Take a step into The Grindhouse.
No, not the appropriately-named raucous home of the Grizzlies on Beale Street in downtown Memphis.
This particular Grindhouse is where Chasson Randle has been putting in daily work over the last month to stay on top of his strength and conditioning, thanks to the generosity of his girlfriend’s brother-in-law. In a garage equipped with weight racks, treadmills, and row machines, Randle has had a quality setup to maintain a routine as the NBA continues to figure out its next step amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s like a laboratory if you’ve ever seen I Am Legend,” Randle told Basketball Insiders in an exclusive phone interview.
When he’s not playing virtual Connect 4 with his friends, trips to The Grindhouse and a private basketball gym have allowed Randle to appease the competitive fire he’s desperately missed in games… with himself. Whether it’s beating a previous number of weight reps within a set or recording better times on a bike, he’s found creative ways to keep busy and productive.
“I’m treating this like it’s the summer,” Randle said. “I’m preparing for a new season, even though I do expect the season to pick up and finish out. But even in the summertime, you can play pick-up games, you can play with other people and kind of get a feel for another body. But it’s just different.”
Two-and-a-half months into day nine of what he and his agent, Darrell Comer of YouFirstSports, jokingly refer to as the longest 10-day contract in NBA history, Randle has stayed in close contact with the Golden State Warriors through team meetings over the phone. His closest relationships are with Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins, the two guys to his left and right in the locker room, as well as Golden State mainstay Draymond Green.
While the current record obviously doesn’t show what the franchise has accomplished over the last half-decade, Randle senses the same championship professionalism he experienced in the 2015 NBA Summer League as an undrafted free agent — his first taste of pro-ball after four strong seasons at Stanford University.
“Everything was still top-notch professional. They did a great job of treating the new guys who were coming in and kind of engaging them and thrusting them into their culture,” Randle said of the Warriors. “I think that’s the main thing that I’ve gained from them. The culture is very, very strong, and it was then back in 2015. They were professional, but they still knew how to have fun and make the game of basketball a treat to everyone.”
“They do everything to the highest level. The way they communicate, it shows why they’ve been to The Finals five straight years and why they’ve won three of ’em. It just shows the way they treat their players.”
Randle’s professional basketball journey has been anything but a straight line. Following that summer league stint with Golden State, the 6-foot-2 guard signed a contract with CEZ Nymburk to play overseas in the Czech Republic. After both winning a championship in the National Basketball League and competing in the VTB United League, he drew the attention of the New York Knicks in the summer of 2016.
Earning all-tournament honors in Orlando to the tune of 18.3 points, 5.0 assists and 3.0 steals per game with a 55 percent clip from deep, the Knicks offered Randle his first training camp invite in the fall. He was waived after three preseason games, yet remained a part of the organization under its G League affiliate, the Westchester Knicks. In early January, the Philadelphia 76ers came calling and signed him to his first 10-day contract.
Though he sparingly played in spotty minutes for the Sixers, Randle remembers what head coach Brett Brown told him in a practice — something that’s been embedded in his mind during his career ever since.
“’’Participate in your own rescue,’” Randle recalls of the advice. “Sometimes in practice, you can just get caught up in watching what’s going on and trying to figure it out that way, but sometimes you have to get in there and get dirty and ask questions and be as active in your own process.
“And I’m like, man, it really helped me because after that I played well in Philly and I signed a three-year deal with them with those trigger dates. And if it wasn’t for the trade — Nerlens Noel going to Dallas and them getting [Andrew] Bogut and Justin Anderson back — I think I could’ve stuck there, honestly.”
Randle was released by the 76ers as a result of that deal to clear roster space. The Knicks brought him back in to finish the rest of 2017 on a multi-year deal, but he was let go again that September due to another trade as Carmelo Anthony was sent to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott. Experiencing yet another unfortunate set of circumstances, Randle ventured back to Europe to join Real Madrid.
Just as his previous overseas stint culminated with a title, so did this one. On a stacked squad led by international superstar Luka Doncic, the club conquered the Euroleague and earned a championship. Though Randle didn’t receive nearly the same playing time as he did in the Czech Republic, teams in the NBA wanted to give him another shot. He returned to the Knicks’ summer league team in Orlando for a second straight year.
