Kevin Durant

Durant as a Warrior

The Independence Day move of Kevin Durant from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Golden State Warriors was the biggest free-agent move since the last one.  Ok, so it was a bigger deal than most of them.  A perennial MVP contender moving to a team that blew a 3-1 lead in the most recent NBA finals, their inability to achieve the elusive fourth victory costing them back-to-back titles.

TCC Podcast Ep8: FIBA Small Countries Review, Jason Kennedy on Irish Wheelchair Basketball & Kevin Durant

With the FIBA Small Countries just over Niall and Andy take a look back at the tournaments and review Ireland’s performances. Were the tournaments a success and what is next for the international programmes?

We talk to Jason Kennedy, head coach of the Irish Wheelchair Basketball team, who are headed to their European Championships in Bosnia this Friday and also have details on how you can get your hands on a limited edition TCC reversible basketball jersey!

And of course with the week that is in it we talk Kevin Durant, NBA free agency and just what it means for next season in the NBA.

NBA Free Agency

The 2016 NBA free agent class is headlined by a handful of players coveted, at some point in the recent past, by every franchise in the league.

What’s going to happen in OKC?

The Thunder missed the playoffs.  Not by much, but still missed out for the first time since their first season in Oklahoma.  The Thunder ownership, headed by Clay Bennett, is reportedly considering replacing former Coach of the Year Scott Brooks.  SportsNet New York reported that University of Connecticut head coach Kevin Ollie, who played for the Thunder back in 2009-2010, could replace Brooks.

Are we giving Kevin Durant a pass?

Game 6 between the Spurs and the Thunder went to overtime, but the former ultimately prevailed with a 112-107 win, clinching the Western Conference title and forcing a rematch of the 2013 NBA finals – although this time the Spurs will hold home court advantage.  The finals changes from a 2-3-2 format to a 2-2-1-1-1 format this year to mirror the earlier rounds of the playoffs and to tire out the media crews who will be on the charter flights back and forward from south Florida to central Texas should this series go past 4.

The Courtside Collective will be in attendance at most of the games in San Antonio (all, if my wife will let me), although my own prediction has San Antonio taking the series in game 6 in Miami – in a sense righting the wrong of last year when they really should have sealed the series until Ray Allen’s wonder shot (seriously, one of the all time greatest shots in any sport, I can’t emphasize that enough) brought the Heat back from the dead and put away the security cordon for another few hours.

These NBA finals will be noteworthy for being the first finals since 2011 not to feature the MVP.  That season, Derrick Rose became the youngest ever MVP at the age of 22 as he led the Bulls to the NBA’s best record (62-20) but were beaten 4-1 in the Eastern Conference finals by the Miami Heat.  This season, Kevin Durant was on the losing side in his conference finals.  On both occasions, the MVP award was taken from two-time defending MVP LeBron James, in what you could argue is (and was) simply a case of voters getting tired of LeBron’s sustained excellence.

After Oklahoma lost in overtime to Memphis in game 5 of the first round (100-99), putting them on the brink of elimination, Durant was branded “Mr Unreliable” by the Oklahoman.

Durant responded with 36 points and 10 rebounds in a 20-point game 6 victory, before the Thunder won game 7 by 11, behind 33 points from Durant.

Durant is as popular a superstar as there is in the NBA.  His MVP speech, linked here, was perhaps the least egotistical speech in NBA history.

But there comes a point when questions have to be asked about Durant and his ability to lead a team to a title.  He becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2016.  Russell Westbrook becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2017.  Durant earns $17.8m this season, $19m next season and $20.1m the season after before he hits free agency.  Westbrook is getting $14.7m this season, $15.7m next, then $16.7m and $17.8m for the remainder of his contract.  Just for comparison, LeBron earns $19m this season, and his opt-in contract is for $20.6m next season and $22.1m the season after (although it’s almost certain he’ll opt out and sign for less money to facilitate another title push next season – at Miami or elsewhere).

LeBron James was, and continues to be, criticised for not winning a title in Cleveland.  Who was his Russell Westbrook?  Mo Williams?  Larry Hughes?  Who was his Serge Ibaka?  Drew Gooden?

(Interesting side note: the season the Cavs made it to the NBA finals – 2007-2008 – their salary list looked like this: Larry Hughes $13.3m; Zydrunas Ilgauskas $9.4m; Drew Gooden $6.6m; Eric Snow $6m; LeBron James $5.8m).

