Minor League Baseball’s Bizarre Wage War

Photo Credit: Anna Webber/Getty Images

It’s the year 2016, and we’re having fights over whether or not a group of human beings deserves to be paid the standard minimum wage in this country.  God Bless America.

On Wednesday, Congressman Brett Guthrie (R-KY) and Congresswoman Cheri Bustos (D-IL) introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives called the “Save America’s Pastime Act”.  It sounds like a nice proposal on the surface; it’s really a lesson in not judging a book by its cover.

This is an excerpt of the bill.  Every word of it is 100% real:

In any action or proceeding commenced before, 16 on, or after the date of enactment of the Save America’s 17 Pastime Act, no employer shall be subject to any liability 18 or punishment under this Act on account of any violation 19 of section 6, 7, or 11 with respect to any work performed before, on, or after such date of enactment for 21 which the exemption under section 13 is applicable.

Okay, but what is it that the employer will not be subject to any liability for?  Paying its players the federal standard minimum wage.  No, I’m not kidding.  This bill is really designed to prevent minor league players from receiving the proper compensation for the work they do.  If that doesn’t make you angry, nothing will.

Before you say that baseball players are overpaid to begin with, that’s not the case in the minor leagues.  According to the MiLB website, players below the major league level earn an average of $1,100 per month.  And that figure represents the average salary at the highest levels of minor league baseball; life really isn’t that peachy for players aiming to fulfill their dreams of playing in the majors.

The saddest part of this fact, though, is that many of these players never get to the bigs.  Roughly 10 percent of minor league players reach the highest level, meaning that around 90 percent of them will never realize their dreams.  Many if not all of the players (especially those who don’t receive signing bonuses upon being drafted) may very well be forced to find other sources of income when they’re not playing in the offseason.

However, you would think that Major League Baseball would have the good sense to publicly denounce this bill.  But it did exactly the opposite in a press release yesterday:

MLB heavily subsidizes Minor League Baseball by providing Minor League clubs with its players, allowing professional baseball to be played in many communities in the United States that cannot support a Major League franchise. Moreover, for the overwhelming majority of individuals, being a Minor League Baseball player is not a career but a short-term seasonal apprenticeship in which the player either advances to the Major Leagues or pursues another career.

A “short-term, seasonal apprenticeship”.  Think about what an apprenticeship really is: it’s an opportunity to get your foot in the door with a particular company or in a certain profession. That particular company might not hire you but you have learned the skills of the occupation you wish to enter and would probably be able to handle a job in that field.

Moreover, minor league baseball is far from a “seasonal apprenticeship” for many players, nor is it “short-term”.  Just ask Mike Hessman.

Hessman was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 15th Round of the 1996 Amateur Draft.  Drafted at 18, Hessman would make his big league debut seven years later.  After going back and forth between Triple-A and the majors in 2004, he signed a minor-league deal with the Tigers the next year.  He wouldn’t arrive in Detroit until 2007 and he only played 17 games with the Tigers that season.  He spent another season with the Toledo Mud Hens (Detroit’s AAA affiliate) and appeared in 12 games with the Tigers.  He subsequently signed with the Mets in 2009 and embarked on another season in the minors.  While he did get 65 at-bats with the big club in 2010, that cup of coffee would be his last in Major League Baseball.  A season in Japan and another four years in the minors ensued; Hessman finally retired from professional baseball this past November after 19 seasons.  His greatest feat in baseball?  Breaking the minor league record with 433 home runs.

In those 19 seasons, Hessman racked up a total of 250 major-league plate appearances, 14 home runs, and 33 RBI.  Those are numbers you would expect to see from a part-time player. Those are Mike Hessman’s career MLB statistics.  But yeah, try telling him that minor league baseball is a short-term “apprenticeship”.

I do understand part of baseball’s stance on this subject.  It’s very difficult to pay minor league players on a per-hour basis because the employer would be forced to determine if travel time, batting practice, and postgame interviews all count as time spent working.  There’s also this: minor leaguers are provided shelter for their minimal compensation.  They’re pretty decrepit living conditions, but they do provide for the essential needs of the players.

However, exempting organizations from compensating their players for the work they do is egregious. Not doing so is especially crass when you consider that major league teams pay their minor league players, and it’s not like those teams don’t have money.  After all, the Mets paid Bobby Bonilla $1.19 million today; he last played for the team in 1999 and retired in 2001.  Oh, and did I mention that Bonilla will be paid every July 1 through 2035?  So yeah, baseball is clearly awash in money.

There is some good news on this front, though.  Bustos, 24 hours after introducing the bill in the House, did what many politicians do: flip-flop on her own piece of legislation:

Bustos recanted her support for H.R. 5580 for one obvious reason: she wanted to maintain public support as she’s up for re-election in Illinois’ 17th District this November.  Introducing this bill (which would never be passed) would simply make her look like a fool, something she can’t afford as she seeks a second term in office.  That being said, she did make the right decision here, even if she did so for the completely wrong reason.

It comes down to this: minor league baseball players deserve their money.  They aren’t getting much of it now, but they have earned the right to be properly compensated for their services, as many of them won’t make it to the majors.  They deserve the right to make the minimum wage, something that H.R. 5580 aims to take away from them.

Something that I can’t even believe we’re talking about in 2016.

Just How Good Are the Cleveland Indians?

Photo Credit: John Bazemore/Associated Press

Many baseball observers figured going into this season that the AL Central would be a two-team race between the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers.  76 games into play, though, a new contender has emerged: the Cleveland Indians.

Cleveland is on an 11-game winning streak dating back to June 17; it’s worth noting that since that day, no professional Cleveland sports teams have lost a game.  Cleveland teams and their players have lost a shirt or two along the way, however.  In fact, the last time the Indians lost, the Warriors were leading the NBA Finals.  But we’ve already exhausted that point.

Anyway, the Indians have just kept on winning, pushing their streak to 11 games with a 5-3 win over the Braves last night. Granted, they’re the Braves (the second worst team in baseball), but the Indians have still been impressive as they’ve surged to 16 games over .500 and a six-game lead over the defending champion Royals.

But, with all the positivity around the Indians and their winning ways, there still remains this one question: can they keep it up well enough to win the division?  And if they can, how far can they go in the playoffs?

For one, the team’s rotation is one of the best and most underrated in baseball.  Power pitchers such as Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, and Carlos Carrasco man the front of the rotation while Josh Tomlin has done a solid job at the back end of it.  Ironically, Kluber had one of the unluckiest seasons of any starting pitcher in baseball last season.  Unbelievably, he’s actually been less fortunate this year; his FIP (fielding-independent pitching) is better in 2016 and his ERA is worse. However, he’s had far more luck with his record; at 7-7, he’s almost reached his win total (9) from last season, one that saw him lose 16 games.

The rotation has combined for 43 quality starts (6 innings, 3 runs or less allowed), good for 4th in all of baseball.  That being said, the bullpen has done its fair share of work, as well.  Cody Allen has been solid, albeit somewhat inconsistent, in the closer role, converting 14 of his 16 save opportunities so far this season. While Bryan Shaw has struggled in the eighth inning, Dan Otero and his sub-one ERA have locked down the seventh.  The front office should look to bolster the bullpen at the trade deadline, but for now, it will have to do.  Obviously, it’s done well enough over the past two weeks.

Another thing the Indians have going for them is their middle infield.  Short of the Houston Astros’ combination of Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve, I can’t think of a better 2B-SS pairing in the game today than second baseman Jason Kipnis and shortstop Francisco Lindor.  Kipnis has been one of the most consistent second basemen in the game over the past couple of seasons, and even though he’s having a bit of a down year, he can always turn things around in the second half.  It’s Lindor, though, who has carried the offense through the first half of the season.

Lindor was called up on June 14th last season to shore up an offense that was near the bottom of the American League in runs scored.  At that point in the season, the Indians were 29-33 and 4th in the AL Central.  After his call-up, Cleveland went 52-47 to close out the season; more importantly, Lindor ingratiated himself as the team’s starting shortstop and finished second to Correa in Rookie of the Year voting.  However, having hit .313 a season ago, many wondered if he could replicate his 2015 performance this season.

And that he has, and then some.  He’s basically matched last year’s batting average (.314 this season) and is even walking more to help his own cause.  In 25 fewer games and 115 fewer plate appearances, Lindor has already scored more runs than he did last year and matched his steals total from a season ago.

And, for these reasons and others, he has established himself as a bona fide MVP candidate.  Bleacher Report’s Zachary D. Rymer explains:

This makes him a rare breed: a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop who is also an advanced hitter. There may be shortstops with individual skills—Bogaerts’ bat, Correa’s power, Andrelton Simmons’ glove, etc.—better than his, but no other shortstop in baseball today is the total package like Lindor.

For the Indians, this means they have a legit AL MVP candidate on their hands. If Lindor doesn’t get the kind of attention he deserves before then, that would probably do the trick.

Lindor really could be considered an MVP candidate; according to FanGraphs, Lindor ranks eighth in baseball in WAR (wins above replacement player).  If that doesn’t give him consideration for MVP, I don’t know what will.

There have been other solid acquisitions, though.  Juan Uribe has come on strong of late, having hit five home runs in his last 10 games.  Rookie Tyler Naquin is hitting over .300 in fill-in duty for injured star outfielder Michael Brantley; it will be interesting to see how much playing time Naquin gets when Brantley returns from a shoulder injury that has kept him out of action since May 9.

Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana have also hit 16 home runs apiece for a team that ranks in the middle of the pack in that category.  Finally, Rajai Davis has accumulated 21 steals this season and been one of the better leadoff hitters in the game. Yes, the Indians’ rotation has been one of the best in the league, but its lineup is also one of the game’s deepest.

But here’s the thing: the Cleveland Indians could get even better. Consider this: even at 46-30, the team is just 12-11 in one run games.  By contrast, the best team in the American League, the Texas Rangers, are 17-5 in one-run games this season.  Part of this failure in close games is due to mishaps in the bullpen, but if Cleveland can make a deadline deal to shore up the back end of it, we could seriously be looking at them as the team to beat in the American League.  And I mean every word of what I just wrote.

The Indians have been magnificent over the course of the last two weeks.  They’ve captivated us with their pitching and hitting and shown the world that they are capable of doing big things for the rest of this season and beyond.

The sick part is, though, that they may even improve from where they are right now.

Penalty Kicks Really Aren’t So Bad After All

Switzerland v Poland - Round of 16: UEFA Euro 2016
Photo Credit: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

This article probably sounds like it’s coming out of nowhere.  It is, but I’m writing this for a reason.

Earlier today, I found myself watching the end of the UEFA Euro 2016 Switzerland-Poland match.  The winner of the game would advance to the tournament’s quarterfinal.  With Poland clinging to a 1-0 lead and time running out, Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri scored the goal of a lifetime to tie the game and give the Swiss side life.

That goal would cap the regulation scoring and the game headed into extra time.  And that’s when I was inspired to write this.

In the 100th minute and about a third of the way into the extra period, Poland made a substitution, replacing Krzysztof Maczynski with Tomasz Jodlowiec.  On his way off the field, the ESPN broadcast flashed a graphic stating that Maczynski ran 12.7 kilometers over the course of the game.  Even more interestingly, next to Maczynski’s distance traveled, the graphic said that on average, each player on the Polish team covered around 11.1 kilometers in the first ~100 minutes of the game.

