Considering how consistently successful the New York Yankees were under the stewardship of owner George Steinbrenner during the final 15 years of his reign, it’s hard to imagine a time when the Yanks struggled as mightily as the latter-day New York Knicks. However, the decade of the 1980’s up through the mid-90’s represented a relatively dark time for baseball fans in the Bronx.
Although we now think of the Yankees as a flagship MLB franchise, it certainly wasn’t always that way. For the disappointing Yankee teams of yesteryear, spending exorbitant sums of money didn’t result in postseason success. Beginning in 1982, the Yankees failed to qualify for the postseason for 13 straight seasons.
The Yanks made headlines for all the wrong reasons during this drastically disappointing stretch. Steinbrenner devolved into a caricature, his misdeeds landing him on the back page of the New York tabloids almost daily. Ruling as an angry despot with an iron fist, “The Boss” (as Steinbrenner came to be known) had his employees scurrying in fear.
This all came to an abrupt halt in July of 1990 when Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent launched an investigation which uncovered that Steinbrenner had paid $40,000 to a gambler named Howie Spira to dig up dirt on Yankee OF Dave Winfield (with whom Steinbrenner was feuding). As a result, Vincent took drastic action, banning Steinbrenner from the day-to-day operations of the Yankees organization.
Ironically, this allowed the Yankees, for the first time in a long time, to focus on developing their farm system, as opposed to relying on quick fixes and throwing excessive money at expensive free agents.
The Yanks began to sacrifice short-term, short-lived improvements for sustainable, long-term success. With ‘The Boss’ out of the picture, GM Gene “Stick” Michael (along with manager Buck Showalter) was finally allowed to patiently work his plan. Michael would sow the seeds that eventually blossomed into the epic dynasty that captured four World Series tiles in five years. And of course they have been a near constant in the postseason ever since.
Upon his return to the team in 1992, Steinbrenner’s desire to win had not decreased in any way; however, ‘The Boss’ did exhibit far greater patience and much greater willingness to listen to his sage GM. Steinbrenner would now allow himself to be talked into more prudent decisions. (The stories of Stick Michael convincing Steinbrenner not to trade away future stars such as Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera have become legendary.)
On the day Steinbrenner was suspended, he was anything but the beloved owner that was eulogized glowingly upon his passing in 2010. In fact, Steinbrenner was despised by many Yankee fans back in the 80’s and early 90’s.
However, the incredible success the organization enjoyed during the latter portion of his tenure as owner obviously changed popular opinion and public sentiment.
So, why on earth are we discussing the Yankees on a basketball site?
It’s because the current owner of the New York Knicks can learn an extremely valuable lesson from the late, great George Steinbrenner. Specifically, how an intrusive, hands-on owner took a step back and gradually changed his approach, which was essential in the evolution of the Yankee from league-wide laughingstock into a wildly successful flagship franchise.
Steinbrenner and Dolan are polar opposites in many, many ways. The Boss loved the spotlight and coveted the back page. Dolan, on the other hand, is a relative recluse who dodges any form of media attention as if it was a right hand from Mike Tyson. Not only would Steinbrenner speak with reporters on a daily basis, he would go out of his way to contact them personally in order to vent publicly. There were no secrets in Yankee universe. Conversely, the Knicks regime under Dolan has a hard-earned reputation as arguably the most closed-off organization in any of the four major sports.
Nonetheless, these two men are, in some important respects, very similar. Both inherited a fortune from their uber-successful fathers. In addition, they are both blissfully willing to spend whatever it takes to see their team win. Despite the obvious lack of success the Knicks have experienced since the Dolan took control of the team (just one playoff series win in fifteen years), the Knicks are among the league’s top spenders every single season.
Still, Knick fans are planning a protest next week on the steps of MSG in the hopes of forcing Dolan to sell the Knicks. Typically, when fans are angry enough to beg an owner to sell his squad, it’s because said owner is too cheap and refuses to put a competitive product on the floor.
