There have been a lot of good stories in the league this season: the great play of the No. 1 pick Karl-Anthony Towns, the continued excellence of the Atlanta Hawks, the rebirth of Celtic Cool in Boston, the return to full health of Paul George, an unexpected playoff run in Portland, the triple-double frenzy of Russell Westbrook, the can't-take-your-eyes-off-them Cleveland Cavaliers, and on and on.
And there have been stranger ones: Kobe's Farewell Tour, turning a franchise inside-out, the Philadelphia 76ers gradually saying goodbye to The Process, whatever happened between Derek Fisher and Matt Barnes, the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards imploding and missing the playoffs, George Karl, DeMarcus Cousins, Vivek Ranadive and Bob and Ted and Carol and Alice and everybody else involved in the soap opera in Sacramento, and on and on.
But there were only two great stories in the league this season: the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs. And at the end of the day, it was Golden State, the defending champions, who told the tale of the regular season in historic fashion.
Even as their coach lay low, not able to coach them the first half of the season, the Warriors came out with a singular motivation: to lay fallow any notion that they were "lucky" to win the title last year. By winning their first 24 games, the Warriors made clear their intentions not just to defend their title, but to leave a marker as one of the greatest teams ever to play. And this morning, they're on the verge of doing just that.
With a win Wednesday against the Memphis Grizzlies, the Warriors will set the all-time regular season win mark, at 73-9. Nine losses. In a season. That's unpossible. (Yeah, I made that word up.) By way of comparison, the 76ers have had separate losing streaks this season of 18, 12, 13 and 12 games.
The Warriors have done more than win. They've won with joy and passion, excitement and defense. I saw the Bulls win 72 games. I was at win No. 70 in 1995-96, on the road against the Milwaukee Bucks, a win which broke what was then the all-time mark (the 69-13 Los Angeles Lakers of 1971-72, who also won 33 straight games). I didn't think I'd live to see anyone equal 72, much less break it.
Yet, here we are.
So when assessing who should get individual awards this season, it's hard not to notice the league has tilted. There are the Warriors, over here, and just about everyone else way over there. (The Spurs, trying to deny the gravity of age, are still in the middle, their hands on the rope, coach Gregg Popovich yelling into a megaphone to not give an inch, not one inch.) It has made many of this year's selections, especially starting at the top, much easier than normal.
Let's put it this way: I won't have to defend my James Harden vote this year.
And yet, I still feel compelled to say/write, as I do every year: this is my ballot, not yours. The picks I made below only have to make sense to me, not you. When and if you get to make selections, you're free to use whatever criteria you deem relevant. But it won't be relevant for me. So, please, don't waste your bandwidth sending me some kind of Pythagorean formula that "proves" Markel Brown is better than Kevin Durant. It won't change my mind.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
The Winner:Stephen Curry, Warriors
The Runner-Up:Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
The Others: Russell Westbrook, Thunder; LeBron James, Cavaliers; Kevin Durant, Thunder
Easy call, and I will frankly be stunned if it is not unanimous. Curry is so much better than he was last season, when he won his first Kia MVP, in so many ways on the floor. Forget the otherworldly accuracy from distance for a minute. Curry has become a multi-purpose destroyer of defensive worlds. He is not the fastest guy with the ball, but no one is quicker. There is a difference. The ability to change direction and angles is what made Steve Nash great. Curry has that same level of athletic ability.
His ballhandling, occasionally raggedy in his first four seasons, became sublime this year, the result of next-level offseason drills and work with his personal trainer, Brandon Payne. (Rarely noted: how strong Curry has become; the core strength and leg strength allow him to take all manner of contact and keep firing, and to run all day.) He can create space in a phone booth (kids! Ask your grandparents what a phone booth is), giving him that half-second he needs to get off his shot. If defenses crowd him, he now finishes with either hand, in traffic, while off-balance, through contact -- whatever you throw at him, he beats it.
Per NBA.com/Stats, among players who have driven to the basket six or more times per game this season, Curry leads the league in shooting percentage, making 56.0 percent of those drives. He leads the league in points per game scored on pull-up jumpers (10.5). He's always moving, always available. And, as we all see, no one in the history of this game has shot the ball so consistently from so far away. It's been a transcendent season for Curry and the Warriors, who play hard and with joy, rarely are rattled, have brought casual fans into the NBA tent and are on the verge of having the greatest regular season ever.
