While Free Agency Dominates, The 76ers Go Against the Grain

Ever since The Decision, NBA fans have been talking themselves into the possibility of Lebron’s team missing the Finals. The first candidate to knock him off was the “Big 3” Celtics. Lebron’s Heat knocked them out in 5 games during his first year in Miami, and took them out in 7 games the next year. The next challengers were Paul George’s Pacers. The Pacers met the Heat two straight years in the conference finals, but couldn’t slay the dragon. After that, Lebron returned to the Cavs in 2015. His Finals appearances have felt more preordained than ever. Neither the Hawks nor the Raptors posed any real threat. Te parade of challengers came full circle last year, with a completely rebuilt Celtics team falling to the Cavs in the Conference Finals. But there is finally some light at the end of the tunnel for those who want to see new blood come out of the East.

Last week, Joel Embiid put up 46 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists, and 7 blocks in a game against the Lakers. It’s a stat line that no one else has ever accomplished. Anyone who has ever been close to that in a single game is indisputably an all-time great. Since 1980, the most similar lines were put up by Shaq (40/17/8/5) and David Robinson, (42/14/5/5) per basketball reference’s game finder. In the same game, his teammate Ben Simmons had 18/9/10 to go along with 5 steals. These numbers are starting to look normal for him.

Obviously, Embiid has a long way to go before being considered an all-time great. Making an All-Star game would be a good start. His health will remain a huge question for the foreseeable future. But this game and his play throughout the first month of the regular season erases any lingering doubt about the type of player he is when healthy. His dominance, combined with the play of Simmons (who is a lock for Rookie of the Year), make the 76ers a force to be reckoned with almost immediately.

It’s possible that the emergence of two future superstars on the 76ers ends up having little impact on Lebron’s reign over the East. Lebron is rumored to be looking to sign with a team in the West after this year, and the Sixers remain one year away from truly putting a scare into the top teams in the conference. With Gordon Hayward’s leg injury, the Celtics probably lack the firepower to take out the Cavs this year. But with all of these factors combined, the East should finally – finally! – be represented by a non-Lebron team in the 2019 Finals.

Kyrie to the Celtics Changes NBA East

Boston wants to dominate the 2020s.

Ainge knows that while LeBron remains in Cleveland, he shouldn’t sell the farm for a short term upgrade.

Boston is saving their assets for a true superstar – think Anthony Davis.

Ainge knows Golden State is unbeatable for the next 2-3 years.

These were the refrains we heard for the past few years. Boston had the most coveted assets in the league after fleecing Brooklyn out of three first round picks. They were rumored to be potential destinations for all of the stars on the trading block for the past few years, but they continued to pass on players such as Demarcus Cousins, Paul George, and Jimmy Butler. It frustrated fans, but it made sense. Why trade young players and picks now when they almost certainly can’t put you past LeBron or the Warriors?

Celtics GM Danny Ainge stayed the course, even when public pressure to make a move mounted. The ping-pong balls rewarded his patience when the Celtics won the draft lottery in May 2017. After moving down, they still got their guy – Jayson Tatum – and added him to a roster with talented prospect Jaylen Brown. With Tatum, Brown, young superstar coach Brad Stevens, and Brooklyn’s first round pick in 2018, the Celtics were in incredible position to field a dominant roster in the 2020s.

By now, you already know that the Celtics traded Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and Brooklyn’s 2018 first round pick for Kyrie Irving. The move makes sense on some levels. As well as Thomas played last year, he is simply not as good as Irving. The Celtics were leery about paying a 5’8”, 29 year old point guard a max contract in the summer of 2018. Crowder has been a contributer, but his absence frees up more minutes for Brown and Tatum. But the offseason addition of Gordon Hayward may have tipped the scales more than any other factor in favor of making this trade. He too plays the same position as Crowder. But more importantly, Ainge thinks Boston can make the Finals this year.

The Celtics are positioned for the 2020s, but they are pretty damn good right now. Hayward, and to a lesser extent Al Horford, give the Celtics All-Star caliber players in their prime (the back end of Horford’s). Adding Irving makes the team better this year. All reports indicate that LeBron’s relationship with Cleveland ownership is shattered. It’s not hard to envision a scenario where he mentally checks out like he did during the 2010 playoff series versus the Celtics and the 2011 Finals versus the Mavs. If so, the Celtics are poised to take advantage. Then Boston is one injury of a key player on Golden State away from winning the Finals. It’s unlikely, but only the Warriors, Spurs, and Cavs still have a better chance of winning the 2018 Finals than the Celtics do. That has to count for something.