The Washington Wizards liked what they saw and extended an invite to Randle in the fall of 2018. He played three preseason games before being waived. He spent time with their G League affiliate, the Capital City Go-Go, for a month until the team released him for the second time in November; but the Go-Go kept his rights and he kept playing. However, a little over a month later, lady luck would finally side with Randle thanks to, ironically, a trade.
When Kelly Oubre Jr. and Austin Rivers were sent away, Washington re-signed Randle to a contract for the rest of the season. For the first time in his NBA career, he had a legitimate spot in a rotation with consistent playing time, demonstrating leadership and an excellent basketball IQ. Patience and smarts translated into Randle’s success, as he knocked down a career-best 40 percent of his threes and recorded 12 double-digit scoring efforts in 49 games with the Wizards.
“It gave me the opportunity to kind of have the full experience or closest thing to the full experience for being on an NBA team and playing a backup role. I enjoyed it,” Randle said. “It was great to be around Brad [Beal] and John [Wall] and Jeff Green and the guys that we had on that team who had been around in the league for a while — great basketball players.
“I was grateful for the opportunity. I think that I really got the chance to show who I could be and who I am as a player, shooting the ball the way I did and being able to run an offense and pick up full-court and try to change the pace of the game.”
Throughout his twisting, turning path, Randle has always been a sponge. He takes bits and pieces of tips from everybody he encounters and uses that to better himself on and off the court. During his time in D.C., he attributes simply observing Beal and Wall being the first ones in the gym and the last ones to leave as an inspiration to his work ethic.
“When I walk into a room, I’m not always the loudest, but you better believe I’m listening to everything. I’m listening and I’m aware of everything that’s going on,” Randle said.
Desiring a more expanded role and a new challenge, Randle elected to go back overseas for the third time in his career — this time around, further east. Agreeing to a one-year deal with the Tianjin Pioneers of the Chinese Basketball Association, he had a plan in mind.
“Just for me to continue to develop my game, hold on a little more responsibility and allow my game to grow,” Randle said. “In China, I had the ball in my hands a lot more, so I’m getting those reps at the point guard position, getting a lot of minutes, seeing a lot of different defenses, seeing a lot of different double teams and having to do a little bit more so I can kind of grow my game.”
This was a short-term decision made with the long-term in mind. Randle figured the combination of lessons he learned from the previous season would manifest itself in his newest endeavor. He made good on that bet.
Averaging over 30 minutes for the first time in any league he’s played in, Randle exploded for 24.7 points, 4 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. With his usage at a whopping 37.5 percent, he was anything but bashful, attempting over 19 shots per contest, nearly half of which were beyond the arc. By far, it was the most successful stint he’s had in any league yet.
It’s Jan. 21 in Sichuan, China. The Tianjin Pioneers have just beaten the Sichuan Blue Whales, 98-88, a game in which Randle pours in a team-high 20 points on the road. He gets back to the hotel where he sees a fan waiting for a picture and an autograph. After the exchange, the fan delivers Randle a frightening bit of news.
“’Have you heard what’s going on?’ I’m like, ‘No what’s going on?’” Randle remembers. “He’s like, ‘Man, there’s a virus going on in China. It’s very bad. People are dying, getting sick. Be careful.’ And then after that, I’m like, wow, nobody told me about this. This information is new to me.”
As soon as the Pioneers got back to Tianjin the next day, Randle did his research on the virus, now known worldwide as COVID-19. Before he knew it, the team canceled practice. The CBA had ceased operations and players were told not to leave their residences. Concerned that he could be stuck on lockdown in the city, Randle’s representation told him that he had to leave within the next few days.
“That’s what we did. I stayed at my hotel for three days straight,” Randle said. “Luckily, I had food in there in the freezer and the refrigerator. I could whip something up for myself because I didn’t leave at all. At this time, we didn’t know how the virus was being transmitted and stuff, so I was just being super cautious.”
