Trimester Awards: A Naughty and Nice List

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Can you believe it? The NBA season is somehow a third of the way finished, which means it’s probably time to take stock of what we’ve seen so far this year. We’ll give out some awards — ’tis the season and all that — but we’ll also dish out some coal. After all, what are the holidays without some grinch-style bitterness and crushing disappointment?  Here are your NBA Trimester Awards:

Most Improved Player: Andray Blatche, Brooklyn Nets

After six long seasons with one of the most dysfunctional teams in all of sports, Blatche was written off as a guy who would never get it; a knucklehead, a waste of talent. The Nets were universally laughed at for picking up Blatche for the veteran’s minimum earlier this year, and now look where we are. Blatche has a PER of 23.2 (8th best in the entire league) and is posting career highs in *deep breath* field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, all rebounding percentages, points per36 minutes, and PER. If you believe the most improved player should be someone who has been around for a bit (i.e. not a second year a guy), then Blatche is your choice over other worthy candidates like O.J. Mayo, Eric Bledsoe and Kemba Walker.

Least Improved Player: Gerald Green, Indiana Pacers

This guy is all over the place. After bouncing around the league for years, Green was a legitimate candidate for Most Improved Player last season when he tore it up in his last 31 games. But for as good as he was at the end of last year, he’s been just as bad in 26 games this year with Indiana. In Danny Granger’s absence, Green has shot a dreadful 37 percent from the field and is notching a career-low in points per36 minutes. Of players who average more than 20 minutes a game, Gerald Green is second only to Austin Rivers for lowest PER. That’s pretty brutal, especially given Green’s immense athletic gifts.

Defensive Player of the Trimester: Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs

He doesn’t have the reputation, but Duncan is one of the greatest defenders ever. You’d expect a serious decline at 36-years-old, but Duncan’s numbers speak for themselves. He’s 4th in the league in defensive rebounding percentage (which should absolutely factor in to this discussion), first in individual defensive rating, second in defensive win shares and 10th in block percentage. He’s anchoring a Spurs defense that’s posted the 7th best defensive efficiency rating in the league, which is pretty impressive considering the Spurs don’t have Kawhi Leonard on the wing yet. Smart back line defenders are so critical to defenses these days, and Duncan is showing once again why he’s absolutely one of the best.

Matador of the Trimester: Michael Beasley, Phoenix Suns

An honorable mention goes to Andrea Bargnani, but Michael Beasley’s on/off numbers clinch this award. The Suns are a staggering 23.4 net points better per 100 possessions when Michael Beasley is off the court — one of the worst marks in the league. His opponent’s effective field goal percentage is 7 percentage points higher than his own. He has .02 defensive win shares, well below the legal limit. The Suns as a team are bad defensively (25th in defensive rating), but Beasley serves as a direct contrast to Jared Dudley and P.J. Tucker — guys who actually, you know, try to stay in front of people on the wing. Phoenix is at a monstrous disadvantage whenever he takes the floor.

Coach of the Trimester: Mike Woodson, New York Knicks

Woodson has devised an offense that his guys love to play in. His one-in, four out scheme built around Tyson Chandler pick-and-rolls and Carmelo Anthony isolations has netted the Knicks the 2nd best offensive rating in the league behind Oklahoma City. They’ve been historically good in multiple areas, but more specifically, the Knicks are currently shooting above 40 percent from behind the arc, which is something only eight other teams in NBA history have done. Although some of this may be unsustainable, Woodson will get back Amar’e Stoudemire (say what you will, but he’s at least as good as Kurt Thomas, right?) and perhaps more importantly, defensive ace Iman Shumpert. Rick Adelman and Mark Jackson deserve mention as well, but Woodson’s Knicks are the story of the year so far.