This is certainly not the case in NYC.
Dolan has always been willing to go above-and-beyond in order to buy the best players. The issue has been he has often trusted the wrong people (such as Scott Layden and Isiah Thomas) to pick which players to pay for. And even when Dolan has hired smart, respected basketball lifers to call the shots (such as Donnie Walsh and Glen Grunwald) these men have been unceremoniously pushed out the door.
In recent years, as Walsh and Grunwald were brushed aside, Dolan seems to have become more and more hands on. By most accounts, it was Dolan who negotiated the blockbuster deal that sent four starters and multiple draft picks to Denver in exchange for Carmelo Anthony. Many have suggested Andrea Bargnani being represented by CAA played a very important role in Dolan approving that trade. It was also reported by numerous outlets that it was Dolan who ended up nixing a deal for Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, as Dolan became angered that news of the negotiations had been leaked.
As Dolan’s purported meddling in Knicks affairs has increased, the negative ramifications it has had on the roster have become more prominent. Similarly, the excessively restrictive media policy he enforces with an iron fist has been devastating to the franchise’s reputation around the league. Dolan needs to step aside and allow a trained professional clean up this mess, and eventually begin to rebuild the organization on a solid foundation.
Many Knicks fans have allowed a sense of hopelessness to sink in, and it’s hard to blame them. Clearly the NBA would have no reason to banish Dolan from the day-to-day operations of the team, as MLB had done with Steinbrenner nearly 25 years ago; but what if Dolan decided he’d adhere to a self-imposed exile? Is that what the Knicks need to snap out of this nightmarish rut they have been since 2001?
What if Dolan voluntarily agreed to do what was best for the franchise? This would mean stepping aside and ceding complete control to a respected, capable and competent general manager. Ideally, said GM would retain absolute authority regarding all basketball decisions, including the hiring of a new head coach?
There is an imposed limit (salary cap) on the amount of money an NBA owner can spend on players; yet there are no such limitations on what a team chooses to spend on its coaches and basketball executives. It’s hard to imagine the Knicks returning to respectability anytime soon, but with the team potentially looking at a boatload of cap space in 2015, there could be hope on the horizon.
Truth be told, last week, when this article was first conceived of, the rumors of Phil Jackson taking over in New York had not yet sprouted up. Of course the appeal of Jackson, and the 11 rings he brings to the table, is undeniably appealing. In many ways he is an absolute ideal fit, considering his strong will and impeccable pedigree, to lead a wholesale culture change within the hallowed halls of Madison Square Garden.
However, there are also obvious causes for concern. Jackson will soon be 69 years of age and has battled serious health issues, which have impeded his ability to travel. Will Jackson be willing to commit 100% to what is undoubtedly a full-time job that requires exceedingly long hours?
Still, while Jackson would be a bit of a gamble considering that he’s never held a similar position before, it seems well worth a roll of the dice. As the upside of having a qualified basketball mind calling the shots for the Knicks is self-evident.
However, at the end of the day, this is all about Dolan. Jackson, or any other respected executive tasked with rebuilding the Knicks, will only be as successful as Dolan allows them to be. If there is a power struggle, the guy who writes the checks will always win. In order for the Knicks to take significant strides forward, Dolan has to move out of the way and fade into the background.
Back in the summer of 1990, it seemed extremely unlikely that Steinbrenner would one day be adored and venerated by Yankees fans as he approached his 80th birthday. Could Dolan’s reign ever result in such respect and adulation? The only way may be Dolan willingly taking a far less intrusive role in the day-to-day operation of the organization he owns.
NBA Daily: Five Breakout Players To Watch — Pacific Division
Shane Rhodes takes a look at players in the Pacific Division that have a great chance to take a significant leap in the upcoming season.
Anything can happen in the NBA.
Every season, there are so many things that seem to come out of the blue, whether it be a team that was or wasn’t expected to be competitive or big trade that no one saw coming. There is just too much randomness involved in the day-to-day to be certain about anything.
