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Klay For Love Revisited

Considering the surprisingly large gap between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers so far this season, we are starting to hear some chatter about revisiting the heavily rumored trade possibility with Klay Thompson and Kevin Love as the principles before the Minnesota Timberwolves eventually traded him to join LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Tim Kawakami included this in his strong piece that came out on Saturday and it has been in the air in the Warriors’ media room the last few games. 

The best place to start is this: Klay Thompson is playing incredibly well right now. If you want to use more conventional measures, Thompson has his career high in points per game, shooting percentage, three-point percentage and has more than doubled his free throw attempts. In person, Thompson has been more engaged offensively than I have ever seen him and has shown the foundation to justify his increased role. While this appears to be at least slightly above it, if this play becomes the new normal for Thompson, the Warriors should be exceedingly happy with him and the contract they signed him to.

Thompson’s impressive high water marks would be blips on the radar for Kevin Love. Thompson’s career highs in Win Shares / 48 and PER this season would sit second and fourth when compared to Love’s three full seasons as an NBA starter. Thompson’s more than doubled free throw rate has played a huge role in his strong start and it would be the lowest of Love’s career even including this year.

Now, some (including me) will argue that stats like PER overvalue what Love brings to the table and undervalue Thompson because of defense and that certainly has some validity. One of the interesting and underappreciated developments of this season has been a substantial change in Thompson’s defensive assignments. Instead of defending the opponent’s best guard to hide Stephen Curry, Steve Kerr has largely tied Thompson to opposing shooting guards. Warriors beat writer Diamond Leung tackled this topic excellently.

Stephen Curry has also reacted to the challenge of taking on proper defensive assignments with his best season on that end. In fact, in Friday’s game against the Jazz, Kerr usually elected to leave Gordon Hayward (far and away Utah’s best offensive player) to whomever Golden State had at small forward and it worked out well.

For me, the difference between Thompson and Love comes down to two key concepts I use to estimate playoff success: how well can a team prevent an opponent from doing what they do best on offense and how can they adapt to an opponent taking away what they do best.

In the playoffs last year, Chris Paul’s defense helped stifle Curry as much as anyone possibly could and the Warriors struggled to get things going. They still nearly won the series without Andrew Bogut on the strength of their defense and some strong performances, but the team did not possess the creators to function properly when a Curry smothering occurs. Thompson’s play so far has been greatly encouraging but he has not shown the ability to run the show in these circumstances and I would never expect him to. Thompson continues to move along the path towards being an excellent supporting player and there should be absolutely no shame in that.

The most important difference between Thompson and Love continues to be the fact that Love can carry a team offensively. While it may not be the best option for teams like the Cavs or Warriors because of their surrounding talent in the starting lineup, the capability makes a huge difference in the playoffs. When the Spurs can put Danny Green or Kawhi Leonard on Curry to come as close as possible to neutralizing him, Golden State’s best creator in their starting lineup is likely Thompson unless Iguodala replaces Barnes. We saw last year that Iguodala thrives off the ball and struggles initiating so making that the best option proves problematic. I have substantially more faith that Kerr and his staff can create better mechanisms and schemes to reduce these problem spots but they cannot eliminate them against quality teams who game plan with that as their primary goal defensively.

Furthermore, while some have mentioned that having Love reduces the time for Draymond Green at power forward, I do not see that as a problem at all if structured correctly. Green’s strong play with the other starters would open up the option of giving Love quality time with the second unit where he could get plenty of touches and carry the offense. While the Warriors presumably would have started with a more conventional minutes distribution, that solution likely would have become apparent relatively quickly. The move would have also locked up incredible depth at point guard, power forward and center (where Love can play for stretches) for the foreseeable future. That certainty would have allowed Bob Myers and the front office to focus their scouting and roster moves on the shoring up both swingman spots with talent on roster and potential trade targets.

