NBA Christmas Slate Full of Gifts

The holidays have become synonymous with family, giving, spreading and cheer and also, for basketball fans, the NBA. Every year the NBA hosts a five game slate on Christmas, and when the schedule is as good as it is this season it serves as a wonderful Holiday gift to basketball junkies everywhere. From individual match-ups to a rematch of the last three NBA finals, the 2017 slate has something for everyone. It will provide a day full of meaningful and fun basketball. Let’s take a look at the match-ups and what to look out for on Monday:

New York vs. Philadelphia

The Christmas day slate kicks off with a game featuring two of the more fun (surprisingly) teams to watch so far this season, as the Knicks and the Sixers face off at Madison Square Garden. Philadelphia has Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid who are one of the most talented duos in the entire league. Embiid’s been day-to-day with some back soreness, but should be good to go for Monday’s contest. Philly is the best rebounding team in the league (48.4/game) and 3rd in assists (26.2/game) which is spurred by the passing of their two young superstars. The Sixers have struggled mightily in the month of December, as they have dropped 9\nine of their last ten contests. Monday represents a good chance for them to get out of their funk and get some positive momentum heading into 2018.

On the other side the Knicks are surging as they have won six of their last ten games, and stand as one of the most improved teams.. While he still has growing (game wise, hopefully for everyone else not height wise) to do, Kristaps Porzingis has at times played at a superstar level so far during this season. Porzingis and Embiid (as long as he plays) is going to be an extremely fun match-up to watch of two of the best young and versatile big men in the league. It also needs to be mentioned that Michael Beasley has been on a tear of late and is one of the most fun guys to watch over the last two weeks, like his 18 point 4th quarter against the Celtics earlier this week. While this is the first game between the two Atlantic division foes, the Knicks have the slight edge, especially if Embiid is not playing at 100%.


Cleveland at Golden State 

The rematch of the last three NBA Finals, and potentially again in 2018, square off for the first time this season on Christmas Day in the Bay (fingers crossed this is the only rhyming within the article). Both teams have been on hot of late. The Warriors have won 11 of their last 12. and the Cavs are winners of 19 of their last 21 games after overcoming a slow start. Both teams will not be at fll strength. The Cavs will be without their top two point guards in Isaiah Thomas and Derrick Rose, and the Warriors will be down Zaza Pachulia, Shaun Livingston and potentially Draymond Green, although he was given the green light from the Warriors medical staff last night. While it will certainly be a better and hopefully healthier match-up come June, there is still a lot of reasons to watch the game on Xmas afternoon.

For starters LeBron has been as dominant as he has been at any time in his career. He is a leading MVP candidate along with James Harden, and is shooting 57% from the field and 41% from 3. Kevin Love has quietly been having one of the best seasons of his career, and has been huge in his role as the second option for Cleveland. As far as the Warriors are concerned they are back to business as usual. Curry and Durant are both averaging 26.3 points per contest, with Klay Thompson chipping in almost 21 a game. Draymond Green has given them the same versatility on both ends as always, and rookie Jordan Bell has been giving the team great minutes with Pachulia out and injured. The Warriors are the better team and at home, so I expect them to win, but this is the best match-up of teams during the whole Christmas day lineup.

Washington at Boston

John Wall and Kyrie Irving will serve as by far the best point guard match-up on Christmas Day, but the two teams are on opposite ends of the playoff picture a third of the way into the season. While the Celtics have been struggling as of late, losing five of ten, they still hold the best record in the Eastern Conference and stand as the lone viable threat to take out the Cavs out East. The Wizards have not quite been as good as they were thought to be going into the season, but so far they still lead their division. John Wall has struggled with some injury issues thus far, and it has played a huge factor into the Wizards slow start. Marcus Morris will miss the game for the Celtics and is the only player ruled out thus far for Monday evening.

