The Celtics are about to enter a very uncomfortable time in the life of a franchise. Their best produced roster, with four Hall of Famers (at least), a stunning young point guard, and a range of versatile bigs failed to win a championship. Ray Allen is a free agent. Paul Pierce will opt out. And Rasheed Wallace is retiring, leaving a gap down low. So now they have to make the decision. Do they commit to a rebuilding effort? Or do they attempt to assemble one more ride into glory?
I still remember the first time that I realized just how good of a prospect DeAndre Ayton is.
It was at Peach Jam, the finals of Nike’s EYBL circuit, back in 2016, and all of high school basketball’s best big men were at the event. Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., Mitchell Robinson, Mo Bamba. And Ayton, going head-to-head with just about all of them, came out the winner, in the box score if not on the scoreboard.
But there was one play that stood out to me. Ayton, running with a full head of steam in transition, caught a pass and, as a defender stepped in front of him to take a charge, he euro-stepped around him, avoiding the charge and finishing at the rim.
Humans that are his size are not supposed to be able to move like that, and if they are, they shouldn’t be allowed to have his shooting touch as well.
And therein lies what makes Ayton such an intriguing player.
He has the size. He has the length. He has the athleticism, explosiveness, fluidity and mobility. He can space the floor and, in theory, both protect the rim and handle his own if forced to guard on the perimeter.
In theory, Ayton is the total package and an ideal five for the modern NBA.
Whether or not he will live up to his considerable potential is a different story.
2017-18 STATS: 20.1 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 1.9 bpg, 61.2/34.3/73.3
DRAFT RANGE: Top 3
Any discussion about what Ayton does well must start with his physical gifts. He’s a shade over 7-feet tall with a wingspan that has been measured at 7-foot-5. He’s 261 pounds and has an NBA-ready body and a frame that can handle the muscle he’s amassed. He’s a ridiculous athlete given his size — his explosiveness his fluidity, his mobility, the way he can move his feet.
Given his tools, he is everything that you would look for if designing a small-ball five for the modern NBA.
And the skill-set is there, too.
Let’s start with the offensive end of the floor, where Ayton can just about do anything. He was one of college basketball’s best post scorers — 1.052 PPP, according to Synergy, a company that logs per-possession statistics. While that isn’t always the best way to measure a big man’s transition to the NBA, the simple fact is that Ayton is going to be bigger and stronger than many of the fives that he’ll see at the NBA level. That adjustment will be easier for him, and the fact that he has a fairly advanced set of moves and impressive footwork on the block certainly helps as well.
His length and athleticism will also make him an effective lob target in the halfcourt, and while his numbers as a roll-man at Arizona weren’t all that impressive, that likely had as much to do with Arizona’s massive spacing issues as anything else. There’s virtually no chance that a player with his tools will be ineffective as a roller, but what makes Ayton so intriguing is that he can shoot it, too. He shot 34.3 percent from three on the season (just 35 attempts) and was somewhere around average as a jump-shooter as a whole, but his 73.3 percent clip from the foul line and a stroke that looks like it isn’t a fluke make it easy to see him being a capable NBA perimeter shooter.
Throw in that he’s a monster on the glass, and the total package is there.
He’s a franchise center in every sense of the word, but the concern with Ayton is that he may not actually want to be a “center”.
Given his physical tools, Ayton has always been a disappointment on the defensive end of the floor, and the question that the organization that drafts him is going to have to answer is ‘why’. Is he a lazy defender? Does he lack defensive instincts because he’s never been coached? Will he only defend when motivated? Does he even want to be a center?
We’ll start with the latter, because that might be the most intriguing part of all of this. Ayton considers himself a power forward. On Arizona’s team roster, Ayton — the tallest member of the team — is listed as a forward while Dusan Ristic is listed as a center and 6-foot-10 Chase Jeter is classified as a forward/center. It’s been this way for Ayton for years, and it’s probably not a coincidence that Ayton spent the entire season playing alongside Ristic (and out of position) despite the fact that it torpedoed Sean Miller’s typically-vaunted defense.
Put another way, while Ayton is so perfect as a positionless five offensively he seems to have no desire to play that role on defense, even if it is his ticket to NBA superstardom.
That may belie the bigger point: Is Ayton just a bad defender?
In theory, he should be an elite rim protector, right? Take a look at the block rates of some recent top ten picks:
That’s concerning, particularly because Ayton’s physical profile is far closer to that of the top three on that list than Kaminsky and Okafor.
