TrueHoop: Kevin Arnovitz
November, 25, 2013
By Kevin Arnovitz and Justin Verrier
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesCan you put a price on sentimental value? For the Lakers, it may be $48.5 million over two years.Kobe Bryant is 35 years old and has yet to play this season because of surgery to repair a torn Achilles, a blow to any athlete at any age. And yet, on Monday, the Los Angeles Lakers signed the aging gunslinger to a two-year extension that will make him the highest-paid player in the NBA over that span.
So the question then becomes: Should the franchise’s and the fan base’s passion for their star player, and all the benefits that come with his return, be prioritized when it comes to team-building?
Justin Verrier: How much do you love Kobe Bryant? Your answer will likely be the biggest color stroke as you process the extension he just signed with the Lakers.
Bryant is one of the few players in all of sports with the star power to defy on-court production. There’s plenty of good and some bad that comes from his approach to the game. But the Lakers have a history unlike few other franchises in sports, and Kobe is one of the most popular athletes in an age with limitless avenues for media exposure. His signature may put a ceiling on this team moving forward, but having his statue outside of Staples Center next to Magic’s one day, or just being able to defend him with every fiber of your being, probably means a lot more to some than the actual wins.
But at what point does sentiment supersede rationality? While the Celtics, the NBA’s other beloved franchise, cut bait with their championship-winning stars this summer and looked toward the future, with this move, the Lakers appear stuck in the past.
Kobe is supposedly all about rings. Is keeping a player with as many as he has more important than sacrificing the chance to add to that total as long as he’s around?
So the Lakers chose a different reality: the opportunity to orchestrate one of the most glorious, albeit expensive, farewell tours in NBA history. While they won’t come close to contending, there will be an electric buzz around Los Angeles for the final two seasons of “Kobe,” the kind of excitement that was generated back in the day when a Broadway smash was closing and the marquee above the theater read “Final Performances!” in bold letters.
There’s value in that, for the gate, for television ratings and for the overall value of the brand. I’m not suggesting it’s $48.5 million in value, but it’s much greater than zero.
Regarding the Lakers not sufficiently considering the future, are you suggesting they should let Kobe walk and commit themselves to a tank job?
But the Lakers cashed in all that potential -- perhaps the biggest lure for any fan, for any person -- for (broadly) two more years of their current construction. Which will be fun. Problem is: Why do they need to do that? Why do they need to bring back Kobe in the first place?
Context is important. You cut the Bucks some slack for shooting for the middle because of their ownership’s mandate. You understand why the Bobcats want to overpay an Al Jefferson.
But the Lakers have every advantage. They have money, they have location, they have legacy. And without Kobe, they would have been able to provide cornerstone free agents a blank slate. That may not guarantee a star’s signature, but it’s the best possible package any team can put together.
The only thing holding them back was sentiment. Should we not expect the most privileged franchises to shoot for more than serving as a vehicle for a star’s prolonged goodbye?
We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the Lakers’ producing the goodbye. I didn’t fully grasp this idea until I moved to Los Angeles, but the Lakers are engaged in a different project than most of the league. The vast majority of organizations are trying to build a mystique, but the Lakers already have one and they’re in the business of maintaining it. Doing so might mean they have to compensate an aging home-grown legend more money than he’s worth between the lines. That’s the premium a franchise pays when it wants to have control of the script and have events play out like a romance.
Do you believe that an elite group of teams in each sport is exceptional in this regard? That the Lakers are playing a different game because they’re a unique brand?
But the importance of such a brand is hard to pin down these days. Warm climates and a big spotlight will likely always matter; LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh didn’t take their talents to Lake Michigan. But Dwight Howard’s departure from L.A. this summer at least suggested that the Lakers’ ground can be only so high when players are dictating player movement.
Kupchak alluded to such a change this summer, when the “Stay” billboards were shooting up around the city. And yet, signing an injured 35-year-old at an old CBA-like price is in complete opposition to that conclusion. If the Lakers are still exceptional, it’s in no small part because they refuse to see themselves in any other way.
