BOSTON — No one can quite pinpoint exactly when the NBA evolved, when the league fully transitioned from Pat Riley’s brawlers in New York and Miami to Steve Kerr’s gunners in Golden State. Some trace the turn back to Don Nelson, the mad scientist who would play point guards as power forwards. Others point to Mike D’Antoni, whose Phoenix teams came the closest to establishing small ball as a championship winning formula. Rule changes, the Malice in the Palace and an influx of skilled guards have contributed. Stretch fours—while hardly a new phenomena (hello, Robert Horry)—have proliferated while dominating big men coming out of college have dwindled.
Yes, the NBA has changed. Everywhere, that is, except in Memphis.
The Grizzlies are a relic, the last bastion of bully ball. They play through the paint (an NBA-best 47.1 points per game), are allergic to the three-point line (15.2 attempts, No. 29 in the league) and make teams pay for creating mismatches offensively by beating them up on the other end. It’s a style that began in 2009, when Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol first joined forces. It was fine-tuned by Lionel Hollins and has continued under Dave Joerger.
“In our games, they are clearly as physical as any team around,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “I do think they are more traditional in the sense that you have two guys (Gasol and Randolph) who do their best work on the block or at the elbow.”
Added Grizzlies floor general Mike Conley, “We’re one of the last of the dying breed. Chicago is close. But we’re unusual. It makes us different and tough to play. People are so used to playing against stretch fours, our bigs are able to take advantage of it.”
The Grizzlies are quick to point out that playing physical is not unique to them. Chicago, San Antonio and a handful of others are also bruising, they say, and have been for a while. “Championship teams are still playing big man basketball,” Randolph said. It’s personnel that separates Memphis, specifically Gasol and Randolph, who have developed a rare chemistry not always seen in power big men.
Ask them to cite what’s made them so effective for six years (and counting) and both offer a similar response.
“Our skill set just works well together,” Randolph said. “We can both post up, we can shoot it, we can take it off the dribble. We can play a lot of spots on the court.”
Said Gasol, “We understand how to play off each other. I don’t know if it’s how we grew up, playing similar styles, but sometimes it’s going to be me at the high post, sometimes it’s going to be him. And we’re both comfortable playing anywhere.”
It’s been a challenging week for Memphis, which dropped back-to-back games to Boston and Washington on an East Coast swing. But the Grizzlies remain convinced they have a formula for success. The team still needs its perimeter shooters to play well, and after a hot start the Grizzlies have fallen back into the bottom third of the NBA in three-point percentage (33.1 percent). And they will need Jeff Green, acquired from Boston in January, to figure out how to navigate the floor with two big bodies patrolling the paint. But with the playoffs looming, Memphis believes its ability to control a game in the halfcourt will pay off.
And it likely will for a few more years, too. Gasol, 30, is set to hit free agency this summer and teams will line up to hand out a max contract to arguably the best center in the NBA. But so will Memphis, which has inspired an eerie calm throughout the fan base. Gasol has deep ties to the community, having moved to the area as a teenager when his brother, Pau, played for the Grizzlies. That connection—coupled with the fact that Randolph signed a two-year. $20 million extension that will keep him in Memphis through ’16-17—has led to an overwhelming belief that Gasol will quickly re-sign with the Grizzlies.
Indeed, a deep playoff run won’t be what convinces Gasol to stay. Though it would probably seal it.
A wild season for David West
Last summer, no Pacers player was more rattled by Paul George’s injury than David West. The veteran bruiser was the elder statesman of a young Pacers team coming off its second straight conference finals trip. West had already watched Lance Stephenson, the mercurial two-guard who rapidly developed the last two seasons, defect to Charlotte. The loss of George, who suffered a compound fracture in his right leg during a USA Basketball scrimmage last August, gave West a severe case of basketball whiplash. Worse, a foot injury caused West to miss most of the first month of the season.
