Author Archives: Noam Schiller

Brandon Jennings’ Renewed Freedom Of Imagination

Photo from ~ Marjolein ~ via Flickr

Even a week later, the sign-and-trade bringing Brandon Jennings just feels weird.

Maybe it was how it came about. The NBA has, over the past few years, taught us to expect little-to-nothing from restricted free agency. Most applicants fall into one of three major camps – swift, immediate re-uppings, such as Tiago Splitter this year; matched offer sheets, such as Jeff Teague; or a withdrawn qualifying offer, such as with Tyler Hansbrough.

Neither of these is a major source of drama. Occasionally, members of the second group whose agents have neglected to teach them how restricted free agency works are “insulted” that their initial team hasn’t offered them a contract, let everybody know that they’d rather leave, and are then even more “insulted” when the sheet is matched (this is also known as “The Eric Gordon”, and it’s incredibly annoying). On even rarer occasions, we might get major news that exceeds the realm of gossip and hurt feelings, such as last offseasons’ dual-poison-pilling by the Houston Rockets, or Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic holding out on the 2007 Cavs.

Usually, though, a restricted free agent eventually finds himself back where he started, be it on a fair deal struck early in July, or at a discount a few weeks later. So it was somewhat out of place to see Jennings, a major free agent by name if not by production than by name, make news in a manner so unrepresentative of his restricted status. Which caught me off guard, because, four years in, I’ve stopped expecting surprises out of Brandon Jennings.

It’s an odd thing to say, given how unexpected the start to his career was. From the decision to spend a year in Rome as opposed to donning an NCAA-sanctioned uniform, to showing up late to the NBA draft in which the Bucks picked him 10th, to those damn 55 points, all the way to his Bucks nearly advancing to the second round to end a rookie year of which nothing was initially expected, Jennings had established himself as an out-of-the-blue extraordinaire. His game inherently flashy, swagger oozing from every pore, he was a refresher through and through.

Of course, the problem with Jennings’ entire career has been just how high the standards were set after jos scorching start. That premise was explored in impressive detail and excruciating pain by some very smart Bucks bloggers following his ultimate departure, but even without Bucks rooting interests, the deterioration was depressing. Brandon Jennings, former breath of fresh air, turned into Brandon Jennings, living embodiment of a franchise with stagnation etched upon its flag. There were still flashes of unique happenings – every now and then he would play that game or hit that shot, and every now and then his team would trade for Monta Ellis or draft John Henson – but those were minutiae. The Jennings season recap would always tell the story of a sub-40% shooting, high usage pick and roll initiator, who is technichally a borderline all-star, but is only in consideration because he plays in a guard-bereft East. Similarly, the Bucks season recap would always tell of a team ultimately relegated to yet another narrowly missed playoff berth, or a narrowly hit playoff berth that might as well have been missed.

If nothing else, the move to Detroit offers Jennings, and those who are watching him, a chance to break out of that rut. Yes, it’s looking like a lower Eastern playoff spot (How U), but it’ll be a different lower Eastern playoff spot. One without Scott Skiles running the show (or Jim Boylan, who might as well be Scott Skiles). One without Ersan Ilyasova (bless his soul) as the primary pick-and-pop weapon of choice. One with a different jersey and a different mascot and different League Pass broadcasters. Brandon Jennings might just be who he is, at this point, but if he was ever going to be somebody else, sheer inertia meant that Milwaukee was no longer a fit screen upon which he could project that sequel.

In that sense, Jennings is very much like his new teammate, Josh Smith. Not just because both have maddening shot selection and a seemingly squandered skill set, but because Smith, like Jennings, has been who he is and where he is for so long that he’s become almost imperceptible. Josh Smith, the player has become Josh Smith, The Idea. The versatile freak athlete has been replaced with that familiar #5 Hawks jersey, taking yet another jumper as the half-empty arena screams “NOOOOOOOOOO” all the way to a first round playoff bounce, even if he happens to do something else every now and again.

We might see the same things in Detroit, but just by seeing them in new surroundings, we leave the possibility of something new open. Whether it’s individual success, a surprising team run, or just some fun pick and roll synergy with Andre Drummond – himself a once-future-star whose slip in the draft was offset by a tantalizing rookie season – Brandon Jennings once again offers us some freedom of imagination. Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton and Slava Kravtsov seem like a small price to pay for that.

Non-Expirings Are The New Expirings

Photo from Tim Caynes via Flickr

NBA team-builders have something of a herd mentality. It’s a natural progression – if you’re trying to derive value when negotiating with 29 other parties, and the 29 other parties find value in Mysterious Entity X, then Mysterious Entity X immediately becomes valuable to you as well, whether you have actual use for it or not.

As such, certain assets become more or less valuable as the market ebbs and flows. You always want to have a once-in-a-generation superstar under contract, and you never want to pay the max to a helpless stiff, but somewhere in between you have a lot of different options, the value of each very much dependent on the NBA’s current time period.

For example, in 2013, where Tom Thibodeau defenses rule the land, the agile defensive bigs who can anchor them and the 3-and-D wing players who can crack them have become almost indispensible additions for every team. Meanwhile, years of incoming franchise point guards has created an oversaturation of the position, leaving behind a world where Brandon Jennings can’t get a contract offer and Mo Williams has been left for dead.

