneous. No one pounced quicker on any opportunity than Jordan. You see the same thing from Kobe Bryant, but his ability to adjust isn’t as flawless.
  • The Pistons’ help defense is borderline insane on Jordan in this game. Thrice his defender plays hard to the screen before the pick comes, and the low help defender (twice it’s Laimbeer) comes up from the block to guard it just in case. This means the entire left side is open which means that the second Jordan bursts left, he’s got nothing but baseline. It results in seven points for Jordan total.
  • Isiah Thomas starts off remarkably shaky in this game. He keeps trying to find the elbow-jumper, but it clatters out on him multiple times. He’s picking up turnovers left and right (he’ll wind up with seven over the course of 51 minutes, accounting for a lower percentage than four other players. Most of his first-half turnovers are the result of bad passes from teammates.
  • Being reminded of just how brutal these Bad Boys were on defense, I want to issue an apology to the 2005 Detroit Pistons, the 2007 San Antonio Spurs, the 2010 Boston Celtics, and 2011 Chicago Bulls for ever complaining about how ugly their games are. They might as well be run-and-gunners in comparison. You know how everyone above the age of 35 talks about how much more physical these games were? They’re right. The question of “Was he making a play on the ball?” is pretty laughable here. Twice the Pistons merely hammer Jordan, going so far as completing their turn after contract and just slamming their sides into him. Once they actually trap his ankles between two trips on a drive. It’s jarring. And it works. Jordan’s jumper never does get wet, and the help defense coming to the elbow smothers him. Particularly, Vinnie Johnson plays extremely admirable work in the stead of Joe Dumars who missed nearly a month from January to February. Johnson not only provides excellent offense, but works to get up in Jordan’s grill, even forcing an airball off a fadeaway. This despite giving up over four inches to Jordan.
  • Speaking of Johnson, his game here reminds me a lot of Marcus Thornton. I’m rebuked on Twitter for it, but Johnson is a smaller two-guard who loves pull-up no-conscience jumpers and has the same kind of frame. Thornton is taller, shoots a lower percentage, and isn’t as good at assists at this point in his career, but the numbers are similar otherwise, as are their comparative styles.
  • So this happened:
  • source:
  • Beautiful, isn’t it?
  • Also, this: source:
  • Okay, maybe not so beautiful.
  • Horace Grant is unbelievable in this game. He winds up with sixteen points on 7-11 shooting, and 18 rebounds along with 2 assists, a steal and a block. Twice he simply waits for the defense to all turn towards Jordan on the perimeter and catching the lob. It makes you feel sorry for Derrick Rose who has no such option.
  • If Jordan has a good bad day, Laimbeer has a bad good day. He’s forced too far out by the Bulls’ motion on and off-ball, and when he does recover, twice on Scottie Pippen, his teammates foul. But in cleaning up, he’s impeccable. If the defense breaks down for a half-second and Laimbeer catches, it’s over. The Bulls have no one who can attack him at the rim. Or near it, as that’s where Laimbeer shoots from.
  • Scottie Pippen is long. I understand this is not news, but bear in mind this is early on, before the Bulls’ gained all that veteran weight. At this point he’s like a bunch of brooms stuck together with a giant eraser on top. Pippen’s in his second season here, and the aggressiveness is mind-boggling. You can tell Pippen hasn’t fully embraced sidekick status. He’s near-suicidal in attacking the Pistons. Off the steal he’s taking two steps to get into the paint then exploding forward. But just as his youth gives him the advantage of explosion, it hurts him with the officials. He makes it to the line just four times.
  • Fascinating subplot: Rodman off the bench takes over on defending Jordan. Because Rodman is just in his third year (though 27), or maybe just because he’s guarding Jordan, he’s taking to the cleaners by Jordan and the officials. Twice in the third quarter Jordan clears out with his left at a Byron Russell level, and gets away with it clean.
  • Doug Collins hopes you enjoy this old tune, “In the Air Tonight.”
  • Adrian Dantley shoots 3-13 and has 20 points. He gets to the line 18 times (eight more than Jordan!) and the calls are legit. He works over pretty much anyone the Bulls throw at him. He’s the biggest reason Pippen winds up with four fouls just minutes into the third. In fifteen days, he’ll be traded to the Dallas Mavericks for Mark Aguirre.
  • The third quarter is eerily reminiscent of watching the Celtics defend Derrick Rose. The Pistons gear three guys at Jordan, who decides if they’re going to attack his jumper that hard, he’s just going to kill them with assists. He drives past the first defender, spins past the second and dishes to whoever is open or cutting. Grant, Sam Vincent, Sellers, everybody gets some.
  • Speaking of Sellers, one of the biggest busts winds up having a pretty decent game. He attacks the offensive glass, finishes where he needs to and doesn’t look completely lost. He also has zero defensive rebounds, but since the Pistons only wind up with 12 for 26% it’s not a nightmare.
