The Inbounds: Retro-veterans and the once-and-future rim protector

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In 2006, signing Ben Wallace to a deal would have been in an incredible franchise-changing move to radically alter the outlook of your defense.

In 2009, trading for him would have been seen as a desperate and flawed move towards overpaying for an unproductive and underwhelming player.

In 2012, it’s a pretty solid move which can shore up your bench, bring veteran leadership (VETERAN LEADERSHIP ALERT) to your locker room and provide you with a strong-willed icon to rally behind.

 

In 2007, Marcus Camby was a shot-blocking machine, the Defensive Player of the Year, an All-Star candidate and considered a superb all-around player.

In 2010, Camby was considered an overrated defender who helped too much, gave up too many points at the rim, and relied too much on his shot-blocking to be considered actually that good of a defender.

In 2012, he’s a solid addition and a huge upgrade to the Knicks’ bench, bringing the kind of tough defense at the rim and rebounding they’ve been missing for several years down low. He and Tyson Chandler should prove to be quite the conundrum for teams.

 

And so it goes.  People like to blame the 24-second news-cycle for the way we tend to lose perspective on things, but it’s always been this way. Go back through the articles all the way back to the SI.com archive about anyone whose game went up or down, and you’re going to find things which look ridiculous in hindsight. That’s pretty standard. You write what you know at the time and some things in this world are just unforeseeable. Look at Stephon Marbury’s career and tell me if during it you would have thought he’d wind up eating Vaseline on UStream. It happens all the time. But particularly with big men defenders, we see a different loping arc.

Tyson Chandler was once thought of as just an athlete who couldn’t put it together. Then all of a sudden in New Orleans, he put it together, and while dunking CP3 alley-oops, it turned out he was a pretty great defender. Three years later, he wins a title with the Mavericks as the biggest difference-maker on a team that had been great for a decade.

Wallace was such a pivotal part of the Pistons’ championship, it’s almost impossible to overrate his performance. He was everywhere. Then in Chicago, he was slow-footed, slow-healing, and just slow. Scott Skiles’ decision in 2008 to repeatedly play him over Joakim Noah was the stuff to drive your hair out. But then he returned to Detroit after a sting with Cleveland where he was just dead money, and he was that lovable veteran who handled the defense as well as he could with the team falling apart around him. The Pistons have moved on this season, after it was thought Wallace would retire, but he’s reportedly thinking about giving it another go. He was still productive last season, still a good defender, but the expectations have changed. That’s the big differential.

It’s the same with Camby. There was a huge backlash against Camby right before he was traded to the Clippers from Denver, based on his tendency to pursue the block instead of keeping with the smart rotation. But since then, he’s been a good defender in Los Angeles, a great defender in Portland, and a pretty good one in Houston. He re-joins the Knicks and should make a substantial impact… for a guy his age. The expectation has changed, and that allows us to view him either more accurately or more favorably, depending on your inclination.

It makes you wonder about the future of so many players we routinely flambe on the internet stove. JaVale McGee could change his identity defensively four times over the next eight years of his career. Joakim Noah could reach DPOY status and then plummet to overrated, injury-prone joke-butt before finishing his career in Chicago a hero. Serge Ibaka laughably wound up second in Defensive Player of the Year votes last year, largely based on the same reasoning Camby wound up winning it in 2007. But he’s going to improve, just like Chandler and Camby did. What then?

The point, as always, is that an NBA career is almost never the same year-in-and-year out. It’s a topographical map with texture, peaks and valleys. Defensive big men are more prone to latter development we’re discovering, because of the amount of mental improvement and wisdom needed to excel in the NBAs new “all-help-all-the-time” defensive structure. You can label a player fairly as a poor defender now, but don’t let it sink in so much that you forget to watch their improvement, even as they get older. Point guards must improve younger, big men almost always make a jump later in their careers. And their continuing evolution makes up a significant impact on how team defenses, and legacies, can change.

Ben Wallace the leader, Camby the rock, Chandler the icon. What will McGee, DeAndre Jordan, and Ibaka become, before they become what they will even later?

NBA owners, players union reportedly agree to push back CBA opt-out date

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NBA owners and players are both making too much money to risk screwing things up with a labor stoppage, right? RIGHT?

Don’t be so sure.

In a sign the two sides have a lot of work to do to reach terms on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement — primarily because of an internal dispute among the owners — the NBA (representing the owners) and the players union have agreed to push back the opt-out date for the CBA from Dec. 15 (this would end the current CBA on July 1, 2023). Marc Stein reported this earlier in the week (covered here) and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski added details today.

Talks on a new CBA are ongoing, and a formal ratification of an extension — likely into February — is expected to come at a virtual board of governors meeting Wednesday, sources said.

What’s the stumbling block? A group of owners — bothered by the massive spending into the luxury tax of the Warriors, Clippers, and Nets  — is pushing for an “Upper Spending Limit” for teams. Call it whatever they want, that’s a hard cap and there is no chance the players will sign off on any form of a hard cap. 

The NBA has used a punitive and progressively intense luxury tax to rein in the spending of some owners. However, some owners — how many is unclear, but enough that the NBA has put the issue on the table — feel the tax isn’t doing its job in the wake of new, even wealthier owners. 

Unquestionably some owners are unbothered by the tax. To use the example I have used before, Steve Ballmer’s Clippers are on track to pay $191.9 million in payroll this season, which will result in a $144.7 million luxury tax bill (leading to a payroll and tax total of $336.6 million). The Warriors and Nets will be in the same ballpark. The Clippers will pay more in tax alone than 11 teams will spend on total payroll. Two-thirds of NBA teams will pay around $150 million in payroll or less, not much more than the Clippers’ tax bill.

