This past NBA weekend gave us the most depressing news of the season, but that's all the more reason to focus on two excellent feuds on Saturday night. The NBA regular season is long, and in the winter months, it's the hate that keeps us warm and keeps things exciting. When the world gets you down, some good old-fashioned NBA BEEF will always brighten everyone's spirits. Right?
So much amazing is happening, and the Shootaround crew is back 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.
This Garden Belongs to Paul George
Chris Ryan: Is Paul George the third-best player in the NBA right now? Did Paul George walk into Madison Square Garden and guard the Knicks' best player (both on the perimeter and in the post)? Did he match Carmelo's 30-point night with a 35-point turn of his own? Did he go into the visitors' locker room, see a glass case marked "Break in Case of Fourth-Quarter Emergency," think about the people who had came before him who had broken things at Madison Square Garden, laugh, shatter it, and score 12 in the final period of regulation and 13 of the Pacers' final 18, including three free throws to send the game into overtime? Did he punch Shump's layup off the backboard? Did he walk off the court like the legend in the making that he is and get dap from celebrities in the making like A$AP Rocky?
And I know it was just one regular-season NBA game, most of the East Coast was asleep, and it probably changes nothing for what we expect from either team. But as single games go, it was so much more fun than it should've been. Let's start from the beginning.
In the lead-up to the 2013-14 NBA season, Grantland will examine key players — X factors — for contending teams.
You know how sometimes you go to a bar and once you get your bearings, you see that there is clearly someone there who has their charm dial tuned to the exact right frequency of the universe, and you’re just like, “Man, who brought Ferris Bueller?” That was DeAndre Jordan before Los Angeles Clippers home games during the regular season last year.
I went to a fair number of those games, and every one of them followed the same arc. There was Jordan, a tower of charm in a red-and-blue tracksuit, doling out knowing handshakes to players on the opposing team, cracking up while going through his stretches, rapping along to Trinidad James (“WOO!”), and taking the breath away of the admittedly sparse pregame Staples crowd (see SNL's “The Californians” sketch) during the Clippers’ dunk line.
In case you were busy looking at pictures of Russell Wilson doing yoga for a long, long while, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday:
New York Yankees outfielder Ichiro Suzuki amassed his 4,000th career professional hit in traditional Ichiro fashion, slapping a single into left field during the Yankees' 4-2 win over the Toronto Blue Jays. In honor of Ichiro's accomplishment let us all just say that we're lucky to have had the opportunity to watch Ichiro play baseball, and if we ever saw ourselves saying that we weren't lucky to have watched Ichiro play baseball, we'd punch ourselves in the face because we'd be lying.
Braves third baseman Chris Johnson hit a three-run game-winning home run in the 10th inning to give Atlanta a 4-1 win over the New York Mets. However, the big story coming out of Citi Field was the broken jaw of Jason Heyward, who will likely miss four to six weeks after being hit with a pitch by Jonathon Niese. When asked if he hit Heyward because of the psychological impact of years of pent-up rage caused by people misspelling his first name, Niese responded, "What? No! Oh my god, no, it was an accident. What the hell kind of accusotion is that?"
Trying to win an NBA championship is so 2012. And this trend is a good thing — most teams are starting to realize that as long as LeBron James draws breath, the playoffs aren’t going to do much except delay their summer vacations for a few weeks.
This is good news for fans of franchises that don’t view being a human sacrifice in the first round of the playoffs as progress. It’s terrible news for the kind of free agent that would usually capitalize on said franchises’ tendency to overpay for a quick fix just to show they’re "trying." In other words, someone whose contract suggests “franchise centerpiece,” but in two or so years will scream “franchise albatross.” In other words, everyone who isn’t Dwight Howard or Chris Paul.
Or so we thought. Al Jefferson got three years and $41 million to be the best player in Bobcats franchise history. Atlanta will pay Kyle Korver $6 million solely to shoot 3s, which is slightly less ridiculous than the similarly sixth-seed-bound Timberwolves paying $7 million a year for Kevin Martin to do the same. I know it’s Milwaukee and all, but in Zaza Pachulia and O.J. Mayo ... It was business as usual.
Which is a shame, since we missed out on what could’ve been a banner year for low-level free-agent collusion. Wouldn’t it have been way more more fun if savvy players took advantage of the fact that most NBA teams already started “rebuilding” for the 2014 draft by preemptively tanking the 2013-14 season? You gotta put somebody on the floor, and if you can’t get a Wade-James-Bosh “Big Three,” you can get a colorfully named package deal all the same that’ll ensure your team misses out on the Andrew Wiggins lottery only by accident. Here are some Avengers that we wish would have been assembled, along with ready-made nicknames. Look at what could have been, Jazz fans.
