The Zen Master Phil Jackson has taken over, brought in some fresh new faces and retained the most important old one in Carmelo Anthony. For a city yearning for a championship contender, there’s still only a promise that one is on the way, but the wait could be coming to an end sooner than later.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2014-15 New York Knicks:
Five Guys Think
If they’re smart, Knicks fans will sort of glaze past this upcoming season and set their sights on the summer of 2015, mostly because that’s when the team will clear away their cache of bad contracts and hit the free agency market to find pieces to go around Carmelo Anthony. Phil Jackson has done some interesting things at the onset of his new career as president of basketball operations for the Knickerbockers, but even he knows that this upcoming season has the potential to be just as big of a train wreck as last year’s campaign. Granted, new head coach Derek Fisher will inject some life (and the triangle offense) into the team, and there were some nice moves over the summer, like trading Tyson Chandler for Jose Calderon and drafting Cleanthony Early, but this team isn’t ready to compete for a championship just yet. If Carmelo wanted immediate results, he’d have been better off signing in Chicago, because he’s very likely not getting them in New York in 2014.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– Joel Brigham
The New York Knicks appeared to be a team on the rise in 2013 but embarrassingly came crashing back down to earth, with a thud, during the 2013-14 campaign. Newly crowned president of basketball operations Phil Jackson started the housecleaning process at the end of the season, shipping starters Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler to the Dallas Mavericks for Jose Calderon. Jackson then hired freshly retired Derek Fisher to serve as the team’s head coach for his rebuilding project. Lastly, Jackson was able to convince All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony to re-sign with the organization after a whirlwind free agency process. The Knicks don’t have the hype they did this time last year heading into training camp, but expect the team to be better on the court.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– Lang Greene
Re-signing Carmelo Anthony was an important move for the Knicks because it’s very hard to recruit other stars without that first marquee piece in place. Even if New York can’t turn into a contender this year, Phil Jackson and Anthony will be able to recruit some quality free agents next summer and will have significant cap space to work with. It’ll be interesting to see how Derek Fisher makes the jump from playing to coaching. The fact that he has a close relationship with Jackson and they’ll be on the same page is good for the organization. This will be an interesting year for the Knicks, but I’m really curious to see what they can do next offseason when Jackson will be able to work his magic with cap space.
2nd Place – Atlantic Division
– Alex Kennedy
With Derek Fisher taking over in New York City, he and Phil Jackson have invested heavily in Carmelo Anthony and the vision that he can be effective in a triangle offense. And while that is a safe bet, what the Knicks’ fortunes may really hinge on is how effective the duo of Samuel Dalembert and Jason Smith will be manning the pivot on the defensive end. With the departed Tyson Chandler being sent back to Dallas in return for a package featuring Jose Calderon, Shane Larkin and the draft pick that became Cleanthony Early, the Knicks have certainly upgraded their talent base. With Travis Outlaw, they suddenly have nice depth at the small forward and power forward spots, but whether Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani can give the Knicks meaningful minutes up front will go a long way toward determining how their season plays out. Most importantly, though, is J.R. Smith. Although we are not certain as to how Fisher will use Smith, we can safely assume that Smith will still be counted on to be the Robin to Anthony’s Batman, and the Knicks need Smith to revert to his 2012-13 form. If that happens, they should have a solid opportunity to return to the playoffs after a brief, one-year hiatus. The unfortunate injury to Paul George and the Indiana Pacers’ loss of Lance Stephenson only bodes positively for the Knicks. With Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway, Jr., there may be a bit of a shooting guard controversy brewing, and whether or not the Knicks attempt to package one of the youngsters with the expiring contract of Stoudemire or Bargnani is a storyline that is worth keeping an eye on. It is difficult to predict exactly what will become of the Knicks this season, especially with the improvements other teams have made in the conference. Still, the Knicks appear to have improved while the Pacers and Brooklyn Nets have probably regressed. For Anthony’s team, a return to the playoffs is likely, and challenging the Toronto Raptors for the Atlantic Division crown is not completely out of the question if things break right in Gotham. All in all, the offseason for the Knicks was one marked by pushing the reset button in many ways, but picking against them to not make the playoffs for a second consecutive year seems unwise.