Perhaps the most oft-mentioned market fluctuation of the post-lockout NBA is the rise in value of future first round picks. As the new CBA restricts spending among owners who are not Russian oligarchs, teams are doing everything they can for some cheap labor, and no labor comes cheaper than an incoming youngster on a set salary scale. One could say this isn’t a market fluctuation as much as an overdue correction, but in a world where no first round picks switched hands at last year’s trade deadline (unless you count the Memphis-Cleveland Marreese Speights dump, from January), it’s possible that the pendulum had swung too far in the other direction.

So far, in fact, that the rush for first rounders is distorting the entire market. Because teams are putting such a premium on acquiring picks, the sort of deals they’re willing to accept to take on those picks are vastly different than the past.

For an example, look no further than the deals that have been moved this summer alongside first round picks. The Celtics willingly took on a 3 years, $30 million Gerald Wallace tax for the 3 first rounders offered to them by the Nets. The Toronto Raptors took on 3 years, $11 million of Steve Novak in their Andrea Bargnani dump, even though Novak’s deal runs a year longer than Primo Pasta’s 2 years, $22 million, because there was a pick to sweeten the pot. Even the Phoenix Suns willingly taking a modest 2 years, $7 million of Gerald Green can be thrown in here, despite Green hardly being a cap-stringing long term commitment. Utah did manage to get two first rounders from Golden State by only taking on expiring deals – but had to agree to a whopping total of $24 million of them. And if these examples aren’t to your liking, feel free to add the 2012 Dwight Howard deal – in which the Orlando Magic, giving away the league’s best center, felt more than comfortable taking on Arron Afflalo, one year into a 5 year extension, rather than accept a deal with Andrew Bynum or Andre Iguodala’s expiring deals and less draft considerations.

This isn’t to say that long, binding contracts are suddenly valuable. The choice between a 1 year albatross and a 3 year albatross is still pretty clear. Rather, the circumstances under which a team would be willing to take on the longer deal have changed. Since incoming salary usually has to be within range of outgoing salary, taking on non-expiring deals has become an acceptable penalty for a team moving players for picks.

We’ve seen diminishing returns from expiring contracts for quite a while, now – if the mid-2000s saw such luminaries as Raef LaFrentz and Theo Ratliff included in multiple trade rumors, the last few years have seen major expiring deals expire quietly into the night. Whether this is because shorter contracts under the new CBA means more deals expire every summer, or because teams are slowly realizing that acquiring an expiring deal still means they have to pay somebody next year, we’ve seen initial buds of the non-expiring contract featuring more prominently in trades as a result. This could be an interesting market trend to monitor as new GMs and new rules get more comfortable around each other.

Shot Fiction: Chris Copeland Joins The Pacers

Photo from Iguanasan via Flickr

The air in the visitor’s locker room was stale and dejected. Although the New York Knicks had just completed what was objectively their best season in 14 years, the subjective left very little room for comfort.

The Knicks thought – no, they knew they were better than this Indiana Pacers team. It just so happened that the weaker squad punched the stronger squad in the mouth, a bad mixture of happenstance and physicality.

Alas, the 6 game Conference Semifinals became the final act, a harsh, brutal climax where Gotham poets envisioned but more crescendo. As those despicable Pacers celebrated in unity, going so far as to send all five starters together to the post-game interview podium, each Knick stood alone and awaited his fate. Mike Woodson stood in the corner, not nearly as talkative as a coach should be, his mind racing forward, trying to project which of his players he is seeing in the locker room for the last time.

A drenched Frank Vogel walked into the locker room. His eyes were triumphant, his smile clearly visible despite his attempts to conceal it under a cloak of professionalism. Most of the Knicks looked away; while Vogel had earned this visit and the perks to come with it, they were under no obligations to comply emotionally.

Vogel stood amidst defeat like a looter in a burned village, squinting his eyes as he strained himself towards a decision. This was the second year of existence for the NBA’s Ron Artest Provision, a controversial turning point of the 2011 lockout that allowed a winning playoff team to absorb one player off the defeated squad, taxed only with the burden of paying the acquired player.

The ruling caused a major uproar when it was instated – called a “kick to the groin of parity” by Cavs owner Dan Gilbert and a “poorly executed offseason post gimmick” by lesser figures. But it passed nonetheless, and any chance of it being overturned died a painful death after the buzz and excitement caused by Miami snatching Ray Allen from Boston after the 2012 Eastern Finals. Any publicity is good publicity, or so seemed to be the thought process over at the commissioner’s office, and Vogel was now entitled to get his as he saw fit.

“C…”

Carmelo Anthony looked up; he expected to get called all along.

“Copeland.”

Stunned silence.

J.R. Smith stifled a pout. Tyson Chandler’s ice pack dropped. Mike Woodson’s face, always the microcosm for his teams’ moods, looked like he forgot Copeland was even on the team, an expression that had become all too common throughout the actual series. Even James White looked insulted.

Nonetheless, Vogel and Copeland walked out the door. “I won’t let you down, coach”, said the former 29 year-old rookie. “Partners from here on out”, the coach answered, as the Miami Heat loomed in the background.