But if there is one thing consistent in the NBA, it’s that there are always a few breakouts every season.
Pascal Siakam, Montrezl Harrell, Victor Oladipo, Nikola Jokić are a few that have made stepped out from behind the curtain and made their way to the NBA’s center stage over the last few seasons.
Basketball Insiders has already looked at the Atlantic, Central, Southeast, Northeast and Southwest — but which players could step into those shoes from the Pacific Division?
Landry Shamet, Los Angeles Clippers
After the Philadelphia 76ers traded him to the Los Angeles Clippers, Landry Shamet shined in a primary role. And now, after the Clippers’ serious roster improvement, the game should come even easier to Shamet in his sophomore season.
In 25 games with Los Angeles, Shamet averaged 10.9 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists while he shot 41.4% from the floor and 45% from three-point range with relatively little room to operate. On the season, he shot 42.2% from three, good for 11th-best in the NBA.
Now with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard expected to draw much of the defensive attention, Shamet – and the entire Clippers’ roster on the whole – should have plenty of room to operate.
Given weapons of George’s and Leonard’s caliber, opposing defenses should be stretched quite thin against Los Angeles. So, although he proved he was a plus-shooter, Shamet may find that other teams pay him relatively little mind when he has the ball. And, because of that, a jump in efficiency is firmly in Shamet’s range of possible outcomes in 2019, however hard that is to believe.
The Clippers won’t need Shamet to be a world-beater, just good enough to keep defenses honest when faced with George, Leonard and others. So, he may not see a meteoric rise in his total touches or field goal attempts per game, but it would be a surprise if there wasn’t a leap in his counting stats, namely points and assists.
If Shamet can take that boost and maintain a spot near the top of the league in three-point percentage, expect the NBA to take notice.
Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
Deandre Ayton had quite the impressive rookie season for the Phoenix Suns. Unfortunately, it went unnoticed by most because of the hype machine that was Luka Dončić.
Now in his second season, his first with a capable point guard on the roster, the NBA may not be ready for him.
Ayton averaged 16.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and shot 58.3% from the floor as a rookie in an offense that lacked a floor general and, outside of Devin Booker, struggled to create space. While Ricky Rubio isn’t an elite guard, he is more than capable of injecting some life into a Suns offense that was one of the worst in the NBA, both in terms of scoring and turnovers.
What does that mean, exactly? Some cleaner looks underneath should allow for a few more field goals, while the added spacing from Rubio, Cameron Johnson, Dario Šarić and others should open things up even more down on the block.
While he isn’t a marquee addition, Aron Baynes could also play a pivotal role on the Suns if he can get Ayton to buy in on the defensive end.
If he can step up his game on that end of the court, and take the necessary steps that are expected of him on offense, Ayton could prove one of the best young players in the NBA this season.
Bogdan Bogdanovič, Sacramento Kings
Like Ayton, the Sacramento Kings’ Bogdan Bogdanovič had quite an excellent, if not under the radar, rookie season. The 6-foot-6 wing averaged 14.1 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists in his second season and played a major role in the Kings’ turnaround after years of poor results.
That may seem like a breakout in and of itself. But, unfortunately, Bogdanovič’s play went largely unnoticed on the national stage because of his teammate, De’Aaron Fox, who had a breakout season of his own a year ago.
That said, with another offseason in the books, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Bogdanovič elevate his game further.
Bogdanovič should spend much of his time with the second unit. And, as the leader of the bench, he certainly shouldn’t lack for touches. Likewise, against opposing second units, Bogdanovič should come into his fair share of open shots or easy plays.
With Buddy Hield and Harrison Barnes clogging up space in the starting lineup, Bogdanovič may never see enough time to break out to a more national audience — barring a sixth-man role rise ala Lou Williams. That said, if he can maintain his efficiency, Bogdanovič’s play should prove competent enough to put him squarely in the conversation for Most Improved and, maybe, even Sixth Man of the Year.