November, 21, 2013
AP Photo/Jae C. HongThe Clippers' defense can look bad -- really bad. But it's through no fault of the starting unit.Coming into the season, the Los Angeles Clippers subscribed to the belief that an elite defense can spring from a smart defensive system. This is a long-standing debate in the NBA, one that’s gotten more interesting since defenses really started to systematize in the mid-1990s. Defensive stoppers are nice, but only a handful of players big and small can change the game when the other team has the ball. A stopper is a luxury, and if you’re not in possession of at least one, you better come up with a strategic way to defend the half court.
Doc Rivers has a way, one crafted and refined during the Boston Celtics’ recent championship era. The Celtics routinely led the league in defense, and in the process they provided further evidence that, in the NBA, systems matter. Deploy a tight one and good defenders can become great ones; the identity of your wing defenders won’t necessarily matter.
The Clippers figured to benefit from Rivers’ implementation of this system. They finished a respectable ninth in defensive efficiency last season, and it was reasonable to believe Doc's system would make them better -- and certainly no worse.
Installing a complicated system takes time, though, especially for a unit with two new starting wings and a retooled second unit. But for even the most patient, the early returns haven’t been promising for the Clippers, who rank 27th overall in defensive efficiency. That’s their high-water mark for the season thanks to a solid effort in a 102-98 win at Minnesota on Wednesday night, only one of two times in 12 games this season that the Clippers have held their opponent to less than a point per possession. For a frame of reference, the Pacers’ No. 1-ranked defense has allowed more than a point per possession in only one game so far -- and barely.
Those ugly numbers suggest that if you tuned in to watch the Clippers, you’d get a whiff of that rotten defense the second the ball was tipped. J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley must be the Belmonte and Joselito of NBA wing defenders, with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan playing the role of Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee. After all, a team can’t give up 105.3 points per 100 possessions unless their starters are utterly clueless, right?
That’s the crazy thing about the Clippers -- not only are the starters not terrible, they’re actually very good. The starting lineup of Chris Paul, Redick, Dudley, Griffin and Jordan has played together for almost 40 percent of the team’s total minutes this season. As a unit, the starters surrender only 99.3 points per 100 possessions, which would rank sixth in the NBA.
Take one Clippers starter off the floor and the Clippers still give up considerably less than the league average. For instance, the Clippers’ top four performers -- Paul, Redick, Griffin and Jordan -- maintain that 99.3 defensive rating, and they’ve been on the floor for almost exactly one-half the action this season. When those four guys aren’t on the floor, that rating drops to 111.3 -- beyond awful, like 2005-06 Sonics, worst-of-all-time awful.
Put two Clippers starters on the bench, and the team defense is still strong -- if Redick is one of the three remaining starters on the court. So long as a lineup has a strong, starter-heavy DNA, the Clippers are essentially OK.
In other words, if you want to experience a full frontal view of the Clippers’ unsightly defense, you’ll generally have to wait until the beginning of the second quarter or the end of the third quarter. That’s when the team defense hemorrhages:
- When Byron Mullens is on the floor, the Clippers are 18.2 points worse defensively. His defensive rating of 120.7 is far and away the worse this season for any player who sees the court regularly, with Jordan Hamilton a very distant second at 116.4. In fact, even though Mullens plays only 20 percent of the Clippers’ minutes, if he’s on the bench at a given moment, the team goes from a 27th-ranked defense to one that would be ranked 17th, just behind the Rockets. It’s virtually unheard of for a fringe rotation player to have such an adverse effect on a team’s overall defensive numbers.
- The Clippers desperately miss Eric Bledsoe, whose bench units last season paced the team defensively. The Clippers forced a turnover on more than one-sixth of the possessions when Bledsoe was on the floor while giving up only 97.5 points per 100 possessions. The “Tribe Called Bench” unit spearheaded by Bledsoe was one of the league’s stingiest, but this season, the gnats off the bench have been replaced by the nots.