My Finals Memory: Schrödinger’s Courtney

It is June 7th, 2009, and Hedo Turkoglu is going to inbound the ball. Courtney Lee is at the top of the key. Dwight Howard is setting a screen for J.J. Redick as Rashard Lewis is running up the middle of the paint. Lee fakes right, as Kobe Bryant bites; a quick counter-dart to the left, and Lewis is suddenly there, setting a hard screen of his own. The opening is there. Hedo somewhat nonchalantly sends the ball flying, using both hands, something between an overhead soccer inbound and a Joakim Noah jump shot. The ball flies, flies, flies… Lee does the same… and…

The Magic were about to steal Game 2 on the road, one round after shocking another overwhelming favorite with another marquee superstar. Dwight Howard could have won his first title in 2009, preemptively killing both his desire to leave Orlando and any future discussions of how his mettle pertains to his ability to win. Hedo Turkoglu might have stayed. Stan Van Gundy could have joined the dwindled ranks of active NBA coaches with titles. Lee himself might have gone from surprising rookie to nationally recognized sports entity.

And on the other side… Kobe Bryant could have lost two consecutive Finals. His first two Shaqless Finals. Could he actually win it alone? This used to be a thing. Would Pau Gasol have been the scapegoat? Lamar Odom, too much candy? Andrew Bynum, not healthy enough to play major playoff minutes? Derek Fisher, Too Old Since 1996? Phil Jackson, no longer the right coach?

Reality has a certain definitiveness to it. Courtney Lee was traded 43 days after he jumped in the air; to deny this would be factually mistaken. Likewise very real were the two Laker titles that followed said jump, Hedo’s Raptor stint, the Vince Carter trade, whatever the hell is going on with the Lakers now, and Orlando’s current burning issue of who to pick 2nd in the upcoming draft.

But Courtney Lee soaring towards the rim unimpaired, springing straight from Stan Van Gundy’s out of bounds arsenal, was as close as possible to a quantum glitch in the generally stable progression of time. For a split second, multiple futures were within grasp; only by observing which way the ball bounces can we land back into singularity. Fake right, lose one of the greatest players ever on a screen, try and meet an orange orb in the air – all this while wearing a facemask! – and watch history fall into place.

Masai Ujiri Leaves Denver, Joins Toronto

Executive of the Year is usually one of the more easily dismissed members of the postseason prizes. Perhaps because the moves made by an executive, unlike those of a player or coach, are harder to judge within the context of a single season; perhaps because executives are simply less interesting than those who actually play out the games. Regardless, it is unlikely that you remember who won it more than a year or two back, and unlikely that you will ever need to know.

It is rare, however, for a newly minted Executive of the Year to leave his post, which is exactly what Masai Ujiri did on Friday, accepting a 5 year, $15 million offer to become general manager of the Toronto Raptors over re-upping his deal in Denver. And it’s a move that could lead to big changes for both franchises in potentially direction-altering offseasons.

The move is disconcerting for the Nuggets. Losing a young GM who has already swung some pretty successful deals and has drafted well is bad enough; losing the steward of your ship mid-voyage is another. While this Denver team did very well during the regular season, winning 57 games before the Warriors scorched them to the ground, they hardly seemed like a finished product, only mid-way through a process that traced back to Ujiri in every way.

There are only three players on Denver’s roster who are over 26 years of age. Two of them, Andre Iguodala (29) and Corey Brewer (27), are free agents. Losing any one of them would leave a huge hole at the wing, mostly defensively. Then again, Iguodala is an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career, two years after being picked to the all-star team, one year after playing for the US gold medal team. Brewer just played the best basketball of his career, playoffs notwithstanding. Both could demand hefty sums, which does not bode well for a franchise that just let their GM go rather than pay him.

The rest of the roster is stocked with young talent on mostly flexible deals. From JaVale McGee’s 3 years, $34 million and Wilson Chandler’s 3 years, $21 million, and through the rookie deals of Jordan Hamilton and Evan Fournier, the Nuggets have more valuable assets than playing time. Part of this is the aftermath of the Carmelo Anthony deal, but ever since that happened, the Nuggets have been committed to simultaneously running an ensemble cast and lurking in the shadows for opportunities. Be it flipping away Nene right after signing him to an extension, jumping into the Dwight Howard trade to acquire Iggy, or snatching Kenneth Faried as a 22nd pick, Ujiri had done well with such opportunities. A different GM might not be as comfortable tinkering with a cadre of toys, and in an effort to move towards a more conventional roster build, could hurt the value of said pieces.

Not that the new Denver GM must be a hard-headed, my-way-or-the-highway hire. It’s very possible that Denver promotes a member of the current staff to head honcho position, and that the organization as a whole stays the course. Ujiri himself was somewhat of an unknown when he got the GM position, after all. But it adds a level of uncertainty to a team that didn’t need it, coming off a stinging playoff upset, amid the aforementioned upcoming roster decisions and criticism of its long time coach.

As for the Raptors, it would be interesting to see how swiftly and aggressively, if at all, Ujiri reneges on some of Bryan Colangelo’s latest moves. Is Andrea Bargnani a dead man walking? (Presumably, as this was believed to be the case when Colangelo was still in office.) Will Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan still be considered cornerstones, despite games that somewhat contradict new-age analytical NBA beliefs attached to massive deals? Is Dwane Casey still in favor? What will be of Kyle Lowry, entering the final year of his contract, after the first season that saw his game regress since his Memphis days? The roster isn’t bereft of talent post-Colangelo, but it is expensive and flawed, and Ujiri will have his work cut out for him.

