Last week, we introduced the NBA Regular-Season Championship Belt — a season-long King of the Hill competition to make seemingly inconsequential matchups very friggin' consequential. The idea came from this awesome thread on the /r/NBA board over on Reddit. Miami came into the regular season holding the belt, but lost it to the Sixers in a huge upset. The Sixers — criminally undercovered on Grantland, if you ask me — bravely defended their title against the Bulls. They were the kings of the mountain. To see Brett Brown in his offices at Wells Fargo, one had to bring offerings like cattle or emeralds.
In case you were busy backing up your asshole son by trolling online forums incognito, here's what you missed in sports on Monday:
Josh McCown led the Bears to a 27-20 win over an injury-depleted Green Bay Packers squad at Lambeau Field, creating a three-team logjam at the top of the NFC North at the midway point of the season. "There's only gonna be one way to settle this," said Packers head coach Mike McCarthy after the game. "We'll have to play the rest of our schedules." McCarthy then looked down at a laminated sheet of paper that said "Trust your gut, big guy," looked back up, smiled, and said, Yep, I'm almost positive we'll just have to play the rest of the games to determine who wins."
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.
Ben Detrick: After the Sixers’ offseason teardown, basketball pundits figured the team would be tanking in obvious pursuit of lottery Ping-Pong balls. But after last night’s victory over the Heat — an upset that began with an astonishing 19-0 flash flood and ended with a surging rally in front of Dr. J, Moses Malone, and the (now technically) retired Allen Iverson — the Sixers are the TRANSITIVE LOGIC WORLD CHAMPIONS OF ALL BASKETBALL. Philly’s new GM, Sam Hinkie, is playing six-dimensional chess in elliptical space, dog.
Looked at a certain way, NBA players are men playing a kid’s game. But shift the angle slightly and they — especially the younger ones — can look like kids playing a man’s game. Any rookie, any sophomore — hell, any player who’s been in the league for fewer than five seasons — has a list of things he's good at and a list of things he needs to work on or compensate for, and every season brings questions about whether the current batch of energetic youngsters can become veterans with a fuller understanding of the game.
Yesterday, we kicked off the Triangle NBA All-Stars, celebrating the players we love way too much. The first two members were John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. Today we welcome Andre Drummond and Ricky Rubio to the team. Squad up!
Why We Love Him: Nobody has any idea what to make of Andre Drummond. He played only 20 minutes per game for Detroit last year, but the Drummond glimpses we saw were kind of unbelievable. His per-48 numbers: 18.4 points, 17.6 rebounds, 3.7 blocks, .608 shooting. If you stare at those numbers long enough, he starts to look like the next Kevin Garnett. On the other hand ... Anthony Randolph once built years of hype on the strength of per-48 numbers, so, you know. You never know.
"The past is never dead. It’s not even past." —William Faulkner
Kevin Love has a bone to pick with Faulkner. For almost his whole career, Love has thrived on proving people wrong, whether it was Kurt Rambis telling him not to shoot 3-pointers or anyone who doubted he could be a go-to scorer or questioned whether he was “athletic” enough for the NBA. His 2011-12 season was a garlanded rebuttal to those questions about his playing ability: He finished in the top five for points and rebounds per game, PER, rebounding percentage, and win shares, plus made his second All-Star Game appearance and won the 3-point shooting contest there.
I’m normally not a big “gut feeling” guy, but I randomly mentioned to the Grantland bosses last week in L.A. that the Thunder just “felt due” for some unexpected move. They didn’t have enough financial flexibility to add even one meaningful NBA player in free agency, perhaps leaving them (and their rivals) to wonder whom they might have lured had the league kept Kevin Durant’s max salary at its original level. They’ve watched the Western Conference get stronger around them. The Spurs are the Spurs, the Grizzlies tweaked around the edges (including signing Mike Miller, one of several wing shooters the Thunder could have used), the Clippers reinvented themselves, the Warriors are good and young, and the Rockets annual candy budget is probably near the $185,000 or so Andre Roberson lost when the Thunder hardballed him.
But this wasn’t, and still isn’t, a sob story. The Thunder are contenders, even with Kevin Martin gone and no veteran in his place. And that’s sort of the point: The window is still open, even with the rocky offseason, only there are more Western Conference teams strong enough to shove it closed. A team in that position — a contender, but a wounded one with hunters stalking it — cannot afford to stand still, or to wait for next July.
