With the clock ticking and Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals knotted at 89-89, J.R. Smith set the fateful screen on Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry switched out onto Kyrie Irving. The four men probably had no idea that they had just begun one of the most memorable plays in NBA history.
What happened next—Irving’s hitting what may have been the biggest shot in Cleveland’s basketball history—is something that will be overlooked for many years to come.
Sure, LeBron James had scratched, clawed and dragged the Cleveland Cavaliers to the point where they were a single made shot away from pulling off one of the most improbable upsets in quite some time, but he needed someone to step up and help him finish the job.
When he needed him most, Kyrie Irving showed up for LeBron James, and what should give fans of the Cavaliers and James himself pleasant thoughts is the fact that the 24-year-old Irving still has a lot to learn about playing the position of point guard at the highest level. And as we watch Team USA bruise and batter some of the lesser caliber opponents they will encounter on their way to a medal at the Olympics in Rio, Kyrie Irving is the player I’m most interested in watching.
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I have long held Jason Kidd out as being one of the top point guards in history and the best one I’ve ever seen play with my own eyes. What made Kidd special was that he seemingly had a unique ability to see the future on the basketball court. During his finest years as a member of the New Jersey Nets, Kidd had an ability to know which one of his running mates—Kerry Kittles, Keith Van Horn or Kenyon Martin—needed a shot. Kidd knew the temperament of his teammates and knew that he and Byron Scott had built a culture based on ball movement and shot sharing and, as a result, Kidd would act on the court with the intention of getting a particular guy a shot at a particular moment.
If Kidd knew that Kenyon Martin—a ferocious finisher and a poor man’s Amar’e Stoudemire in his prime—needed a shot, he would grab a rebound, do an about face and race up the court as quickly as he could to either find Martin for an alley-oop or find him trailing. Martin flourished in the open floor and in open space and Kidd not only knew that, he knew how to manipulate the game and his opponents to fall into the trap he set for Martin’s benefit.
Kidd knew the tendencies of Kerry Kittles and knew that Kittles was most effective as a spot shooter, so if Kidd found himself being guarded by a smaller player, he would post his defender, force a double-team and then flawlessly execute a skip pass and find Kittles for a wide-open look.
Kidd was a point guard genius, and the only other player that I’ve ever seen come close to his mastery of the game on the court is Chris Paul. In terms of game and situation management, Russell Westbrook and John Wall have made major strides toward seeing and playing the game within the game.
Kyrie Irving? He isn’t even in the same stratosphere.
And that, when you think about it, is a scary, scary proposition.
For all that he is on the basketball court, Kyrie Irving isn’t a floor general. But now, as Team USA takes their talents to Rio de Janeiro in search of the country’s third consecutive gold medal since falling short in Athens in 2004, Irving will face a challenge unlike one he’s encountered before.
Since being drafted with the first overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, Irving was essentially given the freedom to do as he pleased on the basketball court with minimal accountability. Under both Byron Scott and Mike Brown, Irving was seen as the golden child with whom the Cavaliers had to figure things out. If and when there were players or situations that couldn’t mix with Irving, the decision was easy. Before recently, Irving had failed to have been challenged the way that Erik Spoelstra challenged LeBron James and he certainly hasn’t been challenged to curb his game or his gifts for the benefit of any of the teammates that he had prior to James returning to Cleveland.
Now, with Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, Stephen Curry, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade sitting out these Olympics, Irving, perhaps for the first time in his career, will be surrounded by similarly capable players for whom he must not only play with, but play for.
It’s a new situation for him and, in the long run, he will probably be better for it.
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What’s most interesting about Team USA is that, after seeing the rise of “small ball” and three-point shooting dominate the NBA over the past few years, the team will carry two true centers to Brazil—DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus Cousins. One could make the argument that Cousins and Draymond Green, two front court players, are the best play makers on the team. Paul George ranks up there, as well, but neither of these three are likely to have the ball in their hands more than the likes of the team’s primary perimeter ball handlers. Of them, Irving is best equipped to handle the lead guard responsibilities. He can get break defenders down off the dribble, get to the basket, finish in traffic and connect on midrange shots. The biggest adjustment for him, however, will be to marry his skill set and his strengths with the ability to find the likes of Paul George, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Klay Thompson for easy and efficient scoring opportunities.
On July 30, Team USA defeated Venezuela in their penultimate exhibition match before beginning Olympic competition and the results weren’t pretty. The Americans walked away with an 80-45 victory but shot just 28-for-66 from the field. In NBA competition, that wouldn’t necessarily represent an horrendous shooting night, but in Olympic competition and especially against an inferior Venezuelan team, that won’t get it done.