The good news are that Ujiri did well to cover for Denver’s flaws under a much tighter budget. The phrase “luxury tax”, a taboo in Denver, will be much easier to throw out as a necessary evil towards improving the team, and Ujiri’s creativity in working the trade lines could be even more impressive once those handcuffs are removed. Of course, management could work as a limiting factor as well, with a group that is believed to be locked-in on a playoff appearance at all costs – the type of endeavor that often sells out future success in the name of a year or two of first round exists.

If nothing else, Raptor fans can rest assured that they will no longer be making moves for the wrong reasons. Ujiri isn’t the type of GM to trade for a player in the name of “star power” or “a little credibility around the league”. He’s shown a knack for signing guys to long-term extensions and immediately swapping them for a better deal, a good omen for any concerns about DeRozan’s long term viability or what happens if a Lowry extension goes awry, and a sharp contrast from Colangelo, who for years held on to Bargnani for no apparent reason other than Bargs being “his guy”.

While it’s a shame the Nuggets felt the need to pinch pennies, a potentially exciting Raptors roster just got a man who could very well mold it into something tangible. This may or may not turn out to be one of those behind-the-scene moves that alter two different franchises, but at the very least, the prospects are intriguing.

Opportunity Thy Name Is Birdman

Chris Andersen got a shot. Despite the legal trouble that preceded this season, despite the lack of general interest, someone gave him a chance. He signed a minimum deal with a playoff team, working his way into a rotation, injecting athleticism, enthusiasm and flamboyance into a front line that needed him. His strong form carried into the playoffs, where he has made a ridiculous percentage of his carefully managed shots, blocked everything in sight, and made the Conference Finals behind a star small forward.

This is the story of Birdman and the 2012-13 Heat, a contender made even more contendery off an opportunistic waiver wire pickup. But if the story sounds strikingly familiar, it may be because we have seen it before.

Coming off a 2 year drug suspension and a poor, uneventful 5 game post-reinstatement stint with the Hornets, Andersen was something of scorched ground in the summer of 2008. He nonetheless returned to the team that kickstarted his NBA career as the Carmelo Anthony/Allen Iverson (soon-to-be-Chauncey-Billups) Nuggets signed him to a minimum deal, and excelled in his role off the bench for the best team the Nuggets have fielded in the George Karl era. The parallels to this year were striking – people couldn’t understand where this guy had come from, how the Nuggets are getting him for the minimum, how big his impact was on a huge run. He even knocked a Conference Finals game out of the park.

Of course, said performance was parlayed into a 5 year deal that was either too long, too expensive, or just too optimistic. As the makeup of the Nuggets changed for completely different reasons, JaVale McGee took away his shot blocking, hyperathletic, questionable-sanity big man spot. That and an odd, charge-less investigation eventually led to him being amnestied. He was then given a 10 day contract from the Heat during their annual big man tryout tour; they have lost 4 times in the 52 games since.

The natural reaction when a contender finds a cheap contributor lying around is one of inevitability, a feeble acknowledgement of the rich-getting-richer proposition that has no solution and fuels all aspects of life. The 2009 Lakers stumbling into Trevor Ariza in a Brian Cook salary dump, or the 2008 Celtics giving the P.J. Brown resuscitation project one last go, or whatever it was that came into Peja Stojakovic for the 2011 Mavs.

Andersen’s situation was different. He was not buried in the rough, nor off-the-radar. Rather, he was a known quantity who was not worth the trouble. 34 years old, an unknown legal situation, world-renowned oddball, he was largely absent from the Nuggets last season, seemingly by the organization’s own choice. He’s just ostentatious enough to create controversy, and just slightly too anonymous to compensate for it by winning a press conference. Not signing Chris Andersen was a pretty easy move to explain; at least, it was, until he got his sliver and burst through it. Again.

Game 1 against the Pacers was a perfect extension of that. Not even a Birdman Optimization Engine could come up with a better Chris Andersen game. 16 points on 7 of 7 shooting is pretty much inherently perfect, but the nature of those shots were well-fitting of a Chris Andersen stencil. A dunk off a LeBron drive, a layup trailing Wade in transition – much like in January, whenever Miami glanced his way, Birdman was conveniently available.

NBA stars are memorable by sheer existence, but role players tend to only be as memorable as they were prevalent on national television, whether via market or success. The Birdman moniker and the colorful skin would have entrenched him in our minds anyway, but there is still something comforting about the idea that the two seasons that gave us the most Playoff Chris Andersen were born from off-court situations that fit perfectly with his on court persona of opportunism.

That may be why his 2009-2012 seasons with Denver retroactively feel like down years, even though his numbers were pretty much the same as they were before the 5 year deal (though they did take a dip in 2009-2010). You can’t have Birdman on an actual contract getting actual chunks of your salary cap, just like you can’t have him anchor your defense or be an active part of an offensive play – sooner rather than later, you end up focusing on everything that he can’t do. The smarter, funner thing to do is to watch everything else that goes on and be pleasantly surprised when he produces on the minimum or flies in for a dunk, and grin as he leaves with a flap of the wings.