While the Warriors' front office should be thrilled with Klay Thompson’s strong play and the team looking dominant early in the season, the rationale for making the Kevin Love trade still stands.

Bradley Beal's Rise A Credit To Unique Blend Of Talent, Maturation

For Bradley Beal, the progression of his talent and skill only needed to balance a properly structured upbringing. His parents and brothers had carefully sculpted a maturity beyond his years, reminding him of the people whom he’d require in life’s quest for intellect. From the moment Beal entered the lives of the Washington Wizards, everyone knew this was a neatly constructed person, a grown man relishing the challenge to conquer his tasks with an inner peace on who he is.

“Listen to your elders,” Beal’s parents and older brothers would tell him. So, he has, whether it is a former assistant in Sam Cassell as a rookie up until last season, veteran players who come and go and, sometimes begrudgingly, the honest and unyielding voice of Randy Wittman.

“You can learn a lot from all the coaches and the vets, so I’m all ears,” Beal says. “When you have a guy in Sam who’s scored 15,000 plus points in his career and who had a successful career, you have to listen to him. He’s won championships before, he’s a coach now, and a great mentor. I even watched him a little bit growing up.

“My family’s always instilled that in me, listening to elders. I’m really family-oriented. Watching my older brothers growing up and everything they’ve been through, all the adversity we’ve been through, that always humbled me. Humbled me, motivated me, to be the best that I can be.”

Beal’s best had been recognized as one of the NBA’s best young shooting guards, and now his best is one of the top at the position outright. While Wall came in the league onto a misfit cast of players, using experience and grueling offseasons on his craft to discover his space, Beal had the luxury of a sureness to him and a more refined roster. So many transactions on and off the court, so many lessons only the league’s competition provides, but Beal’s personality has forever been to stay honest to the grind of the sport, try to obliterate opponents and let that sink in with them.

And nothing has changed.

Beal swears the only business on his mind is the work, the day-to-day improvement, and work has been good. Beal and John Wall join Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson as the NBA’s best backcourts across the country’s coasts. As league executives believe in Beal’s ability to command a maximum salary extension, the Wizards have made clear around the NBA that they’ll do whatever necessary to secure Beal’s long-term deal, sources told RealGM.

So, yes, Beal heard of Thompson’s maximum-level extension with the Golden State Warriors before the season, but he simply shrugs his shoulders. Nothing changed here, Beal promises.

“Money never will change who I am,” Beal told RealGM. “I kind of distance myself from the business part because when you get too caught up in money, it takes your mind off why you really play the game. I play for the love of it. I’m not going to think about contracts or any of that. If that [max] contract is what it is, then it is what it is. But it’s not going to change who I am. Money never will.

“Now, I definitely want to be an All-Star. Who doesn’t? But I don’t set too many crazy, extravagant goals for myself, and the ones that I do, I hold them close to my heart and make sure I focus and lock in.

“We have a solid core here. It’s going to be important for us to keep this core together moving on down the next couple years, because we have something special here. We got a taste of the playoffs, and now we have bigger hopes in mind. Our aspirations are bigger now.”

Beal has played as the sixth man in three games back from a fractured left hand, but his wind and performance stamina have returned and reclaiming his spot in the starting lineup is near. Even as his floor game and passing vision improve, Beal wants more out of himself.

As a team, these Wizards remember hastened shots in the second round series loss against the Indiana Pacers and spent the summer and training camp drilled about the value of each possession, about draining the energy of the defense for quality shots.

“Our ultimate goal is taking care of the ball and moving the ball,” Beal says. “Whenever we move the ball, we usually get whatever we want. Some defenses don’t like to play for 24 seconds. We’re going to do whatever it takes to wear defenses down. We have to continue moving the ball. The least we can do is get a shot up.”

