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NBA Sunday: The Importance of Joakim Noah

Even with Derrick Rose, Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis, Joakim Noah is the biggest X-Factor for these Knicks.

Moke Hamilton

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Say what you want about Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose or Kristaps Porzingis, but whether the New York Knicks sink or swim this season may ultimately boil down to the productivity of one of their other new faces: Joakim Noah.

Of the four players, Noah has logged the least amount of preseason minutes and that’s disconcerting considering Rose – whose civil rape trial is expected to wrap up in the next few days – hasn’t even been with the team for more than a week.

To his credit, Noah has been there, just not on the court. He hasn’t appeared in a regular season game since January 15, has been limited in practice and missed the Knicks’ first three preseason games. Obviously, New York hopes that Noah’s season ends much more productively than it has begun.

And clearly, the hope is that he ends up being more than $72 million mascot over the next four years.

* * * * * *

Impatience and disappointment have been the hallmarks of the Knicks for as long as a generation of fans can remember. From trading Patrick Ewing away to acquiring Rose this summer, New York has long been a franchise obsessed with making a splash.

To use a baseball analogy, a run can be scored by hitting two singles and one sacrifice, but doing this isn’t nearly as sexy as hitting a solo home run. And the Knicks have long been swinging for the fences.

This has led to a series of disappointments. It began somewhere around the time when the franchise traded Ewing away and has continued all the way to the signing of Amar’e Stoudemire and, yes, the acquisition of Carmelo Anthony. It’s been a long 15 years marked mostly by futility that has spanned the tenures of five different general managers.

Under those circumstances, the benefit of the doubt is something that’s not only rare, but also undeserved.

Fair or not, when the Knicks do something – whether it be signing Jason Kidd or drafting Kristaps Porzingis – the assumption is that it’s going to end in a smoky, flaming rubble. It’s easy to understand why fans and pundits would assume the worst.

That’s why, predictably, from the moment Noah signed with the Knicks, much more time was spent focusing on the fact that he only appeared in 29 games last season than the fact that he finished fourth in Most Valuable Player voting just two years ago.

In the two seasons since, Noah has struggled to stay healthy and crossed the 30-year-old mark. In combination, those two facts aren’t welcomed. But when you’re the Knicks, the immediate assumption is that failure is imminent. Such assumptions aren’t unfounded, but they also don’t have any credible basis in fact.

This is precisely what makes the 2016-17 Knicks such an enigma.

If Noah can be anything close to the player we remember from the 2013-14 season – when he turned in per-game averages of 12.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.5 blocks – the Knicks could win 50 games, punch their ticket to the playoffs and maybe even challenge the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics for the Atlantic Division crown.

However, if Noah proves to be over the hill, has lost his court vision as well as his ability to create and lead fast breaks, the only trip the Knicks will be taking is to the 2017 draft lottery.

The truth is, despite what the Knicks get from Rose, Anthony or Porzingis, without Noah producing at a high level, they are destined to disappoint, especially with head coach Jeff Hornacek remaining at least partially committed to running the Triangle.

* * * * * *

Aside from being all-time great players, what Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal all have in common is that they collectively won zero championships before being coached by Phil Jackson.

Obviously, you could make the case that Jackson would have only succeeded if he had been “gifted” some of the greatest players to ever play the game. Or, of course, you could argue that Jackson was a catalyst for each of the aforementioned players becoming as great as they did.

Without Jordan for the 1993-94 season, Jackson led the Bulls to 55 wins. Without Jackson in the 2004-05 campaign, Rudy Tomjanovich and Frank Hamblen coached the Lakers to a disappointing 34 wins and a lottery appearance after 11 consecutive years in the playoffs. Jackson led a team consisting of many of the same parts to 45 and 42 wins in the incredibly competitive Western Conference. And notably, from the moment he left their sides, the work habits, dedication and focus of Shaquille O’Neal, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom all began to regress – the latter two in dramatic fashion.

The point is this: there is just as much evidence of Jackson truly being an amazing head coach as there is evidence that he’s an opportunist who made the most of what he was given. But even if his greatest gift is maximizing the talent at his disposal, that would still make him an all-time great. In fact, that is precisely a coach’s primary responsibility.

For the duration of his coaching career, Jackson has been married to the Triangle. In a league marked by big men encouraged to expand their three-point range and free-flowing offenses, the meticulous thinking and game-reading required of the Triangle Offense is something that fans have been mostly sold a farce.

Winning in the NBA requires three things: an effective system, players who can run it and a coach who can tie the two together. Those who believe that teams playing within the Triangle are running a system that is “outdated” or otherwise incapable of winning in today’s NBA are simply wrong.

It always has been and always will be about how the personnel interacts with the coach and system.

If DeMarcus Cousins, Paul George and Klay Thompson ever found themselves on the same team and running the Triangle, they would have an easy time being an elite squad. Of course, one could argue that with players that talented, wins would come no matter what system was employed. Still, the Triangle is a system that is based on mathematics and sound principles that coaches at every level teach. What makes it most unique is that, at any given moment, a ball handler must be able to pass to any of his four teammates. That’s where game-reading and off-ball player movement becomes vital.

Knowing this, Jackson went out on the open market and signed Noah—a rare players whose position and skill sets makes him an oddly unique fit. His health now becomes the primary question.

* * * * * *

At his best, Noah, more than any other center in the league, has demonstrated the qualities of the prototypical triangle center – with Pau Gasol coming in a close second. What separates the two, aside from championship rings, is that Noah sees the floor better and is a more gifted passer. He has also demonstrated the ability to penetrate and handle the ball quite well for a man his size. At his best, en route to winning the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2014, he also showed an ability to guard all five positions on the floor. Gasol doesn’t have the requisite foot speed and, in fact, is often the target of pick-and-roll switch schemes designed to take advantage of his defensive limitations, especially as he has declined later in his career.

Looking at the 2016-17 Knicks, one could make the case that the team could patch the hole and be alright should any of the other four starters around Noah go down. The veteran center would be the most difficult to replace should he get hurt. There is no other center in the entire league who has the collection of talent that he has demonstrated, and there certainly isn’t another on the team’s roster.

For that reason, in the end, it may be up to Noah to determine just how far the New York Knicks go.

Or, in this case, whether they go anywhere at all.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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