The King’s Dilemma

The Golden State Warriors are NBA Champions, and for the first time in franchise history the Cavaliers must contemplate how to return to the promise land. Cleveland has a good problem – it has to figure out how to elevate itself from being a consensus top-two team in the NBA to being the best one. The rumors detailing where Kevin Love is likely to next don an NBA jersey have already begun to flurry, but in the event that Cleveland looks to maintain its big three, here’s what next year may look like.

The Cavaliers have eight roster spots accounted for, assuming Richard Jefferson continues his playing career. Four of those roster spots – Love, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Tristan Thompson – lock in the consensus top-two starting lineup. Also on the books for next year are Jefferson, J.R. Smith – likely their fifth starter, Iman Shumpert, and Channing Frye along with Kay Felder’s partially guaranteed contract. The Cavs have no first round pick this year due to the swap for Kyle Korver and his perfectly-respectable-but-not-savior-like three point shooting from these Finals. Korver is an unrestricted free agent, and though he is unlikely to grab his nearly $10 million annual salary again on the open market, he is likely out of Cleveland’s price range. In place of the first round pick, the Cavs are likely to bring over wing Cedi Osman from Turkey whom they drafted after episode one of Cavs-Warriors. Though Osman is unlikely to be the difference maker in a fourth Finals tilt between the two teams, he profiles as a stretchy bench wing who could provide valuable minutes guarding two through four and meets the need of a team looking for two-way players.

Without trading Love, LeBron & Co. are likely looking down the barrel of free agency once again to fill the remaining seven roster spots (including the new two-way contracts). This year’s prospective crop of potential ring chasers has plenty of familiar names including Korver, Deron Williams, Chris Anderson, Mike Dunleavy, and Mike Miller. Outside of Korver, Cleveland would be wise to chase any of that group. For the past three years, the Cavs have wasted bench spots on James Jones knowing fully well that his only utility in meaningful games would be mop-up duty and secret handshakes.

In these Finals, Kevin Durant and LeBron both logged minutes at the five. Other teams are following suit in the small ball revolution, and centers can be had now for a dime a dozen. It’s why contracts like the one Timothy Mozgov inked with the Lakers last summer will haunt them for years. It also give the Cavs the ability to ignore the big man market entirely as their primary competition both in the East and the West downsize their rosters. In Thompson and Love (not to mention James), the Cavs already have the frontcourt depth necessary to go toe-to-toe with any other contender. Boston’s top two bigs are Al Horford and… Kelly Olynyk? Toronto benched Jonas Valencunias repeatedly in important minutes against the Cavs in favor of going small this postseason, the Wizards have Marcin Gortat – who reportedly wants out of DC himself. None of this is to suggest Cleveland should go the offseason without finding a backup for Thompson. Injuries happen, and having another big on the roster provides insurance as well as the occasional breather Thompson and Love. But the Cavs can take a page out of Golden State’s book and go dumpster diving for bigs willing to take the minimum.

But this revolution also makes it harder to part with Kevin Love. Even if the Cavaliers swindled the Pacers into a Paul George for Love and Osman deal, it would leave the Cavs bare along the backup big front. Gone is the lineup featuring Love at the five, with those minutes now either demanding even more of James or falling precipitously to whichever of the scrap heap bigs find their way to northeast Ohio. Alternatively, it could mean more minutes for Thompson who should continue to improve, but did nothing to strike fear in the hearts of the Warriors’ small lineups in the Finals. This summer’s crop of big men is unenviable. Outside of a few former Warriors (namely David West and Zaza Pachulia), there appear to be few impact players who would potentially take a minimum deal. Perhaps Zach Randolph will opt to end Grit and Grind in favor of a chance to play in June, or Boris Diaw’s contract won’t get picked up by the Jazz. Keeping Kevin Love in the fold makes names like Joel Anthony, Roy Hibbert, or even a return for Andrew Bogut more palatable.

The focus area for Cleveland this offseason will be to improve depth on the wing. The fifth starter spot likely belongs to J.R. Smith, with Shumpert serving as the primary backup/sixth-man. Since LeBron’s return, the Cavs have used trade exceptions to acquire depth on the wing in guys like Korver and Frye. Cursory looks at the roster provide all the insight needed to see that possibility crossed off this year unless a marquee name like Love or Irving are moved, leaving free agency as the only means for acquiring that depth. Derrick Williams is a likely candidate to return for the minimum, and the Cavs would be wise to bring him back. With the eight salaries they are committed to for 2017-18 already, Cleveland is over the luxury tax line and will be limited to one player on a mid-level exception and filling out the other spots with minimum salary deals. Assuming they guarantee the rest of Felder’s money and bring back Williams at the minimum, there would be five roster spots (plus the two two-way G League positions) left to fill.