Around Beal, 21, veterans are passionate in the process of a regular season. The 35-year-old Rasual Butler has persevered and produced for an NBA role again. Down the roster, Glen Rice Jr.’s role has been marginal, but the Wizards’ front office has no plan to move the 23-year-old and believes in his ability to produce when given increased minutes. Some of the vets will go through the normal adjustments and trials -- the pain of injury here and there -- but Paul Pierce has been unafraid to become animated in the faces of Wall and Beal while the season is still young.

Pierce will hit critical shots for the Wizards this season, and he’ll strut to the bench and remind everyone his stature.

“They don’t call him, ‘The Truth’ for no reason,” Wall said.

“Paul can adjust to our team on the fly, like that,” Beal said, snapping his fingers.

“This group, this season, is mature,” Wittman said, “and Paul has been a leader throughout his career.”

Washington is one of four teams with a legitimate chance to land out of the Eastern Conference and into the NBA Finals, and that is on Beal’s mind. So much jostling for money in the league, and Beal has shown everyone he doesn’t bask in the sentiments of a contract as much as he basks in its allowance to take care of family, its ability to work and ball. From trying times to a contending team, Bradley Beal has been the perfect co-star for John Wall and these Wizards, fresh of talent and his own sense of self.

The Basketball Treasure That Nearly Never Was

Anthony Davis wears No. 23 and has the NBA’s best origin story since Michael Jordan was cut from the varsity when he was a high school sophomore. Reading that story with this visual of Davis in his Perspectives uniform, wearing glasses and working on his game in anonymity as a guard thinking he didn’t have a career in basketball since no scouts were coming to games in his junior season is astounding.

Two years later, Davis entered the NBA as the top overall pick of generational proportion with a national championship and Wooden Award from his season at Kentucky and an Olympic gold medal.

Davis is a basketball treasure that almost never was and is the NBA’s most incredible prodigy (possibly ever) despite that late development in which he almost left the game. Davis is a guard that loves the game and grew into a big just in time, whereas most bigs show up to play without the passion to be great to cash in their lottery ticket. 

Davis added muscle in the offseason as well as getting that USA confidence boost we’ve come to expect coming out of the summer for every player going through that program and is on pace to have a historical season statistically. Saying “a comparison of Davis to a young Kevin Garnett is an insult to Davis“ is no longer a blasphemous statement. Unlike Garnett, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, Davis has the drive to become an all-time great without being psychotic in the same way as LeBron James and Tim Duncan. Being around Davis at this critical point in his career, you sense how well he's managing being a normal 21-year-old with his rise in the league.

Davis is simultaneously a savant on offense and defense with the type of overwhelming skill, length and athleticism to impose his force on all aspects of the game even while he’s still growing into one of the most unorthodox players that has ever played the game. Just as we’re figuring out where the limits may be for Davis, we’re watching him write his own tale of opulence. A PER of 35.0 for the season seems as plausible as the four-minute mile mark did before Roger Bannister. His Playstation-worthy per 100 possessions stats are 37.5 points, 16 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 3.2 steals and 5.5 blocks.

In another life, the Hornets were literally and figuratively OKC before OKC, playing games there after Katrina from 2005 until 2007 with a young core of Chris Paul, David West and Tyson Chandler. Paul and West were drafted in 2005 and 2003 respectively, while Chandler came over in the J.R. Smith trade when the Chicago Bulls needed to unload his contract.

The finishing touches of a team that got as far as Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs came via older free agents like Peja Stojakovic in 2006 and Morris Peterson in 2007. The CP3 Hornets went out with a four-game sweep whimper in 2011 to a flawed Los Angeles Lakers.

This time around, the Pelicans have added pieces around their franchise player that are just slightly older via trade (Jrue Holiday, Omer Asik) and free agency (Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson). Austin Rivers is the Pelicans’ only other relevant draft pick and they already declined their third-year option on him, while Eric Gordon has to this point lost the part of his game that made him critical to the Paul trade that predated the arrival of Davis.

