Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Joel Embiid was the NBA’s Rookie of the Year

Last night, the NBA had its first-ever awards show and it was a good night for the Milwaukee Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpo was named the NBA’s most-improved player. Antetokounmpo’s teammate Malcolm Brogdon made history in more ways than one. The University of Virginia product became the first player who was not drafted in the first round to win the league’s Rookie of the Year award in the common-draft era. He also became the first player to win the award without ever winning Rookie of the Month in his own conference.

Seems crazy that the recipient of the Rookie of the Year award could never be named the best rookie in his conference in any single month, right? That’s because it is. Brogdon beat out Sixers teammates Joel Embiid and Dario Saric for the award. To be nice, this year’s rookie class was weak. Embiid had the best numbers by far, but played just 31 games in 2016-17. Saric’s averages for the season were still better than Brogdon’s, but the Croatian came on late in the year and for most of the first half of the season was an average player for the Sixers. Brogdon was a bench player for most of the season for Milwaukee starting in just 28 of the 75 games he played in. These were the three finalists for the award.

In a year where no rookie stood out during the entire season, Embiid only playing 31 out of 82 games should not have been the reason he did not win. His 20.2 points per game almost exactly doubled Brogdon’s 10.2 for the season. Embiid also averaged 7.8 rebounds per game and 2.5 blocks per game. His blocks per game were more than any player other than Rudy Gobert. The only rookies to ever match Embiid’s rookie year per game averages in points, rebounds and blocks were Tim Duncan, Alonzo Mourning, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson and Ralph Sampson.

                                                            Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
While all six of those big men played more than 31 games in their rookie years, all of them also averaged far more minutes per game as rookies than Embiid’s 25.4. For Embiid to put up those averages for the season, while playing on just over half the game each night, makes it seem insane that anyone else would win Rookie of the Year, especially someone that had a season like Brogdon had. None of the previously mentioned hall-of-fame caliber big men had range out to the three-point line. Embiid also shot 36.7 percent from beyond the arc this past season.

Then consider Brogdon was on the floor for more minutes per game, 26.4, than Embiid and it really is astounding that an average season like Brogdon’s would be rewarded just because it was a full season over Embiid’s injury-shortened season. This past season proved exactly what every scout and draft expert claimed about Embiid three years ago when the Sixers selected him third overall. He is a player that can do just about everything on the floor and someone that has a chance to be a generational talent, provided he stays healthy. He showed just about all his ability this season, but also got hurt again. However, there just wasn’t anyone even close to as impactful as Embiid was when he was on the floor this season, which is why playing only 31 games should not have been held against him. It says a lot about the type of player Embiid is for him to be that good with such little playing time. Had he played the rest of the season, and been surprisingly poor, his numbers for the entire year are almost certainly still better than Brogdon’s and he probably wins the award. Therefore, it seems odd that Brogdon’s quantity would trump Embiid’s quality. But, one thing’s for sure. If Embiid can stay healthy, he’ll have a much better career than Brogdon, which in the end, is all that matters.

Monday, June 12, 2017

NBA's competitive balance problem only getting worse

It’s the same teams contending every year. The regular season doesn’t mean anything. Simulate the postseason to the finals.

These are all things certain sports fans say about the National Basketball Association. It’s hard to argue with, but it’s still commendable that certain teams, led by certain superstars, find their way back to the conference finals and NBA Finals most years. Instead of reading Twitter arguments about LeBron James or Michael Jordan, it’s better just to sit back and respect the kind of career James is putting together having been to the NBA Finals for seven straight seasons and eight times total.

Fans that use James’ move from Cleveland to Miami as an example of the beginning of the NBA becoming increasingly more predictable are simply misguided. After all, his Heat teams still lost two of the four NBA Finals they appeared in and had to rally to win a miraculous game 6 in 2013 against San Antonio and then come back and win a seventh game. So which teams played in the finals may have been easy to predict, but who would win was a coin flip more often than not. This carried over when James went back home to Cleveland in 2014 and his Cavaliers did battle with the Golden State Warriors in the 2015 and 2016 NBA Finals. Sure enough, Golden State won in 2015 and Cleveland won last year.

Then, something big happened. That something was Kevin Durant’s decision to leave Oklahoma City and join Golden State. Everyone knows the story by now. Durant’s Thunder held a 3-1 series held in the Western Conference Finals against Golden State only to drop games 5, 6 and 7 and allow the Warriors, who posted a record 73 wins in the regular season to advance to the NBA Finals. While the Warriors then squandered a 3-1 lead of their own in the NBA Finals, it was evident that the Warriors did not need Durant and Durant did not need the Warriors. Golden State still had a title from 2015 and Durant’s Thunder had pushed the Warriors to the precipice of elimination last season.