When those three days were up, Randle hopped in a cab with his bags and took a two-hour ride from Tianjin to the airport in Beijing for a direct flight back to the United States. He says it was crowded, although the experience was nothing out of the ordinary. Attendants took his temperature and that was about the only abnormal thing about it.
“It wasn’t like anything you’d see on Contagion or anything like that,” Randle explained. “At this time, it was early though. And I think a few days after that, they were like shutting off the country. So, it was perfect timing. People were trying to rush and get out a couple of days after that, so the timing was perfect and I’m glad it all worked out.”
Before — and while — that was going on, Randle was gaining momentum in NBA circles toward signing a contract with a team. The problem? Tianjin, believing that the season would resume and in fear of losing its top player, wouldn’t allow him to end his deal with the organization. Randle and Comer were extremely agitated with the handling of the situation, so the latter took it to ESPN’s Jonathan Givony and aired out those frustrations on a public platform.
Score a point for Randle and his representation.
“Once [Darrell] got me on the ticker, man, it kinda took over,” Randle said with a chuckle. “It spread like wildfire and [Tianjin] called back immediately and was like, ‘you know what? We’ll let him go. It’s not worth [the bad publicity].”
We’ve officially passed the mid-May mark. Randle is still in California as a part of the Warriors. His family back home in Rock Island, Illinois is doing well. He’ll FaceTime them and stay in contact to make sure they’re up to date on everything going on during the nationwide quarantine.
Rock Island means the world to Randle. It’s where he spent his childhood and teenage years growing up. It’s where he and his teammates won Rock Island High School’s first state championship. It’s where he earned the honor of being named Illinois’ Mr. Basketball. In each of the past three summers, Randle and his close friends have held Dream Big Youth Camp, a free-of-charge event for local kids from the town and surrounding neighborhoods.
“I just basically try to give the kids that opportunity to learn basketball, but also learn other things that’ll help them later on in life,” Randle said. “So we teach them life skills. We had a class that was teaching like what it means to be an active citizen and what that looks like. We teach them decision-making, along with the basketball.
“I look at it like this: I went to plenty of camps when I was a kid and not all those kids ended up playing basketball, but some of those kids became doctors, some of them became policemen, whatever. I wanted to make sure with my camp, every kid could take away something from the camp and better themselves in whatever area they choose to pursue.”
Unfortunately, the annual camp is in jeopardy with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — but Randle is hoping that sometime in September could work pending on the scenario.
Between working at the Grindhouse, getting shots up and figuring out plans for his camp, Randle has kept plenty busy — but even that isn’t all he’s up to. Since 2018, he has been actively designing apparel for his clothing line company, Volhard, set for launch in August.
“It means perseverance in both Dutch and Africans, loosely,” Randle said. “Really, it’s what I believe is the thing that every common person shares. Everybody’s had to persevere through something — it is imperative to my life and my story — so I wanted to kind of create through clothing and show that message to the world or whoever is willing to buy and support the brand.”
Randle designed every piece with the underrated drawing talent he has. In high school, he envisioned himself creating a clothing line. When basketball came into his life, his mother reminded him to take advantage of all of the gifts he has, not just his athletic side.
“Just be universal. Do a little bit of everything. Don’t be afraid. Take risks,” said Randle while recounting his mother’s wisdom. “And I really commend her for telling me that because that’s the way I live my life.”
Like everybody else, Randle is waiting for the NBA’s next move. Ultimately, he’s heard “mixed reviews” about the league and a return to normalcy.
In a hypothetical situation where things get back up and running, it would take a minimum of two weeks to get into shape. Game speed is totally different than any self-conditioning. But unrelated to those factors — and with safety coming first and foremost, of course — he would love to see The Association come back for reasons beyond his own benefit.
“I think that it would definitely show how resilient and brave the league is and how powerful it could be,” Randle said. “It could be very, very powerful just to kinda unite. Sports is something that unites people and brings people together, and I think that if it came back, it would have the opportunity to do that.”
Whenever that could be, we don’t know quite yet.