2nd Place – Atlantic Division
– Moke Hamilton
As much as Phil Jackson tried to make it seem like the Knicks were going to be just fine if Carmelo Anthony left in free agency, make no mistake about it: They would have been set back years by his departure. The hardest part of the rebuilding process is getting an upper-echelon star that can carry the load like he can on most nights. Plus, his presence will serve as one of their main selling points as they go after additional stars next offseason. The fact that the team is no longer dealing with the distraction of whether Anthony will be back and who will be their coach long-term should help them be better than last year. If Jackson can find a way to turn some of the $30+ million in expiring contracts they have on the books into a piece of significance, a quick return to the playoffs is definitely a possibility for the Knicks. As currently constructed, they’re far from a contender, but the core of Jackson, Anthony and Derek Fisher at head coach provides stability and hope for the near future that the team hasn’t had in quite a while.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– Yannis Koutroupis
Top Of The List
Top Offensive Player: Not merely the best offensive player on the Knicks, Carmelo Anthony is arguably the best offensive player on the planet. The all-around individual numbers ‘Melo posted last season were incredibly impressive. Anthony became the first player in over a decade to average at least 27 points, eight rebounds and three assists per game throughout a full NBA season. He was also remarkably efficient on the offensive end of the floor. In fact, he became just the fourth player in NBA history to average over 27 points a night while shooting above 45 percent from the floor, 40 percent from the field and 82 percent from the free-throw stripe. The other three members of that incredibly exclusive club are Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant.
Top Defensive Player: For each of the past three seasons in NYC, former Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler was the obvious choice here. However, with Chandler dealt to Dallas in the Jose Caldron deal, the Knicks desperately need someone to step up. Unfortunately, the roster has far more offensive-minded scorers, than players that focus on defense. New York’s best perimeter defender is Iman Shumpert. Early in his career, Shump appeared to have “All-NBA Defense” upside. However, he struggled a bit on the defensive end last season, as he worked his way back from an ACL injury. The Knicks are hoping Shumpert can raise his game in 2013-14. As far as rim protection is concerned, Samuel Dalembert (acquired along with Calderon) will likely be penciled in as the team’s starting center. Dalembert was a solid shot-blocker as younger player in Philadelphia, but is no longer the same defensive presence he once was.
Top Playmaker: In the first major move during his tenure as Knicks president of basketball operations, Phil Jackson addressed a glaring need by dramatically improving the team’s point guard play via a trade for Jose Calderon. Despite creeping toward his mid-30s, Calderon is still a well above-average NBA playmaker. He possesses an impressively high basketball IQ and is a solid facilitator. He started 81 games for the Mavs last season, dishing out 4.7 assists and scoring 11.4 points per contest. Calderon has long been, and remains, one of the NBA’s elite marksmen. His calling card is his efficiency. In 2012-13, he led the NBA in three-point accuracy, shooting a scorching 46.1 percent from behind the arc (which makes him ideally suited for the triangle offense that Jackson and Derek Fisher will run). He also hit 90 percent of his free-throw attempts. This is not an anomaly for Calderon. In fact, he is one of just two active NBA players shooting over 47 percent from the floor, 87 percent from the charity stripe and 41 percent from behind the three-point arc for their career.
Top Clutch Player: Throughout his career, Carmelo Anthony had been one of the NBA’s better clutch scorers. And during his first couple of seasons as a Knick, Anthony knocked down a number of game-winners. However, ‘Melo was remarkably ineffective in big spots last season. He was 0-for-8 on shots with 10 seconds or less in the fourth quarter or overtime when trailing by one possession or tied in 2013-14. It was commonly believed that Anthony was worn down by the massive minutes he was forced to play, and had little left in his legs in fourth quarters. In addition, many pundits believed that former head coach Mike Woodson’s lack of offensive imagination resulted in ‘Melo too often being isolated on the wing, resulting in difficult, contested jumpers. The hope is that fewer minutes and more creative offensive sets will allow Anthony to regain his reputation as one of the NBA’s best closers.
The Unheralded Player: Many Knicks fans were dubious of Tim Hardaway Jr. when New York selected him with the 24th overall pick in the 2013 draft. However, Hardaway proved his doubters wrong, exceeding expectations in a major way. He finished the year averaging 10.2 points in just 23 minutes per game. After the season, he was named to the NBA All-Rookie First Team. Hardaway is quickly establishing himself as one of the best young gunners in the league. In fact, he became just the second player this decade, and just the 15th player in NBA history, to knock down at least 130 three-pointers in their first professional season.