James Harden Is Gone, Deal With It

It has become a common refrain revolving around a suddenly disappointing Oklahoma City playoff run, something of a go-to move once the head-shaking and the Perk-wringing ceases:

“Poor Kevin Durant had to do everything without Russell Westbrook and James Harden”.

At its very core, the statement is factually accurate. The load thrust upon Durant during this postseason was monstrous, and eventually led to his downfall at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies. But it is also partially borne out of a sentiment that is 6 months out of date. Yes, Westbrook’s absence has been a humongous blow to the Thunder’s title chances, as injuries to top 10 players worldwide are wont to do. But the absence of Harden hurts the Thunder just as much as the absence of prime Hakeem Olajuwon hurts the Thunder – both of them would help, both of them wear Rockets jerseys instead, and we should move on.

Criticism of the Harden trade is hardly new. It has been a prominent thread upon the NBA discussion spool since Sam Presti and Daryl Morey shocked NBA observers three days before the start of the regular season, will likely remain such until Kevin Durant raises Oklahoma City’s inaugural NBA championship, and even then, may return if Houston matches with a Larry O’Brien of their own. All-world contributors rarely get traded by contenders; whether Presti knew that Harden is such a player or not, willingly declining to retain his services for the following decade is a historical outlier. Morey, for his part, gambled on Harden being this sort of player, and is now watching his creation pay off in the form of long-term relevance.

My issue with the Harden talk, however, stems from what is either a conceptual misunderstanding or wilful ignorance of what the trade was supposed to accomplish.

I don’t think there is a single soul who thinks this team wouldn’t have been better had The Bearded One been there to come off the bench instead of Kevin Martin (who, to be fair, had a decent if inconsistent playoff run). This includes Sam Presti. Trading Harden wasn’t done with this season in mind – otherwise, Presti wouldn’t have gone for a trade that includes only one rotation player in Martin and three long-term prospects in Jeremy Lamb and two future first round picks. Rather, the idea behind the Harden trade was a wager that the Durant-Westbrook-Ibaka core was enough to contend long-term to allow a Harden sacrifice of sorts in the name of financial and roster flexibility.

Was that idea misguided? Common logic dictates that once a title is within your grasp, an immediate full-on pursuit is the only reasonable plan. The NBA becomes volatile once timelines are stretched to multiple years, with multiple future dynasties having dissolved before they’ve even managed their initial ascension over the course history. Within said prism, Presti’s decision is a too-cute attempt to juggle both immediate and future fruit.

That said, Oklahoma City’s regular season performance indicates that this current core, even Harden-less, is indeed title-caliber. The Thunder blew the league away in average margin of victory, which has a strong correlation with playoff success, and matched their typically potent offense with their first top 5 defensive outfit of the Kevin Durant era. By all accounts, this team was a major Miami-shaped hurdle away from the title, and that hurdle was possible, if not probable, for a clearing.

If this seems like a long-winded attempt to make the story about the Westbrook injury, well, it is. Russ is just too big a variable to presciently dissect any other part of this current’s team makeup. While the stagnant offense and the Scott Brooks question (and, as a byproduct, the Kendrick Perkins/Derek Fisher questions) are concerns, confidently stating that they would or would not ultimately be the downfall of this squad with Westbrook’s meniscus remaining intact are but speculation. As is the baseless claim that had the team both kept Harden and seen the same Westbrook injury (though, without Harden, the Rockets never make the playoffs and Patrick Beverley can’t run into Russ, but then again, without Harden maybe the Rockets never sign Beverley in the first place and instead he signs with the Utah Jazz who would have surely been the 8th seed with the Rockets out of the picture, except, there was no Harden trade, right, so I bet the Mavericks would have traded for Kevin Martin instead, and they really needed more scoring, so with Martin I bet they make the 8th seed and they don’t have Beverley and oh no I’ve gone cross-eyed).

Moving Harden did not doom this title run. It lowered the odds in the name of the future. The question, then, is not whether Sam Presti’s long-term trade was, indeed, a long-term improvement. And while it’s not looking good, it’s impossible to say so early on. Yes, Jeremy Lamb did not impress in his rookie season… but the point guard who just sunk the Thunder, Mike Conley, was a bust three years in. Yes, Harden is a franchise player any way you try to analyze his game, but those touches and that stature were unavailable in Oklahoma City, and it’s impossible know how he would have developed with those restrictions. Yes, the pick OKC will get from Toronto will probably be in the lower teams of a terrible draft… but good players emerge from such spots every now and then, much like Serge Ibaka (24th, 2008) or Reggie Jackson (24th, 2011) have for these exact same Thunder. And with the exception of one Cole Aldrich, Presti’s drafting acumen has been proven almost every time he’s stepped to the plate.

I personally don’t think it was a good move – Harden is too good, and that team was too special, with three young stars growing and bursting upon the stage together – but I also don’t know how the future pans out. Presti has somehow backed himself from being a leaguewide golden boy to having somewhat of a burden of proof, but he’s done an excellent job before, and will probably make good moves again. Pointing to the Harden trade as the move that dismantled the team of the 2010s when the Thunder have neither seized hold of the decade nor lost their grip on it is premature.