The “Bad News Bears” Coach of the Trimester: Keith Smart, Sacramento Kings

The Kings have gone 8-17 to start the year, but more importantly, they’re already imploding. Some of Smart’s more notable follies include his refusal to play Isaiah Thomas, his failed implementation of a Triangle offense, and the construction of the league’s 28th worst defense. Is the roster bad? Yes, it’s awful. Are the owners bad? Yes, they’re awful, too. But let’s be honest — Smart hasn’t done anything to get DeMarcus Cousins to stop chucking up 18-footers and he hasn’t improved a young roster or even held them very accountable. It’s ugly in Sacramento right now.

MVP: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

Somehow, he just keeps getting better. Durant could very well become the first player in league history to lead the NBA in scoring with percentages of 50-40-90 — a testament to how frighteningly efficient he is as a high usage perimeter player. Although LeBron James possesses the better PER by a fingernail, Durant leads LeBron in win shares and offensive rating so far this season. You can’t go wrong with either guy, but Durant gets the slight nod for leading his team to the better record thus far. If this holds, this could be the most hotly contested MVP race yet.

LVP: Kendrick Perkins, Oklahoma City Thunder

The scariest thing about the Oklahoma City Thunder? They could very easily be better if they replaced Kendrick Perkins with even an average player, or better yet, with Nick Collison. Oklahoma City is 5.4 net points per 100 possessions worse with Perkins on the floor, and a net 10.2 points better per 100 possessions when Collison is on the floor. But let’s focus solely on Perkins, who has a -8.7 PER differential, which contributes heavily to the Thunder ranking 29th in PER differential at the center position. Perkins is a 7 point, 7 rebound per 36 minute player who makes 7 million dollars a year for a small market team that can’t afford to pay that. It’s a nice thought that Perkins is the “Dwight Stopper”, but that’s a pretty price to pay for someone who marginally contains a single player. Check out the numbers:

Here are Howard’s averages in 25 head-to-head meetings with Perkins: 16.5 points and 12.8 rebounds on 52 percent shooting.

And here are Howard’s career averages: 18.4 points and 13 rebounds on 57 percent shooting.

There’s a drop-off, but not enough to justify Perkins playing 25 minutes a night, every single night. Although Oklahoma City is clearly having great team success, it’s hard to attribute much of that to Perkins. There are players with worse Player Efficiency Ratings than 9.2, and there are players who are much worse help defenders, but Perkins gets the LVP because he ultimately hurts a title contending team at a critical spot.

Corey Brewer, Raymond Felton, Nick Young among players attending Rockets’ mini-camp

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The Houston Rockets have potential roster spots open.

With Iman Shumpert turning them down, the Rockets have just nine fully guaranteed contracts right now, plus eight guys on temporary deals. When the season starts, Houston has to have at least 13, and likely will have 14 or 15, players on the roster, even if some of those remain temporary contracts. In an NBA where guaranteed contracts are the norm, leaving very little drama for training camp, the Rockets are an exception.

Which is why a number of veterans — Corey Brewer, Raymond Felton, Nick Young, Thabo Sefolosha among them — are going to Houston’s mini-camp, reports Kelly Iko of The Athletic.

Mbah a Moute has since changed his plans and will not show up.

Can Brewer and Felton — at their age — beat out guys such as Isaiah Hartenstein, Michael Frazier, Ben McLemore, and Gary Clark for spots on the Rockets’ roster? I’m not sold that they can (Hartenstein is very likely to make the final roster), but the first step is a good showing at mini-camp, which can lead to a training camp invite.

The Rockets are not a deep team, at this point in the summer they may present the best opportunity for anyone to earn their way into an NBA contract.

James Harden wants to win multiple championships — and he hears the clock ticking

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James Harden has a Hall of Fame resume already: An MVP (and he is convinced he should have won more), six-time All-NBA and seven-time All-Star, a two-time scoring champ (averaging the most points per game since Jordan last season), an assist champ, and a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics. Right now he is the most lethal scoring threat in the game, and while I wouldn’t go as far as Daryl Morey he is undoubtedly one of the best scorers ever. His step-back is unstoppable.

However, there is one thing missing from that resume: A ring.

It’s something that irritates Harden but he cannot just get by himself. He has just turned 30 in the past month and told Howard Beck of Bleacher Report that he can hear the clock ticking, which is why he wants to win right now.