Best New Addition: Technically, Phil Jackson was hired near the end of last season; however, we’ll label the tag-team of new head coach Derek Fisher and his boss, Phil Jackson, as the best new addition to the Knicks franchise. The combo of Jackson and Fisher hope to usher in a much-needed culture change within the organization. Besides the obvious adjustments, such as revamping the offense via the installation of the triangle, Jackson and Fisher will be steadfastly determined to instill an overriding philosophy. This culture change will manifest itself in myriad ways, as both men believe embracing this ethos is essential to creating a healthy and successful environment.
– Tommy Beer
Who We Like
1. Carmelo Anthony: Due to the fact the Knicks are capped out this season, Phil Jackson won’t be able to upgrade the roster and provide Anthony with an improved supporting cast until next year. As a result, Carmelo will have to shoulder an incredibly heavy load once again. If he can come close to matching the incredible stats he posted in 2013-14, that would be considered a great success. However, he will ultimately be judged by just one number: the Knicks win total.
2. Amar’e Stoudemire: Stoudemire beat the odds and managed to stay healthy for most of last season. And when Amar’e was on the floor, he was impressively effective. He appeared in 65 games in 2013-14, and averaged 19 points per-36 minutes, while shooting 55.7 percent from the floor. He is also one of the NBA’s hardest workers and a well-respected leader in the locker room. Next season could very well be Stoudemire’s final season as a Knick.
3. Cleanthony Early: The general sense around the league after the draft was that the Knicks have secured themselves a solid player with the 34th overall pick. Early is a mature 23-year-old small forward who should be able to contribute right away. He fell into Phil Jackson’s lap in the second round, and many within the Knicks organization have high hopes for the youngster, who starred for Wichita State University. He played well in the Las Vegas Summer League, averaging 11.5 points on 46 percent shooting from the field and 4.8 rebounds per game. Ideally, Early will be able to provide solid minutes off the bench behind Anthony (who led the NBA in minutes last season and needs to play far less in 2014-15).
4. Jason Smith: The Knicks used their taxpayer mid-level exception to sign seven-footer Jason Smith back in July. If he can stay healthy (he’s missed 82 games over the last two seasons), he certainly has the ability to contribute. He possesses intriguing upside for a big man. In 2011-12, he averaged 10 points and five boards a night off the bench for New Orleans. However, despite measuring in at 7’0, Smith is not a bruiser or rim protector. He is more of an athletic ‘stretch four’ that is content to float around the perimeter. Consider this: Last season, only 17 person of Smith’s total FG attempts were the result of layups or dunk attempts at/around the rim (within three feet of the hoop); in contrast, 61.3 percent of his FG attempts came on jumpers from between 16-to-20 feet away from the basket (data courtesy of basketballreference.com). For his career (199 games), Smith is averaging just 3.5 rebounds and 0.7 blocks. Smith’s per-36 minutes averages (7.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks) aren’t all that encouraging either. New York will need Smith to stay healthy and attack in 2013-14.
– Tommy Beer
The Knicks should have no problem putting up plenty of points. New York ranked 11th in the NBA in offensive efficiency in 2013-14, scoring an average of 105.4 points per 100 possessions. They should be even more effective and efficient in 2014-15. Re-signing Carmelo Anthony for a near-max contract may come back to bite the Knicks on the back end of the deal, but it ensures one the NBA’s best scorers will wear orange and blue for the foreseeable future. Moreover, the Knicks were well above-average offensively last year in spite of the massive struggles of Raymond Felton, one of the league’s least effective starting point guards. As noted above, Jose Calderon is a massive upgrade in that department. And Shane Larkin should be able to provide a spark off the bench as well. Andrea Bargnani is coming off a disappointing and injury-plagued campaign. If he can bounce back, the Knicks’ offense will further benefit from his offensive skill set (Bargnani’s career scoring average stands at 15 ppg). The Knicks have plenty of talented scorers, and the implantation of the triangle offense should help increase efficiency once the team becomes comfortable and works out the kinks.
