We just got done looking forward to the NBA 2015-16 season tipoff (see “NBA is for Feelings”) and, at the time of writing this, we’re a week from the all-star game. Land-speed record attempts move slower than an NBA calendar.
Over the course of the fifty-ish games played, patterns and trends have emerged. Heroes bask in the blinding flashbulb sun, and villains surface like an Orc from primordial ooze. By this point in the season we pretty much know the candidates for every major postseason (and mostly pointless, let’s face it) award: which player is the most valuable to their team, the most improved player, the defensive leader, the most promising rookie. Before the season began, the NBA “expert” pundits drew up educated narratives and predictions, and, as usual, they’ve been quickly obliterated by injuries, chance, offseason trades, or the unexpected rise/fall of “sure things.” Life might be like a box of chocolates but so is the NBA. You just never, ever know. Ain’t it beautiful?
From a League Pass Owner and lover of slowly-unravelling narratives, here are fourteen NBA stories that have stuck out to me in the 2015/2016 season thus far:
- The Golden State Warriors. No, I’m not ready for them yet. I’ll circle back.
- DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins. This man is a BEAST. And I’m not being hyperbolic – I genuinely believe that if you booted him out a helicopter in the mountains with nothing but a purple sweatband and a pair of Kings boxer-briefs, he’d find his way back to Cowtown with a ravaged alpha wolf under his arm and its blood staining his teeth. He just flat bullies opposing centres in the post, putting up 27/11/3 on the season. Those aren’t just all-star numbers, they’re all-NBA-first-team-all-everything-always numbers. The fact that he wasn’t a lock for the all-star game based on his “questionable temperament” is a travesty. The league office can look to censor and sanitise its players all it likes, but Boogie will always stand proud as a hulk feeding off his emotions. Watching him back down absolutely anyone he likes in the post and throwing it down hard is a throwback to the Rodman/Sprewell/Oakley years when expressing emotion wasn’t a fineable offence. Long live Boogie.
- The Blake Griffin Incident. The first picture of Blake’s swollen hand emerged this week after an incident in a restaurant where he allegedly assaulted a member of the Clipper’s equipment staff. I don’t care about the details – the players are entitled to their private lives – but this seems to have escalated quickly into LA’s star player getting shoved out of town. The Clippers had one more season to get out the Western Conference Semi’s before Coach/GM Doc Rivers was going to have to blow it all up. That was common knowledge. But, post-punching, we’ve gone from “may have to make some trades in the off-season” to “Sources say LA has discussed a trade with Denver” and, even more remarkably, discussing a trade with THE SIXERS. This is an astonishing turnaround which suggests there’s hidden turmoil within Flop City Towers. Or it could just be the usual pre-trade deadline chatter. Whatever happens, Griffin is a superstar and a trade would shake up the league.
- The Gold…..Nope.
- The Houston Rocket Malfunctions. After their storming comeback to topple the Clippers in the Western Quarter’s last year, most expected James Harden and the Houston Rockets to launch themselves into the stratosphere in the 15/16 season (OK, I’m one and done with rocket puns). Instead, they started slow and never gathered a rhythm. At 4-7, the team GM Daryl Morey fired coach McHale, saying “The team was not responding to Kevin.” Since J.B. Bickerstaff took on interim coaching duties, the eye test suggests the team still isn’t responding to anything but lethargy and a surprisingly deep disinterest in competing. Harden has regressed to his swinging saloon door defense that was once so rife that marketing folks poked fun at it in one of his Foot Locker ads. The Beard’s slow down jab-stepping jitterbug game is tedious to watch, especially when his team is losing. Dwight Howard is a big kid playing in a league with a prize too mythical and lofty for his haha I farted personality. He just doesn’t get it, and doesn’t have the game to fake it. Injuries have also taken their toll on a player who was in the MVP discussion not a million years ago. This Rocket will stay grounded (it’s out my system now) if they continue to not care. Oh, and by the way, they totally quit on McHale and the fans, so screw that team.
- He’s Worked So Hard to Come Back from That Terrible Injury… When The Team Which Will Not Be Named hit the road, almost every commentator mentions how inspiring Shaun Livingston is for coming all the way from his (admittedly) gruesome injury sustained when he was a springy, cornrowed Clipper. He did work hard and it is inspiring, but I’m sure he’d just like to be known for being a solid as hell [team name redacted] backup guard who has a pure, reliable turnaround fadeaway. Shaddup about a decade old injury.