  • Also nice side note. I see on Basketball-Reference that he’s listed as No.6. But in this game he’s wearing No.2. So I go back to find out what the deal is and I find this: Sellers blames his struggles as a Bull on wearing No.2… because it’s cursed. You can laugh at that all you want. Guess what number Eddy Curry wore for the Bulls?
  • James Edwards looks like he belongs on a Tyler Perry special.
  • Rick Mahorn’s ‘Stache should have its own business cards.
  • Basically in the third quarter, Rick Mahorn and Bill Cartwright have an episode that is bizarre to any modern NBA fan. Mahorn elbows Cartright in the chest on a box out (that’s a tech now), then Cartwright off and shoves Mahorn (that’s an ejection now), then Mahorn goes back at Cartwright (that’s another ejection), then Cartwright shoves him again (re-ejection?), then the Bulls hold Mahorn back. Try and imagine if Carlos Boozer and Ronnie Brewer held back Kevin Garnett from Joakim Noah and how that would go over. So basically, players in this era simultaneously disliked each other more than they do now, and yet treated each other with more respect and didn’t act as much like children.
  • Offensive rebounds aplenty for Chicago, mostly because they’re sending nine guys at Jordan (yes, nine).
  • Count me among those that remembered Rodman as having absolutely zero offense. Watch this game and you’ll feel differently.
  • The league average for 3PA per game this year was 18. In ’89, the Bulls averaged 6.5 per game, which was 13th in the league, and would be bottom three today. The Pistons attempted 4.9 per game, which was 18th in the league in ’89, and would be downright bizarre now. In this game? Both teams combined shot 14, with 8 of those coming from Chicago’s Craig Hodges. This was an overtime game.
  • You know those games where the veteran squad gets behind because the home team is playing with energy and exuberance, but the veteran squad just hangs around and hangs around? That. Lots of that.
  • Thomas has several buckets by slicing right, creating contact, double-clutching and going glass. Dwyane Wade stuff.
  • In the fourth, Jordan goes after the offensive glass, getting putbacks. How? I have no clue. He just does. One of those MJ things.
  • Dave Corzine is mesmerizing in this game. Not only for the hair, and for being Dave Corzine, but he blocks Laimbeer at the elbow at one point, starting a fast break.
  • Rodman does everything conceivable to try and keep Jordan in front of them, then tries to sell a pretty bad shoulder bump by Jordan on a baseline drive, again, no call, and Jordan slips left baseline for a righty layup. I will say that in modern NBA, that righty layup gets blocked into oblivion against the glass by whatever token athletic help defender the opponent has on the floor.
  • Here’s one for all you Knicks fans:
  • source:  Isiah pretty much starts going Derrick Rose again, relentlessly attacking the rim and going to the line every time as the game closes in on five minutes to go. Chicago’s got a sense of “how are we not up ten?”
  • There’s a segment with less than four minutes to go featuring Snapper Jones’ mother on a cooking show. That’s called “seizing the drama of the moment.”
  • Jordan did just miss some in this game. It’s like what would happen if that insane ability to hit everything he threw up abandoned him for a night. No wonder he hated Detroit so much.
  • Dennis Rodman hits a turnaround. Skip Caray says “If he learns to do that consistently, he’s going to be some player.” ROFL.
  • With 37 seconds left, Rodman finally gets the offensive foul call on Jordan barreling through the lane… and Jordan fouls out!
  • Jones says this is the first time Jordan’s fouled out this season. So Jordan goes out with less than forty seconds left with the Bulls down two.
  • Sellers fouls. Dantley… misses the first free throw? What the?
  • So nineteen seconds left, Bulls with the ball, down two. So obviously you work to get Jordan the… oh. Huh. I have no clue what Doug Collins is supposed to do here, but if this was 2011, the answer is obviously “lose, so they can get draft Jan Vesely.”
  • Well, that’s just insane. Pippen inbounds, it’s broken up, right back to Pippen, who drives, and throws up a runner and is fouled. Goes to the line, hits two with sixteen seconds left. Wow, that’s a confusing sequence for Detroit right there.
  • Vinnie Johnson posts up Pippen, gets the corner, gets to the rim… and just off the front lip. Drama! Overtime! Only on TBS!
  • If you need a laugh sometime, just watch Dennis Rodman and Bill Laimbeer run up the floor next to each other. “High knees, everyone! High knees!”
  • And the Piston who takes over is… Rodman? Rodman collects an offensive board and puts it back in. His eighth point since the third. And he’s getting offensive rebounds. No wonder Chicago wanted him so badly later. The Pistons are now hammering the Bulls on the glass with Sellers off the floor. Yes I’m serious.
  • Rodman comes weakside and blocks a buzzer-beater layup attempt from Hodges. Unbelievable play. And he didn’t do anything insane, or cocaine. Impressive.
  • Bill Cartwright cuts Isiah’s eye on a rebound, Laimbeer has to restrain him. Bill Cartwright vs. The Pistons!
  • Laimbeer, 18-footer. Dagger.
  • The Pistons grind them into oblivion and win, 104-98. They’ll go on to beat the Bulls in the ECF and win the title.