LeBron was 24 the season he led the Cavs to the NBA finals.  Durant is 25.  True, LeBron had played more seasons at that age, by virtue of being older and having been able to skip the solitary year in college that NBA rules forced Durant into, and it’s also true that Durant led the Thunder to the finals much quicker than LeBron was able to lead the Cavs there.

Can’t watch?

One interesting thing about Durant’s MVP speech is just how deferential he was.  He thanked so many people – emphasizing what a nice dude he really is – but the way that he thanked some of them, Westbrook in particular, betrayed the fact that he is simply not assertive enough.  He is better than Westbrook.  There is nobody on the face of this earth (aside from an ESPN talking head, perhaps) who would argue otherwise.  He is capable of making shots that nobody else on the planet – LeBron included – could make, but there is something about the mix in Oklahoma, alluded to by Bill Simmons in this article on Grantland, that just does not scream “title”.  What is clear is that Durant deeply loves his team-mates.  Perhaps that will ultimately be what costs him.

 

TCC will be reporting live from the 2014 NBA finals, follow us on Facebook and twitter: @courtsideco and @sandersandrew

The schedule, from nba.com is copied below (you don’t need to worry about the network, obviously):

Game 1 – Thu, June 5, Miami at San Antonio, 9 p.m. ET, ABC
Game 2 – Sun, June 8, Miami at San Antonio, 8 p.m. ET, ABC
Game 3 – Tue, June 10, San Antonio at Miami, 9 p.m. ET, ABC
Game 4 – Thu, June 12, San Antonio at Miami, 9 p.m. ET, ABC
Game 5 * Sun, June 15, Miami at San Antonio, 8 p.m. ET, ABC
Game 6 * Tue, June 17, San Antonio at Miami, 9 p.m. ET, ABC
Game 7 * Fri, June 20, Miami at San Antonio, 9 p.m. ET, ABC

The NBA before the All-Star Game: what do we know?

The NBA breaks this weekend for its annual All-Star game, a game which TCC was fortunate enough to attend last year in Houston.  The All-Star Game, while lacking in the intensity of some regular season games, does allow the best players to showcase their skills and, in some cases, network with their fellow players in a more cordial environment than the “heat of battle” of the regular season.

It also allows us pause for reflection of the first few months of the season and take stock of where we are, particularly looking ahead to the end of the season and the playoffs.  Here are a few of my own observations and thoughts about what has gone on over the past few weeks:

The East is AWFUL: The Eastern Conference is truly playing up to the old “Leastern Conference” moniker.  Four teams are over .500 at the moment: Miami, Atlanta, Toronto (!) and Indiana.  The Bulls and Wizards are only a game under .500 as well.  That means a team with a sub-.500 record will almost certainly get into the playoffs again, where they will likely get smashed by Indiana or Miami.  Milwaukee haven’t even won a tenth game yet.  They are over 30 games back but have only played 50.  Now a lot of teams have both eyes firmly on the upcoming draft class, with Joel Embiid now becoming a likely contender for the 1st overall pick – if he chooses to declare for the draft, which isn’t a given. Teams like New York, however, were not tanking for the 1st overall pick.  They just suck.  Brooklyn have improved somewhat in recent weeks, but the fact remains that they feature a bunch of guys over 30 years old and have a head coach who has no coaching experience.  Without Brook Lopez, it’s hard to see what will surely be Kevin Garnett’s last season ending in anything other than mediocrity.  The fact that Washington, who were so desperate they gave John Wall a max contract, are tied for 5th in the conference says everything.  Incidentally, keep an eye on Washington over the next couple of seasons.  In this sort of conference, they could become a playoff team very easily.

Indiana signing Bynum instals them as favorites: I can’t believe that Miami have seen enough from Greg Oden to make them think he gives them what they need so they have the best chance to beat the Pacers in the playoffs.  After he was unceremoniously dumped by the Cavaliers, I expected Andrew Bynum to be on his way to South Beach if for no other reason that to give the Heat a proper big man to battle Roy Hibbert, who tends to save his best performances against the relatively undersized Heat.  Their last meeting in mid December saw Hibbert in foul trouble and finish with 6 points and 2 rebounds.  With Hibbert out of the equation, the Heat will of course be contenders to beat Indiana in just about any given game, but they cannot expect him to be as ineffective for an entire series.  I seriously doubt that Oden is the guy to stop him, as heartening as it is to see him back playing and playing relatively well.  Unless Miami makes a move before the trade deadline, which I find hard to believe will happen, Indiana are strong favorites to win the East.  They have only lost 2 games at home so far this season.  Only OKC has a similar dominance in their own building.  And, of course, Miami.

