Atlanta Hawks small forward DeAndre Bembry is arguably one of the most NBA-ready players from this year’s draft class.
Not only is the 22-year-old more experienced than many of his fellow rookies, he’s also mature beyond his years and has the kind of basketball IQ rarely seen in a first-year player. Because of his versatility and ability to produce on both ends of the court, it’s possible that he could crack Mike Budenholzer’s rotation sooner than later in Atlanta.
Bembry was the No. 21 overall pick in the draft, and he likely would’ve gone higher had he been a bit younger. During the draft process, teams often fall in love with a player’s potential rather than their college production, which tends to hurt older prospects like Bembry. But after doing very well in pre-draft workouts and impressing NBA decision-makers in face-to-face meetings, Bembry solidified himself as a mid-first-round pick and is now determined to make every team that passed on him pay.
He seems to have found a perfect situation in Atlanta since the team is in win-now mode. After adding Dwight Howard in free agency, the Hawks are hoping to contend in the Eastern Conference, which is relatively wide open after the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Budenholzer and his staff want contributors, not projects, so it’s no coincidence that both of the team’s first-round selections (Taurean Prince and Bembry) are 22-year-olds who are ready to play now rather than needing years of development before making their mark.
Bembry may have flown under the radar a bit while at Saint Joseph’s, but there’s no question that he was one of the most productive players in the nation. As a sophomore, he led the Hawks in scoring (17.7), rebounds (7.7), assists (3.6) and steals (1.9). Last year, as a junior, he averaged 17.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.4 steals and .8 blocks while shooting 47.9 percent from the field. Bembry finished the campaign with an offensive rating of 113.1 and a defensive rating of 97.7. He played the third-most minutes of any player in the nation (1,341), showing just how important he was to the Hawks.
He was named the 2016 Atlantic 10 Men’s Basketball Player of the Year for his efforts, while also earning a spot on the All-Atlantic 10 First-Team (for the second straight year) and the conference’s All-Defensive Team.
Perhaps the best example of Bembry making his presence felt all over the court when his team needed it most was this past NCAA Tournament. In Saint Joseph’s first-round win over Cincinnati, Bembry filled the stat sheet to the tune of 23 points, six rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks (while shooting 57.2 percent from the field and 60 percent from three-point range). In the Round of 32 against Oregon, Bembry had 16 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and two steals. Unfortunately for the Hawks, Bembry received little help and Oregon managed to win the close game by seven points.
Now, Bembry is hoping to use his well-rounded game to continue filling the stat sheet at the pro level. The Hawks won 48 games last season (fourth-best in the East) and are looking to make a deep postseason run after advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals two years ago. Atlanta has made the playoffs in nine straight seasons and all signs point to that streak continuing.
Basketball Insiders caught up with Bembry to discuss his transition to the NBA, what he has seen from his Hawks teammates in offseason workouts, his lofty Rookie of the Year goal, how he plans to honor his late brother, Adrian, and much more.
Alex Kennedy: You’ve been described as one of the most NBA-ready players in this draft class. Do you think you can make an impact right away in Atlanta and what can you provide the Hawks this season?
DeAndre Bembry: “I definitely feel like I can impact the game right away. I feel like it just depends on what the coaches need me to do in my rookie year. Whether it’s me needing to score or if it’s just needing me out there to guard the best player on the floor, I’m open to it. I’m a very versatile player; I can play with the ball in my hands and can play off the ball if that’s what Coach Bud wants. I can pretty much guard the one, two and three, so I can affect the game in many different areas. It just depends what the team needs me to do or what my coaches want me to do.”
Kennedy: You mentioned being able to play three positions and defend three different positions. You ranked 17th in the nation in Defensive Win Shares last season. How much does your versatility help you and, in today’s NBA where we see position-less basketball more and more, how important is that?
Bembry: “Rather than just being a one-dimensional player, Coach can throw me out there to do multiple things. Rather than just being a defensive player or just being able to throw up shots, I can always find a way to make an impact since I play hard on both ends. The NBA is definitely moving toward more versatile players. These days, the four will bring the ball up the court sometimes, like Draymond Green does. Even the fives are trying to dribble more than they used to. Being versatile can definitely help a player get more minutes, and I feel like that will help me get out there more.”
