Ambassador To The Great State of Basketball

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

Entering the season the Minnesota Timberwolves were a team with promise. Ricky Rubio, a darling of the league, and Kevin Love, a refined scoring-forward, stood beside Nikola Pekovic, a top offensive center when healthy, Corey Brewer, coming off a career-year, and Kevin Martin — who arguably became the best shooting-guard in Wolves history when he was obtained by Minnesota last summer. Together, using a roster assembled to appease Rick Adelman‘s desire for long, lengthy wing-players the plan was to breathe life into the vision from within the mind of the stoic, former NBA head coach.

Beneath the optimistic expectations bestowed upon the starting lineup stood serviceable assets for what became a hopeful run at the postseason. Yet, injuries to Ronny Turiaf and Chase Budinger ripped a tear in the second unit’s rotation. Neither Alexey Shved or Robbie Hummel did enough to seize the opportunity to play in relief of Brewer, Martin, or Rubio, while Dante Cunningham, Love, and Pekovic spent extra time filling Turiaf’s absence at center because Gorgui Dieng was an unplayable foul-machine. Shabazz Muhammad, though said to be doing all the right things and working hard in practice, was rarely deployed until it became absolutely necessary.

The accumulation and timing of the injuries in Minnesota was unfavorable, because health posed an issue before the season began. Budinger suffered another knee injury during training camp and didn’t return until January. Turiaf violently fell to the floor of the Target Center in the Wolves second game of the season and also didn’t return until 2014, an important portion of a lengthy season. Still, Adelman acted as an old dog hesitant to try and deploy new tricks in what turned out to be his final year on the sidelines as an NBA head coach.

Adelman is husband, father, and a 68 year old with more wisdom than I am able to try and fathom. It isn’t hard to find nice things that have been said about Adelman and what he brought to the game of basketball during his years on the sideline. He’s the mastermind of motion, off-ball screening and cutting, that created an offence so tangible that even Gregg Popovich admits he borrowed ideas from Adelman’s playbook, among many others.

After Adelman announced his retirement on Monday morning, a gloomy uncertainty surfaced as Flip Saunders sighted no timeline or the name of any candidates. Saunders did not, however, rule out the idea of returning to the sideline as the Wolves coach, although he mentioned that isn’t what team owner Glen Taylor would prefer to see. Now, without not only an unmistakable, prestigious, experienced coach; Minnesota stands amid an unsettling and uncertain period of reformation under the new, Saunders, regime.

It’s unfortunate that this season was illuminated in a disheartening, disappointing light that shined brightest on the ‘what if’ situations surrounding the Timberwolves — there were a lot of them. The common narrative was the team’s inability to win close games, but the call to play rookies Muhammad and Dieng, Rubio’s shooting and scoring production, and Love’s future with the organization was littered within dialogue describing Minnesota’s season. While many seeked to illuminate the notation that Adelman simply lost desire, compassion necessary to inspire his relatively inexperienced roster; remorseful is Adelman’s departure from the Wolves, and furthermore the entire NBA.

Albeit they didn’t make the playoffs, the Wolves won more games than they did during the season before for the fourth consecutive year. Rubio stayed healthy for an entire year, Love added multiple, new facets to his game previously absent during years past, Dieng and Muhammad are young, exciting and explosive players capable of developing into fine and capable players for years to come. Still, it’s the emotions and actions of fans that overshadow the successes before their very eyes, including the simple opportunity to see Adelman translate his knowledge to future generations while he stood on the sideline as the Timberwolves head coach.

Searching for answers, this season and dating as far back as last year, as to why such an offensively talented, versatile, core of players led by a ‘legendary’ head coach never could get over the proverbial hump into the postseason. Fans, who desperately sought a material reward that would represent success.Those that expressed a playoff-appearance hoping to leave behind a decade of memories from an era in the doldrums, in addition, this would divert attention away from nationwide discussion as it pertains to Love’s future in Minnesota.

Over the next few months as the NBA Draft approaches, Saunders and the front-office will search for a coach. Fred Hoiberg, Billy Donovan, Tom Izzo, George Karl, and Lionel Hollins are some candidates but that remains speculation. There’s plenty of uncertainty surrounding the Timberwolves, and the significance that the imminent changes cannot be overstated. Although Adelman will remain with the organization as a consultant, he’s unmistakable, calm, league-renowned presence and wisdom as a coach will be absent from the sideline — somewhere Adelman has stood for as long as I’ve been alive. Despite the urgency to find a new coach to replace Adelman, it’s important fans appreciate the time he spent in Minnesota, as Adelman is one of the NBA’s most honorable ambassadors — something that may have gone overlooked by many throughout the year.

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Two Sides of Tanking

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

No doubt; there’s been a lot made of “tanking” in the NBA this season.

The assertion that teams are losing on purpose isn’t wrong, however the assertion that tanking is a malicious attempt at putting a fanbase through misery is entirely false. Tanking is a strategic tactic that aids in the construction and rebuilding of a franchise. A franchise abiding to the concept is merely doing what they see as the most proactive thing possible, hoping to obtain the most talented player in the upcoming draft. Because the draft-lottery structure is flawed, or so it seems, tanking is a result of a poorly constructed system that ultimately needs fixing.

The way things have gone for the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic, this season — teams are chomping at the bits to attain the top pick in the upcoming 2014 draft, a draft which is expected to have a pool of NBA talent comparable to the 2003 draft (LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade). The Sixers, specifically, have received praise from commissioner Adam Silver for their efforts.

“You look at any business, you look at short-term results and long-term results,” Silver said. “And if you told a business, if somebody told you a business was going to operate on a quarter-by-quarter [basis], you’d say, ‘That’s not the way to operate a business.’ You’d say, ‘You need a strategy. You need to look at the long-term.’ And I think what this organization is doing is absolutely the right thing. What they’re doing is planning for the future and building an organization from the ground level up.

“And so, if you look at what’s happened here over the last several years, it’s badly needed,” he said. “Somebody needs a plan. Somebody needs a vision to win here. And I think that’s what’s happening.”

There’s been no indication that Silver intends to restructure the draft-lottery.

I talked with Drew Cohen, founder of NBArrassing, by way of email and phone — yesterday.

Cohen is a lawyer, a Sixers fan, and not an advocate of tanking….to say the least. He thinks tanking has never been as bad as it is right now, claiming “incentives are flipped. Fans don’t know whether to root for or against their own team. And the result is a shell of a season for fans (and players) — a miserable display that’s nothing short of an embarrassment.”

NBArrassing is a grassroots effort against tanking. It is a people’s petition, although as of now there is little, visible, support reflecting from the project’s homepage. However, according to Cohen; “Hundreds of thousands of people are saying the same thing about this issue (tanking). There’s been no effort to organize. That’s what we’re trying to do. Fans are complaining about tanking, (drafting) system, but their complaints take the form of millions of disparate tweets, comments, emails, posts, etc. There is no mechanism to collate them and organize them in a productive manner.  That’s why we chose the petition mechanism to amplify fans’ voices.”

“People are comfortable organizing politics, but not sports. There’s no culture for that.” Cohen says. “I don’t fault the Sixers fans for wanting to tank, myself included.  They’re just taking advantage of the status quo. What I do take issue with though is a system that incentivizes losing — especially when there are so many reasonable alternatives being promoted outside and inside the league.”

Cohen attended George Washington University Law School and did his clerking at the U.S. Court of International Trade, followed by the Constitutional Court of South Africa. He met Tom Rossmeissl, another Sixers fan who attended Boston College, in Washington DC six years ago, had they had been kicking around the idea for awhile but it had only sprung into action recently.

“This is entirely a grassroots efforts.” Cohen says, “In politics, so-called grassroots efforts around an issue or candidate are backed by huge non-profits/PACs etc. pouring in millions of $$ and leveraging their listserv. We started with 2 people. We’ve been on this for 6 days and we’re only beginning.”

“It was now or never to pull the trigger.”

Corey Hasler is 25 years old, born and raised in Muskego (half hour southwest of Milwaukee). He is a die-hard Milwaukee Bucks fan. Hasler was seen wearing this curious jersey earlier this week at a Bucks home game against the Indiana Pacers. Prior to that, he sent out a tweet that he was wearing the jersey (Customized, and paid for by the organization as a perk of being a season ticket holder) to the game and finished with, “LET’S GET THAT L(oss)!”