At age 25, Kyrie is right in the “sweet spot” where he can help the Celtics make the Finals this year and can still contribute long term. Horford will be a dinosaur by the time Boston’s teenagers (and future picks) are ready to contribute, and Hayward will be getting long in the tooth as well. If they can lock Kyrie up long term, he can be the point guard of the present and the future. Ainge took a big risk by finally dealing one of the Brooklyn picks. If it ends up as the top pick in what is shaping up to be a top-heavy draft, he may come to regret it. Marvin Bagley in particular has been called a once in a generation talent.

Boston payed a hefty price for a player who had to be traded. But they gave up players who were ultimately expendable for them, either this year or next. Giving up the Brooklyn pick definitely hurts – especially after George and Butler were acquired for so little – but Boston undoubtedly got better this year, and draft picks can be uncertain. Check back in about fifteen years to see who won this trade. Maybe the Celtics will have multiple Larry O’Brien trophies to show for it, or maybe Marvin Bagley will be remembered as the greatest Cav of all time.

NBA vs. NCAA: The Debate

ncaa nba

Basketball is the best sport. This is an indisputable fact that all reasonable people can agree on. But which is better, NBA basketball or NCAA basketball? Let’s look at some of the factors that make the NBA and college hoops unique from one another.

NCAA March Madness vs NBA Playoffs

Quality vs. Quantity

The most obvious difference is the quality of play. In addition to the cream of the crop from college basketball, the NBA features the best international players. NBA players are either in their prime or their career or close to it, while college players aren’t close. Exacerbating this discrepancy is the fact that the most talented college players almost always leave after one year in school – gone are the days when a player like Patrick Ewing would stay in school and dominate college basketball for four years. There are about 4200 Division I basketball players versus about 360 NBA players. Clearly, the NBA is a better option if you’re strictly looking for great players and great basketball.

Quality of play and is far from the only thing that impacts how we enjoy the sport. There are a surprising amount of rule differences between the NBA and the college game. Most of the rule differences make the NBA a more exciting product. In the NBA, the shot clock is 24 seconds and the game lasts 48 minutes. This creates more possessions and a faster pace than in college, where the shot clock is 30 seconds and the game is 40 minutes. NBA teams can advance the ball well past half court after calling time out. This is critical in the last few seconds of a close game – instead of taking highly improbable half court heaves, NBA teams advance the ball and create better opportunities for buzzer beaters. Their counterparts in college are forced to inbound the ball from under their own basket. The college rule is more “pure”, but the NBA rule is more exciting.

Rules, Rules, Rules

A few other rule difference deserve acknowledgement. Six personal fouls get you tossed from an NBA game, compared to five in college. While the 8 extra minutes of game time and shorter shot clock in the NBA make the numbers virtually proportional (one foul per 8 minutes), it is still easier to get in ‘foul trouble’ in college. Put it this way: if basketball games were 8 minutes total and one foul got you ejected, everyone would be in foul trouble for the entire game. The game is best when the best players are playing, so the NBA gets the nod on this rule too. The rule difference that favors college most is the 1 and 1. It creates and exciting scenario where a team is punished heavily for missing the first free throw. In the NBA, teams get two shots when they are in the penalty and don’t risk losing the possession over one miss.


While the rules and quality of play favor the NBA game, college basketball often has a better atmosphere. This is partially due to rivalries. With all of the player movement in the NBA, true rivalries are hard to come by and Lakers Celtics is the only true old school rivalry. But no matter who is on the court, you know that Carolina – Duke is going to be a bloodbath. Even in non rivalry games, college basketball crowds are usually more fired up than NBA crowds. It creates a more exciting atmosphere for regular season games than there is in most NBA arenas.

Crowning a Champion

The NBA and NCAA crown champions in very different ways. The NBA playoffs last two long months, and the best of seven format ensures that upsets are rare and the best team usually wins it all. It’s an extremely fair system and the amount of games ensures that the league creates significant revenue. But what is fair is not necessarily exciting, as we saw this year with Golden State going unchallenged. College basketball’s system needs no explanation – March Madness is simply the best yearly event in sports.

