Our look at four topics — players, issues, numbers, trends — that are impacting and, in some cases, changing the game.
First Quarter: Draymond's right (and wrong)
There’s nothing wrong with Draymond Green saying he’s the best defender of all time. You may disagree, but it’s the Saginaw in him. It’s ridiculous to suggest he could’ve defended a prime Shaquille O’Neal or Hakeem Olajuwon, the great post players of the ’90s and early 2000s.
But he’s the perfect defender for this era — which is where he’s thrived. The switching on defense started with the LeBron-era Miami Heat and the Golden State Warriors took it to another level.
It’s rare to see anyone with Green’s size — be it his lack of height or his girth — move the way he does, cover as much ground as he can and be competent on all three levels of the floor along with his communication.
So much of previous eras started and finished with “guard your man,” the spaces where Gary Payton, Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman were supreme. They put you on punishment for games because they felt like it, tortured you physically, mentally, and in front of your own fans. It was beautiful.
And in a different time, the center was so important to everything on the floor. The game was geared toward the rim and spaces around it, with the post and mid-range jump shots. That made the center critical, particularly on defense. Unless you were special, you stayed away from Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo, David Robinson — or even the chairman of defense, one William Felton Russell.
Green doesn’t inspire that level of fear.
But it would be tough to see those guys playing Tetris in this era, as mobile as Olajuwon and Robinson were.
They were exceptional with their foot speed for their sizes, but you wouldn’t want them spending so much time on the perimeter. You wouldn’t want them tethered to the paint like Rudy Gobert, either.
Green’s words come at a peculiar time, when the Warriors are far removed from their dominant days and the 31-year-old isn’t a 48-minute ball of terror. From an advanced stat standpoint, Green’s defensive win shares per 48 minutes are nearly half of what they were at his peak, from the first three Warriors runs to the Finals.
He’s at the age where defenders usually slow down and pick their spots, but the jokes and derision come because he’s not a dominant offensive player.
Kawhi Leonard played his best defense as a San Antonio Spur, before his body started breaking down and he had to carry more of an offensive load.
But we believe he can summon great defensive stretches when needed.
Same for the late Kobe Bryant, whose reputation preceded him in the late years of his prime.
The nasty little secret about the NBA narrative is, if you’ve been called a great defender early, you’ll always be labeled that way even if your effectiveness wanes. So while it’s a stretch to call him the GOAT, he’s not far from the conversation.
And while we’re here … can we, you know, bring back some defense?
Second Quarter: The Eye Test, Part 1
The biggest move of the trade deadline could ultimately be for a man who averages 3.9 points and 3.5 assists, has an offensive rating of 98 and a defensive rating of 113 with negative win shares on offense, etc.
You get it. The numbers are ghastly.
But Rajon Rondo coming to the Los Angeles Clippers could be, as the aforementioned soothsayer Mr. Green purports to be, the best move of the deadline.
Rondo sits at the intersection of the eye test and everything else — the numbers, the deeper numbers and the narratives we love to form on either side.
The Clippers had limited resources but needed a point guard in the worst way. You wonder if Terry Rozier would’ve been a realistic option if LaMelo Ball hadn’t gotten hurt in Charlotte, and George Hill had been discussed, along with Ricky Rubio, sources told Yahoo Sports.
Rondo’s value goes far beyond the numbers, even if the numbers tell a true story. Even Doc Rivers referred to Clippers coach Ty Lue as a “Rondo whisperer” Thursday night, going back to Lue’s days as a Celtics assistant when the trio was in Boston.
Rondo will lead, an immeasurable attribute. According to many who know, Lue has challenged Leonard to be more vocal this year, to be a leader as opposed to just leading by example.
And Leonard has responded (we don’t care yet, though).
But Rondo is naturally a leader, a galvanizer who can round up (pun intended) teammates and inspire in ways coaches cannot.
Yes, 2008 was a long time ago and he wasn’t a prime-time player in that Celtics title run, ceding space to Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. But he challenged them and everybody else in that room, and took space that wasn’t open to turn into a leading man while the Celtics tried to recapture that magic.
Rondo is the man who was exiled by Rick Carlisle and the Mavericks in 2015 during the playoffs.
Rondo is also the man who lit into Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler on social media in 2017 during their awkward “Three Alphas” year in Chicago — only to gain their trust and respect as they nearly pulled off the 1-8 upset against the Celtics a few months later, stalled only by a broken hand from Rondo in Game 2.
With the Clippers, you’re not sure if they need a sprinkle of Playoff Rondo, or an entire overhaul, but they need someone to organize and create shots as opposed to everyone getting their own.
At his best, Rondo can make things uncomfortable. He can make defenses cringe.
At his worst, Rondo can make you cringe.
He’s all of the things you believe, no matter what you think of him.
The Clippers hope he’s just a few of the right ones, and that the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Third Quarter: The Eye Test, Part 2
For the other side of the eye test, let’s take a trip down to the Valley of the Sun, where Chris Paul has orchestrated the biggest turnaround in the NBA.
Wherever he goes, winning follows, but it was impossible to predict the 35-year old would have this type of wizardry on this franchise.
His raw numbers are modest, even as he passed the 10,000 assist mark recently, averaging 15.9 points, 8.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds. Their below his career averages and on par with his production in 2018-19, when so many people thought he was done but in reality, he and James Harden were done with each other: 15.6 points, 8.2 assists, 4.6 rebounds.
He had an offensive rating of 118 points per 100 possessions in 2019. This year he’s at 121. His defensive rating has been at 109 both seasons.
Of course, he’s healthier this season, but he was just as effective last year in Oklahoma City following his trade from Houston. Phoenix seemed on the verge of a breakout, going undefeated in the Orlando bubble, having a second year of Monty Williams as head coach and more experience for the likes of Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges. Along with, of course, Devin Booker.
Paul seems to bring it all together.
His teams usually play organized, stay in character and don’t beat themselves. He’s the ultimate floor-raiser, along with LeBron James. Paul doesn’t possess that “get you 40” mentality that raises your ceiling in the playoffs, but for the regular season, he’s gonna get every last drop of potential from his teams.
That makes him just as valuable as the Embiids and Jokics — it just doesn’t look the way we’re used to seeing it.
Doesn’t mean it isn’t true, though.
Fourth Quarter: Air Max Day
March 26 is Air Max Day, the day when everybody shows off their favorite Air Max models and colorways.
Let’s take this time to tell the good folks at Nike who pay attention to such things, to request a retro of a previous Air Max (sort of).
Please and thank you.
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