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I got a hold of Hasler by way of email:

I had the opportunity to make a custom jersey for free as part of my season ticket package. I was originally going to get a Giannis Antetokounmpo jersey, but by the time I was supposed to submit my jersey order the Bucks were playing absolutely terrible so I figured I’d spice things up and get something a little more controversial to at least make my trips to the games more entertaining.

Note: The Bucks organization technically paid for my jersey, neither they nor the NBA would authorize the jersey to be made. Instead I requested a blank jersey and had the letters sewn on by a local tailor. I don’t want anyone at the organization to get in trouble.

At the time all the hype was behind Wiggins “being the next MJ or Lebron” and $180 million offer from Adidas, etc. So he was the clearly the best option. I personally am very impressed with Julius Randle and think he will develop into an excellent NBA player and would fit really nice with this current Bucks team. It’s also hard to deny Jabari Parker’s numbers and overall skill which I’m sure will carry over into the NBA; though it sounds like he’s most likely returning for his sophomore year.

Wiggins is still the projected number one overall pick in the draft on most of the lists I’ve seen and he’s definitely shown things that I like and I would absolutely like to have him on our team. With the hype that surrounds him it would definitely get people excited for Bucks basketball again and maybe get us a game or two on ESPN – it’s been a while. Regardless if the Bucks get the number one overall pick or two or three, I think there are a few excellent options in this draft class that I would gladly welcome to this team and city. That being said, I think the whole NBA lottery is rigged and there is no way they will let a small market team like the Bucks land the number one pick in one of the most hyped draft classes in recent history.

Lastly, as far as “tanking” goes, I am not a fan of it.

My jersey is really just for humor purposes only and was never meant to be a “ohhh I hope the Bucks lose all of their games to get this guy.” If the Bucks could have made it to the playoffs this year I would have been ecstatic. I don’t believe that the Bucks tanked on purpose from the start. The team was completely new aside from Ersan Ilyasova, Larry Sanders, John Henson and Epke Udoh. I thought the moves that were made in the offseason were good and I truly believed that the team would be better than it was last year. In a perfect world Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis would’ve stayed in Milwaukee since they were finally getting into a rhythm… But Hollywood Jennings was more concerned with being a Drake groupie than a basketball player and didn’t want to be here anymore and apparently Monta hated Milwaukee so much that he was willing to take a pay cut just to get out of here.

I think Brandon Knight is a better point guard and all around human being. I’ve always like O.J. Mayo, even though he has MAJORLY underachieved this year. Larry Sanders has proven to be a big scrub off the court which is really unfortunate. Giannis will grow and smooth his game out with time, but I think this team is just a piece or two away from being a playoff contender.

It is what it is and they lost a ton of games early and the team really didn’t seem to mesh well off the bat. The season was just too far gone and at some point you just need to cut your losses and look ahead to how to improve the team for the future. I’m still a fan and I still go to all the games.

I DO NOT cheer against my team, but at the same time I am currently not cheering for my team. I’m indifferent. I hope they lose because at this point there is no benefit to winning any more games. They’ve at least made recent games interesting – playing close and then mysteriously letting the game slip away in the last minute or two (although it sure seemed like they were trying to win that Pacers game). I’m okay with them losing and I have been since pre-all star break even though it really makes the games tough to go to. I see the bigger picture and if this is how things were meant to be, at least they happened this year.

Diehard supporters have shown that accepting the fate of tanking is the only available option, as a fan. Based in Milwaukee, SaveOurBucks.com (A website dedicated to keeping the Bucks from future relocation) states that “In order for the Bucks to regain their footing with the fans and the community they need to drastically improve the product on the court.”

SaveOurBucks.com does not suggest that the team loses games, intentionally. However, the site states being competitive enough to qualify for a bottom seed in the postseason does teams no good. Concisely; fans in Milwaukee are tired of remaining mediocre enough to, well, remain mediocre.

It’s safe to say that tanking is something that exists, but is it a trend, small flaw within a system long-ago implemented that has remained operational for nearly 20 years.

It’s abundantly clear that Hasler, in Milwaukee, is a season ticket holder, well-versed in basketball knowledge obtainable by local, and national, media, with conflicting emotions that has reduced him to sarcastically representing one of the only glimmering bright-outlook of one of the worst seasons for a team in basketball history.

Fans like Cohen have proactively assembled and promoted an upsurge against the draft lottery whilst providing multiple, accredited, attainable alternative suggestions and potential solutions as to how to fix the structure.

Can groups moving to change the draft-lottery consolidate enough loyalists such as Hasler and stop tanking? The NBArressing webpage is equipped with a tracker that allows visitors to monitor progress, with the season winding down and the draft approaching by the day, Cohens project has only a limited amount of time to branch out before another year passes by with a flawed structure in place.

The NBA Draft takes place, Thursday, June 26th.

Click this link to be brought to the NBArressing homepage.

Abolish (Useless) NBA Divisions: Stepping Closer Towards Restructure

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

I know saying one conference is distinctly better than the other may be considered oversimplification, but the Western Conference, when compared to the Eastern Conference, is just better. There have been a ton of words written about this disparity around the interwebs this season, so take to Google if you have any confusion about this basic premise.

Recently, Kirk Goldsberry made a postseason bracket (pictured below) that featured what the NBA playoffs would look like if the seeds were determined by record, without divisional/conference based restrictions. Goldsberry’s method is simple; the best record, seed #1, would play the worst record, seed #16. Ethan Sherwood Strauss, also, recently suggested the idea of abolishing conferences. Had the Eastern Conference not been as bad as it’s been, outside of the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers — [We think], Toronto Raptors, and Chicago Bulls [Stretching] —  it’s unlikely that such a vast proliferation of reform suggestions even surfaces in the first place.

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Out West; the Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies, and Phoenix Suns are competing for two postseason positions, ultimately, one of them will not qualify. Moreover, moving East; at least one, if not two, sub .500 teams will qualify for the postseason. This is not an ideal balance. Goldsberry’s “Sweet 16” includes the Timberwolves, Suns, Grizzlies, and Mavericks but disqualifies the .500 Charlotte Bobcats, as well as the sub .500 Atlanta Hawks.

The New York Knicks, who are fighting for their playoff lives, stand no chance using the Goldsberry method. I particularly enjoyed this bit within Strauss’ column, an essential call-to-arms demanding the league address the issue at once.

“Regardless of tactics, the NBA should at least address this in some capacity. The East/West divide takes a regular season that’s already assailed as “meaningless” and adds some absurdity on top of it. Though the reasons for the status quo are understandable, the status quo makes for bad entertainment. It’s best to try and fix that.”

Enter myself and Matt D’Anna, also known as @Hoop_Nerd. We’ve come together to try and do the legwork that Goldsberry, Strauss and many, many others have suggested before us. D’Anna and I aspire to present a logical solution to the NBA’s issue involving balance between the conferences. However logical, altering the landscape of the league requires significant changes that may seem irrational or illogical without context. Some may consider the entire premise of this proposal to be a knee-jerk reaction because of the unique instance occurring this season. Ultimately, think of it as potentially laying a foundation for changes the NBA may wish to implement sometime in the future.

Abolish Divisions

Back in November, Zach Lowe published Abolish (Useless) NBA Divisions: Step One of a Radical Plan. Lowe states that divisions exist, in theory, to invigorate rivalries and ease travel. He’s right. The clear-cut reason that divisions exist are for creating a set-amount of regional matchups (four times a year). This allows more head-to-head instances between proverbial bitter foes, each year. The Los Angeles Clippers-Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets-New York Knicks are two that come to mind off-the-top of my head. Rivalries exist predominantly because of history and also because of location, but, they aren’t dependent on divisions; postseason meetings and individual player/coach/staff narratives also factor into rivalries.

Why are divisions bad?

Divisions are hurting the NBA’s product, particularly this season. The geographic sorting that determines each division has added salt in the league’s wound that is the current conference structure. Conversely, remember, the format in place is also considerate–in compliance with an 82 game schedule–of travel. This is how each team’s season is divided.

  •  Four games against each of the other divisional opponents, [4×4=16 games]

  •  Four games against six, out-of-division, conference opponents, [4×6=24 games] Ex: The Minnesota Timberwolves, in the grouped with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, and Utah Jazz, play 24 games against teams in the Western Conference, but outside of the Northwest Division. 