My first reaction to these numbers, just like every other American, was to Google “conversion from kilometers to miles,” or “km to m,” for short.  I could lie to you and tell you I knew how to convert between these units, but 1) honesty is very important in journalism and 2) no, I didn’t.

When Google told me that 1 kilometer equals roughly 0.621 miles (I’ll definitely forget that one by tomorrow), I got to crunching the numbers.  If the average distance traveled was 11.1 kilometers (6.897 miles) in the first 100 minutes, how much farther do the players run over the course of an entire game?

I found this result by dividing 6.897 by 5, yielding another 1.39 miles.  I then added that number to 6.897 and got 8.28 (rounded to the hundredths place).  Since I assumed that fatigue, cramping, injury, and even weather conditions could play into the distance covered in the closing minutes of the game, I knocked that figure down to roughly eight miles.  (Note: the high temperature was 74°F today in Saint-Étienne, France, the site of the match.)

I then shared my findings with my mini Twitter community, because that’s what you do every time you have an a-ha moment:

So, this discovery also got me to thinking about something else: if players are running around eight miles per 120-minute game and over six miles per 90-minute game, why do so many fans insist that going to penalty kicks after 120+ minutes is a bad idea?  

There are some people who believe that the best way to decide the game after a half-hour extra time is to go to sudden death overtime.  That way, the next goal of the game also ends it.  The problem with that solution is that the game may not end within 15 or even 30 minutes, especially in international play, with some of the best goalkeepers in the world ensuring low-scoring games.  For example, consider what Tim Howard did to Belgium two years ago.

In that game, the United States was thoroughly outplayed in every area… except goalkeeper.  Howard carried the U.S. to extra time, where he finally surrendered two goals in a 2-1 defeat. Howard and the U.S.A. lost, but not before the goalie recorded a World Cup record with 15 total saves.  If that game had two evenly-matched teams and sudden death overtime after 120 minutes, well, we might still be playing nearly two years later.

And think about it this way, too: on their own, penalty kicks really aren’t that bad.  They’re a great way to win and an even worse way to lose, but they really are an all-or-nothing proposition.  Isn’t that exactly what we want out of sports?  We just had an all-or-nothing Game 7 in the NBA Finals and we treated it like the greatest thing since sliced bread.  Were the Cavaliers the best team in the NBA all season?  No, not even close.  However, they won when it counted.  That’s all that mattered.  Penalty kicks are no different; the best team doesn’t always win, but it’s a very exciting finish that ensures the safety of the players.

Penalty kick finishes have also given us some great moments. For example, the United States’ Brandi Chastain is synonymous with the removal of her shirt after netting her PK to defeat China in the 1999 Women’s World Cup Final.  In 2006, the Men’s World Cup Final between Italy and France came down to penalty kicks.  While that game is more generally remembered for the Zinedine Zidane headbutt incident, Fabio Grosso’s winner in PKs sent the entire country of Italy into a frenzy.  

Penalty kicks are everything sports is supposed to be.  We don’t appreciate that because we get too wrapped up in the imperfection of the system.  What we need to realize, though, is that PKs were put in place to protect players who have already covered almost one-third of a marathon in two hours’ time.  If we made the players run for, say, 150 minutes, they might cover 10 miles, get hurt, and leave the uninformed among us wondering why they’re not in better shape.  

Anyway, the game I was watching just happened to conclude with a penalty shootout.  Poland, which had been badly outplayed in extra time and most of the second half, won the shootout and advanced to the Euro 2016 quarterfinal. Switzerland was the better side for most of the game; it didn’t win in the end, however.

I guess this is the perfect encapsulation of everything right and wrong with this way of deciding a winner.  It is somewhat arbitrary, but it’s rife with drama; you legitimately don’t know who’s going to win until it’s over.  It is by no means a perfect system, but it does give us a fun ending that also keeps already fatigued players from injuring themselves (or worse) in game action.

So maybe it isn’t such a bad system, after all.


2016 NBA Mock Draft/Big Board

I’m sure you probably forgot about it with the NBA Finals going to seven games, but the NBA Draft is this Thursday in Brooklyn. This draft promises to be interesting on a number of levels, with a deep international pool and can’t-miss prospects at the top of the class.

I’ll start things off with my big board; it consists of 54 players, most if not all of which will be drafted Thursday night.  Here it is, followed by an explanation of a couple of rankings that might jump out at you:

  1. Brandon Ingram
  2. Ben Simmons
  3. Buddy Hield
  4. Jamal Murray
  5. Dragan Bender
  6. Jaylen Brown
  7. Kris Dunn
  8. Marquese Chriss
  9. Deyonta Davis
  10. Furkan Korkmaz
  11. Henry Ellenson
  12. Malik Beasley
  13. Dejounte Murray
  14. Denzel Valentine
  15. Domantas Sabonis
  16. Jakob Poeltl
  17. Skal Labissiere
  18. Demetrius Jackson
  19. Timothe Luwawu
  20. Ivica Zubac
  21. Malachi Richardson
  22. Taurean Prince
  23. Ante Zizic
  24. Patrick McCaw
  25. DeAndre’ Bembry
  26. Wade Baldwin IV
  27. Tyler Ulis
  28. Brice Johnson
  29. Thon Maker
  30. Rade Zagorac
  31. Stephen Zimmerman
  32. Juan Hernangomez
  33. Paul Zipser
  34. Guerschon Yabusele
  35. A.J. Hammons
  36. Cheick Diallo
  37. Caris LeVert
  38. Ben Bentil
  39. Zhou Qi
  40. Isaia Cordinier
  41. Diamond Stone
  42. Malcolm Brogdon
  43. Wayne Selden
  44. Chinanu Onuaku
  45. Jake Layman
  46. Juan Hernangomez
  47. Gary Payton II
  48. Georgios Papagiannis
  49. Isaiah Whitehead
  50. Damian Jones
  51. Pascal Siakam
  52. Fred VanVleet
  53. Kay Felder
  54. Yogi Ferrell

A couple of things to explain here.  Number one, I put Brandon Ingram at #1 on my board, and I did this for a variety of reasons.  The obvious one is that he’s a far, far better shooter than Simmons.  Simmons will have to get a jump shot if he wants to be successful in the NBA, at least offensively.  While he often looks to get his teammates involved, a la LeBron James or Magic Johnson, his shot needs an awful lot of work.  I also really like Ingram as a defender, and I think this makes his value as a wing skyrocket.

Another thing I should really address is Buddy Hield’s presence at #3.  While this sounds hyperbolic (and maybe it is), Hield is the best shooter the draft has seen since Steph Curry came out of Davidson in 2009.  Hield’s career progression kind of reminds you of Curry’s; he was a four-year student-athlete at Oklahoma and wasn’t recruited by more basketball-rich schools because of his lack of athletic ability.  Sound familiar?  Yeah, I think Hield is going to be really good in the NBA; his work ethic enables him to continue to improve, even at 22, and he should be able to contribute right away to whichever team takes him.

With all of that being said, it’s time for our first-round mock draft.  If this tweet is any indicator, I should be getting about two of thirty of these picks right:

So that’s nice.  In any event, let’s give it a shot.  Here’s my 2016 mock draft.  Let’s hope it doesn’t go up in flames.

1. Philadelphia 76ers

The pick: Ben Simmons

F/LSU

The only other logical pick for the 76ers here would be Brandon Ingram.  Simmons and Ingram are the two best players in this draft, and it’s a pretty big gap between two and three.

The most impressive part of Simmons’ game, other than his athleticism, is his passing ability.   Watch this play against Florida in January.  Pay close attention to how he looks off the defender and whips the pass into the paint for a shot under the basket:

In watching that play, it’s easy to see why the comparisons to LeBron James and Magic Johnson have rolled in.  However, he’s not nearly a perfect player; as previously stated, he actually cannot shoot.  He’s probably not even shooting with the correct hand, so maybe a Tristan Thompson-esque change from his left hand to his right is forthcoming.

Also, if he is to have any other weakness, it’s that he’s not that great in the post.  His post game will need to become more advanced if he is to play the three or four in the NBA.  Other than that, he’s a really good passer and rebounder, one who could and probably will be highly productive at the next level.

Philly needs literally everything in the draft and free agency, so getting Simmons at 1 is a very good start.

Simmons Comparison: LAMAR ODOM/BLAKE GRIFFIN

2. Los Angeles Lakers

The pick: Brandon Ingram

F/Duke

Another very easy call here.  If the 76ers by chance pick Ingram over Simmons, then the Lakers would take Simmons at 2.

Ingram is another very interesting player at the top of the draft. He’s kind of a prototypical NBA wing, and as you can see from this highlight reel, he can really do a little bit of everything.

Personally, I like Ingram a little more than Simmons because his skill set better fits the NBA game.  He’s a good shooter (41% from three last season) and his shot should improve with time and repetition.  He also has lots of potential defensively and can become elite when he adds more strength.

The obvious knock on Ingram is that he’s thin as a rail.  That he is (6’9″, 190 lb.), and he will initially have trouble guarding stronger players in the post.  He’s also very raw and could become a far better finisher, especially in traffic.  Ingram has stated that he wants to eat lots of calories in order to bulk up, and he will have to fill out his frame in order to flourish in the NBA.

However, history has shown that he can still be on the thin side and succeed.  In watching him play, he reminds me of Kevin Durant, and I mean every word of that statement.

The Lakers will get Ingram or Simmons here.  Not a bad consolation prize at all.

Ingram Comparison: KEVIN DURANT

3. Boston Celtics

The pick: Dragan Bender

F/C/Croatia (last played for Maccabi Tel Aviv of the Israeli BSL)

This is where I could see the draft getting very crazy.  The Celtics could do any number of things with this pick (including trade it) and there are several players they could take at 3.

The guy I have them taking is Dragan Bender, the slightly mysterious, physically imposing big man from overseas who is projected to go in the top-5.  Sound familiar?  Yeah, Bender is this year’s Kristaps Porzingis, for better or worse.

Bender’s game is a little bit of an enigma; he is a decent shooter who has shown that he can step out to the three-point line every once in a while.  He’s also a very good passer, particularly out of the post, which should help him against over-aggressive defenses.

But there are some apparent weaknesses: he’s not a great defender and his fundamentals are very poor.  His shot is also very inconsistent and he only shot 25% from three for Maccabi Tel Aviv last season.

Nonetheless, he projects as a solid NBA player.  Maybe he’ll be a solid unicorn as well.

Bender Comparison: VLADE DIVAC

4. Phoenix Suns

The pick: Jaylen Brown

F/California

Jaylen Brown is one of the most intriguing players in this draft. Brown is extremely athletic, the type of player who should be able to strive in Phoenix’s up-and-down system.

You can see the apparent athletic gifts Brown has in this dunk against UCLA:

Brown is an athletic specimen, but he doesn’t have that much more to offer other than his athletic ability and his defensive game; the two have a symbiotic relationship.  He doesn’t have very many advanced dribble moves and is only really a straight-line driver in the half court.  He also doesn’t have much of a jumper at this stage in his development, so going to a system that doesn’t require very much of him offensively will be very important.

