J Pat Carter/Getty Images

De’Aaron Fox should be running away with Most Improved Player

2 Comments

CHARLOTTE – When De'Aaron Fox was about 6 years old, he watched “Freddy vs. Jason.” The horror movie stuck with him for years.

“All through elementary school, I wouldn’t leave doors open if it was nighttime,” Fox said. “I would make sure I closed every door.”

Now, Fox is only opening doors – for himself and the Kings.

The second-year point guard is the NBA’s breakout player on the league’s breakout team. His speed and energy have invigorated Sacramento, which could end a 12-season playoff drought.

But to truly appreciate Fox, you must understand his rookie season.

“It wasn’t good,” Fox said.

He received no Rookie of the Year votes. He didn’t make an All-Rookie team. He made the Rising Stars game only as an injury replacement.

The Kings went 27-55 and played even worse with Fox on the court. He played below replacement level. His poor shooting and distributing in such a big role proved destructive toward winning.

Now, Fox is arguably the best player in his draft class, in the running with Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell.* Fox received deserved All-Star consideration this year. Sacramento is 30-27 and at its best with Fox on the floor.

*Last season’s Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons, was drafted the prior year.

Fox is lightning quick with the ball and a pest defensively. With his shot now falling, he looks to be in complete control.

He leads the Kings’ up-tempo attack while keeping them organized. With Fox on the court, Sacramento plays like the NBA’s fastest, best-fastbreak team all while maintaining the equivalent of a bottom-five turnover rate.

Fox’s improvement is one of the biggest – not just in this season, but in NBA history.

His box-plus-minus leap from -4.4 to +0.9 is telling.

Here are the biggest increases in box plus-minus (center) from a previous career high (left) to the listed season (right) since the NBA began tracking turnovers in 1973-74 (minimum: 1,000 minutes each season):

image

Why isn’t Fox the overwhelming favorite for Most Improved Player? I suspect because there’s a belief second-year players are expected to improve.

I’m just not sure why that matters to voters.

Nobody punishes James Harden in the MVP race because he was an established star expected to be good. Nobody punishes Luka Doncic in the Rookie of the Year race because he was a polished young player expected to be good. Nobody punishes Gregg Popovich in the Coach of the Year race because he was an all-time great coach expected to be good.

“Even if it’s expected, if you improve, it doesn’t matter what the expectation is,” Fox said. “You expect Steph Curry to win MVP, right?

“I don’t think it should matter.”

Fox shouldn’t clinch Most Improved Player just yet. If he stumbles down the stretch, others could catch up.

It can also be tricky to compare Fox to players who didn’t play as much in previous seasons. Fox demonstrated his dismal production over a large, reliable sample last season. How does that compare to players like Wizards center Thomas Bryant, Nuggets guard Malik Beasley and Bulls guard Ryan Arcidiacono? Their lack of prior playing time indicates less prior ability, but perhaps they were erroneously looked over and haven’t improved as much.

Fox is a safe choice for Most Improved Player. We know he was bad last season. We know he’s good this season.

But the Kings didn’t know Fox would develop like this. They took a chance entrusting him with such a large role as a rookie, letting him work through his mistakes.

The payoff has come unusually quick. This level of responsibility is still a lot for a second-year point guard – especially one on a good team.

Fox (24.6 usage percentage, 32.6 assist percentage) is one of just 14 current players who, in his second year, started most of his team’s games at point guard while posting usage and assist percentages above 23. Here are all 14, sorted by team’s winning percentage that season (players who changed teams in-season are listed by their teams’ combined record while they were on each roster):

image

Players marked in purple also met the 23%-23% usage-assist thresholds while starting as rookies. All three heavily burdened second-season point guards to lead their teams to winning records – Damian Lillard (2014 Trail Blazers), Russell Westbrook (2010 Thunder) and Fox – had big roles as rookies. It clearly prepared them.

Obviously, that prerequisite doesn’t guarantee second-year success.

But it’s a good bet with someone as talented and driven as Fox.

“People might be surprised by the jump I’ve made, but I’m playing the way I think I should play,” Fox said. “And I think I should be playing even better.”

How Jaylen Brown snuck into Virgil Abloh’s Louis Vuitton show and sat next to Kanye West

Leave a comment

Celtics forward Jaylen Brown has a huge contract extension and bright future.

But he isn’t a star yet.

That’s why Brown, despite his emerging presence in the fashion scene, didn’t get invited to Virgil Abloh’s Louis Vuitton show last year.

