Category Archives: Mid-Season Review

The T’Wolves: Their future may be bright, but their present leaves something to be desired

Future Western Conference power, dark horse playoff contender, the most exciting team in the NBA (minus the Dubs), these are just a few of the phrases that were tossed around in various season previews for the Minnesota Timberwolves to hype the team of tomorrow. There was promise everywhere as the team had an embarrassment of young talent to show off. The list included: Karl Anthony-Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng, Ricky Rubio, and Kris Dunn. None of these players were over 26 and only Rubio had been in The Association for more than 3 years. This was going to be the year the rebuilding Wolves finally had the depth and chemistry to make a legit run at the playoffs and beyond. Add to the mix the hottest free agent coach, Tom Thibodeau, joining the mix with his defensive genius and all of the pieces were there. It really is no surprise that several experts had the Wolves ending the season in the top 5 in the Western Conference.

Well, we’re currently 43 games into the regular season and that same Minnesota squad littered with talent is sitting in 12th in the Western Conference with a 15-28 record. So where did all that hype go? Well it still appears to be there, it’s just going to take a little longer than the fans in Minny would have hoped. Let’s begin with the positives, there still appears to be A LOT of talent on the Wolves. They have three players averaging near or more than 20 points per game: Karl Anthony-Towns (22.3), Andrew Wiggins (21.7), and Zach LaVine (19.8). And the best part? They are all 21 years old. That’s insane that their three top scorers are all so young and inexperienced and they still have that much room for growth.

To go off of that, Karl Anthony-Towns has established himself already as one of the premier big men in the league. The University of Kentucky product is following up his impressive Rookie of the Year campaign with an even bigger year. He is averaging a slash line of 22/12/3. Those are eye popping numbers for a second year player, especially those three assists per game which shows he’s seeing the court well and understanding the game at a much easier pace. Along with Joel Embiid, Towns has one of the brightest futures for any big guy in the leagues and will surely be in the MVP conversation down the road.

Now let’s take a look at why we’re all pumping the breaks on those preseason expectations and why they sit in 12th in the Western Conference standings. When Thibodeau took over, experts were expecting the defense to improve immediately making them into this young contending squad. However, that has not come to fruition at this point in year one of Thibs behind the bench for the Wolves. They are giving up 104.3 PPG, slightly better than the league average but nothing to write home about. Additionally, they are fourth worst in the league in opponents field goal percentage at 46.9%. This means that they are allowing their opponents easy looks at an alarming rate, which should not be the case under defensive guru Thibs. So what’s the issue? Is it youth, chemistry, effort? Probably a combination of all three but I think there is another issue in play here, tiredness.

Thibs is back to his old ways, running his best players into the ground. This was always a huge criticism of his time during the Bulls would be burning the tires on his most valuable players even when his team was up by a lot. That has not changed with his move to Minnesota as his three best players this year (Towns, Wiggins, and LaVine) are all in the top nine in the NBA in minutes played per game with LaVine leading the way at 37.3 MPG. These guys aren’t used to playing this many minutes and can easily lead to defensive lapses throughout the course of a 48 minute game. Additionally, it’s also not a great plan to run these young athletic players into the ground within their first few years in the league, especially for a team that isn’t going anywhere fast this season.

All in all, this is still a team to fear going forward. At some point, all of this young talent is going to mature and they will get their defensive feet under them with an expert in the subject at the helm. I think experts and fans alike just jumped the gun at how good these guys could be this early. However, if at this point next year the Wolves are still on the outside looking in at the playoff race, then maybe we have to look at the team chemistry and coaching as not a fit for these incredible youngsters. Here’s to hoping they figure it out and can survive the dreaded Thibs minutes.    

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The Buck Stops Here: How Two Players Have Turned The Milwaukee Bucks Into The Model NBA Franchise

Milwaukee Bucks’ Forward Jabari Parker has been a basketball prodigy since he first could walk, always compared to another NBA MVP, Chicago native and Simeon Career Academy High School Graduate, Derrick Rose. Giannis Antetokounmpo, a relatively unknown star in the making at the time, took Greece by storm and is now one of the most “intriguing point guards in NBA history”(Jenkins, 2017) Both suit up for the Milwaukee Bucks, one of the most exciting and up and coming franchises to watch. Parker and the Antetokounmpo are here to stay, and have turned the NBA upside down.