The Heat might be coasting, but they are still playing very well: The third year of an attempted three-peat is notoriously tough on players.  The Heat were quite an old team last year, particularly guys like Shane Battier and Ray Allen. Dwyane Wade is not as old, but has serious issues with his knees that have limited him to 36 games out of a possible 49 so far this season.  How will he fare once the season extends to the playoffs?  LeBron has been more or less flat out, but that’s been true for a few seasons now.  The issue of his potential burnout must surely concern the Heat management.  He has, of course, shown no signs of this, but the possibility exists nonetheless.  Despite taking things relatively easy, the Heat are still the second best team in the East by ten games.  Unless something goes disastrously wrong, they should take the East’s 2 seed easily.  Their foes of last season, Chicago, are clearly in the process of rebuilding in the hope that Derrick Rose comes back stronger next season after another year of knee trouble.  That just leaves Indiana in their path towards a fourth consecutive finals appearance.

The Suns are playing out of their minds: There is no good reason for the Suns to be the sixth best team in the Western conference at the moment.  They have four first round picks for the upcoming draft and everyone thought they were going to play out this season and try to rebuild next year.  Instead, driven by the excellent Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe along with a cast of impressive role players, Jeff Hornacek’s team have been on a tear which saw them beat the heavily-fancied Indiana Pacers twice.  Whether or not they decide to trade away some of those picks for experienced players in bad situations (Pau Gasol has been mooted, Kevin Love is another name that makes sense for both parties) or if they keep them and go for a really young team next season remains to be seen but the Suns are fun again and it happened much quicker than anyone expected.

Kevin Durant is a really good basketball player: Paging Captain Obvious.  Captain Obvious to the lobby.  Look, KD has just claimed his 31st 30 point game of the season against the Knicks.  It was also his 7th 40 point game of the season.  He’s the top scorer in the NBA and he’s also the NBA’s best scorer.  It’s not even close.  Nothing he does looks forced.  Everything looks like a good shot.  Durant is probably the leading candidate for MVP and with his OKC Thunder sitting with the league’s best record without the now-long-departed James Harden and the currently injured Russell Westbrook, he is a deserving candidate.  Other guys have of course stepped up in Westbrook’s absence, but this is mostly about Durant.  He’s not the best player in the league, for my money, though.  The way LeBron makes his entire team better eclipses Durant who is more of a lead-by-example guy.  We shouldn’t get too bogged down in the LeBron vs Durant debate just yet, though.  Let’s just enjoy having these two incredible players in the prime at the same time.  As long as they remain in opposing conferences, we could be in for years of classic NBA finals.

Cleveland is a disaster: If you didn’t already read it, read this link.  Luol Deng, traded to Cleveland in a salary dump, has reportedly told a confidante (might want to rethink who you talk to in future, Lu) that the Cavaliers have serious, almost endemic, problems with professionalism throughout the organization.  In LeBron’s final season in Cleveland, the Cavs won 61 games.  They have only just won 61 games since LeBron left.  No names were named in the reports based on Deng’s comments, but it seems that Dion Waiters is a big problem.  No criticism was leveled at Kyrie Irving, the current franchise player, but if anyone is likely to be the one making demands that could challenge Coach Mike Brown’s authority from within the playing squad, it could only be Irving.  Reporters claim that when LeBron was in Cleveland, he was more or less allowed to do as he wished and it has been speculated that this institutional culture has persisted since LeBron’s departure.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that whatever LeBron decides to do this offseason, he is not going to re-sign for the Cavaliers.  Dan Gilbert has a lot of work to do to sort out this mess.  He should start by trading Anderson Varejao to a better team.

Andrew Wiggins is not going to be a stud in the NBA next season: Wiggins was much fancied as the number 1 overall a couple of months ago, but a series of indifferent performances at Kansas and the fact that his team-mate Joel Embiid has overtaken him as the predicted first overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft despite recent comments that he (Embiid) would consider playing at least another year in college to develop his game – Embiid has only played organised basketball for a couple of years – have dropped Wiggins’ chances of being an NBA stud next season to average.  He might well be a one-and-done, but Wiggins has proven to anyone who has seen him this season that at least one more year of college would be really good for him.  I already wrote about the issue of “one and done” players and the list of guys who did not work out at the professional level is extensive when compared to those that did.  Wiggins is not ready for the NBA and a couple of months won’t change that.  Jabari Parker and Julius Randle are probably ready and will probably enter the next draft – Randle almost definitely as no player worth his salt seems to want to stay at Kentucky for more than one season.  Charles Barkley recently spoke on sports radio and said that the NBA should change its rules to force players to stay in school for at least two years, which makes a lot of sense.  This sort of rule would protect talented players like Wiggins who lack the strength, both physical and mental, for the NBA challenge at such a young age.