And in his third season, if that isn’t a breakout for Bogdanovič then what is?
Avery Bradley, Los Angeles Lakers
It’s been an arduous journey for Avery Bradley.
In his last season with the Boston Celtics, Bradley was regarded as one of the NBA’s premier defenders and was more than capable on offense as he averaged 16.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists.
But since? Bradley has bounced between three different teams while his stats have dropped off and his defense has worsened. In two seasons between the Clippers, Detroit Pistons and Memphis Grizzlies, Bradley managed a meager 11.8 points per game while he averaged a defensive rating of 113, by far the worst of his career.
That said, Bradley’s stint with the Los Angeles Lakers could see a return to form. While the “best shape of his life” story is a yearly cliché, Bradley may truly be in the best shape of his life, having lost 40 pounds between his trade from Los Angeles to Memphis and the start of free agency.
Alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis, a healthy Bradley should prove more than capable as a secondary scorer, a role which would afford him enough energy to wreak havoc again on the defensive end.
He may not post a career year, but expect Bradley to once again look like the player he was for seven years in Boston as opposed to the question mark that has taken the court over the last two seasons.
Marquese Chriss, Golden State Warriors
Marquese Chriss, the No. 8 overall pick back in 2016, has been a flop to this point in his NBA career. But with the Golden State Warriors, Chriss may be in line for his best season as a pro and a potential breakout year.
There’s a reason the Suns regarded Chriss so highly as a prospect too — while at Washington, he showed he had the tools necessary to play the role of the NBA’s modern, floor-stretching big. He averaged 13.7 points, 5.4 rebounds and shot nearly 57% from the field and 35% from three-point range.
In Phoenix’s always dysfunctional system, Chriss struggled. After a production dip between rookie and sophomore seasons, the Suns cut bait and he bounced from the Houston Rockets to the Cleveland Cavaliers. There, Chriss showed some of that spark that made him a top pick, thought
Now with the Warriors, Chriss has impressed enough in training camp to push Alfonzo McKinnie from the roster. With little frontcourt depth beyond Draymond Green, Kevon Looney and Willie Cauley-Stein, there is a clear opportunity here and a role for Chriss to fill.
If he can take advantage, Chriss would certainly prove a worthwhile gamble for the Warriors and a nice surprise this season.
Any player could find themselves on the fast track to NBA stardom. Fox, Harrell, Siakam and D’Angelo Russell represent a few prime examples from a year ago; players can come out of nowhere to make their mark on the NBA stage, and that could prove true again this season.
But these players, via a combination of opportunity and or talent, would seem to have a greater chance to do so – maybe more so than anyone else – in the Pacific Division. If they step up or show out, don’t be surprised – their respective teams certainly won’t be.
How Magical Can Orlando Be?
In an Eastern Conference full of unknowns, the Orlando Magic stand out as one of the most prominent in that category. Matt John takes a look at the three players who should play a role in their progress this season.
As it stands right now, the Eastern Conference is wide open.
It definitely has its favorites, like the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. But even they have their question marks.
There are teams who could be at that level, or possibly higher should things break their way, like the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers. But, that remains to be seen; how they do depends on if their previously injured stars are back to normal and how much their young talent progresses.
Then there are others like the Brooklyn Nets, who honestly may have to wait a year before they’re put in the conversation, and the Miami HEAT, who just got their biggest free agent since LeBron James and could sneak their way into the conversation if they make the right moves.
And then, there’s the Orlando Magic.
There’s a lot of optimism coming out of the Magic Kingdom. And why shouldn’t there be? Orlando made its first playoff appearance in seven years, they had one of the best records in the league following the trade deadline (18-8) and they brought pretty much everyone back and even some reinforcements.
And yet, of all the teams in the East, Orlando’s the one that has no consensus. Or, more specifically, no one knows where they will fall in the conference. They might just be the biggest wild card in an Eastern Conference that already has plenty of them.
