Every Monday of the 2017-18 NBA season, I’ll throw out eight things that caught my eye. It’s a lot like observation posts you see for sports. It isn’t quite enough information to write an entire column on, but it’s enough to pique someone’s interest in NBA happenings.
With eight things, I’ve decided to use the Eight-Second Violation basketball term for branding. This will take you longer than eight seconds to read, unless you just skim the subheadings.
This week’s iteration comes after I spent the weekend taking in the All-Star festivities from Los Angeles.
1. Big Story: The new format of the NBA All-Star Game
Captains picking teams from an All-Star pool. The trade deadline already having happened to eliminate the speculation and chaos we saw last season surrounding DeMarcus Cousins getting traded essentially during the All-Star Game itself. Increased money for the players on the winning side of the exhibition. These were the major changes to All-Star weekend as they hoped to mainline some energy into the celebration of this great league. At least on the surface and in the short term, those changes brought a resounding successful feeling to this weekend.
It’s hard to say if the new format truly brought more competition to the game itself. The first half of the game had the same soft backpedaling as most years do. But the play following halftime made it look like 24 straight moments of clutch action. Both sides cared and both sides fought for a victory. The game ended on a defensive stop instead of just a miss. Players from both sides enjoyed the new format and the results, even if we can’t be certain they go together.
“I mean, obviously, we don’t know that,” LeBron James said about the new format after the game. “We don’t know. But I think the format was great. I think the fans did a great job of reacting to it in a very positive way.
“For me to be the captain of the team, Steph being the captain of his team and us doing that, that draft was something that hadn’t been done before. The great thing about our commissioner, he’s absolutely okay with trying something new, to change the format, and it definitely worked out for everybody. It worked out not only for the players, not only for the league, but for our fans, for everybody. It was a great weekend, and we capped it off the right way.”
One tricky thing for the league to figure out is if too many games have been played before the break itself. We’re basically at the three-quarter mark, and it doesn’t break up the season like it used to. We’ve eliminated the distractions of the trade deadline, but legs might be a bit more tired. Guys throughout the weekend struggled to find rhythms. That could be due to tired legs from games, too many appearances throughout a long, impacted weekend, or it could be the LA nightlife stepping in. Either way, the schedule is something the league will continue to evaluate.
Overall, the format looks like it’s here to stay, and it should be.
2. Big Showing: LeBron James wins All-Star MVP
LeBron James received the glory of All-Star MVP after helping lead his very own team to the clutch victory. He finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists on the night. He played some incredible defense down the stretch of the exhibition, setting the tone for leading his team to the victory. It brought more money to his team’s charity and it drove home the point that they could make the All-Star Game something enjoyable once again. James was locked in down the entire stretch of that game.
Listening to him in the press conference after the game, he broke down sequences like he was answering questions in the NBA Finals. LeBron gave play-by-play commentary on how they took the lead. He talked about the play call and the adjustments they made when he converted a left-handed layup over Draymond Green. James and Kevin Durant even argued with a replay review, saying the review wasn’t correctly done in failing to give them the ball. The players treated it like something meaningful, either due to the format mentioned above or just wanting pride to eliminate what happened a year ago.
The corporate Staples Center crowd struggled to bring energy throughout the weekend. LeBron, his team and Stephen Curry’s team manufactured it in the second half. If we can get this type of game at least every other year, people won’t overlook this weekend as much as they have recently. That’s even more value for LeBron and the other All-Stars to bring to the table. And it starts with their approach. We can thank James for a lot of that tone.
3. Big Chicanery: Joel Embiid gamed the system
During the Skills Challenge, we had a bit of rule bending by All-Star Joel Embiid. The tenacious tweeter looked for a loop hole in the system after failing to throw the chest pass through the target. He essentially just dropped the rest of the basketballs off the rack so that he could advance to the next part of the course. It truly was a bit of innovation and genius. It couldn’t get by Bleacher Report, though. They threw the evidence onto the web:
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 18, 2018
Embiid denied the accusations of cheating, though. He claimed it was simply smart strategy while offering up why the loophole he found was so genius:
It’s not cheating, it’s called being smart lol https://t.co/FIVWSncFWV
— Joel Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) February 18, 2018
How can you make a pass if all three balls are gone? pic.twitter.com/o7Eunz0lBW
— Joel Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) February 18, 2018
I can’t help but think Embiid challenging the construct of this event will end up in front of the competition committee. They can’t just leave open the possibility of guys like Embiid ruining the sanctity of the pass. While some shoot-first enthusiasts like myself are all for eliminating the glorified option of passing from these sacred events, others believe we should celebrate it as a people.