Style of Play

Another area where college basketball has an edge is the various styles of play. Fortunately, the NBA has gone away from the isolation basketball that made Jordan’s Bulls, Duncan’s late 90s / early 00s Spurs, and the Shaq/Kobe Lakers so successful. Offenses play a much more visually pleasing pick-and-roll and ball movement style, with the most successful offenses surrounding the pick-and-roll with accurate three point shooters. However, it is mostly one note. Winning comes down to who can execute this style better (or who can defend it). College still features many styles of play. When I turn on a UNC game, I know that they are running after every possession St that Roy Williams doesn’t know what a time out is. I know that Louisville is going to be pressing, Syracuse is going to be in their match-up zone, and that Duke players are taught to undercut opponents in an attempt to draw a charge. The fact that a myriad of styles are still used at the college level makes the game unique.

These styles of play are largely linked to coaches. Unfortunately for college basketball, coaches are the only thing that remains familiar to fans. All of the best college players are gone after one year. With NBA basketball, you can follow a player from when is is 19 years old to when he is 35, and sometimes beyond. When Dirk Nowitzki finally won his title after over a decade of playoff disappointment, the moment was bigger than when Carmelo Anthony won a title in his one year at Syracuse. The journeys and legacy factor make NBA accomplishments feel more significant than NCAA accomplishments, especially if we’ve been watching that player for years.

If you haven’t figured it out, I favor NBA basketball over NCAA ball. The quality of play, player storylines, and favorable rule differences are some of the factors that tip the scale in the NBA’s favor. Having said that, good luck prying me away from the Tournament in March.

The Solution to Superteams

Ask any fan what the two most exciting words in sports are.  You’ll probably get some answers that vary by person and allegiance – “Jets win!”, “Krzyzewski retired!”, and so on – but at a certain point, they’ll say “Game 7”.  This year, the NBA playoffs featured two game sevens:  Jazz vs. Clippers in the Western Conference first round and Wizards vs. Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.  But unless you are a fan of one of these four teams, these game sevens weren’t all that exciting.  They were formalities to see who would be slaughtered by the Warriors and Cavs.

The main storyline of these playoffs was not about who would be in the Finals, a foregone conclusion.  The storyline became “are super teams good for the NBA?”  One popular narrative is that super teams aren’t new, that the league has always been top heavy.  While it’s true that the NBA has traditionally had less parity than football and baseball, the outcome has never seemed more inevitable than it was this year.

Some argue that super teams have been around much longer than when The Big 3 formed in Miami

Look back at some of the legendary dynasties.  During the Bulls’ first three-peat, they beat the Lakers in what was considered a coin flip series in the 1991 Finals, needed 7 games to beat the Knicks in the 1992 Eastern Semifinals, and were down by 4 points to the Suns, without the ball, with one minute left in game 6 of the 1993 Finals.  Without a miracle comeback they would have faced a game seven in Phoenix.  The 1996 Bulls were head and shoulders better than the rest of the league – but to win their 1997 title, they broke a 2-2 series tie with the Jazz with a 2 point win in the “Flu Game.” They then won game 6 by just four points.  In 1998, game 6 versus the Jazz was eerily similar to game 6 five years earlier versus the Suns. Bulls down three with less than a minute left, they came back and avoided having to win a game 7 on the road.  Out of their six titles, only the 1996 one could be considered inevitable, and it still took six games for the Bulls to top the SuperSonics.

The Lakers and Celtics combined for eight titles during the 1980s, but they always had each other to ensure that there was some suspense throughout the year and the playoffs.  Usually, the Rockets, 76ers, or Pistons kept things interesting as well.  Out of those eight championships, all of the Finals’ went at least six games.  The “Heatles” dynasty of the 2010s never materialized.  Each time a LeBron James team has won a title, they needed to win a game 7 at some point to do so: 2012 vs the Celtics, 2013 vs the Spurs, and 2016 vs the Warriors.  Besides the 1996 Bulls, the 2001 Lakers are the only other team that was truly untouchable by the rest of the league.

As good as Isaiah Thomas and the Celtics were this season, no one considered them serious contenders for a 2017 NBA Championship

Last year, the moment Kevin Durant signed with the Warriors, objective observers knew it was much more probable than not that the Finals would end with the Warriors beating the Cavs, most likely in 5 games.  During the season, there were other compelling stories. Russell Westbrook’s quest to average a triple double, the 5’9” Isiah Thomas leading the Celtics to the one seed in the east, and the development of budding superstars such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Nikola Jokic.