Former All-Star, NBA Champion and Bucks’ Head Coach Jason Kidd, who was an electric 6’4 point guard, always wished he could be taller. “… I wanted so badly to be 6’7 or 6’8… guys like Magic are looking through a window that is so high, they can make passes I could only dream about.”(Jenkins, 2017). While his dream never came true, he can now coach it. Antetokounmpo stands at 6’11, has a wingspan of 7’3, and by the way, starts at point guard. The Bucks have shown that the traditional smaller point guard is an idea of the past, and at 6’11, you’re not just the “big guy” under the basket. The “Greek Freak” as he is known, is one of the most dynamic and exciting players to watch in the NBA. How can an opposing team defend a 6’11 point guard when their 6’11 center can’t keep up with the speed and grace Antetokounmpo possesses every time he hits the floor?

The new-age point guard is averaging 23.4 ppg, 8.6 rebounds, 5.6 assists and just around 2 steals and 2 blocks per game.  The last time a stat-line was filled with numbers like these was when the Lakers drafted their non-traditional point guard, the 6’9 NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson. Over his career Johnson averaged 19.5 ppg, 7.2 rebounds, 11.2 assists, .4 blocks and 1.9 steals per game. At 22 years old, I am not yet putting Antetokounmpo in the same category as Magic Johnson, but showing the shared dominance the two have shown in the NBA, why haven’t more teams employed the 6’5 and taller point guard?

The athleticism shown by Antetokounmpo for his height and build is incredible, and with the Bucks needing desperately to land an impact player in 2013, GM John Hammond took a risk, flew to Greece, and with the 15th overall pick, found a gem.

Jabari Parker’s story is just the opposite. Fans lined the streets to see Parker play, as he took home 4 State-Championships as a Simeon Wolverine. As the next best player out of Chicago since #1 overall pick Derrick Rose, Parker was bound for greatness. But a foot injury his senior year in high school, and an underwhelming freshman year both personally and as a team at Duke, Parker “fell” to the #2 overall pick in the 2014 draft behind Kansas star Andrew Wiggins. To make matters worse, Parker suffered a similar fate as Rose, tearing his ACL during his rookie season. Fighting his way back in what is now technically his 3rd season, Parker has found his stride again.

Parker is averaging 20.5 ppg to go along with 5.8 rebounds. With his knee back to full strength, Parker slashes hard to the basket again, has his explosive first step again, and has even made his mark from behind the arc. Shooting just 15% from 3-point last season, his percentage has skyrocketed to 41.2 % this season. While the 6’8 Parker can play both the small forward and power forward position, his tandem and rapport with point guard and occasional forward partner Giannis Antetokounmpo, leaves many match ups to worry about for opposing teams.

Size and athleticism has always been what the NBA is about, but this Milwaukee combination is something the NBA has not seen before. The Bucks cashed in on back-to-back drafts and have created a formula that many NBA teams will begin to follow. The Bucks have proven that you can no longer look at potential players solely based on their stereotypical role in the NBA. If another scout saw Antetokounmpo at 6’11, he would be deemed a center, and therefore be drastically underutilized by whatever team acquired his services. However, his youth coaches and now the Bucks realize what they have in a 6’11, playmaking “point guard” taking the NBA by storm. With both players under the age of 25, Parker (21 years old) and Antetokounmpo (22 years old) have a bright and exciting future. This season has proven that proper scouting, development and unwavering commitment to a plan can build a team that can become a perennial contender. The Bucks are using two players that may have been type-cast 20 years ago, that are now taking the NBA and the city of Milwaukee to new heights and their athleticism and basketball smarts have changed the way we analyze the game.

Milwaukee never caved into pressures, continued to build and create a two-headed monster in Parker and Antetokounmpo that has many teams re-assessing the way they have tried to build their organizations over the past few seasons. The NBA has always been a league of athletic playmakers and the Bucks have struck gold in finding two players, from completely different backgrounds, that will continue to change the game for the better.

Works Cited:

Jenkins, Lee. “Giannis Antetokounmpo: The Most Intriguing Point Guard in NBA History.” Sports Illustrated 2017: Si.com. 3 Jan. 2017. Web. 17 Jan. 2017. <http://www.si.com/nba/2017/01/03/giannis-antetokounmpo-milwaukee-bucks-greek-freak-jason-kidd&gt;.

Hoiberg’s worst enemy? Time

Last year, Fred Hoiberg became one of the less experienced college basketball coaches to ever be hired as an NBA coach. If history is any indication, that may not be a bad thing. This season though, the question is whether or not the Bulls will be as generous as other franchises have been in affording adjustment time for coaches who are new to the NBA.