The Lakers: Anyone see their 4 legal men beat Cleveland the other day?  Unreal.  Forty year old Steve Nash is working his way back after nerve issues ruled him out for the start of 2014.  Thousand year old Chris Kaman was asleep on the bench like a student during finals.  Ryan Kelly (remember that awkward but talented gunner for Duke last season?) has been one of LA’s best players in recent weeks.  They needed to invoke a practically unknown NBA rule to allow Robert Sacre to finish the Cleveland game despite having 6 fouls.  Kobe is due to come back from his “not as serious” knee injury soon, and lets face it, he probably will come back regardless of how good an idea it is.  Pau Gasol is injured and has been linked with a trade to Phoenix, but his injury will keep him out until after the trade deadline, so Phoenix will have no idea how ready to play he is if/when they do trade for him.  Things are a bit messy for the Lakers and the Clippers playing relatively well without Chris Paul doesn’t help.  They’ve written off the majority of their salary cap for next season to re-sign Kobe, so while they do have the money to make a run at an opt-out-free-agent like LeBron or Carmelo Anthony, they lack anything like the resources to put a decent team around Kobe and his new apprentice.  A couple of creative trades might be the only way out of this.  Dr Buss must be rolling in his grave.

James Harden: the third best player in the NBA

LeBron James and Kevin Durant.  These are probably the two best players in the NBA at the moment.  There is a good chance that almost everyone reading this and most NBA fans agree with this statement.  It’s nice to compare players who are playing in the league at the same time as one another and much, much healthier than the stupid debates we always get into about who was better, LeBron or Michael Jordan.  At least we can objectively compare LeBron and Durant given they are both on our televisions at least twice a week.  More if you have NBA league pass (or, if like some of my facebook friends, you managed to get somebody’s league pass password – BY THE WAY…why on earth would you pay all that money and just give your league pass password to somebody else?).

The question of the next best player, the third best playing in the league today, is a little less obvious.  If you want to sit wherever you are and tell me you think Paul George is the third best player in the league, I will listen to your arguments.  If you want to regale me with the merits of Chris Paul, I will listen.  I’d give you some time to talk about Derrick “when he’s healthy” Rose.  If you want to talk about any other player, I will tell you that you are wrong.  Unless that player is the guy who I think is the third best player in the NBA at the moment: James Harden.

Beard developing…

James Edward Harden, junior is twenty-four years old.  He has the best beard this side of Al-Qaeda.  He is a 6’5″ left-handed shooting guard, with springs in his heels and the ability to finish around the rim like few others in the league.  He draws more fouls than anybody else and consequently shoots more free throws.  When he’s at the line he hits 84%.  Last season he had career highs in points, rebounds, assists and steals per game as he proved, decisively, that he could lead a team – and not just any team, a team where the second best player was either rookie Chandler Parsons or maybe Jeremy Lin – after three years as the third fiddle in the OKC Thunder lineup.  Third fiddle might even be generous given he only ever started seven games in his three years in Oklahoma.

True, he was not great in his final few games for the Thunder.  True, those games happened to be the NBA finals.  However, to emphasise this is to ignore that he gave the Thunder 16.3PPG in the playoffs, a playoff career high and only half a point lower than his season’s average.  He also upped his steals and rebounds in the 2012 playoffs.

Big beard

Harden is currently fifth in the NBA in points per game – behind Durant, Carmelo, Kevin Love and LeBron.  He’s better away from home than at the Toyota Center, shooting a higher percentage even though he competes in the much tougher Western Conference (an understatement – have you seen the records of the teams in the East this season?)

Oh, also, the NBA General Managers said that they thought he was a better Shooting Guard than anyone else in the league.  Or at least 57% of them did.  Only 20% picked Kobe.  Of course, 80% of them thought Victor Oladipo would be rookie of the year.

Of course most of us form our opinions on sports men and women based on the “eye” test – actually watching them.  So I encourage you to tune in to a few Houston Rockets games.  Watch the third best player in the league in action.

One and done: who wins?

Wiggins – the next phenom?