  • Three games against the remaining four conference teams, [3×4=12 games] Above, we’ve scheduled a total of 40 games against 10 opponents [four division opponents, and six conference — but not divisional  — opponents]

  • Two games against teams in the opposing conference. [2×15=30 games] Each Western Conference team will play each Eastern Conference team, twice, per season.

  • A five year rotation determines which out-of-division conference teams are played only three times.

This format may be simplistic, and not necessarily unruly, because most are accustomed to the process — it hasn’t always been so detrimental toward one side, or the other. Looking at the standings as of April 7th, 2014, we can see the disparity throughout each division.

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The Central and Atlantic divisions, within the Eastern Conference, host only two teams with records above .500, while the Southeast contains three because the Charlotte Bobcats won their most recent game. Out West, there are three teams above .500 in the Southwest and Pacific divisions, and two in the Northwest. The Wolves are 38-38 and, had they found a way to defeat the Orlando Magic this past Saturday, would be the ninth team in the Western conference with more wins than losses. The East has only seven teams above .500, but it could fall to six before the season ends.

Reverting back to the NBA’s scheduling formula, we know that teams in the East are playing inferior, divisional as well as in conference, opponents more often that teams in the West. The schedule favors teams in the East, because Western Conference teams are forced to face a higher level of competition, more frequently.

Collectively, the West’s record against the East is 281-164. Matt Femrite keeps East vs. West records, updated weekly, at his website; Chicken Noodle Hoop. To the left you’ll see how the West has performed against the East, and table to the right is E/W point-differential by month.

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Clearly, one conference is better than the other. That’s why we’re here.

The Issue of Travel

Matt Winick, Vice President of Scheduling and Game Operations for the NBA, is responsible for all regular-season and playoff scheduling. He also oversees the administration of the NBA Pre-Draft Camp. Winick states: The NBA sets the league schedule to accomplish both competitive balance and a reduction of costs. The goal of the NBA schedule, as it is constructed, is to be “efficient from a competitive standpoint with an indirect consideration of travel costs.

Uh oh.

The competitive balance has left a lot to be desired, this season. Winick and the NBA’s goal, in that regard, has failed, but what about “the indirect consideration of travel costs?”

How much does travel cost to begin with? This study states that ground transportation, for most teams, involves two charter buses and one medium sized truck to carry people, equipment and luggage. Ground transportation costs average $3,000 per day, narrowed down to the rate of $85 per person, per day, which makes the typical average cost per person in the traveling party total $432 per day (including hotel and per diem). A ‘traveling party’ may include, but is not required/limited to, 35 people. Players, coaches, trainers, administrative staff, and media personnel [that of which is owned by the franchise] are all members of a team’s traveling party. From 1999-2000 to 2001-2002 (three complete seasons) there were 1,867 trips taken by all teams. This includes ground transportation as well as travel by airplane.

Obviously, airfare for the NBA isn’t sold at the average rate. Most teams are part of the NBA charter program. The program allows individual franchises to contractually rent passenger planes, avoiding maintenance and upkeep of owning their own jet. The service involves transporting a team to a city and then flying to another city to transport a different team. “This lowers the average fixed cost by increasing the quantity of trips the plane makes and not having to sit idly on the ground while a different team uses a separate plane,” according to Randy Pfund, former General Manager of the Miami Heat. [cited within aforementioned study].

Winick and the NBA’s method that aims to achieve a ‘competitive balance’ has proven to be flawed. Without having the leagues budget/expense numbers, I’m unable to determine the NBA’s annual spending towards travel, per season. However, there is data that reflects that the geographical clustering of divisions, conferences, paired with the current scheduling format is unbalanced. The league has opportunity to be more efficient with each team’s annual travel expenses, in theory.

A Structure That Needs More Balance

Here is a map of the NBA’s current landscape, and how ‘geographically clustered’ each division is.

Note: The more black space between colored dots, the less clustered that division is. 

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D’Anna also constructed a chart that reflects each team’s Estimated Season Distance, or, ESD.

ESD is the Arena-to-Arena distance for every team in the league. It is not the actual distance travelled for each team in a season; rather, it is a metric representing the distance a team travels from game to game, relative to the rest of the league. ESD assumes travel to each away game begins at the team’s home arena.

His estimates must be taken seriously, here’s why: Andrew Nutting, currently a Visiting Professor of Economics at Hamilton College in New York, calculated the average miles traveled by NBA Teams in a Season from 1990/1991-2006/2007, omitting the strike-shortened season of 98-99. The larger sample size shows that D’Anna’s estimates aren’t egregious in any way.

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Both collections of data show NBA teams on the West Coast and in the center of the country do the most traveling. Nutting’s study concludes there is little evidence that traveling further distances reduces win production. The purpose of displaying each study is not to imply that teams in the Western Conference are at a disadvantage, the intent is to show how many miles teams are traveling.

The Fun Stuff

Let’s try to restructure the NBA. Remember, we’re trying to find a state of equilibrium between two conferences whilst indirectly considering ways teams can travel, efficiently.

Proposal #1 was conjured with the intent to keep divisions. Because it’s the NBA we’re dealing with, the goal was to change as little as possible in order to appease the formula currently in place. Sure, if it’s not broken don’t fix it, just try altering it a little. The new divisions consist of six, five-team divisions in same East/West conferences that are designed by spatial clustering. Proposal #1 uses the same 82 game schedule. The table below displays the new divisions, the chart shows each team’s ESD.

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Not only does the ESD average per team increase by 329 miles, Proposal #1 doesn’t repair the broken competitive balance.

Proposal #2 features no divisions. It uses the same conferences, and adds four games to the schedule. Under this proposal, teams play an 86 game schedule [43 home/43 away]. Each team plays opponents within their conference four times during the season, making 56 of the 86 games against inner-conference foes. The remaining 30 games are fulfilled by playing each team in the opposite conference, twice.

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You may be thinking; MORE GAMES?!?!?! Adding more games eliminates the unfair rotations currently in place. The other benefits Proposal #2 would provide the NBA are as follows.

  • 2013-2014 ESD: Miles per game is less on average, per team (509 MPG in current format, 506 in this format)

  • The 4 additional games add approximately 440 MPG per team; 69 miles less than the 509 MPG average in the current 82-game schedule

  • More games at a lower per game cost!

Proposal #2 is feasible, but, considering that the current 82 game schedule is already widely considered to be a little too lengthy, it’s doubtful the league would consider this format.

Proposal #3 is where we decided to not only abolish divisions, but conferences as well. It would appease the Goldsberry Method by having the top 16 teams qualify for the postseason, each year. There are two options when it comes time for scheduling.

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Option #1 

  • Play each team three times (87 game season). This option proves to be problematic. Teams would need to rotate every other season (2 home, 1 away vs opponent x in Year 1; 1 home, 2 away vs opponent x in Year 2)

Option #2

  • Play each team twice per season (58 game season). Less games is a good thing! The current schedule is 82 games in approximately 165 days (1 game per 2.01 days). 
  • This option would have the season start on Christmas Day, teams would play 58 games in 112 days and the playoff start date is preserved. (1 game per 1.93 days).
  • More even distribution of travel across the league; Midwest/East coast is reduced significantly.
  • Teams travel less often, while also covering less distance. Theoretically, because we don’t know how much it costs for the league to charter planes, this saves the NBA a significant amount in travel costs each year.

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Proposal #3 is undoubtedly the most logical option of these trials, if someone in the league office is watching — that’s what we’re suggesting as of now. What we do know; the current system is flawed and possesses deficiencies.

Considering the state of the Eastern Conference, in comparison to the West, the NBA’s goal of scheduling to ensure a competitive balance has failed in the instance of this season. While ESD is not the primary focus of the current formula, it’s something the league took into consideration when implementing the scheduling method. While having subservient divisions may not be detrimental to individual and team performance, it still costs the league an unknown amount of dollars in travel expenses.

Enacting Proposal #3 would cut each team’s ESD by at least 10,000 miles per year, shorten the season from 82 to 56 games, and level the travel distance bias. This proposal would use Goldsberry’s “Sweet 16” playoff method, ensuring that the best teams compete in the postseason. Because there are less games, each win becomes more valuable whilst every defeat is more significant  — giving the NBA’s regular season a greater, as Strauss defines it, “meaning.”