I accept the notion from those who say Draymond Green is just as vital, if not more so, than Curry to the Warriors' success. But Curry is, clearly, more valuable. He tilts the floor, puts unbearable pressure on opponents, then cracks their will in two -- nightafter nightafter night.
In most any other year, Leonard would get more votes and consideration for MVP; there isn't a better two-way player in the game today. His development and leadership (like Curry, he doesn't say it, he does it on the floor) have centered the Spurs and accelerated the team's transition and rebuild, leading to a breathtaking season. San Antonio is now well poised to enter the post-Duncan era, with Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge re-opening the championship window for another five or six years.
Leonard is now the focal point of the Spurs' offense, consistently capable of scoring off a simple screen, one-dribble pullup, in transition, on the corner three -- he's got 'em all in his tool bag. And those monster hands of his allow him easy access to offensive rebounds and putbacks in the paint. Career highs this season in points, rebounds and assists have followed, along with a top-10 PER. Yet Leonard's calling card remains the manner in which he slowly and consistently strangles the opponent's top scorers.
Look at this compilation of Leonard's defensive versatility. He guards the likes Chris Paul, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Rudy Gay, LeBron James, and on and on -- in space, in the post, fighting through screens. He never gives in, he never gives up. It is a clinic in how physical ability, intelligence, intensive study and pride can combine to make up a man who is the best, without peer, at what he does.
Westbrook has brought his blunt-force karma to the floor almost every night this season in Oklahoma City, a cocktail of talent and hubris and will. Part of the thrill in watching him pile up triple doubles is part of what makes the Thunder so compelling -- he does it, seemingly, in a vacuum, its own set piece. And it's led him to the brink of posting the most triple-doubles in a season in nearly three decades. Westbrook is tied with Magic Johnson's mark of 17 triple-doubles set in 1988-89, and trails Johnson's 18 in 1981-82.
It hasn't come at the expense of quality. Westbrook is shooting a career best in Effective Field Goal Percentage this season at .490 (to be fair, it's the result of his being better shooting two-pointers this season, breaking 50 percent on twos for the first time in his career. He's still not very good behind the arc, shooting just 30 percent on 3-pointers, pretty much his norm the last few seasons).
Whatever issues the Thunder may have in finishing games this season are worth a separate and worthwhile discussion. But Westbrook has excelled much of the season and deserves accolades -- this isn't a contract year push.
James continues to fill up the box and be durable. Back problems have caused him to miss more games this season for scheduled rest than for injury, even as he passed the 38,000-minute mark for his career. Other than an alarming dropoff in 3-pointers this season (he's shooting a ghastly 29.3 percent, the worst since his rookie season), he's looked pretty much the same as he has his whole career.
The Cavs have had some stumbles, to be sure, this season, but they're nonetheless going to have a better record than last season and be the top seed in the Eastern Conference -- and the inside route to The Finals. There is no question we take James's greatness for granted -- (ital)another 55-60 wins? Bor-rring.(endital)
Just consider this: if and when Cleveland wins its 12th playoff game, James would be heading to his sixth straight Finals, tying Hall of Famer Satch Sanders. Only six other players -- like Sanders, all Celtics -- have been in more consecutive Finals: Bill Russell (10), Sam Jones and Tom Heinsohn (9), K.C. Jones and Frank Ramsey (8) and Bob Cousy (7). That's big-time company for James to keep.
Durant has answered all the questions about his health this season, coming back from foot surgeries that held him to 27 games last year. The scoring and efficiency are as potent as ever, and KD has also gotten it done on the glass, posting a career-best 8.3 rebounds per game. He's second in the league to Curry in Player Efficiency Rating (28.1) and Player Impact Estimate (19.3). As for his future, his June will have a major impact on his July, if you know what I'm saying.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
The Winner: Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves
The Runner-Up:Kristaps Porzingis, Knicks
The Others:Jahlil Okafor, 76ers; Emmanuel Mudiay, Nuggets; Justise Winslow, Heat
Another wire job, this one by Towns, head and shoulders above all other first-year players this season -- although it should be noted that this was an unusually potent group of first-year players. Guys like Myles Turner (Pacers), Josh Richardson (Heat), Larry Nance, Jr. (Lakers), Jonathan Simmons and Boban Marjanovic (Spurs) and Devin Booker (Suns) all were solid contributors to teams both good and bad. And while D'Angelo Russell made a huge error in judgment off the floor in surreptitiously taping teammate Nick Young about private issues during a conversation (the conversation subsequently being uploaded for public consumption), he flashed more than once on it, giving Laker fans at least some hope for the future.