Finding useful guys for those spots will be difficult and the best sell will be a chance at a championship, but even that may not be enough to sell this limited crop of free agents. Cleveland’s front office has likely stuck off every restricted free agent from its list as their incumbent teams would be sure to match the limited salary Cleveland can offer. Looking for veterans on the back nine of their careers appears to be the best option once again, but Cleveland will be hard pressed to find guys they won’t need to sub out for offense-defense switches late in games. The top unrestricted smalls in this year’s class who might take less for a shot at a ring are headlined by 40-year-old Vince Carter, defensive stalwart Tony Allen, Jose Calderon, Matt Barnes, and former Cavs Korver, Mike Miller, and Deron Williams. Of the group, only Carter and Barnes still show flashes of two-way guys. Carter is the name to watch from this group as he’s continually expressed a desire to continue his career and will have to critically examine whether continuing on in Memphis is his next step. Barnes, a player with two tours of duty in Golden State, seems a less likely fit as the Warriors could offer him the same money to return.

Enticing a younger player to take less than his worth will be difficult, especially with LeBron only promised to Cleveland for one more season. It’s rare that a player of David West’s caliber turns down millions even at the end of his prime in favor of better odds at competing in June. In order to roster bodies who can actually take minutes in those games, Cleveland will have to ask that of free agents this summer. The Cavaliers do have an oft-overlooked selling point that few teams outside of the Bay Area can offer – teams which advance to the Finals (win or lose) amass bonuses for their players, over $600,000 per player in 2016 (Conference Finals and Finals bonuses combined). That bonus excludes the amounts for regular season records as well as an additional payday for the NBA champions. It might not sound like much, but the veteran’s minimum this year will be around $1,000,000, so an opportunity to earn up to 60% more holds merit. Teams like Brooklyn and the Lakers have nothing to lose this season – they’re likely not playoff contenders and they don’t have their own draft picks to tank for – but even if they offer slightly more money than Cleveland as a base salary, these playoff incentives could tilt the total earnings in favor of the Cavs.

The extra $600K likely won’t be enough to sway the top targets – JJ Redick can still get more money from a San Antonio team which with Kawhi healthy is every bit as much a contender. It’s the next tier of free agents – PJ Tucker, Thabo Sefolosha, CJ Miles, Omri Casspi, Raymond Felton, or Anthony Morrow who might be convinced to take a bit less. Tucker, worth a second round draft pick himself last February, should demand at least the mid-level and a team like the aforementioned Nets may be inclined to give him even more. Sefolosha and Miles are both limited offensively, Casspi has his own warts with the Cavs, and Felton is likely only to backup Felder. Morrow could take on the Korver role for the minimum. Should the Kings decide to part ways with Arron Afflalo’s partially guaranteed deal, he would be an ideal fit as a three-and-D reserve. Taj Gibson is another curious name; a player built in the model of LeBron’s first running mate Carlos Boozer, he faces an uncertain market as a traditional four who teams will certainly experiment with as a small ball five. Gibson can’t stretch the floor behind the arc, but has a respectable mid-range shot and hustles on defense. If he were to take the mid-level, the Cavs might not need to play LeBron 44 minutes per game.

No name on this list is a perfect fit, but that is the situation that Cleveland’s front office has cap-strapped themselves into. By doling out big-money extensions to Thompson, Smith, and Shumpert, the Cavs find themselves with no money to spend and no assets to dangle. A combination of any two players named above would be an improvement over this year’s bench and that’s the kind of incremental growth Cleveland needs if it hopes to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy this time next year.

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Do We Need to Talk?

In the weeks leading up to the NBA Finals the conversations comparing LeBron James and Michael Jordan began percolating more frequently in basketball circles. While some are ready to declare LeBron the greatest player in the history of the game, others seemed resigned to the fact that a conversation would need to be had if LeBron once again conquered the Warriors. That conquest did not come to fruition this June, so where does that leave our conversation?

That conversation presupposes that greatness is built on one bullet point on a resume: championships. Through fourteen seasons LeBron has three of those in eight trips to the NBA Finals. In Jordan’s fourteenth season he was suiting up for the Washington Wizards and had completed his career in the Finals with a perfect six-for-six record. A line in the sand has been drawn – so how do the two stack up through fourteen seasons a piece?

JAMESJORDAN

Next Man Up

If nothing else, looking at the early years of both James’s and Jordan’s careers is a reminder of how dependent each player was on the roster around him – super star or not. When considering non-championship seasons, LeBron shouldering the load for a 2007 Cavaliers team whose next best player was Larry Hughes all the way to the Finals is an apex accomplishment unequaled by Jordan, who never reached the Finals without Scottie Pippen. The talking heads bemoaned James’s Miami teams much like the current Golden State group, but so called ‘Super Teams’ have been a part of the NBA since Oscar Robertson was traded to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Milwaukee Bucks. Jordan’s Bulls are no exception, they added Dennis Rodman to an already championship caliber team en route to their second three-peat after being bullied by Shaquille O’Neal and the Magic.