Being able to put NBA players into neat little boxes helps fans, writers, and executives alike conceive of their value, be it around the league or to a particular team. Rim-protecting bigs, 3-and-D wings, pure point guards, bench scorers; when a player conforms to one of these archetypes, it’s that much easier to pinpoint how he fits and how much he’s worth.
But there are players who defy convention — some because they lack the requisite skill, others because they’re so multi-dimensional, they don’t fill any particular mold. Andre Iguodala is the latter. Iguodala is a wing — we know that much — but beyond that, it’s hard to describe where he fits.
Iggy’s a great defender — one of the best in the league, in fact — but to pigeonhole him as merely a wing stopper would do a great disservice to his many other talents. Such a label is for the Tony Allens and the Luc Richard Mbah a Moutes of the world, not those with career averages of 15.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 4.9 assists per game.
Iguodala can score a bit, but it’s a near certainty that you don’t want him to be your team’s primary scoring option. He’s just not efficient enough, especially when you consider the relatively low percentage of his team’s possessions that he uses. Iguodala’s career True Shooting Percentage of .550 would rank as merely average in most seasons for players defined as “swingmen” by HoopData, and that’s despite his slightly below-average usage rate of 19.5.
As his assists per game mark shows, Iguodala is quite the playmaker for a wing. A team can ask him to play point forward for a few stretches a night and feel totally comfortable. Giving him too much of the ballhandling responsibility is unwise, though, because he’s prone to turning it over. He sports a career average of 2.4 turnovers per game, dragging his assist-to-turnover ratio down near 2:1. Among the 90 swingmen to average at least 20 minutes per game and appear in at least 40 games during the 2012-13 season, Iguodala had the ninth-worst turnover rate, per HoopData.
For some, it took yesterday’s scene in Playa Vista — Doc Rivers, seated in front of a Clippers background, just behind a branded placard bearing his name — to believe this was real. As the rumors of a Rivers trade began, and through the negotiation’s stops and starts, there seemed to be endless opportunities for the Clippers to be the Clippers, to bungle what could be a franchise-altering decision that might serve as one of the final steps from cursed organization to actual contender. But there he was, the highest-paid coach in the NBA, wedged between team president Andy Roeser and vice-president of basketball operations Gary Sacks. There was Doc Rivers, head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers.
You can count Doc among those nonbelievers. By Sunday, he’d resigned himself to a return to Boston. Conversations with Danny Ainge about the state of the Celtics' roster had already begun, and when Rivers stepped into his son’s AAU game and turned off his phone, he wasn’t prepared for what awaited him when he powered it back on. There were a couple calls from Danny Ainge and more than a dozen from Rivers’s agent. “That's how volatile this whole thing was and had been," Rivers said. "I thought that this just took a long, winding path, but it found its way, so I'm happy."
As Rivers entered the gym at the Clippers’ practice facility yesterday, he did so in a polo shirt, slacks, and what looked like a pair of casual sneakers. This had all happened so fast that Rivers left straight from his offseason home in Orlando, where his wardrobe is mostly shorts and T-shirts. There wasn’t a suit to be had.
The trio was introduced by Clippers play-by-play announcer Ralph Lawler, and Sacks wasted no time in outlining the magnitude of the day. “This is truly one of the biggest moments in Clippers history,” Sacks said. “We feel [Doc] is the best coach in the NBA and a perfect fit for our organization.” In the 30 or so minutes Rivers spent in front of a microphone yesterday, he was every bit the media-savvy presence he’d been in Boston. At one point, he asked that everyone refrain from using the “best coach” bit; he’d just watched the Finals like everyone else here. “I hope this is the last time I’m the center of attention,” Rivers said.
There are two fairly recent precedents for what happened with the Clippers and Celtics and Doc Rivers over the past 10 days. The first began on June 5, 1995, when Pat Riley, while still under contract with the Knicks, sent a secret 14-point memo to the Miami Heat outlining his contract demands, which included a 20 percent ownership stake, plus "$300 per diem expenses, credit cards, limousine service to and from games and a $15 million salary over five years."
Apparently that worked for Micky Arison and the Heat, because 10 days later Riley faxed a letter of resignation to the Knicks. Three months later, after the Knicks accused Miami of tampering and all this evidence — of, uh, blatant tampering — became public, the Heat agreed to send $4 million and a first-round pick to the Knicks as compensation. That's trade no. 1, and there are two lessons to be learned.
1. Never, ever trust Pat Riley.
2. In 1995, it was good to be negotiating contracts as Pat Riley.
In case you were busy really getting inside the mind of Barry Zuckerkorn in preparation for the new season of Arrested Development, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday.
The Los Angeles Kings are one step closer to defending their Stanley Cup crown after Jonathan Quick shut out the San Jose Sharks, 3-0, at Staples Center. The Sharks have now gone more than 96 minutes without a goal, which Kings coach Darryl Sutter credits to "playing a clean game, and keeping all the blood off the ice. Joe Thornton sees blood? Patrick Marleau? You've got a feeding frenzy on your hands. But right now they just keep skating by us, real passive, like we're not even there." When asked about the Sharks' home-ice advantage, Sutter added, "Oh, we're in trouble for Game 6. If you think [Sharks coach] Todd McLellan isn't going to gut a seal at center ice before the game just to get things going, you don't know McLellan."