- It’s early in the season, but among the 10 most commonly used lineups by the Clippers, five would qualify as the league’s worst defense. Four of those five units are led by a backcourt of Darren Collison and Jamal Crawford.
Coming into the season, Rivers knew he’d be without the kind of legitimate ball-pressuring point guard who presides as the head of the snake of his defensive system -- a Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley or Bledsoe. Rivers also knew that he wouldn’t have the services of a circa 2008 Kevin Garnett or Kendrick Perkins, nor would the Clippers have a sinewy wing defender like James Posey or Tony Allen at their disposal.
At some point, Rivers will have to decide whether a team with championship aspirations can afford to give Mullens meaningful minutes. Rivers will also have to monitor Collison and Crawford -- or figure out who else on the roster can best mitigate their weaknesses. The Clippers should probably dig through the bargain bin to see if there’s a big man on the market who can give them 8 to 10 minutes a night of defensive relief, because the points are there. One such big man happens to reside about a 20-minute drive from their practice facility and has played in Rivers’ system before.
But for all the defensive shortcomings of the Clippers’ roster, the performance of those who play the big minutes has been at least average, and often very good. We saw it during the first quarter in Minneapolis on Wednesday night against a Wolves team that features two potent big men who force defenses into tricky big-to-big rotations. Griffin and Jordan were well-synced, while Paul capably kept Ricky Rubio pinned against the sideline for much of the night coming off pick-and-rolls. The wings performed admirably, if a little foul-happy. Redick chased Kevin Martin while Dudley was an ace in transition while he was on the floor.
An NBA team is a complex organism, and the sum of its overall record is the aggregate performances of different units and combinations. The Clippers’ No. 27 defensive ranking doesn’t lie, but it also requires some digging because context matters in basketball.
November, 13, 2013
AP Photo/Jae C. HongIt's not just the walls at Staples Center that are changing. Blake Griffin is better than ever.Blake Griffin was multitasking as the Clippers flew across the southern tier of the country last Saturday night, playing a game of cards with teammates while simultaneously watching game film.
On his iPad, Griffin reviewed a catalog of defensive possessions from the game in Houston just hours before, a 107-94 Clippers win. Every two minutes or so, Griffin came across a snippet that either signaled progress or areas for improvement. He would pause the clip, rewind, then play it back for DeAndre Jordan, sometimes more than once. After the viewing, they’d exchange thoughts about the play. Were the two big men in the right spot as the play materialized? Was the timing of their rotation precise? And if not, was it because someone was late to anticipate the action, or was the mistake a result of bad communication, or was it just a busted play?
It’s not as if Griffin has never watched film on a team flight or bus ride, but studying occupies a more prominent place in the daily culture of the team this season. A botched defensive possession is now something that warrants the interruption of a card game for a quick chat.
“This is something that’s evolved,” Griffin said. “And we take a lot of pride in that.”
Virtually everyone around the Clippers readily admits that on the process-result continuum, the Clippers -- and Griffin, individually -- still sit squarely in the beginning of the process phase. When Doc Rivers’ Celtics assembled the Big Three in 2007, the defense jelled on opening night and never faltered. By New Year's, the Celtics had developed a distinct defensive choreography that would soon be appropriated by a third of the league.
The Clippers have experienced moments of perfection at their training facility, a glimpse of how the project is going to look when it comes to fruition.
“We do it sometimes in practice, and we get it exactly where we want it,” Griffin said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesThey're not the Big Three Celtics, but the Clippers are committing to improving their porous defense.
But right now, the 2013-14 Clippers aren't the 2007-08 Celtics. This season's Clippers rank 28th in defensive efficiency, though the starting lineup is giving up only 99.2 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would rank them 10th overall in the league.
Whether because he’s less rangy, less obsessive or a lot younger than Kevin Garnett (who was in his 13th season when he arrived in Boston), Griffin is simply going to need more time to master the system, and by many accounts the process is moving along. He's the power forward in that defensively sturdy starting lineup. Overall, the team is 14 points better defensively with him on the floor. While some of that might be an indictment on Byron Mullens or the team’s small-ball D when Griffin is on the bench, it isn't just that.
