Dark clouds linger over Jonny Flynn

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Jonny Flynn is only 23 years old, and has just two NBA seasons to his name. He has yet to play in a system that suits him, or for a coach with a legitimate ability to elevate the play of his roster. He was drafted into an unfavorable situation, undercut before he even began by his general manager, and thrown on the floor with largely inferior players. His underwhelming production has every caveat in the world, as thus far virtually nothing has gone right in the basketball sphere immediately surrounding the former No. 6 overall pick.

So why is it that, even when armed with rationalizations aplenty, it’s so difficult to shake off the unmistakable gloom that seems to come part and parcel with Flynn’s career trajectory?

The simplest answer I can conjure: Flynn is a player with a good feel for the ball, but not for the game. There’s demonstrable skill in the way Flynn handles and passes, but his play nonetheless seems oddly discordant with the way team basketball functions. It’s not even a matter of being a ball hog; something about the success in Flynn’s game is just slightly out of phase with our reality, as if he were a star in some distant dimension but simply hasn’t translated his game to ours.

And that’s the simplest answer I can conjure.

To watch Flynn is to see talent, but there’s an undeniable peculiarity in his moves and decision making. He has a good handle, but doesn’t really create quality shots. He’s quick, but remains incapable of getting to the rim. He has good form, but shoots below the league average from virtually all of Hoopdata’s preset ranges. Everything he should do well turns in on itself, and though the situation in Minnesota earns Flynn one hell of an asterisk, there remains an unshakable feeling that he may never quite figure things out.

That’s a shame to say, because it’s hard to find a more charismatic player; Flynn is sincere and natural, with a confidence that puts anyone near him at ease. Yet as easy as it should be to find reasons to like Flynn on the court, here we are, contemplating the possibility that even with considerable growth, he may never lock into the role and responsibilities his talent level had always hinted he would be able to take.

Flynn does have time on his side, and he has a clear love of the game and a desire to improve. He’s laced with intangibles, but we have yet to see them make an actual on-court impact. Intangibles are supposed to live in an incalculable space, but Flynn’s supposed best attributes evade even the qualitative. He says all the right things after the game and displays the perfect attitude, but whether his team benefits from his presence on the court is a matter up for debate.

Flynn will nonetheless compete for every second he can get on an NBA court, even though his current situation (Flynn will likely serve as a third point guard for a pretty solid Rockets team) and slight projected playing time seem strangely appropriate. He could grow into a role as a backup, but for now that kind of position should not just be gifted to him. Botched defense (he gives up 0.31 more points per defensive possession than he manages to score per offensive possession used, per Synergy Sports), inefficient scoring (see above; plus, his shooting percentages went from bad to worse in his second season), and unimpressive playmaking (just 5.8 assists per 36 minutes despite playing for the third fastest team in 2009-2010 and the league’s fastest team in 2010-2011) have ensured that much. Flynn has lost whatever built-in capital is to be had for young prospects, and will be forced to earn back everything he’d previously just been given. He’ll no longer benefit from his draft status or repute, but will be required to actually produce in whatever role Houston has for him.

Though he was given considerable playing time, Flynn has yet to show anything at all to coaches and general managers in search of reasons to believe. He hasn’t even found a way to appease NBA fans who, really, don’t ask for all that much. The game’s die-hards will cling to players who offer them even a glimpse of what joys may come, but Flynn toils away without so much as a spark.

It doesn’t have to stay that way, and in the NBA world, things so rarely do. Players evolve constantly, and Flynn would need but a subtle shift to morph into a solid player. Yet for now, his game is filled with shortcomings, to the point that manufacturing any kind of real hope for his career is an actual struggle. Giving up on a player of Flynn’s ilk isn’t even a reasonable option so early in his career; it would be both cruel and unwise to put him in a box so early, as even now his nebulous potential is worth too much to cast off. Some NBA players simply develop later than others, or rely on an the alignment of factors in a specific situation to grant them a rebirth. Both of those outcomes are possible for Flynn…but not predictable.