But the inevitable Finals match-up loomed over these stories.  They were interesting, but they ultimately didn’t matter when in the back of my mind, I knew that these teams and players had no chance of making real noise in the playoffs.  This is a problem.  Maybe the NBA feels differently, as the ratings for these Finals were sky high.  But with Warriors vs Cavs Part III in the books, with no end in sight, people will start to tune out from the regular season and the early rounds of the playoffs.  No matter how many people watch the finals, this isn’t a good model for the NBA.  The salary cap is supposed to promote competitive balance, but obviously the current system doesn’t work.  The good news is that there is a simple solution to prevent these type of super teams from forming: increase the maximum contract.

Many say that the only reason the Warriors had the cap space to sign Durant is because Steph Curry was on the books for just $12 million.  This is partially true, but the real culprit, if you agree that super teams are bad for the NBA, is the maximum salary.  Coming off of his 9th year in the league, Durant was only able to make up to 30% of the salary cap, or approximately $28 million.  In order to afford that, the Warriors had to trade Andrew Bogut.  But if Durant was able to make anything close to what he is actually worth – in the $55 million ballpark with a salary cap of $94 million – the Warriors would never have had a chance to sign him.

Take a look at the other two All-Stars on Golden State.  When Klay Thompson and Draymond Green were eligible for extensions, they were only eligible to make 25% of the salary cap.  Thompson is locked up through 2019 on a team friendly contract averaging about $17 million per year, while Green is on a practically identical contract through 2020.  It doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that with maximum salaries at 25, 30, and 35 percent of the cap, teams will continue to be able to afford 3 or 4 stars.

The max contract also makes it easier for stars to accept even less than their max.  Assume LeBron would be worth about $70 million if there was no max contract.  It would be extremely difficult for him to take, say, $35 million so that his team could sign other stars.  It’s much easier to take a few less million when his contract is artificially capped around $30 million than it would be to leave tens of millions on the table.

The salary cap is supposed to promote competitive balance, but the max contract actively detracts from this attempt at parity.  The Players Association is very much in favor of the max contract, as it creates a much higher median salary.  But if the NBA is serious about having more teams in the championship mix, they need to look at either eliminating or increasing the max salary.

Chris Paul to Houston: What it means in the West

Chris Paul certainly gives Houston a new look, but are they contenders?

In an article published by Zach Lowe on ESPN.com two weeks ago, Rockets GM Daryl Morey told Lowe “We have something up our sleeve.”  He came through on that promise today by reportedly agreeing to trade seven players and a first round pick to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for Chris Paul.  In an era dominated by super teams, Morey knows that in order to have any chance of topping the Warriors, the Rockets need multiple stars.  Chris Paul gives Houston their second star, but how much will he actually help them?

The Harden-Paul fit is somewhat awkward.  They’re both dominant pick and roll ball handlers who create great shots for themselves and their teammates. With only one basketball, does CP3 become a glorified version of Patrick Beverly on offense, spotting up on the perimeter while Harden runs pick and roll?  Defensively, Paul would be an upgrade over almost every point guard in the league, but Beverly was the other guard on first team all NBA defense this year.  So if the trade barely moves the needle for Houston offensively, and is essentially a wash defensively, how does it help them?

The Cavs, Thunder, and Rockets all suffered from the same problem this postseason.  Their teams hung tough when LeBron, Westbrook, and Harden played, but their opponents seemed to go on a 12-0 run if their coaches took them out for even a few minutes.  It created a catch-22: they could either not rest the stars and risk fatigue (as we saw LeBron tire out during 4th quarters in the Finals), or rest them and risk falling behind by large margins (as we saw happen to the Thunder).

Houston’s offense scored 113.6 points per hundred possessions with Harden on the floor this year, which is 0.4 points better than the Warriors’ greatest offense of all time.  When he sat, that number dipped to 106.6 – almost exactly league average.  This is where the addition of CP3 will be key.  If Houston coach Mike D’Antoni staggers their minutes so that either Harden or Paul is always on the floor, they will never have to play with an average offensive unit.  They can avoid them problem that plagued them, the Thunder, and the Cavs.

Despite the criticism, Mike D’Antoni says his offense works better with two point guards

Will it be enough to beat the Warriors?  Almost certainly not, barring injury.  But there is another way that this trade could help Houston get over the top.  Houston is now just one star away from boasting its own “Big 3”.  With stars always looking to play with each other, Houston just joined San Antonio as the only other team in the West that can claim they are one player away from beating the Warriors.  Maybe Morey has something else up his sleeve.