Data Visualizations by Matt D’Anna unless noted otherwise. 

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Master Chief: Carmelo Anthony

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

In the year 2517, Dr. Catherine Halsey, accompanied by Captain Jacob Keyes, traveled to the planet Eridanus II to speak with a young boy named John. Halsey and Keyes identified John as an ideal candidate for the preliminary pool of recruits for the United Nations Space Command (UNSC) SPARTAN-II program. At age six, John stood a head taller than the majority of his schoolmates, had greater physical proportions, and possessed greater strength, superior reflexes, in addition to his aggressive drive for success.

Shortly after meeting with Halsey and Keyes, John and 150 other SPARTAN-II prospects left home, their families and departed for planet Reach. This group of children, each no more than 10 years old–while physically and mentally gifted–would ultimately be responsible for saving the human race. Humanity was in the midst of a war with the Covenant Empire, a theocratic hegemony consisting of multiple types of enemy alien species. The UNSC’s goal was to create elite soldiers that would subdue enemy insurrections in their infancy, minimize civilian casualties and substantially reduce the cost of conventional pacification.

By age 14, John had grown into one of the finest soldiers Captain Keyes and Dr. Hadley had ever seen. After eight years of training, each of the children in the SPARTAN-II program possessed the build of Olympic athletes. However, it wasn’t his stature–nor skillset–that separated him from the other recruits. 

He is neither the smartest nor the fastest nor the strongest of the Spartans. But he is the bravest–and quite possibly the luckiest. And in my opinion, he is the best.”—Dr. Halsey

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The 2003 NBA Draft is considered to be the best pool of talent to have arrived together in the league’s stoic history. LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh were four of the top five selections. Three of these players have been crowned as a champion; they’re the most decorated players compared to their peers. However, it wasn’t immediately that each of these player’s acts of valor yielded results worthy of the highest NBA accolades, three of the four–James, Wade, and Bosh–were unable to complete their goal of becoming a world champion on their own. Wade became a champion aside a roster of players that were in the twilight of their careers, but, each had been to battle in the postseason enough to know what was expected of them. Each member of the 2006 Heat fulfilled their role and achieved success as a unit. It wasn’t until Bosh and LeBron joined forces with Wade that Miami accomplished the same feat for a second time, but it had been the first for each of the other 2003 draftees.

Anthony remains alone, with little aid around him, in New York — without a championship.

_____

When humanity began settling on Reach, the UNSC found a complex that was constructed well-before their arrival. CASTLE Base is located 2,000 meters below Reach’s Highland Mountains and is protected by massive amounts of granite, reinforced concrete, plates of Titanium and other types of hardened metal. The fortification is capable of withstanding an 80 megaton nuclear blast. Dr. Hadley and other UNSC officials used the base as an office, and the SPARTAN-II recruits oft trained deep within the tunnels of the structure that had been built by an elder civilization known as the Forerunners. 

Years after the recruits graduation from the SPARTAN-II program, Keyes, now Captain of a destroyer known as The Iroquois, noticed a fleet of Covenant ships approaching the Outer Colonies, and an airborne battle between species commenced. Outnumbered, Keyes used the weaponry aboard the Iroquois to inflict as much damage possible before escaping to the safer, inward colonies. Both sides suffered many casualties before the Covenant began to retreat, but only after they planted a tracking device aboard the UNSC destroyer.  Unknowingly, Keyes had led the Covenant to humans most sacred settlements.

Dispersed throughout the inner, and outer, colonies former SPARTAN-II recruits returned to where they began their careers with the UNSC. During training and post-program graduation, John had become notorious for fighting on his own. Unlike some of the other Spartans he was not interested in emotional connections, or making friends. This is believed to be the reason John wasn’t paired with other super soldiers when the the Spartans received their orders. Now under immense, ruthless and barbaric Covenant attack; Reach began to fall, and if the aliens were successful, a genocide would follow.

What separated John from the other Spartans, according to Dr. Hasley, was luck — however — within his highly advanced MJOLNIR armor was an artificial intelligence construct, called Cortana. Cortana essentially worked as a supercomputer; using radar, sending and receiving transmissions, unlocking doors, all while intercepting and tracking enemy data along the way. A facsimile of her creator’s body and mind, Cortana shares Dr. Halsey’s memories, thoughts, opinions, as well as values. When Hasley asked Cortana to elect a carrier Spartan” Cortana chose John, just as Halsey did years ago when she discovered him when he was only a boy.

 “They let me pick. Did I ever tell you that? Choose whichever Spartan I wanted. You know me. I did my research. Watched as you became the soldier we needed you to be. Like the others, you were strong and swift and brave. A natural leader. But you had something they didn’t. Something no one saw, but me. Can you guess…? Luck. Was I wrong?

_____

Calling Carmelo Anthony a loser wouldn’t be entirely accurate, but he’s not exactly revered champion either. LeBron, Bosh, and Wade are all decorated peers accustomed to winning at the highest level, and not only in the NBA. All of these players, including Carmelo, were the best of the best and have been throughout their entire careers. It’s because the Miami Heat are accustomed to playing as a unit that they have redeemed such success.

Meanwhile, while Carmelo towers over teammates in terms of talent and ability, the Knicks are 16-21 at home, unlikely to make the postseason and–until recently–have been under the instruction of distinct ineptitude from within the front office. Now, with Phil Jackson atop the offices in Madison Square Garden, albeit they seem to plummeting to a cataclysmic, underwhelming finish–the Knicks future may not be so bleak.

____

When it came time to integrate Cortana with John’s armor, things didn’t begin clicking right from the get-go. Alas, the John and Cortana tandem were under pressure from other branches within the military that were negatively impacted by the SPARTAN-II program. In the first test of their partnership, they practically assigned a suicidal test in an attempt by Colonel James Ackerson. Despite nearly being killed, he and Cortana — a digital replica of Dr. Halsey’s knowledge — passed the assignment that should have destroyed them. 

It became inevitable; the Covenant were going to destroy Reach. Under heavy enemy onslaught of plasma weaponry and gruesome instances of hand-to-hand combat, Dr. Hasley and a number of Spartans frantically searched for an artifact created by the forerunner many years ago, beneath CASTLE base. After attaining the John was ordered to rendezvous with Captain Keyes on the Pillar of Autumn before it fled the planet. Eventually, they planned to return to rescue Hasley and any other survivors. However, John, Keyes, and Cortana ventured into space hoping to divert the Covenant’s attention away from humanities oldest settlement — Earth.

_____

Whether joining the Knicks was divine predestination, or not, the narrative of Carmelo Anthony playing professional basketball in New York City makes sense. Now, with the addition of Phil Jackson, the Knicks cyclical efforts to return to basketball prominence have reaching their pinnacle. Jackson and Carmelo are the newest Knicks forerunners, and they’ll aim to surface among the NBA’s elite. However, things for each of them reside in the doldrums compared to the previous successes of Carmelo and Jackson.

Last Tuesday, against the Los Angeles Lakers, Jackson looked on helplessly as Carmelo and the Knicks endured the worst lost in franchise history. Down more than 20 with less than 10 minutes remaining in the final quarter, Carmelo wasn’t on the bench despite the large, unreachable deficit inflicted by the–also–struggling and historic Los Angeles Lakers. Instead, he fought aside a less than desirable cast until being withdrawn from battle by head coach Mike Woodson with around seven minutes remaining.

If Jackson and Carmelo hope to revive basketball in Madison Square Garden to the point of decency, and beyond — it’s not going to happen overnight. Knicks fans must also remember that no matter how abysmal or ablaze things are on the surface, there’s never ample reason to give up hope on the future. Jackson, the mind responsible for seeing that Carmelo receives reinforcements, touts an aura of calmness and maturity. Perhaps that’s why he directed Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neal to the NBA’s pinnacle, each on their own separate occasions.

While Carmelo’s physical attributes are rarely criticized, right now, his selfishness and immaturity is emphasized without warrant. Just because he has the opportunity to test the free agent market this offseason doesn’t mean Carmelo is going to retreat from battle. As Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal recently revealed, Carmelo is growing and maturing as an individual and a teammate. Herring points out that the Knicks have scored an NBA-high 1.38 points per play this season and own a league-best 71.7% effective field-goal rate off Anthony’s passes out of double-teams from the left side of the floor, according to Synergy Sports.