Brown is incredibly raw, but he won’t be 20 until the season begins.  If he goes to the right place, he could develop into a really good player.  He has one of the highest upsides in the draft and he should be able to improve once he gets to the NBA.

Pheonix might be the place for him to do that.

Brown Comparison: METTA WORLD PEACE

5. Minnesota Timberwolves

The pick: Buddy Hield

Buddy Hield may not be the best player in the NBA Draft but he was the best player in college basketball last season.  That has to count for something, right?

Hield has no limits to his shooting range and, just as importantly, possesses a very quick trigger.  Watch how quickly he gets this shot out against Kansas in February:

Hield was the best shooter in the game, and he got that way because of his insane work ethic.  Just listen to this account from ESPN’s Dana O’Neil:

Hield […] tries to get between 300 and 500 shots a day outside of practice. And that’s on the days he’s feeling good about himself. When he feels like he’s off, he’ll push himself into the 500 to 700 range.

500 to 700 shots per day.  That’s absurd, but it at least partially explains why Hield has gotten so good.  The other part is sheer, natural talent, which he has a lot of.

His athleticism is what hindered him going into college and it will again in the NBA.  But if his work ethic is any indication, Hield can make himself into one of the best players in this draft and one of the best shooters in the league.

And the Timberwolves will reap the benefits at 5.  That is unless they deal the pick, of course.

6. New Orleans Pelicans

The pick: Kris Dunn

G/Providence

Kris Dunn is one of the few locks in this draft; at 22, he’s also one of its oldest players.  This kind of eats away at his upside, but it’s abundantly clear that Dunn is the best point guard in this year’s class.  It isn’t that close, either.

As for his fit in New Orleans, it would probably be a really great place for him to go.  He would step in immediately as the team’s starting point guard, but that’s not the best part of a potential Dunn-Pelicans union.  New Orleans started four different point guards over the course of last season; Dunn would solidify the position and, at worst, give the team another option.

There’s also the appeal of what Dunn brings to the table.  He’s one of the most athletic players in this draft and this helps him on both ends of the floor.  He isn’t as good of a decision-maker as you would think and his jump shot isn’t that great, but these things could still improve with time.

In the meantime, he’s an already solid defender who should get even better in the NBA.  Also, his athleticism and his ability to pass should help him acquiesce with star big man Anthony Davis; needless to say, prepare for a poor man’s version of Lob City in the French Quarter.

Dunn is the perfect fit for the Pelicans, and he’s one of the few sureties of this draft.  He may be a little overrated, but he’ll still have himself a solid career in the NBA.

Dunn Comparison: VICTOR OLADIPO

7. Denver Nuggets

The pick: Jamal Murray

G/Kentucky

Jamal Murray is one of the best pure shooters in this year’s draft class.  Watch him shoot this three from deep against Louisville early in the year:

Murray is a certified scorer, having put up 20 per game on an offensively stacked Kentucky squad. He’s also a good decision-maker and a solid passer. His greatest gift, though, is not on the offensive end.

Murray is one of the best defenders in this year’s draft, and even though his lack of athleticism will hurt him at the next level, his effort and energy will help him compensate for this weakness. Even though he’s not big enough to guard wings, he should be able to have success against guards, which is critical for a Nuggets team that allowed 105 points per game last season. Denver also ranked 26th in three-point percentage (33.8%) last year, so Murray is basically the epitome of everything they need right now.

He’s far from a perfect player, but Jamal Murray is a player you would want on your team; he makes effort plays that help his team win games.  Hopefully for the Nuggets, drafting him will help them improve from their 33-win mark of a season ago.

Murray Comparison: WESLEY MATTHEWS

8. Sacramento Kings

The pick: Marquese Chriss

F/Washington

This is where the draft starts to turn a little bit upside down.  I have the Kings taking the riskiest player in this draft at 8: Marquese Chriss.

Chriss is only 18 years old and won’t turn 19 until next month. If you watch him play long enough, his age and inexperience show.  He doesn’t bring very much to the table offensively, although he does have a pretty good jump shot.  Also, his defensive game needs quite a bit of work, and his effort is questionable at times.  He will have to prove that he’s mature enough for the NBA, and I’m not convinced that he is right now.

The selling point for Chriss is his extraordinary upside.  He may be the most athletic player in the draft and his quickness could help him become a good defender if he works at it.  He’ll have to do that in addition to proving that he’s mature beyond his years. My guess is that he’ll be headed to the D-League to start his career.

Someone will take a risk on him in the top 10, and I think the Kings will be that team.

Chriss Comparison: JOSH SMITH

9. Toronto Raptors

The pick: Deyonta Davis

F/C/Michigan State

Davis is a very solid defender and could become a very good NBA rim protector in his development.  The NBA is chomping at the bit to have another one of those, as SB Nation’s Kevin O’Connor writes:

Davis wasn’t expected to be a one-and-done prospect but he rose quickly in college. At this point of the draft process he’s a likely lottery pick. But NBA teams are drooling for more bigs that can protect the rim, switch screens, and rebound, so Davis could surge up the charts as the draft approaches. Just like he always has.

Davis has risen in the draft process, as his athleticism and rim protection make him appealing to teams looking for a little more punch defensively.  The Raptors are going to need that punch in the future, as sudden playoff hero Bismack Biyombo is due for a massive raise from his $2.81 million salary of a season ago.  He’ll get that raise, but it may not be from the Raptors.

Davis is not much of a jump shooter at this stage of his development; he does have the potential to step out from midrange eventually.  He’s kind of an inconsistent player, but he’s also still a teenager learning the fundamentals of the game. He should be able to improve as he learns how to play basketball, and he could become one of the best players in this draft.

His upside is abundant, which should appeal to the Raptors, who are looking to dethrone the Cavs in the Eastern Conference.  That may not happen, but drafting Davis with the 9th pick would be a prudent decision for them.

Davis Comparison: JORDAN HILL

10. Milwaukee Bucks

The pick: Furkan Korkmaz

F/Turkey (last played for Anadolu Efes of the Turkish League)

Furkan Korkmaz is one of the unknown players in this year’s class.  His skill set, though, allows him to translate in the NBA right away.

I’ll admit this: I wasn’t able to see quite as much of him as I might have liked.  What I did see of him grabbed my attention, to say the least.

For example, Korkmaz is a very solid shooter with exceptional form.   When watching him play, you immediately hearken to watching someone like Klay Thompson, a shooter with perfect form and a very quick release.  Even though Korkmaz may be more of a forward in the NBA, he’ll be playing the type of game that Thompson does now.  His shooting could help several teams; that’s where the Milwaukee Bucks come in.

The Bucks shot just 34.5% from deep a season ago and have struggled in three-point shooting for the past several years.  The team made an effort to resolve this problem by drafting UNLV sharpshooter Rashad Vaughn a season ago; Vaughn shot threes at a 29% clip last season.

Drafting Korkmaz could go a long way toward fixing this problem.  He has told teams that he’ll be coming over right away and he could provide immediate shooting help for a Bucks team that could use it.

The Bucks are close to contention; taking someone who could help address their biggest flaw can’t hurt.

Korkmaz Comparison: KLAY THOMPSON

11. Orlando Magic

The pick: Henry Ellenson

F/Marquette

Marquette’s Henry Ellenson has recently drawn some comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki.  When he plays, it’s easy to see why; they possess very similar sets of skills and body types.

Ellenson’s abilities are very diverse: he’s an improving shooter and can mix it up in the post as well.  He can also shoot off the dribble, as this play from the Big East Tournament shows:

Ellenson can do many different things offensively. His major weakness, however, is his defense.  The main reason why he struggles so much defensively is his athleticism, which is another similarity he shares with Dirk.  Ellenson is simply a slow player, but the Magic could use his skill set to their advantage.

Consider this: new head coach Frank Vogel seems to really like big men.  He cultivated the careers of Roy Hibbert and Myles Turner in Indiana, and he doesn’t really like to play at a very fast pace.  That style of play will be perfect for Ellenson, as the team will only rely on his shot-making ability and offensive game.

Even if he isn’t the next Dirk, Ellenson will still be able to help many teams.  The Magic are definitely one of them.

Ellenson Comparison: DIRK NOWITZKI

12. Atlanta Hawks

The pick: Dejounte Murray

G/Washington

Just like his Washington teammate, Marquese Chriss, Dejounte Murray is a potentially high-risk, high-reward player.  The Hawks probably were not in the market for backcourt help before this week.  However, they are now, as Yahoo!’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports:

The Hawks could definitely use another guard in their system. Murray is that guy.

He is one of the better scorers in the draft; the problem comes in his efficiency, or lack thereof.  He consistently forces up bad shots and will need to improve his shot selection at the next level.  His defense is also lacking somewhat, but he can improve this skill.

The Hawks probably wouldn’t be asking very much out of Murray, at least to start.  Why they are drafting him has everything to do with his offensive ability, as he could give the Hawks a diverse set of talents.  Atlanta needs to be willing to wait for them to develop, though, as Murray is very raw and needs time to realize his potential.

Even if he goes to the D-League to start his career, Murray may be able to help Atlanta offensively for years to come.  Just don’t expect it anytime soon.

Murray Comparison: ALEC BURKS/JAMAL CRAWFORD

13. Pheonix Suns

The pick: Skal Labissiere

F/C/Kentucky

At this time a year ago, Skal Labissiere was regarded as one of the top players in this draft.  Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Labissiere’s 2015-16 collegiate season at Kentucky was one of the most singularly disappointing campaigns in recent memory.  It wasn’t all his fault; he didn’t receive a ton of playing time and didn’t get the repetitions needed to improve his overall game. He needs to improve exponentially, but you can see why teams are excited about him.

For example, his height and exceptional reach potentially make him one of the best rim protectors in this year’s class.  This play against LSU in early March shows a glimpse of his potential:

At 7’0″, Labissiere could reasonably play center in the NBA.  That being said, he still has a long way to go in many areas; he has little to no offensive game and would probably be off to the D-League to start his career.

While that is true, some teams are salivating over him because of his upside.  At just 20 years old, he does not possess the competitive experience of his peers.  Having grown up in Haiti and lived through the 2010 earthquake, Skal has been through a lot.  Luckily for him, he’s about to realize his NBA dream.

I would be willing to take a chance on Labissiere near the end of the lottery, and I think the Suns would as well.

Labissiere Comparison: HASSAN WHITESIDE

14. Chicago Bulls

The pick: Jakob Poeltl

C/Utah

I will be very honest with you: Jakob Poeltl does not thrill me. I’ve wanted to like him throughout this process, and I don’t think he’s going to be a bad player in the NBA.

But having watched him several times during the season and in the NCAA Tournament, I wasn’t blown away by him.  He’s a very true center and really doesn’t possess any ability to play the 4. Also, he doesn’t have great athletic ability or an advanced offensive game to make up for it.  This lack of offensive prowess hurt him in his NCAA Tournament matchup against Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis; if you don’t want to see the highlights, Poeltl got destroyed.

Nevertheless, the Bulls might need a center this summer. Joakim Noah is a free agent and a shell of his former self. While the team is trading point guard Derrick Rose to the Knicks, the lack of a true center is their biggest need right now.

So even though I see several issues with Poeltl’s game, I think he’d be a solid pickup for Chicago.  He’s not overwhelmingly good like some scouts think, but he’ll be a solid choice for the Bulls at 14.