Kennedy: I love this fit in Atlanta for you. You’re unselfish, you defend, you like to facilitate for your teammates and you’re mature. A lot of times during the draft process, people focus on what number you get selected, but the specific situation and fit is probably more important. How great of a fit is this for you?
Bembry: “It’s a great fit. Being a team player is one of the things Coach Bud is really high on. Also, being able to share the ball, making the right play at the right time and being able to read and react much faster than others. It’s definitely a good fit for me because those are some of the things that I do very well. When I played in the Summer League, there wasn’t one play we drew up; it was just all read and react and that’s one thing I’m pretty much use to doing, making the right play at the right time and finding open teammates.”
Kennedy: What kind of interactions have you had with your teammates so far? Have you been working out with guys and getting the chance to pick their brains yet?
Bembry: “Yeah, definitely. I’ve been on the court with them and working out with them a lot. I’ve been working out with Dwight [Howard] a lot. [Paul] Millsap has been around. [Thabo] Sefolosha has been around. Pretty much everyone who’s been here for the summer, we’ve all been working out and just getting used to each other. The same goes for the coaches as well; I’ve just been trying to learn things from the coaches because they’ve been around the NBA for years. I’m just trying to soak in everything.”
Kennedy: The addition of Dwight Howard was huge for you guys. His move home made headlines and now people are curious to see how he’ll produce. What have you seen from Dwight in your workouts and, at this point in his career, what kind of impact can he have on both ends of the floor?
Bembry: “He can still obviously dominate the game if, mentally, he gets his mind right and if, physically, he’s healthy. From what I’ve been seeing though, Dwight has been killing it. He’s been shooting a lot of mid-range shots and they’re going in. He’s making them more consistently. I mean, everyone knows what Dwight can do though; we just need him when the season starts. He has to just block everything out and just do what he normally does. I feel like this year will definitely be a year where he does great things. He could be the top guy here, and I feel like that’s something he needed. He’s been trying to lead the team, and just doing little small things talking to me and Taurean [Prince], the two rookies. Even if it’s the older guys, he’ll talk to them as well. He’s definitely trying and we’re really looking forward to see what he’ll do for us.”
Kennedy: You and Taurean Prince have quite a bit in common in addition to being the two incoming rookies. You’re both 22 years old who are versatile swingmen who can make an impact on both ends of the court. How have you guys gotten along so far?
Bembry: “Well, Taurean and I have a similar background as far as how we got here. We were both underrated – not in the top 100. I met him at the Nike Skills Academy last summer and after that, we always had this respect for each other because whenever we went out there, we were just dogs and played hard against each other. Then, entering the NBA draft, we always matched up with each other somehow [in pre-draft workouts]. We were just going against each other a lot and just respecting each other’s game, so I feel like we got a feel for each other. He was cool off the court as well, so we developed somewhat of a bond. It was just funny how we ended up getting drafted together and ended up staying in the same condo and stuff like that. So yeah, Taurean and I are very close. We’re too close (laughs).”
Kennedy: That’s awesome. When you have another rookie who is there with you every step of the way and can relate to what you’re going through, how much easier does that make this transition?
Bembry: “I mean, it definitely helps to have somebody out there that you’re cool with, can talk about whatever with and things like that. I feel like we’re both mentally prepared, and we’re both mentally strong enough to come into the league prepared to dominate and go at whomever. That’s one of the things I like about Taurean; he has the same type of attitude that I have coming into the game. Right now, of course, he’s the one guarding me so we’re going hard at each other, like we’re enemies. (laughs) But that’s how I play and that’s how I like my teammates to play. We’ve looked really good playing against each other and alongside each other this summer. I can’t wait to see how we play against players from other teams.”
Kennedy: You had a very interesting journey to the NBA. In high school, you had a ton of doubters and you flew under the radar. One prominent scouting service had you ranked No. 224 in your class and Rivals didn’t even give you a single star, if I recall. How did that motivate you and how nice is it now to silence some of those detractors with your success?