It’s up to the new body, one that scripted his story since departing from high school, and the mind, who possesses a collection wisdom obtained from previous experiences, to save the Knicks from complete despair, or go down honorably in the process. For Carmelo, the talent and ability has never been vacant, but maybe the addition of Jackson is the stroke of luck that basketball at Madison Square Garden needed to regain a presence atop the NBA.

Finally Free

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

To say Shabazz Muhammad‘s journey into the NBA is unique would be an understatement. Last season, Muhammad was ruled ineligible for the UCLA Bruins season opener against the University of California in Irvine last season as a result of violations of amateurism rules. The NCAA determined Muhammad accepted travel and lodging benefits while making three, separate unofficial visits to different universities.

There was also the controversy surrounding Muhammad’s age, which, can be simply be attributed to Muhammad’s father following through on something he started long ago, ensuring that his son would become an NBA player.

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

Kyle Anderson, Tony Parker and Jordan Adams wore light-blue “Free Shabazz” T-shirts during warm-ups before the Bruins tipped-off against UC Irvine. Michael Balzary, otherwise known as Flea, guitarist for the band Red Hot Chilli Peppers, participated in the movement by sporting one of the shirts while playing the national anthem.

Muhammad played 32 games for the Bruins and was eventually drafted 14th overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves. Flip Saunders, who had recently been appointed as the organizations President of Basketball Operations, had traded the Wolves ninth overall selection to the Utah Jazz in exchange for the 21st overall selection, in addition to Muhammad. Because Wolves’ point guard Ricky Rubio has struggled scoring the basketball, and due to the number of recent “mistakes” made by the team’s front office, many have questioned the move Saunders made on draft night. However, Muhammad may have not done himself any favors. The Wolves first selection in last summer’s draft was sent home from NBA’s Rookie Transition Program Camp early after violating a league rule, Muhammad had brought a female guest into his hotel room — another proverbial ‘woops’ on an already checkered past.

Because Derrick Williams, Corey Brewer, Dante Cunningham and Robbie Hummel all began the season ahead of Muhammad on the Wolves depth chart — as well as suspicions that Rick Adelman lacks an inclination to play younger players — the Free Shabazz moment found resurgence. Eventually, Williams was traded, but that didn’t provide more playing time as the Wolves acquired Luc Mbah a Moute, a premier defender that Adelman would use to defend an opponent’s most elite scoring threat. Expecting Chase Budinger‘s return back in early January, Minnesota assigned Muhammad to play in the D-League showcase located in Las Vegas, Nevada (Muhammad’s hometown).

Muhammad played in four games with the Iowa Energy, the shared NBDL affiliate. He averaged 24.5 points on 57 percent shooting and 10 rebounds during that brief span. Fans embraced the move, Muhammad had only averaged four minutes per game prior to the assignment and playing with the Energy provided him with a chance to simply get on the court, people merely wanted to see him play.

After returning from his assignment with the Energy, Muhammad began seeing the floor more often. Between his return from the D-League on January 13th but prior to Tuesday night, he appeared in nine games, played an average of eight minutes, scored four points, and collected two rebounds in the slightly opened window of playing time. On Tuesday, the injury depleted Wolves were in Phoenix taking on the Suns.

The absence of Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic has forced Adelman’s hand in terms of his player rotations. Budinger has slid into the starting shooting guard slot, replacing Martin, while Cunningham joins the starting five to play in the frontcourt next to Kevin Love. Alexey Shved has underperformed most of the season, as has Hummel, so yesterday Adelman made the decision that many have been waiting on — some even as far back as last year — and “Shabazz” was finally let free.

Muhammad scored 20 points on 8 of 13 shooting. He also had six boards, but more importantly — hustled to make every play necessary in order for the Wolves to defeat the Suns. Minnesota is in the midst of an improbable push for the playoffs. It’s been the Wolves inability to win tight games, similar to the one played last night in Phoenix, that has them over five games outside of the postseason picture. The “Bazzmanian Devil” (And only I have called him that) brought a whirlwind of chaos during the fourth and final quarter. Muhammad scored 10 points, snagged three pivotal offensive rebounds, and — after collecting the ball during an urgent scramble with under two minutes remaining in the game — made a bounce pass to the streaking Corey Brewer. After collecting the feed, Brewer slammed the ball through the rim and put the Wolves up by five — helping to close the door on the Suns.

Finally, on a warm February night in Phoenix, whilst still in the midst of a cold, Minnesota winter —  and albeit the Wolves future remains bleak — Shabazz Muhammad was finally let free.

 

Tonight’s Contestants

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

Tonight will be the first time the NBA Slam Dunk Competition uses it’s new format to determine who will be considered the league’s best. In the competition’s opening round, contestants will have 90 seconds to complete as many dunks as they wish. This is followed by a Battle Round which will feature a dunker from each conference, a winner is selected — the loser, eliminated — after head-to-head dunk-off. The first team to win three battle rounds will be become champions.

Watch tonight’s presentation on TNT, with coverage beginning at 8 PM (EST).

After all dunks have been completed, fans will select the individual champion by voting via text, Twitter, NBA.com or the NBA GameTime app.

It’s irresponsible to vote on anything without pertinent knowledge of each and every candidate, that’s the key to the democratic process. So, only hours before each participant pleads their case for the right to be named the league’s best dunker, it’s only right to review what we have learned about the field so far this season.

“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” Franklin D. Roosevelt

It will be easier to assess tonight’s events, accurately, after evaluating an equally substantial portion of information as it pertains to each player. The following clips of Paul George, Damian Lillard, John Wall, Terrence Ross, Harrison Barnes, and Ben McLemore should be used for educational purposes — remember, make your vote tonight based on logic, rather than a bias. 

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Paul George

George is the undeniable favorite to win the competition, but by no means does this work to his advantage. The 360 windmill slam should be viewed as a recycled novelty, it’s value has almost completely diminished. After all, it’s the same dunk he attempted in last year’s competition, only that time he was in the dark and it wasn’t during a game.

George needs to get creative, studies show voters are more susceptible to support something new and unique that hasn’t been seen before.  

______

Damian Lillard

Lillard will become the only player in league history to participate in each of the skills competitions over All-Star weekend and things started for him last night. He played 30 minutes in last night’s Rising Stars Challenge, and may be the beneficiary of many sympathy votes. However, the Portland Trail Blazers six-foot, three-inch “Dame Monster,” certainly can soar with the rest of the competition.

Lillard has the short guy advantage going for him. The shorter the player, the higher he needs to jump — making any dunk more visually appealing.

_____

John Wall

Fans of the Washington Wizards were doing the “John Wall,” before the team had even officially drafted the six-foot, four-inch point guard out of Kentucky. He is explosive, fast, and rocks the rim most often after beating opponents down the floor in transition. However, Wall said a few words regarding what he has in store for tonight, telling NBA TV there will be “extra bodies” involved .

With George, we determined he would need to get creative, but this is Wall’s first appearance in a dunk contest — will losing the element of surprise negatively impact fan voting?

______

Terrence Ross

Ross is the defending Slam Dunk champion. Where I come from, an opponent does not become champion unless they do enough to pull the title-holder off the throne. This essentially means the proverbial belt belongs to Ross, unless George, Wall, Lillard, Barnes or McLemore do enough to remove it from his hip. This method is derived from the way boxing, wrestling, and other mixed martial arts go about deciding who the true champion really is.

Ross has a considerable chance to defend his title, and based on what we’ve seen this season — it’s not going to be easy overthrow his reign.

_____

Harrison Barnes

Like Lillard, Barnes too participated in the Rising Stars competition last night. He scored 16 points in 23 minutes and stated, “there wasn’t a whole lot of defense.” This only leads me to believe fatigue will not be a factor. Trade rumors have swirled around Barnes throughout the season, and I don’t think uncertainty is something he’s too familiar with — Barnes has been a top recruit since high school.

Perhaps not having to worry about about all the extra drama will play to his benefit, Barnes can compete somewhat relaxed, free of any speculation regarding his future with Golden State Warriors.

_____

Ben McLemore 

McLemore is the wildcard, a rookie with nothing to lose. He’s a six-foot-five inch guard with long arms and an uncanny leaping ability. Although being a rookie in the NBA doesn’t mean McLemore doesn’t have experience in previous dunk competitions, the last time he participated in a dunk contest? McLemore was crowned a slam dunk champion as a senior representing the prestigious Oak Hill Academy.

