Thunder guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Chris Paul
Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander transcend positional overlap, age gap to lead Thunder

Leave a comment

While the front office looked ahead to free agency, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander spent his rookie season last year helping the scrappy and starless Clippers overachieve. Management’s plan work. Armed with significant cap space and a reputation bolstered by last year’s playoff berth, the Clippers struck gold in the offseason. They signed Kawhi Leonard and traded for Paul George… by sending Gilgeous-Alexander to the Thunder.

Gilgeous-Alexander was shocked. But as he wrapped his head around the deal, he became excited for the opportunity in Oklahoma City. With George gone, Russell Westbrook on his way out and a boatload of draft picks incoming from the George trade, the Thunder appeared ready for a new era. Gilgeous-Alexander could be their point guard of the future, the centerpiece of their rebuild.

And then Oklahoma City traded for Chris Paul.

“I knew it’d be a challenge,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Obviously, Chris being very, very ball-dominant and that’s what him doing best and being one of the best to ever play that position, that I would have to slide at times and play a little bit out of position.”

Paul didn’t seem thrilled with the arrangement, either. The veteran went from the championship-contending Rockets to a small-market team with much more modest expectations. It appeared he preferred to get re-routed elsewhere, and the Thunder looked ready to flip him.

But no other trade emerged. Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander stayed in Oklahoma City.

Paul’s championship aspirations might be on hold. Gilgeous-Alexander, as predicted, has been relegated to a secondary role. Yet, the guards – at near-opposite points in their careers – have played with pride and led the Thunder to a quite-satisfying season.

Oklahoma City still has all the draft picks acquired for George and Westbrook. The Thunder just haven’t had to suffer the losing that usually comes with rebuilding. Oklahoma City (40-24, fifth in West) extended their era of good feelings past Kevin Durant and Westbrook with their 11th straight winning season – the NBA’s longest-active streak.

Paul returned to the All-Star game after three seasons away. Gilgeous-Alexander continues to improve. They play well together. They appear to enjoy playing together.

Neither ego nor a historically large age gap has derailed this feel-good partnership.

Paul (35) is more than 13 years older than Gilgeous-Alexander (22). That’s the ninth-largest age gap between a team’s top two players* since the NBA-ABA merger.

*As defined by Wins Above Replacement Player, a stat developed by ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, who graciously provided the data.

Here are the teams with the largest age gap between their top two players since the NBA-ABA merger (age based on Feb. 1 of that season):

Thunder guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Chris Paul

Team Older Younger Age gap
2003 UTA John Stockton (40) Andrei Kirilenko (21) 18.9
2012 CLE Antawn Jamison (35) Kyrie Irving (19) 15.8
1993 BOS Robert Parish (39) Dee Brown (24) 15.2
2015 SAS Tim Duncan (38) Kawhi Leonard (23) 15.2
2014 SAS Tim Duncan (37) Kawhi Leonard (22) 15.2
2012 SAS Tim Duncan (35) Kawhi Leonard (20) 15.2
2001 HOU Hakeem Olajuwon (38) Steve Francis (23) 15.1
1986 SAS Artis Gilmore (36) Alvin Robertson (23) 13.8
2020 OKC Chris Paul (34) Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (21) 13.2
2001 IND Reggie Miller (35) Jermaine O’Neal (22) 13.1
2018 DAL Dirk Nowitzki (39) Dwight Powell (26) 13.1
2005 IND Reggie Miller (39) Jamaal Tinsley (26) 12.5
1986 LAL Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38) Magic Johnson (26) 12.3
1985 LAL Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (37) Magic Johnson (25) 12.3
1984 LAL Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (36) Magic Johnson (24) 12.3
1983 LAL Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (35) Magic Johnson (23) 12.3
1982 LAL Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (34) Magic Johnson (22) 12.3
1981 LAL Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (33) Magic Johnson (21) 12.3
1980 LAL Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (32) Magic Johnson (20) 12.3
2003 WAS Michael Jordan (39) Jerry Stackhouse (28) 11.7

These pairings can be awkward – especially when both players are accustomed to having the ball. See Jordan and Stackhouse.

Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander have shown no such tension.

“I think it takes a unique and special guy to be able to handle that,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “‘Hey listen, my identity and who I am as a player has been point guard my entire career. And now I’m moving off the ball. The ball is not in my hands as much as maybe it was in the past. And how do I now fit in? How do I become effective?’

“For those guys, it’s all been their approach. It’s been their mindset. And it’s the way they’ve sacrificed for one another.”

Remarkably, Oklahoma City has performed even better with a third point guard on the court – Dennis Schroder.

Paul has ceded more control than he usually does (i.e., some). Gilgeous-Alexander has embraced playing off the ball. Schroder has diversified his game and become better at picking his spots, emerging as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate.

Of course, bigger questions have come on defense. Schroder typically takes the easiest matchup, enabled by Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander stepping up. At 6-foot-5 with a 7-foot wingspan, Gilgeous-Alexander has the length to defend any perimeter player. Though smaller, Paul has the mettle and smarts to battle bigger forwards inside.

That effort earned Paul my All-Defensive second-team vote – and admiration. How many 6-foot-1 guards in their mid-30s want that challenge?

Despite being pressed into a situation he never sought, Paul has shown no signs of sulking. He plays hard and leads.

Just as Gilgeous-Alexander expected. Whatever trepidation he had about Paul joining Oklahoma City, Gilgeous-Alexander was also eager for the experience.

“I knew it would make me better, ultimately,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “And it has. And he’s taught me so many things, and I’m grateful for it.”

Who knows how long the pairing will last, though?

Thunder forward Danilo Gallinari is headed toward unrestricted free agency this offseason, and if he leaves, that’d be a significant impediment to winning next season. Oklahoma City could trade expensive players like Paul and Steven Adams.

Paul might even welcome it. Just because he embraced his role this season, when there were no clear alternatives, doesn’t mean he wants to finish his prime with the Thunder. A star again and with one fewer season on his contract, Paul should be in higher demand this offseason.

Oklahoma City might also be ready to move on. Though they have a boatload of draft picks from other teams, the Thunder can somewhat control only their own picks (through tanking). Tearing down the roster would also get Gilgeous-Alexander into a primary role.

“Shai is, no question, more than capable of playing point guard and running a team,” Donovan said.

That’s evident to anyone who watches him play. Yet, Gilgeous-Alexander hasn’t tried to hijack the offense. Paul hasn’t publicly grumbled about being stuck in a backcourt with a young player still learning how to win.

Everyone knows how uneasy this relationship could have been.

Which makes it special it’s working so well.

Report: Philadelphia ownership wants Mike D’Antoni as next coach

Mike D'Antoni 76ers
Mike Stobe/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Philadelphia 76ers ownership (led by Josh Harris) reportedly has been very hands-on in picking the team’s new coach — even if that means a new direction for the roster. That hands-on style reportedly why ownership likes Elton Brand as GM and may balk at bringing in a big-name president of basketball operations — that person would want total control of basketball decisions. Right now, ownership is pulling a lot of those levers.

And ownership wants Mike D’Antoni as the next head coach in Philadelphia, reports Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Sources have been saying since last week that the job is D’Antoni’s to turn down. They say he’s the guy the ownership group wants. One source even said the 69-year-old would have to bomb his interview with the Sixers owners not to be offered the job.

The problem is that Brand is supposed to have a huge input on the hire. The ownership is only supposed to approve or deny Brand’s suggestion. Now, word is leaking out that Brand is pushing hard for the Sixers to hire D’Antoni and that Joel Embiid gave his blessing. In addition, there are reports that the Sixers will make trades if D’Antoni is hired. The expectation is that he’ll have a say in picking players for his freewheeling style of play.

With Billy Donovan taking over in Chicago, the list of top candidates for the Philadelphia job seems down to two: Tyronn Lue and Mike D’Antoni. Lue would be the conventional choice, a guy who would try to make it work with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons together, along with Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson, and Al Horford. Roster tweaks would be coming, but with Lue the idea would be making better use of the roster and style the 76ers have already built.