Bembry: “The way I’ve always thought about it is I know what’s right and what’s wrong about my game. Even when I was in high school, I would just go out there and play basketball; that’s how simple it is for me. You could say whatever you want about me, but I’m going to go out there and play hard every possession because that’s something I know how to do. I’m going to go out there and play defense. I’m going to play my game. That’s just how I do it. That’s how I’ve always done it and that’s how I got here. Each game, I would just go out there, play hard and that’s pretty much what would shut everyone up. I always loved the game, so getting motivated wasn’t hard for me. But I did use it and let it motivate me even more.
“I’ve never been someone who hypes myself up, and maybe that [affected me] in the draft. I still feel like I should have gone higher, but that’s just another chance for me to show people what I can do. I want to show people why I really should have gone higher in the draft. But I’m just excited to be in the NBA. I’m looking forward to getting out there and playing against these guys.”
Kennedy: What are some of your individual goals for this upcoming season?
Bembry: “Well, I always set my standards very high. This year, I’m obviously going to say win Rookie of the Year, but other than that [my goal is] just to get as many minutes as I can as a rookie. I know Coach Bud doesn’t really play younger guys a lot, but I feel like me and Taurean are two very different younger guys coming into the NBA. I’m just trying to go out there and play my game, but I’ll definitely try to win Rookie of the Year.”
Kennedy: Who are some NBA players who you’ve studied and who have influenced your game a bit?
Bembry: “There are a lot of people. I try to pick little pieces from different players when I notice something that looked good or worked well. Take someone like Dirk Nowitzki, for example. I’m always learning how to do the little fade-away jump shot. I do a lot of Eurosteps, so I look at Manu Ginobili and James Harden. I look at Tracy McGrady a lot. It’s just taking little things from different players. I’ll look at Magic Johnson running the point as a 6’8 guard. If you’re a good basketball player and something that you’re doing is working, then I’ll definitely try to pick it apart and learn from it.”
Kennedy: Are there any defensive-minded guys you watched, maybe because of their motor or their ability to lock guys down?
Bembry: “I like people who are mentally and physically in tune to the game, so I’ll start with like a Dennis Rodman type of player. That’s how I try to come into every game. Like Rodman, I won’t let anybody just keep scoring on me. In today’s game, I’d say someone like a Jimmy Butler or Tony Allen – guys who can actually defend and do a good job at it.”
Kennedy: We talked about your individual goals, so now let’s talk about team goals. After the Cleveland Cavaliers, the East is pretty much wide open. How good can the Hawks be this season?
Bembry: “I feel like if everybody brings their ‘A’ game, we should be good. The bond is there; I know a bond when I see them. I’ve been on a lot of teams, especially in high school, where we started with a strong bond and went on to win championships. That’s what I’ve been a part of, and it all starts off with the bond. Our bond [in Atlanta] is already good. Then, you always need to have superstars. Dwight Howard is our superstar, Paul Millsap is our All-Star. As long as our top guys always bring their ‘A’ game and we just do what we’re supposed to do, then we will be pretty good this year. Like you said, nobody else in the East is as dominant as the Cavs, so it would definitely be fun to play in the playoffs my rookie year.”
Kennedy: You are going to wear No. 95 to honor your younger brother, Adrian, who was shot and killed two weeks before the 2016 NBA Draft while trying to break up a fight in Charlotte. You’re doing this because Adrian was born in 1995. I know you also want to use your platform as an NBA player to speak out against gun violence and hold events in a number of large cities. I’m so sorry for your loss. You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers. For those who don’t know, can you explain what you’re planning to do to honor Adrian?
Bembry: “I’m wearing No. 95 for him. Also, we’re going to do events about [preventing gun violence] in a number of cities. We’re still doing all of the paperwork, and I’m trying to find different foundations to get involved with. I’ve just been talking with my mother about what we want to do and talking to my lawyers as we try to get all the paperwork done. In addition to here in Atlanta, I want to do something in Philly, New Jersey and Charlotte because those are all areas where I actually lived in and got to see a lot of different things. I’m just trying to get that all finalized and I’ve been talking to the National Basketball Players Association about it as well. I think I’m going to try to get it going after my first season so that people know who I am a bit more and know my story. I think that’s better rather than me just trying to do it now and nobody understands what’s going on.”
NBA Daily: The Comfortability of Caris LeVert
Caris LeVert talks to Basketball Insiders about filling in at point guard, turning the proverbial corner and getting more comfortable with his game.