Unfortunately, this age-old debate won’t go away any time soon. Thankfully, Embiid leads the charge here and forces the NBA to make tough decisions that will create evolution within the weekend.
4. Big Controversy: Dunk contest robbery
We have controversy on the internet! Dallas Mavericks enthusiasts and some dunk contest viewing stragglers didn’t like how things went down Saturday night. They walked away feeling Dennis Smith Jr. was robbed of his chance to win the dunk contest because of a poor scorer on his first dunk.
Smith did an extreme double-pump, reverse dunk — echoing a poorly judged dunk from Aaron Gordon in 2016 when he lost to Zach LaVine. It netted Gordon a 47 in 2016. This time, Smith received just a 39 after pivoting from an initial missed dunk. 39 was too low of a score from the celebrity judges and Lisa Leslie and Julius Erving. He followed it up with the dunk of the contest, doing a spinning reverse through-the-legs off-hand dunk. It took more than one attempt to complete it, but he still received a 50:
He finished four points shy of Larry Nance Jr. in the first round and was eliminated. Donovan Mitchell went on to win the contest with a 98-96 advantage in the final. But the sentiment came that Smith was robbed of the contest win and Mitchell was undeserving. Somehow the criticism leapt over Nance and his placement in the competition. That criticism was pretty dumb. Smith had the dunk of the night but Mitchell had the best overall performance. That will usually win the contest when that happens.
It’s hard to say if Smith would have won in the final round because we don’t know what he was going to do. We also don’t know if he’d continue struggling to make dunks on the first try, which does tend to kill the buzz for a performance. But Mitchell also had this issue on a couple of attempts, so it wasn’t limited to just Smith.
Seeing Smith versus Mitchell would have been great. Nance did a fine job and the double-tap off the glass dunk created some incredible reactions after the replays slowed down the difficulty for everybody. But the two dunkers everybody wanted to see go at it were the smaller players. Still, nobody wants to see Victor Oladipo in a dunk contest.
I don’t feel the NBA needs to change the dunk contest format dramatically, if at all. This same format brought us the best contest ever in 2016 — just two years ago. What maybe they need to consider is making sure they have the right judges in there and return value to what a true 50 score should look like. 50s are dropped a little too negligently at this point. If we are going to tweak or overhaul the system, perhaps it should just come down to which player has the top dunk in the night. That creates fewer safe dunks and more risk taking.
Either way, it’s weird to say Smith was robbed of the win. He was robbed of competing for the win, but he didn’t prove to definitely be better than Mitchell in the first round. We never truly got that chance.
5. Big Topic: Conference realignment
One of the big takeaways from the weekend was the discussion surrounding playoff seeding. We may not be long for the days of Western Conference versus Eastern Conference when it comes to the playoff format. Adam Silver discussed the idea of a 1-16 seeding that so many analysts have pined for during this gigantic East-West imbalance for over a decade. This would slap tradition in the face and challenge it to a duel. But the tradition of NBA playoff format isn’t what keeps the league from going to this new path. It actually has to do with worry about travel being too much for teams throughout the postseason.
From Adam Silver’s press conference:
“But then it takes me to where I thought you were going, which is when we get to the playoffs should we be taking either the best 16 teams or even if we go eight from the West, eight from the East, seeding 1 through 16 going into the playoffs?
And that is something that’s gotten serious attention, not just recently, but over the last few years at the league office. I think, as I’ve said in the past, the obstacle is travel, and it’s not tradition in my mind, at least. It’s that as we’ve added an extra week to the regular season, as we’ve tried to reduce the number of back-to-backs, that we are concerned about teams crisscrossing the country in the first round, for example. We are just concerned about the overall travel that we would have in the top 16 teams.
Having said that, you also would like to have a format where your two best teams are ultimately going to meet in The Finals, and obviously, if it’s the top team in the East and top team in the West, I’m not saying this is the case this year, but you could have a situation where the top two teams in the league are meeting in the Conference Finals or somewhere else.