But Towns was the best this season, by far. He leads all rookies in points (18.3) and rebounds (10.5) per game, is second in blocks (1.7) and second in field goal percentage, just scratching the surface of his potential.
He already has a veteran's feel for things and rarely looked rushed with the ball in his hands. His presence took the light and heat off of Andrew Wiggins, who seems to prefer it that way. That alone makes Towns worth his weight in gold and future max salary for Minnesota, which has the best one-two punch of young players in the league going forward.
Porzingis tailed off noticeably as the season went on and the Knicks wore down, but at better than 14.3 points and 7.3 rebounds (second only to Towns among rookies) per outing, Porzingis more than exceeded the low expectations of Knicks fans, who predictably booed his selection on 2015's Draft night. He wasn't quite the shooter his supporters predicted he'd be coming over from Sevilla in Spain's ACB League, but with time and added strength, you can expect him to improve his shooting numbers across the board.
Okafor made news off the floor for all the wrong reasons, getting pulled over by Delaware police for excessive speeding over the Ben Franklin Bridge in October, and getting in a fight with a fan in Boston outside a club in November. The 76ers suspended him for two games in December, and he's been trouble-free since, finishing the season averaging 17.5 points and 7.0 rebounds.
Mudiay was among the bright spots in Denver's rebuilding season, leading all rookies in assists, and averaging more dimes per game than the likes of Tony Parker or Kemba Walker. He will have to improve his shooting, to be sure. Only six of the 39 rookies who, like Mudiay, played 30 or more games this season shot worse than his 36.1 percent.
Winslow and Richardson contributed immediately upon arrival in Miami, with Winslow giving the Heat major minutes after injuries decimated Miami's depth, and Richardson hitting at a ridiculous clip on threes, shooting 48.2 percent in a little less than 21 minutes per night.
SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR
The Winner:Enes Kanter, Thunder
The Runner-Up:Andre Iguodala, Warriors
The Others: Jamal Crawford, Clippers; Jrue Holiday, Pelicans; Will Barton, Nuggets; Shaun Livingston, Warriors; Dennis Schroder, Hawks; Evan Turner, Celtics; Jeremy Lin, Hornets; Mirza Teletovic, Suns
There are a lot of good candidates for the award this season, but Kanter's offensive punch off the bench for Oklahoma City has been remarkable and worthy of the honor.
The Thunder designed its bench this season to run through Kanter, in the first year of his four-year, $70 million deal, and he has delivered: 12.5 points, 7.9 rebounds, 57.7 percent shooting (including a True Shooting Percentage of .625 and an Effective Field Goal Percentage of .582), an offensive rating at 109.5 and a top-10 PER -- all in less than 21 minutes per game.
Per NBA.com/Stats, Kanter's 23 double-doubles and his Player Impact Estimate of 16.0 are the highest among reserves who've appeared in 60 or more games this season.
The knock on Kanter has always, and correctly, been that he's a defensive sieve. Well, he still isn't any great shakes individually at that end, with a defensive rating of 107.1, and he's not on any of the Thunder's best defensive five-man units, which are all manned at center by Steven Adams. But given the expectations were so low to begin with, I can't downgrade Kanter for not exceeding them. Depends on what you want from your sixth man, I guess; I prefer scoring.
But you could give this to Iguodala and I wouldn't argue, as he is a prominent presence on Golden State's "Lineup of Death" that finishes games, along with Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Green at center. Iguodala leads all bench players with 60 or more appearances this season in pace (the number of possessions per 48 minutes), at 102.4, and in offensive rating (113.8). His defensive rating of 99.4 is 14th among such bench players.
Numbers aside, the Warriors are just tougher at both ends of the floor when Iguodala is playing, capable of getting multiple stops and scoring in transition. He's the tipping point defensively and with he, Thompson and Green, Golden State is nearly impregnable in the halfcourt. He's just coming off a sprained ankle, but he's played more than enough games this season to meet anyone's criteria (and, indeed, the only criteria for Kia Sixth Man according to the league is coming off the bench in more games than you start).
Crawford, one of just four players (Kevin McHale, Ricky Pierce, Detlef Schrempf) to win the award twice, is as lethal as ever, adding five more four-point plays to give him 47 for his career, the most ever. At 36, he is still unguardable, still able to get his shot off any time, against any defender. His offensive rating in the last five minutes this season is a ridiculous 126.1, best among all bench players with 20 or more appearances in games down the stretch.