And really, solid is all Chicago can ask for.

Poeltl Comparison: ANDREW BOGUT

15. Denver Nuggets

The pick: Denzel Valentine

F/Michigan State

The Nuggets’ second pick of the first round is a little bit more simple.  They’ll likely take the best player available here: Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine.

Valentine should probably be a lottery choice.  The reason he would be available here is because of concerns about a knee injury, as reported by BasketballInsiders:

Word is Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine may have a fairly significant knee issue, so much so that one team sort of compared him to former Indiana Pacers All-Star Danny Granger, who came into the league with a degenerative knee condition and struggled every year to play 82 games. League sources said it’s still likely he will get drafted in the first round, but his stock looks to be a tough one to lock in with so many teams believing his knee will be a problem.

I’d say that’s an issue.  But if Valentine can stay healthy, he’ll be one of the most effective players this draft has to offer.  As a very good passer and shooter, he could immediately step into the point forward role that many have talked about Ben Simmons assuming.

With the Nuggets, taking Valentine should be the obvious choice. Given all of Danilo Gallinari’s injury concerns, wouldn’t it be a good idea to have his replacement ready in case they flare up again?  This is the pick they should make.

Hopefully, Valentine proves to be more like Jared Sullinger than Danny Granger.

Valentine Comparison: GORDON HAYWARD

16. Boston Celtics

The pick: Ante Zizic

C/Croatia (last played for Cibona Zagreb of the Croatian League)

If the Celtics are serious about being players in free agency for Kevin Durant and others, then their best option is to pick a draft-and-stash international player.  Enter Ante Zizic, a center from Croatia.

Zizic is an interesting player and one of the best rebounders in the draft.  He likely will not be coming to the States this year, so the Celtics won’t be paying him.  They will retain his rights, though.  

At just 19 years old, Zizic was exceptionally productive in Croatia; he posted a 25.7 PER in just one season in the league. Zizic’s productivity should mean that he’ll fare well in the NBA. He won’t be here this year, but his rebounding, defensive, and scoring ability should have him in demand on draft night.

And with the Celtics looking to save all the money they possibly can, they’ll be willing to wait for his skill set to make its way across the Atlantic.

Zizic Comparison: NIKOLA VUCEVIC

17. Memphis Grizzlies

The pick: Malachi Richardson

F/Syracuse

Perhaps no player in the first round of this draft helped his stock through the draft process more than Syracuse’s Malachi Richardson.  Richardson had one of the best performances at the Draft Combine in mid-May, which undoubtedly led him to keep his name in this year’s class.

The reason the Grizzlies are taking him here is because… they said so.  Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress and The Vertical reports the following:

The Grizzlies are enamored with the Syracuse wing, and he could be a fit here. They could really use the perimeter shooting he offers and has some upside.

The Grizzlies have essentially promised Richardson he will be taken here if he isn’t before then.  Richardson would offer the Grizzlies a bevy of skills, from his outside shooting to his athletic ability.  He’s a pure scorer, and that has precluded him somewhat from becoming a better passer and decision-maker.

Richardson really needs to improve his shot selection to stick in the NBA.  He has a tendency to take poor shots, particularly early in the shot clock.  If he can curb this habit and become a better passer, he’ll become a good player in the NBA.

But for now, he’s good enough to get a promise from Memphis at 17.

Richardson Comparison: PAUL PIERCE/MANU GINOBILI

18. Detroit Pistons

The pick: Domantas Sabonis

F/Gonzaga

Domantas Sabonis is a very interesting player.  As a pure power forward, he doesn’t possess very much athletic ability or a consistent three-pointer at this phase.  However, he can give a team a legitimate offensive threat off the bench, one who could step out to midrange or put it on the floor and get to the basket.

As I said earlier, Sabonis absolutely slaughtered Jakob Poeltl in their second round NCAA Tournament game.  Go to around 0:42 of the video if you want a true sense of Sabonis’ offensive expertise and dominance of the Utah center on that particular night:

Sabonis’ stock is somewhat difficult to pin down. While I could completely see him being taken in the lottery, I could also see him falling out of it.  He doesn’t have a ton of upside and his biggest progression in the NBA will be his improving perimeter jumper.  He’s not that fast and not really athletic.

But he makes hustle plays, ones that win games and keep him in demand.  Also, his father, Arvydas, played in the NBA for seven seasons, all of which came after his 30th birthday.  His dad was a very intelligent player, and Domantas is too.

Detroit has been looking for a talented backup big man since their deadline deal for Houston’s Donatas Motiejunas fell through.  Stan Van Gundy will get what he wants in Sabonis.

Sabonis Comparison: DREW GOODEN

19. Denver Nuggets

The pick: Wade Baldwin IV

G/Vanderbilt

Wade Baldwin has been shooting up NBA Draft boards with comparisons to Russell Westbrook.  Yes, that Russell Westbrook.

Baldwin has also shot up big boards because of his performance in interviews.  He’s said all of the right things in the draft process and teams don’t really seem to care if he himself actually believes them.

Baldwin’s biggest calling card at the NBA level will be his athleticism.  Watch him get away with a travel and get up for the dunk at the Maui Invitational in late November:

Needless to say, Baldwin’s athletic ability will help him bring a lot to the table for NBA teams.  He could become a good defender if he wants to be; that’s a big if, but it could be a major asset in his game.  He’s also a dangerous shooter from deep, having shot 42.2% in two years at Vanderbilt.  His jumper is somewhat inconsistent, but it’s easy to see why some teams are absolutely drooling over him.

For the Nuggets, Baldwin is another guard in a crowded backcourt that includes Gary Harris and Emmanuel Mudiay. There’s always the possibility that Mudiay doesn’t work out as the team’s starting point guard (he ranked 375th in the NBA in PER last season), so Baldwin should make for a solid insurance policy.

Hopefully for him, he can rise even higher than this before Thursday night.

20. Indiana Pacers

The pick: Brice Johnson

F/North Carolina

So, Larry Bird, you want to play a little faster?  Okay, you have your guy.

Johnson is really athletic.  Like, so athletic that his max vertical is 38 inches.  In watching dunks like these, I’m convinced that figure should be even higher:

Johnson would be the perfect fit for new coach Nate McMillan’s (and Bird’s) system.  He would be ideal as a rim runner and a finisher who could throw down putback dunks.  He wouldn’t be asked to do very much and has a legitimate dunk contest future.

If the Pacers get that Brice Johnson, they should be more than happy.

Johnson Comparison: BRANDAN WRIGHT

21. Utah Jazz

The pick: Timothe Luwawu

F/France (last played for Mega Leks of the Serbian Basketball League)

Some mock drafts see Timothe Luwawu landing in the lottery. Mine does not, as I don’t see very many teams that need help at the wing.

Luwawu is a good player, one who almost entered the draft a season ago.  His most translatable NBA skill is his jump shot, as he is a very good jump shooter for a small forward.  His other impressive skill is his defense, as he is one of the best defenders in the draft, even if his consistency lags behind.

Luwawu has not been playing competitive basketball for a very long time, and he still has room for improvement.  He is 21 years old, but he still has some upside left.

The Jazz seem to like defensively-inclined, athletic players. Luwawu will give that to them, and while he isn’t quite ready to assume a larger role right now, he should become a very good player in the NBA.  The one issue with Utah’s current construction is that Gordon Hayward could very well be traded; Luwawu could go a long way toward replacing him.

The Jazz trade down and get their man, regardless of whether or not Hayward stays.

Luwawu Comparison: P.J. TUCKER

22. Charlotte Hornets

The pick: Malik Beasley

G/Florida State

Malik Beasley is one of my favorite players in this draft.  He makes his teammates better.  He’s unselfish.  He goes after loose balls with reckless abandon.  He gives 100% at all times.

And then there are the obvious tools be brings to the table.  His athleticism is off the charts and he is able to finish dunks with authority both in transition and the halfcourt.  As a defender, he is very solid, and his athleticism and development will definitely help him improve on that end.

The Hornets may be in the market for a backup point guard. Jeremy Lin has a player option for next season and figures to demand more than the $2.1 million he made this year.  Beasley would be a cheaper solution, one who could give the Hornets some minutes behind Kemba Walker.

Beasley would be a backup plan for Charlotte, but he’d be a very good one.  He would give an effort and energy that would be infectious.  He’d also give the Hornets good defense, and he’s only getting better on that end.

This would be a home run for the Hornets if they could land Beasley.  It might even be the biggest steal of the draft if it happens.  I totally believe that.

Beasley Comparison: ZACH LAVINE

23. Boston Celtics

The pick: Rade Zagorac

F/Serbia (last played for Mega Leks of the Serbian Basketball League)

The Celtics have another pick, and the common sense solution is another draft-and-stash player: Rade Zagorac.

Zagorac is a player with good size for a wing (6’9″) and noteworthy athletic ability.  At just 20 years old, he’s still got a lot of room to improve, and staying to play in Serbia for at least another year or two should be beneficial to his development.

I know it sounds crazy that the Celtics would take three international players in the first round.  It probably is; I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the C’s deal at least one of their first-round selections.  They have eight in total, so there will be plenty of other opportunities to improve their team.  I could definitely see them trading one or more of these picks to acquire assets to help them win now.

If they keep the pick, I have them taking Zagorac.  That is a very big if.

Zagorac Comparison: TRAVIS OUTLAW

24. Philadelphia 76ers

The pick: Demetrius Jackson

G/Notre Dame

I may have said this earlier, but the 76ers have a ton of needs. The biggest one is probably the point guard position, and even though they’re going to take Simmons with the first pick, they could use some serious guard help.

So it would only make sense that they take the best guard available in Demetrius Jackson.  Jackson would be able to help the Sixers almost immediately as a passer, finisher, and shooter. His offensive game is generally undeveloped but he should be able to step in and contribute right away.

However, this is another situation where the team could deal its late-first round draft pick.  The Sixers have been in “active discussions” with other teams about trading the pick and it would make complete sense if they did.  Philly could use some shooting to surround Simmons and could include this pick in a package with one of their many, many, many big men.

So if Philly holds on to the 24th pick, they’ll take Jackson.  My guess is that they won’t.

Jackson Comparison: ERIC BLEDSOE

25. Los Angeles Clippers

The pick: Patrick McCaw

G/F/UNLV

You’ll never believe this, but the Los Angeles Clippers have a first-round pick in this year’s NBA Draft.  Even better, they haven’t traded it away.  Yet.

Team President Doc Rivers has made some questionable decisions during his tenure that have seriously sabotaged head coach Doc Rivers.  Late first round draft picks have not been among them, but Rivers has a questionable history when it comes to personnel decisions.

And, let’s face it, the Clippers could be on the verge of blowing up their roster in a nuclear manner.  In deciding what to do about many of the team’s soon-to-expire contracts, Rivers will have to decide who to keep and who to get rid of; he’ll have to decide on the futures of players such as Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, and J.J. Redick rather soon.

Patrick McCaw might be a part of the Clippers’ (soon-to-be-revamped?) roster.  McCaw is an intriguing player best known for his athleticism and finishing ability.  He struggles defensively and with his shot but he has the potential to stick in the league.

The Clippers need to take advantage of this opportunity.  It’s not every year that you get to have a first-round draft pick.  Well, not for them, anyway.