A dependable on-ball playmaker is something that is missing from the 2016 Olympic team, and just as it was when LeBron James needed him then, it’s on Kyrie Irving now.
To most, it’s a foregone conclusion that the Americans will walk away from Rio with a gold medal, but in order for them to do so—in order for them to outlast France, Seriba, Lithuania, Argentina and Spain—they’re going to need to find something that doesn’t appear to be in abundance on their roster.
So between the blowouts and the less-than-stellar competition, keep an eye on Irving and whether and to what extent he handles the playmaking and play calling duties for Team USA and head coach Mike Krzyzewski. It’s a game within the game, and if Irving uses this platform and talents he has around him to develop into a cerebral floor general, it may pay major dividends in the near future.
Already one of the most gifted players in the league, there is still so much further Irving can go. And as the Americans board their flight to head to Brazil, he too may be readying ascent to the next level.
The mere thought should send shudders across the entire league.
Rookie Of The Year Watch – 01/17/18
Shane Rhodes checks in on a tightening Rookie of the Year race.
As the old adage goes, time flies when you’re having fun. And this NBA season sure has flown.
Not only has there been some great storylines this regular season, there has been even better basketball and, in recent days, plenty of petty fights or squabbles to satisfy the rowdiest of fans.
Still, nothing is more satisfying than winning. And while most rookies aren’t in a position to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy, they are in a position to take home another award; Rookie of The Year. The 2017 rookie class has been one of the more fun and exciting classes in a long time. But, at the season’s midpoint, who is leading the pack?
6. Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers
While the shot still isn’t there, Lonzo Ball pretty much does everything else well for the Los Angeles Lakers. Averaging a solid 10.2 points to go along with 7.1 rebounds and assists per game, Ball has been an all-around contributor for this young Laker squad and has done it all while playing under the crushing pressure of his father LaVar and the city of Los Angeles. He often tries to get everyone involved in the offense and is constantly pushing the tempo. While it hasn’t resulted in many Laker wins yet, it surely will in time.
However, when I say his shot isn’t there yet, it really isn’t there. Ball’s current shooting splits of 35.6/30.3/40.8 from the floor, three and the line, while improved on his early season numbers, are pretty much a disaster; certainly not what the Lakers expected when they took him second overall. While there have been flashes of the player that shot over 40 percent from beyond the arc at UCLA, Ball’s shooting has been streaky at best but those numbers, alongside his form, should continue to improve over time. The Lakers will need it to if they want to have any chance of climbing the Western Conference ladder in the near future.
5. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls
Lauri Markkanen has played a major role in the recent surge by the Chicago Bulls. While it may seem strange to say that a 17-27 team is surging, not many people thought the Bulls would win this many games over the course of the whole season after trading star Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the offseason.
Markkanen has averaged 15.5 points to go along with 7.6 rebounds per game this season while shooting 43 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from three. While those numbers have dipped since the beginning of the season, Markkanen still ranks fifth among rookies in three-point percentage. The return of guard Zach LaVine alongside the emergence of Kris Dunn — both acquired in the trade with Minnesota — should go along way in alleviating the offensive burden on the Finnish forward as well.
Markkanen’s defense is really the only thing holding back his game; 0.6 blocks per game seems a little too low for someone who stands at seven-feet tall, while his 108.4 defensive rating leaves a little something to be desired.
4. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers
At this point in the season, Kyle Kuzma is still, by far, the steal of the draft for the Lakers.
Averaging 16.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, Kuzma ranks third among rookies in scoring while he sits fifth and sixth in rebounding and three-point percentage, respectively. He has certainly forced his way into the Lakers’ future as a building block, but Kuzma needs to do more on the offensive end outside of scoring the ball. His assist percentage of 9.6 is among the lowest of the team’s regular rotation and could certainly stand to improve as the Lakers continue to push to become a more ball movement oriented team.
Kuzma’s defense, while not terrible, could use some improvement as well. Kuzma isn’t overly athletic, so he has trouble keeping up with smaller forwards and guards when switched onto them. Improving his agility and or quickness could go a long way here.
3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Most rookies in Jayson Tatum’s position — playing on a Conference contender — don’t have much of a shot at taking home Rookie of the Year. That fact alone makes what Tatum has done this season for the Boston Celtics that much more impressive.
Averaging 13.8 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, Tatum has played an integral role for the Celtics, who currently sit comfortably atop the Eastern Conference. He remains one of the most efficient rookies on offense, shooting 49.9 percent from the floor and 46 percent from three while maintaining in the poise of a veteran in late game situations. Tatum plays a large part in Boston’s elite, league-leading defense as well, and his defensive rating of 99.1 paces all rookies.