The Pelicans opted to bring Holiday off the bench for the bulk of the season as he was on a minutes restriction while recovering from an ankle injury. He led all reserves this season in scoring 17.0 per gameand assists (6.4), but since he's supposed to start, it's hard to think of him as a true sixth man.
Denver's Barton set a career best this season at 14.4 points a game. Livingston has been sensational for the Warriors, giving Golden State mismatches almost every game when he comes in, hitting the baseline turnaround over smaller points easily, hitting 55 percent from the floor. Schroder, Turner and Lin have all been outstanding for their respective playoff teams. With 171 3-pointers and counting this season, Teletovic has set the record for threes in one year by a bench player (originally set by Chuck Person in 1994-95, who made 164).
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
The Winner: Stephen Curry, Warriors
The Runner-Up:Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
The Others: Kemba Walker, Hornets; Jae Crowder, Celtics; C.J. McCollum, Blazers
Normally I think voters who double up on awards are trying to be cutesy, looking to show they can see deeper into the game than the rest of us. But people touting Curry for Kia MIP this year have a point. He is, demonstrably, a better basketball player this season than last, and as he was the MVP last season, by definition that has to be a significant improvement.
As stated above, it starts with an improved handle, which makes Curry even more dangerous from more spots on the floor. He does so much more now than just spot up behind the arc. When you watch the Warriors, just watch how much Curry moves during a game, and how many layups he gets -- or drives that lead to open threes for teammates. Per NBA.com/Stats, among players who drive at least twice a game (defined as a touch starting 20 feet from the basket, and ending 10 feet or less from the basket, not including fast breaks), only Kevin Durant shot a higher percentage -- 55.8 percent -- than Curry's 55.4 percent. Last season, he shot 53.8 percent on such shots.
This helps explain how Curry has taken more shots this season than last, yet is shooting a higher percentage.
But I shouldn't bury the lead, either. Curry's become, somehow, even more accurate on long shots, shooting a career-best 45.2 percent on 3-pointers. That included, according to basketball-reference.com, a field goal percentage of .529 -- that's 52.9 percent -- on shots between 28 and 43 feet this season -- 43 feet being about a step or two inside the midcourt line. And it's not like he's taken a handful of such shots this year; he's 45 of 85.
Walker shot 30 percent on 3-pointers last season and couldn't make any defender come out from under a screen. He worked on it all summer and with Charlotte's shooting and ballhandling coaches once camp began to become more consistent. This year he's shooting almost 38 percent on 3-pointers, and that's opened up the floor for him. His improved handles allow him to finish through traffic for the playoff-bound Hornets.
The Bucks, in need after Michael Carter-Williams went down for the season, gave Antetokounmpo the ball earlier than planned and started him down the road of playing point guard. And Jason Kidd has said they're not turning back next year, even assuming Carter-Williams returns to health. "The Greek Freak" has been that nice with the ball in his hands, with five triple-doubles since he's taken over at the point. That's the potential of a 6-foot-11 kid with Antetokounmpo's wing span and stride having the rock every night.
But he's also gotten much better at other things, too. Despite playing just less than four more minutes a night than last season, Antetokounmpo is shooting a higher percentage this year, both overall and on threes, averages almost one rebound more than last year (7.6 to 6.7) and is dishing out, as noted above, way more assists.
Crowder was already good during his two-plus seasons in Dallas, but he's become even better in Boston, earning more minutes with improved two-way play. Before suffering a sprained ankle early in March, he had solidified himself as a full-time starter that coach Brad Stevens felt comfortable giving the ball to in key situations. Scoring better than 14 points a game in 31 minutes, Crowder became credible for a full season behind the arc (34 percent), while also becoming a much better playmaker and creator.
McCollum flashed last year when Wesley Matthews' torn Achilles' forced him into the lineup in the postseason. But he's jumped a couple of levels this season, averaging almost 21 a game and dramatically raising his shooting and playmaking all over the floor as a strong second option in Portland to Damian Lillard. I acknowledge that my previous knowledge of McCollum as he dominated the Patriot League (and my beloved American University Eagles) for Lehigh may color my view of how "improved" he is. I always thought he was going to be a very good pro if he got in the right situation and played with teammates that could complement his game. He has.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
The Winner: Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
The Runner-Up: DeAndre Jordan, Clippers
The Others:Paul Millsap, Hawks; Hassan Whiteside, Heat; Draymond Green, Warriors; Tim Duncan, Spurs
In the small-ball era, versatility is king, and no one gets more heaped on his plate, while also being asked to carry the offensive load at the other end, as Leonard, who's top 10 in offensive AND defensive rating (per NBA.com/Stats). Jordan is the only other player who can make that claim, which is why he's second on the DPOY ballot. But he doesn't have to cover as much ground at either end as Leonard, which is why the owner of Kawhi Island gets the nod here.