That’s an important distinction. Maybe Flynn will pan out better than anyone ever expected, but if that’s the case, he gave no indication of it — not with film, not with numbers, and not even with the demonstration of specific in-game skills. We’ve seen Jonny Flynn only as a struggling NBA point guard, and at this point, it’s hard to even imagine him as anything else.

Stephen Curry says talk of lack of competitive balance “disrespectful” to Warriors, Cavaliers

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This year’s NBA playoffs have been horribly lopsided and they lacked drama because we all knew where it was headed: Golden State vs. Cleveland. They were so dominant that between them they lost one playoff game so far. This has brought up discussions of competitive balance — we have seen the same Finals three years in a row, and we will almost certainly head into next season expecting a fourth. Then maybe a fifth.

Not surprisingly, Stephen Curry isn’t a fan of the lack of competition argument, saying it disrespects the Warriors and the Cavaliers.

“That almost is kind of disrespectful, because it’s not like it’s easy for us to get here. It wasn’t that at all. Us and Cleveland worked our butts off all year to put ourselves in a position to be playing for a championship. The league is as strong talent-wise across the board as it’s ever been. Every night we get challenged. Obviously, we had that one stat I guess, point differential, all year. We had a pretty solid showing in that respect. But, every night was hard. Every night was challenging. You can’t just sleepwalk through a season and sleep walk through the playoffs and expect to be here. You got to do something. You got to come out every night and prove yourself. Granted, anybody who was betting on who was gonna be in the Finals probably picked those two. It’s easy for them to say that and just wake up in June and see it happen. We had to put that work in all year long to make it happen.”

Curry is right in that nobody should question the work the Warriors and Cavaliers put in to get to this point, and that the other teams did not just roll over for them. Also, both teams did get a little lucky with injuries.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that right now there is a dominant team in each conference, and that sucks the drama out of the postseason. (Maybe a healthy San Antonio team could have pushed the Warriors, we didn’t get to find out.) Golden State has four of the top 15-20 players in the NBA, and that makes them a juggernaut — again, regardless of the work put in. Other teams don’t have much of a chance if the Warriors are healthy and focused, not in a seven game series. The fact that it was flukey circumstances that put a dominant team in each conference — there isn’t another LeBron James returning home, and out West it took a one-time salary cap spike to add Kevin Durant to a 73-win team — doesn’t change the fact this season has felt like a foregone conclusion from the start.

Right now we’ve got what we wanted and expected, the trilogy between the Warriors and Cavaliers. But if we head into next season expecting (and maybe getting) round four of this matchup in the Finals, is that good for the league? Why watch the movie if you know how it ends before it starts?

Bill Laimbeer on LeBron vs. Jordan comparisons: “I’ll take LeBron James, absolutely”

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LeBron James is headed to his seventh straight NBA Finals. He just passed Michael Jordan to take over the top spot on the NBA’s all-time playoff scoring list. Fourteen years into his NBA career, he has put together a resume that few in the game’s history can match — and he’s not done.

You don’t have to think that LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan, however, if you don’t think it’s a valid discussion, you’re blinded by bias.

Former NBA All-Star, champion, and WNBA coach Bill Laimbeer of the “bad boy” Detroit Pistons was asked about the LeBron/Jordan comparison on “The Rematch” podcast, and he said we’ve never seen anyone like LeBron (hat tip the USA Today).

“I’ll take Lebron James, absolutely,” Laimbeer said to host Etan Thomas… “He’s 6-8, 285 (James is listed at 250 pounds). Runs like the wind, jumps out of the gym. Phenomenal leader since he’s been 12 years old. Understood when he came into the league how to involve his teammates from the start. And you can’t guard him. You can’t double-team, he’s too big, he powers through everything. Michael was a guard. Yeah, he was 6-6, but he wasn’t a real thick and strong guard. It took him a lot of years to learn how to involve his teammates in order to win championships. Don’t fault him for that, it’s a learning experience. But we’ve never seen anybody like LeBron James physically. He just bullies you.