The Spurs Keep Losing/Waiving Bodies

With the start of the playoffs but a week away, the notoriously cautious Spurs have seen their would-be playoff roster go through quite a shake-up over a 12 hour span.

First it was announced that Boris Diaw will miss 3-4 weeks after having surgery to (deep breath) remove a cyst from his lumbar spine. Later, it was announced that the Spurs have requested waivers on mercurial swingman/rapper/entertainer Stephen Jackson, citing concerns that his “strong personality” (putting it lightly) would cause locker room tensions with him struggling to adapt to his diminished role.

Diaw was no longer starting for the team, as Year 3 of The Tiago Splitter Experience has finally seen a full-blown bloom. Popovich hesitated to play Splitter next to Tim Duncan nearly of all last season, with the twin towers combo seeing only 129 minutes. Popovich was clearly more comfortable spacing-wise with the non-shooting Splitter next to a 3 point threat in Matt Bonner – the two shared the court for 702 of Splitter’s 1121 minutes. Duncan, meanwhile, played next to whatever 4th big was in the rotation at the time – initially DeJuan Blair, eventually Diaw.

This season, such qualms seem to have been thrown out the window, with Splitter and Duncan having shared the court for 819 minutes. The Spurs have scorched opponents in those minutes, to the tune of 106 points per possession (right around where they are for the season), but even more impressively, they’ve held opponents to 92.7 – a number that would easily lead the league, and is a full 6 points better than their 3rd best mark. The Duncan-Splitter combo was easily this year’s greatest addition to a squad that somehow keeps improving even though you think their roster is maxed out, an unlocked super-weapon among an arsenal that was nearly complete but still slightly lacking.

Alongside the two, Diaw has settled in as the utility third big. His 38.5% mark from three isn’t as big a boost as it seems, as he rarely shoots, but his vision and passing are helpful cogs in the steamrolling machine that is the Spur offensive system. His loss is huge not because he played a crucial role, but because his 23ish minutes a night were dependable quantity. In replacing them, the Spurs will likely have to choose between two defensively inferior players with glaring offensive flaws in Blair (spacing) and Bonner (a slow release, high accuracy sharpshooter who has struggled to get the same looks in the playoffs over the past few seasons).

The third option is a tricky one, and opponent dependent – and that is playing small, with Kawhi Leonard as a nominal power forward. Such lineups could work against similarly small lineups that the Nuggets (Wilson Chandler at the 4), Thunder (Durant) or Clippers (whenever one of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan is sitting) like to run, although running them against the Grizzlies could be a dangerous endeavor.

The loss of Jackson, however, makes it hard to pull the blanket in that direction without leaving the back-part of the lineup in the cold. Without Jackson, the ideal players for such three-guard lineups would seem be Tony Parker, Danny Green and Manu Ginobili – with the premier two of those three dealing with lingering injury issues. Replacing any one of the three can go downhill in a hurry: Gary Neal was a regular feature in last year’s playoffs, but is a clear downgrade, and beyond him are unknown playoff quantities in Nando De Colo, Patty Mills or Cory Joseph.

All that said, cutting Jack strikes the mind harder than it strikes the hardwood. Much like last season in Milwaukee, or the year before that in Charlotte, Jackson’s play this year hardly matched his cult figure status. At 35, his athleticism has been gone for a few years, now, taking his shot creating abilities with it. He’s hitting 37% of his shots, and 27% of his threes. He has a single digit PER, a sub-48 true shooting percentage, and his assist rate just barely outperforms his turnover rate. Each and every one of these numbers has its flaws, but the full ensemble makes it hard to reach any other conclusion: Jackson is no longer a particularly useful basketball player.

Gregg Popovich (and, by extension, the entire Spurs organization) seems to agree. The drop in Jackson’s minutes hasn’t been dramatic, but it was there – Jack sat comfortably at 19.5 ticks per night, after 23.8 with the Spurs after last year’s trade deadline and 21.4 in last year’s playoffs, and was left out of San Antonio’s top 10 most used lineups. A stat like that should come with the appropriate asterisks – namely, that between injuries and Pop’s merry-go-round, the Spurs don’t exactly have “most used lineups” that go beyond their starters, and Jackson’s case is hurt by the games he sat out.

Nonetheless, much like any other playoff squad, the Spurs’ regular season rotation is much more lenient than its playoff equivalent. Certain players get counted on more, and others remain glued to the bench. Last season, Kawhi Leonard was a rookie, and it often showed defensively; this season, Pop’s trust in him is unwavering. Combine that with Jackson’s own decline, and it was easy to see how a playoff cut in minutes was in the cards. Jackson apparently disapproved of such changes, and was shown the door.

The issue here, as mentioned above, is that the Spurs don’t really have enough extra flesh to allow such voluntary cuts. The squad is deep on paper, but much of that depth is of the sort that the playoffs wash away. Blair, Bonner, Green in last year’s Thunder series – all are players who have seen huge declines in either minutes or production in past postseasons, and not even the most black-and-silver colored glasses could show a world that sees a late emergence from Aron Baynes. These Spurs’ playoffs will hinge on Parker and Ginobili’s health, but even assuming the best, San Antonio could conceivably find itself in a spot where they just don’t have enough bodies to work through the grind.