What we do know is that Randle is champing at the bit for an opportunity to show the NBA that he can consistently play at a high level on this stage — and if he finds the right fit, he plans on sticking around for good.
NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – March 1
With the All-Star break on the horizon, Tristan Tucker updates the MVP ladder, with two former MVP winners picking up steam in recent weeks.
In a typical year, it’s rare to see more than two players in serious contention for the MVP award midway through the season. But, as everyone knows all too well, this is no normal NBA season, with three players alternating between the top three spots on what seems like a daily basis.
With the All-Star break nearly here, it’s time to take a look at how the MVP race is shaping up at the halfway point of the season.
1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: 1)
Embiid is at the top of his game right now, averaging 31.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game in the time since Basketball Insiders’ last ladder update. In that span, Embiid is shooting 47.2 percent from downtown, with a 50-point performance against the Chicago Bulls and a 42-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Even more impressive, the 76ers are outscoring opponents by 18.8 points when Embiid is on the floor, which ranks in the 100th percentile of the NBA. That kind of production is literally unmatched, which should give Embiid a clear edge in the MVP race.
Philadelphia is a far more up-and-down team now than they were to begin the year, but Embiid’s continued growth has the 76ers with legitimate title hopes just five years removed from a 10-72 season.
2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (Previous: 3)
In the last two weeks, Jokic embarked on an amazing stretch, averaging 27.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game while shooting 56.7 percent from the floor and 55.2 percent from deep. While the Nuggets are still searching for answers to their season, Jokic is doing everything in his power to keep them in the playoff picture.
If Jokic’s play this year was combined with Denver’s 2019-20 record, there’s little doubt that he would be leading the MVP race. However, a lack of consistency (with some embarrassing losses to the Washington Wizards and the injury-riddled Atlanta Hawks) has kept Jokic from outright claiming the top spot.
3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers (Previous: 2)
James’ case for MVP has stagnated over the last two weeks, with the Lakers losing four-straight in that span. It’s hurt his case, but that isn’t to say that his on-court production hasn’t been ridiculously impressive, averaging 25.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game in the last two weeks.
The Lakers are 14.5 points better when James is on the court and it’s evident to see that “The King” is keeping the Lakers afloat in spite of an injury to co-star Anthony Davis. That being said, James is going to need to cut back on games like those played during the team’s four-game losing streak; he committed eight turnovers against Washington and was a minus-20 against the Utah Jazz.
4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (Previous: 6)
Curry had an incredible February, especially closer to the beginning of the month. On the month, Curry averaged 32.1 points per game while shooting 41.9 percent on 12.8 attempts from three per game. That kind of production is reminiscent of his play in 2016, when he was unanimously awarded MVP.
Curry’s February numbers would have looked even more impressive if it weren’t for mediocre showings against the Miami HEAT, Indiana Pacers and Lakers. But the fact that Curry missed 30 threes combined in those games and still finished shooting better than nearly everyone else in the league is a testament to just how rare of a talent Curry is.
5. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (Previous: Not Ranked)
With injuries to CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, it seemed as if the already struggling Portland Trail Blazers were doomed to fade out of the playoff picture. Despite four straight losses, Lillard is carrying Portland with all of his might to a potential postseason berth, with the Blazers sitting at 18-14.
Over the span of two weeks, Lillard’s been on another planet, averaging 32.2 points and 10.8 assists per game while averaging 13 threes and making 37.2 percent of them. Take a second to think of the names that are starting next to Lillard: Gary Trent Jr., Enes Kanter, Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. Trent and Kanter are playing well, but it’s hard to believe that that lineup is currently the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
6. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous: NR)
The competition at the bottom of the ladder is getting tighter with each passing week, with Kawhi Leonard and Luka Doncic each making promising cases while the HEAT’s Jimmy Butler has been a triple-double machine. But the selection here, at least this week, is Giannis Antetokounmpo, fresh off a game against the Los Angeles Clippers in which he put up 36 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists.
In the last six games, the Bucks have put together a five-game win streak, with Antetokounmpo averaging 33.6 points, 13 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.7 blocks per game. “The Greek Freak’s” per game numbers have soared as Milwaukee’s overall success has grown, with his numbers inching closer to that of his MVP seasons. His success was even recognized around the league, with Antetokounmpo most recently named Eastern Conference Player of the Week.