There hasn’t been much to complain about when it comes to Tatum outside his aggressiveness on the offensive end. As the Celtics’ fourth option, Tatum doesn’t really need to shoulder much of a load on offense, but it would still be nice to see him to at least attempt create his own shot on a consistent basis when he is running with the second unit.
2. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
There is no doubt about it, Donovan Mitchell has been the most explosive, if not most exciting, rookie in this class. His 18.9 points per game leads all rookies while his scoring and high-flying athletic ability have created more than a few highlights for the Utah Jazz in recent weeks. Mitchell is also second among rookies in total steals, registering 61 pickpockets on the season.
In the absence of Rudy Gobert, Mitchell has managed to keep the Jazz somewhat afloat in the tough Western Conference. The two should certainly form an interesting pick-and-roll tandem when Gobert returns and, sitting at 10th in the West with a 17-26 record, they are capable of making a late-season push into the bottom of the playoff picture.
The only problem with Mitchell, as it has been all season, is his efficiency. Mitchell is shooting just 44 percent from the field and 34.9 percent from three, but a lot of that has to do with his 28.4 percent usage rate. As the Jazz return Gobert and others, Mitchell’s usage rate should drop, which should coincide with a drop in field goal attempts and an uptick in his shooting percentages.
1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
For better or worse, this award is still Ben Simmons’ to lose. He hasn’t been the dominant player he was in the early season for the Philadelphia 76ers, but Simmons still has a leg up on most rookies thanks to his athletic ability, court vision and ball-handling skills. Simmons and his 16.8 points, eight rebounds and 7.1 assists per game are still a matchup nightmare against most teams due to his sheer size when compared to the average point guard as well.
Simmons is not without his faults, however. Whether it’s because he is shooting with the wrong hand or something else, Simmons’ jump shot needs plenty of work. While he’s shooting 51.3 percent from the field, most of his attempts are dunks or hooks close to the basket. He still has yet to make a three-point attempt, taking just 10 on the season. Simmons’ lack of shooting means defenses can almost completely ignore him outside the paint while the offense goes into a pit when fellow star Joel Embiid is on the bench; that will need to change if the 76ers want to be the powerhouse The Process has led them to believe they will become.
Again, Rookie of The Year is Simmons’ award to lose. However, if he is unable to adjust his offensive game — especially when Joel Embiid sits — he will begin to feel plenty of pressure from his fellow rookies who are on the rise.
NBA Daily: Jayson Tatum: Boston’s X-Factor
Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum speaks to Michael Scotto about his early adjustments and success.
When All-Star Gordon Hayward dislocated his ankle and fractured his tibia five minutes into the season, the outlook changed drastically for the Boston Celtics this season.
“I think our group, going into the season, there were a lot of expectations with Gordon [Hayward] and then the injury happens, and a lot of our younger guys had to grow up a lot quicker,” Celtics center Al Horford told Basketball Insiders on January 6 before facing the Brooklyn Nets. “It has given our team an opportunity to develop, to embrace the challenge that we have in front of us, and it’s opened up a lot of playing time for guys.
“I feel like we’re taking advantage of it. We’re growing as a group and, really, I feel like there’s no ceiling for our group. As long as we keep defending and keep doing the things that we need to do on the defensive end, I think it’s going to put us in a position to be successful.”
Those expectations included challenging the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Eastern Conference crown and potentially a championship.
In Hayward’s absence, the youngest player had to grow up the quickest: third overall pick Jayson Tatum.
“It just gave me more of an opportunity that I wouldn’t have had,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders in a video interview. “It’s definitely unfortunate that it had to come the way it did with one of our best players getting hurt, but we’ve all just had to contribute more, step up more losing him on the first night. We had 81 more games left, so we couldn’t make excuses for that.”
The 19-year-old forward has made the most of his opportunity as a full-time starter in his rookie campaign. Tatum is averaging 13.9 points while shooting 50 percent from the field, a league-leading 46 percent from beyond the arc, and 82 percent from the foul line as of January 16.
The 6-foot-8 forward has shown a penchant for coming through in the clutch halfway through the season. According to Basketball-Reference, Tatum has shot 60 percent from the field and 54 percent from beyond the arc in the fourth quarter.
The Eastern Conference December Rookie of the Month has taken some notes in the clutch from four-time All-Star Kyrie Irving.
“I grew up in high school and college seeing him on TV and now seeing it live on your own team,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders. “He’s one of the best players in the world, and he puts on a show each and every night.”
Tatum and Irving, both Duke alumni, played for coach Mike Krzyzewski and are in their first season under Celtics coach Brad Stevens.