For those unfamiliar with the fate of Hoiberg’s college predecessors moving to the NBA, the history is rather bleak. Here’s a rundown of the history since 1993, when hiring college coaches into the NBA started to increase, up until 2015 when he was hired.

From 1993-2005, college coaches hired to the NBA:

  • Have gone a combined 624-999 as head coaches
  • Are a combined 3-16 in the playoffs
  • Six of nine coaches never made the playoffs
  • Average less than 2.5 seasons before being fired

If not for Brad Stevens’ success in Boston, those numbers would be even worse.

Many Bulls fans have blamed Hoiberg’s relative inexperience as a reason for his struggles both on the court and with player relationships. However, with seven Final Fours between the nine college-turned-NBA coaches since 1993, college experience hasn’t been that indicative of NBA success, as shown by guys like Rick Pitino (192-220), John Calipari (72-112), or Mike Montgomery (68-96).

If any Final Four coach has exceeded expectations in the NBA, it would be Brad Stevens, who had just seven years of college head coaching experience before being hired by the Boston Celtics in 2013. Young and well regarded like Stevens, Fred Hoiberg was hired with just six years of college coaching experience. It goes without saying that the Bulls would be happy if Hoiberg progresses as well as Stevens has thus far. However, before getting carried away with comparisons, it should be noted that Hoiberg actually started off his NBA coaching career doing something Stevens and other predecessors couldn’t do: finish a season above .500.

Now, 20-21 at the halfway mark, most couldn’t have expected Hoiberg to adjust any smoother given the odds history says he’s up against. Also given that Stevens’ second season win percentage was the same as Hoiberg’s thus far, the numbers give hope that Hoiberg could be the next in a line of coaches who have changed the stigma of hiring college coaches in the NBA.

But while Hoiberg may be meeting reasonable goals for a second-year coach, patience will be hard to come by until growth is imminent. After going above .500 last year and acquiring Dwyane Wade, many question how the Bulls can be an effective if Hoiberg can’t lead a successful offense. For Gar Forman and the front office, the belief may be that Hoiberg needs a change of personnel for the Bulls to be effective. Others may look at Hoiberg’s 5-1 record against the Cavaliers and believe that he has everything he needs to succeed. And yet despite the reasonable expectation that things would take time, very few seem content with chalking up Hoiberg’s struggles to growing pains. 

Amidst rumors of shopping the team’s best scorer, it’s clear that the standard Hoiberg will be held to is increasingly shaped by his team’s present standing. With pressure mounting as Dwyane Wade celebrates his 35th birthday on Tuesday, the Bulls have thrust Fred Hoiberg into a “win now,” scenario. If he can’t adapt to the urgency of the situation, the Chicago Bulls may not have more patience, even if Hoiberg deserves more time.

The Bearded Freakshow and the race for MVP with Mr. Triple Double

After an offseason of drama and changes across the Houston Rockets organization, one major piece stayed constant. Superstar James Harden is without question a top ten, if not top five player in the league, and the Rockets realize that. Bringing in offensive minded veteran head coach Mike D’Antoni told the rest of the league that the Rockets were okay with being offensively driven.

Bringing in perimeter shooters like Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon were the first signs that pointed to the Rockets using Harden more as a point guard. We’ve all seen how great of a player Harden is when he attacks the rim, and with the opportunity to either go at the rim or dish it out to the perimeter, it’s no surprise Harden is averaging nearly twelve assists a game.

While Harden certainly gets attention and recognition across the league for his play, he doesn’t seem to get the same attention as the other superstars across the league. This could be attributed to the fact that his former teammate, Russell Westbrook has had one of the greatest statistical seasons in NBA history. However, Harden isn’t very far behind the beast from Oklahoma City. He currently is averaging twenty-eight PPG (third in the league), twelve APG (first in the league), and eight RPG (which ranks first among shooting guards). Westbrook has managed to earn twenty triple-doubles this year, but Harden sits right behind him with twelve.

There is no reason to say that Westbrook does not deserve to be considered first in the MVP ratings, but the argument for Harden is about as good as it can get. He has led the Rockets to an excellent first half of the season, as they currently sit third in the competitive Western Conference.

However, there is a lot more to discuss when looking at the season Harden has had thus far. He ranks second in the league in terms of estimated wins added, with a score of fourteen (13.6). He sits behind only, you guessed it, Russell Westbrook (13.7). Houston has thirty-two wins this year, so say Harden went down with a season ending injury. While the Rockets should be able to stay slightly above .500, they would immediately lose any opportunity to be a contender in the West. This may seem obvious, as when a team loses a star player like Harden, their chances of being successful take a large hit.