– Tommy Beer
Scoring won’t be an issue for the Knicks, but stopping other teams from scoring almost certainly will. New York ranked 24th overall in defensive efficiency last season. And they finished 27 out of 30 teams in total rebounds collected. And, in order to upgrade at point guard, New York had to sacrifice their best defensive player and top rebounder in Tyson Chandler. Chandler struggled last season recovering from a multitude of injuries, but his energy, defense and rebounding will undoubtedly be missed. He led the Knicks in rebounding in each of his three years in New York and last season, despite playing in just 55 regular season games, he led the Knicks in blocks (63). Even more alarming, Andrea Bargnani was second on the team in swats, despite appearing in just 42 games. As it currently stands, the Knicks may actually need to rely on Cole Aldrich to play meaningful minutes if they want to insert a defensive-minded big body into the lineup. Jackson and Fisher may also believe/hope that the system and schemes they implement may be able to hide some of the individual defensive deficiencies of some players. Right now, based on how the roster is currently constructed, it seems highly unlikely the Knicks will be even average defensively.
– Tommy Beer
The Salary Cap
Barring trade, the Knicks roster appears set at 15 players, with 14 fully guaranteed, and almost half of Samuel Dalembert’s $4.1 million deal locked in. New York should have spending power next summer, with Amar’e Stoudemire’s $23.4 million and Andrea Bargnani’s $11.5 million coming off the team’s books. In the meantime, the Knicks are deep into the luxury tax with an early estimate of $27.2 million in penalties. The team used its primary spending tool, the Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception, on Jason Smith, limited since to minimum contracts. New York does have a $3.6 million traded player exception for Raymond Felton that won’t expire until June 25, 2015. As a team over the tax threshold, the Knicks do not have access to the $2.1 million Bi-Annual Exception.
– Eric Pincus
Phil Jackson has talked about adding more energy and athleticism to the team, but those qualities remain sorely lacking among the primary players. A key dynamic in this Knicks season will be what type of players are out there. There is a very interesting dichotomy between older, more famous players like Amar’e Stoudemire, Andrea Bargnani and Samuel Dalembert on one hand, and Quincy Acy, Cleanthony Early and Cole Aldrich on the other. With Carmelo Anthony and Jose Calderon likely fixtures in the starting lineup, the Knicks could well benefit from mixing in younger players and hoping to establish a bit more of a defensive identity. Whether Coach Fisher stays with the vets or goes younger in the frontcourt, and whether his choice is the correct one, may determine the Knicks’ fortunes this season.
The Knicks’ offense emerges as one of the league’s best. Anthony repeats last year’s performance, and Stoudemire proves able to play 30 minutes a night. Bargnani rediscovers his outside touch, and the ‘Bockers simply outscore enough teams to sneak into the lower end of the East bracket. Aldrich emerges to provide some modicum of rim-protection, while Early and Acy allow New York to get younger and more athletic. The squad avoids the bottom five in defense.
Anthony starts to decline, as would naturally be expected. Dalembert, Bargnani, Calderon, Stoudemire, Anthony and Tim Hardaway Jr. are all as bad as you might expect on defense, and the squad finishes last on that end. Calderon wears down, Hardaway regresses from a solid-shooting rookie campaign, and Iman Shumpert is no better than replacement level on offense. At least the Knicks have their 2015 draft pick.
– Nate Duncan
The Burning Question
Will their 2014-15 season win total be closer to 54 or 37?
The New York Knicks won 54 games in 2012-13, capturing the Atlantic Division title and advancing to the second round of the playoffs. Yet, the same Knicks won just 37 games last season, missing the playoffs completely in a weak Eastern Conference. As detailed above, the Knicks have plenty of offensive firepower. They are returning most of their same core of players, so familiarity and continuity should not be an issue. However, will the team be able to pick up the triangle offense quickly and seamlessly? More importantly, will they be able to defend well enough to compete for a playoff spot. The East is wide open; New York should be squarely in the mix with even slight improvements.
– Tommy Beer
NBA Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise
The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.
He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.
He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.
Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.
The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.
“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.
“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”
The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.
So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.
As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.
In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.
But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.
So is Porzingis.
Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.
In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.
Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.
And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.
“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.
“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”
Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.
Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.
The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.
So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.
Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.
If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.
So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.
Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.
To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.
When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.
He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.
And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.
With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word.
It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.
For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.
In this town, that’s more than half the battle.
Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal
The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.
It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.
Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.
There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.
Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.
Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.
That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.
At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.
It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.
One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.
NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind
Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.
When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.
“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.
Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.
That didn’t last long.
“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”
With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.
As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.
After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.
In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.
“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”
Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.
“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”
Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.
“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”
After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.
Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.
“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”
All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.
“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”