The primary difference between the teams surrounding LeBron and Michael is how those players were acquired by their respective teams. The NBA has shifted in the time since Jordan’s Bulls so that most contenders are built through free agency. While the Bulls drafted Jordan and acquired Pippen before he played a minute in the NBA, James used free agency to arrive at each of the Heat and Cavs before winning a ring with those franchises.

Put aside momentarily the fact that the Cavs were the team to draft LeBron in 2003. James signed with the Heat as a free agent in 2010, teaming up with Wade (drafted by Miami) and fellow free agent Chris Bosh and began the first season he would ever play with another All-NBA player. Both James and Wade were mainstays on the All-NBA teams for their first three years in Miami, and in the fourth year when Wade didn’t make the cut (in part due to injuries) James departed again via free agency. Signing in Cleveland as a free agent, he partnered this time with Kyrie Irving (drafted by Cleveland) and Kevin Love who arrived via trade. Kyrie made his first All-NBA team immediately upon LeBron’s arrival but has not made one since due to both injuries and what may very well be the highest level of guard play in NBA history.

LeBron took team building into his own hands to find a supporting cast capable of winning a title. Michael, on the other hand, had Pippen emerge into an All-NBA player beside him on the Bulls with an already very-good Horace Grant. The Bulls added complimentary pieces like Rodman, Tony Kukoc, and even Steve Kerr throughout their runs much like Miami and Cleveland augmented with Shane Battier, Channing Frye, and Kyle Korver; but the Bulls were built upon a foundation of two home-grown All-NBA players. Each James and Jordan have exactly one title to their names in a season as the only All-NBA player on their respective teams, while only James has seen a teammate take home those honors (Irving in 2015, Wade in 2011) in a season he didn’t also win a championship. That said, Jordan’s abrupt retirement in 1993-94 and late re-entry in 1995 wasted two such seasons from Scottie Pippen.

Getting Defensive

Pippen’s presence on those 90s Bulls teams is curiously underappreciated in the Jordan-James debate. MJ was himself an all-time defensive great, but Scottie is considered by many to be the best defensive wing ever (at least until Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green unleashed their prowess onto the league). LeBron’s defense shone through in the Cavs-Warriors trilogy – it’s the sole reason the scorecard isn’t 3-0 in Golden State’s favor to date – but look through the lineups of Heat and Cavaliers teams he played with and you’ll struggle to identify the best two-way teammate of the group. Chris Bosh likely deserves the title, though being relegated to center duty against the Spurs limited his defensive impacts. Shane Battier may be the next-best candidate and he’s… not Scottie Pippen.

No one is questioning Jordan’s defensive abilities, but it’s fair to consider how his game and the outcomes of his playoff series may have changed if he had been forced to exert himself to the level LeBron has on that end of the floor. Michael was blessed with a combination of a world class defensive stopper at the wing and a rule set which diminished the concept of help defense. Come late April each of the last twelve years, LeBron has embraced the responsibility of guarding the opposing team’s best player and engineering his team’s offense. Every season Michael hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy, he had a teammate (Pippen) on the NBA All-Defensive Team. LeBron has never had one, period.

Boxing Out

Much is often made of the players Jordan prevented from ever winning a title. Though attributing an individual player’s lack of championships to one person seems a foolhardy exercise (some of these players won playoff series against Jordan/James, still others spoiled opportunities in years they never faced him), but below are the notable players each Jordan and James have thus far boxed out from championships.

Jordan:

Mark Price, Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, Charles Barkley, John Starks, Kevin Johnson, Larry Johnson, Tim Hardaway, Penny Hardaway, Dennis Scott, Shawn Kemp, Chris Webber, Dikembe Mutombo, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Reggie Miller, Chris Mullin

James:

Gilbert Arenas, Vince Carter, Joe Johnson, Derrick Rose, Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, Paul George, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, JJ Redick, Jimmy Butler, Brook Lopez, Isaiah Thomas, Paul Millsap, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry

Jordan’s list looks more impressive at the moment, though many of the competitors LeBron has cut short have much of their careers ahead of them – including individual accomplishments to add merit to LeBron keeping them from a ring and potential championships which would remove them from the list. Jordan’s career arc is neatly encapsulated in his list – he starts by beating the Cavs in early rounds, then conquers the Knicks and fends off the competition after his first title. There was no falling action after the apex of his Bulls career save for the hiccup to the Magic in 1995 when he returned from his baseball experiment. LeBron’s list is a work-in-progress. Many of those names may be forgotten in the annals of basketball history, while newcomers may still rise only to be thwarted by the King.

King of the Court

Measuring a player by who he prevented from winning championships is a flawed methodology, but observing the rivalries which led to or prevented ticker tape parades provides a more accurate picture.