Davis didn’t wait to become one of the NBA’s best players and the Pelicans began working on putting a playoff-caliber roster around him immediately after he finished second in Rookie of the Year voting to Damian Lillard. Dell Demps has been the anti-Hinkie, and the Pelicans and Philadelphia 76ers uncoincidentally linked up on draft night of 2013 on a trade that set both franchises off on their current trajectories.

While the trade for Asik caused the Pelicans to forfeit another draft pick and not having younger reinforcements has famously been an issue for the Cleveland Cavaliers in LeBron James’ first tenure with the club and also has contributed to the Lakers falling off a cliff so quickly, the move makes their defense better in a meaningful way while ensuring Davis can roam on that side of the floor. The Pelicans were forced into that trade after clearing cap space to sign Evans by dealing away Robin Lopez. Davis is a havoc wrecker on defense with his activity in deflections and blocks in the paint and on the perimeter. His defensive heat map covers so much floor.

The mix of Holiday, Gordon and Evans on offense, however, is problematic with all three players needing the ball in their hands to be effective while also not possessing the type of pick-and-roll, perimeter shooting or passing abilities that would be ideal with Davis. Holiday and Gordon are certainly passable three-point shooters, but are streaky and won’t kill you relative to the alternative. All three of those perimeter players are a difficult cover individually, but they become easier to stop collectively due to how their games overlap and their inability to stay committed to movement in the halfcourt.

Monty Williams says he’s “preaching ball movement” and wants Davis to “play off the dribble with his passing and ability to make other guys better,” but that rarely happens for the Pelicans in their halfcourt sets. Without Anderson on the floor to create space, Davis is too often stuck in higher degree of difficulty isolations and in the pick and roll, often not initiating that offense until late in the shot clock.

In their road win this week at the Sacramento Kings on the second night of a back-to-back, the Pelicans’ first half offense was an atrocious mélange of low percentage jumpers coming off the dribble after a possession in which there was nearly no ball movement. They turned the game around in the third quarter due to feeding Davis and Anderson on nearly every possession within the Gordon-Davis pick-and-roll, which created a string of wide open looks for Anderson and lanes opening for Evans off the dribble as a byproduct with the defense rotating. If Gordon could consistently become even 85 percent of the pick-and-roll player he was back in 10-11 with Blake Griffin, the Pelicans are making the playoffs and are a scary out.

Davis has talked about how he wants to remain patient on offense, but the Pelicans need to make him the center of their offense as the Dallas Mavericks have with Dirk Nowitzki. Davis has too many ways to unlock a defense not to give him more touches.

The Pelicans don’t have a lineup combination that fully unleashes Davis as the two-way MVP he’s already looking like he is despite the imperfections of the roster. When you consider the fact Davis projects as basically the best elite big man Swiss Army Knife ever, even accidentally stumbling across the right mix of players shouldn’t be too difficult in the long-term

The Pelicans have been above league average on offense with their Davis, Asik, Holiday, Gordon and Evans lineup, but that is largely due to the miracle that is the .618 True Shooting Percentage of Davis.

A three-man frontcourt of Davis, Asik and Anderson can’t work since Anderson can’t defend wings, while the Pelicans are compromising on offense without him on the floor and severely on the defensive end without Asik.

The Lakers had the same issue with Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom during their 2009 and 2010 titles in which Phil Jackson couldn’t play the three together. But unlike Williams, Jackson gave those three all 96 minutes at center and power forward.

Davis has barely enough help to sneak the Pelicans into the playoffs, but he’ll need another superstar to eventually elevate the franchise into title contention. Fortunately, the Pelicans have the NBA’s golden ticket in the certainty Davis will be committed there long-term in 2016 and 2017 when the cap increases and Gordon comes off the books.

In the meantime, with the Pelicans playing just once on national television, Davis deserves a cut of League Pass subscriptions. Watching him and nobody else is worth it at this point. This season will be for Basketball Twitter what Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend talk about feeling when they first heard Jimi Hendrix and they realized that while the instrument was the same, the possibilities of sound were entirely different.

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