In an interview for ESPN the magazine, Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins confirmed that he is going to join the long list of “one and done” players, who spend a solitary year in college to meet the NBA’s age limit, which was implemented in 2006.

Wiggins is the consensus number 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft, a draft that many commentators are already cranked to 11 in excitement about.  The idea that teams are “Riggin’ for Wiggins” has been floated across the NBA, only to be somewhat spoiled by the quick starts to the season of teams like Philly and Phoenix.  Of course, as I have already observed in these pages, the worst team in the NBA only rarely gets the number 1 overall pick.  Of course, Wiggins has yet to even see the floor in an NCAA game.

Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart, another hot prospect in the upcoming draft, commented:

A lot of people are saying he’s the best player now in college basketball.  All I’m saying is how can you be the best player in something you haven’t even played yet?

The levels of excitement about Wiggins seem to rival those seen in 2001 and 2002 as the basketball world anticipated the arrival of LeBron James into the NBA.  LeBron of course went on to become the best player in the NBA.  The second best, by my estimation at least, Kevin Durant, had to wait a year before he could enter the draft, a year he spent at the University of Texas.  Durant’s year in Austin was so successful, his jersey was retired by the Longhorns.

Many thought that Durant needed to develop physically before entering the professional ranks, something he continues to defy thanks to his incredible athleticism and shooting range, which compensates for his relatively, but deceptively, skinny frame (while listed at 6’9″, I’ve stood next to Durant and he is a good bit taller than me – his 240 lbs is hardly lightweight either – interestingly, Durant is listed as an inch taller and only 10 lbs lighter than LeBron).  The idea of player development is at the centre of objections to players only spending a year out of high school before turning professional.

Rookie LeBron – look how cute!

Let’s look at some notable “one and done” players:

Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose, John Wall, Anthony Davis, Anthony Bennett, Shawne Williams, Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Jr., Brandan Wright, Spencer Hawes, Thaddeus Young, Daequan Cook, DeAndre Jordan, Kevin Love, Anthony Randolph, J.J. Hickson, Kosta Koufos, Donte Green, Tyreke Evans, DeMar DeRozan, B.J. Mullens, DeMarcus Cousins, Xavier Henry, Eric Bledsoe, Avery Bradley, Tristan Thompson, Brandon Knight, Tobias Harris, Cory Joseph, Josh Selby, Javaris Crittendon, Michael Beasley, O.J. Mayo, Eric Gordon, Jerryd Bayless, Jrue Holiday, Derrick Favors, Daniel Orton, Hassan Whiteside, Tiny Gallon.

There are three very clear groups in that list: the “makes sense”, the “could have done with a bit more time to develop” and the “borderline disasters”.  The first group is tiny and arguably only features Irving, Rose and Love.  We shouldn’t forget that there were questions over Irving’s ability to compete at the NBA level after an injury prone season at Duke (not to mention the fact that Duke was always the sort of place where guys graduated).  Wall is still a bit of a question mark, to me, but you could add him in, ditto Conley.  Perhaps, given his injury issues, the career of Greg Oden might have been considerably different if he had stayed in college for another season.  I should also acknowledge the fact that B.J. Mullens is probably far from the only player who “had” to leave college – for financial or academic reasons – on that list.

Most of the one-and-done guys have been okay at the NBA level, but if “okay” is all we’re aspiring to in a professional game where guys are paid millions of dollars, then surely we have a problem.  It’s probably also worth adding that, in most of these cases, these players would have just gone straight to the NBA had the rules not changed to prevent players entering the NBA straight out of high school.

In most cases, the players who entered the draft after their freshman season in college did so because they were told that they would get drafted.  Some, like Daniel Orton, were perhaps told that they’d be drafted earlier – and, crucially, given a guaranteed contract – than they actually were.  Xavier Henry is an interesting case here.

Xavier Henry, finally coming good?

Henry was all over pre-draft boards at the start of his one season in Kansas, but ended up being taken 12th overall by the Memphis Grizzlies.  In January, Memphis decided they’d be better with Marreese Speights and traded Henry to New Orleans in a three-team trade.  He ended up in the D-League in March.  In September 2013, he signed with the LA Lakers where he will spend at least the first part of the season filling in for the injured Kobe Bryant.  Henry showed up well in his debut – scoring 22 in an unexpected victory against the LA Clippers.  Perhaps Henry is finally realising the potential he showed in high school and, to a degree, at Kansas (maybe unfair, he had 13.4 PPG, including 42% from three, 4.4 RPG, 1.5 APG and 1.5 SPG at Kansas).  Was it totally necessary for him to leave college after one season, though?  Simply being guaranteed to be picked shouldn’t be reason enough to forego one’s development, in an ideal world at least.