“Man, it was tough,” West said. “This was the first time of my career that I missed opening night. And Paul’s injury? Trying to get through that, to get beyond that was hard.”
With his career winding down and no championships on his résumé, it’s natural to wonder whether the 34-year-old would seek a trade. Several contenders could use a physical forward with West’s leadership skills. West, though, says he was never interested.
“I wasn’t thinking about that,” West said. “I knew there were a few things out there. But I was going to stick with this group and ride this thing out.”
And they have. The Pacers have won seven in a row, most recently a win over Milwaukee on Thursday. West’s scoring is down (12.3 points per game) this season, but his assists are up (3.3) as Indiana has asked him to be more of a facilitator in George’s absence. Pacers coaches are quick to credit West for gluing the team back together after a tumultuous offseason.
“He was noticeably disappointed with Paul’s injury and losing Lance,” said Frank Vogel. “But he has not let that affect his play at all. He’s been a rock. The way he approaches work every day, being ready, competing. He’s been a big part of why we have stayed encouraged.”
Indiana’s late season surge (30-34, No. 7 in East) has given West hope that the season could still be salvaged. George is back at practice, and an improbable recovery could lead him back to the court before the end of the month. With George, West believes the Pacers have the pieces to make a deep playoff run.
“Some of the teams in the playoffs now aren’t as experienced as we are,” West said. “That’s our goal, to get in there. We can’t worry about the teams we are fighting with. We have to handle our business. As the year has worn on, the confidence and the belief within this group has grown. We have gelled together as a team.”
Can anyone unseat Okafor for No. 1?
In this week's episode of Give and Go, Chris Mannix sits down with SI.com college basketball producer David Gardner to discuss the upcoming NBA draft and the top storylines heading into March Madness.
Salary cap explosion is coming
Smoothing. It’s word that has been in the NBA lexicon since last October, when the league announced a historic nine-year, $24 billion television deal. One of the ramifications of the deal was a projected explosion of the salary cap in 2016, when the new TV money kicks in. To prevent a $20 million-plus jump, the NBA proposed a smoothing process, where the cap would incrementally inflate. The players would still receive 51 percent of Basketball Related Income, as was collectively bargained, but instead of a massive increase in individual player salaries the difference in revenue would be paid to all the players in one lump sum.
On Wednesday, the NBA announced that the union had rejected its last offer.
“The National Basketball Players Association has informed the NBA that it will not agree to ‘smoothing’ in the increases in the Salary Cap that will result from the new national media agreements beginning in the 2016-17 season,” said NBA Vice President of Communications Mike Bass. “Smoothing would have avoided a substantial Salary Cap spike in 2016-17. Under the league's smoothing approach, the salary shortfall resulting from more gradual Cap increases would have been paid directly to the Players Association for distribution to all players, and thus the total compensation paid to players in any given season would not have been impacted.”
For the NBA, smoothing the cap is about one thing: parity. The league has long aspired to an NFL-like model, where a dozen teams enter the season as Super Bowl contenders and teams are able to exert significant control over players on its roster. Recent rule changes have made it easier for teams that draft top talent to retain it. A $20 million spike in the salary cap would create a wide-open marketplace, where virtually every team in the league will have the ability to offer max contracts, regardless of its current cap situation.
The union, however, wants the free agency free for all. More competition means more money for players hitting the market in 2016, a star-studded group that will likely include Kevin Durant and LeBron James. While a smoothing plan would spread the wealth among all the players, the NBPA seems content to let owners engage in a bidding war for the available players.
The NBA doesn’t like it, but you won’t hear them putting up a fight over it. While a league full of teams flush with cap space could lead to more player movement, the big name players will have to leave an enormous amount of money on the table to do it. Durant, for example, could be in line for a five-year, $200 million contract from Oklahoma City, a contract the Thunder will happily pay. Should Durant elect to go elsewhere, he would have to forego $40-$50 million in a four-year deal from someone else. That’s real money even a player with as much earning power as Durant would hesitate to pass up.