While Antetokounmpo has a lot of work to do to make up lost ground in the MVP race, the Bucks’ recent play should have him among the top vote-getters despite some likely voter fatigue.
The period after the All-Star break is when teams buckle down and commit to playoff runs, separating the pretenders from the contenders. The feeling here is that the same will happen with the MVP race and that one true leader of the pack will soon emerge. Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for the next MVP ladder!
NBA PM: Boston At The Crossroads
Boston’s not-so-recent struggles may leave them with some tough decisions to make, writes Matt John.
There’s no need really to ask “what’s wrong with the Boston Celtics?” because it seems pretty clear as day what’s wrong with them. Jayson Tatum hasn’t returned to his dominant form since coming back from COVID. Kemba Walker’s slow recovery has led to maddening inconsistency. Marcus Smart’s calf injury put things out of whack. They don’t have the support from their rotation players that they once did. And, as it turns out, losing Gordon Hayward can sting a little.
A team that seemingly hadn’t skipped a beat since losing in the Eastern Conference Finals has now become losers of 14 of their last 23 games. Their last three losses were particularly demoralizing.
- They had a 24-point lead over New Orleans, only to lose by five in overtime.
- They lost on a buzzer-beater by Luka Doncic in a tight game against Dallas.
- They got crushed by Atlanta in a double-digit loss that looked much worse than the box score showed.
Now here they are, standing at 17-17 and the blame game very much up and about. Pretty much everyone on the Celtics’ end unanimously agrees that the team is underperforming. That’s not a good look seeing they were the only franchise to have two All-Stars and a losing record at the same time.
The one excuse they have at their disposal is that they’ve never had their team at full strength. Sadly for them, it’s hard to know if full health will ever be an option with the current roster. That starts and ends with Kemba Walker. Working Walker back slowly is definitely the right move with his gimpy knee, but when he’s taken the court, his return to form has come in baby steps. He’s having more good nights than bad in recent weeks – scoring 32 points on 53/40/100 splits to go with 6 assists in a victory against Indiana cements his best performance of the season – but that’s not ideal for a player on a max contract.
He has yet to prove that he can play like the All-NBA player that Boston brought him to be – or even that he can play on a night-in, night-out basis. Those are two tough hurdles alone. Beyond that, who knows how long it’ll be before he gets it all back? If he gets it all back.
There’s plenty of season left and, from the looks of things, this team desperately needs the All-Star break to regroup. At 17-17 and the losses piling on in recent weeks, it seems that Boston has reached an impasse. Do they stick it out and ride this bad stretch hoping that the rotation gets it together or is this team due for a massive mid-season overhaul?
To answer that, first, consider how straight-up bizarre this anomaly of a season has been. Even in a 30-game span, teams have managed to flip the switch on their seasonal outlook.
It wasn’t too long ago that Toronto’s subpar play was building up a lot of ‘blow it up’ chatter. Now they’re right back in the playoff race with no signs of falling back. It only took a month for them to pull a 180. Further, it wasn’t that long ago that Washington was playing so poorly and Bradley Beal completely dead inside when he took the court.
Bradley Beal body language during the 1st half pic.twitter.com/qOMXk55CHc
— Main Team (@MainTeamSports) February 1, 2021
Now, the Wizards have won seven of their last 10. Suddenly, they’re not too far behind in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Their start made them look worse than they actually were – now, they’re one of the hottest teams in the league.
And remember when Brooklyn had the league’s worst defense after selling the farm for James Harden? About that…
Nets defensive rating rank since the Harden trade
First 14 games: 30th
Last 8 games: 12th
They have won 8 games in a row. pic.twitter.com/zQSIY3mgAB
— StatMuse (@statmuse) February 26, 2021
And they’ve done just that without MVP candidate Kevin Durant. The point is, this season was going to come with a lot of growing pains for just about everyone involved. There were expected twists and turns following the little time off between the Finals and opening night –it just wasn’t clear from whom.