If there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for the Brooklyn Nets, it probably involves Caris LeVert.
After finding his niche as a do-it-all rotation player, LeVert upped his averages in points (12.1), assists (4.2) and three-point accuracy (34.7 percent) during his second NBA season. Although those outer-layer statistics may not scream budding star quite yet, his growth and flexibility were key to a Nets team once again decimated by injuries.
When Jeremy Lin suffered a season-ending ruptured patella tendon during the season opener, the guard situation became understandably shaky. But then the newly acquired D’Angelo Russell went down for two months in November and things almost became untenable. If not for the efforts of LeVert as the backup point guard (and the vastly improved play of Spencer Dinwiddie), things could’ve been a whole lot worse for the Nets in 2017-18.
But according to LeVert, his development as a ball-handler was just the next, albeit necessary, step in his career.
“It’s been important, especially this year with injuries to Jeremy and D’Angelo,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like Spencer and myself had to definitely step up a lot this year and were asked to do a lot. But that was just something the team needed from me.”
Referring to his new-found prowess in such simple terms might be a slight understatement on LeVert’s development this season. Beyond his immense, quick chemistry with rookie center Jarrett Allen, LeVert has been a major bench catalyst all year. Often thriving under the sophomore’s playmaking hand, Brooklyn’s bench tallied a healthy 43.9 points per game, a benchmark only beat out by the Sacramento Kings (44.4). While his role as a point guard came about somewhat as an emergency, it’s clearly a position the Nets like him in.
Although he started 16 fewer games than he did in his rookie season, coming off the bench offered LeVert plenty of offensive freedom and the opportunity to feast on weaker opposition. On most nights, the 23-year-old didn’t disappoint. Some the Nets’ best individual lines all season came via LeVert, but few were better than his dominant play during a narrow one-point victory in Miami. On the road, LeVert torched the HEAT for 19 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, two steals and block in just over 34 minutes. This season, the Nets were 7-1 when LeVert registered eight or more assists and even topped out with a career-best 11 dimes.
As both a playmaker and a scorer, LeVert has shown serious signs of promise — or, more simply, put the ball in his hands and good things happen. But compare this LeVert to that raw first-year version and he’s convinced it all comes down to comfortability.
“I don’t know, I would say just how comfortable I’m getting,” LeVert said. “My game hasn’t changed all that much, honestly, I’m still getting more comfortable out on the court. But it’s just getting more playing time, more experience and I feel like I’ll grow more into my game.”
Frankly, the Nets have needed a win in the draft department for years. Outside of Mason Plumlee’s brief two-season cameo, the Nets haven’t drafted and groomed a long-term talent since Brook Lopez way back in 2008. Thankfully, he and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson — and joined by the aforementioned Allen this season — seem poised to buck that trend. Hollis-Jefferson, acquired on draft night for Plumlee in 2015, averaged 13.9 points and 6.8 rebounds on 47.2 percent from the field in 2017-18, a vast improvement over his first two campaigns. Allen, a 20-year-old hyper-athletic shot blocker, wasn’t let loose until after the new year but showed potential in the pick-and-roll or while catching lobs up above the rim.
Together, the trio, along with Russell, represent the Nets’ best present and future assets. But ask LeVert if brighter things are on the horizon and the 6-foot-7 multi-positional talent is largely uninterested in getting ahead of himself.
“I feel like I got a lot better on both ends of the ball as the season went on,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “Also feel like I learned a couple more positions this year and got comfortable playing them. But I still got a long way to go. You know, it’s only my second year, obviously, but I feel like I definitely made new strides this year.”
The Nets, in a vacuum, can be viewed in almost the same way.
Since LeVert was drafted with the No. 20 overall pick back in 2016, the Nets have racked up a total of just 48 wins. This year alone, 11 franchises equaled or earned more wins than the Nets’ two-year yield. In fact, the only franchise with fewer wins over that period of time were the Phoenix Suns at 45, but they were also recently rewarded with Josh Jackson and currently own a 25 percent chance of taking home the No. 1 pick this summer. All of this is to say that Nets have struggled to hoist themselves out of a pick-less bottomless pit for reasons outside of their control.