Quote of the Week I
“We know what the first-round pick is going to mean for us, but we also know we're going to build our team with free agents. A hundred and ninety players or so are going to be free agents. Not half the league, but like a third of the league is going to be free agents. So that's where our priority stands.” — Knicks President Phil Jackson
Sigh. The Knicks still don’t get it. Clearly, Jackson, who is expected to be armed with $30-plus million in cap space this summer, will be a player in free agency. And the re-signing of Carmelo Anthony created a 3-4 year window for New York to win with Melo still playing at an All-Star level. But sustainable success is most often achieved through the draft. The NBA’s two best teams, Golden State and Atlanta, were built largely through it. San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Portland and Chicago, too. Free agency can be an effective way to build a winner—Miami and Boston are recent examples—but far more are developed through strong drafting at the top and sustained by shrewd picks in the later rounds. Here’s the reality: The big market Knicks won’t win anything until they start acting like a small market team.
Quote of the Week II
"It's ludicrous to assert that we would trade Kevin. There's no way to measure what he represents to our organization on and off the floor. He has helped build this organization from the ground up and personifies the Thunder: past, present and future. When he's done playing there will be streets named after him throughout the state and younger generations of Oklahomans will learn about the role Kevin has played in elevating this community in ways beyond basketball." — Thunder GM Sam Presti, to the Oklahoman, when asked about rumors the team might preemptively look to trade Kevin Durant before he hits free agency,
Look, Oklahoma City is a forward thinking franchise. They take a long lens view on everything, often maddeningly so, and have not shied away from trading top talent (Jeff Green, James Harden) if necessary. But Durant is different. No team can offer more than 50 cents on the dollar for Durant, and trading him would unravel everything the Thunder has done to get to this point. Oklahoma City will push into 2016, try to win a championship and hope its max money coupled with an established track record for complementing Durant with skilled players acquired through trades and the draft will be enough to convince Durant to re-sign.
Tweet of the Week
Trail Blazers guard Wesley Matthews, who underwent surgery on Wednesday to repair a torn Achilles tendon. Normal recovery time for this type of injury is typically 9-12 months. Matthews, a free agent at the end of the season, has vowed to try to be back in five.
What a job Brad Stevens has done in Boston. The Celtics gutted their roster in the first half of the season, dumping Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green for role players and draft picks. Last month, Boston lost its top post player, Jared Sullinger, for the season with a foot injury. Instead of sinking in the Eastern Conference, the Celtics have remarkably risen right into the playoff mix. Boston has won two in a row, seven of its last 10 and is just a game and a half back of the final playoff spot. Rival coaches praise Stevens play calling—Boston makes more fourth quarter changes in its sets than any team in the league, coaches say—and out of timeout plays. Mike Budenholzer and Steve Kerr will likely finish 1-2 in the Coach of the Year race, but Stevens deserves a top-five finish … Sorry, Brett Brown, but Joel Embiid going back into a walking boot this week isn’t a good sign … Rajon Rondo’s struggles in Dallas have only increased the chatter that he will wind up in Los Angeles after the season. Rondo has a strong relationship with Lakers star Kobe Bryant and Byron Scott would give Rondo license to freelance in ways that Rick Carlisle likely never will … Oklahoma City has been happy with the trade that brought Enes Kanter to town. So too is Utah, which is 8-2 since the deal. Rudy Gobert continues to make a strong case for the NBA’s Most Improved Player and the Jazz, the league’s youngest team, are building some nice momentum that hopefully can carry over into next season … Reggie Jackson’s struggles this season keep getting worse. An uneven season in Oklahoma City has worsened in Detroit, where Jackson’s field goal percentage has dropped to 37 percent and his three-point percentage has fallen to a ghastly 23.3 percent. The Pistons, meanwhile, have dropped eight straight and have tumbled out of the playoff picture.