The Inbounds: Steve Nash, the Lakers, and the lawlessness of the point guard wilderness

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Welcome to The Inbounds, touching on a big idea of the day. It could be news, it could be history, it could be a tangent, it could be love. OK, it’s probably not love. Enjoy.

“How does Steve Nash help them stop Russell Westbrook or Tony Parker?’

That’s the standard reaction from skeptics to the Lakers’ addition of Steve Nash. Sure, Nash can dish at an obscenely high rate even as 40 comes screaming at him like a bald eagle ready to pounce on him with a good ol’ American mid-life crisis on his Canadian head. Sure, he can still shoot at an efficiency that makes the assembly line look like two dudes with hammers whacking away at sheet metal. But Nash has never been a good defender. People with full understanding know that it’s in large part because he has a degenerative back condition that forces him to lay down every time he goes to the bench and that the fact he’s able to move laterally at all is a miracle. But it doesn’t change anything. Nash isn’t going to make the Lakers’ point guard defense, which was shredded against OKC in the Western Conference Finals and in the regular season against San Antonio. 

Here’s the problem with that line of reasoning.

We’ve reached critical mass with point guard offensive talent in the NBA. Versus every other position in the league, point guard is no longer determined by “who can you line up to beat the other guy across the lineup sheet from you” and has gone simply to “who’s the guy that can do the most damage for your side?”

Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Rajon Rondo, Kyrie Irving, Ricky Rubio, Kyle Lowry, Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, Steve Nash.

Then there’s Ty Lawson, Brandon Jennings, Jameer Nelson, Jrue Holiday, Darren Collison, Jeff Teague, John Wall, Mike Conley, Stephen Curry, Isaiah Thomas.

That’s a murderer’s row for defenses. Those guys can slice, dice, torch, saute, roast, blend, poach, chew up and spit out any defense out there on any given night. Very few of them can be defended with one player, it necessitates a team effort. And almost none of them can defend well enough on their own.  Westbrook and Parker often play to standstills across their season series, based on their inability to contain one or the other. Chris Paul will slide by any defender, manipulate any switch, but put him on an island, and you’d better have help behind him. This has less to do with the quality of these players as defenders, and more with the elite level of offense that is produced by this caliber of point guard, and the sheer number of such guards they face night in and night out.

(Note: Not all these players struggle to defend. Clearly Rajon Rondo is a crackdown, lockout, shut-em-out defender, but by and large, the trend skews towards turnstyle.)

Consider how often you’r seeing small forwards shift to cover point guards. LeBron James on Rajon Rondo. Andre Iguodala on Derrick Rose. Carmelo Anthony on Deron Williams. It’s trying to contain the elite perimeter speed with size and length, and even then, you have to have great help defense. That’s the real hallmark of a great defense in this league. The Bulls’ defense isn’t elite because Derrick Rose is able to shadow, harass, and bottle up anyone who tries to create outside-in, it’s based on their ability to bring a second and third and fourth guy to swipe, challenge, and deter once they get past Rose. And Rose has become a passable defender! What of the teams like the Lakers with Nash? The truth remains that with players like Westbrook, it’s partially challenging them at multiple opportunities, partially goading them into the shots you want them to take (that they can still hit), and living with it. But that’s not something you can stomach if you’re one of the few teams bringing a knife to a heavy artillery fight.

That may make the Knicks’ situation with Jeremy Lin as fascinating as anything. Lin’s defense was surely questionable. But over and over again last season, he found ways to make plays on his own. When Lin has the advantage, great. When he doesn’t, all he has to do is be what I refer to as a “painkiller.” He just has to take away enough of the sting from what the point guard is doing on offense by providing his own numbing euphoria with timely buckets and big shots. Do that, and you can survive the onslaught if the rest of the team steps up.

With the Lakers, they have the capacity to be an elite defensive team. They showed it at times. But they were so discombobulated for such long stretches that you could tell they lost their way on both ends. With Nash, the offense will be great. Not fine. Not better. Great. He solves nearly every issue they have, specifically. And he’ll get torched.  The Lakers will once again have a hard time finding ways to slow down or deter opposing point guards. Nash will do almost none of that.

But look around you. We’re in a point guard looting-and-plundering paradise. Point guards are the Allied Powers, cleaning out the Eagle’s Nest. If it’s not bolted down, they’re taking it. The Lakers have to win all the other battles, and that’s a bigger trick for Mike Brown and company. But they can live with Nash letting his man get past him. He’s going to get past his guy enough, make the right pass enough, hit the big shot enough.

This is a league where point guard play is the Wild West. It’s not about law and order, or structure. It’s just about who’s got the fastest gun and the most bullets. And Steve Nash?

He’ll make you famous.

Gregg Popovich on Fox News pundit attacking LeBron James: “Unbelievable”

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Fox News pundit Laura Ingraham launched an attack at Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James after the NBA star voiced his opinion on Donald Trump. LeBron had done so many times before, alongside other notable NBA personalities like Kevin Durant and Steve Kerr.

This instance of LeBron speaking up apparently struck Ingraham in some type of way, enough to invoke a shot at James’ intelligence and speaking mannerisms in thinly-veiled comments. Ingraham told James to “shut up and dribble” which sparked the ire of many around the league. LeBron responded in kind, and most considered Ingraham’s racially-tinged tirade to be par for the course from that particular outlet.