However, rumors are that McLemore may attempt an unheard of 720 dunk — that’s two complete spins before slamming the ball through the basket. This has never been done before, but, where there’s high risk there is also high reward. If he’s able to pull it off, it would arguably be the greatest dunk in the event’s history.

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Without question, tonight’s Dunk Contest is one of the most anticipated skills competitions of recent memory — remember to cast your vote either text, Twitter, NBA.com or the NBA GameTime app.

Adam Silver’s New Age of Restriction

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

After saying goodbye to David Stern, Adam Silver is already making some controversial noise as the new NBA Commissioner.

In the summer of 2005 the NBA constructed a new collective bargaining agreement and within that agreement it was decided that no player under the age of 19 is allowed in the NBA. Athletes must be one year removed between their high school graduation prior to entering the league, either by way of draft of free agency. Some applauded the decisions, others saw the potentially negative impact the new age restriction created.

“You’re always going to have that percentage of players who can play,” player agent Charles Tucker told USA Sports. “It’s not a bad situation. You’re only going to hurt maybe 5%. That’s the elite group. It’s going to help colleges. You’re going to see more players prepared to play. In the long run, it’s going to save players’ careers.”

Tucker was only making an estimation, but I’m curious — which players taken in NBA drafts between 1995-2005 would be considered part of the five percent affected? During that timeframe there were 39 players taken out of high school, that’s over a span of 11 NBA drafts. Of those 39 players, 25 are still playing in the league and 12 of them are listed as starters on their respective teams. Because it’s unfair to consider a current starting position as the qualifications for being a member of the five percent, ‘club,’ we must look at a player’s overall body of work.

For the sake of this experiment, if a player made the All-Star Game in at least half of their years of service — that player is part of the five percent.

  • Kevin Garnett — 19 years of service; 15 ASG appearances.
  • Kobe Bryant — 18 years of service; 16 ASG appearances.
  • Amare Stoudemire — 11 years of service; 6 ASG appearances.
  • Dwight Howard — 10 years of service; 10 ASG appearances.

In three of those 11 drafts, only one high school player was selected. That leaves us with eight drafts. From there, only two HS players were taken on three separate occasions. Three HS prospects were taken in ’98, five in ’01 and ’03, eight in ’04, and nine in ’05. Jermaine O’Neal, Al Harrington, Rashard Lewis, Korleone Young, Jonathan Bender, Leon Smith, Darius Miles, DeShawn Stevenson, Kwame Brown, DeSagana Diop, Ousmane Cisse, Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry, Kendrick Perkins, Ndudi Ebi, Travis Outlaw, James Lang, Shaun Livingston, Robert Swift, Sebastian Telfair, J.R. Smith, Josh Smith, Dorell Wright, and Al Jefferson were all taken out of HS but didn’t qualify as members of the five percent club. Of these players; two never went on to play in the NBA, four played less than three seasons, five of these players played less than five seasons, 20 played for 10 or more seasons and four players have played nine years in the league.

There were 60 players with NCAA experience taken from 95-05 that never saw a single minute playing in the league.

It’s the last sample (the ’05 draft) that tells us there may have been nothing wrong with the system formerly in place. Every player with NCAA experience selected in the 2005 draft played at least one minute of professional basketball. These are the nine players selected directly out of high school that year.

  • Martell Webster
  • Andrew Bynum
  • Gerald Green
  • C.J. Miles
  • Monta Ellis
  • Louis Williams
  • Andray Blatche
  • Amir Johnson
  • Ricky Sanchez

With the exception of Sanchez, all of these players have found a role playing somewhere in the NBA. The size of that role varies by player, but all of them – in my opinion – are respectable in their own right. However, none of these player can be considered part of the five percent supposedly affected by the age restriction rule. Why? Because there is only one ASG appearance between all of them.

So why change the age restriction from 19 to 20?

Perhaps the new commissioner is thinking about the NCAA. After changing the rule in ’05, we started seeing a new breed of college athletes labeled, “one-and-done,” players. Here’s a quote from former University of Arizona coach Lute Olson reacting to the rule change just under 10 years ago.

“I think it’s a compromise that accomplishes very little in terms of limiting the numbers of early entrants,” Olson said. “A lot of the guys coming out now are at least 18 years old, very close to 19, which leaves colleges in a difficult position. If you recruit such a player, it could turn into just a one-year commitment. Very seldom does one year of college benefit either the player or the program. Carmelo Anthony might be the only example of that.”

The following are all examples of one-and-done players, and whether or not they qualify as a member of the five percent club.

  • Carmelo Anthony – yes
  • Shawne Williams – no
  • Kevin Durant – yes
  • Javaris Crittenton – no
  • Greg Oden – no
  • Mike Conley, Jr. – no
  • Brandan Wright – no
  • Spencer Hawes – no
  • Thaddeus Young – no
  • Daequan Cook – no
  • Michael Beasley – no
  • O.J. Mayo – no
  • Eric Gordon – no
  • Jerryd Bayless – no
  • Derrick Rose – yes
  • DeAndre Jordan – no
  • Kevin Love – no
  • Anthony Randolph – no
  • J.J. Hickson – no
  • Kosta Koufos – no
  • Donte Green – no
  • Tyreke Evans – no
  • DeMar DeRozan – no
  • B.J. Mullens – no
  • Jrue Holiday – no
  • John Wall – no
  • Derrick Favors – no
  • Daniel Orton – no
  • Hassan Whiteside – no
  • Tiny Gallon – no
  • DeMarcus Cousins – no
  • Xavier Henry – no
  • Eric Bledsoe – no
  • Avery Bradley – no
  • Kyrie Irving – no
  • Tristan Thompson – no
  • Brandon Knight – no
  • Tobias Harris – no
  • Cory Joseph – no
  • Josh Selby – no

Since 2005 there have only been three members added to the five percent club; Anthony, Rose and Durant. Does this mean players like Love, Wall and Cousins aren’t future perennial All-Stars? No, because they — assuming they stay healthy — could rip of a streak of consecutive ASG appearances and eventually become a part of the prestigious club; joining Garnett, Bryant, Stoudemire and Howard as five percent type players.

____

So who really benefits from the rule change?

There’s not enough evidence to debunk the idea that allowing players to enter the league without waiting a year after graduating from high school is depriving the league of talent, nor is there any reason to believe that the one-and-done player is either better, or worse, than those who were provided the same opportunity without having play college basketball. So why change anything?

Going back to Olson’s quote, University of Kentucky head coach John Calipari has become notorious for his ability to recruit one-and-done players. Calipari has found a way to attain multiple talented players, even if it’s only for one season, and turn the short time period he has to coach these players into a successful, championship-type season. However, not everyone may want to be a one-and-done player — perhaps staying in school an extra year helps boost a prospect’s stock. Player development is often overlooked in all of this. Just ask Joel Embiid.

Embiid is projected as a top-three selection in the upcoming 2014 NBA draft. However, he has gone on record to say he may stay in school another year — Embiid has only played organized basketball for three seasons. Why would perfecting, or detailing, his craft among the college ranks prior to entering the world’s best basketball league be a bad idea? Still, Embiid playing another year at the University of Kansas would be an inexplicable decision considering his draft stock — what if he were to injury a knee, or sprain an ankle? If that were to happen, staying behind to rehab and regain strength prior to trying to play with the world’s best may be a better option. Insert Brandon Ashley.

Although Ashley is already 19 years of age, a sophomore at the University of Arizona, I’ve still decided to use him an example. Prior to suffering a season-ending foot injury, Ashley had been on the fence about whether he would enter the draft this summer or remain at school and continue playing at the U of A.

“I wasn’t 100 percent (about coming back) before the injury,” Ashley told ESPN.com. “But I’ve thought about it, and there’s a very, very, very strong chance I’ll be back at the University of Arizona next year.”

Not only does playing college basketball help players develop after high school, it acts as a safety net for injuries such as Ashley’s.

But why would one of Silver’s first moves as the league’s new commissioner be for the players, and not the NBA itself? 

Here’s where we can get all types of theoretical.

