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5 Up, 5 Down: NBA is as good as it’s ever been and arguing otherwise is futile

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5 Up, 5 Down is a column featuring the best and worst from the NBA.

The malaise of summer in the NBA is upon us. How has your vacation been? Mine was delightful. I got a lot done; I went to the coast; I generally tried to unplug. Is Kawhi Leonard still with the San Antonio Spurs? I hope they can figure that mess out, I love those guys together.

It’s a slow news cycle in the NBA these days, although it will pick up soon. That doesn’t mean that narratives aren’t abound, even if they aren’t necessarily ones having to do with actual basketball. Even the Los Angeles Lakers News Machine has downshifted a little bit, although that isn’t to say they aren’t still running through the gears.

Real basketball will start soon, and along with it real stories. In the meantime, there has been some fun stuff happening this summer that acts as a nice transition into the coming 2018-19 NBA season.

Let’s get to it.

5 Up

Lance Stephenson and LeBron James are friends now

LeBron James has been Lance Stephenson’s foil for nearly his entire career. When the two were battling out in the Eastern Conference playoffs year after year with Stephenson in Indiana, there was a clear rivalry between two. That rivalry always favored LeBron, which was great because Lance is an extremely wack dude.

Now they are both on the Los Angeles Lakers together and it appears that Stephenson is ready to take a supporting role in whatever way he can to appease James. Speaking to the Indianapolis Star last week, Stephenson said that he thinks LeBron is going to “sic” him on opposing offensive players. OK, then.

There is a considerable chance that things go south in Los Angeles for Stephenson. I just want to mark this moment in time when it appeared that both were ready to be friendly with each other. You know, just for hindsight.

Houston finally swapped Ryan Anderson

Yes, the Rockets were finally able to trade Ryan Anderson and his behemoth contract away from Houston. To what end, nobody is yet sure.

Anderson was sent to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for a package centered on Marquese Chriss and Brandon Knight. How that benefits either team isn’t really clear, although Anderson is still a useful shooter from 3-point range. Mostly it seems like this is a source of relief not only for the Rockets, but for those of us who were wondering when Daryl Morey would clear those numbers from his books.

Phoenix won’t be ready to compete anytime soon and they did have some cap space to be able to absorb Anderson’s contract over the remaining length of his deal. The Suns were able to get out from Chriss and Knight, both of whom have not developed as anticipated. What this could mean to the larger NBA public is that teams are more willing to make deals with potential lateral benefit on paper as a means to get out of bad contracts signed a few years ago. I can hear Portland fans licking their chops from here already.

Joel Embiid learned how to shoot from YouTube

You can learn just about anything on YouTube. How to speak another language. How to become a photographer. How to use video editing software. Bushcraft, whatever the hell that is. It’s endless.

Joel Embiid apparently learned to be an NBA player thanks to YouTube. Fancy that.

According to the Philadelphia 76ers big man, decided to look up proper shooting form by Googling for videos of people shooting a basketball when he was living in Florida as a high schooler. Specifically, Embiid looked up how white dudes shot the ball.

Listen, I know it’s a stereotype, but have you ever seen a normal, 30-year-old white guy shoot a three-pointer? That elbow is tucked, man. The knees are bent. The follow-through is perfect. Always. You know how in America, there’s always an older guy wearing like EVERLAST sweat-shorts at the court? That guy is always a problem. His J is always wet.

Googling is a skill. Don’t @ me.

Ray Allen was told not to shoot 3-pointers

This story about coaches telling Ray Allen not to settle for 3-pointers when he entered the league is sort of the exact example you need to know that the NBA has never been as good as it is now.

My whole problem with the argument about comparing generations of the league — outside of the pure futility and boredom of it — is that the answer is so clearly obvious that today’s athletes would beat athletes from any other generation. They are bigger, faster, stronger, more nutritionally conscious, and trained with the latest advances in medical science and sports data.