That portrait gets more interesting now that Russell Westbrook will miss something like 20 games after doctors discovered complications from an earlier surgery to repair his torn meniscus. The obvious way to jolt a franchise is via trade, but the Thunder’s salary structure makes a game-changing deal difficult. Kendrick Perkins is the only highly paid player the Thunder might be willing to move unless they find a blockbuster involving Serge Ibaka, and the rest of the trade chips earn so little money as to make salary-matching a challenge in a big-time deal. There are interesting trade options at lower prices, and the Thunder could sign a minimum-salaried ball handler — Roddy Beaubois, Daniel Gibson, Chris Duhon, et al. — without going into the luxury tax, provided they waive one of the Hasheem Thabeet/Daniel Orton/Ryan Gomes trio. The Thunder have some interesting young pieces, a few appealing international guys, and a Mavs pick that could become unprotected in 2018. You could make a deal for a semi-unwanted mid-priced wing — Lou Williams? John Salmons? Courtney Lee? Evan Turner? — with that kind of treasure chest. (The Thunder have two significant trade exceptions, including a $6.5 million bad boy leftover from the Kevin Martin sign-and-trade, but using either would take them over the tax line.)
After being instantly dismissed from the national consciousness following a dreadful 4-28 start, few people noticed when the Washington Wizards quietly showed signs of a promising future during the second half of this past season. The Wizards’ improved play coincided with the return of John Wall, whose knee injury had kept him in street clothes through early January. With their promising young point guard back in the fold, the team morphed from disaster to, dare I say it, playoff-caliber force almost overnight.
Washington finished out the season at a .500 clip upon Wall’s return, which hardly screams “elite.” But the 25 games featuring a healthy core of Wall, rookie guard Bradley Beal, and veteran wing Martell Webster (whom the team intends to bring back despite his free-agent status) certainly do. No matter what roles Wall or Beal played (both came off the bench for a few games), the Wizards posted a point differential of plus-4.84, the equivalent of a 55-win team over a full season. And though a 25-game stretch isn’t something Washington can hang its hat on, it’s certainly an encouraging sign. That trio, combined with Nene and Emeka Okafor, also combined to form the league's most effective five-man unit that played at least 140 minutes together, per NBA.com. That amount of playing time isn’t enough to produce ironclad proof that the Wizards are set to the rule the basketball world, but it certainly is enough time to suggest that’s a lineup that can be quite effective.
For a franchise that’s been toiling in mediocrity for decades, there are enough bright spots from last year to suggest Washington is poised to make some serious noise in the Eastern Conference if it can inject one more talented piece into its core (and stay relatively healthy), a real possibility thanks to some incredible lottery luck. By selecting the right player with the third overall pick, the Wizards can become a legitimate contender in the East as early as next year, something no one could have predicted six months ago. Unlike some of the more desperate teams, Washington doesn’t necessarily need to hit a home run at the top of the draft, but to break through from mid-standings irrelevance, the Wizards probably have to avoid coming up empty. If the team can get an impact player with the third pick while also finding a competent backup point guard with one of its second-round picks, the Wizards have the opportunity to completely change the course of their franchise. No pressure, right?
You know how at the beginning of every NFL season, everyone is 0-0 and has a chance at the Super Bowl? That is not true in the NBA. For fans of five to 10 teams every year, the NBA draft lottery is the Super Bowl.
No other sport decides its future like this — with an uncomfortable, surreal 30-minute raffle, basically — and that's what makes it so great. In the span of 30 minutes, jammed in before some conference final game every year, the directions of entire franchises can change one way or the other. For instance, 2013 marks the 10th anniversary of the most insane lottery night of all time ...
... when Memphis nearly landed LeBron James, only to end up with nothing (its pick was protected as no. 1 overall but otherwise the Grizzlies had to send it to Detroit). Instead, we walked away thinking Cleveland had just fallen into a dynasty, Detroit was about to extend its dynasty another decade with Darko's frosted tips coming to the Midwest, and the Nuggets were getting Bernard King 2.0 for the next 15 years. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies were destined to remain in NBA no-man's-land, wondering what might have been.
The NBA playoffs are upon us, with 16 teams competing for the Larry O'Brien Trophy. But what about the other guys? What about the teams we wish were in the playoffs? We may know, in our heads, that they didn't do enough to get into the postseason, but that doesn't change how we feel in our hearts. We'd like to see these teams competing in Bill Simmons's Entertaining as Hell Tournament, but until that day, we'll just have to write longingly about why we wish they had made it to the promised land.
Portland Trail Blazers
Sean Fennessey: This isn't exactly a song for the Blazers because the Blazers were hard to watch this year. Nic Batum was long and lean and aggressively French, J.J. Hickson played like an exploding can of soda, and Weber State's Damian Lillard was a revelation to those who enjoy tiny-man dunks but don't much care for consistency. (He is only the Rookie of the Year because Anthony Davis hasn't totally figured out how to play basketball yet. He will.) I won't miss those Blazers and I certainly won't miss their bench, mostly because their bench doesn't exist beyond the many terrified faces of Meyers Leonard.
In the 71st game of your 17th season, in the midst of a “heated” playoff “race,” why are you still watching your own errant jump shot while your mark, Klay Thompson, beats you back in transition for an open 3-pointer? Thompson doesn’t exactly take off like Corey Brewer, either, and he still beats you down the floor by several steps.