The other issue is that, while Ayton can move laterally and is willing to sit in a stance and guard on the perimeter, he simply is not someone that you can ask to spend 36 minutes a night guarding big wings. You want him as your five, guarding on the perimeter when switches make it necessary. We saw that in Arizona’s first round loss to Buffalo in the 2018 NCAA tournament, when the Bulls used a four-guard look and let their “power forward” — a 6-foot-7 scoring guard named Jeremy Harris — give Ayton that work:
Arizona was a flawed basketball team last season. They didn’t have the floor spacing to let Ayton dominate the paint against smaller teams, and they refused to play Ayton at the five, which is what led to performances like this against Buffalo or against the likes of N.C. State, SMU and Purdue in the Bahamas.
But Ayton was hardly blameless.
His issues as a rim protector and the fact that he seemed to have no interest in actually playing the five played as big of a role in those problems as anything.
It’s tough to find a direct comparison for Ayton. Physically, he profiles more or less the same as Steven Adams, Joel Embiid and Greg Oden. Ayton is much more skilled offensively than Adams. He’s not quite at the level of Embiid offensively, and both players are, defensively, what Ayton should be if it all comes together for him.
The truth is that, for Ayton, it all comes down to whether or not he decides he wants to be great.
If he does, I don’t think it’s out of the question to say that he could end up being a Hall of Famer, maybe one of the 15 or 20 greatest to play the game. Imagine Embiid without limits on his minutes or the number of games that he is allowed to play.
But that assumes that Ayton will put in the work to become something that borders on unstoppable offensively. That also assumes that he will, like Embiid, become one of the NBA’s dominant defensive forces, and that is far from a guarantee. Defense for someone with the physical tools that Ayton has is about want-to, and I think it’s pretty clear he didn’t “want-to” be great on that end of the floor as a freshman or as a high schooler.
In the end, that’s been the knock on Ayton his entire career. When he has been challenged — at that 2016 Peach Jam, when he arrived at Arizona — he absolutely dominated. When he did not feel like playing — like the first round blowout loss at the hands of Buffalo — he looked like a shell of himself, and it’s not hard to think about the grind of an 82-game season playing on a team that was bad enough to end up at the top of the lottery and wonder where the motivation to be great on a nightly basis is going to come from.
The good news for whoever ends up taking Ayton is that his floor is high. It will be quite impressive if Ayton somehow doesn’t turn into a guy that spends a decade or more in the NBA, posting something similar to Adams’ 13.9 points, 9.0 boards and 1.0 blocks. The bad news is that, in my mind, there’s a higher-than-you’d-like chance that Ayton ends up being closer to his floor than his ceiling.
In Game 5 Thursday night, Chris Paul hit a ridiculous three over Curry and returned the shimmy favor.
How did Stephen Curry feel about that? As your mom used to say, if you’re going to dish it out you had better be able to take it.
First, can we just admit neither Curry nor CP3 can shimmy like Antoine Walker?
The question for Paul and Curry is which one will be shimmying after Game 6 (especially considering CP3’s hamstring issue)?
Through an 82-game regular season, the Golden State Warriors averaged 322.7 passes a game — the ball flew around the court with energy, found the open man and he buried the shot. For the season, 63.1 percent of the Warriors’ buckets were assisted. It was egalitarian. It was modern NBA basketball. It was “the beautiful game.”
The Houston Rockets, on the other hand, averaged 253.3 passes per game, fewest in the NBA. What they did lead the league in was isolation sets — 14.5 percent of their offense was the old-school style that the Warriors shunned. It worked for the Rockets, they scored an impressive 112 points per 100 possessions on those plays, but it looked more like a 1990s slog than a Mike D’Antoni offense.
In Game 5, the Warriors had 257 passes and 56 percent of their buckets were assisted (the first time that number got over 50 percent in a couple of games). In turn, isolations were the third most common kind of play the Warriors ran in the game (which was better than they did in Game 4, but still not who they normally are). Add in post-ups, which are essentially isolations just down on the block, and you get 25.7 percent of the Warriors plays in Game 5 being one-on-one.
The Warriors have been sucked into the Rockets’ game, and Houston is better at it.
The Rockets are up 3-2 in the Western Conference Finals and in the last two games have been the better clutch team. The better fourth quarter team. The team imposing their style on the game when it matters. For years the versatility of the Warriors allowed them to win regardless of the style of play — slow it down and be physical, play fast and up-tempo, whatever teams tried to do — but not against these Rockets. Not in this throwback, isolation-heavy style.
If the Warriors can’t change that dynamic nothing else will matter, and they will be watching the Finals on television for the first time in four years.