How good has Millsap been defensively this season? Try top 15 in the league in steals (12th), blocks (10th), defensive rating (sixth) and defensive Win Shares (first). Throw in a top 20 in rebounds per game (9.0, 18th in NBA), and you have a multi-skilled big who can handle switches, screens and isos without a problem, yet still get back to the rim to handle the defensive glass. The same goes for Green, who can bang with LaMarcus Aldridge one possession and handle Tony Parker in space on the next.
Whiteside hasn't started much for the Heat of late, but that shouldn't be held against him. He's a better fit with the Heat's 3-pointer-happy second unit -- which funnels everything to him in the paint better than the slower, Chris Bosh-less starters. No matter when he appears, Whiteside remains a defensive terror as you can almost see the hesitation from drivers before they even get in the paint. Yet he still swats indiscriminately, at a league-best 3.7 blocks per game, with nearly a dozen rebounds as well. It's impressive to see someone who can still impact the paint these days as well as Whiteside, who's due for a monster payday as the premier big man free agent available this summer.
Duncan has teamed with Aldridge to make San Antonio's paint as tight as ever, finishing second to Whiteside in defensive rating. Watching a man who'll turn 40 at the end of the month still have a meaningful contribution to make to a championship contending team is remarkable, and a tribute to the pride and intelligence of the soon-to-be Hall of Famer.
COACH OF THE YEAR
The Winner: Steve Kerr, Warriors
The Runner-Up: Dwane Casey, Raptors
The Others: Terry Stotts, Blazers; Gregg Popovich, Spurs; Brad Stevens, Celtics, Steve Clifford, Hornets
I wanted to vote for Casey, who restored the defense-first identity of the Raptors after their second-half and playoff immolation last year -- and did so with Toronto's big free agent signing and defensive catalyst DeMarre Carroll sidelined most of the regular season. But, you can't overthink this. Kerr's team is on the verge of the greatest regular season in NBA history. And, no, I'm not at all swayed by the fact that he wasn't on the bench for the first half of the season recovering from complications from two offseason back surgeries. You can make an argument that Luke Walton, who was interim coach while Kerr mended, should officially get credit for those first 43 games, and I wouldn't quibble with it; in fact, I'd agree with you. But the NBA's current rules give Kerr those wins, so if he's got a 71-9 record this morning, he's Coach of the Year. Period.
ALL-NBA FIRST TEAM
G: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
G: Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
F: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
F: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
C: DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers
Leonard has to be rewarded for his two-way excellence, so he gets the nod over Durant at forward alongside James. Jordan is second in the Association in blocks and rebounds, and is shooting 70 percent -- 70 percent! That would only be the third-best shooting percentage in league history -- behind himself (71 percent last season) and Wilt Chamberlain (73 percent in 1972-73).
ALL-NBA SECOND TEAM
G: Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
G: Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
F: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
F: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
C:Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks
Paul was sensational during Blake Griffin's absence. Thompson lets his play (22 points, 42 percent on 3-pointers) do most of his talking. Green is the heart of a 70-plus win team, capable of triple-doubles, elite passing, shutdown defense and emotional leadership -- all in the same game. Horford is Atlanta's glue, battling bigger fives most every night but still bringing it at both ends.
ALL-NBA THIRD TEAM
G: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
G: Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
F: Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks
F:Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
C: Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
Lillard deserves some love after leading the Blazers to an unexpected playoff berth. He's been sensational. Lowry got off the deck after the Raptors got swept last year in the first round, remade his body and led Toronto to its best regular season ever. Davis was battered most of the season for the disappointing Pelicans, but if there's one guy from a losing squad who deserves recognition for his game, it's him, ahead of DeMarcus Cousins.
TOP O' THE WORLD, MA!
(previous rank in brackets; last week's record in parenthesis)
1) Golden State  (3-1): His.Toh.Ree.
2) San Antonio  (1-3): Warriors' win at AT&T Center Sunday night ends the Spurs' 33-game regular season win streak over the Warriors in San Antonio, dating back to Feb. 14, 1997.
3) L.A. Clippers  (4-0): Historically, the franchises are not comparable, of course. But the Clippers have now won 11 straight games against the Lakers after their 22-point victory last week. The win streak dates back to the 2013-14 season-opener on Oct. 29, 2013.