Brown on All The Smoke:

I didn’t get invited to that one, but I wasn’t tripping. At the time, I’m second year in the league. My merit ain’t like that. I ain’t got the clout. But I’m like, I can’t miss that. They ain’t never had a person of color being a Louis V designer ever. It’s history. So, I’m like, I don’t got no ticket, but I’m going to pull up and just see what’s going to happen. The least I can do is say I tried. I’m from Atlanta, so you know.

So, I had photographers with me, and I had videographers and my manager is with me and stuff like that. So, I had a little group of people with me. So, I said, “This is what we’re going to do.” I said, “We’re going to get in the car. We’re going to pull up real fast, come to a stop real quick. Everybody jump out.”

“Everybody jump out quick. When we jump out, everybody open the door. Slam it open. The driver, you got to slam on the brakes. Rrrrrrrr. Everybody jump out, slam the door open, we’re going walk fast. ‘No pictures. No pictures. No pictures.’ We’re going to keep walking. We’re going to walk so everybody causing a commotion. All the people trying to take pictures. “Who is it?” Du, du, du, du, da. Then, we get to the front. I said, when we get to the front, there’s probably going to be a list.

“Look, there’s probably going to be al list.” I thought the whole thing out. So, I told my manager, I told her, I was like, “When they say they can’t find my name on the list, I need you to go crazy.” I didn’t even think she was going to be ready for it. I’m surprised, a little small. I didn’t even think she was going to be ready for it. I’m like, “When you see the list, just go crazy. Act like this is an outrage.”

She sold it.

She surprised me. So, we get to the list. She’s like, “You’re not.” “This is crazy! He should be on this list!” Du, du, du, du, da. And they’re like, “OK, OK, calm down, calm down, calm down. Calm down, calm down, calm down.” Just let them go in. And I ended up going in, and I ended up sitting right next to Kanye and Travis.

It’s crazy, right? I ended up meeting Diddy’s sons in there, just seeing them and saying, “What’s up?” Just walked in with them from the jump and just finessed my hole way in.

Look, I’m sitting right next to Kanye, Travis. I’m sitting dead across from Rihanna. When the show is over, Virgil came out and gave Kanye a hug. At the end, he was crying. I was on like, man, if I was in my right mind, I’d go out there and [hugging motion].

All The Smoke has the best stories.

Chris Paul calls out Jordan Bell for untucked jersey, wins technical that helps OKC force OT, win

Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images
2 Comments

This may be the ultimate savvy veteran play, or it was a guy winning by snitching. Either way, it’s very Chris Paul.

The Oklahoma City Thunder were down two with 1.1 seconds left and had just fouled Karl-Anthony Towns, who went to the free throw line with the chance to ice the game. When KAT missed the first free throw, Minnesota coach Ryan Saunders sent Jordan Bell into the game for Jeff Teague — but Bell’s jersey was not tucked in and Chris Paul called it out (you can hear him on the audio) and referee Scott Foster takes notice.

Chris Paul knew exactly what he was doing.

The untucked jersey led to a delay of game penalty on the Timberwolves and, since Minnesota already had a delay of game warning from earlier, a technical foul and free throw for Oklahoma City. Which they sank, so now it was a one-point game, but the Thunder still had no timeouts. If KAT had missed the second free throw intentionally, the scramble for the rebound would have forced a full-court heave by a Thunder player to win it. Instead, KAT sank the free throw, putting the Timberwolves up by two (still with 1.1 on the clock).

Then this happened.

The game went to overtime, where Shai Gilgeous-Alexander got hot and scored 11, and the Thunder pulled away for the 139-127 win.

CP3 may have just lost a few votes if he runs for players’ union president again, but he got the win.

David Fizdale wasn’t the solution for the Knicks. No coach is.

Leave a comment

David Fizdale’s tenure as New York Knicks coach fits the pattern.

When Fizdale took the Knicks job, he said, “Culture and accountability. I’ll be putting those words on walls in a lot of places” and talked about building a foundation for the franchise. The Knicks were going to build through the draft, find and develop talent, get players who fit their culture, be patient and build the kind of roster that would attract superstar free agents someday.

Except Fizdale (and management) didn’t do any of that. The same way it didn’t work for Phil Jackson in building a culture and identity for the franchise, or Mike D’Antoni, or Isaiah Thomas or Mike Woodson or Lenny Wilkins, or anyone else the Knicks have had in the coach’s seat or front office for the past 20 years — not so coincidentally how long James Dolan’s has owned the team.

The Knicks’ identity has been not hiring the people capable of executing the plan and/or not sticking with the plan long enough to make it work. The Knicks’ identity has become trying to shortcut the process and take big swings, only to miss and fall short.