For the Rockets, imposing their will and style starts with their defense. Since the first game of the season — which was against these Warriors back in October — the Rockets have switched everything on defense. It was assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik’s plan, his counter to the ball movement of Golden State and the many teams trying to emulate their style. Everybody in the NBA is switching more on defense, but nobody was doing it as much or with the gusto of the Rockets. For example, Utah switched a lot against Houston in the last playoff round, but with Rudy Gobert at center they tried to switch less with the big men, wisely preferring to keep Gobert back as a rim protector. That opened opportunities for the Rockets to attack.
Houston switched everything. All the time. Even when logic dictated they shouldn’t. Big man Clint Capela has the athleticism and instincts to guard on the perimeter, so they let him. Other teams try to tag out quickly from the mismatches switching can create (scram switches behind the play are trendy now), but the Rockets tend to live with the switch and just send help. What the Rockets became doing this all season is smooth and proficient with switching, and it has shown in this series.
Kevin Durant is supposed to be the counter to this — he is the Warriors best one-on-one player, and switch or no there is no good matchup to defend him. So the Warriors lean on him in these situations, they get him the rock a lot.
Durant had 10 isolations and six post-ups in Game 5 — 16 of his 29 plays were mano-a-mano contests. KD can excel at them, but as the Warriors start to slow it down and hunt out those mismatches they move the ball less, and they play into Rockets’ hands. They have slid into Houston’s style. Part of this was missing Andre Iguodala, both a good defender and a guy who keeps the ball moving on offense. Without him decisions change — there was a fourth-quarter play where Stephen Curry drove past his man, got into floater range, the Rockets brought help off the man from the corner, but now that is Kevon Looney, and Curry looked then decided to take the floater rather than make that pass to a non-shooter. Curry’s shot hit the back of the rim and bounced out.
The Rockets have slowed the game down, muddied it up, and they are comfortable playing this way. The Rockets have thrived in this style despite the fact James Harden has struggled (Chris Paul has had a couple of big fourth quarters). The Warriors can beat 28 other teams four times in seven games playing this style, too, because they have the talent. Just not Houston. The Rockets have plenty of talent too, their bench guy Eric Gordon is knocking down seemingly every shot he takes, and this series is being played on their terms.
Houston is just better at this style.
Golden State is not dead in this series — they go home for Game 6 and are expected to get Iguodala back. More importantly, the health of Chris Paul and his hamstring are up in the air.
But the Warriors need to get back to being themselves — playing faster, sharing the ball (despite pressure), and using that to get the open threes or driving dunks they use to bury teams. It will not be easy — the Warriors played their game for stretches in Game 4 at home, but like a cheesy horror movie villain, these Rockets refuse to die. They are relentless, and they’re aggressive with their switching. The Rockets are incredibly good, and they know who they are. They have been themselves this series (just with more missed threes).
If the Warriors don’t get back to being themselves, if they keep trying to beat the Rockets at Houston’s game, they will be on vacation in Cabo before June for the first time in years.
Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul played the part of the hero for the home team on Thursday night as Houston beat the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals to take a 3-2 series lead.
Now, the question is whether Paul will be able to play in Game 6 on Saturday night.
After a game in which the Rockets were not particularly offensively impressive, Paul came up with some clutch baskets despite struggling overall. Paul got the better of the Golden State defense several times from beyond the arc, including one instance in which he gave a shoulder shimmy to Stephen Curry, allowing the Warriors guard a dose of his own medicine.
But Paul appeared to injure his right hamstring on a play with 51 seconds to go in fourth quarter as he was shooting a floater in the lane. After his shot, Paul remained on the ground and down at the Houston end of the floor as possession changed sides. Paul left the game some 30 seconds later, and was unable to finish the game.
The Rockets point guard had already been battling a right foot injury and had to get lots of treatment just to be able to play in Game 5. It’s not entirely surprising that Paul injured himself on his right side. A weakened link in the kinetic chain tends to force other muscles and joints to compensate for injured areas. When overused or improperly used, the chance for a new injury in another part of the kinetic chain — say, up the leg and into the hamstring — is entirely possible.
That seems like what happened to Paul on Thursday night, but we will have to wait for official word from the team before we know whether he will be playing on Saturday. Hamstring issues can the nagging and despite lots of treatment there is also the swelling that will occur when Paul has to fly to Oakland.
As expected, Chris Paul said he will be good to go (players are the worst at providing a timeline for their injuries).
Houston coach Mike D’Antoni says that Paul will be evaluated tomorrow and will be continuing to get treatment but he is not worried about someone being able to fill Paul’s shoes. That’s certainly the right thing to say for D’Antoni but we know how Game 6 might go if CP3 is unable to play.