- Kobe’s Victory Lap. Kobe is getting heavy minutes based on his legacy alone, and I’ve grown to have no problem with that. Traded to LA from Charlotte on draft night, Bryant has been the top player for a top team for twenty seasons (save for the prime Shaq seasons and the Smush Parker era). TWENTY. The average NBA career is 4.8 years. I’m by no means a Kobe fan, but you have to respect his longevity when coupled with the fact that he’s arguably one of the top ten players to ever play the game, and the closest we’ll ever get to stamping out the Michael Jordan eternal flame (no one will ever, ever manage this sorry about that). The Lakers are terrible this season, and he’s earned one more go-around on the Hollywood Ferris wheel.
- We the North Heading The Same Way in the Standings. Toronto is playing superb basketball of late, shooting up the east standings to second behind the Cavs. Not even the Raptor die-hards saw that coming. The backcourt tandem of Lowry and DeRozan is putting up around 44 points per, and more importantly I plan to catch their next game where previously I would’ve shrugged at the opportunity. Lowry is an all-star starter, which is only fitting for a guy who worked so hard in the offseason to show fans and the front office that he came to play and stay. It remains to be seen if DeRozan feels the same, as rumours are swirling of a max-contract offer from a post-Kobe Laker organization looking to bring Showtime back double-quick.
- The Bucks are a Deer in Headlights. Last season, the Bucks were the second best defensive team in the league. This year they’re fourth from bottom. Jason Kidd is reportedly looking to move Michael Carter-Williams after he failed to mature into Kidd Two Point…Oh, in addition to dumping $60mill monolith Greg Monroe after his notoriously poor defense also plateaued at “meh”. What a shame, especially with those killer unis. Worst of all, Swiss-Army stick-insect Antetokounmpo doesn’t look like he’s having much fun out there.
- Anthony Davis – More Human Than Mythological God. Anthony Davis is 22 years old. At 22 I was building roof trusses in the English winter and still didn’t know a damn thing about anything (side note: still don’t). Granted, AD’s chart of ascendency has been a diagonal line trending up and up, but the pre-season hype and expectation that he would keep getting exponentially better was always unrealistic. I don’t think we’ve seen the end of Davis’ growth, but he needs a better coach, and he needsneedsneeds help from players who can stay on the court and perform. He wasn’t the panacea everyone in N’awlins wanted him to be and that’s just fine. He’ll come roaring back next year after an entire offseason to work on his game. Just don’t expect him to conquer worlds. Jordan wasn’t Jordan without Pippen.
- OKC Winding Up. OKC hasn’t moved up the standings quite as dramatically as Toronto, but storm-chasers know the tornado is coming straight for you if you can’t see it moving. Westbrook is on another planet this year – a top MVP candidate in a Steph Curry-less NBA. Durant is ol’ faithful Durant: a spindly blur of skinny limbs making all the right moves and hitting all the big shots. His foot injury is no longer a concern. Westbrook has recognised the futility of hoisting up mid-range bricks. Donovan is a better coach than Brooks, and my gut says we’ll see more evidence of this in the playoffs. Make no mistake, the Thunder’s rollin’ in from the West.
- Cleveland Still Missing a Piece of Blue Sky. LeBron is still a top-three player in this league, but he’s lost just a touch of athleticism and lateral quickness. The impact of this has been evident at both ends of the court: I swear I’ve seen more guards blowing by him this year, as well as opposing bigs beating him to the rim on the defensive end. Shumpert and Smith are streaky shooters, although Smith has been relatively steady after taking his talents to Ohio. Mozgov finds himself featured in trade rumours amid recent better play following an offseason knee injury. Rookie Coach Lue is still trying to figure out how to get Kevin Love involved enough to maximise his all-star skillset before his curly mop bolts for familiar LA pastures in free agency. This is a team of puzzle pieces that don’t quite fit. Not yet. Come playoff time it won’t matter how hard LeBron smashes in that final ill-fitting piece. Unless they turn a corner in the final third, the Cavs are headed for the Finals (by virtue of a still-weak east) but will fall to the Spurs or [ahem].