Why is this still happening? It’s almost April, and Bryant and the Lakers still can’t figure out transition defense, or defense in general.
It has been a rough year for Kevin Love and the Timberwolves in basketball terms. Love broke his right hand twice, first doing knuckle push-ups, and then during a game shortly after returning. Love wasn’t himself in those 18 games, shooting just 35 percent, and the Wolves never really had a chance to compete for a playoff spot as injuries claimed just about every rotation player at some point.
But Love’s off-court life has gone well. The NBA awarded him its Community Assist award in December, an honor that comes with $10,000 to the charity of Love’s choice. He selected St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which cares for pediatric cancer patients around the country and seeks a cure. Cancer has claimed a couple members of Love’s extended family, and that’s in part why he's involved year-round with St. Jude and formed his Spreadlove campaign to raise awareness for breast cancer. Love played a large part in the NBA’s St. Jude Week at the end of February, and he chatted with Grantland in an extensive one-on-one about his charity work, the Wolves’ lost season, the future of the franchise, and Nikola Pekovic’s “aura.”
In the time of attack guards, small ball, and stretch 4’s, Big Al Jefferson’s game is unapologetically old school. He’s the kind of post player that was once so ubiquitous in the league, but now seems to be an endangered species. Like Adrian Peterson rushing as if it’s still the 1980s, Jefferson’s throwback style is strangely comforting to fans of a certain age, and the scarcity of those who play like him also offers commentary on the state of the NBA in 2013.
When you watch the Jazz offense trot down the court, chances are you will see Jefferson quickly assume his position in his native ecosystem, down on the left block. Simply stated, Al Jefferson loves the left block. If all the NBA players were on Foursquare, Big Al would definitely be the mayor of the left block. He has compiled a collection of effective pivots, drop steps, half hooks, mini-jumpers, “weezies,” and up-and-unders that are highly calibrated for the left side, not the right. This asymmetric love affair is so torrid that Big Al has become the most lopsided shooter in the NBA. No player in the NBA has a more asymmetric shot chart than Al Jefferson. Out of the 137 players who have attempted at least 200 field goal attempts this season, Al Jefferson is the most one-sided shooter.
It was a year that provided plenty of personalities, story lines, and moments, but the question is, which of those moments got their due and which did not? Could LeBron James actually be underrated? Could the Olympics? They just might be.
Underrated: LeBron James's Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at Indiana
Everyone remembers the 45-point evisceration of Boston on the road in an elimination game, and the ultra-efficient inside-out torching of the Thunder in the Finals. But Game 4 against the Pacers has sort of gotten lost in the shuffle, which can happen, I guess, when a game kicks off one of the greatest 15-game stretches in the entire history of a sport. Miami felt like it was on the verge of a franchise-altering crisis going into Game 4, down 2-1 to a feisty Indiana team and missing Chris Bosh. Dwyane Wade had shot 2-of-13 and snapped at Erik Spoelstra during a Game 3 blowout loss. It wasn't an elimination game, but in that moment it was hard to imagine Miami coming back from a 3-1 deficit against a Pacers club that clearly didn't fear them.
And when Miami fell behind by 10 points in the first half of Game 4, looking a bit listless, it was tempting to start thinking about the consequences of a conference semifinals loss. Would they make a panic trade of one of the stars? Would they conclude James and Wade just couldn't coexist well enough to win a title? Would they fire Spoelstra before his extension — which was signed before the season — even kicked in?
Then LeBron and Wade went absolutely bananas, scoring 38 straight points for Miami in a second-half stretch for the ages. It wasn't just the production; it was the way it looked. Both were cutting actively off the ball and feeding each other for the sorts of semi-improv scores we all envisioned when they teamed up. Spoelstra began leaning on sets in which Miami cleared one side of the floor for LeBron and letting James go to work. He was dominant in those sets, which were rarely a major part of Miami's offense before, and they morphed into post-ups as the playoffs wore on — the post-ups for which Oklahoma City had no answer. It all just came together, at a startling speed. James finished with 40 points, 18 rebounds, and nine assists, numbers that no other player has ever put up in a postseason game since the mid-1980s. He hit post-up shots, jumpers, graceful floaters over Roy Hibbert in the lane — shots he just didn't quite have down even two or three seasons before. It was masterful, and the Heat needed every bit of it. — Zach Lowe
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday.
Mason Plumlee had 21 points and 15 boards to lead no. 1 Duke to a 76-54 win over Elon on the same day that the nation's no. 2 high school recruit, Jabari Parker, committed to the Blue Devils. Parker is a Mormon, and sources report that his choice has given Mitt Romney a sliver of hope that someone else might take over the "Mormon Devil" nickname. Unfortunately, because Parker is a 6-foot-8 post player, it has already been confirmed that his nickname will be "The Hook of Mormon."