If all their hopes and dreams come true this season, the Magic could very well be right up there with the Bucks and the Sixers. If it goes the opposite way, they could find themselves back in the lottery.
But this Orlando team is good. They can make the playoffs, but they should be wary of their other competitors. The Toronto Raptors may have lost Kawhi Leonard but, as of now, they’re not going anywhere. Same goes for the Detroit Pistons. There is also a lot of buzz around two particular and young up and coming teams- the Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls.
If the Magic are to prove themselves better than those teams and as good as those aforementioned ones, they’ll need contributions from several particular players. They already know what they’re going to get out of Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross, Al-Farouq Aminu, Wes Iwundu and DJ Augustin, but for the following players, Orlando’s odds of getting to that next level depends on their individual progressions.
Aaron Gordon has already proven himself an above average player. He’s an excellent athlete, a hard-nosed defender, has improved his three-point shot over the years and, in this past year alone, has shown improved playmaking ability, as his assist percentage shot all the way up to 16.6.
But now, entering his sixth season in the NBA, he still has yet to prove that he’s a truly special talent. We’ve been waiting for a couple of years to see an explosion from Gordon, the transition from raw talent to the superstar we anticipated he’d be. It’s not entirely his fault; previous Orlando management forced Gordon to play out of position for too long, which may have hurt his growth as a player.
It didn’t ruin his career, but it didn’t help one bit. Two years later, Gordon has some playoff experience under his belt. His first go-round was honestly quite solid for a playoff rookie. 15.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists while putting up 47/40/52 splits is promising, but those are satisfactory stats for a complementary player.
Gordon’s ceiling right now is still that of a future star. And, at 24-years-old, there is still plenty of time for him to reach that level. Last season, Steve Clifford wanted the young player to be more a defensive specialist, a role in which Gordon performed very well in. Now with higher expectations from the team, Gordon should be expected to take his game another step further.
We got an explosion from an athletic, defensively stout power forward who showed off the three-point range last season that we keep expecting from Gordon, but it came from Pascal Siakam. If Gordon is to take that next step, he should look at Siakam’s last season as an example to build his game on.
Jonathan Isaac is only 22-years-old. He’s 6-foot-10. He has a 7-foot-1 wingspan. He plays more like a wing but does things on the court that any big would be capable of doing. When people think of Isaac, they think of raw talent.
Following an injury-plagued rookie season, Isaac did okay offensively in his first full year, averaging 9.6 points on 43/32/81 splits while also averaging 5.5 rebounds. Defensively, there was a lot to be excited about, as Isaac averaged 1.3 blocks and 0.8 steals while also putting up a Defensive Real Plus-Minus of 1.13.
With his insane physical measurements, there’s a lot to like about Isaac’s game and potential. His body frame has garnered comparisons (albeit unfairly) to Kevin Durant, but the potential he has makes it hard not to see a great future for him.
He knows how to use his length to bother his opponents; there are just too many advantages he has physically to not already be a good defender. Offensively, he’s not at the same level. But, every so often, Isaac showed he was capable on that end. There were even times where he took over games last season.
As of now, Orlando already has Vooch, Fournier, and Ross to handle the scoring load. If they want to take that next step, Isaac’s offensive progression would not only vault them higher in the standings, but it would also add a whole new dimension to the team.
There’s no rush for him to become a star, but if Isaac can show even more improvement in year three, then the Magic should become a lot harder to stop.
Now this is where the Magic’s ceiling gets interesting.
Markelle Fultz was a project from the day it was announced that he was traded to Orlando. It was clear he no longer fit Philadelphia’s timeline and that he needed his own timetable to get his game back on track. That said, he’s a project worth investing in; Fultz was a top overall pick for a reason.
Unlike Anthony Bennett, whom Cleveland reached for back in 2013, Fultz has the tools to be something special. It’s only been injury and mental gymnastics that have held him back. Now he has a fresh start and a team that can afford to be patient with him.