So we’re going to continue to look at that. It’s still my hope that we’re going to figure out ways. Maybe ultimately you have to add even more days to the season to spread it out a little bit more to deal with the travel. Maybe air travel will get better. All things we’ll keep looking at.”
The other thing you have to wonder is how many owners in the Eastern Conference would sign off on this. It should force franchises to become better when they consistently struggle. Motivation to make playoff revenue could help lower East teams reevaluate their practices and start moving toward actually building something good. At the same time, an easier path toward solving this problem just within their own conference hasn’t created that motivation and effort. Ultimately, enough owners in the NBA want the easier path to making money. Getting them to align with this new idea seems nearly impossible.
That’s how Silver has to approach it. We would see a lot more chaos in fighting for playoff positioning. Reseeding after playoff rounds could also be on the table, although again the issue of planning and executing travel becomes even trickier. Silver’s regime continues to look toward innovation, though. They aren’t afraid to reevaluate everything we’ve always assumed tradition would overrule.
6. Erik Spoelstra crafts end-of-game brilliance
Not everything will be All-Star related here. I wanted to highlight a cool end-of-game baseline out of bounds set the Miami Heat ran in their loss to the Toronto Raptors.
Down five points with 12 seconds left, the Heat ran a quick action with Goran Dragic inbounding to Bam Adebayo. Immediately after inbounding the ball to Adebayo near the right block, Dragic set a hard screen on Jonas Valanciunas. It freed up Adebayo for an easy score inside. Except that’s prestige of Erik Spoelstra’s art. The play designed had nothing to do with getting a dunk inside:
That’s some pretty brilliant misdirection. Adebayo makes Pascal Siakam move away from Dwyane Wade to contest inside. That frees Wade to go take part in a double pick for Wayne Ellington. Ellington finds himself wide open in the left corner from the 3-pointer. All of a sudden it’s a two-point game. Miami ranks third in the NBA, per Synergy Sports, in scoring after timeouts. Only the Warriors and Pacers score with more efficiency. It’s because of great clipboard items like this from Spoelstra.
7. Rookie Rising: Josh Jackson
You know who has been really good lately? Phoenix Suns rookie Josh Jackson. The much ballyhooed wing from Kansas had a tough start to his NBA career. Through December, Jackson averaged just 9.0 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 21.6 minutes per game. His true shooting came in at just 43.9 percent while carrying a 23.5 percent usage rate. It didn’t look like he was a bust but maybe not the sure thing many figured he would be coming into the draft. Since then, Jackson has exploded onto the scene. The turn of the calendar has become a turn in his rookie campaign.
Over these last 19 games, his averages have gone up to 15.6 point, 5.3 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 27.4 minutes. His true shooting during this stretch is up to 50.7 percent (not great but a huge improvement) on an increased usage rate of 27.0 percent. Jackson looks like he has figured out how to use his physical advantages with his size and athleticism. The jumper still doesn’t look wholly reliable, but he finds ways to put pressure on the defense.
Take a look at these two plays in 45 seconds recently against the Utah Jazz. Jackson finds his way into the open court and starts showing nimble, slippery actions toward the hoop:
Eight of his nine 20-point games have come during this stretch. He even put up 20-plus in four straight games. Jackson has been a prisoner of the chaos in Phoenix with this team just not having a clue on how to move forward. Moving forward the rest of the season, they need to find him more minutes with Devin Booker on the floor and see how that combo starts meshing together to build toward next season.
Only 38.4 percent of Jackson’s minutes have come with Booker also in the game. The Suns need to figure out how they impact each other’s games.
8. My award rankings heading into the final quarter of the season
We have about a quarter of the season left, and that means the awards arguing ramps up for about two months. Voting won’t be revealed until after the season when the NBA does their new awards ceremony. But the influencing of voting starts a month ago, and that means it will become heated after the break. So here are my top five of the main awards with a brief blurb for each guy. Nobody will disagree with any of these!
Rookie of the Year
1. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz: It essentially comes down to a coin flip for me at this point. Donovan Mitchell does what he does with a more balanced individual attack against more defensive attention thrown his way. Ben Simmons does what he does with the opponent first focusing on Joel Embiid, then worrying about him. The edge for Mitchell at this second for me has the thickness of a Jeff Van Gundy hair follicle.
2. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers: With that said, if you told me you were voting for Simmons and thought he had been better, I wouldn’t punch you in the face. Let’s just kick the rhetoric that one guy definitely deserves it over the other. Both Simmons and Mitchell are pretty much equally deserving right now. Let’s hope the race keeps going with this high level of rookie basketball.
3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics: Jayson Tatum probably doesn’t have a chance of cracking the top two in this race, but he has been as good as advertised. Tatum is 12th in the NBA in 3-point percentage and Boston truly needs his scoring. He needs to get a little hotter with his shooting all over the floor, but he could approach a 60 percent true shooting mark.
4. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers: Kyle Kuzma started off extremely hot and then fell off a cliff the last month and a half. His play has still looked pretty impressive for a late first-rounder.
5. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls: Guys like Jarrett Allen, OG Anunoby, Royce O’Neale and Bogdan Bogdanovic all deserve consideration here. I think Markkanen has been the most consistent of any of these options.
Coach of the Year
1. Dwane Casey, Toronto Raptors: Dwane Casey switched up Toronto’s offense to better prepare them for the postseason, and it has turned them into the best record in the East.
2. Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat: The Heat currently hold the 8-seed despite Josh Richardson, Wayne Ellington, Tyler Johnson and Kelly Olynyk ranking 2-5, respectively, for most shots taken on Miami this season. They shouldn’t have the record they have.
3. Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz: Quin Snyder kept grooming Donovan Mitchell and finding tweaks for his role players in the system. Once Rudy Gobert got healthy and his legs back, the team has gone on an 11-game winning streak (and counting?) to get back in the postseason race. If they make the playoffs in the West, he needs heavy consideration.
4. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs: No Kawhi Leonard. He got LaMarcus Aldridge to care. The Spurs don’t have any kind of consistent health this season and they’re battling for the 3-seed in the Western Conference. Pop is a warlock.
5. Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics: It can be easy to dismiss some of what the Boston Celtics have done this season. Just remember this team was built to be led by both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. They only had Hayward for five minutes and still are just two games back of the top seed in the conference.
Defensive Player of the Year
1. Al Horford, Boston Celtics: Best defender on the best defense leading the charge. Al Horford’s versatility fuels the system and sets the tone for how his teammates defend.
2. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors: Kevin Durant has been more consistent defensively than Draymond Green this season, and the Warriors defense needs him to continue this level.
3. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder: Some could say Paul George’s case received a boost from Andre Roberson’s presence on the floor. That’s fair because the entire Thunder team did. But George has still excelled at defending the perimeter and helping inside. He makes so many plays for a Thunder defense in desperate need of a hero.
4. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers: With no clear-cut winner for DPOY right now, Joel Embiid can finish anywhere in the top four here and I would think it’s accurate. His rim protection and overall presence legitimately deters people from attacking the Sixers inside.
5. Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City Thunder: I know he’s hurt and out for the rest of the season, but he was good enough defensively to still get mentioned at this point. The Thunder desperately miss his defense right now.
Most Valuable Player
1. James Harden, Houston Rockets: He creates the most points on the team having the best regular season and has the Rockets in the mix for the best offensive season of all time. It’s time for The Beard to get his hardware.
2. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers: Sure, he scaled some stuff back with the Cavaliers for a good month or so until they made the necessary trades. That may rub some people the wrong way. But that, coupled with his incredible individual season, has demonstrated his true value further.
3. Steph Curry, Golden State Warriors: Steph Curry ranks third in the NBA in total plus/minus with plus-388. Only Eric Gordon (399) and James Harden (395) rank higher than the two-time MVP. I’d like to remind you that Curry has missed 15 games this season and still is within reach of the highest plus/minus in the NBA.
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks: The Bucks endured Jason Kidd as a coach and a flawed roster to keep climbing in the Eastern Conference. His net rating on the court (plus-5.6) would sit Milwaukee somewhere between Toronto (plus-8.1) and Boston (plus-3.5). His net rating off the court (minus-9.7) would sit Milwaukee behind the last-ranked Phoenix Suns.
5. Jimmy Butler, Minnesota Timberwolves: He made the Timberwolves truly relevant for the first time since Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell first got together.