For Jordan it’s fairly simple; as above, his career followed a fairly linear path, playing out like Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Jordan faced his trials as a young player attempting to conquer Larry Bird’s Celtics teams and at times looked overmatched by Joe Dumars and the Bad Boy Pistons. Bird was the only other player in the Eastern Conference to take home MVP honors while Jordan was in the league, those accolades coming in MJ’s rookie and sophomore campaigns. Enter Phil Jackson, the mentor and the revelation of the Triangle Offense as Jordan transforms from pure scorer to well-rounded player. Those Celtic and Pistons rivalries ended with Jordan on top, after which he only needed to lose one game to Magic Johnson’s Lakers before throttling the Bulls to three consecutive championships. Once MJ won, he didn’t stop winning. Save for that Magic season, where the onus of the loss lies more with the Bulls frontcourt than anything from Jordan. He conquered Barkley, Penny Hardaway, Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp without breaking much of a sweat. Reggie Miller developed the Pacers into a legitimate contender from the Central Division, but they were overpowered in their one playoff meeting against Jordan’s Bulls. Karl Malone won an MVP that should have gone to Jordan by all accounts, so Jordan stole two championships from his grasp. From the season Michael stepped foot on the court in June for his first Finals, he appeared to be the best player in every playoff series he took part in.

The same can’t be said for LeBron. James entered the league with a ready-made rival in Carmelo Anthony that Jordan never had; the first debates around James used Carmelo as the foil for comparison. It wouldn’t be until nine seasons later and a second team for each player that the two would face off in a playoff series, where LeBron’s Heat dismantled Carmelo’s Knicks. In the intervening years LeBron made a Finals and lost to Tim Duncan’s Spurs in a sweep. Those Spurs were undoubtedly a more well-balanced team and LeBron had arrived early after dispensing of the Pistons, but still looked overmatched. The next three years in Cleveland ended in May, where Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Dwight Howard each looked to be the best player on the court in respective playoff series. Perhaps LeBron was being asked to do too much in carrying underwhelming Cavalier rosters on both ends of the floor. He certainly felt so, and left for South Beach. That first season in Miami, LeBron vanished in the Finals loss to Dirk Nowitzki. His teammate Dwayne Wade appeared as the Heat’s best player for the series. The Heat reigned supreme in the Eastern Conference for James’s stay in Miami. Challengers in the form of Paul George and Jimmy Butler (and to a lesser extent Derrick Rose) provided ample evidence for LeBron’s physical gifts, mental acumen, and developing greatness. LeBron easily dispensed of a Thunder team – which not unlike his Cavaliers seemed to arrive too early – though not by shutting down Kevin Durant. Durant was hailed as the league’s next star during those 2012 Finals even when losing in five games despite going mono-a-mono with James. Two more consecutive Finals appearances gave James both a win and loss against the Spurs, as well as a new challenger in Kawhi Leonard. Imagine if those Bulls-Jazz series had swapped Scottie Pippen for Jeff Hornacek. Kawhi is the closest thing we’ve seen to Pippen over the past two decades, watching him rival James has been astonishing and James – at times – appeared equaled if not lesser than Leonard. The Warriors teams LeBron played since returning to Cleveland are not his rivals – he has said as much. Their best players in 2015 and 2016 were their prolific backcourt and James faced them without at least one of Kyrie or Love in nearly half of their thirteen Finals games. The addition of Durant this year provided a foil for James on Golden State, and, much as in 2012, he was all of James’s equal if not superior.

The forgotten man in all of this is Kobe Bryant, the man who fancied himself the rightful successor to his Airness. A cruel combination of Mike Brown, Danny Ainge, and somehow Mike Brown again robbed us of ever seeing Kobe and LeBron face off in the Finals so we are left with a handful of rather meaningless regular season games and the few All Star game sequences from the past two decades where anyone bothered to play defense. Win or lose, LeBron’s legacy would look different given the opportunity to face off against the man he took the reins from as the league’s best player.

The Moment

Great players have signature moments – lots of them. When narrowing down the field for MJ and LeBron, it’s excruciating to differentiate between their greatest performances so instead we’ll focus on literal visuals drummed up by a simple caption.

For Jordan, it all starts with ‘The Shot’ – a term Cleveland has tried rather unsuccessfully to re-appropriate for Irving’s clincher in the 2016 Finals, the 1998 Dunk Contest which has been forever encapsulated on his eponymous sneakers, and the ‘Flu Game’ in Salt Lake City swinging the 1997 Finals back in favor of Chicago.

It gets trickier with LeBron who owns some impressive scoring games, in-game dunks, and win streaks. LeBron’s two most memorable moments to this point are ‘The Block’ of Andre Iguodala in the 2016 Finals to keep the game within reach for Cleveland’s first championship and then ‘The Decision’. Yes, the latter happened off the court, but the image of LeBron sitting in the Boys & Girls Club in his checkered button-down stating his intentions to take his talents to South Beach might be the most recognizable moment of his career. The rallies in Miami and emotional return to Cleveland are nearly as memorable, but are also direct results of his decision. Does LeBron have a true career-defining offensive moment? There is still time.