While Wall has struggled both on the court at times, and off the court with injuries this season, Bradley Beal has continued to develop into one of the best shooting guards in the league. Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre both continue to improve and give Washington quality depth out on the wing. Getting Wall healthy and playing back at the level we all know he is capable of is imperative in getting the Wizards trending back up the Eastern Conference standings. Meanwhile, the Celtics are trying to right the ship a little bit at home on Christmas. While everyone has been talking about Kyrie Irving and rookie Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown has started to show signs of putting it all together, which is a proposition that should scare everyone in the NBA. Celtics should win this game at home, but Washington desperately needs to add some big wins to their record, which should have them coming in hungry and ready to go.


Houston at Oklahoma City

There is no match-up on Christmas day that features two teams on polar (no Xmas pun intended) opposite ends of the spectrum than Houston and OKC. Houston has the NBA’s best record (25-6), the player leading the MVP race (James Harden) and Chris Paul, who when healthy has still yet to lose a game in a Rockets uniform. Oklahoma City has struggled to find any consistent chemistry between superstars Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, but a solution may be on the verge of developing as they have started to string some wins. Chris Paul and Clint Capela are day-to-day and could play, while Luc Mbah a Moute is the only player definitely out for Monday’s contest, and the Thunder come in to Monday with a clean bill of health.

While Westbrook has struggled from the field, mightily at times, this season he is still on the verge of averaging another triple-double (23.6 points/9.5 rebounds/9.9 assists per game) and has been punishing rims seemingly every night (Side Note: if you do not already, please do yourself a favor and follow @World_Wide_Wob on Twitter, he posts highlights every single night). Paul George and Carmelo Anthony struggled to get acclimated early, but are starting to find their place within the OKC offense, which can potentially make them a nightmare match-up in the Western Conference playoffs. While the Rockets have dropped their last two contests, they have been off to an incredible start and look every bit a contender out West. James Harden has been playing at an MVP level, Chris Paul is unbeaten when healthy this season and Eric Gordon has been a great piece both in the starting lineup and coming off of the bench. Clint Capela continues to improve and offers Mike D’antoni something that he has never previously had on a contender, a rim protector. This may end up being the most exciting game of the entire day.

Minnesota at LA Lakers

Monday’s lineup rounds up with a game between one of the most improved teams in the league and one of its youngest and most fun teams to watch. The Timberwolves lead the Northwest division with a record of 20-13 and feature one of the games best inside-out combos in Jimmy Butler and Karl Anthony-Towns. The Lakers have been inconsistent, but with two of the best rookies in the league the future is looking extremely bright for the Lakers. As far as injuries are concerned both teams could be down one player for Monday’s game, Nemanja Bjelica for Minnesota and Brandon Ingram for the Lakers. While this game may lack the firepower of the earlier games, there are still some sure fire reasons to watch Monday night on TNT.

Tom Thibodeau has to be pleased thus far with how the Wolves have been playing, but has to see that there is still a ton of room to grow. Butler has been getting used to playing with Thibs again, but is starting to find his groove, while young centerpieces Towns and Andrew Wiggins have shown flashes, but need to continue to get better year-in and year-out to have this team reach their full potential. Making the playoffs would be a win for Minnesota this season, but they will have to continue to grow to work on winning a series or two in future seasons. The Lakers have struggled, and coach Luke Walton voiced his displeasure after a loss to Portland on Saturday night. The team is very young, and despite their struggles has to be encouraged by the Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram and the strides that Lonzo Ball has made over the last few weeks. Is this the best Christmas Day match-up? Far from it. Is it worth staying up and being a little tired at the office on Tuesday (for those who work this week)? Absolutely.

Basketball becoming a huge part of Christmas Day has been a huge victory for NBA and basketball junkies everywhere. The schedule is loaded, and there should be 12+ hours of basketball to package with your family and other Holiday joy this season. Feel free to join the discussion in the comment below, or on Twitter (@thehoopgroup or my personal handle @dgunnerhg). Most importantly Happy Holidays to you and yours, and hopefully 2018 turns out to be your best year yet!

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.

Kentucky’s Alumni Game May Come With a Twist

Anthony Davis, Kentucky

Kentucky’s 2017 Alumni Game May Come With A Twist

First, Kentucky played each other. Then, they played North Carolina. Now, Kentucky is looking to play an NBA team in their yearly alumni game.