Ingraham, who failed to do basic research on LeBron’s background, community leadership, and charitable contributions, also drew criticism from San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. Speaking before San Antonio’s game against the Cavaliers, Popovich told a crowd that Ingraham’s comments said more about her than about LeBron, and that he was happy the game had such a positive role model for young fans in James.

Via Twitter:

Shoutout to Popovich for continuing to be a voice from such a prominent position within sports and pop culture. Guys like him and LeBron haven’t exhausted themselves even though the discussion about what they say is undoubtedly tiring.

Jimmy Butler has surgery on right meniscus, no timetable for return

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The playoff picture in the Western Conference became much more opaque after Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jimmy Butler went down with a knee injury earlier in the week.

Reports out of Minnesota was that Butler had suffered a right meniscus injury, ducking what many had feared was an ACL tear. According to the team, Butler had successful surgery on his right meniscus this weekend.

As of Sunday morning they did not have a timetable for his return.

Via Twitter:

Minnesota currently stands third in the West but they will have a hard time fending off the rest of the playoff hopeful teams below them without their star player.

For his part, Butler is hoping he will be back in time for the playoffs. Early reports were that the team was thinking his recovery had a 4-to-6 week timeline, but again nothing has been set. Meniscus recovery times vary greatly depending on the issue at hand and the procedure done, neither of which we have details on at this time.

The Timberwolves have the 15th most difficult strength of schedule ahead of them according to Tankathon.com, with games against major Western Conference opponents ahead of them as well as bottom-dwellers like the Memphis Grizzlies.

Minnesota has been a good story all season long. No doubt many will bring up Tom Thibodeau’s workload once again with Butler injured, something compounded by Butler apparently requesting to rest during the 2018 All-Star Game.

Wolves fans have been waiting a long time for this. They don’t deserve this kind of punishment at this late a date, but the Basketball Gods are cruel and unceasingly unforgiving.

Isaiah Thomas on Cavaliers trade to Lakers: “They were in panic mode”

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It seems Isaiah Thomas is a thorn in the side of many in the NBA these days. The Los Angeles Lakers point guard reportedly was the source of some locker room conflict while he was with the Cleveland Cavaliers, although it appears that Dwyane Wade was the first to lead the charge against Kevin Love in the infamous player rap session.

Thomas is now a member of the Lakers after being part of the worst section of the season in Cleveland. The Cavaliers, with their revamped roster, have just one loss since the trade deadline. LeBron James & Co. have moved on, and Thomas appears set for free agency this summer and yet another team.

A move for the Cavaliers seemed inevitable, even if the return for Kyrie Irving from Boston — conveyed through consequent trades — was less than ideal. Meanwhile Thomas, who didn’t appear to enjoy his time in Ohio, has now said that he was surprised Dan Gilbert’s team bailed on him so quickly.

Via ESPN:

“I didn’t think they would pull the trigger that fast, 15 games,” Thomas told ESPN’s E:60 in an interview that will air March 11. “But again, it’s a business. And the Cavs were, I mean, they were in panic mode. We were losing — a lot. And I think they felt like they needed to make a move, and they, they basically cleared house.”

Thomas went on to say that he didn’t think he had enough time to find a rhythm not only coming back from a hip injury but on a new team in a new system. Thomas also mentioned that he harbored no ill feelings toward the Cavaliers.

We’ll see if that’s the case when the Lakers take on Cleveland on March 11 in LA.

Coach Tyronn Lue says not to expect LeBron James to have “rest” games

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LeBron James has not missed one Cleveland Cavaliers game this season. At age 33 in his 15th NBA season, LeBron is fourth in the league in total minutes played, third in the league in minutes per game at 37, and is top 10 in the NBA in usage rate.

Don’t expect that to change.

LeBron doesn’t want to take games off — he even dominated the All-Star Game — and do you really think Lue is going to force him to sit while the Cavaliers try to adapt to a radical roster shakeup at the trade deadline? From Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

“I just think being the leader of this team, I don’t think he thinks he can take games off, because, you know, guys being hurt and going through a rough patch, and now new guys coming in,” Lue said before the Cavs’ 112-89 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday. “So, I think he’s trying to lead and lead by example … I think we still got to be smart about the situation, but [the training staff] say he feels good.”

LeBron said this last month and things have not changed.

“I told you I want to play every game,” James said. “If my health continues as it is right now, then that’s what it is.”

While “load management” is a buzzword around the NBA — one ignored in Minnesota — LeBron has responded to his increased workload with an MVP level season. LeBron is averaging 26.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 8.9 assists per game, is shooting 35.9 percent from three, and has the highest value over replacement player in the league. (His less energized play in January likely cost him any real shot at his fifth MVP.) With the league emphasizing not resting players — particularly in nationally televised games, which the Cavaliers have a lot of — LeBron is not getting much if any rest. He wants to play in a full 82.

The only concern is will he wear down. LeBron is going to have to dominate in the playoffs for the Cavaliers to come out of the East. How much gas will LeBron have in the tank come May? There’s a reason Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, and a lot of other elite coaches give players a night off. That’s not going to happen with LeBron, at least not likely in a meaningful way.

Consider it something to file away and remember if the Cavaliers and LeBron look a step slower in the postseason.