For Boston, their season has flipped but in the exact opposite direction. Given the overall talent, Boston could be capable of flipping right back by virtue of patience and nothing else. The prospect of a healthier Walker and Smart would definitely seem like enough to get the season right back on track.
Even if time is all they need, that doesn’t mean a trade wouldn’t help them. The Celtics have the largest trade exception in NBA history to use – now more of a necessity than the perceived luxury it was a few months ago. After everything, general manager Danny Ainge has a spectacular ace in the hole.
An exception that can acquire someone as expensive as $28 million – so, potentially, a star-caliber player – would make teams salivate, but return ask is always much larger than imagined. Worse, only picks can be dangled – who might give up a legit piece without a young package in return? The answer is not many.
So although Bradley Beal and Nikola Vucevic would definitely turn the tides back in Boston’s favor, their teams would want more than just a treasure chest of first-rounders for them – and they might not even be available in the first place.
At this moment, the sellers market is beginning to settle, but that’s only in the Western Conference. Minnesota is firmly (and unsurprisingly) out of the race. Houston, Sacramento and Oklahoma City are not too far above them. If their seasons continue to freefall, that gives the Celtics options, albeit not the best ones.
Victor Oladipo aside, options like Harrison Barnes and George Hill aren’t often thought of as game-changers that can pivot the course of a season. Still, they’re better than what Boston has to support Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Walker and Smart.
So they can hold steady and pray for the best or trade for some help with draft assets. Then there’s the nuclear option: make some wholesale changes – an option that likely starts with Walker.
Walker never getting back to normal is a frightening – and real – possibility. As pessimistic and quick to judge as it sounds, maybe what we see is what we get. Someone who can put together a string of excellent performances, just not enough to maintain consistency. If this is who he is, given Boston’s lofty internal expectations, then they may not have a choice but to trade him.
At this point, trading him for something of value is probably out of the question. Just getting him off the roster would require including assets on top of him. Executives would usually rather swallow those contracts wholly or stretch them before giving up assets to part with a bad deal. Boston’s only hope would be to trade him for an equally bad contract that would better support the Celtics than Walker currently is.
That is a tall order, but still doable. Without naming names, we’ve seen players with previously declared ‘untradeable’ get moved, so nothing is impossible.
But odds are high that Walker will get all the time he needs before such a drastic decision is made. As bad as it’s looked for Boston in recent weeks, the wins against Indiana and Washington boosted them from ninth to sixth in the Eastern Conference race. They’re one good stretch from being right back where they were before the walls came crashing down on them.
Long-term, the Celtics should be fine. Tatum and Brown, of course, have already led them to two conference finals appearances over the last three years. While this stretch, which has objectively been one the worst in the Brad Stevens era, just seems so troubling for a team as successful as Boston has been for the last several years.
And for a team that once seemed to have all the time in the world, time might be of the essence for them now.
NBA Daily: The Jrue Holiday Effect
Drew Maresca examines how good the Bucks can be with Jrue Holiday back in Milwaukee’s lineup.
Jrue Holiday’s return from a bout with the novel coronavirus was uneventful. He played just under 18 minutes, tallying only 2 points and 3 assists. But despite Holiday’s ineffective outing, the Milwaukee Bucks still pulled out a win against the second-best team in the Western Conference. So just imagine how good they’ll be once Holiday fits back in.
Fitting in in itself isn’t that big of a challenge for a guy like Holiday. Coach Mike Budenholzer raved about his impact after a December win, according to BehindtheBuckPass.com. Opposing coaches, including Steve Kerr, did the same. And even the otherwise go-at-it-alone superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo seemed to give Holiday his stamp of approval, agreeing to a supermax extension after the trade for him was consummated.
But the fact remains that basketball is a team sport that requires cohesion – which is predicated on time and repetition. This year’s Bucks team – like any team that made major additions in the abbreviated offseason, training camp and preseason – simply didn’t have enough time to form the necessary on-the-court continuity.