Assuming these players would indeed have gone pro from high school, they would have joined the category of “prep to pro” players features guys who were drafted before 2006 and contains some impressive names as well as some less impressive names:

LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Amar’e Stoudemire, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Rashard Lewis, Tyson Chandler, Jermaine O’Neal, Al Harrington, Darius Miles, DeShawn Stevenson, Eddy Curry, DeSagana Diop, Travis Outlaw, Ndudi Ebi, Kendrick Perkins, Shaun Livingston, Sebastian Telfair, Al Jefferson, Josh Smith, JR Smith, Dorell Wright, Martell Webster, Gerald Green, C.J. Miles, Monta Ellis, Louis Williams, Andray Blatche, Amir Johnson, Korleone Young, Jonathan Bender, Leon Smith, Kwame Brown, Ousmane Cisse, James Lang, Robert Swift

You will also notice that the categories from above have rather changed in composition.  There are the “immediate studs”: LeBron, Dwight and Amar’e (tells you a lot that you only need their first names to know who I’m talking about); then there are the “legitimate studs, but took a while” guys like KG, Kobe, T-Mac, Chandler, Jefferson and O’Neal – lets not forget how good Jermaine O’Neal used to be.  Maybe Rashard Lewis belongs here as well, but a massive contract has cost his reputation a great deal of respectability.  Then there are the guys who clearly could have used a bit more time to mature as players like the two Smith’s (not sure a decade in college would have made much difference there, of course), Webster, Telfair, Perkins and Ellis.  Then you have the “serviceable, but…” guys like Harrington, Diop, Blatche and Green.  Then you have the “outright busts” like Young, Brown (amazingly STILL getting paid though, so perhaps calling him a bust is unfair, even though he has never contributed at the NBA level?), Lang and Swift.  Swift was a particularly infamous bust given that the Seattle Sonics were to draft Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in 2007 and 2008 and James Harden in 2009, when they were the OKC Thunder.  Swift, still only 27, is out of basketball and broke.  He lasted four NBA seasons and left with 4.3 PPG, 3.9 RPG averages.  Further down the 2004 draft, the Sonics passed on guys like Al Jefferson and the two Smith’s.

How many of these players could have benefited from a year or two in college?  Tyson Chandler was the first of many young big men who spent years trying to find his niche in the league, before finally “getting” it during his time in New Orleans.  The key point is that the NBA is only a good training ground for a very small number of players.  Most of these players played in the NBA when there was no minor league option for them.

Then you have the “other” players, who did a variety of things that didn’t quite fit in either of the above categories:

Shawn Kemp, Moses Malone, Stephen Jackson, Brandon Jennings, Latavious Williams, Jeremy Tyler.

Tyler, centre, looking pretty happy with life in Israel

Jennings and Tyler both decided to play pro ball in Europe straight out of high school.  Jennings actually had a not-too-bad year with Lottomatica Roma in the Italian league before being drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks, but his averages of 5.5 points, 1.6 boards, 2.2 assists and 17 minutes per game were not exactly the sort of numbers he could have compiled in college.  He did, of course, earn money, both from his club and his deal with Under Armour (he was one of the first UA signees).  Tyler, however, struggled overseas after withdrawing his commitment to Louisville.  He played for Maccabi Haifa for a few months, then moving to Tokyo for his second season abroad.  Tyler’s problem was that he dropped out of high school before his senior season, so he had to play two years overseas before he was NBA eligible.

Playing overseas might sound like fun, but former professional players-turned-authors like Paul Shirley and Flinder Boyd have told us that it is a struggle, even for relatively mature players.  Why Tyler thought he could prosper in Israel is baffling: it’s one of the toughest leagues in the world and culturally very different from his hometown of San Diego.  He managed to sneak into the second round of the 2009 draft and the Bobcats selected him, only to trade him to Golden State for cash considerations.  He started a few games towards the end of the season before ending up in the D-League during his second season with the Warriors.  He was then traded to the Atlanta Hawks and waived, before signing with the Knicks, only to be waived again in late October 2013.

The “one and done” concept is also tied to money.  Players believe they are good enough to be paid to play a sport and want to earn as quickly as possible.  In an “industry” where career-ending injuries can happen at any time, this is understandable.  The fact that the “industry” makes them go through a process of high school and college, where players cannot legally be paid (I mean “legally” in the NCAA’s view) and other regulations as to their conduct are surprisingly strict, whilst being “creatively adhered to” throughout the nation – especially at big programmes.