On the flip side, opponents are shooting 53.7 percent at the rim when Griffin is within five feet of the goal and within five feet of the player shooting the ball. The figure for the median starting big man is right about 50 percent. When he’s on the floor, players shoot 71 percent in the restricted area, a high total for a starting big man.
The full laugh track was in effect as Griffin made light of his reputation as a non-defender at the press conference after Monday night’s win over Minnesota. At the same time, the perception bothers Griffin, most notably because it’s often accompanied with the suggestion that he’s not fully vested in the craft of defense, or isn't willing to do the grunt work to become an elite defender. Preparation is a point of pride for Griffin. His workout schedule, nutrition, the amount of time he spends with shooting coach Bob Thate -- all of it is in service of doing this pro basketball thing the right way. So Griffin offers another theory.
"Honestly, I didn't know a lot of things I should’ve known during my first three years,” Griffin said. “I really do feel like I've gotten a little bit better each year. This year, it’s one of those things where I feel like when we’re on defense, I can affect the game.”
I really do feel like I've gotten a little bit better each year. This year, it’s one of those things where I feel like when we’re on defense, I can affect the game.
-- Blake Griffin
The aforementioned “beautiful thing” Griffin experienced in practice is the fluid, almost balletic way Rivers’ Tom Thibodeau-influenced, strong-side pressure defense appears when it’s firing on all cylinders. Most NBA defenses look to avoid rotations -- think San Antonio, Memphis, Indiana to a great extent -- because many open looks in the half court are the result of botched rotations.
In contrast, Rivers’ defense aims to exert more pressure on the strong side of the court, and is willing to absorb rotations to do it. This can be risky because it introduces another layer of decision-making into the defensive process. Applying pressure requires a guy to leave his primary assignment to overload, which means someone has to account for his man.
“If we overload one side and the ball gets swung, someone has to take off running,” Griffin said. “Then somebody else has to be there to contest the shot. A team might get a shot, but it’s hurried and they don’t get the shot they want. That’s what we’re going for.”
Being a help defender represents a far greater slice of a player’s overall responsibilities under Rivers. It’s a different kind of scheme for Griffin, but the vibe around the team is entirely different this season. There’s a sense that problems can be solved, which has produced an interesting combination of concern and optimism, with a strong leaning toward the latter.
“Almost everything feels completely different,” Griffin said. “Obviously it’s the same facility, the same Staples Center, the same jerseys. But the atmosphere in practice, walking into the arena, it’s way different.”
Griffin constantly returns to the idea of learning and learnedness. Idle conversations are much more likely to be shop talk, and even though the topics Rivers hits aren't necessarily new, the themes have more staying power and feel like part of a larger creed.
“It’s kind of a weird thing because [Rivers] is saying things I, most of the time, already know,” Griffin said. “But he puts it in a way where I completely, 100 percent understand -- and it sticks with you.”
One of the earliest conversations Griffin had with Rivers was about his offensive portfolio. Griffin’s size and speed are a matchup nightmare. He’s faster than most opposing power forwards, but can back down stretchy, new-era 4s. Give him space at mid-range and he’s increasingly comfortable taking that jumper. Soon after taking the job in Los Angeles, Rivers spoke to Griffin about being more selective with his game, specifically about identifying the nature of the mismatch.
Noah Graham/Getty ImagesBlake Griffin is facing up on offense more than ever.
“That was one of the first things [Rivers] talked to me about when he first got the job,” Griffin said. “I was in the facility one day working out and he said, 'I want you to keep shooting, and when you’re in the post, keep working on your post moves. But I want you to face guys up. I don’t think there are many guys who can guard you when you face up.'"
Last season, 35 percent of Griffin’s offensive possessions were classified as post-ups by Synergy. This season, that’s dropped to 23 percent. In place of those times when Griffin called out for the ball on the block are spot-up opportunities, middle pick-and-rolls and isolation sets in which Griffin hops on an island against a bulkier big man and does his thing.