Despite the devastating injuries, this resilient Nets squad put together a relatively strong final stretch under head coach Kenny Atkinson. While the second-year head coach spent much of the campaign feeling out what worked and what didn’t, LeVert became a steady presence just about everywhere. Following the All-Star break, the Nets went 6-4 in games in which LeVert surpassed his season average in points, but they were just 1-4 when he went for single-digits.
Needless to say, the Nets often go where LeVert takes them.
But after two back-to-back disappointing campaigns. LeVert says that the Nets’ locker room senses that they’re close to turning the proverbial corner. Still, they know they’ve got a long, long way to go.
“[It felt that way], especially after the All-Star Break and going into the second half of the season,” LeVert said. “But we’re definitely not satisfied — we can’t wait to work hard this offseason and get after it next year.”
Now with two seasons under his belt, the Nets’ front office must be pleased with the steps LeVert has taken — whether that’s effectively running an offense or snaking through the paint for a crafty finish. But for LeVert to join the higher class, he returns to the same word again and again: Comfortability. Between getting familiar with his body and skillset, LeVert knows that a big key is also finding consistency each and every night. However, he’s not worried about who he might play like or how good he might end up being — LeVert is just focused on getting better one day at a time.
“I kinda just take little parts of everybody’s game and try to put it in my own — I don’t really just look at one person,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “As a young player in this league, that’s kinda how it is, a little inconsistent. But like I said, I’m still getting more comfortable with myself and my game.”
Although the Nets are headed into another offseason of uncertainty, they can rest assured knowing that a bigger and better LeVert will likely emerge next fall. It hardly matters if he’s filling in at point guard again or growing into his shoes out on the wing, LeVert will clearly play a large role in sculpting Brooklyn’s malleable future.
LeVert, as always, is up for the challenge.
“I still got a long ways to go, I’m still getting more comfortable, still growing into my body — but I’m ready for a big summer for sure.”
The Real Jrue Holiday Has Finally Arrived
It may have been a little later than they would have wanted, but the Jrue Holiday that New Orleans has always wanted is finally here, writes Matt John.
New Orleans has always earned the nickname “The Big Easy”, but ever since Jrue Holiday came to town, his time there has been anything but.
When New Orleans traded for Holiday back in 2013, they hoped that he would round out an exciting young core that included Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, and Ryan Anderson. At 23 years old, Holiday averaged 17.7 points, 8.0 assists, and 4.2 rebounds the previous season and was coming off his first all-star appearance in Philadelphia, so the Pelicans had much to look forward to.
Unfortunately, recurring extensive injuries prohibited the Pelicans’ new core from ever playing together fully healthy, with Holiday getting his fair share of the bruises. In his first two seasons, Holiday played in only 74 games combined with the team due to injury, and things didn’t get much better his third season. While he played more games, Holiday was on a minutes restriction and his season ended again with injury.
Holiday avoided the injury bug his fourth season, but he nobly took a leave of absence at the start the season to tend to his ill wife, which caused him to miss the season’s first 12 games and 15 in total. Holiday’s inability to stay on the court coupled with New Orleans’ stagnated progress made him a forgotten man in the NBA. That was until last summer, when Holiday became a free agent.
Given the circumstances, Holiday did what he could for the Pelicans. He certainly proved he was above average, but he hadn’t shown any improvement since his arrival. Coupling that with both how many games he had missed in the previous four seasons and the league’s salary cap not increasing as much as teams had anticipated, and one would think to proceed with caution in regards to extending Jrue Holiday.
But the Pelicans saw it differently. New Orleans gave Holiday a five-year, $126 million extension last summer, befuddling the general masses. Besides Holiday’s inability to stay on the court, the Pelicans already had an expensive payroll, and they later added Rajon Rondo, another quality point guard, to the roster. So, with all that in mind, giving Holiday a near-max contract on a team that had made the playoffs a grand total of once in the Anthony Davis era seemed a little foolish.
This season, however, Jrue Holiday has rewarded the Pelicans’ faith in him and has proven the doubters so very wrong.
With a clean slate of health, Holiday has proven himself to be better than ever. This season, Holiday averaged career-highs in scoring (19 points a game) and field goal percentage (49 percent overall), which played a huge role in New Orleans having its best season since Chris Paul’s last hurrah with the team back in 2011.