It has been the classic Calipari question for nearly eight years running: could a team of all Kentucky alumni  really beat an NBA team? Well, according to Kentucky Athletic Director DeWayne Peevy, “I don’t care if they combine themselves, they’re not taking down Big Blue Nation.” However, whether or not Peevy will be able to pull off this seemingly difficult feat before the scheduled date of August 25th is another question entirely.

Say Peevy pulls it off.; he gets all the NBA talent he hopes to bring in, on both sides. Say millions of Americans across the country tune in to watch. How does the game go? The success of the game largely hinges upon one factor: whether or not Peevy’s “Big Blue Dream Team” faces up against an established NBA super team–we’ll use the Warriors as an example–or a combination of five of the league’s best players, barring Kentucky graduates. Why does this fact matter? It’s simple.

Could Kentucky Win?

Let’s line up Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Zaza Pachulia on the court, face to face with what would likely be John Wall, Devin Booker, Anthony Davis, Karl Anthony Towns, and DeMarcus Cousins (sub in MKG for a big man if you want). Would Kentucky win? It’s unlikely; Golden State are NBA champions two of the past three years, they practice and play together on a daily basis, and know each other back to front. They have grit and determination, and after all, that’s what it takes to win championships. While the players cannot realistically be expected to give 110% for 48 minutes with the risk of injuries, there is no reason a roster of Big Blue talent like said team would go down without a fight. The game would be intense and interesting, nationally loved, no matter the outcome, so much so that the only sporting event that could possibly follow it up would be a boxing match between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor (set to take place on pay-per-view the following day).

Now, take those same five Kentucky alumni, and place them on a court with LeBron James, Russel Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and Marc Gasol (or any combination of five NBA All-Stars you can imagine), and the dream game that DeWayne Peevy so greatly desires turns into a glorified All-Star game, with scores that toe the line of 200-200, as in the year’s past. Two teams of hand picked All-Stars pitted against each other see the game as nothing more than what it is: an All-Star game. The intensity and interest from the players drop exponentially, and the flashy and showy dunks with no opposition continue to flow; if you think defense is a dying art in league play, this game would put it in a mental coffin for you.

Though at the end of the day, no matter who steps on the court to face the Big Blue alumni, the game can only help the NBA. With each passing year, basketball becomes harder and harder to watch. Fans are tired of seeing the same small handful of teams provide the only real competition in the league; the past three championships have pitted the same two teams against each other each year, and the three prior to 2015 saw only one contest that was not between the Spurs and the Heat, and even that one included the Heat as well. The truth remains that the National Basketball Association doesn’t offer the fights and power plays of the NHL, or the relegation factor and cutthroat Champions League race of European soccer. A small yet necessary step in the right direction, games like the one Athletic Director Peevy has in mind have the possibility to peak fans’ interest and attract new viewers to one of sports’ most dynamic games.

 

Follow Andrew more on Twitter: @andrew_mck11

Warriors Ink Nick Young to One Year Deal

It’s Golden State’s world and everybody else is just living in it. Just days after resigning Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and extending Steph Curry, the Golden State Warriors came to terms with Nick Young. The one year deal gives the Warriors more fire power off the bench. A lifetime 38% three-point shooter, Young should have no problems joining Steve Kerr’s run and gun offense.

At 31 years old, Young averaged 13 points per game, in 60 games, for the Lakers last season. His 40% from behind the arc was good for second best of his career, just tenths of a percentage point off his best. There is no doubt Young still has production in him.

The one year signing works for both sides. It givers Young a chance to thrive in a offense that fits his style, setting him up for a possible pay day after a year. For Golden State, the move bolsters an already strong bench. It gives them yet another floor spacer capable of getting hot quickly. One thing’s for sure, if Golden State can repeat, Swaggy P’s parade celebration may top J.R. Smith’s from two years ago.

P.S. Kevin Durant has no chill…

2017 NBA Draft: Best Value Picks in Round Two

A sense of excitement always seems to disappear every year when the First Round of the NBA Draft comes to a close. Adam Silver leaves for the night, and Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum takes over. Fans slowly trickle out as the illustrious names are off the board. The 2017 NBA Draft was no different. The appeal of the second round certainly cannot compete with the first round, but that’s not to say you can’t find an All-Star caliber player, or even a consistent role player, in the last 30 picks. Here are six players who, initially, look like great value picks by their new teams. 

