The Air Up There
It’s hard to believe that Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant has just eight games remaining in his storied NBA career. His 20-year run has been historic in many ways and unless you look at his career next to others, it’s sometimes easy to forget how terrific his career has been compared to some of the greatest to have ever played.
Among pundits, it’s universally believed that Michael Jordan is the greatest player to have played the NBA game, and while there is a whole lot of evidence to support that claim, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird also creep into any greatest ever discussion because of their respective careers and their historical NBA Finals battles in the ’80s.
Sadly, and unfortunately, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar never gets enough credit for what he accomplished in his career and neither does Bill Russell.
However, as Kobe’s career comes to end, it has become clear that his place in NBA history might be substantially better than some want to give him credit for and it becomes glaring when you compare his career accomplishments next to the so-called Mount Rushmore of basketball.
So here is the top of the heap:
|Michael Jordan||Magic Johnson||Larry Bird|
|6× NBA champion||5× NBA champion||3× NBA champion|
|6× NBA Finals MVP||3× NBA Finals MVP||2× NBA Finals MVP|
|5× NBA Most Valuable Player||3× NBA Most Valuable Player||3× NBA Most Valuable Player|
|14× NBA All-Star||12× NBA All-Star||12× NBA All-Star|
|3× NBA All-Star Game MVP||2× NBA All-Star Game MVP||NBA All-Star Game MVP|
|10× All-NBA First Team||9× All-NBA First Team||9× All-NBA First Team|
|NBA Defensive Player of the Year||4× NBA assists leader||2× 50–40–90 club|
|9× NBA All-Defensive First Team||2× NBA steals leader|
|NBA Rookie of the Year||NCAA champion|
|10× NBA scoring champion||NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player|
|3× NBA steals champion|
|2× NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion|
|NBA playoffs all-time leading scorer|
|Chicago Bulls all-time leading scorer|
The Often Overlooked
|Bill Russell||Kareem Abdul-Jabbar|
|11× NBA champion||6× NBA champion|
|5× NBA Most Valuable Player||2× NBA Finals MVP|
|12× NBA All-Star||6× NBA Most Valuable Player|
|NBA All-Star Game MVP||19× NBA All-Star|
|3× All-NBA First Team||10× All-NBA First Team|
|NBA All-Defensive First Team||5× NBA All-Defensive First Team|
|4× NBA rebounding champion||2× NBA scoring champion|
|2× NCAA champion||4× NBA blocks leader|
|NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player||3× NCAA champion|
|3× NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player|
The Case For Kobe and Duncan
|Kobe Bryant||Tim Duncan|
|5× NBA champion||5× NBA champion|
|2× NBA Finals MVP||3× NBA Finals MVP|
|NBA Most Valuable Player||2× NBA Most Valuable Player|
|18× NBA All-Star||15× NBA All-Star|
|4× NBA All-Star Game MVP||NBA All-Star Game MVP|
|11× All-NBA First Team||10× All-NBA First Team|
|9× NBA All-Defensive First Team||8× NBA All-Defensive First Team|
|2× NBA scoring champion||NBA Rookie of the Year|
|NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion||San Antonio Spurs all-time leading scorer|
|Los Angeles Lakers all-time leading scorer|
One can make a case that Kareem’s career accomplishments outweigh Larry Bird’s, and he should be talked about more in the top three discussion. There is also a case that Kobe should be in that same tier of players, as one of the top five best to have ever played.
Bill Russell is the standard bearer for NBA success with his 11 championships, but he played in a very different era, which makes it easy to discount some of his career (although 11 championships are 11 championships, even in a time when the Celtics ruled the landscape and had virtually no peer).
Kobe’s career is impressive by itself, but when measured next to the greats, there is no doubting he too belongs in that discussion.
In Kobe’s documentary The Muse, he said one of his goals as a player was to gain the accolades to sit at the proverbial table with his idols and deserve to be there. It’s safe to say Kobe has achieved that and maybe a little more.
Spurs big man Tim Duncan is right there too.
With just eight games left in Kobe’s career, maybe it’s time to put Kobe in his proper place. He is one of the very best to have ever done it, and while there are many bright futures blossoming in the NBA, Kobe’s career may have been one of the best we’ve ever seen.
