TakeQuake Part Two: Early-season NBA overreactions

Howdy. Last week, I wrote about the Red Sox’s vicious history of racial animus. This week, I want to write an entirely different piece in terms of tone. I want to write about the first three weeks of the NBA season, and how we can overreact to them.

So let’s shed our obsession with tempered rationality. Let’s dip our whole foot into the Pond of Volatility. Let’s go crazy. Let’s get nuts. Better live now before the grim reaper comes knocking on our door. (If you don’t get this allusion, it’s time for you to do a Prince deep dive.)

The following takes crescendo to true blasphemy.

Vlade Divac is a Good General Manager

On Feb. 20, 2017, when Vlade Divac traded Demarcus Cousins and Omri Casspi to the New Orleans Pelicans for Buddy Hield, a protected first-round pick, Tyreke Evans and Langston Galloway, there was uproar in the NBA Twittersphere. The heart of the criticism was that the Kings gave up the best center in the league for Hield, a guy whose greatest NBA accomplishment up to that point was being named Buddy. Divac admitted that he’d had better deals in line before teams backed out. Nonetheless, he pulled the trigger, assuming that Cousins’ value was spiraling ever downward. Cousins went to New Orleans, and there realized his potential as a world-destroying (and chemistry-destroying) center. Buddy Hield looked like a modern-day Morris Peterson. Vlade looked like a chainsmoker (and not the back-seat-of-your-rover kind) who was not long for his title as an NBA GM.

Fast forward two years, and Cousins is nursing a torn Achilles while Hield is leading the Kings to a startling 6-4 record. Divac, of course, still looks like someone who eats cigarettes for breakfast. But that’s beside the point. Not only is Hield lighting up the league (20 ppg on 53/48/83 splits), but the young players to whom the Kings handed the keys appear to be blossoming as well. De’Aaron Fox looks like the stat-stuffing sly fox that dominated Lonzo Ball in the NCAA Tournament two years ago. Willie Cauley-Stein looks like he finally woke up from his Sacramento-induced slumber. Heck, even Marvin Bagley almost, almost, almost looks like he should’ve gone in the first eight picks of this year’s draft.

Divac snatched Nemanja Bjelica from the Sixers, Iman Shumpert from the nightclub and hired Dave Joerger to mentor the young, scrappy Kings group. Now, just imagine if the Kings had taken Donovan Mitchell with the 10th pick in 2017, and Luka Doncic with the second pick in 2018. Sheesh.

Stephen Curry is the Best Regular Season Player in the NBA

Unfortunately, this isn’t an overreaction. It would be an overreaction to say he was the best player in the NBA, but I just can’t bring myself to do it given LeBron’s playoff performances over the past seven years. But what Steph has done to start this NBA season is, even by his standards, unprecedented.

The most basic of stats, for once, really do speak for themselves. Steph’s averaging 33 points, five rebounds and six assists per game for a team that’s 10-1. He scored 51 points against the Washington Wizards. His worst shooting performance of the season came against the Brooklyn Nets…when he dropped 35 points on a putrid *takes out magnifying glass* 42 percent shooting (the exact same shooting percentage as Allen Iverson in his MVP season). It took him 10 games to not hit five threes in a game. He is shooting—this is not a typo—51 percent from three-point range. The NBA’s most efficient three-point shooter ever is Steve Kerr, who shot a truly impressive 45 percent for his career.

Without getting bogged down in advanced metrics, Curry’s effect on a game transcends even these mind-boggling statistics. Go ahead and turn on any Warriors contest to watch teams scrambling to guard Steph Curry like Vassar students scrambling to a pre-registration portal. It’s absurd. And it’s this immeasurable might that makes him the most important piece on the best team ever.

Just don’t give him a 3-1 lead.

Luka Doncic is the Next Larry Bird

In the theme of stat-ifying this piece, let’s go on a quick trip down Basketball Reference Lane. Pay close attention. Through nine NBA games, Luka Doncic is averaging approximately 19 points, seven rebounds and five assists per game on 47/39/70 splits. In 1979, through his first nine NBA games, Larry Bird averaged approximately 19 points, eight rebounds and five assists on 49/38/79 splits.

Of course, these essentially identical stat lines come with some qualifications. Bird’s Celtics were 7-2 through nine games in 1979 and finished 61-21. It was the greatest single-season franchise turnaround in league history, and the only real difference was Larry Bird. He was that special. Doncic’s Mavericks are a measly 3-7. It would be surprising if they finished above .500. He’s special, but he’s not turning around a franchise like Bird turned around the Celtics in ’79.

However, noting the makeup of the league in 1979 and contrasting it with the league in 2018 is worth briefly doing. Indeed, Bird came into the league only three years after the NBA and ABA merger, at a time when basketball seemed doomed to be the distant third or maybe even fourth sport in America. Bird was the white savior that an extraordinarily racist city like Boston needed (see my last article).

It was also a time when players stayed in college a few years before catapulting into the Association. Bird came into the league at 22. Doncic is 19. That’s not to say that the Mavericks will be winning 60+ games by the time Doncic is 22, but it is to say that Bird had played against a 21-year-old Magic Johnson in the NCAA Tournament just six months prior to his NBA debut, and although Doncic was MVP of the second-best basketball league in the world only a matter of months ago, I’m going to wait for him to shed his baby fat before I set down a firm opinion regarding his athletic ability.

With the measurable accolades out of the way, it’s worth briefly dwelling on the less measurable similarities between Doncic and Bird. Down four in a recent game to the Los Angeles Lakers with 30 seconds left, Doncic drove past Brandon Ingram. LeBron James closed from the corner to double Luka. Doncic felt the help coming, pumped towards the basket to ensure that LeBron came all the way in from the corner, and then whipped a perfectly placed bounce pass out to the corner to a wide-open Harrison Barnes. Barnes drilled the three.

A play later, now down two, the Mavericks’ head coach, Rick Carlisle, drew up the exact same action that netted Barnes the three; Deandre Jordan set a high screen for Doncic, Doncic forewent the screen, Jordan rolled to the basket, giving Doncic the option of going all the way to the rim, kicking it back up top, hitting the rolling Jordan, or dishing to the near-side corner. Doncic got Josh Hart on a switch, drove hard left, double-pumped and drilled a fallaway floater from the left side.

There wasn’t an explosive athletic play, or a jaw-dropping crossover or a display of wicked sharpshooting to be had. What there was was a transcendent sense of the game for a 19-year-old.

And two teams passed on him.

Carmelo Anthony is Still Good At Basketball

Just kidding.

Kobe Bryant Should Come Out of Retirement and Play for the Lakers

Again, just kidding, but I want to sit with this one for a moment.

Did you know that Kobe Bryant never shot over 47 percent in a season? Did you know that in the three intervening years after Shaq’s departure and before Pau Gasol’s arrival, Kobe Bryant won exactly four playoff games and never made it out of the first round? Did you know that Kobe “Captain Clutch” Bryant shot 6-24 in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals and 7-22 in the decisive Game 6 of the 2008 Finals? Or that he scored only eight points on 4-20 shooting in the decisive Game 5 of the 2000 Finals and three shots in the second half of a losing Game 7 against the Suns in 2006? Did you know that Kobe “Mr. Laker” Bryant requested a trade from the team in 2007?

Miss me with the ex-post-facto Kobe aggrandizement in LA. It’s LeBron’s team now. For better.

Unless, of course, 40-year-old Kobe Bryant wants to come out and score 60 again…on 50 shots. Eat your heart out, Kobe die-hards.

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