Comparatively, basketball players seem to be more demanding than athletes in the other major sports.  College football players cannot enter the NFL draft until they are three years out of high school and there are no “play overseas” options for them.  This is of course an entirely sensible approach to perhaps the most brutal game in the world: players need to develop physically to even survive at the top level.  Some reports online (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/31/sports/football/31hit.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0) suggest that the average NFL player goes through similar trauma to the average car crash in any given game.

In baseball and hockey, minor league options are available to all leading players straight out of high school.  Eighteen year old kids can go and earn money – not very much, admittedly (AAA is $2150 a month, AA $1500 a month, A $850-$1050 a month) – to play in what are very well run leagues.  Players drafted to the NHL and MLB out of college also play in the minor leagues and the leagues are also used for even star players, who play as part of their rehabilitation from injury.

The NBA D-League is far from an effective minor league system.  It is often used to help younger players develop their game – the Rio Grade Valley Vipers are very effectively used by the Houston Rockets, either to help bring on Donatas Motenjunas and Terrence Jones, or to punish Royce White – but there are some fairly decent NBDL alums:

Rafer Alston, Louis Amundson, Chris Andersen, Matt Barnes, Jamario Moon, Dahntay Jones, Jose Barea, Brandon Bass, Aaron Brooks, Jordan Farmar, Marcin Gortat, Jeremy Lin, Danny Green.

The list, however, is remarkable for its brevity.  There are seventeen teams currently in the NBA D-League and there have been a further sixteen now defunct teams, which either moved or were shut down – both in the case of the Charleston Lowgators, who became the Florida Flame before being folded by their owners.  So there have been fewer D-League success story players than franchises.  Most AAA baseball teams could boast of thirteen success stories over a four year period, never mind an entire league over its twelve year history.

One of the issues with seeking comparison with the other major professional sports leagues in the US is that basketball is set up quite differently from football, hockey and baseball.  It does not have hard and fast rules about player development, hence the implementation of the new rule in 2006 to limit the number of high school players coming into the league and bottoming out too quickly.

Hockey and baseball both have highly effective minor league systems and accept players into their drafts out of both high school and college.  Football and basketball both use college as their minor league system.  An elite baseball talent like Stephen Strasburg will play at least a year in the minor league system before being tested at the Major League level.  Strasburg played three years of college before entering the MLB draft.

I think the most reasonable solution to this problem begins with the NCAA.  NCAA rules prevent players from returning to college once they have hired an agent, a step that most players take when entering the draft.  Most players are, of course, relatively simple-minded: they want to play basketball for a living.  A lot of players come from relatively impoverished backgrounds and so are very easily tempted by the promise of large sums of money.

Paying college athletes is not going to solve the problem.  The vast majority of colleges do not make that much money from their athletics programmes.  To allow colleges like Alabama (total revenue for 2008 $123M), Texas ($120M) or Ohio State ($115M) to pay their star athletes (source: http://espn.go.com/ncaa/revenue) might not seem like much of a stretch, but you are effectively professionalising a handful of colleges – on the whole, those with really good football programmes – which is a dangerous precedent.  If college athletics is to become professionalised, totally contrary to the concept of school pride and the honour of playing for your school, then the less revenue-friendly sports will come under threat.  What will happen to, say, tennis, golf, or women’s basketball (largely unpopular outside of Connecticut and Tennessee, the two more successful programmes), or any number of women’s sports?  Title IX dictates that parity between male and female sports must exist.

Every team has to have a certain number of scholarship athletes.  These, while partially sunk costs, typically run to about $250k.  Teams have to travel to play their conference games, which, in most conferences, necessitates plane travel for all players, coaches and assistants.  Each major college also has a huge infrastructure behind its athletics programme which includes several administrators and advisers, not to mention the compliance people that are required by the NCAA.

Boise State Team Plane

So, if paying players won’t work, what about allowing image rights to be passed to players?  It’s an open secret that the replica college jerseys you can buy online and in campus bookstores are those of star players.  They might not have the players name on them (although retro jerseys frequently will – when I worked at U Washington, you could buy “Roy 3” jerseys for graduate Brandon Roy, but the Isaiah Thomas jerseys simply had the number 2 on them) but it would be a huge coincidence for those people walking around Chapel Hill wearing number 50 jerseys to have just happened to have chosen the number worn by former star Tyler Hansbrough.