Still, the Bucks probably felt pretty good about themselves entering the 2020-21 season. The price for Holiday was pretty high – costing them Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, the draft rights to R.J. Hampton (the team’s 2020 first-round pick), another two future first-round picks (unprotected) and two additional pick swaps – but that’s the cost of adding a borderline superstar.
But everyone around the team seemed satisfied with the move.
“Jrue is an incredibly high character person and one of the premier guards in the NBA,” Bucks general manager Jon Horst told the media shortly after the trade was consummated. “He will make us better on both ends of the floor, as he’s an elite defender and a proven playmaker on offense with the ability to score, shoot and facilitate. His experience will help our team and we are thrilled to welcome him and his family to Milwaukee.”
High praise from the new boss – but not surprisingly, the lack of preparation resulted in relative struggles. Milwaukee entered Sunday’s matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers with a 20-13 record, good for third in the conference. And while that’s quite good, it’s actually a step back for the Bucks, who won 28 of their first 33 games last season.
Specifically, Holiday numbers are down, at least when comparing his season averages to prior efforts. Holiday is posting 16.4 points, 5.4 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game through 23 games in 2020-21. He’s scoring nearly five less per game less than he did during his best season (2018-19), although he’s doing so in 32.5 minutes per game – down from the 35.6 average over the past three seasons.
But Holiday appears to be a quick study. Through the first 11 games, Holiday averaged just 14.6 points 5.0 assists and 4.2 rebounds in 31 minutes per game. And he was shooting just 47.7 percent from the field and 36.7 percent on three-point attempts. However, through the next 12 games, Holiday increased his tally, scoring 18.0 points, dishing out 5.8 assists and grabbing 5.3 rebounds per game on 52.1 percent shooting from the field and 40.3 percent on three-point attempts.
Further, Holiday is second in the league in steals per game (1.9) across the entire season, and he has the second-best defensive plus/minus and PER (19.9) on the team, as well as the third-highest assist percentage (22.6 percent).
So it appeared as though, despite acclimating to a new team with a new system, Holiday was fitting in quicker than most would have thought. But the chaos that began in 2020 wasn’t done yet. Holiday got COVID-19 a few weeks ago and, as a result, he was forced to miss 10 consecutive games prior to Sunday’s contest against the Clippers.
Examining the Bucks’ last 10 games makes Holiday’s value and impact all the more evident. Sure, Milwaukee won four in a row, but they also went 1-5 before that – which adds up to a 5-5 record without Holiday. What’s more, their four-game winning streak came against Oklahoma City, Sacramento, Minnesota and New Orleans, four of the five worst teams in the Western Conference.
Further, the Bucks, who boast the league’s 10th best defense with a defensive rating of 110.6 including the past 10 games without Holiday, were suddenly giving up nearly four more points per game without Holiday than they did prior to his entering the league’s health and safety protocols
Admittedly, that return looked particularly difficult against seven-time All-Star Paul George. Maybe that’s why head coach Mike Budenholzer brought Holiday off of the bench, restricting him to only 18 minutes of playing time. Holiday looked rusty, notching only 2 points and 3 assists.
Still, Holiday was on the court in crunch time, demonstrating his value for all of Milwaukee to see. The long-time veteran was involved in the most important play of the game, dishing the hockey assist on the game-securing bucket – driving and drawing the defense before swinging the ball to the corner, which eventually led to Antetokounmpo flying in for an emphatic dunk.
Holiday spoke with the media following the game about how he felt in his first game since getting over his bout with the COVID-19 virus.
“Conditioning is just a little behind,” Holiday said. “I felt like I was a step slow. Again, just being able to play against actual NBA players in NBA games is so different from in practice.”
So Holiday is back, but he’s not back just yet — and still, the Bucks beat a healthy Clippers team, which is a feat for any squad. It’s not hard to imagine how good they’ll be once he’s fully healthy and conditioned.
Ultimately, adding Holiday was a stroke of genius for the Bucks, and the finished product isn’t even here yet. Subject to recency bias, it’s understandable why the media and fans alike have gravitated toward the Brooklyn Nets, but don’t forget about the Bucks because they’re not the same team they were last year – and Holiday is the reason why.