4) Cleveland  (1-2): Does anyone have any doubt that Tristan Thompson will get the lion's share of center minutes in the playoffs ahead of Timofey Mozgov -- or that Channing Frye won't be on the floor a lot in the postseason?
5) Toronto  (3-1): DeMarre Carroll in the playoffs? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
6) Oklahoma City  (1-2): Despite strong play to end the regular season, Clips still can't catch OKC for third place in the west, by virtue of the Thunder's 3-1 season series lead.
7) Atlanta  (3-0): The Hawks' current streak of nine straight seasons making the playoffs is topped only by the Spurs, who have made the postseason 19 consecutive seasons.
8) Boston  (2-1): Danny Ainge says on local radio in Boston that the Celtics aren't yet a championship-caliber team, causing great rending of garments among some in Beantown. But, he's right.
9) Miami  (3-1): The Heat looks locked in and ready to be a very tough out in the playoffs. As in six or seven games in a conference finals kind of tough out.
10) Charlotte  (2-2): Hornets blow a chance to win out and finish as high as fourth (with some help) with an uninspired loss Sunday in Washington to the non-playoff Wizards.
11) Memphis  (1-2): Surprised the Grizz didn't hold onto guard Briante Weber, who was quickly scarfed up and signed to a multi-year deal by the Heat last week after Memphis let him go in favor of veteran Jordan Farmar.
12) Indiana  (2-1): After being in a horrendous shooting slump for weeks, C.J. Miles is coming back to life at the right time for the Pacers: 13.7 points, 49 percent shooting, 46.9 percent (30 of 64) on 3-pointers his last 10 games.
13) Detroit  (2-1): Well, this is a pretty cool feature for Pistons fans.
14) Portland  (2-1): Al-Faroqu Aminu might well be the best bang-for-the-buck free agent signing of the offseason.
15) Utah  (1-2): Yes, I would love to see a Stifle Tower-Draymond Green matchup at some point during a potential Warriors-Jazz first-round series. Yes, I would.
TEAM OF THE WEEK
Golden State (3-1): The Warriors tied the Bulls' 72 regular season win record with one game to go, and ended the Spurs' 39-game win streak at home without a loss Sunday. We'll forgive them the brain cramp at home last Tuesday against Minnesota.
TEAM OF THE WEAK
Brooklyn (0-3): Hillary vs. Bernie is a much better contest in New York than the Nets vs. anybody.
NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT ...
Will a mid-range jump shooter who started the season in Shandong, China, save the 3-point happy Houston Rockets?
The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part...
Their silence said it all.
"I sat at home all summer with no phone call," Michael Beasley said.
Thirty NBA teams signed veteran free agents, or rookies, or journeymen last offseason, and all 30 of them thought they could do better than Beasley, the second pick in the 2008 Draft. That included the Miami Heat, which was Beasley's home last year, his third stint in South Florida.
Beasley knew most of the blame was his, his lack of development over the years in Miami and Minnesota and Phoenix the result of too much partying and not enough studying, the damage to his reputation -- lowlighted by at least three arrests for marijuana possession since '08, driving violations, a $25 million lawsuit (since dismissed) for false imprisonment -- almost all at his own hand.
Even though he's been clean drug-wise since 2013, the history still sat on him like a weight.
"I honestly thought the NBA, that chapter in my life was done," Beasley said a few days ago. "...You go through stages. You get depressed. You get angry. You break stuff. You cry. You're angry again. You get optimistic. You cry again. Last summer was probably the longest summer of my life. All I could do was pray, wake up, put one foot in front of the other and take it day by day."
But, after spending the winter putting up huge numbers in Shandong, an eastern province on the China coast, playing for the Shandong Golden Stars of the Chinese Basketball Association, Beasley was signed by the desperate Rockets in early March as they searched for someone who could score in their desperate drive for the playoffs.
And, so far, the marriage of convenience has worked. Through 18 games, Beasley had been a godsend for Houston, averaging 13.4 points and 5.1 rebounds off the bench in 18.9 minutes a night. He's stabilized the Rockets' bench and given them a secondary ballhandler who plays well off of James Harden.
The type of offense we run -- open offense, shoot quick, stuff like that -- he can put the ball in the basket with the best of them. So it works perfect for us coming off the bench, help with our bench scoring.
– Patrick Beverley, on Beasley
It is an unusual pairing. Under General Manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets' embrace of the 3-pointer as their jump shot of choice has been clear. The worst shot in civilization in the 713 is a 20-footer, or any shot just inside the three-point arc.