Because of all the off the court drama that was going on with Fultz, there’s no concrete data to support anything that he could do this season. All we have now are just preseason videos to see what Fultz can do. But, in the few preseason games that we’ve seen, the returns look promising.
With or without a reliable jump shot, Fultz is definitely an NBA-caliber player. He has good court vision.
Nice assist from Markelle Fultz! pic.twitter.com/JSFSXE4Nss
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) October 10, 2019
He can attack the basket.
Markelle Fultz attacks the rim, makes the tough finish over Joel Embiid! pic.twitter.com/IMtT5iN6u4
— beyond the RK (@beyondtheRK) October 13, 2019
And he has shown good instincts on the defensive end of the floor.
Jump shot or not, Markelle Fultz can be a very productive player in the league. pic.twitter.com/0pf8hJmXw7
— Bryan Oringher (@ScoutWithBryan) October 14, 2019
Then there’s his jumper. His jump shot looks… better? It doesn’t look like it’s completely fixed, but when your jumper is so ugly that it would have made Shawn Marion grimace, you have nowhere to go but up.
We’ll have to see how his new and improved jump shot will fare when the real competition starts. If it’s for real, then Markelle becomes a much more lethal scoring threat. He’s already shown that he can be a useful tool in the offense. His abilities as a scorer would make him all the more dynamic.
The reason why Fultz’s potential could pay more dividends than Gordon or Isaac this season is that the one area where the Magic desperately need improvement is at the point guard spot. DJ Augustin had one of his most efficient seasons ever last season, but that didn’t exactly take Orlando that far. If Fultz is to show that he was worth the top pick – which, at this point, may be unrealistic – then Orlando becomes so much better.
Gordon’s and Isaac’s improvements would definitely take the Magic up a notch. Fultz could vault them up so much higher.
We’re not going to include Mo Bamba on this list because, as long as Vooch is around, Bamba won’t be relied on to do much besides be a back-up five. Even in that role, he has some competition.
Now say these guys all progress enough to stay promising, but not enough that the Magic would take a major leap forward. Then comes the possibility of trading some of their youth for an established star.
Orlando has the assets to acquire someone good. Players like Blake Griffin or Bradley Beal could be had if they have an offer sweet enough to entice their respective teams, but it all depends on the progress of the roster as a whole. They may have to decide whether to try and open a win-now window by pairing Vucevic and Fournier with an established star or to build for a more glorious future around Gordon, Isaac, Bamba and Fultz.
Either way, this Magic team should be up next. What is left to be determined is how “up next” they truly are.
Zach LaVine, Charting a Path Toward Analytics Superstardom
Zach LaVine made headlines by decrying his team’s preference to avoid long twos. But however reluctantly, the Chicago Bulls guard is charting a path toward analytics superstardom.
The widespread hand-wringing about Zach LaVine’s stated hesitance to shirk mid-range jumpers in favor of shots at the rim and from beyond the arc was largely overblown.
While the Chicago Bulls would no doubt prefer he publicly embrace the coaching staff’s plan this season to further prioritize high-value field goal attempts, the truth is that LaVine has gradually been cutting long twos from his game for years. His share of shots that came from mid-range last season was 17.8 percent, a career-low mark that’s dwindled on an annual basis ever since he entered the league in 2014-15.
It’s not like LaVine openly flaunted the Bulls’ preference to hunt efficient shots and employ a more egalitarian style of offense during the preseason, either. Just four of his 54 shots in exhibition play were non-paint twos, and a whopping 48 of his field-goal attempts were taken from deep or in the restricted area. The result has been by far the best basketball of LaVine’s five-year career, a remarkable blend of production and efficiency that makes it easy to forget the meaningless stakes of preseason basketball – and just as easy to believe he’s on the verge true stardom.
LaVine won’t average 34.8 points per-36 minutes with a true shooting percentage of 75.1 come the regular season. Stats like that are reserved for video games and, it turns out, a four-game stretch of the preseason slate. Still, LaVine’s jaw-dropping performance over the past two weeks hasn’t received nearly enough attention league-wide and, perhaps, positions him as basketball’s most imminently dangerous long-range shooter and perimeter penetrator this side of James Harden.