Holiday’s impact extended beyond what the traditional numbers said. His on/off numbers from NBA.com showed that the Pelicans were much better on both sides of the ball when he was on the court compared to when he was off. Offensively, the Pelicans had an offensive rating of 108.9 points per 100 possessions when he was the on the court compared to 104.4 points per 100 possessions when he was off.
On the other side of the court, Holiday was even more integral. The Pelicans had a defensive rating of 103.3 per 100 possessions when Holiday was on the court compared to 112.3 off the court. Overall, the Pelicans were 13.6 points per 100 possessions better with Holiday on the floor. That was the highest net rating on the team, even higher than Anthony Davis.
Other statistics also support how impactful Holiday has been this season. According to ESPN’s real plus-minus page, Holiday’s 3.81 Real Plus-Minus ranked ninth among point guards – No. 16 offensively, No. 4 defensively – which beat out Kyrie Irving, John Wall, and Goran Dragic, all of whom made the All-Star team this year.
However, Holiday’s effectiveness shined through mid-way through the season, or more specifically, on Jan. 26, when Demarcus Cousins went down with an Achilles tear. While Davis certainly led the way, Holiday’s role could not have been understated when the Pelicans went 21-13 without their MVP candidate to finish the season. Offensively, Holiday’s point average went from 18.6 to 19.4 and his assist average went from 5.2 to 7.2, all while his turnover average – from 2.6 to 2.7 – stayed the same.
Defensively, Holiday had much to do with the Pelicans’ improved defense after Cousins went down. According to NBA.com, the Pelicans defensive rating went from 106.2 points allowed per 100 possessions to 103.7, and much of it can be attributed to Holiday. When Holiday was on the court, the team’s defensive rating was 101.2 points allowed per 100 possessions compared to 109.6 points allowed per 100 possessions with him off.
Holiday’s improved numbers, combined with the Pelicans steadying the boat without their star center, make a fair argument that Holiday was one of the league’s best all-around point guards this season, but Holiday’s style isn’t much of a thrill to watch. He doesn’t have Russell Westbrook’s other-worldly athleticism, he doesn’t have Stephen Curry’s lethal jumper, nor does he have Chris Paul’s floor general abilities. Holiday’s specialty is that he has every fundamental of a good point guard, which makes his impact usually fly under the radar.
That was until last week, when the Pelicans unexpectedly curb stomped the Blazers. The Jrue Holiday coming out party was in full-swing, as the 27-year-old torched Rip City, averaging 27.8 points, 6.5 assists, and 4 rebounds a game on 57 percent shooting from the field, including 35 percent from deep. He did all of that while stymieing MVP candidate Damian Lillard, as Dame averaged 18 points and 4 assists while shooting 35 percent from the field, including 30 percent from deep, and surrendered four turnovers a game.
If Holiday’s contributions weren’t on full display then, they certainly are now. The Pelicans have suddenly emerged as one of the West’s toughest and most cohesive teams in this year’s playoffs, with Holiday playing a huge role in the team’s newfound mojo and potentially glorious future.
This was the Jrue Holiday the New Orleans Pelicans had in mind when they first traded for him almost five years ago. While his impact has come a little later than they would have wanted, it’s as the old saying goes.
Better late than never.
NBA Daily: Are Player Legacies Really On The Line?
How important is legacy in the NBA playoffs? Lang Greene takes a look.
As the NBA Playoffs continue to pick up steam, the subject of individual greatness has become the big topic of conversation. Today, we ask the question: is legacy talk just a bunch of hyperbole or are they really made or broken in the playoffs?
To be clear, legacies do matter. Reputations are built on reliability and how dependable someone is throughout the course of their respective body of work. We all have them. They are built over time and it’s seldom they change from one misstep – but they can. Some of the greatest players in NBA history never won a title; see John Stockton and Karl Malone during their Utah Jazz years. Some NBA greats never won a title until they were past their physical prime and paired with a young charge that took over the reins; see David Robinson in San Antonio. Some NBA greats never won a title as the leading man until they were traded to a title contending team; see Clyde Drexler in Houston. We also have a slew of Hall of Famers that have been inducted with minimal playoff success in their careers; see the explosive Tracy McGrady.