Chris Kreider helped the Rangers avoid a sweep with an overtime goal in New York's 4-3 win over the Boston Bruins. The key moment in the game came in the second period when the Bruins, up 2-0 at the time, gave up a goal when goalkeeper and Klingon warrior Tuukka Rask fell over on a relatively well-defended Rangers breakaway. Rask was defiant after the game when asked if the defeat portended a Rangers comeback, saying, "Hab SoSlI' Quch! (Your mother has a smooth forehead!)" and then laughing heartily before eating what appeared to be a Targ heart out of a Tupperware container.
The long game in the NBA is fickle. Luck intertwines with talent to determine long-term success in a 30-team league in which having at least one of the top 20 players (and preferably one of the top 10) is required for championship contention. The luck + talent + decision-making equation tilted against two local lightning rods on Tuesday, one coach and one GM. Some words on each:
The Clippers Decline to Offer Vinny Del Negro, and Del Negro’s Hair, a New Contract
Del Negro is by some measures the most successful coach in the sad history of the Clippers, but 56 wins and back-to-back playoff appearances were not enough to earn a new contract — not after the Clips dropped four straight games, each more dispiriting than the last, to a very good Memphis team in the first round. It’s hard to evaluate this decision without first acknowledging four realities so basic they are almost boring:
• Del Negro would still have this job if Chris Paul wanted him to have it.
• Del Negro may well still have this job had Blake Griffin not suffered a serious ankle injury between Games 4 and 5 of the Clippers’ first-round series against the Grizzlies.
• With Del Negro out, and probably unlikely to get one of the head-coaching jobs currently open (or soon to come open), there is a vacancy atop the “Best Coach at Screaming at Opposing Shooters and Stamping His Feet” rankings. Del Negro really redefined this skill. He was like a sixth defender on some possessions, and if you edited out the basketball game happening around him, he’d have looked at times like an adult going through a child’s tantrum. Lawrence Frank was a solid no. 2, but he’s also out of a job for now. The door is wide-open, Erik Spoelstra.
• Del Negro might still have this job if the Clippers played defense in the second half of the season, and in the playoffs, as they did over the first 30 games. The Clippers finished ninth in points allowed per possession, but they ranked just 21st from February 1 through the end of the season, and the slowpoke Grizzlies absolutely sliced them up in the playoffs. The Clippers were bad defensively almost the whole season when the Blake Griffin–DeAndre Jordan duo shared the back line, and they just never showed enough growth or systemic coherence on that end. The Clippers’ bench was mostly very good defensively, and both Griffin and Jordan showed fits of progress — Jordan protecting the rim and defending the post, Griffin using his speed to disrupt pick-and-rolls far from the hoop.
Together, they’re the best frontcourt in basketball, but in last night’s 103-93 Game 5 win, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph did it one at a time. It started with Gasol, just after the second half began. Memphis had a six-point lead by the end of two quarters, but it was in the third that the Grizzlies took control, on the shoulders of their Spanish big man. Starting at about the 10-minute mark, Gasol touched the ball on the low block on seemingly every possession. He either scored or assisted the next four Grizzlies baskets, and in three minutes, Memphis built a 10-point lead it would never relinquish.
From the start, it was clear each team knew this game was probably it. For the Clippers, a loss meant having to travel back to the Grindhouse and a frothing Friday-night crowd looking to seal the series. And for Memphis, it would mean that, at best, it would be heading back to Los Angeles for a Game 7, in a building where it couldn’t seem to win. The result was an edge from the opening tip. Chris Paul, normally content to wade his way into a game by creating offense for others, took the ball to the rim from the start, and the amount of contact in the paint never seemed to subside. By game’s end, Gasol’s shoulders were a collection of scratch marks, and it was in part because of that style of play (and in part because of a terrible call) that he left the game after picking up his fifth foul with more than 10 minutes remaining in the fourth.
The NBA playoffs are in full swing, and as the amazing continues to happen, the Grantland crew wants to help you buff up on some of the lesser-known faces who will be populating basketball's second season.
Who Is He? Quincy Pondexter.
Where Is He From? Washington.
Years Played: 3.
What’s His Salary? $1.23 million.
Nickname: Back at San Joaquin Memorial High School, where Pondexter played with Brook and Robin Lopez, they used to call him “Slow Mo.” He didn’t like that. These days, it seems to be “QPon,” which counts, I guess.
His Game in 25 Words or Fewer: Improved shooter whose main value on offense comes via the corner 3. A capable defender who has a length advantage when matched up on 2s.