"That’s something I’m trying to mix in a lot," Griffin said. "At the same time, it depends game to game. Like against the Rockets, when Dwight [Howard] or Omer Asik is on me, I’m going to face up. But when they put Omri Casspi on me, I’m going to try to back him down. It’s about learning to truly use the mismatches.”
The increased selectivity is bearing out in Griffin’s shooting numbers from the floor. His effective field goal percentage of 57.9 percent far exceeds his career best of 55 percent two seasons ago. His assist numbers are down a bit, but he’s also encountering fewer double-teams because J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley merit the defense’s attention behind the arc. The shooting wings have contributed to a slight drop in Griffin’s usage rate this season, but rebounding numbers are up while turnovers are down.
Tensions have existed in Griffin’s game and persona since he arrived in the league: force and finesse, irony and earnestness, monastic discipline off the floor versus showmanship on it. Imagining what Blake Griffin: The Final Product will look like is a fascinating exercise, one reason his evolution as a player never seems to be progressing quickly enough for many. It’s a subtle, slow reveal for an athlete who so often seems larger than life.
November, 8, 2013
In Part 1 of our two-part chat, Dominique Wilkins discusses the challenges of returning from a severe Achilles injury like the one Kobe Bryant suffered.
In Part 2, the Hall of Famer chats about the new-look Atlanta Hawks and reminiscences about the Hawks teams of the 1980s, including the bizarre team video, "Atlanta's Air Force."
In Part 2, the Hall of Famer chats about the new-look Atlanta Hawks and reminiscences about the Hawks teams of the 1980s, including the bizarre team video, "Atlanta's Air Force."
November, 7, 2013
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesThis season, Chris Paul is more likely to shoot than pass when he darts off a Blake Griffin pick.Chris Paul is a master of deflection, and after decisive Clippers victories in his two-plus seasons with the team, he’ll commonly redirect any praise for his winning individual effort to teammates. On repeated occasions, he’s defined his role as a decoy.
“My job as a point guard is to make the other team think I’m trying to score,” Paul said last season after slicing up Chicago’s vaunted defense. “I’m not bad at that. That’s my main objective. I can get two people on me, and then I’m able to throw it back to Blake [Griffin], and once that continues, we become that [much] more dangerous.”
For years, this is how Paul has defined his job. He’s the prototypical old-school point guard, a professional paid to distribute the basketball after leveraging the defense, something he does better than any point guard in the league.
Playing this way has always been a point of pride for Paul. It conveys savvy, selflessness -- and, to some extent, self-regard. Paul enjoys dictating the terms of the action for the other nine guys on the floor. He also likes that the defense has to respect this condition of the game. So it’s selfless, but it's also alpha.
Over the past several seasons, the league has gradually moved away from Paul's job description for those manning the 1. Chris Paul is a pure point guard. Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose are scorers who happen to play the point, and their shoot-first style has radically influenced the NBA game -- and also helped their teams win a ton of games. Already you hear talking points from Orlando that the Magic have found their Westbrook in the dynamic Victor Oladipo.
Through the first five games of the Clippers’ season, Paul has defied his own doctrine and incorporated a little of that shoot-first mentality. His goal hasn’t been to make the other team think he’s trying to score. It's been to score.
This season, Paul is averaging 24.8 points per game (25.1 points per 36 minutes, good for fifth in the NBA). Per 36 minutes, he’s taking 3.8 more shots this season than last season and getting to the line significantly more (5.0 free throw attempts per game in 2012-13 versus 8.3 this season).
The book on Paul is that there’s always been a tension in his game between asserting himself as a scorer and maintaining his role as the pure distributor. The case for the latter has been predicated on the idea that if he were to look for his shot as a scorer, he’d be shelving his most rarefied skill as the commander of each possession, the point guard who can get a shot for anyone -- and people should work their strengths.
Paul’s performance in the early going suggests that the scorer-facilitator debate has always been a false choice. His usage rate so far this season is a career-high 29.2, and his assist rate of 35.8 is just a scant below last season (36.9), but considerably higher than his first season with the Clippers (32.1).