Yes, it’s possible that given the chance, players from older generations would be able to adapt and play at a high level with this same benefit. But that’s not really what we are looking at is it? The conversation can’t devolve into some insane genetic experiment. Arguing over whether Bob Cousy could toast Kyrie Irving if only he wasn’t eating canned green beans his whole life is patently crazy.

As they stand, the only adaptations that modern players would need to adjust to in order to go play in prior decades is to the awful sneaker technology and the fact that you could foul guys harder and more often in decades past. You don’t think LeBron could handcheck a dude? You think James Harden, whose whole game is about bringing the ball low and gripping it as tight as he can as NBA players bat at it, couldn’t use his extreme deltoid strength to his advantage in the 1990s?

Then again, the whole “today’s athletes are bigger and stronger” sort of lends to the idea they’d be able to adjust to hard fouls and rule changes thanks to superior bodies and knowledge of the game.

The idea that Allen wasn’t supposed to settle for 3-pointers just 22 years ago it is outright hilarious, and exemplifies how far we have come not just as individuals watching the game but in terms of team strategy.

The rate of acceleration is exponential at this point. I can’t wait for the basketball singularity.

Klay Thompson’s whole summertime steez

Looking good, bro.

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Future @thebig3 champs

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5 Down

The Timberwolves have interest in Luol Deng, Joakim Noah

Watching the Minnesota Timberwolves is like watching a car wreck in slow motion. There is perhaps no way that things end up well for this team, and that’s not just because Tom Thibodeau seems hell-bent on the idea of bringing back old Chicago Bulls players that couldn’t even beat the competition in the Eastern Conference half a decade ago.

There is also some significant distance between Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns, and adding Deng and Noah is really the icing on the cake for a team that is reported to have locker room troubles. Honestly, the Timberwolves are typically a fun League Pass team and this year seems to be shaping up to be no different.

Sign Keith Bogans. Sign Kirk Hinrich. Sign CJ Watson. Sign Mike James. Sign ‘em all, I say.

Manu Ginobili is no longer a Spur

Manu Ginobili deserves to go out on his own terms. The sun appears to be setting on the days in which the Spurs are perennially atop the Western Conference with seemingly little effort. Ginobili has put in his time, and is a future hall-of-famer. Now, it’s just a little sad to think of how many pillars in San Antonio are no longer there.

As a tribute, let’s watch my favorite Ginobili highlight.

Shaq once choked a teammate

Shaq has done an excellent job of rehabilitating his image, especially for someone who went through his entire career as someone who was seen as both captivating and a completely self-absorbed jerk. The fact that O’Neal has become a successful broadcaster during his post playing career, and the fact that he entered the league more than two decades ago has faded some of the opinions about Shaq that developed over the course of his career on the court.

That is, that Shaq was dominant but lazy, self-important to a fault, and unable to see his own value when paired against another all-time great. Again, much of that has been washed away through the sands of time, but the idea that he once choked a teammate as a member of the Phoenix Suns is a little disheartening.

The reality is that Shaq has been pretty wack ever since the Lakers rightly decided to stick with Kobe over him in 2004. This story isn’t endearing, it’s just disappointing. Watch us never talk about it again.

JR Smith is already unraveling

JR Smith was at one time a favorite of LeBron James. Who knows if that’s still the case, but James is now a member of the Los Angeles Lakers and Smith is still stuck in Northeast Ohio. Meanwhile, it appears that Smith isn’t handling it well. The Cleveland Cavaliers guard allegedly chucked a fan’s phone as the fan was trying to record him for social media.

This is was not out of the ordinary for an NBA player — the filming, I mean, not the phone breaking — and the fact that Smith decided to huck this dude’s phone doesn’t bode well for what to expect from him in the coming season. We haven’t even started the preseason yet and already Smith is doing extremely Knicks-y JR Smith stuff.

Nevermind. I actually can’t wait.

These ugly gold-and-diamond LeBrons

Did Donald Trump design these? Good god.