Tatum notices differences between the two coaches who have molded the talented teenager.
“They’re both great terrific coaches,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders. “Coach K has been coaching for a long time, but they definitely both know a lot. Brad is a lot more chill, Coach (K) is a lot more fired up, slapping the floor and yelling at guys. I definitely respect them both, and it’s an honor to play for both of them.”
Stevens’ defensive system has helped Tatum realize the defensive potential that drew comparisons to Paul George from scouts and executives before the draft. According to Basketball-Reference, the rookie is tied for third in defensive win shares with George (2.5) and ranks eighth in defensive rating (101.5).
On offense, Tatum has put in time with trainer Drew Hanlen of Pure Sweat Basketball to work on his isolation moves and improve his 3-point shooting. Tatum shot a pedestrian 34 percent from 3-point range at Duke, but now leads the NBA shooting 46 percent from beyond the arc.
Thus far, Tatum has shown encouraging flashes of becoming the player he ultimately wants to be on both sides of the court.
“Just being in the All-Star game as many times as possible, win MVP, win a championship,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders. “Everyone wants to win a championship. Just play as long as possible. Hopefully, I can do that.”
If Tatum continues to be near the top of the Rookie of the Year conversation, rise to the occasion in the fourth quarter and remain a lockdown defender and 3-point shooter, maybe he and the Celtics can realize those heightened expectations after all.
Is that a lot to ask of a 19-year-old?
However, as the NBA has learned, Tatum is no average teenager and the x-factor towards how far Boston can go this season.
NBA Daily: Surging HEAT Must Overcome Adversity
The Miami HEAT have been hit with a number of injuries at shooting guard. Can they stay hot?
The Miami HEAT have surged to fourth in the Eastern Conference on the back of a 14-5 stretch since Dec. 9, including a seven-game win streak that ended with Monday’s 119-111 loss to the Bulls in Chicago. In the loss, shooting guard Tyler Johnson got his legs tangled with Robin Lopez and appeared to suffer a serious injury.
“I was scared,” said HEAT small forward Josh Richardson, who joined his teammates in racing down the court to check on Johnson. “You never want to see a guy, whether it’s on your team or the other team, down like that. I talked to him when he was in here [the locker room] and he said he didn’t know what was up.”
Coach Erik Spoelstra told pool reporters after the game that X-rays were negative. It was initially feared to be a knee injury, but Spoelstra said the knee is okay and the ankle is the area of concern. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel tweeted that an MRI was not deemed necessary and Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee.
Tyler Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday's game against the Bucks, still with no plans for an MRI on his sprained left ankle sustained Monday in Chicago. He remains with the team, which did not practice Tuesday.
— Ira Winderman (@IraHeatBeat) January 16, 2018
Meanwhile, the HEAT is facing a serious shortage at shooting guard, having lost Dion Waiters to season-ending knee surgery, Rodney McGruder to a left tibia stress fracture that will likely keep him out until February, and now Johnson. Miami has applied for a $5.5 million disabled player exception after losing Waiters, according to the Sun-Sentinel. HEAT power forward James Johnson said the team will be looking for other players to step up.
“I think it’s the next guy’s gonna step up like we always do,” said Johnson. “As we have guys going down we also have guys getting back and getting back in their groove [like] Justise Winslow. Hopefully, it’s going to give another guy a chance to emerge on this team or in this league.”
Johnson added that the loss to Chicago came against a hot team and the HEAT didn’t have the right mental approach or defensive communication to slow them down.
“Our communication was lacking tonight,” said Johnson. “I think our brains rested tonight and that’s not like us. Tilt your hat to Chicago. They’re shooting the hell out the ball. They didn’t let us come back.”
Richardson echoed the theme of communication and the inability to counter a hot-shooting team.
“We weren’t communicating very well and we were not giving them enough static on the three-point line,” said Richardson. “They’ve been the number one three-point shooting team in the league for like 20 games now. They ran some good actions that we were not reacting right to.”
Spoelstra referred to a turnover-riddled close to the first half as “disgusting” basketball and agreed that the defense let his team down.
“I don’t know what our record is in HEAT franchise history when we give up 120-plus,” said Spoelstra. “I would guess that it’s probably not pretty good.”
The good news for Miami is that it can try a combination of Richardson and Winslow at the wings, while Wayne Ellington has been shooting the leather off the ball from three this season (40.5 percent on over seven attempts per game). The HEAT is the latest team to attempt to defy history by making a serious run without a superstar player. To make that a reality and remain in the upper half of the East’s playoff bracket, Miami will have to personify the “next man up” credo.