However, take a player like Paul George. The small forward is the Indiana Pacers best player, and is having a strong season. Yet, he currently ranks forty-second in the NBA in EWA with a score of five. The Pacers do not have as good of a record as Houston does, but this does demonstrate that losing a superstar does not always mean a team will go down the tubes.

As the second half of the season approaches, there will be two major storylines that will play out in Houston. The first and more important storyline is where the Rockets will finish up in the Western Conference standings. Could they surpass their interstate rivals the San Antonio Spurs or even climb all the way to the top and own the one seed over the Golden State Warriors? They are certainly in striking distance, and if they continue to play the way they are, the Rockets have a great opportunity.

The other storyline that Rocket fans will mainly be intrigued by is if Harden will hoist the MVP trophy at the end of this season. As referenced by most of this article, he most likely only trails Russell Westbrook. If the season ended today, it would be hard not to give it to Westbrook despite the Thunder’s “so-so” record. However, if Harden can keep up his phenomenal play and lead the Rockets to a fifty-five sixty win season, he will certainly have the resume as well to match-up. 

Russell Westbrook: the man, the myth, the triple-double machine

Famously, Oscar Robertson is the only player to average a triple-double – it happened in 1962. The closest anybody has come to such a feat since then is just eight games in (Magic Johnson). Russell Westbrook, at a whopping 41 games into the season, is averaging a triple-double. It’s insane. Check these numbers out: 30.8 PPG, 10.7 RPG, and 10.4 APG in 34.7 MPG. When the Big O accomplished the feat 55 years ago, he also posted 30.8 PPG, but amassed 12.5 RPG and 11.4 APG, a couple figures ahead of Westbrook.

His shooting, although posting higher numbers, isn’t notably higher than in past seasons. Historically, he shoots at a 43.4% clip, and is actually a bit worse this year, at 42.4%. The difference is how many more shots he’s getting up: he’s on pace to hoist nearly 2,000 shots, compared to his career average of 1,430 (normalized over an 82 game season) – an increase of 36.6%.

A greater percentage of these shots are also from beyond the arc. Of his 977 attempted field goals, 257 have been three point shots (26%). For his career, he’s typically only looking for a three ball one out of every six times he puts up a shot, at 17%, and for a normalized season of 82 games, just 245 total, a number he’s already passed, on pace for 514 at the end of the 2016-2017 season, nearly 110% more than his career. Considering that recent history is a better indication of his shot distribution and volume, he’s still on pace for 42% more three point attempts than the past three seasons’ average.

Where his shooting has simply been an exercise in altering his shot distribution and increasing his volume, his work under the basket is more of a function of involvement: he’s demonstrated a significant increase in activity, averaging almost twice as many boards as a typical year, which is a testament to his own work and engagement.

Russ’s stats have always been impressive – for his career, his splits have been 22.1/5.9/7.8, which is a stellar line. But with Kevin Durant’s departure to Golden State, Westbrook has had more than his fair share of possessions, as offensive sets run right through him. Westbrook blows away the competition in usage rate, at 42%. The runners up: James Harden, Joel Embiid, DeMarcus Cousins, and DeMar DeRozan, ranging from 32.8%-35.2%. It’s really not even close.

What may be the coolest part about his offensive performance this year is his Player Efficiency Rating (PER), which is a measure of a player’s offensive performance compared to the rest of the league. For his career, he’s averaged a PER of 23.3, which is definite perennial all-star material. This year, his PER has skyrocketed to 29.7, which is almost as ridiculous as averaging a triple-double through 41 games. To put this in perspective, only 20 times has a player ended a season with a PER over 30.0 – the highest score ever was 31.84, which was Wilt Chamberlain. Michael Jordan and LeBron James lead the way with four 30+ seasons, with Shaquille O’Neal and Wilt Chamberlain having accomplished three each. The only other players to end a season with a PER over 30, and just once each: David Robinson, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Tracy McGrady, Anthony Davis, and Steph Curry. If he finishes the season with a PER over 30 to match his triple-double stat, he’ll join the ranks in all-time history in more ways than one.

He’s showing no indication that he’ll be slowing down any time soon, and if he doesn’t win the MVP award this year, it might be a travesty.

We’re witnessing greatness. History is happening right before our eyes. Don’t blink.