Many would say changing the league’s age requirement to be 20, and not 19, would only encourage players to, “head where the money is.” We see players going overseas all the time, won’t they just go play somewhere else if they’re required to wait almost two-full calendar years before entering the NBA draft? Brandon Jennings is someone that comes to mind when considering this idea. Jennings made over three million dollars, including endorsements, playing Euroleague basketball instead of attending an American university while waiting to turn 19 before entering the draft.

Playing in Europe, or anywhere overseas, is something the NBA — or anyone for that matter — is capable of preventing. If athletes want to play sports overseas, that’s their decision. However, like situations similar to Ashley’s or Embiid’s — players that are already playing college basketball (theoretically) are more likely to understand their circumstance and in-turn become more aware of what’s best for their well-being. Ashley may feel he needs more time to recover from injury, Embiid may want to further develop certain elements of his game. But, and here’s a huge proverbial spitball, what if student-athletes decide that graduating with a degree is something they may want to pursue?

Time and time again, especially with the NBA, we hear of athletes going broke after their time in the league has come and gone. Perhaps, sometime between the added year between high school and when a player is allowed to enter the NBA draft, a student-athlete (who aren’t necessarily always mature, responsible and upstanding adult citizens) decides, “Hey I’m not all that great at this sport, but I could really take advantage of this scholarship and better my future by obtaining a diploma. After all, thousands of my fellow classmates are playing thousands upon thousands of dollars hoping to graduate with a degree — wouldn’t that be a good idea?”

Continuing with theories. 

Maybe Silver is setting things up for a more profitable and prosperous minor league system for the NBA. Oh yea, there’s that D-League thing! The NBDL, or National Basketball Development League, has a goal to eventually have a 30-for-30 model where every D-League team has a single affiliation with an NBA team. It’s entering its 13th season after starting as a small, eight team league. At one point the NBDL shrunk down to six teams before expanding; going from six to 17 teams. The league has indeed been expanding and that’s with a few teams folding along the way (Arkansas RimRockers, Utah Flash (now the Delaware 87ers), and Florida Flame, for example). Right now there are 16 D-League teams shared between three affiliates while 14 NBA clubs have their own D-League franchise — that’s a total of 17 D-League teams.

After NBA prospects graduate from HS, just like the rest of us, they are faced with a choice. The most common decision these young men make is going to play collegiately until it’s decided that it’s appropriate to declare for the NBA draft. Coaches and family are the largest outside influences on the prospects future, that and the money (of course). Yes, there are cases – ala Jennings – where players may take their services overseas where they may be compensated financially. However, is this an inconvenience? Perhaps circumstances pertaining to family, friends, a significant other or whatever the case may be don’t allow for a young, 18 or 19 year old, man to venture overseas just to play basketball. At the same time, maybe school isn’t the route this player feels is best for him, or anyone else involved and affected by such a critical life decision — what options are left?

There are only three players in the NBA today that are younger than 20 years old. One of those three being Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has grown an inch since being selected by the Milwaukee Bucks in last summer’s draft. Another one of the three NBA players currently under the age of 20 is Nerlens Noel, who has yet to play a game this season and is almost a year removed from tearing an ACL playing at the University of Kentucky last season. If the league’s age requirement was 20 years old, no — we wouldn’t have a “Greek Freak,” playing for the Milwaukee Bucks, but it wouldn’t change our perception about Noel as NBA player. These talented youngsters have yet to emerge as stars, but conversely — also haven’t played enough games to be considered draft busts, either.

It may be a downright egregious claim, but — Silver’s ambition to require anyone entering the NBA to be at least 20 years of age just might be in the D-League’s best interest. There’s no data that insists keeping players from joining the NBA out of high school is preventing significant, game-changing, once-in-a-lifetime superstars out of the league. Perhaps forcing players to wait allows time for these young men to mature and consider what the best decision is for their future. Maybe heading overseas isn’t a viable option for every player, consider the idea that an 18, or 19, year old recently removed HS and placed in the real world wants to gain experience in a desired field while also making some cash along the way. That’s where the NBDL comes in.

If the D-League can somehow entice talented, young and potential long-time NBA players into signing a contract to play for a league-owned affiliate that would also put money in a young man’s pocket — that’s a win for everyone involved. Not only will a scholarship that would be occupied by a one-and-done student-athlete become available, but an exciting playmaker with potential to one day play among the world’s best would gain experience in an NBA system. The NBDL would work as a paid internship to teenagers hoping to put some money in their pocket, while also gaining valuable, hands-on experience in the field they hope to one day make living working in.

It’s an idea that theoretically makes for better business. Not only is it a decision that could benefit players, it could also improve a brand that former commissioner David Stern worked to improve for many, many years. We shouldn’t be quick to decide whether Silver’s idea is a good, or bad, plan for the longevity of the league until all who would be affected are taken into account. The rule that’s labeled one of his priorities isn’t intended to appease members of the five percent club, this is bigger than that — let’s let the new leader fail – or succeed – without ridiculing an idea that hasn’t been put into effect, not yet anyway.

Jon Leuer Returns Home

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

When the Memphis Grizzlies came to Minneapolis last Friday, there was a buzz around head coach David Joerger and his return to Minnesota. Joerger grew up in the small town of Staples, a few hours north of the Twin Cities. Joerger stated about 40 family members and friends came from Staples as well as Sioux Falls, S.D., Fargo and the Bismarck, N.D area. But he wasn’t the only member of the Grizzlies that day with fans supporting him and a return to Minnesota.

Jon Leuer, a Long Lake native, was also returning to his home state. It wasn’t the first time playing in the Target Center as a professional. His first NBA action was played in the Target Center. Leuer scored 18 as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks in his rookie year during the first preseason game of the season.

I played pretty well that game. For my first NBA action to be here in front of friends and family in the building I grew up going to games in, it was fun.

Leuer was a highly touted and recruited high school player, receiving multiple All-State and All-Conference honors. He also played guard for a decorated club team known as the Minnesota Magic, one of Minnesota’s most elite AAU teams. Leuer is a graduate of Orono High School and went on to attend the University of Wisconsin. When asked about Bo Ryan, Leuer replied,

He’s got a good sense of humor, a pretty fun guy to be around on the court. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to play for him.

Leuer never shot lower than 40 percent from the field during his time at Wisconsin and was twice awarded All-Academic Big 10 honors, among other prestigious accolades. By his senior year Sports Illustrated tagged Leuer as the Big-10 Preseason Player of the Year. He had the unique ability to use the intangibles he had learned as a guard playing with the Magic, and combine them after a significant growth spurt prior to high school graduation. Leuer’s ability to stretch the floor and knock down shots is an important facet to succeeding in today’s NBA.

But, the transition hasn’t been entirely easy — nor has it been consistent.

Because of the lockout during the offseason of his rookie year, Leuer joined a club team in Germany. He headed overseas, as did others, and waited for things in the NBA to get going again.

It was something I looked into when the lockout was going to happen. Getting to play in a system with other professionals, it was good transition coming out of college and transitioning into the NBA. I just tried to make the best of it; it was a good experience for me.

After returning to America to continue his childhood dream, Leuer endured part of the business that goes with being a professional athlete. He was traded to Houston but was released only a month after being traded to the Rockets by the Bucks. Shortly after that he was claimed off waivers by the Cleveland Cavaliers. After only five appearances Leuer was assigned to the Cavs D-League affiliate, the Canton Charge. There he averaged 20 points, on 55 percent shooting, 12 rebounds, and played a substantial 36 minutes per game. Leuer was called back to Cleveland, only to be reassigned to Canton a few weeks later. He was recalled after two more appearances with the Charge and has managed to stay out of the D-League since January of last season.

Some crazy stuff happened in the offseason, and I wasn’t playing much in Cleveland. To go down there and reinforce that I’m a good player, it was good for my confidence — it helped me going forward.

It certainly would appear that way. He eventually found himself in Memphis and opportunities finally opened up for him. Leuer is shooting 49 percent from the field and 47 percent from behind-the-arc this season, taking every advantage to step-up in the absence of injured teammate, Marc Gasol. Between November 29 and January 8, he helped keep Memphis afloat in an ultra-competitive Western Conference. Leuer played an average of 20 minutes in 19 games, averaged 11 points, and shot over 53 percent from both the field, and behind the three-point line. The Grizzlies went 12-7 during that stretch.