The Hard Part About LeBron
If you have not seen it yet, Brian Windhorst of ESPN penned an excellent look at the current situation with Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James.
James remains one of the more polarizing players in basketball. Some people absolutely love him, and some want to absolutely tear him apart.
That’s life as a top player in any sport, and more so in the NBA where players are routinely the hero or the villain.
Regardless of your personal agenda, it’s impossible to look at James’ season and his career and not recognize how great of a player he has been. What gets most people upset about James is the manner in which he carries himself and more importantly how he has chosen to lead his team.
It is not uncommon for James to be outwardly demonstrative in games, especially toward his own teammates that do not execute as he expected them to. He has a long history of passive aggressiveness. Moody is an understatement. Unpredictable doesn’t come close to describing James on a day to day. Double standard, absolutely the case.
That’s who LeBron has been his entire career. None of this is really new. It’s simply relevant again because the Cavaliers are not where some on the outside want them to be.
A Cavs source joked recently that no matter what the Cavs do as a team, they cannot win. If they win the Eastern Conference (which they likely will do) then they did what they were supposed to do. If they drop to second, the season is going to be labeled a failure.
It’s hard to have much sympathy for James’ situation. He is among the most recognized figures in sports. He’s earned ungodly amounts of money both on and off the floor. He has chosen to manage his brand in his own way, and that’s created its own set of problems.
But imagine for a moment the pressure James has endured since coming back to Cleveland. He cautioned fans not to believe the Cavaliers could win a championship in his first season back, saying that there was too much to learn and become as a team, especially with so many young players. However, a trip to the NBA Finals in that first season set the bar for this season incredibly high.
James has felt Father Time. He is not the same athletically dominating player he was. His back has been bothersome for a couple of years. He has managed his body better this year than in previous seasons, but you see it on the floor. James walks up the floor in a lot of sequences. He’s not the race horse he once was. He has refined his game to be more about skill and execution than athleticism.
James’ patience with the learning curve some of his younger teammates have been fighting through wears on him.
If you talk to his teammates, they love James. He has always been known as a great teammate and includer. He brings players into his world. He showers them with gifts from his numerous endorsement deals. He has thrown huge holiday dinners for everyone in his organization.
As a leader on the court, James leaves a lot to be desired. But if you have watched his career, is that really surprising? James was never a great leader in his first trip through Cleveland. In Miami, he played a leading role, but the true leadership on that team came from guys like Dwyane Wade, Udonis Haslem, James Jones, Ray Allen and Shane Battier. LeBron could lead when he wanted to, but he was never tasked with shouldering all the leadership of a team.
Knowing that, is it surprising that LeBron is struggling to be that guy in Cleveland? He’s never been that guy anywhere he’s played.
There is little doubt James is one of the best players in basketball. Unless you have a major agenda, there just is no evidence to support that he is not. In fact, since the All-Star break, James has played some of the best basketball of the season.
What is real is James is not the leader most want him to be or need him to be. Unfortunately, some of those people wear a Cavs jersey on a nightly basis. If there is anything you can say honestly about James, it is that he has struggled to be a leader.
Maybe that why the idea of playing with his good friends remains so appealing to him, because the onus to lead wouldn’t be entirely on him.
It is easy to say James should know how to be a leader, but wanting to lead, knowing you need to lead and having the mindset and ability to lead are very different things.
There is no doubting James is a dominant player. The hurdle he still has to climb is being a leader and that may not ever happen for him.
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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17
Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.
We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.
A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.
Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.
While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.
6) Joel Embiid
Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.
One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.
5) Kristaps Porzingis
Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.
So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.
4) Nikola Jokic
At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.
Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.
3) Draymond Green
In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.
Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.
2) Al Horford
The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.
He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.
1) DeMarcus Cousins
Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.
Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.
The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.
Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership
There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.
There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.
Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.
Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.
That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.
Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.
Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.
“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.
“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”
In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.
What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.
From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.
There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.
So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.
Instead, he did the opposite.
“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.
“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”
Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.
Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.
Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.
Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.
I think not.
Death, taxes and the Spurs.
So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.
Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.
But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.
NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly
Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.
It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, they’re just already 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.
Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.
The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.
“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”
Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.
At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.
“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.
Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.
“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”
Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.
His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.
“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”
“Yep,” Bazemore replied.
“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”
Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.
“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”
With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.
Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.