McCaw Comparison: KEVIN MARTIN

26. Philadelphia 76ers

The pick: Taurean Prince

F/Baylor

This is another pick that the 76ers will likely trade.  I really can’t see any way the team keeps the pick unless it drafts an international player.  What I can do is tell you a little about Taurean Prince.

Prince grew up in San Antonio and his parents separated early in his life.  Long story short, he bounced from home to home without finding a permanent one.  He went back and forth between both of his parents and wasn’t able to find full-time shelter until going to college at Long Island University, only to transfer to Baylor.  CSN Philly has his full story if you’re interested in reading it; you really should give it a look.

That puts things in some good perspective and it shows that Prince won’t be fazed at all by playing in the NBA.  As a player, Prince is a very good athlete who excels at the defensive end. He’s not a great offensive player but he has some potential left to improve.  He does have NBA range from deep and could become this draft’s “three-and-D” player.  But the most important thing he’s about to become is an NBA draft pick, fulfilling his dream of being in the league.

If he does nothing else in basketball, he will have gotten much farther than anyone could have expected when he was going from house to house as a child.

Prince Comparison: DEMARRE CARROLL

27. Toronto Raptors

The pick: DeAndre’ Bembry

G/St. Joseph’s

DeAndre’ Bembry is probably the best offensive player left at this point in the draft.  The Raptors could use a little offense, even if it comes at the end of the first round.

Bembry is capable of throwing down in transition and has a good body for a guard.  He’s also a very good ball-handler who is able to make advanced dribble moves to get to this shot.  He is a certified scorer, having averaged nearly 18 points per game over the past two seasons.

However, his weakness is his jump shot and how it has regressed since his freshman year at St. Joe’s.  Inexplicably, Bembry’s three-point percentage dipped from 34.6% in his freshman year to 32.7% in his sophomore year and finally to 26.6% this past season.  Bembry will have to fix his shot if he’s going to have a successful NBA career.

The Raptors will take the best available player here and take a chance on DeAndre’ Bembry.

Bembry Comparison: JAE CROWDER

28. Phoenix Suns

The pick: Thon Maker

C/Sudan (last played for Canada’s Athlete Institute)

This is the ultimate low-risk, potentially high-reward pick. Actually, there’s little to no risk in taking Thon Maker with the 28th pick in the first round.

Maker is a rarity in today’s NBA Draft: a player who came straight out of high school into the draft.  Maker was able to do this because he actually graduated high school in 2015, the same year Simmons, Ingram, and every other one-and-done player did.  However, Maker decided to stay in high school as a post-graduate student, therefore fulfilling the minimum age and schooling requirements (one year out of high school) for entry into the NBA Draft.  Maker is poised to become the first player to be drafted into the NBA straight out of high school since 2005, the last year of the league’s old eligibility rules.

As a player, Maker is incredibly raw; he never played college basketball and has very little competitive experience.  His best skill is his rebounding ability, a talent crafted from his effort and elite size (7’1″, 220 lb.).  He is also a good defender and could become a rim protector with time.  The other clear upside with him is that he’s 19 years old and could get a lot better with NBA coaching.

There’s a reason why picking Maker is a perceived risk; teams won’t know what they’re getting until the Summer League (Maker did not play in any 5-on-5 games at the Draft Combine). However, there is something to be said for the possibility that he could be the player with the highest upside in this draft.  Maybe, at the end of the first round, a team will take a minimal risk on Maker.

He really is two years away from being two years away.  After that, we’ll see where he is.  But he’s going to be drafted, and I think the Suns would take a risk on him at 28.

Maker Comparison: ARVYDAS SABONIS/BISMACK BIYOMBO

29. San Antonio Spurs

The pick: Ivica Zubac

C/Bosnia and Herzegovina (last played for Mega Leks of the Serbian League)

You’re probably keenly aware of the San Antonio Spurs’ history of digging out international talent.  From Tony Parker to Manu Ginobili to Fabricio Oberto to international hero Boban Marjanovic, the team has been brilliant at finding good international players and developing them into solid NBA players.  This pick will be no different.

Ivica Zubac is a very talented player who would fit perfectly into the Spurs’ system.  He’s a great passer, particularly for a center, and he has a very good, balanced skill set offensively.  He reminds me an awful lot of Marc Gasol; unfortunately, he reminds me of Gasol in some negative ways, too.

The two have a lot of things in common, but their biggest similarity is their shared foot problems.  Zubac plays fairly low to the ground and his broken foot, suffered in 2014, is the reason why.  Add that on to a knee injury suffered last year and you get a picture of a somewhat crippled big man whose injury problems may get worse before they get better.

It’s the ultimate Spurs pick, though.  R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich have done a great job with international picks; they even have a couple stashed away in other countries.  They would be more than receptive to taking Zubac or another international player at 29, so don’t be surprised if and when they do.

And don’t be surprised if their pick becomes a future all-star, either.

Zubac Comparison: MARC GASOL

30. Golden State Warriors

The pick: Cheick Diallo

F/C/Kansas

Let’s face it; the Warriors really can’t make their team better through the draft.  They have the reigning unanimous MVP (Steph Curry) and two other stars (Draymond Green and Klay Thompson) on the payroll.  They’re doing pretty well for themselves.

And, according to Chris Broussard and his sources, they’re trying to make another splash in free agency:

That would shake up the NBA, to say the least. You could basically pencil in the Cavaliers and the Warriors for next year’s Finals if this happens.  I think that would surprise just about everyone. Anyway…

A logical and interesting choice here would be Kansas’ Cheick Diallo.  Diallo showed flashes of being a solid player last year at Kansas but played very limited minutes.  He made a name for himself at the Draft Combine and left his name in the draft off the heels of his performance there.  He’s extremely raw on both ends of the floor and would need extensive time in the D-League before coming to the NBA.  Going to the right situation is crucial to his development.

Golden State is that perfect situation.  I think they might take a risk on him at the end of round one.

Diallo Comparison: TRISTAN THOMPSON

What did I get right and wrong?  Leave a comment below or tweet me!

Cleveland Rocks: This Title Is LeBron James’ Greatest Achievement

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrates in the final moments of Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Ten days ago, the Cavaliers were dead.  Today, they’re NBA champions.

How and why we got here has everything to do with the savior of Cleveland and one of the best players to ever play this game: LeBron James.

In our country, we like to have debates about James’ greatness and whether or not he’s one of the best players of all-time.  We also question his ability to come up big in clutch situations; after all, he was just one game away from going to 2-5 in the Finals.

But frankly, these discourses are ridiculous.  They have become outlets for Twitter eggs LeBron haters to vent their frustrations about the best player in the game’s supposed “flaws”.  These people come in all shapes and sizes, and, as last night showed, from many different walks of life:

This is absurd.  Anyone who makes a sincere argument about James’ legacy compared to Jordan’s clearly doesn’t understand just how much basketball has changed over the past 20 years. These people also don’t understand that the two men are completely different players who do completely different things on the court.  LeBron has always been aware of this, thankfully.

He is LJ, one of the best individual talents the league has ever seen.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Let’s stop having preposterous debates about whether or not he’s better than Michael Jordan.  It really does not matter and I could not care less.

What does matter, though, is what he just accomplished with these Cavaliers: winning an NBA championship, the first for the city of Cleveland since 1964.

Moreover, it was the way they did it, coming back despite seemingly impossible odds to defeat the greatest regular season team in NBA history, that makes this so remarkable.  The Cavs demonstrated Cleveland resiliency with a flare for the dramatic, both during the playoffs and over the course of the regular season.

Let me put it to you this way: in mid-January, did you think there was any way this Cavs team could beat the Warriors?  On January 25th and in the wake of the firing of former head coach David Blatt, I wrote this about Cleveland’s prospects of winning a championship:

This is not a question about whether or not the Cavs can come out of the East. That question has been answered. However, Cleveland will have serious issues if they are matched up with the Spurs or Warriors in the Finals, and they may get beaten handily by either team.

Which is a fact that neither David Blatt, David Griffin nor Tyronn Lue can do anything about.

Okay, needless to say, I was wrong.  But I wasn’t alone; the Warriors defeated the Cavaliers by 34 the week before, and James’ team lacked any semblance of chemistry or connectivity; many saw this as a red flag for Cleveland’s title hopes.  Blatt was out as the head coach by that Friday and GM David Griffin immediately hired Tyronn Lue as the team’s permanent coach. Lue’s previous claim to fame was as the guy who got stepped over by Allen Iverson in Game 1 of the 2001 Finals.

The move paid dividends; Lue constructed his lineups to the team could play small.  Playing small is what allowed Cleveland to compete with the Warriors for seven games.

Another thing Lue did was take control of the locker room.  He did this by holding his star players, including James, accountable for their actions, something that Blatt always struggled with.  For example, in a huddle in the middle of a regular season game, Lue told LeBron to, well, you know.

Nevertheless, in spite of Lue’s control over the team and their new style of play, the Cavs would still need players to make individual sacrifices.  In some cases, these concessions came from their best players.  For example, Kevin Love missed Game 3 of the Finals with his concussion.  Prior to Game 4, he told Lue that if he was cleared, he would do whatever was necessary to win the game.  That included coming off the bench, which is exactly what he did in favor of a smaller lineup with Richard Jefferson.  The Cavs lost Game 4, but Love’s individual sacrifice of minutes and his usual starting role set the tone for the rest of the team.

With all of this being said, Cleveland still found itself down 3-1 in the Finals.  This deficit, exacerbated by the fact that Game 5 was at Oracle Arena, left the Cavs in a tough position; no team before this year had ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals.  James and sidekick Kyrie Irving would need to step up to keep the team’s season alive.

That’s exactly what they did, combining for 82 points in a 112-97 victory to force a Game 6 at Quicken Loans Arena.  Each player scored 41 points, marking the first time in NBA history that two teammates scored 40 or more points in a Finals game.

James continued his domination in Game 6, with a 41-point, 11-rebound, 8-assist performance to take the series to a deciding seventh game.  That game, and the NBA season, would come down to the wire in a fitting end to the Cavaliers’ year.

Game 7 was tight throughout, as the largest lead for either team was seven points.  A Klay Thompson layup with 4:39 to go in the fourth quarter tied the game at 89, and it would stay there for almost four minutes.  The Warriors’ best chance to score during this period came on a fast break with just under two minutes left.  As Andre Iguodala went up for the lay-in, James made what is likely the best block of his career and maybe one of the best in NBA history:

Roughly a minute later and with the game still tied at 89, Irving got a mismatch against Steph Curry.  The rest is history:

A Curry miss on the next possession gave the ball back to Cleveland.  James was fouled on a violent dunk attempt over Draymond Green and, in spite of hurting his wrist on the play, was able to sink one of two free throws to put the Cavs up four.

The Warriors missed two shots on the next possession, ending the game, the season, and Cleveland’s suffering.  After the game ended, many Cavalier players collapsed to the floor, overcome by the emotion of the moment and the enormity of the victory.

And after all that, the Cavs are, albeit improbably, champions today.

To conclude, the Cavs were a team of adversity this season. They faced issues with chemistry, coaching, and injuries to do something that’s never been done before: come back to win the NBA Finals after being down 3-1.  James was the unanimous Finals MVP; he averaged nearly 30 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists… for the entire series.  Yeah, not bad.  Not bad at all.