Magic Johnson: Lakers might save cap space for 2019

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LeBron James seems to be tempering expectations of him signing with the Lakers.

Lakers president Magic Johnson – who has hyped signing two max free agents this summer – is doing the same.

Johnson on Spectrum SportsNet , as transcribed by Harrison Faigen of Lakers Nation.

“I feel really good about it. Now, we have cap space for probably two max guys, but that’s not to say we’ll use both of them. We want to if we can, but we have a Plan A and we have Plan B. Say we only get one of those guys, then we’ll make a decision on not to use the cap space. We can do that and save it for the class that’s coming the next year. We’re not going to give money away just because we have the cap space. I’m not about that. If the guy can’t really take our team to another level, and we see what Kyrie Irving has done for the Boston Celtics. Put him with that young talent the Celtics have, and they’ve taken off. We feel the same thing can happen for the Lakers. If we get the right free agent, that guy can take our young talent to a whole ‘nother level.”

I don’t think this will be deemed tampering, though the league’s arbitrary enforcement leaves it questionable. But I’m surprised Johnson – who already played a role in the Lakers getting a $500,000 tampering fine – discussed Irving while suggesting the Lakers leave money available for 2019, when Irving will likely become a free agent. That’s just asking for trouble.

To the substance of Johnson’s comments, no, the Lakers won’t have double max cap space next summer. Not without other moves that will reduce their positive assets.

And rolling over cap space isn’t so simple. If the Lakers sign one max free agent, his 2019-20 salary will cut into 2019 cap space. Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, Luol Deng and Kyle Kuzma are collectively due a raise of $5,895,550 from 2018-19 to 2019-20. Re-signing Julius Randle, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and/or Brook Lopez to multi-year deals would eat into 2019 cap space. It might not be possible to keep those players without multi-year guarantees, and losing them would hurt the team as it tries to impress free agents through quality play.

The Lakers shouldn’t spend just to spend this summer. But delaying would come with complications, too.

Joel Embiid takes blame for Sam Hinkie leaving 76ers

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In his letter resigning from the 76ers, Sam Hinkie wrote:

You can be wrong for the right reasons. This may well prove to be Joel Embiid.

Embiid never played for Philadelphia while Hinkie ran the team, sitting out his first two pro seasons due to injury. Then, Hinkie got ousted and Embiid got healthy. Now, Embiid – arguably the NBA’s best center – is leading the resurgent 76ers, and Hinkie is left to subtweet the franchise.

Embiid, in a Q&A with David Aldridge of NBA.com:

Me: Sam Hinkie drafted you. Do you keep in touch with him, call, text?