LaVine showed last season that he had the goods to earn that distinction. None of the 11 players who averaged more drives than his 13.6 per game shot better than LaVine’s 36.9 percent on pull-up threes, according to data compiled at NBA.com. The insane degree of difficulty of Harden’s off-dribble triples pushed his accuracy just below LaVine’s, and Kemba Walker, who averaged 15.2 drives per game, nearly eclipsed his three-point shooting percentage despite taking nearly double the number of long-range pull-ups.
But the numbers are the numbers, and they provide even more evidence to suggest LaVine is on the cusp of becoming a scorer tailor-made for the analytics era, despite his apparent preference otherwise.
LaVine took 3.1 off-dribble threes per game last season, 21st-most in the league. If the preseason is any indication of his style of play to come, expect him to easily beat that average in 2019-20. All but seven of LaVine’s 25 three-point attempts in the preseason came off a live dribble, a total that extrapolates to 6.8 pull-up tries per-36 minutes of play.
LaVine rarely deviated from the offense to launch those looks, either. Chicago made a concerted effort in each of his four exhibition games to free LaVine for off-dribble threes early in the shot clock, whether by drag screens as he brought the ball up the floor or staggered ball screens coming middle off the catch. He’s also already developed a nice wink-wink chemistry with Tomas Satoransky, who boasts natural playmaking ingenuity the Bulls have long lacked next to LaVine in the backcourt. And on the few occasions LaVine has isolated before pulling up from deep, his burst off the bounce and cat-quick shot release have caught defenders flat-footed, unable to manage an effective contest.
LaVine isn’t Harden, and he never will be. Expecting any player, no matter how explosive an athlete or how smooth he is with the ball, to function as a close approximation of the Houston Rockets’ superstar is flatly unfair. He’s the most accomplished off-dribble three-point shooter ever, and even before earning that distinction proved impossible for defenders to keep out of the paint.
LaVine isn’t nearly as comfortable as Harden putting a series of high-level dribble moves together before letting fly, and Chicago isn’t asking him to play that way. But the threat of his pull-up jumper looms large nonetheless, which makes LaVine an even more devastating penetrator than his all-world physical tools alone suggest he would be.
Over his first couple seasons in the league, LaVine routinely drove at full speed, often getting all the way to the rim but arriving out of control. He’s slowly, but surely, added more nuance and patience as an attacker in recent years, honed ability that combined with his pull-up jumper made him more effective than ever getting to the basket during the preseason. Playing beside frontcourt shooters like Lauri Markkanen and Luke Kornet affords LaVine extra space to manipulate help defenders with fakes and hesitations behind the initial line of defense, too.
It took years for LaVine to develop the understanding needed to take advantage of defenders’ missteps by doing things like rejecting screens and splitting defenders, reads that come easy for some high-usage ball handlers. He drew more free throw attempts on drives last season than every player in basketball but Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Spencer Dinwiddie. LaVine needs to get more comfortable with his left hand and still lacks a reliable floater game, but should be one of the league’s most productive penetrators this season regardless.
Even if LaVine proves his eye-popping preseason play wasn’t a complete aberration, the stats will nevertheless convey a more glowing assessment of his overall impact than his real on-court influence. LaVine was still prone to tunnel vision with the ball in his hands, often missing simple kickouts as defenders converged on his drives, and is unlikely to improve from his low defensive baseline despite a stated desire otherwise. At 24, dreams of him realizing his utmost, Hall-of-Fame potential as a dynamic primary ball handler who doubles as a dogged, disruptive defender are pretty much long gone.
But LaVine has made so much progress as a shooter and attacker that for now his weaknesses only matter on the margins. And as long as he continues on the path toward becoming basketball’s most reluctant analytics darling, the Bulls will be best served building an ecosystem around them – just like the Rockets with Harden’s.