But the in-between game is where Beasley shines. Per NBA.com/Stats, only 108 of Beasley's 196 shots since joining the Rockets -- 55.5 percent -- have come either in the paint/non-restricted area, or on mid-range shots. He's only taken nine 3-pointers, or .04 percent of his shots.
By contrast, Rockets starting small forward Trevor Ariza had taken 839 shots, only 122 of his shots -- 14.5 percent -- were on those paint/non-restricted area or mid-range jumpers, while 488, or 58.4 percent, were 3-pointers.
But the Rockets have needed Beasley to be Beasley.
"He's perfect for our team," Rockets guard Patrick Beverley said. "The type of offense we run -- open offense, shoot quick, stuff like that -- he can put the ball in the basket with the best of them. So it works perfect for us coming off the bench, help with our bench scoring. He's athletic and he helps us with our rebounding, also, so we don't have to put a lot of pressure on Dwight (Howard) to get every rebound. It works. It really works."
Beverley has known Beasley since they played together on the U.S. team in the FIBA Under-19 World Championships in Serbia in 2007 (a motley crew that also included a young Stephen Curry and DeAndre Jordan, and won the silver medal).
"We kept in touch," Beverley said. "Our kids are friends with each other. He's always been a great friend. Our families know each other. When he came back, I was excited. I know the kind of things he can do, the things he's capable of. I'm just glad he was able to get a second chance, because you don't get a lot of second chances, not in this league."
Beasley is way past his second chance. That probably came with the Wolves, who acquired him from Miami in 2010 for two second-rounders. Then came the Suns, who signed him in 2012, and hoped he'd be a big piece of their future. Then came Miami again, sandwiching signings between a one-month stint in Memphis in 2014 that didn't get out of training camp when Beasley got a more lucrative offer to play in Shanghai with the CBA's Shanghai Sharks.
Beasley was, by all accounts, clean in Miami last year. But he still blew defensive assignments and lacked attention to detail, and the Heat didn't make any effort to bring him back. So it was back to China -- this time, to Shandong.
Fortunately for Beasley, the Golden Stars had NBA veteran Pooh Jeter, who'd been in Shandong for four years, on the roster.
"Just knowing everybody in the city, I just made sure Mike and I was taken care of, with the housing, with our food, with the chefs ... they cook us whatever we need," Jeter said by phone last week. " ... I made sure in our city that we're good. Just doing our traveling through the season, knowing where all the best restaurants are. When Mike was in Shanghai last year, he didn't go out or nothing. He didn't know where to go. So, (it was) just me taking him under my wing, showing him China, really. And he loved it. Loved it."
Beasley and Jeter worked out in Los Angeles last summer before the CBA season began, and were together almost every day in China.
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Entering the 2016-17 NBA campaign, a number of notable players are returning to the court after suffering a significant injury last season. This includes big-name stars such as Anthony Davis (left knee), Blake Griffin (left quad), Chris Paul (right hand), John Wall (both knees) and Marc Gasol (right foot).
Every step of an injury is difficult on a player, and their eventual return is no exception. While it’s the culmination of a ton of hard work and they’re thrilled to return to the game that they love, there’s always the possibility that the individual will be limited (physically and/or mentally) at least initially.
When a player goes through an intense rehab regimen, it can drastically change their body. This forces them to make adjustments once they’re healthy enough to play again. Dan Barto, who has trained over 100 NBA players as the Head Skills Trainer at the famed IMG Academy in Florida, has seen this happen many times as a player makes a comeback.
“Any time an athlete misses an extended period of time, they typically come back and work extremely hard, but they’re working with a new body and an old mind,” Barto explained to Basketball Insiders. “When they get back on the court, these ultra-athletic guys have a bunch of very strong muscles from the rehab they’ve done, so their old movement patterns and old reactionary on-court moves put pressure on different areas that their body isn’t used to. Sometimes they try to avoid the pain by moving too hard to one side. Sometimes their muscles are so strong, but their body and joints aren’t ready for the hard cutting and reactionary movements they’re doing. This can lead to an overuse injury or a tear because you’re basically putting a different engine into a car. In some cases, a player has to change the way that they play or work out after an injury to avoid wearing that area of their body out.”
Barto stressed that the key for a player to return to full strength is taking the rehab process slowly. Many NBA players are extremely hard workers who want to be in the gym as much as possible and push to return earlier than expected. While the player thinks they’re doing what’s best for themselves and their team, that kind of mentality can cause problems.
