So much amazing is happening, and the Shootaround crew is here to help you keep track of it all. You'll find takes on moments you might've missed from the previous night, along with ones you will remember forever.
Tower of Power
Chris Ryan: Yesterday a couple of us were sitting around when Brian Schmitz's Orlando Sentinel piece on the cooking-in-its-own-juices ex–Orlando Magic players beef came across the Telex machine. Doing my best to capture the gravitas of the situation, I read out Rashard Lewis's quote: "We made a good run. Hell, look at those (conference and division) banners hanging in the stands. They don’t say Dwight Howard on them."
It was just eight days ago that the Milwaukee Bucks were left for dead on the side of the NBA highway. Losers of three straight, the team clung to the final Eastern Conference playoff spot strictly by default. The trigger-happy duo of Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings had seemingly shot the team out of any chance at relevance, and even the addition of the trade deadline’s biggest name, J.J. Redick, couldn’t inspire most NBA fans to care about the happenings in the frozen tundra of southeastern Wisconsin.
After a string of tight-knit and entertaining games, the Bucks have won four straight and are emerging as a potential playoff wild card in the East. Ellis and Jennings have been the catalysts for the most recent surge, but not in their usual fashion. Instead of shooting with reckless abandon, they've taken turns in the role of playmaker — with impressive results.
During their winning streak, Ellis and Jennings have combined for 78 assists, including 36 by Jennings in just the last two wins against Toronto and Utah. It is Jennings’s sudden switch from unapologetic gunner to reserved floor-general that's seemingly sparked new possibilities for a franchise mired in mediocrity.
A survey of the players and teams making moves in last night's NBA action.
1. Monta Ellis
Ellis had 34 points on 15-21 shooting last night, leading his Milwaukee team to their second overtime win in as many games (this time over the Jazz), and their fourth straight win overall. With J.J. Redick in the lineup, Monta's averaging 21.5 points, 9.3 assists, and 4.3 steals per game. He also does stuff like this.
Fifteen of the league’s 30 teams have purchased a data-tracking camera system from STATS LLC that records every single movement on the court — the ball, the players, the referees, etc. — in three dimensions. The cameras can measure just about anything, and the teams that are using them best have moved far ahead in developing their own algorithms to measure whatever they wish — which team forces pick-and-rolls left most often, where corner 3s typically rebound when they miss, and how often a player accelerates from “jog” to “sprint” during a game.
(These are the subscribing teams: Houston, Boston, New York, Washington, Milwaukee, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Golden State, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Orlando, Dallas, Minnesota, Toronto, Cleveland.)
Teams hoard their own data like kids hoard candy on Halloween. But STATS was kind enough to send Grantland a giant pile of exclusive information from the 2012-13 season, updated after Wednesday’s slate of 13 games, on a few general categories STATS tracks for all subscribing teams. The data focuses on both the player and team level, including drives to the basket, post touches, and touches at the elbow areas. From that pile, here are some Friday nuggets for your perusal:
We’ll always have the second half of the 2009-10 season. That's when the Bucks, under head coach Scott Skiles, became League Pass darlings in a way they never were before and haven’t approached since. The Bucks went 18-6 after swiping John Salmons from the Bulls at the trade deadline, and before Andrew Bogut’s season came to a scary and sad end in early April with a gruesome bad-luck fall on his right arm. Bogut had been playing the best ball of his career, scoring in high volumes from the post, getting to the line more, dishing assists out of the pick-and-roll, and playing the best individual defense that existed anywhere outside of Orlando.
Salmons went on a tear that would earn him a $40 million contract the Bucks have since pawned off on the hapless Kings (though Salmons, it should be said, has been a steadying presence in Sacramento this season). A delightful, fearless grasshopper of a rookie point guard in Brandon Jennings helped run what used to be Michael Redd’s show, and the Bucks for two months were legitimately terrifying. When Salmons, Bogut, and Jennings shared the floor, Milwaukee scored at a top-10 level, defended better than any team in the league — by a giant margin, per NBA.com — and scared the bejesus out of fans whose higher-seeded teams were potentially in line to draw Milwaukee in the first round. Fear the Deer was a real thing. It was perhaps Skiles’s crowning moment as a coach, though he had already transformed teams in Phoenix and Chicago into defensive powerhouses before wearing out his welcome in both towns.
As someone who's lived in Atlanta for the past six years, I distinctly remember the shocking announcement that Josh Childress had decided to leave the Hawks. He passed up on the team's $36 million offer, which would've paid him a respectable $5.6 million in his first year. Instead, the forward accepted a more lucrative three-year offer from Olympiacos, a Greek basketball team. At the time, it made him the "the highest-paid basketball player in the world outside of the N.B.A.," but he's since spoken out against his decision. If you read his interviews from before and after his stint in Greece, it seems as if he didn't quite consider all the tradeoffs of leaving the NBA before he crossed the Atlantic.
In recent years, a growing number of American players have decided to take their talents abroad and play outside of the United States. Veterans like Tracy McGrady, Stephon Marbury, and Jordan Farmar have headed overseas this year for a variety of reasons, whether it be money, searching for playing time they can't find in the NBA, or a longing for different cultural experiences.
Coming into the season, the biggest question facing the Milwaukee Bucks was one of fit. Their ceiling was going to be defined by how well their diminutive, shot-happy backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis could co-exist.
Armed with a full training camp, it was left to head coach Scott Skiles — known for his defensive acumen — to devise a creative offensive scheme that made all the pieces fit. Like Rick Carlisle does year in and year out in Dallas, Skiles has built a system with concepts that allow his primary creators to not only play to their strengths, but also to avoid their weaknesses.
For both Jennings and Ellis, that means minimizing the number of times they're forced to create with the ball in their weak hand. Ellis, in particular, has diminished effectiveness when forced to his left, something that can occur quite often when teams use “down” side pick-and-rolls or execute a “weak” coverage on ball screens in the middle of the floor.
Today's big picture: Two teams with point guards who appear to be foundational offensive players have locked them up with long-term deals, while two others (Milwaukee and Philadelphia) have passed on extending point guards who have yet to show that kind of potential.
Why is it that as soon as I saw this NBA "Gameface" T-shirt, featuring Chicago Bulls point guard and groin-injury-sufferer Derrick Rose, I immediately thought of the "NOT THE BEES!" scene from Wicker Man? Maybe it's just my particular worldview, but there is something disturbing about this motif, this mating of man and mascot. Other horrifying entries include LeBron James/FACE ON FIRE, Zach Randolph/Grizzlyman, Brandon Jennings with ANTLERS and, most disturbingly, Kemba Walker/CAT-FACE. (Because how, in the name of all that is just, did Kemba Walker get his own T-shirt?)
Are you in a pickup game? Well, Brandon Jennings has next.
Jennings, the Milwaukee Bucks point guard, eschewed a return to overseas this summer during the lockout and is instead likely lighting up a gym near you. He is also the “Curator of Cool” for Under Armour and recently spoke to Grantland at an event for the company in New York.
Why wouldn’t you be one of the first players going to play overseas during the lockout? It’s something you’ve done before.
I just don’t feel like I need to do that again. It’s not all about the money sometimes. I love the game and the game never stops. A couple years ago, I wasn’t getting paid for it, so it really don’t matter to me. For me, I just enjoy going to other hoods and playing.