Monte Morris (Iowa State): 51st Pick – Denver Nuggets

Monte Morris was an exceptional pick by Denver in the late second round. I was extremely surprised Morris was still on the board at that point, though in upperclassmen often get unfairly punished in NBA Drafts for their age. Morris however, I thought was an exception. Having watched a lot of Big 12 games, Morris has been a Top 3 point guard in the conference the past four years. He boasts a career 5:1 assist-to-turnover ratio, shot 47% from the field and 38% from behind the arc. His decision-making ability should, at the very least, make him a reliable back up for several years.

Jordan Bell (Oregon): 38th Pick – Golden State Warriors

Jordan Bell could not have gone to a better place. I know I know, anyone would say that when they’re going to the team that just won the NBA Championship, but Bell fits the Warriors style. Take Javale McGee for example, and how Golden State was able to revitalize what was a lost career. The reason Bell fits so perfectly is because he doesn’t need to change his game one bit. At Oregon he was a tremendous shot blocker and controlled the paint defensively with his athleticism. These traits alone had scouts looking at him in the late first round. Being able to focus as the defensive anchor first, and offense second, sets both Bell and Golden State up nicely next season.

Jonah Bolden (Australia): 36th Pick – Philadelphia 76ers

As ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said last night, Bolden would have been on more people’s radars had he stayed at UCLA instead of going pro overseas after his sophomore year. Bolden is an athletic 6’10, 225 pound forward who can knock it down from deep. He actually was able to find success in his time in the Adriatic League in Serbia. Bolden is a raw talent, but with focus on the Fultz, Simmons and Embiid trio, he should have time to develop his game in Philly.

Jawun Evans (Oklahoma State): 39th Pick – Los Angeles Clippers

Evans dropped in the draft due to his size. At 6’1 he will be very undersized at the point guard position in the NBA. Physical attributes aside, Evans is a skilled guard who can score for himself and improved his facilitating in his second season at Oklahoma State. In his sophomore campaign, Evans raised his APG to 6.4, good enough to lead the Big 12. While he will have to continue to adjust how he scores in the paint, he can be a solid role player from day one thanks to his decision-making and passing ability. And if Chris Paul sticks around for Evans to learn from, he will only benefit more from it.

Ike Anigobu (UCLA): 47th Pick – Indiana Pacers

The key word for Ike Anigobu is health. On the surface Anigobu only averaged 4 points and 4 rebounds for UCLA last season. A deeper dive shows a player who was once looked at as a first round pick, if not a possible Top 20 selection due to his athleticism and 7’6 wingspan. While critics point to Ike’s rawness and injury issues, the Pacers can afford to see this process out after the drafted TJ Leaf in the first round. With Thaddeus Young, Al Jefferson and a blooming star in Myles Turner in-house, the addition of Leaf gives Indiana a front court rotation for next season. For at least a year, they can Anigobu concentrate on strengthening his knee, while developing in practice against a solid group of bigs. This is a risk that could end up being a reward if the chips fall the right way.

Nigel Williams-Goss (Gonzaga): 55th Pick – Utah Jazz

Similar to Monte Morris, Williams-Goss makes the list due to where he was selected. At pick 55, why wouldn’t you take a chance on an experienced guard with a history of success? The Jazz had a young guard in Dante Exum, and  veteran with an uncertain future in George Hill. With Goss they now have a reliable, seasoned rookie who can fill in and play as big or little of a role as needed. There’s a chance Hill stays and Goss never gets the minutes needed to make any sort of impact. But if the opposite happens, and Hill leads, it’s nice to have an experienced rookie to call on for back up minutes.

Every fan hopes that their team can find a hidden gem in the second round that will turn into a Manu Ginobili or Draymond Green or Gilbert Arenas. Few often pan out like we expect or hope. While nothing is guaranteed for many second rounders, these six players have a chance to not just make a team, but provide their respective teams with great contributions. Keep following Hoop Group Insider all summer long for NBA news.

 

@JN_Albano