“I think sometimes a player will be cleared and then they think, ‘I’m ready to do everything again,’ but they need to ease back,” Barto said. “In baseball, you have minor league rehab assignments and simulated games for players to test themselves. But in basketball, you hardly see that method used. Rarely do teams send a guy to the D-League for a rehab assignment, but that could help ease them back.”
Jodie Meeks appeared in just three games for the Detroit Pistons last season due to a non-displaced fracture of the fifth metatarsal in his right foot. The veteran shooting guard was traded to the Orlando Magic this summer, but was recently ruled out indefinitely due to another surgery to stabilize the same metatarsal.
“You want to get back as soon as possible, while not rushing it,” Meeks told Basketball Insiders. “It’s real tough to balance those things.”
Barto has a strict order he follows as he eases a player back from an injury.
“What we do when a player is cleared – and I’ve even done this for players who are overweight and trying to get back into shape – is we do a lot of shooting first,” Barto said. “Then, we do jogging. Then, we add some ball-handling and moves. Then, we add jumping and, finally, some contact. If a doctor says you’re going to be out eight months due to an ACL injury, I’ve always said, ‘You need to take nine or 10 months before returning.’ You need time for athletic foundation build-up and then planned contact followed by actual reactive basketball simulation. The best order when a player is coming back is shooting and conditioning, then cutting and moving with the ball, then planned contact and basketball simulation.”
It’s also important to note that every injury is different, which is something Barto was quick to point out.
“Shoulder and ACL injuries are tough to rush back from,” Barto said. “And with ACL injuries, the player needs to slowly get back onto the court and build back up their athletic foundation or they’ll be more at risk for re-injury.”
Then, there’s the mental side of recovering from a serious injury. Not every player can be like Adrian Peterson or Paul George, putting their serious injury behind them and having an amazing bounce-back season right away. Some players struggle with the fear of re-injury. Others are hesitant to duplicate their pre-injury style of play (consciously or not). Mental hurdles are extremely common for a player who is trying to return to form.
In fact, when talking to current and former NBA players, the majority said that recovering mentally was the toughest part of their comeback.
“Physically it’s hard, but through rehab you regain the strength and stability that was lost; however, the biggest obstacles are mental,” NBA champion Chauncey Billups told Basketball Insiders. “You have to rebuild your confidence. You not only have to prove to the team and the fans that you’re back but, more importantly, you have to prove it to yourself. Being injured has a way of chipping away at one’s confidence. When you cross that bridge [and regain your confidence], you’re back.”
“You have to get over the mental aspect, the thought of re-injuring yourself, and just trust your hard work and dedication to get back,” Meeks said. “You have to focus on what you can control – things like your effort and mental focus.”
“I was worried about whether I was going to be the same player after the injury,” said forward Adonis Thomas, who suffered a season-ending wrist injury in December. “After returning, I didn’t do anything to change my game though; I played with confidence immediately. But I was worried at first. [My goal became] to be better than I was before being injured. And I wanted to be in the best possible shape, that way I could prevent any other injuries in the future.”
When it comes to helping players with the mental aspects of their recovery, Barto has several methods that he uses.
“I think visualization is important,” Barto said. “You can’t go back and watch highlights of your old self. Using someone like Derrick Rose as an example, I wouldn’t advise him to watch his old film. I’d tell him to close his eyes and imagine himself playing in a Knicks uniform as opposed to dwelling on the past. And, ideally, you want everyone around the organization helping him with this and being on-board with this approach.”
The ease-back strategy also helps the player mentally, since it gradually increases their confidence and they start to feel like themselves again as they go through the progressions.
“In addition to visualization, a player should have a four-to-six week window once they’re cleared where they’re psychologically advancing,” Barto said. “They’re thinking, ‘Okay, I can make some shots now. Next, I can do sprints. Okay, my handle feels sharp and back up to speed. Okay, now they’re leaning on me, but I know they’re going to lean on me and play dummy defense.’ Then, with the simulated basketball, you’re being defended at 75 percent. It’s basically AAA level. By easing them back this way, they advancing physically and mentally.”
As the players quoted above pointed out, getting the body and mind right are equally important.
Returning from an injury is one of those things that players typically do behind the scenes. Outsiders rarely get to see the hard work that an individual is putting in or hear what issues they are dealing as they go through the process. Instead, very little information is disseminated between the point the injury occurs and the eventual comeback. Hopefully, pulling back the curtain on this process gives everyone a better idea of what a player may be feeling and thinking during that important recovery period.
Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.