Magic: Mo Bamba out for playoffs, undergoing post-coronavirus evaluation

Magic center Mo Bamba
David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images
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Mo Bamba contracted coronavirus, fell out of shape, recovered, joined the Magic in the bubble then struggled to contribute on the court.

Now, he’s departing the bubble for good.

Magic:

The Magic are huge underdogs in their first-round series against the Bucks. This doesn’t really change the equation. Bamba had already fallen from the rotation, which is now comprised of Nikola Vucevic and Khem Birch at center.

But it raises thorny long-term questions.

Bamba was the No. 6 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. Though he has underwhelmed so far, the Magic were still hoping he’d grow into a quality NBA player. Bamba at least improved from his rookie season.

His progress has obviously been halted. For how long? Will he face lasting effects?

Everyone is trying to get to the bottom of these difficult questions.

Reported Bulls coaching candidates: Kenny Atkinson, Stephen Silas, Darvin Ham, more

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The Bulls fired Jim Boylen. 76ers assistant Ime Udoka was reportedly frontrunner for the job, but Chicago will conduct a full search.

Who else is in the mix?

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

The broad search is expected to include former Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Mavericks assistant Stephen Silas, Bucks assistant Darvin Ham and 76ers assistant Ime Udoka, among others, sources said.

Atkinson is the only former head coach on that list. Like Tyronn Lue for win-now teams, Atkinson is the top available coach for rebuilding teams. (If fired by the 76ers, Brett Brown could supplant Atkinson.) Atkinson had a strong record of player development before Brooklyn shifted priorities.

The Bulls – with Zach LaVine, Coby White, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and a high first-round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft – could use someone like him.

But Atkinson could have options, and Chicago might not be the most desirable opening.

Udoka, Silas, Ham and Unseld are all rising assistants who have earned head-coaching consideration. Interviews should help determine whether they’re ready for that step.

PBT NBA All-Bubble Awards

Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard and Rockets star James Harden
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
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The NBA will announce seeding-game awards tomorrow.

But the play-in is already set. Other playoff matchups are already set. The final seeding games today are just glorified scrimmages.

So, why wait to name the top performers in the bubble?

Here are our picks using the same format as the league – a Most Valuable Player, two five-player teams (no positions) and a coach:

Bubble MVP

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers) Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)

Kurt Helin: It isn’t simply that Damian Lillard led the bubble in scoring at 37.6 points per game. It wasn’t how he got those points, with ridiculously deep threes and driving layups. It was when he did it that makes him bubble MVP: When the Trail Blazers had a rough outing (as did Lillard) and looked like they might fade from postseason contention, he came back next game and dropped 61. Then 51 the game after that. Then 42 in the final bubble game with the playoffs on the line. Lillard was the ultimate leader and willed his team to the play-in series, and that’s what makes him MVP of the seeding games.
Dan Feldman: James Harden was more consistently good and even sometimes great. But nobody hit higher levels than Lillard, who stepped up in the biggest moments to lead Portland into the play-in with the eighth-place advantage. Lillard set an emotional tone for a team constantly vulnerable of falling from the playoff race, and he delivered on the court with brilliant offense. He wasn’t perfect, but he went to great lengths to ensure the Trail Blazers met their goal. That’s the bubble MVP.

All-Bubble teams

First team

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers) Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)
Devin Booker (Suns) James Harden (Rockets)
T.J. Warren (Pacers) Devin Booker (Suns)
Luka Doncic (Mavericks) T.J. Warren (Pacers)
James Harden (Rockets) Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)

Second team

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Jayson Tatum (Celtics) Luka Doncic (Mavericks)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks) Michael Porter Jr. (Nuggets)
Kawhi Leonard (Clippers) Kawhi Leonard (Clippers)
DeMar DeRozan (Spurs) Paul George (Clippers)
Kristaps Porzingis (Mavericks) Kristaps Porzingis (Mavericks)

Kurt Helin: It was difficult leaving Antetokounmpo off the first team, he played brilliantly but his team was in cruise control (plus he took himself out of the last game by headbutting Moe Wagner). A few players such as Fred VanVleet and Michael Porter Jr. also almost made the cut.