It was Laimbeer and the Pistons who taught Jordan to win — they beat the Bulls year after year in the playoffs, until Jordan broadened his game (and got better teammates) and the Pistons started to fade. People point to MJ’s unblemished Finals record, but he was seen for years as a guy who couldn’t get a team to the Finals because of those Pistons (LeBron learned his lessons on a different stage, taking some early Cavs teams that had no business in the Finals to that stage anyway, only to get crushed).

LeBron has a more versatile game than Jordan, which better suits this era: When Jordan was a force in the ’80s and ’90s there was no zone defense, which led to a lot of clear-out sets where eight guys watched a one-on-one battle from the other side of the key, and if the double-team came it was obvious from where. Jordan’s skill as a guy who could get his shot, kill it from the midrange or get to the rim, his ability to physically play through contact, and the legendary killer instinct made him great. But he was aided by timing — the booming popularity of the sport in the 1990s, the rise of Nike as a marketing giant, and the fact he didn’t have a true rival, a Bird to his Magic, that could best him.

LeBron has reached the point in his career that the legacy talk and where he ranks all-time is the only real discussion left — and Jordan sits as the bar to clear. Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Bill Russell, and a few others should be on that tier as well, part of the discussion, but the point is LeBron has moved on to that level of discussion. He’s earned it. The fact some people on Twitter/sports talk radio feel the need to rip him for everything doesn’t change that — if Jordan played the social media era he would have heard the same things from the same people.

Report: Celtics focused on adding All-Star-caliber frontcourt player

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Isaiah Thomas said he he’d happily forgo a renegotiation-and-extension if the Celtics use their cap space to upgrade their roster.

Where are they looking?

A. Sherrod Blakey of CSN New England:

Multiple league sources have told CSNNE.com in recent weeks that the Celtics are focused on landing an All-Star caliber talent in the frontcourt.

In the last three years, 22 frontcourt players have been All-Stars. Boston already has one: Al Horford. Could the Celtics land any of the other 22?

Almost certainly unavailable

Free agency

Trade

Free agency or trade

  • Pau Gasol (Though Gasol said he’d opt in, San Antonio might try pushing him out to pursue Paul. If Gasol opts in, the Spurs could also trade him to clear space for Paul.)
  • Dirk Nowitzki (The Mavericks have a $25 million team option on Nowitzki for next season. Nowitzki going to Boston, via trade or free agency, would probably require a mutual agreement between Dallas and him that pursuing a title elsewhere is the right way for him to end his career.)

Report: Spurs exploring Chris Paul pursuit

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The Clippers are taking the Chris Paul-to-Spurs rumors seriously.

And apparently so are the Spurs.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

The San Antonio Spurs are exploring the feasibility of making a free-agent run at All-Star point guard Chris Paul, league sources told ESPN.

San Antonio must complete three difficult objectives to land Paul:

  • Clear cap space. Even if they trim their roster to Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Danny Green and Tony Parker, the Spurs would still have to dump two of them to clear max room. Can they convince Gasol to reverse course and opt out, maybe re-signing at a major discount? Would they trade Parker, who has meant so much to the franchise? Would they deal Aldridge or Green, players who would make major contributions to a Leonard/Paul-led team?
  • Convince Paul to accept a projected max of $152 million over four years rather than the projected $205 million he could get over five years from the Clippers. Although the annual difference is just $3 million and Paul could sign another deal in four years, it’s unlikely he recoups that at age 36.
  • Convince Paul to leave big-market L.A. for small-market San Antonio. Remember, Paul forced his way from small-market New Orleans then ascended into one of the NBA’s biggest endorsement stars.

The Spurs boast a fantastic basketball culture, and Leonard and Popovich make great partners in a championship chase. There are reasons San Antonio is gaining traction with Paul.

But there’s still a lot for the Spurs to overcome. Will they? At least they’re trying rather than just dismissing the plot as unfeasible.