“I still haven’t accomplished half of what I want to accomplish,” he says. “Like, multiple championships. I want to be one of those basketball players that you won’t forget. And obviously, we all remember the Kobes and the Jordans and the D-Wades and all those guys. I want to be in that same conversation, obviously, in championships and all that good stuff, and best shooting guards to ever play the game…

“Of course [a championship] matters to me,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about it maybe the last year-and-a-half, two years. I’m on the right path. You can’t rush winning a title. Some win it early, some win it late. It’s perfect timing. The time is going to happen when the time happens. I’ve just got to be patient, continue to work my butt off, continue to be a great leader, great teammate, and just try to bring as much talent and as much guys that have that same drive that I have. I think we all have it right now.”

The Rockets have been the second-best team in the West — and maybe the second or third best team in the NBA — the past couple of seasons (by the playoffs last season the Rockets were back to that level). That has not been enough when faced with the juggernaut of Golden State, but Harden and company have been knocking on the door for years.

That door is now open. The Warriors, while still good, are not the fearsome force of previous seasons and the West is wide open — and seven teams think they can get through that door first.

Houston believes it should be at the front of that line, and they went and got Russell Westbrook as the latest and greatest superstar pairing of the Harden era. It’s a duo that will bring energy and, at least through mid-April, a lot of wins.

But there are questions: Can isolation players James Harden and Russell Westbrook strike a balance (especially in the playoffs when they will share the court more)? Can this team defend well enough with Harden and Westbrook on the court at the same time? Do the Rockets have enough depth to contend?

That’s a lot of questions, but every team in the West has questions, which is what makes this season so compelling.

Just don’t doubt for a second that Harden wants it and wants it badly. That alone, however, will not be enough.

Kevin Durant reverses course on championship: ‘Every day I woke up, I just felt so good about myself, so good about life’

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Following his first NBA title, Kevin Durant said, “After winning that championship (last season), I learned that much hadn’t changed. I thought it would fill a certain [void]. It didn’t.”

How does Durant now reflect on that time with the Warriors?

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“It’s very rare in our lives when we envision and picture something and it comes together the perfect way you envision it. [Winning a title] was the only time in my life that happened, and that summer was the most exhilarating time. Every day I woke up I just felt so good about myself, so good about life.… That was a defining moment in my life—not just my basketball life.”

It’s difficult to reconcile those two quotes. I’d love to hear Durant eventually explain.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t relish the championship aftermath as much he initially expected but, looking back, now realizes how much he actually enjoyed it. The end of his time with Golden State wasn’t totally pleasant. That might have provided perspective on the better times. Or maybe the difference is simply his mood on the day of each interview.

Durant is continuing to try to find himself while in the public eye. That isn’t easy, and it’ll lead to contradictions like this along the way. I appreciate his openness, even when he’s still difficult to understand.

Jerry Colangelo: Team USA would’ve won FIBA World Cup if not for injuries

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Team USA finished seventh in the 2019 FIBA World Cup – the Americans’ worst-ever finish in a major tournament.

Why did the U.S. fare so poorly?

USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo had sharp words for the many stars who withdrew. But that’s not his only explanation.

Kyle Kuzma suffered an ankle injury that kept him off the roster. Jayson Tatum missed the final six games with his own ankle injury. Marcus Smart was banged up and missed time throughout the event.

Colangelo, via Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated:

“I believe that if we didn’t have those injuries, we would have won,” said Colangelo. “The injuries were just too much to absorb.”

Maybe.

Those players – especially Tatum and Smart, who occupied a roster spots – would’ve helped. But even with those two, the Americans were vulnerable. Australia beat them in an exhibition, and Turkey nearly upset them in the first round. France and Serbia clearly outplayed them in the knockout phase. Team USA just lacked its usual talent.

Perhaps more top Americans will play in the 2020 Olympics. That will make the biggest difference.

If USA Basketball had attracted more stars for the World Cup, it likely could’ve withstood a few injuries. This roster allowed little margin for error.