Dan Feldman: Lillard, Harden, Booker and Warren were first-team locks. Antetokounmpo was absolutely dominant when he wanted to be, which was limited with the Bucks locking up the No. 1 seed early. Derrick White, DeMar DeRozan, Chris Paul, Gary Trent Jr. and Fred VanVleet were among the contenders for the final second-team spots.

Coach of the Bubble

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Monty William (Suns) Monty William (Suns)

Kurt Helin: Every young team talked about it heading into the restart (and developing teams not invited to the restart begged for the same opportunity): Using the bubble games as a chance for a young core to grow and take a step forward. Except teams like Sacramento and New Orleans didn’t do that. Phoenix, behind Monty Williams did — they became the story of the bubble at 8-0. Devin Booker exploded and got himself in MVP talk, Deandre Ayton played brilliantly, and the Suns came from six-games back of Memphis to almost make the playoffs. Williams set the Suns up to be a playoff team in the West next season.

Dan Feldman: Phoenix went 8-0! That alone is pretty darned impressive, and the context reflects even more favorably on Williams. The Suns entered the bubble with the lowest playoff odds among the continuing 22 teams. Needing to make up 2.5 games and – more significantly – jump four (!) teams, Phoenix could have easily arrived unmotivated and ripe for distraction. Instead, Williams had the Suns playing fearlessly, cohesively and joyously. Williams even leaned heavily on his young players rather than his veterans, taking excellent advantage of a player-development opportunity and positioning Phoenix to ascend next season.

Bulls fire coach Jim Boylen

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Maybe the Bulls, despite a report otherwise, never actually planned to keep Jim Boylen for financial reasons. Maybe they did plan to keep him but saw the intense negative reaction to that report among Chicago fans.

Either way, Boylen is gone now.

Bulls release:

Chicago Bulls Executive Vice President – Basketball Operations Arturas Karnisovas announced today that Jim Boylen has been relieved of his duties as head coach.

MICHAEL REINSDORF: “No one could question Jim’s passion for our team and our organization. We sincerely appreciate his tireless efforts and contributions during his time with the Bulls, and we wish him and his family the very best.”

ARTURAS KARNISOVAS: “After doing a comprehensive evaluation and giving the process the time it deserved, I ultimately decided that a fresh approach and evolution in leadership was necessary. This was a very difficult decision, but it is time for our franchise to take that next step as we move in a new direction and era of Chicago Bulls basketball. Jim is a great human being that cares deeply about this organization and the game of basketball. I want to thank him for his professionalism and commitment to the franchise.”

A formal coaching search will begin immediately.

76ers assistant Ime Udoka was reportedly frontrunner to become Chicago’s next coach. A full search could yield other candidates. However, the Bulls must overcome a reported poor reputation among coaches and possible financial limitations in these economic times.

Chicago still has other problems, but Boylen was one. His tenure began with a near-mutiny when he took over for Fred Hoiberg during the 2018-19 season. To his credit, Boylen improved while on the job. But coming from such a low starting point, he often looked in over his head.

His players continued to dislike him. His signature coaching move was ill-timed timeouts. His record was just 39-84 (.317).

Firing him should have been obvious, especially once the Bulls hired Arturas Karnisovas as team president. Let Karnisovas hire his own coach.

Chicago’s roster is lacking, though not necessarily hopeless.

Zach LaVine is more near-star than All-Star – not an ideal centerpiece – but the 25-year-old could continue to improve. Youngsters Coby White, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. have had too many downs to feel great about their futures, though enough ups to at least be intrigued. Veterans Otto Porter, Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky have underwhelmed but have prior records of success.

A new coach will have pieces to work with.

Karnisovas has more work ahead to upgrade those pieces.