Back in February, at New York University’s School of Professional Studies Tisch Institute for Sports Management, Media, and Business, David Stern gave a lecture on his commissionership and his 30-year tenure with the National Basketball Association.
Afterward, Commissioner Stern was kind enough to give me a few minutes of his time to discuss a number of things related to the NBA, its business, the new labor agreement and some of the issues that Commission Adam Silver has already had to deal with over the course of the early going of his tenure.
“[Adam]’s doing a great job,” Stern told Basketball Insiders.
“He’s entitled to it. He’s been with me for 22 years in five different positions, but he’s always reported to me. As I told the owners, he’s ready and he’s proven it in the first year of his commissionership by 110 percent.”
During the last round of labor negotiations, it was Silver who was the most active voice for the league and its interests. Having already emerged as an influential figure and ally for Stern, the league and its players eventually ratifying what many saw as a more owner-friendly collective bargaining agreement was a sign of good things to come.
The swiftness with how he dealt with the Donald Sterling situation and the league’s $24 billion television deal are two other episodes that reflect positively on the new commissioner.
“I think it’s something that we got to but it is where we were going,” Stern told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s great and I’m very excited for Adam and the owners and the franchise values. I had no doubt it would happen, but it’s great to see it actually happen.”
Indeed, as I spoke with Stern about Silver “hitting the ground running,” the league was still two weeks away from the 2015 All-Star Weekend, and by this point, there had been a lot of concern coming from the players union regarding the toll that travel and four games in five-night stretches had on players over the course of the long season.
Quite a few general managers shared those concerns and it quickly became something quite rare—an issue upon which the league’s management and its players union agreed.
A few weeks later, in addressing the media at Barclays Center on All-Star Saturday night, Silver let it be known that the league had taken note of the concerns that had been shared by both its Board of Governors and the union, and he addressed them, head-on. The hope, according to Silver, is to eliminate the four games in five nights and to both reduce travel frequency and even back-to-backs.
The other elephant in the room, however, was playoff reform. It is something that even the league’s players were discussing, and in several conversations with the likes of Wesley Matthews, Tim Duncan, DeMarcus Cousins, James Harden and Damian Lillard, the prevailing sentiment from them was that reform was something that would ultimately benefit the league, its playoff system and competitive balance.
And for all that he has done so far, including taking a long, hard look at lottery form, it is that—playoff reform—which will be the first decision that Silver makes (or, at the very least, guides) that will have a direct impact on the on-court product of the league.
“[Playoff reform] is something that’s been talked about for a very long time,” Stern told Basketball Insiders. Still, the former commissioner, showing reverence to his understudy, refused to go on record with a recommendation as to what he thinks Silver should do.
“Let’s wait and see what [Silver] does,” Stern said with a smile. “I’m sure he’ll do the right thing.”
And as we chatted about the state of the NBA, some of his regrets from his 30-year tenure with the league and how he currently spends his time, I remembered being at Madison Square Garden when Stern announced the drafting of LeBron James. I remembered how he, along with the other superstars of today—Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose and Stephen Curry—assisted veteran ticket sellers like Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett with the continued thriving of the league in the box office.
Amazingly, as I have had a first-hand view over the past 10 years, I realized, standing in front of the gray and clearly (although gracefully) aging Stern, that time truly does fly.
* * * * *
It has been 11 long years since the NBA realigned and divided its 30 teams into six divisions. With the Charlotte Hornets being reintegrated into the league as the Bobcats, the league had 30 teams competing and the four divisions—the Atlantic, Central, Pacific and Midwest—had seemingly become a bit too cramped.
The league realigned and it took 11 long years for the improbable to happen. As the want for playoff seeding changes became universal and Silver addressed the issue at All-Star Weekend, the league would see one of the most competitive playoff races in its history conclude with the 45-win Oklahoma City Thunder failing to qualify out in the Western Conference. For the first time since the realignment, all five teams from one division qualified for the postseason.
The Southwest Division—long having been the most competitive in the entire league—finally made modern history. Four teams won at least 50 games and the New Orleans Pelicans—by virtue of defeating the San Antonio Spurs on the final night of the regular season—squeaked past the injury-riddled Thunder, by virtue of a tie-breaker, for the final playoff spot in the conference.
Meanwhile, had the Thunder won 45 games as an Eastern Conference team, they would have earned the sixth seed and would have engaged in a competitive first round battle with the Chicago Bulls. It came as no surprise, then, when the league announced that it was moving forward with the recommendation that playoff seedings no longer be determined by division standing.
That is something that Basketball Insiders argued in this very space, as the Spurs dropped their seven-game first round series to the Los Angeles Clippers. The two teams did battle as the third and sixth seeds, despite the fact that each had a better record than the fourth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers.
The 56-win Clippers hosted the 55-win Spurs while the 51-win Blazers, by virtue of their fourth seed, did battle with the 55-win Grizzlies. Had the teams simply been aligned by their win-loss record, the Blazers would have drawn the Clippers in the first round while the Spurs would have battled the Grizzlies.
That would have robbed the fans of what many consider to have been the best playoff series of this past postseason, but it may have resulted in a similarly great second round matchup featuring Spurs trying their luck against the Golden State Warriors.
Regardless, the league should generally want to give teams with the better regular season record better odds of advancing further. In the very recent past, teams, players and coaches have been outspoken in their increasingly firm belief that the regular season “doesn’t matter,” and it is difficult to argue against that in the grand scheme of things.
It becomes impossible to argue that when a 55-win team, by virtue of division and seeding rules, earns a lower seed than a clearly inferior team playing in a weaker division.
With LaMarcus Aldridge leaving Portland to join the Spurs and Durant presumably returning to full health this coming season, it is quite likely that the Northwest Division will again feature just one playoff team. If, at the end of the day, the Thunder earn the fourth seed with a 52-win record and were seeded above the second and third place teams from the Southwest, irrespective of record, that would be more than unfortunate.
That would have been asinine.
Fortunately, Silver recognized this and has recommended a welcomed change.
As we speak, I am told, the league is working through numerous permutations and suggestions as to how to better strike competitive balance during the actual playoffs. From what I understand, the league is not currently considering going with a playoff-seeding approach that will take the top 16 teams across all conferences, but there is a belief that something will be done to severely reduce the probability of a team with a losing record qualifying for the playoffs.
First thing is first, though. And Silver deserves credit.
August 1, 2015 marks exactly 18 months since he took over the helm of the league that we love so dearly. If there is one thing he has proven over these 18 months, it’s that he is not afraid to discuss and tackle the issues that truly matter.
And that is something that his mentor, David Stern, is not surprised by.
“I think he has done a great job,” Stern told me back in February.
“We worked together for 22 years,” he said.
“Sometimes, the line was indiscernible between who was doing ‘it,’ him or me. So our success over much of the last 30 years was a shared enterprise.”
As Silver continues leading the league into tomorrow, expect he and his staff to continue looking at the issues that truly matter—those that impact the on-court product.
After 18 months, it is difficult to disagree with Stern. Yes, Silver has done a great job.
Best rest assured, both lottery reform and an overhaul to the current playoff system are being looked at intently. There is still much work to be done.
NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles
Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.
Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.
That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.
Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.
All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.
Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.
The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.
“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”
The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.
Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.
Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.
Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.
After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.
By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.
Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.
“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”
Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.
For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.
While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.
“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”
Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.
From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.
With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.
Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench
David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.
The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.
He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.
“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”
Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.
The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.
Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.
“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”
For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.
In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.
“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”
In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.
“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”
At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).
It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.
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.