What’s going on? How can Paul up his shot attempts and individual production as a scorer without diminishing his role as the team’s facilitator?
Paul has come to realize the idea that the keeper of the ball, if he can shoot, is often the guy most equipped to get a quality look at the basket. And Paul can shoot. Last season, he drained greater than 48 percent of guarded and unguarded jump shots, which put him in the 92nd percentile in the league. This season, his effective field goal percentage from 10 feet and beyond is 54.5 percent. In his preferred range of 15 to 19 feet, he’s posting a sizzling shooting percentage of 57.9 percent. Paul is one of the relatively few players in the league for whom an open 15-foot jumper with no risk of a turnover is a smart bet.
This is high-percentage basketball for the Clippers in the half court, something Paul has embraced. Two-thirds of those 15-19-footers have been uncontested, because Paul can uncannily create a layer of space around him by bursting past or stepping back off a high pick -- and those picks from DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin are sturdier this season. Truth is, Paul can create separation between himself and his defender out of nothing in traffic.
Naturally, Paul quickly turns any question about his heightened aggressiveness in looking for his shot into something else. After dropping 42 points on Golden State last week, he acknowledged that he looked for his shot off ball screens, then immediately moved into a talking point about how his aggressiveness truly materialized on the defensive end.
So far as maintaining his assist rate, there are a few factors at work. Paul’s starting small forward, Jared Dudley, doesn’t need to be fed the way Caron Butler did, and Butler frequently worked in isolation. More than half of Dudley’s makes have been assisted by Paul. Last season, only 39.7 percent of Butler’s were. The same pattern holds true for J.J. Redick, whose field goals have been assisted by Paul 63.3 percent of the time. In contrast, last season’s platoon of starting shooting guards -- Willie Green and Chauncey Billups -- had only 42.9 percent of their successful field goals assisted by Paul. Meanwhile, Griffin is making more shots, which helps Paul’s cause.
Paul’s willingness to score and his ability to deliver the ball where his teammates like it have never been mutually exclusive. By seizing this truth, the Clippers have never been more prolific offensively -- and Paul's never been a more complete player.
November, 4, 2013
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
LeBron James might look like a born NBA star, but according to a new study he doesn't fit the mold.
It's hard to blame a guy for a little unbridled euphoria after winning back-to-back titles, but James' remark seemed a little odd on the surface. As Seth Stephens-Davidowitz wrote in the New York Times on Saturday morning in a column titled, "In the N.B.A., Zip Code Matters," "How could such a supremely gifted person, identified from an absurdly young age as the future of basketball, claim to be an underdog?"
It turns out that James' claim is quite reasonable, according to Stephens-Davidowitz, a quantitative analyst at Google and Ph.D. in economics from Harvard.
Stephens-Davidowitz collected data from Basketball Reference, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and the U.S. Census to calculate the probability of reaching the NBA.
Among Stephens-Davidowitz's more salient findings:
- Growing up in a wealthier zip code increases the likelihood an African-American or white male will make the NBA.
- Stephens-Davidowitz estimates that "black N.B.A. players are about 30 percent less likely than the average black male to be born to an unmarried mother and a teenage mother."
- African-American NBA players were far more likely to be born to married parents.
- Each additional inch of height almost doubles an American male's chances of making the N.B.A.
You can find some fun interactive elements about who makes it to the NBA here.
Digging through these findings can be treacherous because it's easy to get caught up in a discussion of pathologies and pseudo-patholigies that runs off the rails. But as Stephens-Davidowitz notes, his conclusions seem to buck some popular mythology about ballplayers at the highest level:
These results push back against the stereotype of a basketball player driven by an intense desire to escape poverty. In “The Last Shot,” Darcy Frey quotes a college coach questioning whether a suburban player was “hungry enough” to compete against black kids from the ghetto. But the data suggest that on average any motivational edge in hungriness is far outweighed by the advantages of kids from higher socioeconomic classes.