D’Antoni would be a radical change of direction — he is coming from a team that just started 6’7″ Robert Covington at center. The current 76ers roster would need changes to fit with D’Antoni’s freewheeling ways, and even then the coach would need to adapt what he wants to do. (No contract is untradeable, but moving the four-years, $147.2 million left on Harris’ deal, or the three years and $81 million on Horford’s contract, would require Philly to throw in a lot of sweeteners.)

D’Antoni would mean another change of direction in Philly, but that seems to be what ownership wants.

Bam Adebayo on injury: “I’m good,” expects to play in Game 5 Friday

Bam Adebayo injury
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Leave a comment

In the final minutes of Miami’s Game 4 win, while Tyler Hero was knocking down shots and Jimmy Butler was getting to the line, Miami‘s Bam Adebayo was dealing with an injury, walking around holding his wrist, his arm dragging. He had gotten tangled up with Daniel Theis under the basket and clearly injured something.

The questions raised post game were about what happened, how serious it was, and could Adebayo be out for Game 5 on Friday? There was nothing official from the team but it looks like he will play, according to Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press and Ira Winderman of the Sun-Sentinel.

Adebayo had 20 points and 12 rebounds in Game 4, and his play is critical to Miami’s game plan against Boston. His ability to protect the rim at one end, then come out high to set screens and pull Theis out of the paint on the other end, is at the heart of what the Heat want to do in this series. If he is even slowed in Game 5 it is an advantage for Boston.

This time of year, and with the Heat one game away from the NBA Finals, no chance he sits if he can at all play.

LeBron James: Neighbor’s walls, not Breonna Taylor, got justice

Lakers star LeBron James
Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Louisville police officers were not charged with killing Breonna Taylor. However, former officer Brett Hankison was charged with first-degree wanton endangerment for allegedly firing firing recklessly into nearby apartments during the incident.

That outcome left NBA players unsatisfied.

LeBron James:

The emotions LeBron – and many others – are feeling are completely understandable. This was a tragedy. Faced with an obvious injustice, it’s easy to demand the harshest-imaginable punishment. That didn’t come.

But it is not too late to address the injustices – which were always far larger than the officers at the scene returning fire – at play in Taylor’s death.

Tyler Herro carries Heat over Celtics in Game 4, within one game of NBA Finals

Leave a comment

If the Boston Celtics targeted Tyler Herro in the 2019 NBA Draft, they have more reason than ever to lament their near miss.

Herro scored 37 points to lead the Miami Heat to a 112-109 win over the Celtics in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday. The 21-year-old rookie put Miami up 3-1 and himself in the record book.

The only other player so young to score so much in a playoff game? Magic Johnson, who had 42 points in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals at age 20.

The Heat will look to reach the NBA Finals in Game 5 Friday. Teams leading a best-of-seven series 3-1 have won 95% of the time.

Miami’s big concern: Bam Adebayo, who hurt his wrist late in the game. Adebayo (20 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and two steals) played through the injury but appeared to be feeling it.

He and the Heat just kept grinding through everything, though.

Miami won despite shooting only 10-for-37 on 3-pointers (27%). Forget about make-or-miss league. The Heat willed themselves to victory with aggravating defense, hustle, rebounding… and, yes, big-time shot-making by Herro, who made 9-of-11 2-pointers and 5-of-10 3-pointers

The Celtics committed 19 turnovers – some forced by Miami, some self-inflicted. The Heat’s zone defense continues to make Boston uncomfortable, though Marcus Smart (10 points and 11 assists) found some success penetrating and kicking against it. Jaylen Brown (21 points and nine rebounds) knocked down some of those created looks.

After a scoreless first half, Jayson Tatum scored 28 points in the second half. Stephen Curry scored 33 second-half points after a scoreless first half in Game 6 against the Rockets last year. That’s the only time someone followed a scoreless first half with so many second-half points in the Basketball-Reference postseason database, which dates back to 1997.

But those successes weren’t sustained. Tatum (six), Smart (four) and Brown (four) all had too many turnovers.

This series is even by points scored. But Boston has been just a little too erratic, which is why Miami has the key 3-1 lead.