Not One, Not Two Not Three…

Twelve. We are twelve years into LeBron’s ‘prime’ with no signs of slowing down. It seems possible – if not likely – that LeBron’s prime will last longer than Jordan’s entire career. Jordan’s entire career was fifteen seasons thanks to his multiple retirements, LeBron will hit year fifteen in the Association next year in Cleveland, who right now are favorites to reach the Finals again next June.

Growing up in Chicago in the 90s, watching the Bulls in June was appointment viewing. For those growing up the past decade anywhere on the planet, LeBron James playing for a title has become one of the few constants left. Two more trips to the Finals and James will eclipse Bill Russell’s Celtics for the most consecutive appearances. That matters. Not so much the record, but the durability. Yes, LeBron enjoys playing in an era where both medical staffs and travel luxuries have exploded exponentially beyond what any previous athlete could have dreamed, but this is unprecedented. When those Celtic teams finished their runs the NBA had seven other teams. Both Jordan and James played at a time when each conference had seven other playoff teams.

Just for comparison here’s Bill Russell’s chart:

RUSSELL

*NBA Playoffs Were Two Rounds
**NBA Playoffs Were Three Rounds

In thirteen total seasons, Russell was eleven-for-twelve in the Finals. His final season was the first for the NBA’s All-Defensive designation and both he and teammate John Havlicek took home honors. In a shallow league, he played on teams with multiple Hall of Famers due to no fault of his own and time after time foiled Wilt Chamberlain while boxing Elgin Baylor (and five other HoFers) out of a ring altogether.

The NBA Mount Rushmore will likely be fluid so long as the game is played – it’s that very fact which keeps us watching. First Russell and Jerry West, then Kareem, followed by Bird and  Magic giving way to Michael before Duncan, Kobe, and now LeBron. The game is constantly evolving and the debates should ask for the greatest player through this point in time, not of all time. Eye-tests, statistics, intuition, and what-have-you there will never be a consensus way to measure greatness in an activity that celebrates individual accolades and team accomplishments both over time and in one-year snippets. LeBron James is likely one of the five, if not three, greatest players with two first names to play in the NBA thus far. That much seems agreeable to all parties. So, do we still need to talk?

The Evolution of Morey Ball

On May 11 the San Antonio Spurs ousted the Morey Ball Rockets from the playoffs in a 39-point blowout sans their MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard. The Rockets entered the series against the Spurs as the favorite despite the lower seed and lack of home court advantage. The Spurs were viewed by many as “Kawhi Leonard and Friends” versus a run-and-gun rebirth of seven seconds or less offense with a penchants for the long ball. But as has been the case for many a Mike D’Antoni team in May, they faltered against the Popovich wall. Daryl Morey, the architect of the association’s new geometry has built a team around three-pointers and three footers, but has the NBA’s greatest coach figured out the solution?

The Houston Rockets epitomized the logical conclusion of the three-pointer, and the styles of coach Mike D’Antoni’s former Suns teams. The goal is pure mathematics: threes are worth more than twos, so if you’re going to shoot twos, they best be high-percentage shots. General Manager Daryl Morey worked with D’Antoni to recruit players who fit this vision, like the oft-injured but sharp-shooting pair of Pelicans Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson and mid-season acquisition Lou Williams. The team shifted James Harden to run the point and surrounded him with shooters and rim-runners, jettisoning Dwight Howard along with his attitude and calls for post touches. In theory, it worked: in the 2016-17 season, the Rockets paced the league in three-point attempts with 3,306 – over 700 more than the next most. 46.2% of the Rockets field goal attempts came from beyond the arc, while another 32% came from within three feet of the basket. They also slogged to a last place finish in attempts between 10 feet and the three-point line – just 9.3% of all field goal attempts.

The Rockets are hardly the only team moving in this direction. Both the Cavaliers and the Warriors attempt roughly two thirds of their shots from either beyond the arc or from within three feet of the basket. Brad Stevens’ Celtics lean this direction as well, accounting for four of the league’s top five teams in the 2016-17 season embracing Morey-Ball. The outlier, of course: Popovich’s Spurs.

Morey

The top offenses in the NBA today are predicated on ball movement, making the extra pass to go from good shot to great shot. The Warriors, Rockets, and Celtics were three of the top four teams in assists in addition to pacing the league in Morey Ball shot selection. But the quality of those assists matters. If the goal is a clear three-point attempt, and the Rockets’ attempt numbers certainly suggest it is, then creating an open attempt via a pass should be the ultimate cog in the offensive game plan. The Warriors – the greatest assisting team of the decade – assist on 83.1% of their three-point field goals. The Celtics, the Morey-Ballers of the Eastern Conference, assist on 83.7% of theirs. Yet the Rockets, architected by Morey and D’Antoni finished dead last in the league assisting their long distance shooters at only 76.9%.