That’s why the Jackson cut was so surprising. It wasn’t his huge role, or the fallout between him and seemingly the only organization who accepted him. Rather, it was the willingness of an organization known for its emphasis on stability to voluntarily up its own degree of difficulty. With the team limping into the playoffs on questionable legs and records (6-6 in their past 12 games), and two of the West’s premier teams finding seemingly ironclad formulas to handle them in the past two postseasons, the alarm in the Alamo should be real.

Lineup data via NBA.com

The Most Kobe Bryant

All too often, sports discourse navigates its way to the concept of legacy. Nearly every playoffs, legacies are built up or torn down at each other’s expenses: LeBron James fixed his legacy last year, but not before Dirk Nowitzki temporarily destroyed it by cementing his own legacy that was forever tarnished by Dwyane Wade (whose legacy was aided by Shaq who also aided Kobe’s legacy until Kobe legacied his own legacy for himself) and Baron Davis (whose legacy should have been a different legacy if only he cared enough about his legacy to legacify it). Much like this paragraph, the discussion means well, but can hardly stay out of its own way as it eventually crumbles into a convoluted mess of phrases and names.

Despite all this, the concept of legacy has a very important place in sports discourse. The way the phrase is used isn’t misplaced – rather, it is premature. A legacy, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past.” It is impossible to receive said transmission when the ancestor is standing next to us. Legacy is dependent on time itself before it can take shape or form.

As such, discussions of legacy always strike me as overeager and impatient. Who are we to proclaim how Player X will be remembered in 20 years? How can we so boldly state that another decade of play from him and another decade of digestion from us will do nothing to change the opinions that were formed over the span of a two week playoff series? Where do we draw the line between friendly conjuncture, curious projections, and bone-headed stubbornness that the immediate shall sustain because the immediate is where we are most comfortable?

Against my better instincts, however, Kobe Bryant’s presumed torn Achilles turned my attention from the increasingly rare phenomenon of a fantastic April basketball game to thoughts of his legacy. In defense of my own hypocrisy, I do believe it is somewhat less presumptuous to hold these discussions as a player nears the end of his career, when we have historical perspective on most of his resume. Sure, there are final kinks to be sorted out, but a player’s crowning achievements don’t usually come near retirement. Even if they do, rarely do they change our perceptions of them. I’d offer the examples of Gary Payton and Jason Kidd, both hall of famers who only finally broke the title barrier at age 37, as proof.

Similarly, Kobe’s crowning achievements have, to the best of our knowledge, come and gone. Even if preseason hopes of a sixth title had borne fruit, the significance of that ring would have been more numerological, in the MJ-tying sense, than validating. We know Kobe Bryant is an all-time great, and we have seen him at his best; a final ascension of the Everest could not change that.

And yet, there has been something mythical to Bryant’s 17th season, something that, even if not directly transmitted to his ancestors, was magnified upon reception nonetheless. Because at some point in the past few years, Bryant had stopped being a basketball player and transformed into a character, the lead of a one-man autobiographic fiction.

His interviews had lost all sense of professionalism, as clichés and political correctness became profanity-laced outpour of self-confidence. In the 2011 playoffs, down 3-0 to the Mavericks, when Kobe implored us to “call me crazy, I still think we can win this,” or last week, when Kobe shrugged off a controversial no-call on a desperation Ricky Rubio heave by saying “We would have gone into overtime and won the game. It’s as simple as that.” Such quotes would have sent other players to the PR dungeons; when Kobe says them, we chuckle.

He had played through injuries in his finger, wrist, legs – a who’s who of body parts that most functioning humans would typically need to walk all the way to the bathroom, let alone play a sport for a living. In the Golden State game itself, Bryant had fallen badly twice before the Achilles tear, getting back up and staying in the game both times. Even after his injury, he still took the two ensuing free throws, leaving open the option of a return, and option that still, somehow, exists in the back of my brain, even as “6 to 9 months” decorates headers and flashes across tickers.

The twisting, contested 30 footers, the bold defiance of presumed chronological and physiological truths, the constant reminders by both him and those around him that his will is indomitable – they were at once both true and surreal. Bryant had taken human traits and stretched them to their limits. Not just in the sense that his physical accomplishments were cyborg-esque, but like a character in a skit who repeats his well-versed punchline often enough to entertain but just scarcely enough to sell us the illusion that what we’re watching is real. The effortless forays into double-digit assists when Steve Nash injured his hamstring, the 47 point game against Portland, even the two non-chalant threes to tie the game against the Warriors before he left for good – all of these toed the line between basketball genius and character actualization. This is Kobe Bryant, watch him do Kobe Bryant. Cue Laughtrack.

By the time it was decided, by either Kobe or Mike D’Antoni, that Bryant would hereby play all 48 minutes of every single game, it was no longer clear to me that Bryant’s legacy is, indeed, cemented. His truly magnificent prime was enough to decree that this would not be the best basketball Bryant we’ve seen, regardless of accomplishments, but truly magnificent primes aren’t necessarily what we remember. Kobe Bryant had become so much of a Kobe Bryant that sheer personality had become too tall to be overshadowed by such petty things as 5 titles and 30,000 points.

