Our weekly look at four topics — players, issues, numbers, trends — that are impacting and, in some cases, changing the game.
First Quarter: Just say no to all the proposed league changes
Bring back the Emperor, David Stern.
If you can’t believe you’re reading these words in 2019, you’re not alone. Adam Silver has done a great job as commissioner in Stern’s stead, but it’s time to hand back the reins to the Emperor and take us back in time to the golden year of 1994 ...
No, not really. But ...
Silver has been forward thinking in plenty of ways, but the proposed massive schedule change, early-season tournament and alteration of the conference finals structure are too radical for any sensible fan.
With each proposed change, it appears the league is talking out of both sides of its mouth.
The first round of the playoffs is rarely compelling because of the talent gap between the top seeds and lower ones, so the solution is to make teams 7-10 in each conference vie for the final spots?
Great, more 35-win teams battling for the right to be slaughtered in Round 1 off the heels of March Madness.
An early-season tournament with an extreme financial incentive will do wonders for the fans who believe players don’t play hard all the time, even though sitting courtside can give one a wholly different perspective.
But no player will care about a November tournament, one that apparently plans to feature all 30 teams in a single-game elimination, when he has bigger aspirations in June.
And to make matters far worse, let’s strip the tradition, the connective tissue of the league, by reseeding the four conference finalists. Remember the NBA talking about cutting down on extreme travel and maximizing the best of its best players when all eyes are on them? How about conference finals travel that could be cross-country?
How does that make sense when the league wants games on every night during this critical time? Teams will need extra rest time should, say, Miami meet Portland in one bracket of the conference finals.
There’s something to be said about gunning for the team in your conference, and franchises making personnel moves because they know who they’ll have to beat to get to the Finals. Changing that because of conference imbalance seems reactive and dismissive of the rivalries that have made the league great.
In the NFL, the NFC won 13 straight Super Bowls from 1985-1997. The strength just happened to be on one side. Nothing changed on the back end, franchises got better and an AFC dynasty was birthed shortly thereafter.
Mr. Stern, are you around?
Second Quarter: The Markelle Fultz Project
With the exception of Anthony Bennett, No. 1 draft picks have been a sure thing over the last several years. Even Andrew Wiggins is turning some heads, going from a talented tease to someone who’s harnessing his gifts for the greater good.
Markelle Fultz is another player who is quietly finding his way through the wilderness after a tumultuous, mysterious and borderline sad start to his NBA career.
Enduring shoulder injuries and a change to his shooting form made him an easy target, especially in Philadelphia alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. The No. 1 pick in 2017 was mercifully traded to Orlando last season, where he’s been able to start over in relative anonymity — albeit for a team that made a late surge to the playoffs last spring.
It’s OK to admit you forgot about him, or only thought about him in the context of Jayson Tatum, whom he was traded for on draft night. The league moves on quicker than ever, with so many more players entering the league ready to contribute that those who develop slowly or have early hiccups are strewn on the side.
But through 16 games, Fultz is averaging 11.1 points and 3.5 assists while posting a net positive on the advanced stats side. He told Yahoo Sports he feels ahead of schedule just by being on the court after just playing 33 total games in two years in Philadelphia.
If you don’t respect his athleticism, he can get to the lane and finish above the rim. The awkward shot is still a work in progress, but it hasn’t stopped him from being an attacker in the open floor.
“It was definitely hard,” he told Yahoo Sports recently. “I questioned why stuff was happening to me. But I never doubted myself. I knew I had an injury, and I knew my abilities even when I couldn't shoot the ball.”
It was about finding a team willing to take a low-risk chance on him and not apply internal pressure as he figured things out. Luckily, he found a like partner in a Magic franchise willing to give him the space to grow at his own pace.
“Think of all this kid’s been through so far,” a Magic official told Yahoo Sports. “He’s been amazing so far, and you can’t put that other stuff on him. When you saw him at Washington [in college], you saw all this talent.”
The Magic have an intriguing prospect in Jonathan Issac and will have to make decisions on mainstays Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic at some point. But while all that moves along, Fultz keeps developing into a building block.
“It was no rush,” Fultz said. “Everybody was calm, patient and collected. They wanted to do it the right way.”
Third Quarter: Why Jimmy Butler is at home with the Heat
Can we all agree there was no better brand marriage between player and organization than Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat?
He wasn’t empowered in Minnesota, and in his mind, nobody was focused enough to notice in Philadelphia that things got better when Jimmy was in charge.
In Miami, Jimmy’s in charge, and the Heat are surprising the Eastern Conference and are perhaps one impact player away from making true noise.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is at his best with try-hard squads that have an internal button-pusher as a leader. So Spoelstra didn’t bristle when the subject of Butler’s failed relationships with previous franchises came up.
“It’s just the way the league is,” Spoelstra told Yahoo Sports. “Some things don’t work out. But for us, we share the same kind of values. We speak a similar language. Whatever people have said about him, they’ve said about us. Right or wrong. That’s OK, too.”
Butler’s type of leadership doesn’t supersede Spoelstra’s or that of team president Pat Riley, whom Butler actually calls “Coach Pat.” Spoelstra leads, Butler follows. Butler suggests — such as simpler actions for such a young team — and Spoelstra adjusts when necessary.
“He’s loud and passionate. So are we,” Spoelstra said. “If you watched one of our practices, you’d think it was chaos. You look at him and Dwyane Wade, Alonzo Mourning, they’re all the same guy. They’re so competitive. It may play differently elsewhere, but here it’s music we like listening to.”
Spoelstra’s been playing this music for a while, as only San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich has been with his current team longer. (Spoelstra is tied with Dallas’ Rick Carlisle, both starting in the 2008-09 season.)
No longer the boy wonder or only viewed through the lens of LeBron James, Spoelstra is one of the top five coaches in basketball and his personnel input is critical to building on top of a championship culture.
“Everybody’s so competitive. We believe in our culture,” he said. “It doesn’t guarantee anything, but we try to get as many people who are like-minded as possible.”
As for Butler’s reputation scaring him, Spoelstra unleashed a wicked smile.
“We’re all a little twisted.”
Fourth Quarter: The MVP race
The MVP race is way too early to call, but there’s a distinct international flavor at the top of the list.
Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo (born in Athens of Nigerian descent) is making a run for a repeat, aiming to be the first international player to go back-to-back since Steve Nash did it for the Suns in 2005 and ’06. After Nash (Canada) and Dirk Nowitzki (Germany) had their three-year run with the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, only Tony Parker finished in the top-five in voting for the next decade or so — until last year.
Antetokounmpo was joined by Denver’s Nikola Jokic (Serbia) in the top five last season, and this year, Slovenian-born Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic (30.1 points, 10 rebounds, 9.5 assists) should enter the conversation. Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid (Cameroon) hasn’t had the strong statistical start many expected from him, but he could re-enter the fray, and Toronto’s long-limbed wonder Pascal Siakam (Cameroon) is producing numbers (25.7 points, 8.4 rebounds, four assists) at a clip similar to Kawhi Leonard’s pace from last year.
Not that you’re asking, but my top five reads like the United Nations: Giannis, Luka, LeBron, Siakam and Kawhi.
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