This is the compromise for playing James Harden at the point. He’s a guy who can create his shot as well as anyone in the league, and in an offense that stresses threes he creates a high number of them himself. Gordon, Anderson, and Patrick Beverley can be utilized as spot-up shooters, but Gordon and Beverley are called in for on-ball duty in the minutes Harden is off the floor. Lou Williams, who only spent half the season in Houston, plays similarly to Harden and likes to create off the dribble even if a catch-and-shoot opportunity arises. Houston’s assist rate inside the arc is in the middle of the pack among NBA teams. Unlike their outside shooters, bigs like Clint Capela, Nene, and Montrezl Harrell are reluctant to put the ball on the floor. This is one of the reasons Houston has so often been linked to passing big men like Pau Gasol and Chris Bosh – guys who can get the ball in the post and pass to the open three-point shooter after drawing the help defender in the paint. Absent a pass-first big and with Harden creating the majority of his shots on his own, the Rockets are unlikely to sprint to the top of assists on three-point attempts. It’s an interesting dilemma for the Rockets, who just gave up on a big in Howard who would demand the help defender and create that passing lane. Howard was an ill-fit for the D’Antoni system, as are most back-to-the-basket types, but having that option opens up more high percentage threes. It’s one of the reasons Popovich was reluctant to move away from the aforementioned Gasol in the series as he created better opportunities for a Spurs team that doesn’t attempt many threes, but assists on over 87% of them.

Enter Greg Popovich, basketball savant and interview extraordinaire. The strategy seems simple enough, guard the three-point line with your life and live with the mid-range jumpers and floaters. The Spurs allowed the entry passes into the paint and let their defenders go one-on-one against the Rockets’ bigs. The lack of a great passing big hurts more when no help defender comes and gives up a passing lane, but what hurt the Rockets more was playing a brand of basketball that they looked visibly unfamiliar and uncomfortable with. Throughout the season, the Warriors have intentionally played un-Warrior like possessions, ceding minutes at a time to Kevin Durant isolations and lineups where Ian Clark is the lone three-point option alongside non-shooters like Shaun Livingston in the backcourt. It’s the difference between good teams and great teams. Morey Ball has outlined the Rockets strategy for the future, and perhaps they’re only a few pieces away from transforming it into a championship winning game plan.

Rejections: How Nerlens Noel Ended Dallas’s Hunt for a Franchise Center

February 23, 2017 – The Philadelphia 76ers trade soon-to-be restricted free agent Nerlens Noel to the Dallas Mavericks for Andrew Bogut, Justin Anderson, and a conditional first round pick (a long shot in the first place, which has now conveyed to two second round picks). Mourn the process.

Acquiring Noel during the 2013 draft was the first maneuver of Sam Hinkie’s “Process”. While unloading Jrue Holiday and a second round pick, the 76ers began their dismantling from middling Eastern Conference contender to lottery-bound Powerball addicts. Just over three and a half years later (sans the man who began the process), Philadelphia punted on a chance to retain a piece of what it once viewed as its next core for… let’s just say less than Jrue Holiday. True – Justin Anderson may prove to be an above league average rotational bench player, and two second round picks are more than the one Philly gave up in the first place, but Holiday has become a starting caliber combo-guard who will likely be retained by New Orleans (due to their own inability to manage the salary cap). It is somewhat ironic that as Philly disentangles itself from the process, they need only look southwest to see the guard they gave up playing in a two-big system with a generational talent who was drafted just one year before the process began.

The decision to move on from Noel was in large part financial – as a restricted free agent this summer, Noel was likely to command more than the Sixers felt comfortable doling out to a man they hope would be relegated to bench minutes behind Joel Embiid. One of the teams most likely to give him that money was Dallas, and in moving Noel there now they avoided losing him for nothing. But what exactly did they lose? Or rather, what did Dallas gain?

Since their title run in 2010-2011, the Mavericks have been hunting for their next Tyson Chandler – a hunt which in 2014 led them back to Tyson Chandler. If not for the great emoji battle of 2015, this team may look entirely different with a group of small-ball bigs in Chandler Parsons and Dirk beside DeAndre Jordan. The merits of that search are now debatable as both the game has become stretchier with the focus on shooters, and the fit of such a rim protector next to an aging Dirk Nowitzki may be a moot point as Dirk closes out his NBA career. But as their competitions searches out the next Marc Gasol or pushes a 7-footer beyond the arc, the Mavericks may have found a way to buck the trend. In fact, most teams are searching for their Dirk Nowitzki, a seven-footer with shooting range who can float between center and power forward and stretch the floor to create driving lanes for others.