So what’s in a legacy? And why does it mean more for some then it does for others?
Four-time League MVP LeBron James’ legacy is always up for debate, despite battling this season to make his ninth NBA Finals appearance. James’ legacy seems to be up in the air on a nightly basis. Maybe it’s because of the rarified air he’s in as one of the league’s top 10 players all-time or maybe it’s just good for ratings.
As this year’s playoffs gain momentum, the topic of legacy has been mentioned early and often.
Out in the Western Conference, the legacy of Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star guard Russell Westbrook is being questioned at all angles. There’s no doubt Westbrook is one of the best players in the league today as the reigning MVP and coming off two consecutive seasons averaging a triple-double. However, Westbrook’s decision making has come into question plenty over the past couple of seasons.
The subject of whether you can truly win a championship with Westbrook as your lead guy serves as the centerpiece of the debate. It goes without saying former league MVP Kevin Durant bolted to the Golden State Warriors amid rumors that he could no longer coexist next to Westbrook in the lineup. Ever since Durant’s somewhat unexpected departure, it seems Westbrook has been hell-bent on proving his doubters wrong – even if it comes at the detriment to what his team is trying to accomplish.
The latest example was in game four of his team’s current first-round series versus the Utah Jazz.
Westbrook picked up four fouls in the first half as he was attempting to lock up point guard Ricky Rubio, who had a career night in Game 3 of the series. Westbrook infamously waved off head coach Billy Donovan after picking up his second personal foul in the first quarter. Westbrook was also in the game with three personal fouls and under two minutes left in the first half before picking up his fourth personal.
You can make an argument that this was just bad coaching by Donovan leaving him in the game in foul trouble, but it also points to Westbrook’s decision making and not being able to play within the constructs of a team dynamic. Further, what will be Westbrook’s legacy on this season’s Oklahoma City Thunder team with Carmelo Anthony and Paul George if they were to flame out in the first round with little fizzle – against a Jazz team with no star power and zero All-Stars? Is discussing Westbrook’s legacy worthless banter or is it a legitimate topic? There is no doubt on his current trajectory Westbrook is headed straight into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. As an individual player there is no greater achievement than to have your name etched in stone with the greats of yesteryear, but the court of public opinion factors in team success and this is where the topic of legacy comes into play.
Say what you will about Durant’s decision to go to Golden State, but his legacy is undoubtedly secured. Durant won the Finals MVP last season in absolute dominant fashion and showed up on the biggest of stages. All that’s left from those that question Durant’s legacy at this point are the folks on the fringe saying he couldn’t do it by himself. But that is exactly the line of thinking that’s getting Westbrook killed as well, because winning championships is all about team cohesiveness and unity.
Out in the Eastern Conference, all eyes will be on Milwaukee Bucks do everything star Giannis Antetokounmpo. After five seasons in the league, Antetokounmpo has zero playoff series victories attached to his name. Heading into the playoffs this season, the seventh-seeded Bucks were considered underdogs to the second-seeded Boston Celtics.
But the Celtics are wounded. They do not have the services of All Stars Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward. The Celtics are a team full of scrappy young talent and cagey veterans. Antetokounmpo is clearly the best player in the series and teams with the best player usually fare well in a seven game series. But the Bucks are facing elimination down 3-2 versus Boston. Antetokounmpo has only been in the league half of the time Westbrook has, but the chirping about his legacy has already begun as Milwaukee attempts to win its first playoff series since 2001.
So what’s in a legacy? Are there varying degrees for which people are being evaluated?
Despite James’ success throughout his career, a first-round exit at the hands of the Indiana Pacers over the next week will damage his legacy in the minds of some. While others feel even if Antetokounmpo and the Bucks were to drop this series against the Celtics, he should be given a pass with the caveat that he still has plenty of time in his career to rectify.
As for Westbrook, there are vultures circling the head of his legacy and these folks feel that a first-round exit will damage his brand irreversibly after 10 seasons in the league
Ultimately, the topic of legacies makes for good column fodder, barbershop banter and sport debate television segments. Because when guys hang up their high tops for good, a Hall of Fame induction is typically the solidifying factor when it comes to a player’s legacy.