Fizdale fell into that pattern. Despite his talk of slowly building a culture and foundation, it wasn’t long after Fizdale signed there were reports Knicks would clear out cap space for LeBron James if he wanted to play for Fizdale (LeBron is a fan of Fizdale from their time together in Miami). This past summer, management hoped Fizdale’s popularity with players could help land Kyrie Irving and/or Kevin Durant. Instead, that duo chose to go to another borough — one where the team had been patient, built a culture, and drafted and developed young players into the kind of roster superstars wanted to join.

The Knicks were the Knicks. Fizdale became the scapegoat, and on Friday he was fired as head coach of the New York Knicks.

The pattern was predictable, as was the fact as soon as he was let go, the chorus popped up blaming him for the Knicks woes. “Fizdale was the problem and now the Knicks can search for the right guy.” Except, there is no right guy. At least there will not be until James Dolan hires a top-flight, experienced executive to really build that culture and foundation, then gets out of the way and lets his hire do it (and by out of the way, I mean lets him clean house in basketball operations and change everything, much the way David Griffin did last summer in New Orleans).

Not that Fizdale was blameless in this or shouldn’t have been fired.

Fizdale was essentially the first contestant sent home on an episode of “Chopped” — he was asked to make a meal out of the mismatched basket of ingredients/players that absolutely did not fit together. A basket assembled by team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry, a basket with far too many power forward a crop of rookies and second-year players that were going to have prominent roles. Nobody was going turn that group into a competitive playoff team, and the fact that was the expectation of management — and what was sold to Dolan — speaks to the bigger issues.

Fizdale, however, did nothing to turn that basket of players into a respectable team. There are very legitimate reasons for him to be chopped by management — Fizdale did not develop a team identity on either end of the floor, his rotations were head-scratching, and his team seemed listless and disinterested. The Knicks are 4-18, are losers of eight straight, have not been competitive, were blown out by 37+ their last two games, and the Knicks are a team on its way to a seventh consecutive season without a trip to the playoffs, making it 13 out of 16 seasons the Knicks have been home for the postseason.

The Knicks have had 12 coaches in the past 20 years — not exactly a sign of stability and organizational direction. There were good men in that mix. Mike D’Antoni has success in Phoenix before he was in New York, and after he left he has had it in Houston, but the Knicks brought him in and then didn’t build a roster to fit his run-and-gun style. He lasted three-and-a-half seasons, which is the longest tenure of any coach in the Dolan era. Mike Woodson had success in Atlanta (and got the Knicks to the playoffs a couple of times, including the second round once). Larry Brown and Lenny Wilkins are both in the Hall of Fame as coaches.

Yet the organization struggled through all of them. Dolan remains the one constant. We all know what the problem is, but we also know he’s not going to sell the team (maybe spin it off with the Rangers and the rest of Madison Square Garden into its own company, but that’s different from giving it up). There is a status that comes with owning the Knicks in New York City, and Dolan is not going to give up that spotlight.

Knicks fans can hope that a new executive is brought in and is given the real power to clean house — but past candidates for team president who asked for that power did not get the job. Plus, Perry and Mills (like Fizdale) have more than a year left on their contract, Dolan trusts Mills, so expecting a change may be unrealistic.

Until there is a change in how the Knicks are run, whoever is hired to be the head coach will ultimately fall into the pattern of all the coaches before him (or her). The pattern is set. Only Dolan can break it.

Giannis Antetokounmpo celebrated his birthday by scoring 27, leading Bucks in rout Clippers

Stacy Revere/Getty Images
Leave a comment

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo had 27 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Milwaukee Bucks to their 14th straight victory, a 119-91 rout of the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday night.

Antetokounmpo, on his 25th birthday, made 11 of 20 shots and recorded his 21st double-double of the season.

“I was 25 once, but I wasn’t that good,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said after joking that he wanted to see Antetokounmpo’s birth certificate.

Antetokounmpo left the game with Milwaukee ahead by 36 with 8:56 to play. While he sat, the Milwaukee crowd started “happy birthday” chants for their star — and he loved it.

The Bucks led by as many as 41 and extended their longest winning streak since winning 16 consecutive games over two seasons in 1973.

Khris Middleton added 17 points and Pat Connaughton and Ersan Ilyasova each scored 13 off the bench for Milwaukee.

Rivers pulled all of his starters out of the game with the Bucks leading 101-67 with 9:25 remaining in the fourth quarter. The group exited to the chant of “Overrated! Overrated!” from the Milwaukee crowd.

Kawhi Leonard had 17 points and Paul George added 13 for the Clippers.

JaMychal Green missed his second straight game for Los Angeles after suffering a bruised tailbone last Friday night against the San Antonio Spurs.