He may not be the best player of all-time, or even in the NBA today.  That doesn’t matter.  LeBron James just pulled off the greatest accomplishment of his career: bringing a championship back to The Land.

Let’s applaud him for that.

The NBA Finals Is Upside Down, So Let’s Just Enjoy It

lebron james game 6 stats nba finals 2016 points rebounds assists steals
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Nothing easy… we’re going to Game Seven baby!  Game Seven! GAME SEVENNNNNNNN! – Zaza Pachulia

I’m going to say something I never thought I’d say.  It took a long time to get to this point, but since we’re here, I might as well tell the truth.

I give up trying to figure out these NBA Finals.  The twists, the turns, the mouthpiece tosses.  I really don’t know how Game 7 will go and I’m still trying to figure out how we got here.  It’s not worth it to sort out the particulars of the first six games of this series because the Finals actually makes less sense to me when I do.

But we can at least try to decipher the first six games and look ahead to Sunday night’s Game 7.  The key word: try.

For one thing, we’ve found our Finals MVP.  Ironically, it’s the same person that should’ve won the award last year: LeBron James.  He’s actually leading every statistical category in this series, as noted by ESPN Stats and Info:

James has so clearly been the best player on the floor in this series.  Moreover, no player on the Warriors has distinguished himself nearly enough to wrest the award away from him, and that holds true even if Golden State wins Game 7.  If you’re only watching the Finals and didn’t follow the regular season, you would think that LeBron was the unanimous MVP and not Steph Curry.  That’s saying something.

And there’s more bad news for the Warriors.  Andre Iguodala, last year’s Finals MVP and primary LeBron defender, suffered a back injury in last night’s game.  While he’s definitely going to play on Sunday, his health may be the difference in the game. There’s another thing I never thought I’d say.

And Iguodala’s injury has other ramifications, too.  The Warriors are already thin in the frontcourt, with Andrew Bogut out for the Finals with a knee injury.  Without his minutes and the normal services of Iguodala, players like Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes would likely have to spend more time guarding James.

Green may be able to hold his own, but the bigger question mark is Barnes.  After I wrote about how Barnes would need to play better for the Warriors to win a championship, he promptly had the worst game of his life in Game 6.  Barnes went for 0 offensive rebounds, 0 assists, and 0 points last night.  This is hard to do (especially as a starter), but the legitimately did nothing on the offensive end of the floor.  So who knows where his mind is right now.

Yet another issue for the Warriors comes from an unlikely source: Steph Curry.  The back-to-back MVP struggled with foul trouble in Game 6, fouling out for the first time this season. After his sixth foul, he had this memorable reaction.  He would assuredly like to forget it:

Soon after Steph fouled out, his wife, Ayesha, tweeted out this thought.  I don’t even know what to say about it that would correctly encapsulate its stupidity:

Ayesha Curry puts out a theory (via Twitter).

Ironically, after saying she “won’t be silent”, she deleted the tweet.  It was a good move, as the tweet only received at least 28,758 retweets.  It’s not like the whole world saw it or anything.

But, regardless of his wife’s thoughts, Steph needs to stay out of foul trouble in Game 7.  The Warriors need his offense on the floor to win their second straight championship.  Even though he’s been outplayed by Kyrie Irving in this series, he is still capable of going off at any particular time.  His chances of doing so are exponentially greater if he doesn’t have to go to the bench with early foul woes.

And then there’s the issue of the Warriors’ “death lineup”.  While it had flourished earlier in the series, it was outscored 27-9 in Game 6.  Part of that is the injury to Iguodala, but the Cavs deserve a great deal of credit here.  On multiple occasions, the team used pick and roll action to switch Curry or Klay Thompson on James.  Curry’s foul trouble, combined with LeBron’s massive height and strength advantage over both players, led to several easy baskets for Cleveland.

The other problem is that without Bogut’s rim protection, the Warriors have no way of stopping these switches.  If Green (who plays center in the death lineup) helps on LeBron, he leaves Tristan Thompson open.  Because Bron is such a good passer and Thompson is so good at cutting toward the basket, the result often ends in an alley-oop dunk, as it did several times in Game 6.

Golden State has several issues.  These issues are so significant that they may make the difference in this series.  But this is about more than the Warriors; it’s also about LeBron.

We’ll never know why James was so much less assertive in the first four games as compared to his last two.  However, since he and Kyrie Irving decided to take things into their own hands the last two games, the Cavaliers have been a totally different team.

There is one Cavalier player, though, who could seriously step things up in Game 7: Kevin Love.  Last night, Love only played 12 minutes, plagued by foul trouble and ineffectiveness.  At this point, Tyronn Lue may want to bring Love off the bench outright, as he’s only getting role player minutes in his current capacity.  Richard Jefferson once again stepped into his role and outplayed him, and he may be worthy of the Game 7 nod.  Then again, the Cavs got here with Love, so their allegiance to him in their starting lineup is very understandable.

At this point, I’m about out of ways to figure out this series.  I don’t know how we’re here, with the greatest regular season team in NBA history on the verge of the worst collapse the league has ever seen.  But this series really is even; both teams have scored 610 points over the course of the last six games.  In spite of the fact that none of the games have been within single digits, the NBA Finals is as even as it could be.

I have a feeling Game 7 is going to be epic.  It will pit the league’s two biggest stars against one another in a winner-take-all bout to determine legacies and history.  I’ve given up trying to figure out this series, so I’m going to enjoy Sunday night’s game as the culmination of a fascinating NBA season.

You should too.

The Warriors Will Need More Than Just Draymond Green to Win This Series

Draymond Green
Photo Credit: Tony Dejak/Associated Press

The Draymond Green effect was on full display in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.  It wasn’t demonstrated by his play; rather, it was denoted by his absence.

Without him, the Warriors defense was swiss cheese.  When you combine that with the best games of LeBron James’ season and Kyrie Irving’s career, you get an offensive explosion from the Cavs and an extension of the NBA Finals.

If you don’t already know how we got here, Green was suspended for Game 5 after an incident in Game 4 in which Green hit James with a low blow after Lebron stepped over him.

On the floor, a double common foul on both players was the call; the NBA would review the incident and assess Green a Flagrant 1 foul.  Because of this, Green reached three flagrant foul points, with the other two coming in the wake of Green’s previous groin incident with Thunder big man Steven Adams. NBA rules state that if a player receives three flagrant points over the course of the playoffs, that player is suspended for one game.

After reviewing the incident, the league elected to suspend Green for Game 5.  The announcement set off a series of trash-talking remarks from players on both teams; Klay Thompson suggested that James’ feelings “just got hurt”.  Lebron responded by saying that he’s taken the high road for the last 13 years and that he would “do it again”.

The dispute was significant enough for Steph Curry’s wife, Ayesha, to respond on Twitter with a subtweet that even LeBron would be proud of:

Around the same time as that tweet was sent out, Warriors forward Marresse Speights sent out an emoji that spoke for itself:

But the Warriors, baby bottles, high roads, hurt feelings, and all, would have to play Game 5 without the best player in these Finals.  How would they respond?

By completely disintegrating, particularly on the defensive end.

While the team could do absolutely nothing about Kyrie and LeBron (both scored 41 points), there were times when its defense could have been much more competitive.  For example, take a look at this play, in which Richard Jefferson drives to the rim unimpeded:

It’s possible to think that Draymond Green’s presence may have shut that play down before it even developed.  However, there was another important Warrior also missing from that play and most of the second half: Andrew Bogut.

Bogut suffered a knee injury in the third quarter of Game 5 and it didn’t look good.  Watch as Bogut appears to hyperextend his left knee after blocking a J.R. Smith shot attempt:

Potentially losing Bogut presents myriad questions for the Warriors in Game 6.  For example, does Steve Kerr decide to start Festus Ezeli in Bogut’s spot and essentially keep the same starting lineup without him?  Or, does Kerr decide to go with his Death Lineup to start the game, with no true big man and Green at center?  Do James Michael McAdoo and Anderson Varejao get more playing time in the Australian’s stead?

There are many questions for the Warriors to sort out ahead of Thursday night’s Game 6, but there is one question mark the team can do nothing about.  That question mark is the play of forward Harrison Barnes.

Barnes, with all due respect, had himself a John Starks-ian performance on Monday.  He shot 2-14 from the field, including 1-6 from the three-point line.  He had open looks all night but just couldn’t hit any of them.  As ESPN’s Ben Alamar notes, this may be more of an anomaly than a trend:

This helps to explain why Barnes missed so many shots in Game 5; he just had a bad night.  He’s a good shooter (38% from deep in the regular season, 36% in the playoffs) and he had one of those games that all players have from time to time.

Nonetheless, when you factor in Green’s absence and Bogut’s injury, it was a really bad time for Barnes to disappear.  Golden State needed him to step up for Green, and he didn’t answer the bell.  On its own, Barnes’ struggle was no big deal, but in the context of his team’s circumstances, it was very troubling, to say the least.

The most surprising part about his no-show, though, is the fact that he’s actually having a pretty good series.  In the Finals, he’s averaged 11 points per game and 5.4 rebounds per contest; in other words, he’s essentially producing like he did in the regular season.  That’s all the Warriors need out of him, and if he has that type of game on Thursday in Cleveland, they should be pretty happy.

But there are other areas that could really give Golden State more of a boost.  For instance, take a look at the bench.  A second unit that was the story of the first two games of this series only went for 15 points in Game 5.  In fact, the trio of Klay Thompson, Steph Curry, and Andre Iguodala accounted for 77 of the Warriors’ 97 points on the evening.  This can at least partially be explained by Andre Iguodala’s move to the starting lineup to replace Green, but players such as Shaun Livingston and Marreese Speights (0 points on 0-6 shooting) need to step up in Game 6.

But, there is one more factor to examine here: can the Cavaliers sustain their performance from Monday night?  James and Irving combined for 82 points, each going for 41 (something that has never happened before in an NBA Finals), but that level of production probably can’t be repeated again.  Assuming it isn’t, who will step up for Cleveland to force a Game 7 and potentially even win a championship?  Kevin Love?  J.R. Smith?  It will be difficult for the Cavs to win two games in a row if their role players do not step up to help their other-worldly superstars.   There have been no indications in this series that they can or will.

The Warriors should get a boost from Green’s return.  He’s not the best player on the team; besides from Steph Curry, though, he may be the most important.  He should be able to help Golden State’s defense at the rim and on the perimeter.

But the injury to Andrew Bogut and the disappearance of Barnes and the bench should give the Warriors at least some cause for concern.  Role players will have to step up for the Warriors to win their second straight title.

If they don’t, Green’s return might not be enough to save them.

What Would a Pitcher Home Run Derby Actually Look Like?

Photo Credit: Jose Luis Villegas/The Sacramento Bee

Recently, there has been much discussion in and around baseball about whether or not Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner should participate in this year’s Home Run Derby.   It seems like a fun idea, but San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy, along with many others, is concerned about the injury potential that comes with swinging the bat as hard as possible once every 15 seconds (as we saw in last year’s Derby).

That being said, it looks like Bumgarner’s participation in this year’s event is at least slightly possible; he told reporters that he would “absolutely” want to take part if he was invited to participate.