In the “rank your best players of all-time” game, Bryant will no longer move up. His team has objectively and subjectively failed this season, in which he has a part by default. But in the fickle game of human memory, a 34 year old pounding his way through the falling debris and the ensuing rubble can register louder than a 22 year old dominating in tandem with a behemoth, or a 28 year old scoring at will and making faces at Smush Parker, or a 31 year old raising his arms to the sky. This Kobe Bryant may not have been the best Kobe Bryant, but he was the most Kobe Bryant.

Danny Granger’s Lost Season Breeds An Uncertain Future

In the summer of 2008, three young small forwards signed hefty long-term contracts with their incumbent teams.

Restricted free agent Luol Deng got 6 years and $72 million from the Bulls, overcoming both contentious negotiations and an injury plagued 2007-08 campaign in which the team inexplicably slipped from an up-and-coming juggernaut to a 33-49 mess.

Fellow 2004 draft mate and RFA Andre Iguodala got 6 years and $80 million from the Philadelphia 76ers, who had just completed the free agent snatching of Elton Brand and were hoping to unleash a monster two-man tandem on an unsuspecting conference.

Meanwhile, Danny Granger, drafted a year later than those two, got a 5 year, $60 million extension from the Indiana Pacers right before the October 31st deadline, spared the need to muck through the waters of restricted free agency and cemented as the team’s post-Jermaine O’Neal cornerstone.

Over the following seasons, these three players (and some might add Josh Smith, another 2008 RFA) became something of a symbol of the perils of paying the supporting actor like the lead. Deng played just 49 games in 2008-09, as the Bulls turned their attention to Derrick Rose; Brand broke down instantly, leaving Iguodala to shoulder too heavy a load and take too large a portion of the blame; and Granger’s Pacers wallowed in mediocrity, firmly entrenched as the best Eastern team outside the playoff picture, even as Granger made his only all-star team in 2008-09.

A few years later, the narrative has flipped for two of the three. Deng, health re-discovered, had the burden of a cornerstone lifted, fitting in perfectly as an indestructible workhorse that does everything Tom Thibodeau asks him to. Iguodala lead the Sixers to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since that other AI, and was then shipped out to Denver, where an ensemble cast magnifies his strengths and covers for his weaknesses. If you were to press enough, you would still hear admissions that they are overpaid, but it no longer defined them.

Granger, done for the season all of 5 games in, is a trickier story. Even last season, when he was still leading his team in scoring, he was easy to criticize for his declining percentages and all-around contributions. He did not have the luxury Deng had, of a well-defined role in the shadow of a superstar, and he is not nearly the defender Iguodala is, which often helps us excuse players on account of showing effort. Both Deng and Iguodala made the all-star team last year, for the first time in their careers; Granger was left on the outside looking in despite posting the best offensive numbers of the three and his team performing well, as Roy Hibbert took the token Pacer spot.

Now, as the Pacers battle for second place in the conference without him, Granger has become downright dismissed. In reality, the Pacers improving without Granger is a congruence of many orthogonal factors. In no particular order, Paul George’s emergence as an all-star caliber player, Lance Stephenson’s emergence as an NBA caliber player, David West being another year removed from surgery, George Hill being given the keys to the point guard position full-time, Roy Hibbert’s defensive improvement, and the overall ineptitude of the East have all played tremendous roles in the Pacers flying high.

Additionally, it should be noted that while the Pacers may be winning more than they did last season, they are doing so by jumping from the league’s 10th best defense to its best, bar none. Offensively, Indiana has slipped from the league’s 9th best offense at 103.5 points per 100 possessions last season, to rank 19th at 101.7 this season. While the offense has improved as the season has progressed and Hibbert’s post game has come back from the dead, there’s a whole lot of no-Danny-Granger in those offensive numbers.

Granger was the team’s primary offensive creator last year, and those 19 points on 15 shots went a long way for a team that struggled to score without him. But even if his shot attempts can be given to other players, the spacing he creates is sorely missing without him. Those 08-09 percentages can be long gone, but opposing defenses note Granger is a constant scoring threat, and tilt accordingly. No matter how good Lance Stephenson has been this season, he doesn’t get that same attention. It’s no coincidence that Indiana scored 8.3 points per 100 possessions more with him on the court last season, or that the team’s offensive rating gradually improved throughout last season in accordance with Granger’s own scoring numbers.

But the main point here isn’t the Pacers – they’ll be fine, with an exciting young quasi-star in George, good pieces around him, and a lot of flexibility going forward. The main point here is Granger, and a career that is suddenly careening towards the unknown. While constantly reminding that we know nothing of anything, it’s hard to feel optimistic about the future. Knees are fickle beings, and Granger, at 29, is somehow already 4 years removed from his best year, on a roster that could use him but is also doing well without him.

It’s unfair, to say the least. Granger arrived just as the O’Neal-Artest dynasty that never was fizzled away. He persevered as the franchise bid its sweet time, providing as convincing a facsimile of a franchise player as he could as trade rumors danced around him. In a perfect world, he too would complete the transformation Iguodala and Deng have gone through, hitting his prime just as this new core rises, settling in as a player who, depending on the given night, ranges from first to fourth option on a semi-contender. Instead, with one more season on that contract extension, there are only questions.

Statistical support for this piece from NBA.com.