- Spurs Being All Historic and No one Cares. They won’t win 73 games – Popovich would never consider pushing his team harder just to chase history – but man are they close-ish without really trying. They’re unbeaten at home this year, and LaMarcus Aldridge has steadily found his feet in a completely different offense to the dump-it-off-and-clear-out system he performed so well within in Portland. The word “Superstar” is overused and overrated (yes I know I used it to describe Griffin before now), but it absolutely applies to Kawhi Leonard. Watch him for a few plays on both ends. On defense he bounces around on his toes in a perfect defensive stance like a reared up cobra just waiting to slap the ball out your hands before you can call for a screen. He matches his man’s every lateral move and rarely gets beaten to the basket on a drive. On offense he hits his spot every single time, and it’s incredibly tough to stop a guy hitting so many shots when the ball-movement preceding each one is so irresistibly deliberate and consistently on point. By the way he’s also shooting 48% on threes this year. That percentage even beats you-know-who. Ginobili is out for a month at the time of writing this, but you gotta believe the Spurs have enough to keep on ticking over. The Spurs would be the best team in the league by a mile if it wasn’t for…
- Steph Curry and His Band of Merry Men. Okay, let’s do this. What can you say about a 45-4 team that, it must be clarified, has only lost one at full-strength, and is threatening to top the NBA regular season record held by the 1995/96 Chicago Bulls (unofficially one of the greatest NBA teams ever assembled)? They’re pounding at the doors of history and happen to be the most exciting team to watch while doing it. They are the casts of THE WEST WING, THE OFFICE, and all those TV shows that are classics because they had the right people in the right roles at every level of the process. You can’t deliver great dialogue without it first being written by a great writer. You can’t become a family unless you all slot together perfectly. The Golden State Warriors are what happens when your chosen deity sees your best laid plans and says “Ah, go on then. Just this once.”
There is not one selfish personality on this team, not one player that needs taking aside and lecturing on the concept of buying in to team basketball. No bad egg. No ghost in the machine. The starting five is a perfectly cohesive unit that has more ways to torch you than you can scout for or combat on the fly. They remind me of the Stockton/Malone pick and roll that you knowknowknow is coming but you’re still powerless to stop. They pull out that straightaway five-man weave play and someone will get open. They hit you with the elevator out of a time out that you can kinda sorta see brewing but chances are you still can’t stop it. Even if you snuff out the double-door screen, Kerr and Co have developed contingency after contingency. You have a better chance of being struck by lightning while winning the lottery while being killed by a falling Tab Clear vending machine then you do of stopping this team when they’re in full flow.
In a different city, Klay Thompson would be a first option lights-out shooter night after night. He’s second-fiddle in Golden State. Third, most games (I don’t even have the space to talk about what Draymond Green brings to the table). What’s more amazing and thrilling is he doesn’t seem to care. Another personality might jealously whine about more touches or eventually force his way onto another team to be their top dog. Nope. Not even a hint of this from Klay. He’s smart enough to know what he’s a part of in Golden State. He’s aware he won’t ever have it as good as he has it right now.
Steph Curry is the MVP of this league and any other. He’s doing things no one has ever seen in NBA history. He routinely pulls up from just inside half-court and hits around 40%. The league average from right at the three-point line is somewhere around 32% He hit a long bomb a few weeks ago from the edge of the GSW court logo and the announcer didn’t even mention it. Today, ESPN tweeted the following statistic: the NBA average for shots from three feet or closer is 59.5% Steph Curry is shooting 60.4% from 28+ feet. He’s playing so out of his mind that the extraordinary has become ordinary. We’re now saying “what else you got,” to a guy with the highest efficiency rating in league history coupled with one of the highest usage rates ever. Speaking of THE OFFICE, the character Andy Bernard laments in the finale: “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days when you’re in them.” Well, this is it, folks. I’m here to tell you that we’re witnessing history in real-time. Be like Klay and know it now cos in ten years Curry will be 37 and, fingers crossed, the best spot-up shooter playing fifteen minutes a night the league has ever seen, but potentially retired to the bosom of his saccharine-sweet family unit.
There’s so much more I could say about GSW and the NBA as a whole. With San Antonio almost matching the potential Greatest Team Ever step for step, OKC crackling on the horizon, potential new players entering the game from the east, and the Cavs’ Will Hunting focus on calculating the winning formula, the run in to the playoffs will be fascinating to watch. I suggest you tune in.
Photo of “Boogie” Cousins, courtesy of KentuckyCrazies.com