Recently, the same NBA owners approved a rule change that would allow a sovereign wealth fund — the financial arms of generally oil-rich countries such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia — to buy up to 20% of an NBA team as a silent partner. That has not happened yet, but the door is open. It’s part of a pattern of wealthier owners — including hedge fund managers and the like — entering the playing field for the NBA.

All that has some of the more established, older owners feeling squeezed by this new group’s willingness to spend. That has the older owners pushing for a hard cap to stop what they see as an increased willingness to spend.

Again, there is no chance the players approve a hard cap. The owners know this, but some seem willing to play brinksmanship with a lucrative, growing business (particularly internationally) to protect their bottom lines.

If you read all that and thought, “this isn’t about the players really, it’s an owner vs. owner issue,” you’re spot on. The league and players are giving the owners more time to work out their internal issues.

Are struggling Mavericks on the clock with Luka Doncic?

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Luka Doncic is in the first year of a five-year, $215.2 million contract. More than that, when asked recently if Mavericks fans should be worried about him wanting out as the team has stumbled at points to start this season, Doncic didn’t sound like a guy looking to bolt:

“I don’t think they’re worried about it right now. I got what, five years left here, so I don’t think they should be worried about it.”

The Mavericks’ front office should be worried about it — teams are always on the clock with a superstar.

The Mavericks let Jalen Brunson get away in the offseason, then brought in Christian Wood (whose defense is an issue and he is coming off the bench). This remains a team a player or two away from contending despite having a potential MVP in Doncic carrying a historic offensive load.

That doesn’t mean Doncic will ask out at the deadline or this summer (he won’t), but if his frustration grows over the next couple of years… who knows. Tim MacMahon of ESPN put it well on the Hoop Collective podcast (hat tip Real GM):

“I think they have a two-year window. This season and next season going into that summer [2024]. I think they have a two-year window where, you know, like Milwaukee did with Giannis [Antetokounmpo], I think in that window they really need to convince Luka that he has a chance to contend year in and year out right here in Dallas. If they can’t get it done in that two-year window, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that he’s going to force a trade or ask for a trade. I’m just saying at that point if he’s not happy, he has all the leverage in the world if he would be looking to leave..

“I don’t think Luka will look for reasons to leave. I think he’d be perfectly happy spending his entire career in Dallas. But if he doesn’t have to look for reasons and they’re slamming him in the face, then that’s a problem. He’s also a guy who is a ruthless competitor, which means he loves winning. He’s used to winning. He won championships with Real Madrid. He won a EuroBasket championship with the Slovenian national team. He also detests losing. Like can’t handle it.”

The Mavericks made the Western Conference Finals last season, knocking off the 64-win Suns in the process — this team is not that far away. Not with Doncic handling the ball. But it feels like a team that has taken a step back from those lofty levels this season. There are many more questions than answers, and it’s impossible to guess how Doncic will feel after this season’s playoffs, let alone the ones ending in the summer of 2024.

But the Mavericks stumbles this season have to put the Dallas front office on notice — this team is not good enough. And if we know it, you can be sure Doncic knows it.

Curry thinking retirement? ‘I don’t see myself slowing down any time soon’

2022 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Awards Presented by Chase
Kimberly White/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated
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Stephen Curry is playing at an MVP level this season: 30 points a game, hitting 43.2% from 3 with a 66.4 true shooting percentage, plus pitching in seven assists and 6.6 rebounds a game. He remains one of the best-conditioned athletes in the sport.

In the face of that, even though he is 34, asking him a retirement question seemed an odd choice, yet a reporter at the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award ceremony — Curry won the award, if you didn’t know — asked Curry about it seems he’s not interested.

Curry should not be thinking of retirement, but there is a sense around these Warriors that this era, this run is coming to an end in the next few years. Curry may be defying father time, but Draymond Green and Klay Thompson (especially post injuries) are not. There is a decline in their games (and this season, the role players have not stepped up around them the same way). With that comes a certain pressure to take advantage of the opportunities, there aren’t going to be as many.

Which is why the Warriors are a team to watch at the trade deadline (and will they sell low on James Wiseman to a team that still sees the potential in him?).

As for Curry, he will still be around and producing for a few more years. Nobody is ready to think about his retirement. Including Curry himself.

Block or charge: Alperen Sengun dunks on Zach Collins

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To borrow the catchphrase of the great Rex Chapman:

Block or charge?

The Rockets’ Alperen Sengun caught a body and threw one down on the Spurs’ Zach Collins but was called for the offensive foul.

NBA Twitter went nuts.

Rockets coach Stephen Silas challenged the call, but it was upheld (from my perspective, the replay officials are always looking to back the in-game officials if they at all can).

By the time Collins slid over and jumped, Sengun was already in the air — if anything that was a block. What the officials called was Sengun using his off-arm to create space.

I hate the call — that’s a dunk and an and-one. Not because it’s a great dunk — although it is that, too — but because Collins literally jumped into the path of an already airborne Sengun, Collins created all the contact. It’s on him. Under the spirit of the rules, Sengun’s off-arm is moot at that point — Collins illegally jumped in Sengun’s way and caused the collision.

Terrible call by the officials.

It was a good night for the Spurs, overall. San Antonio played its best defense in a while and Keldon Johnson — one of the few bright spots in a dark Spurs season — hit his first nine shots on his way to a 32-point night that sparked a 118-109 San Antonio win over Houston, snapping the Spurs 11-game losing streak.