Why not allow college athletes to earn money from athletics companies for advertisements?  These would, typically, be in relatively small markets, depending on the number of potential endorsers in the nation and their respective locations.  College athletes are allowed to earn money by working regular jobs – why not let them host coaching sessions and integrate them with local kids?

There are many possible solutions to the issue of college athletes deserving to be paid and it seems to me that if these can be resolved, the problem of the “one and done” culture can in turn be resolved.  The cynicism that has entered the NBA drafting process has meant that “good” has been replaced by “good enough” when it comes to college players.  Some players will be good enough to leave college after a year, but the vast majority who leave do so with much of their game still relatively underdeveloped.  Those who do not go on to successful athletic careers do not earn enough money to come back to college and, once they have turned professional, they cannot return on a scholarship.  This totally negates the seemingly sound logic of tying athletic development to the parachute concept of obtaining a college degree.

The question is who is going to force things to change?  Colleges?  Unlikely.  Most major college football programmes make significant money for their school, but the number of college basketball programmes that bring in serious money is considerably lower.  Part of the reason for that is that fans now struggle to identify with college basketball teams because they only get to see a raw high school player for a few months before they go on to become the latest under-developed NBA “phenom”.  Even the Duke programme, which graduates more of its star players than most other major basketball programmes, has started to invest in “one and done” players like Irving and now Jabari Parker, likely to be the second or third pick in the 2014 draft.

Change will have to come from the NBA, either in the form of developing the D-League or by stipulating that players must remain in college for longer.  The NBA is a business and a ruthless one.  Just look at the transactions page on NBA.com.  Players are signed and cast aside often seemingly at random.  Younger players can find themselves on the NBA scrapheap before they even hit 20 years of age.  European basketball is an option for every player who is drafted, but actually living in a foreign country is not particularly easy, especially for young men who have rarely, if ever, been such extreme distances away from their friends and family.

Having the best players as well trained as possible before entering the ranks of the professional leagues is surely in the best interests of all parties – teams, fans and the players themselves.  Something has to change.

Playoffs finely balanced going into Round II, Act III

Well, what was your highlight of the first games in this second round of the 2013 NBA playoffs?

Was it Miami’s shock “we were too well rested” defeat to Chicago, led by the matching haircuts of Nate Robinson and Jimmy Butler?  Or perhaps their thumping 37-going-on-50 point win in the second game, a victory that may not have restored their home court advantage, but one that certainly sent a powerful message to all who doubted them.

Perhaps it was Klay Thompson’s rain-man in game 2 against the Spurs, when Golden State finally managed to hold on to an 18 point lead, unlike two night’s previously when they saw Manu Ginobili sink them at the end of double overtime?  Coach Mark Jackson’s claims that Thompson and Stephen Curry constitute the greatest ever shooting backcourt in the NBA was certainly supported by the performances of his young stars in the first two games against the heavily favoured Spurs.

Perhaps you enjoyed Memphis grinding out a win over a depleted Oklahoma City, who are proving that reliance on one superstar, no matter how talented that superstar is, is not going to be enough at this point in the season?  Or maybe it was said superstar putting a squad of bit-players and the ghost of James Harden on his back and carrying OKC to a win in the first matchup between the sides?

Or perhaps it was something that happened in the most listless series since the first round between Indiana and New York?  The Pacers really dragged out their first round victory over “who-really-cares-or-remembers”?  (Okay, I know it was Atlanta.)  Did we expect fireworks – the odd putback slam aside?

Every series is finely poised at one game a piece going back to Chicago / Oakland / Memphis / Indiana, with the now-home teams having stolen a game on their opponents court.  The first three series all have compelling story lines:

Will Luol Deng come back, 15lbs lighter after what sounds like one of the most horrendous medical procedures known to man?

Why in this day and age do we still have to perform a spinal tap to check for meningitis?

Spinal Tap

In what would be an even bigger story, will Derrick Rose, allegedly fit for weeks, risk his surgically repaired knee in what is becoming (entirely Chicago’s fault incidentally) a slug-fest with Miami?

Can the wily Spurs pull through against the energized Warriors?

Who would win a game of horse between Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson?

Who would win a game of horse between Dell Curry and Mychal Thompson?

Which is better: Currys or Thompsons?

Can Kevin Durant drag the carcass of his Westbrook-less side through to the conference finals?

Will the Grizzlies, perhaps the only legitimate “star-less” team in the playoff picture make it through the West?

Will any of us care who wins out of Indiana and New York?

 Stay tuned!

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