JE: Yeah, we text sometimes. We talk to each other sometimes. I mean, that’s the guy that drafted me, and he made sure he put everything in place so I could get healthy. And I got healthy and I got back on the court. And I feel like he basically kind of lost his job because of me, because I missed two years. So I feel like I owe him a lot. Yeah, we talk. We talk sometimes.

Hinkie’s patience in a long-term plan allowed Embiid to wait as long as necessary to play. (It also might have enabled Embiid to not take his rehab seriously enough.)

So, I get where Embiid is coming from.

But Hinkie knew what he was getting into when he drafted Embiid, who fell to the No. 3 pick in part due to injury concerns. The 76ers signed off on Hinkie’s Process then lost their appetite for the plan amid all the losing. It’s not Embiid’s fault Hinkie couldn’t persuade people to follow his direction. It’s not Embiid’s fault ownership got skittish.

Report: LeBron James won’t take discount from max salary

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In 2014, LeBron James made clear he’d accept no less than a max salary.

Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

James’ position on maximum contracts hasn’t changed, sources said.

Are we sure LeBron will even opt out next summer? If he opts in, he’ll earn $35,607,968 next season. If he opts out, his max starting salary projects to be $35,350,000.

Those numbers are obviously close, but LeBron will be working with imperfect information. He must decide on his player option by June 29. The salary cap, from which max salaries are derived, won’t be released until July 1.

But I doubt LeBron is fretting a few hundred thousand dollars. I don’t think he’s worried directly about the monetary difference between a max and near-max contract at all. He’s set financially, regardless.

I think this is about power. LeBron can demand a team give him as much money as allowed, and whichever one he picks will. That’s appealing from an ego standpoint, which is why I expect LeBron to opt out (or at least wield his player option to get where he wants, but more on that later).

Demanding a max salary also fits LeBron as player-union vice president. It sets a precedent teams must spend to acquire talent. That’s healthy for players as a collective.

It’s easy to say LeBron can afford to take a small discount to help his team win a championship, because that’s the paradigm. Instead, he’s challenging teams to think smartly and creatively to find a way to max him out and still build a strong supporting cast.

That doesn’t preclude LeBron from eventually relenting and taking a discount if it’s advantageous. After all, LeBron once said he’d take a discount to play with Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul. But he’s setting a far harder line than before.

LeBron, Wade and Chris Bosh took discounts to join Miami in 2010. Heat owner Micky Arison delighted in the championships and recognition those stars provided – then cut corners on the rest of the roster to save money. LeBron noticed then left. He’s clearly not accepting that anymore.

So, every team is on notice – which is why it’s overly simplistic to say every team wants to sign LeBron. Of course, every team wants to sign LeBron. But not every team is willing to take the steps necessary to seriously pursue LeBron.

In 2014, the Cavaliers made a salary-dump trade before securing a commitment from LeBron. That paid off, but they could have just been frittering away assets if he signed elsewhere. Worse, if they didn’t make the trade, LeBron might not have returned.

The 76ers won’t necessarily have max cap space next summer, but they’re reportedly expected to chase LeBron. That suggests they’ll make proactive moves if necessary to have a chance. The Lakers should have max cap space, regardless.

And what about the Rockets? They’re another team linked to LeBron, but they’ll be hard-pressed to clear max space for him. They already have nearly $76 million committed to just five players (James Harden, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Nene) plus three starters (Paul, Clint Capela and Trevor Ariza) headed into free agency.

But they could trade for LeBron if he opts in on condition of a deal, a la Paul last summer. How about Anderson and either Gordon or a signed-and-traded Ariza plus picks to the Cavs if they’re convinced LeBron would leave in free agency otherwise? Houston would have to send a load of picks, but it’s at least feasible.

That way, LeBron might earn more next season and re-sign for a larger max contract in 2019 – a projected $219 million over five years. That’s more than he projects to get if he re-signs with Cleveland long-term this summer ($205 million over five years).

However, that’s based on salary-cap projections that could change. And the Rockets might balk at spending so much. Of course, LeBron could also always execute the opt-in/re-sign-in-2019 plan with the Cavaliers. A trade to Houston won’t change how much money he can command from his team.