I’ll say this right now: it’ll never happen.  There are too many people in the Giants organization telling him not to and the risk of injury is too present.  Both he and the Giants have too much to lose by doing this.  But the debate about Bumgarner got me to thinking: if we were to have a Home Run Derby with pitchers only, who would participate?

I thought it an interesting question; after all, there’s a reason why #PitchersWhoRake is a thing.  So I set out to find eight pitchers to fill my hypothetical, pitcher-only Derby.

So let’s start with the obvious…

Madison Bumgarner

Duh.  This guy is the best-hitting pitcher in baseball; in fact, he leads all active pitchers in home runs… and he’s only in his sixth full season.  His home run rate is comparable to Mike Trout and Bryce Harper (no, seriously) and he has the bona fide power needed to win a Home Run Derby.

For instance, listen to this account of a recent batting practice exhibition in St. Louis, as told to ESPN’s Buster Olney and relayed by Sports Illustrated’s Jay Jaffe:

Prior to Sunday night’s ESPN-televised game between the Giants and Cardinals, Bumgarner put on a show in batting practice at Busch Stadium, hitting more than a dozen homers, including two into the third deck and one into the uppermost fourth deck. A groundskeeper told ESPN’s Buster Olney that Mariners slugger Nelson Cruz is the only other player he can recall reaching such rarefied territory.

That would be perfect for the Derby.  And Petco Park has become more hitter-neutral since its fences were pulled in three years ago; this would give MadBum at least a fighting chance to get his share of dingers.

And that’s exactly what all of us would want to see.

Noah Syndergaard

Here, our Derby gets a solid injection of THOOOOOOORRRRRRRR…..

In any event, Syndergaard hits like a poor man’s Bumgarner; while his strikeout rate is awfully high, he usually finds a way to hit the ball hard when he makes contact.  And when he’s not throwing 100 MPH heat behind people’s backs or at their faces, he’s hitting impressive home runs to the deepest parts of the park (three, to be exact).  In fact, all three of his home runs have approached 400 feet.

While he might struggle trying to hit home runs to center over a wall 400 feet from home plate, a more friendly right field gives him a legitimate chance to compete.

So yeah, Syndergaard is a must for this event.

Jake Arrieta

Here’s another pitcher who seems to want in on the Home Run Derby fun.  This is what Arrieta had to say after Saturday’s win over the Braves, his tenth of the season:

If he’s in it, I need to be in it [….] That’s for sure. He can hit the ball a long way, but I can too.

Arrieta has impressive power to all fields; in a game last season against the Pirates, he hit a home run and a warning track fly at Wrigley.  His power has been majestic at times, and he would surely make the Derby more interesting.

He’d also give it some name recognition; after all, he’s only one of the two best pitchers in baseball.

Zack Greinke

A low-risk, potentially high-reward choice here.  Greinke has six career home runs, including two in the span of ten days last season with the Dodgers.

There’s not a whole lot more to say about this; Greinke has been one of the best hitting pitchers in baseball for several years, so he should be a safe pick for the Derby.

Adam Wainwright

And yet another pitcher seems to want a piece of the Home Run Derby pie.  This is what Wainwright tweeted in the wake of the news about Bumgarner and Wainwright:

Wainwright would be an excellent choice, with seven career home runs to his name.  And if he seems to want to do it, why should he be denied?

Yovani Gallardo

This is another safe choice.  But it brings another layer to this debate: Gallardo has not pitched in the National League since leaving the Brewers after the 2014 season.  He boasted tremendous power during this time, hitting 12 home runs and four in the 2010 season alone.  But how will he fare doing something that he hasn’t really done in almost two years?

He should be able to do pretty well; let’s just hope he isn’t too rusty.

Jose Fernandez

I don’t know about you, but I like my home runs with a little sauce.  This is what Fernandez did (and what ensued) when he hit his first career home run in 2013:

Fernandez in a Home Run Derby would be awesome.  Imagine a more high-energy, emotional version of Yoenis Cespedes from three years ago.  If that’s the Fernandez we get, we’d be in for a very fun night.

And that’s what this is about, not playing the game “the right way”.

Finally, for a bonus…

Bartolo Colon

Please, just please let this happen.  Please?

This would undoubtedly be the best part of a pitcher Derby.  Not much would be expected from Big Sexy, and any home run he hits would bring Petco Park to the ground.  Add that to the fact that he hit his first career home run at Petco and you get a no-brainer pick who would become the sentimental favorite just by stepping onto the field.

And we know that even if he doesn’t make contact, he’s still going to try really hard.  Sometimes even laughably hard.

But he’d make this Derby even more fun than it already is.

This is the Home Run Derby we will never have, but it’s the one we need. But according to ESPN’s Buster Olney, maybe there is a chance of it happening after all:

So you’re saying there’s a chance?  Count me in.

Let’s make this work and make baseball fun again in the process.

The Cavaliers Are Not a Better Team Without Kevin Love*

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 17: Kevin Love #0 and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrate during the second quarter of the NBA Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Detroit Pistons at Quicken Loans Arena on April 17, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Pistons 106-101. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Photo Credit: Jason Miller/Getty Images

*But his absence helps Cleveland stack up against the Warriors.

When Kevin Love suffered a concussion in the first half of Game 2 of the NBA Finals, opinion was split on his impact to a Cavs team facing a 2-0 deficit against the Golden State Warriors. Some thought Love’s injury and, later, his inability to play in Game 3 would spell doom for Cleveland; others felt his absence would actually help the team.  Still others believed that the series was already over regardless of Love’s presence.

Sure enough, the Cavaliers rocked the Warriors by 30 in Game 3, inserting themselves back into the series.  They did so without Kevin Love.

So it was no surprise that after the game, many pundits pointed to Love’s absence as a case of addition by subtraction rather than a crippling loss.  Here are just some headlines from the postgame reaction:

The Cavaliers Should Trade Kevin Love This Summer, But Where? (SB Nation)

Let’s Face the Facts: The Cavs Are Better Against the Warriors Without Kevin Love (CBS Sports)

It’s Time for Cavs, Kevin Love to Decide If They Fit in or Fit Out Together (Bleacher Report)

It looks like some are already jumping ahead to this summer, one that should see the salary cap rapidly approach $100 million.  Whether or not the Cavaliers wish to keep Love may be impacted by the fact that the team is almost $24 million over the league’s $84.7 million luxury tax for this season; Love’s contract calls for a cap hit of over $20 million every year until 2020. While Dan Gilbert has exhibited the willingness to win no matter the cost, financials could play into the Cavs’ ultimate decision on Love.

But there really isn’t time to worry about this now.  What we can pay attention to is the Cavaliers’ NBA Finals matchup with the defending champions and single-season wins record holders, the Golden State Warriors.

And the fact is, Cleveland is probably better, at least in this series, without him.

In Game 1, Love shot 7-17 and scored 17 points.  However, he only shot 3-10 from inside the paint and 2-5 from inside three feet.  The Cavs’ offense was off all night, resulting in a 38% shooting performance which included a 23-60 showing from LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Love.  The Warriors took Game 1 104-89, a win that saw Golden State’s bench score 45 points.  By contrast, Cleveland’s bench scored a paltry 10.

Both teams would move on to Game 2.  In that game, Love went up for a rebound against the Warriors’ Harrison Barnes.  Barnes drilled Love with an elbow to the back of the head, leaving him down in a heap as play continued.

 

Why the game proceeded as Love was down in such a dangerous area of the floor is beyond me.  Luckily, Draymond Green was able to jump to his side and avoid landing on him as he elevated for the subsequent layup, avoiding more serious injury for the Cavs’ big man.  The game should have been stopped to give Love time to get out of the way before grown men of his size (and bigger) came flying at his twisted body.  But I digress….

The Warriors would follow up on the injury by pulling away and taking Game 2 by 33 for a 2-0 lead and undisputed control of the series.  Love would enter the NBA’s concussion protocol after re-entering the game in the second half as a dizzied, compromised version of himself.  Some thought the Cavaliers would be a compromised version of themselves in Game 3.  As it turns out, they were just the opposite.

With Love’s inability to start Game 3, the team would turn to soon-to-be 36-year-old Richard Jefferson to start in his place. While many (including myself) called for Tyronn Lue to start Timofey Mozgov, the team’s only true center, the move to Jefferson wound up paying dividends.  The team shot 52.7% from the field, including 12-25 from three, en route to a 120-90 drubbing of the Warriors.

While there are other factors at play (namely the struggles of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson), what the Cavaliers did on Wednesday night was nothing short of remarkable.  Jefferson’s insertion into the starting lineup made a big difference in several ways.

For one, the Cavs’ offense was run much more simply with Jefferson.  Kyrie Irving and LeBron James handled the ball on almost every possession.  Decisions were made far more quickly.  The ball movement was far sharper than it was in Games 1 and 2; 17 and 15 assists in the first two games, respectively, became 23 assists in Game 3.

Nonetheless, we do need to look beyond the numbers for a full explanation of the Cavs’ stunning turnaround.  For as simple as this sounds, James, Irving, and the rest of the offense executed in ways they didn’t in the Bay Area.  For example, look at J.R. Smith.  Smith, the alwaysenigmatic sharpshooter who has found a way to revitalize his career in Cleveland’s winning environment, struggled to patch together any offense in the first two games.  Lo and behold, Game 3 rolls around and Smith puts up 20 points on the strength of five threes.

That leads us to another theory: do the role players for each team play better at home?  In watching the Cavaliers in this series, the answer would have to be yes.  Role players such as Smith and Tristan Thompson, who struggled in Oakland, pieced together outstanding performances in Game 3, doing their part to turn the tide of the Finals.

That being said, the Cavs need to sustain their performance in Game 4 and beyond.  Curry and Klay Thompson will figure out their perimeter woes sooner or later, and when they do, the Warriors will be difficult to contain.

But while sustainability may be an issue, the Cavaliers are better equipped to win this series with Jefferson in the starting lineup. In Game 3, Jefferson’s offensive rating (140) and defensive rating (94) were just two figures of how his presence improved the rest of his team.  As I alluded to before, the Cavs just played faster with him in the starting lineup; that applies to both ends of the floor.  All of a sudden, defensive switches were far quicker.  The Dubs’ pick-and-roll wasn’t as deadly as it was in the first two games.  And, last but not least, the Cavs were able to run their offense through James and Irving, which greatly simplified Cleveland’s offensive sets and put less impetus on role players to create baskets.

And I’ll say this since we seem to like talking about this year’s Finals in the context of last year’s: is Richard Jefferson the 2016 version of Andre Iguodala?  Unlike Iguodala, Jefferson did start five games in the regular season, but the similarities between the two players and their teams’ circumstances from last year to this are interesting, to say the least.  Iguodala was undoubtedly asked to do more a year ago, from defending LeBron to helping the slumping offense go small; Jefferson’s main role is to knock down threes and defend the Warriors’ wings (Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, Green).  Golden State’s primary offense does not come from those players, so RJ’s assignment becomes much easier.

But Jefferson’s role in the Cavs’ (at least temporary) turnaround is nothing short of impressive.  The offense and defense run far more smoothly with him on the floor, something that can’t be said about Love.  Love is a better player than Jefferson at this point in their respective careers and in most matchups, the former helps the team win.