There are no perfect player comparisons, and making comparisons between bigs has become increasingly difficult as the game at the professional level has moved away from pounding the ball in the post. That said, there has always been and seemingly will always be a role on NBA teams for two types of big men: the shot-blocking rim-runners, and the rulers of the low post. Noel is unquestionably in the mold of the former. While his arsenal of moves in the post is growing, he still scores more than half his baskets on uncontested dunks, put-backs, and alley-oops; and despite his strong on-ball defense, his all-around defense lacks the lateral flexibility of a Rudy Gobert to become a strong help defender or allow him to block many shots from guys when he’s not the primary defender. Unlike his Dallas predecessor, he may never win a Defense Player of the Year award, if only because he entered the league at a time where it seems unlikely one will ever go to anyone outside the trio of Gobert, Draymond Green, and Kawhi Leonard. Though at age 23 – younger than this year’s likely top Rookie of the Year vote-getters Malcolm Brogdon and Dario Saric – Noel has both room and time to grow.

Here’s a look at the per game numbers for four of this generation’s rim-running big men through their first three seasons:

  • Big 1: 203 games, 18.7 minutes, 5.4 points, 0.33 assists, 5.57 rebounds, 1.27 blocks .404 FT%
  • Big 2: 181 games, 22.1 minutes, 7.1 points, 0.83 assists, 6.47 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, .627 FT%
  • Big 3: 193 games, 26.9 minutes, 9.9 points, 1.5 assists, 7.33 rebounds, 1.47 blocks, .631 FT%
  • Big 4: 214 games, 19.7 minutes, 7.7 points, 0.33 assists, 5.33 rebounds, 1.7 blocks, .627 FT%

Think you know which one is Nerlens? How about which of the four went on to win a Defensive Player of the Year?

Nerlens Noel checks in at “Big 3”, playing the third most games in his first three years (minus his draft year after being held out by the 76ers). Through those first three years, he leads the pack in all per-game categories outside of blocks (where he places second). The leader for blocks? That’s JaVale McGee; (Big 4) perhaps the worst comparison of the group to Noel, McGee has never been considered an above-average defender and has been known to chase down blocks at the expense of his defensive rebounding positioning.

The more interesting comparisons here are Big 1, DeAndre Jordan, and Big 2, Tyson Chandler himself. Noel’s first three seasons compare favorably to both of the established big men through equal footing in their careers. The per-36 minute stats paint a similar picture, giving a slight edge to Jordan and Chandler in blocks and rebounds, though Noel more than doubles their combined steals output. The per-36 minutes are also highly misleading as the new NBA landscape is cutting down on traditional centers’ minutes which rarely peaked that high regardless (Chandler himself only had one season of over 35 minutes per game). The other potential flaw here is that Noel accomplished most of this on a 76ers team which showed little interest in winning and had few consistent scoring options. His offensive rebounding numbers are a tick higher than both Jordan and Chandler through the first three years, which could be skewed from his 76er teams’ poor shooting and plethora of opportunities. Still, Noel boasts the highest free throw percentage of the three and an effective field goal rate over 52%.

Now about that changing league context… Noel, in split minutes between Dallas and Philadelphia, played with five primary different lineups last year featuring a stretch four with one of Nowitzki, Saric, or Ersan Ilyasova. In the nearly 280 minutes of those lineups with Noel at the five and a shooter at the four, those lineups posted a plus 0.82 points per hundred possessions. The Mavericks experimented some with playing Harrison Barnes at the four last year next to Dirk at the pivot, and will likely try more of that next season if they are able to lure a big name point guard to take some of undrafted rookie phenom Yogi Ferrell’s minutes. That would push Seth Curry, who head coach Rick Carlisle has said he would like to start, into a combo-guard role and Wes Matthews to the three with Barnes at the four. Assuming whoever plays the point next year has a respectable three-point range and Noel is back  to inherit some of those minutes at center from Dirk, a lineup like this would boast more shooters than Noel has ever played with and open up the spacing on the floor for both more Nerlens dunks and offensive rebounds. As a center who has already shown proclivity for chasing down his own team’s bricks and wayward bounces, Noel could easily see an uptick in rebounds similar to both Jordan (8.3) and Chandler (9.7) in year four as he looks to ascend to being the Mavs next franchise big.

If watching the NBA develop over the past few seasons in Dallas and Philadelphia (or Utah, Los Angeles, Memphis, etc.) has taught us anything, it’s that finding and developing a big man is, well, a process. Dallas spent the better part of the decade searching out a paint partner for Dirk, and as his career winds down they may have found the solution in his on court antithesis: a shot-swatting rim-runner who is destined to stretch defenses back towards the basket.

The 2016-2017 NBA Ball Stars

Thanks to Steph Curry, Lebron James and cavalcade of emerging superstars, triple-doubles, and funeral-level rivalries, the NBA has begun to march on Roger Goodell’s concussion throne to re-establish basketball at the premier spectator sport. While other sites have been arguing over the semantics of little things like this year’s MVP, we’ve revived Breakfast of Chumpions to discuss more important things, like who in the NBA is getting jiggy with it.