But it’s the type of no-settling thinking that might appeal to him.

Kevin Durant coming up ‘big’ for Warriors

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DETROIT – Soft. Scared. Cupcake.

Kevin Durant can’t help but hear his detractors.

“They’re trying psychoanalyze me when they don’t know me,” Durant said. “So, it’s like you have more information about the game of basketball than you do me as a person. So, ‘you’re soft,’ ‘cupcake,’ all that stuff comes from trying figure me out as a person, not worrying about my basketball skills. But if you watch me on the basketball court, then you come up with your own observation.”

That on-court observation no longer jibes with the unflattering perception of his mindset.

Durant’s height has long been a fascination. He’s listed at 6-foot-9, but he’s almost certainly taller. Durant once said he’s 7-foot when he talks to women. “He’s 7 feet,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr says plainly.

Durant just didn’t play like it.

He entered the NBA as a finesse player. He couldn’t bench press 185 pounds a single time his pre-draft combine, and he spent his rookie year in Seattle playing shooting guard – as far from the paint as a player so tall could get.

Never mind that Durant improved greatly with the Thunder as a defender and rebounder, skills that require physicality. And never mind that he was a superstar on the perimeter, giving little reason to alter his style.

When he left Oklahoma City – where he settled in at small forward – for Golden State, Durant’s on- and off-court reputations merged to form a single image. Afraid of contact, afraid of competition.

Durant is making it much harder for his critics to paint him that way. He’s playing more like a traditional big than ever.

His 2.1 blocks per game are the most by a non-center, non-power forward since Andrei Kirilenko and Josh Smith more than a decade ago (minimum: two games). His 5.3 post touches per game are the most by a non-center, non-power forward in the NBA.com database (which dates back to 2013-14).

“Getting in the mix with the bigs a little bit, I think that’s one role that I always wanted to play and always appreciated about my teammates in the past – from Kendrick Perkins to Thabo Sefolosha to Draymond to David West to Serge Ibaka,” Durant said. “I appreciated those guys for doing the dirty work and allowing me to be the player that I am on the offensive end.”

The Warriors are spoiled to have Durant assume this responsibility.

Many of his post touches come on split cuts, an action Kerr popularized in Golden State. A player – often Andrew Bogut when Kerr first implemented the play – posts up while a teammate screens for another teammate on the perimeter. Most teams would kill to have a shooter like Durant set or receive the screen. But the Warriors have Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to do that. So, Durant serves as the post man, surveying the screen carnage and occasionally just taking matters into his own hands. This video from Eric Apricot of Golden State of Mind excellently shows a few variations:

Defensively, Durant has become more comfortable defending power forwards and centers. Sometimes, he blocks their shots:

Other times, guarding a big just positions Durant to protect the basket:

“He’s just being active,” Kerr said. “When he’s active on the weak side of the play, he’s a devastating defender.”

Durant still just bottles up an opponent in a traditional wing matchup for him and blocks a jumper. He also blocks shots in transition.

But he leads non-centers, non-power forwards with 4.8 shots defended at the rim per game (minimum: two games). His block numbers aren’t telling a misleading story. Durant is doing work in the paint.

It helps that the league has shifted toward small-ball. When the slender Durant matches up against fours and fives, his opponents aren’t as big as they would have been a few years ago.

The Warriors played Durant at center to great effect in last year’s Finals, and it’d be a shock if they didn’t turn to him there again in high-leverage situations.

Make no mistake, though: Durant remains a generational perimeter player. He’s a dead-eye shooter with tight handles and jaw-dropping fluidity. Whatever time Durant spends moonlighting as an interior player, he can always switch into the style that made him a future Hall of Famer in the first place.

His ability to play both ways just makes him even more dangerous.

Still, Durant has made his name as a small forward. He says he has always played the role coaches gave him, but it’s tough to look past the fears of Kevin Garnett, another skilled tall player who worried when he was younger he’d get pigeonholed inside if he were listed as a 7-footer. As we talked, Durant picked up on my line of questioning and interjected.

“You trying to turn me into a four guy?” Durant said.

“Maybe even a five,” I said.

“Maybe,” Durant. “I don’t know. Maybe. That’s the way the league is going.”