People are driven to excel by all sorts of cultural and personal factors, but material circumstances weight heavily in the equation, too, which could very well be what James meant when he said he wasn't supposed to be on that podium.
November, 4, 2013
AP Photo/Alex BrandonThe 76ers' 3-0 start is a problem for their long-term goals. That, of course, is the real problem.
The Philadelphia 76ers are rolling, and the Phoenix Suns and the Orlando Magic look like a couple of very respectable teams. Their collective success might even suggest that the phenomenon of tanking doesn't exist. After all, playing two of your first three games against a pair of Eastern Conference favorites is an easy excuse for any team that wants to lose intentionally.
But the Sixers rejected the easy out. They smoked two of the best defenses in the NBA for a combined 221 points. Michael Carter-Williams, the No. 11 pick in the 2013 draft, came into the league as a guy you could find a reason to like if you wanted to but not exactly franchise point guard material. He was fearless -- historic, even -- in his debut. For the past two seasons, whispers of “bust” have followed Evan Turner. Now he looks like the heady triple threat he projected to be. Using his size and mobility to look like the league’s most lethal pick-and-pop monster? That'd be Spencer Hawes. Thad Young, meanwhile, is the paragon of efficiency out on the wing.
So, now the Sixers are 3-0 and the NBA’s unequivocal feel-good story of the 2013-14 season's opening week. A team whose over/under professional bookies placed at 16.5 wins is nearly 20 percent of the way there. Even pessimists can now imagine this team logging a win total in the 30s, especially if Carter-Williams puts up Lillardian numbers and Turner and Hawes continue their late blossoms.
And that would be great, wouldn't it? The team that some had pegged to challenge the 1972-73 Sixers who went 9-73 ends up more than doubling its projected win total and beating out teams with far greater expectations. In a just world, there would be a reward for this kind of overachievement.
Only, the conversation surrounding the undefeated Sixers is a more sober chorus of “Now just hold on there for sec.” Rather than celebrate the improbable, we have to examine its implications, as if Philadelphia has swallowed an opiate that makes it feel great in the moment but has long-term side effects.
Writing for TrueHoop after Saturday night’s win over Chicago, Hoop76's Eric Goldwein cautions that the ramifications of early success, however relative, could muck up a perfectly good plan:
They’re not even close to contending with contenders. But as currently constructed they’re not finishing at the bottom of the standings, either ... As strange as it seems, this roster might be too good -- and more importantly, too well-coached -- to lose 50-plus games.
This all puts [GM Sam] Hinkie in a tough situation. Winning breeds confidence in a way no other form of training can duplicate. It's good for morale. It's good for development. And it's good for the franchise's reputation.
Every game the Sixers win, though, is a major blow to their most valuable asset: their 2014 first-round pick. Keep the roster together, and they could land in the middle of the pack.
On Monday, Kevin Pelton writes that the best thing about the 0-3 start isn’t the confidence and pride it might breed in Carter-Williams, Turner and Hawes but rather “the potential to raise the trade value of the team's remaining veteran starters -- Spencer Hawes, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young.”
The problem isn’t that these critiques of the Sixers’ 3-0 start are wrong -- it’s that they're right. The only way for the Sixers to profit from the success is to part with the players who created it because, in real-world terms, a team such as the Sixers will be punished: Congratulations! You've surpassed our wildest expectations. You outplayed teams that were assembled with the express purpose of qualifying for the playoffs. In exchange, we will make it less probable that you will get your selection of the best young talent in June’s draft class and give it to those other teams. Here’s the No. 12 pick instead.
Somewhere along the way, the existence of tanking became the nub of the debate, but whether teams are actively engaged, partially engaged or only benignly engaged is irrelevant. Addressing “tanking” has always, at its heart, been about creating incentives for winning basketball games, for fostering an environment in which, this morning, a Sixers fan (or player, or general manager) can wake up, smile at finding “Philadelphia” atop the Eastern Conference standings and not have to see those three wins as Pyrrhic victories, or a down payment on a lesser draft pick, or just plain stupid because everyone knows you don’t try to win until it’s time.