However, the best starting lineup for the Cavaliers to combat the Warriors is one that includes Richard Jefferson, not one with Kevin Love.  And after seeing how well Jefferson played on Wednesday, why shouldn’t he start again in Game 4?  It is a tough quandary for Lue (who, all told, is only 58 games into his NBA head coaching career), but how could you break up a starting lineup that went a combined +113 in Game 3?  I would think that Love has to come off the bench, wouldn’t you?

If he does, the Cavaliers would probably be better for it.  That’s not something that is usually said about Love, but his style of play and slow-footed defense is incompatible for this series and this opponent.

But the player who can hold his own against the Warriors and help his team succeed is Richard Jefferson.

And that’s why he should get the start in Game 4.

Here We Go Again: NBA Finals Preview

Warriors vs. Cavaliers: Score, Highlights and Reaction from 2016 Regular Season
Photo Credit: Tony Dejak/Associated Press

After four games of the Conference Finals, the respective fates of the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers were greatly in question.

Both teams experienced unexpected outcomes; the Cavs split the first four games of their series against the Toronto Raptors, including two losses in Canada, while the Warriors fell behind three games to one to the Oklahoma City Thunder.  Both teams were expected to win their respective conferences; Cleveland, in particular, was expected to sweep the Raptors or defeat them in five games.  Consequently, it was shocking to see both teams appear so vulnerable for such long periods of time.

Both teams also had notable regular seasons, to say the least.  The Warriors set the single-season wins record (73), breaking the previous record of 72 set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls.  The Cavaliers, on the other hand, fired head coach David Blatt on January 22nd and replaced him with Tyronn Lue.  After Blatt started the season 30-11, Lue finished it 27-14; the combined 57-25 record was good enough for the Cavaliers to earn home-court advantage for the entirety of the Eastern Conference playoffs.  However, many questions still remained about the team’s ability to beat the best teams in the West.

And yet, here we are.  The Cavaliers took Games 5 and 6 in decisive fashion to beat the Raptors and get LeBron James to his sixth straight NBA Finals.  The Warriors improbably became just the tenth team in NBA history to overcome a 3-1 playoff deficit and took down the Thunder in seven hard-fought games.

Both teams overcame obstacles to get to this point.  Golden State endured a knee injury that forced point guard and 2-time MVP Steph Curry to miss two weeks in early May.  In spite of this, the Dubs went 3-1 in four full games without him.  The MVP would come back in Game 4 of the team’s second-round series against the Trail Blazers. With Golden State up two games to one, Curry came off the bench and dropped 17 points in overtime, an NBA playoff record, to carry the Warriors to a 3-1 series lead and full control over Portland.

Curry scored 40 points for the game and announced himself to the rest of the world as fully healthy.  That did not necessarily apply to his rhythm and comfort level in game action, however.

Curry would struggle to find his mojo in the first four games of the Western Conference Finals.  In those four games, Steph would shoot just 31-74 (41.9%) from the field and a pedestrian 16-43 (37.2%) from deep.  He surely did not look like the best player in basketball, and many were curious as to why.  This report from The Vertical shed some light on the situation, stating that Curry was not fully healed:

Curry has been a shell of himself – missing shots, throwing away passes, losing his dribble and completely unable to prove that there’s Curry-esque agility in that knee. “He’s playing at 70 percent, at best,” a source close to Curry told The Vertical. Curry refuses to make excuses, but privately the Thunder see something – no explosion, no ability to make the bigs switching onto him pay a price. Nineteen points on 20 shots Tuesday night bore no resemblance to the two-time NBA Most Valuable Player.

While it was nice to have a potential reason for Curry’s struggles, the Warriors needed to win the next three games to make it back to the NBA Finals.  Without having Curry’s usual production, this goal looked almost unattainable.  And then Klay Thompson happened.

Thompson, the other half of the Splash Brothers duo, has been the Warriors’ best player in the postseason.  He’s shot 45% from three-point range, averaged over 26 points per game, and carried the team at various times coinciding with Curry’s struggles and injuries.  After a narrow victory in Game 5 and the continuation of Curry’s woes to start Game 6, he would need to put the Warriors on his back once more to extend their season.

And Thompson would answer the call in grand fashion.  His 11 three-pointers set a new playoff record and propelled the Warriors to a 108-101 victory to force a Game 7.

The exhibition was one of the most memorable single-game playoff performances in recent memory.  It was almost as if Thompson wasn’t even looking at the rim on some of his deep shots, and yet it didn’t seem to matter.  He carried the Dubs to Game 7 all on his own, and the rest of the team would take it from there.  Curry erupted for 36 points in the clincher, Thompson added another 21, and the Warriors defeated the Thunder 96-88 to advance to their second straight NBA Finals.

The Cavaliers’ playoff journey has not been nearly as arduous.   Nonetheless, it has been just as impressive as their West counterparts. Cleveland started the playoffs with a sweep of the Detroit Pistons, a series that featured three close games and this Kyrie Irving dagger to finish off Game 3:

Kyrie, 🗡

A video posted by Bleacher Report (@bleacherreport) on

 

The Cavs followed up their first-round performance with an equally impressive second-round sweep of the Atlanta Hawks.  Wins in the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals pushed Cleveland to a 10-0 start to the playoffs.  The team missed its chance to tie the 1989 Los Angeles Lakers for the best start in playoff history (11-0) with a loss in Game 3, but starting the playoffs on a historic tear doesn’t usually guarantee a title.

Although the Cavs’ series with the Raptors went to six games, it wasn’t especially close.  Cleveland outscored Toronto by an average of 15.5 points per game; for context, the 2014 San Antonio Spurs outscored the Heat by 14 points per game in that year’s Finals, and that series only went five games.  Even though the series was tied heading into Game 5, the Raptors never really stood a chance.  Their fans were pretty darn awesome, though:

With the Game 6 win, LeBron James advanced to his sixth straight Finals and became only the eighth player to achieve this feat.  Here are the other seven:

  1. Bill Russell
  2. Sam Jones
  3. K.C. Jones
  4. Satch Sanders
  5. Tommy Heinsohn
  6. Frank Ramsey
  7. Bob Cousy

If you didn’t latch on right away, all seven players were on the Boston Celtics’ 1950s-60s teams that went to ten straight NBA Finals from 1957 to 1966.  The fact that James has joined their company with more parity in the league and with two different organizations is nothing short of remarkable.

With all of this being said, the 2016 NBA Finals should be a compelling series.  Oh, and did I mention it’s a rematch of last year’s Finals?  This, as well as the individual players and collective talent on both teams, should make this year’s Finals very competitive and entertaining.  Let’s preview the series with a couple of major keys to the outcome of the series.

Pick-and-Roll

Some would argue that last year’s NBA Finals turned in the 4th quarter of Game 3.  In that 4th quarter, the Warriors discovered David Lee, his passing, and the efficiency of the high pick-and-roll.  In 13 minutes, the cast-off former double-double machine was +17 and went a perfect 4-for-4 from the field.

Lee is gone now, but the pick-and-roll game of the Warriors remains. Whether Curry, Thompson, or Shaun Livingston is the primary ball-handler, roll men Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut, and Festus Ezeli will present unique challenges for the Cavaliers. Bogut is one of the best-passing big men in the game and is almost always looking to pass when he rolls to the rim. Ezeli can finish with authority inside while Iguodala and Green can drive to the rim, take a jump shot, or make an extra pass to the Warriors’ dangerous shooters.

But there’s another reason why the pick-and-roll will be such a huge key for the Cavaliers, and it lies in the players who will be defending it.  As Zach Lowe of ESPN writes, the two-man combination of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love is not exactly adept at pick-and-roll defense:

But Irving and Love have been the central players in Cleveland’s worst breakdowns. Opponents in the playoffs have scored 1.09 points per chance when they involve those two as the primary pick-and-roll defenders in a play that leads directly to a shot attempt, drawn foul or turnover, per SportVU data provided to ESPN.com. That would have ranked last by a mile among 119 two-man combos that defended at least 250 pick-and-rolls in the regular season, per that SportVU data set.

Toronto was able to exploit this weakness with the two-man pick-and-roll combo of Kyle Lowry and Bismack Biyombo.  With the Warriors’ offensive firepower, they could rely on pick-and-roll action to stifle the Cavs’ defense.  Look out for this early on in Game 1 as a harbinger of how the game, and, for that matter, the series, will go.

LeBron’s Jumper, His Fatigue, and How They’re (Kind of) Related

It’s no secret that LeBron James’ jump shot is not quite as effective as it was in years past.  Statistics back this up: his three-point percentage this season was the lowest since his rookie year (30.9%) and his deep shooting has regressed every year since winning his last MVP in 2012-13.  Accordingly, Bron has adjusted: his average distance on field goal attempts is at a career low (9.6 feet) and he’s taking the most attempts from inside three feet in his NBA career (45.9%).

Part of this adjustment can be attributed to James’ realization that he must get better shots.  However, one can also credit the King’s improved shot selection with Tyronn Lue’s offense, one in which the ball moves as frequently as the players.  LeBron just isn’t asked to do as much in Lue’s system, and that’s a good thing: his Usage Rate in these playoffs is down significantly from last year’s.  Of course, last year’s Cavs were decimated by injuries, but a fresher LeBron means a better LeBron.

And a better LeBron means a better Cavalier team, certainly better than the one that lost to the Warriors in six games a year ago.

Pace…. And Space

The Cavaliers have possessed the most efficient offense in these playoffs, averaging over 119 points per 100 possessions.  Cleveland only averages 89.7 possessions per game, which is relatively low, especially compared to their Bay Area counterparts.  The Warriors average nearly 100 possessions per game and feast off the opponent’s misses and turnovers for fast break opportunities and easy baskets.

Aside from the pick-and-roll defense of the Cavs, this will probably be the biggest indicator of the outcome of this series.  If the Cavaliers’ offense is allowed to set up in the half court and run its sets, Cleveland will be in very good shape, especially considering how their offense has fared these playoffs.  However, if the game is played at a more up-and-down tempo, the Dubs should fare well.

While Tyronn Lue has sped up the Cavs’ offense since taking over as head coach, the team still needs to execute.  If they can execute, they could feast on a Warrior defense that has been susceptible to slumps this postseason.  Another reason why the Cavaliers’ offense has been so lethal is because of new additions.  Aside from getting Love and Irving back healthy, the team has added Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye via free agency and trade, respectively.  Frye is shooting 26-45 (57.8%) from deep this postseason while Jefferson has provided valuable minutes off the bench.

Needless to say, LeBron James won’t have to do it by himself this time around.  He has some very dangerous weapons beside him now.

The Prediction

I really struggled with this one.  There are good arguments for both teams winning the Larry O’Brien trophy, and either way, it should be an enjoyable, competitive, and (hopefully) long series.  There are so many interesting storylines to this year’s Finals (Cavs vs. Warriors rematch, Steph vs. LeBron, etc.) and I think I’m speaking for everyone in saying that I hope it lives up to the hype.

Nevertheless, I have to make a pick.  I’m taking the Golden State Warriors to win their second straight title.  I have the series going the distance, and I really think it could be one of the best NBA Finals series ever.

But here’s to hoping injuries don’t determine the outcome like they did last year.

**All Statistics courtesy of BasketballReference unless otherwise noted