In a column back on December 9, Ian Levy showed us how Coach Joerger used Leuer to stretch the floor. At that time the 24 year-old from Long Lake ranked fourth in the entire league in catch-and-shoot three-point percentage (Any jump shot outside the three-point line where a player possessed the ball for 2 seconds or less and took no dribbles). Leuer had taken 23 three’s at that point, almost double the amount of attempts between his first two years in the league combined.

As news outlets and reporters filed in-and-out of morning shootaround to speak with Coach Joerger about his return to Minnesota, Leuer fired away from different locations behind the three-point line. He was one of the last to step off the court. The story of the hardworking, persistent, Orono High School graduate — with a quick release and lethally accurate jumper — was overlooked. But Leuer was still going to have plenty of support in the stands by game time. Leuer told me he had 20 or so tickets for his close friends as well as family, and an additional 30-40 were purchased by others hoping to see him play during his brief time back home. Leuer scored 15 points on 8 of 14 shooting and snatched nine rebounds in a loss to the Wolves back on December 15, but that was in Memphis. We both were hoping he would get into the game against Minnesota at Target Center last Friday. Unfortunately, the,94-90, gutsy, tough-nosed, rugged game between the Wolves and Grizzlies didn’t call for his services. Yet, as Courtney Lee drained a jumper to open the scoring, Leuer was the first Memphis player off the bench standing, clapping, and supporting his teammates just as he’s done throughout his entire career.

Leuer’s career has undoubtedly been a journey. He’s been overseas, in the D-League, is now — technically — a member of his fourth NBA franchise, and he’s still only 24 years old. Yet, fans of the Grizzlies recently crafted a new nickname for their stretch forward out of Wisconsin — Johnny Badger. 

It’s something the fans came up with, and it seems like it’s sticking; it’s cool with me.

It’s good to see Leuer finding a role with a team, or at the least a niche on the court. Outside of the things players can, and cannot, control; he has done — and said — the right things during his career. Whatever the future holds, wherever the business of professional basketball takes the Long Lake, Minnesota native — Leuer describes the experience thus far as a blessing.

It’s always been a dream to play in this league. To actually be living it, and doing it, it’s a blessing every day. It’s something I’m thankful for each day. Just being apart of this team, this entire organization, is great. Things like going to the Western Conference Finals last year, that’s what you dream about as a kid, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have some pretty good moments so far.

The Smallest Zach in the Room

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves were defeated by the Memphis Grizzlies last Friday, 90-94.

Memphis arrived in Minneapolis the evening before and spent the evening at the Graves 601 Hotel Wyndham Grand. The four-star hotel is located across the street from Target Center, where the Wolves play, but is also attached to the city’s network of tunnels known as skyways. When exiting the Graves one may either elect to walk out on the street or into a lobby, the lobby is bare but connects to a Starbucks and an elevator which takes passengers to either a parking garage or skyway level.

Prior to the Grizzlies morning shootaround I picked up my media credentials from the Wolves administrative office and headed out of the Target Center via skyway. I had some time to kill. Conveniently enough I received a gift-card to Starbucks earlier that morning as a present from my Mother, and there I was. I ventured into the lobby connecting the Graves Hotel and Starbucks and entered the Seattle based coffee shop. There were Marc Gasol, Nick Calathes, and a few other Memphis players also in-line for beverages prior to getting on the floor that Friday morning. A few minutes went by and it was my turn to order.

Standing there, with clerk waiting for orders, I finished frantically skimming the menu above and ordered a hot chocolate. If you’re unfamiliar with how the Starbucks process works; after placing an order the clerk asks for your name so that the Barista may call it after making the beverage. After receiving my receipt I slowly turned to the right, toward the exit, and saw Zach Randolph enter the establishment just as I had done only minutes before. Randolph stepped in front of the same register and ordered the same thing, a hot chocolate. He removed a $100 dollar bill from his pocket. The clerk requested that he pay for the two-something dollar beverage with a card, or a smaller bill. Randolph exited into the lobby where he was met by someone who handed him a $20, returned to the register, and payment was complete. He turned to the right. Moments later, a Barista yelled, “Zach.”

I doubt it even crossed the clerks mind, but two customers – both named Zach – ordered the same drink only seconds between one another. I doubt Starbucks has a protocol for this scenario, the thought didn’t even cross my head until Randolph grabbed the cup with his name on it and went about his way. Before he could exit the Barista yelled, “Zach,” again — I grabbed the cup, also with my name on it, and opened my laptop.

I know, I know — it’s all too convenient. A Starbucks gift-card that morning? You were that early to something? Professional athletes are humans? However, it’s true. In a simple, and accidental, mistake — Randolph and I each drank a beverage intended for the other.

A Disruption in Class — J.R. Smith

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

J.R. Smith is the abstract peer we all remember from middle-school chemistry class.  Not the one that tinkers and experiments with gadgets that eventually becomes a genius, no, Smith is rather the outspoken funny man distracting the class with obscure jokes and obscene gestures. He’s simply a class clown, a student yearning for acceptance among his peers.

Mike Woodson, with the respect of a substitute teacher, inconsistently distributes disciplinary action and hasn’t properly handled Smith’s presence in the classroom. Smith was seen untying one of Shawn Marion’s sneaker laces in the New York Knicks’ win over the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday. Later in the week Smith was up to his crafty tricks against the Detroit Pistons, but to no avail. Greg Monroe‘s laces may have been double-knotted, or something, because Smith was caught trying to make a fool of the Pistons forward and he was not successful.

Thursday, the Miami Heat joined the Knicks for a lecture in Madison Square Garden. Kevin Harlin and Steve Kerr reiterated Smith’s recent incidents, and the repercussions, to those tuning in on TNT; informing the national audience he had been fined $50,000 by the league for misbehaving, but, to be fair — he was only trying to.

“It’s just got to stop. I keep saying this every time something pops up, but it’s got to stop.” – Woodson told ESPN New York 98.7 FM’s “The Stephen A. Smith and Ryan Ruocco Show.”

Smith’s actions, deemed illegal by NBA rules, are childish and immature — but are also hilarious. From a PR standpoint, the Knicks best move would probably be trading Smith as soon as possible. However he can’t be traded until January 15th, so Woodson assigned Smith a seat in the back row for yesterday’s lesson, “How to beat the Heat.” The Knicks, free from the distractions, eventually aced the test and defeated the Heat, 102-92. Woodson’s lesson worked, but Smith continued to alienate himself from the class.

Those fortunate enough to witness the awkward (and equally awesome) quarrel between student and teacher are responsible for spreading the gossip around school the following day, those are the undeniable rules. At this point; Woodson and the Knicks would prefer to send Smith across the country to a prestigious boarding school, unfortunately, the cost is just too high. He’s a talented player, albeit his antics and attitude aren’t fit for acidemia.

J.R. Smith likes to have fun, so let’s have some fun with J.R. Smith.

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It’s not that Smith isn’t funny, he is — but the opposition will not like being made a fool of. Pretend we’re preparing for a game against the Knicks and we must devote time to defend against Smith’s go-to prank.

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Photo Credit: Kenny Ducey (@KennyDucey)

This photo is from January 3rd, an incident that – seemingly – went unnoticed. Smith fooled everyone with this one. In fact, he should receive extra credit for being deceptive and pulling this one off against another goofball — Dwight Howard. It’s a close game as time is winding down in the 3rd-quarter, for those scouting to defend themselves from being ‘punked,’ perhaps this is a tendency to be weary of in the future. Let’s look at the tape.

With time winding down at the half against the Mavericks, Smith’s gig was up for good after successfully undoing what possibly took Shawn Marion all morning to accomplish (I’m kidding, Smith is the funny guy here, not me). With the tape on this joker out, Monroe and the Pistons prepared for their meeting with the Knicks on Tuesday. That’s when Smith started to get careless.

Rather than keeping a low-profile, or sticking to the tendencies successful in the past, Smith was caught simply being reckless. Now, the scouting report is out — his life as the NBA’s most prolific prankster was short lived.

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Smith has gotten away with these antics before, it’s safe to assume he’ll try and perform them again. Regardless of his future the reputation has been repeatedly affirmed, and on multiple occasions. Regardless, wherever he is — Smith is going to make plenty of people laugh, because that’s what pranksters do. As for his future, well, I think it’d be more fun – for all of us – to leave that up to speculation.