While many athletes (yes, even golfers now thanks to Tiger) have been known to clean up at the visiting team hotels, basketball players have to compare themselves to legends like the Mailman Karl Malone. So for the 2016-2017 season we’ve named this year’s NBA Ball Stars, the player on each team who is likely to have the most magic johnson.


Atlanta Hawks

Dwight Howard allegedly has five children from five different ‘relationships’. But Kris Humphries can still pull any girl who wants to be Eskimo Sisters with Kim Kardashian, and for some reason that’s a lot of people.

Boston Celtics

Crowder? I barely know her!

Brooklyn Nets

You would think the answer here would be no one, but Jeremy Lin is still big in China. I mean literally, he’s seven inches taller than the average Chinese man

Charlotte Hornets

No one in the Hornets organization is more up on what girls are into these days than Frank the Tank Kaminsky. As the league’s premier Game of Thrones fan, he has invited many Charlotte Hornies over to slay his dragon

Chicago Bulls

Nothing plays with the ladies like “Tonight might be my last night in Chicago” and Jimmy Butler has been rocking that line since 2013

Cleveland Cavaliers

LeBron James? No. Kyrie Irving? Think again. JR Smith? Put a shirt on. While those three may hoist the most shots, it falls to Tristan Thompson to get all the rebounds

Dallas Mavericks

Shea Serrano may have called him a “highly regarded non-threat” on the court, but Dirk Nowitzki is still a legend between the sheets

Denver Nuggets

The Manimal.

Detroit Pistons

Look, no player on this team is doing much on or off the court these days. But I don’t think it’s nearly talked about enough that Stan Van Gundy does bear a certain semblance to Ron Jeremy…

Golden State Warriors

If you’re not a single female, delete Draymond Green from your Snapchat contacts

Houston Rockets

He’s the favorite for MVP, his beard is the stuff of legend, and he loves to get other people going. James Harden has so much going for him, that the ladies forgive him for re-popularizing “Seven Seconds or Less”

Indiana Pacers

Paul George (see Butler, Jimmy)

LA Clippers

A season ago it would have been Blake Griffin, but DeAndre Jordan is now the league’s premier finisher

LA Lakers

This one is tough. It should easily be Nick Young, but DeAngelo Russell is there with him 100% of the way working the camera

Memphis Grizzlies

And now for the box score, Chandler Parsons: DNP – VD

Miami Heat

Despite the quips from Bill Simmons and Zach Lowe that they are the lone inhabitants, this season has shown an uptick in overnight visitors to Waiters Island

Milwaukee Bucks

He’s a seven-footer with all the right moves. Ladies and Gentlemen: Thon Maker the Heart Breaker

Minnesota Timberwolves

Some consider him an NBA bust given the hype from years back, but this soft-spoken Spaniard still has the softest touch in the Association: Ricky Rubio

New Orleans Pelicans

Bayou Boogie!

New York Knicks

This is a franchise littered with a history of being terrible to women. So we’ll acknowledge point guard, role model, and children’s author Ron Baker for leading the way in appropriate humane behavior.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Russell Westbrook is a triple-double machine, and the “Fuck-You Game” heir apparent to Kobe, but when it comes to off the court double teams, there’s a reason they call Adams and Kanter the Stache Brothers

Image result for stache brothers okc

Orland Magic

This is the hardest one on the list. By default it’s probably Aaron Gordon as the only one who gets recognized outside the Amway Center

Philadelphia 76ers

If we’re going to say Joel Embiid is eligible for this award despite his limited minutes, then I guess we have to consider Ben Simmons too. And no one raises the cats like Ben Simmons

Phoenix Suns

Jared Freakin’ Studly

Portland Trailblazers

On a team full of four-year college guys who live with their moms, the honor is split between two Big Ten products who have the game in their name: Noah Vonleh and Jake Layman

Sacramento Kings

After Boogie took his talents to the Bayou, there’s a new king in Sac-Town and it’s the Ryan Lewis to their Ben McLemore, mister Buddy Hield!

San Antonio Spurs

Parker has the French flair, Kawhi has an erotica short story, but even in his post-prime seasons only Pau Gasol can score at the cultured museums of the NBA’s finest cities and later that night work this line at the clubs “Hi ladies, I’m Marc Gasol”

Toronto Raptors

I don’t know, I assume Demare Carroll has done something in his two seasons on the Drakes

Utah Jazz

As the newcomers to the West playoffs the Jazz are the darlings of the NBA beat this season, but the darling of Salt Lake City, no matter how hard Gordon Hayward tries, will always be Jimmer Fredette. He’s outscoring the Jazz in Utah all the way from China. (Honorable mention, Andrei Kirilenko)

Washington Wizards

I’m just saying, there’s probably a reason he earned the nickname “The Polish Hammer”