Now the Warriors have returned to the top with Durant on their side after defeating Cleveland in five games in this year’s NBA Finals. The NBA’s imbalance of power reached a new level this season and while Durant and Stephen Curry could both hit the open market in a matter of weeks, as well as Klay Thompson next summer, it’s highly unlikely that Golden State’s nucleus disintegrates just as its presumptive dynasty begins. With several stars under the age of 30, it’s no secret Golden State figures to be just as good in years to come as it was this season.

                                      Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group
All that said, who can blame the Warriors for assembling what many have called the greatest team ever? As easy as it can be to dislike them, Golden State identified talent in the draft going back to when it drafted Curry 7th overall in 2009, and continued to build organically all the way to a championship in 2015 and then the most wins ever in a regular season in 2016, which ultimately led to acquiring Durant. It’s a model of team building that every team in the NBA should aspire to emulate. The NBA has always been driven by its star players and teams with multiple stars are the ones that win championships often. With the dominance the Warriors are displaying, owners and general managers across the NBA should be happy that the proposed draft lottery reform failed to earn the necessary majority when it was put to a vote prior to the 2014-15 NBA season. Such lottery reform would have made it more difficult for the worst teams to acquire the top picks in the draft, which for many teams is the only way to realistically add stars in hopes of one day contending for a title. Commissioner Adam Silver may not like the fact that it’s in the best interest of certain teams to lose a ton of games, but for those teams, it’s almost certainly the easiest way to obtaining a franchise cornerstone which continues to be paramount in the NBA.

In the end, it all comes back to Durant’s decision to bolt from Oklahoma City. Had Durant stayed put, or opted to go anywhere other than Golden State, the Finals this year could very well have been Golden State and Cleveland again anyway. But it almost certainly would have lasted more than five games, and it’s not rocket science to think Golden State would have at least been challenged and faced some adversity in the Western Conference playoffs as opposed to going 12-0 on the way to another NBA Finals berth. It’s one thing for teams to become dynasties, and win multiple championships in a five-year span. It’s another level of inequality when that team dominates a league’s playoffs the way Golden State just did. For a league that was already looked at as top-heavy, that issue is only amplified now. Therefore, the answer to the question if the Warriors and Durant are a good thing for the NBA is a resounding no.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Phillies left with no choice but to wait

In case you were wondering, the Philadelphia Phillies are not a good baseball team. With more than a quarter of the 2017 season in the rear-view mirror, the Phillies are 16-29 which ties them with the Miami Marlins for the worst record in baseball. Before yesterday’s 2-1 win in 11 innings against the Colorado Rockies, the Phillies had lost 20 for their previous 24 games. By the end of May, usually the season is old enough to pass judgement on what kind of team you have. There’s always a few risers and fallers, but for the most part the teams at the top of the standings on Memorial Day are still in the mix by Labor Day and those at the bottom of the standings in late May are on the golf course in October. The Phillies are undoubtedly the latter.

The woeful start has led to questions about moves second-year general manager Matt Klentak can make to remedy the situation. Klentak has already commented on the hot starts of prospects Rhys Hoskins and Jorge Alfaro at triple-A Lehigh Valley and told fans not to expect big league promotions for either prospect any time soon. Outfielder Roman Quinn is finally healthy and off to a good start for the IronPigs after having a cup of coffee with the Phillies in September last year. Quinn would be the best guess for the first promotion from Lehigh Valley, but outside of filtering up prospects during the final 117 games, there are not many transactions to be made that will make the major-league club much better.

Despite only being 45 games into this season, it’s time to start to see who can earn spots with the Phillies in 2018, a process that may only become more evident after the trade deadline if Klentak can sell of a couple of players.  Prioritizing individual performances to evaluate future roles of certain players does not often lead to many wins, but this is where the Phillies are at. The frustrating thing for many fans is that it’s easy to assume the progress of a rebuild to be linear. A 63-99 season in 2015 was perceived as rock bottom. Last year, the Phillies posted a 71-91 record and were an exciting team early on climbing as high as seven games over .500 at one point in May. After an eight-win improvement one year ago, many thought the Phillies could flirt with .500 this season.  It’s not impossible that they could match their win total from 2016, but forget winning any more games than that.

So how concerning is it that the Phillies are almost surely to underachieve this season and are still nowhere close to becoming a contender? The answer to that question really depends on each fan’s amount of patience. It’s tough to stress patience to Philadelphia sports fans right now considering it’s been five years since one of the city’s major four professional sports teams advanced in the playoffs. But rebuilding in baseball often takes longer than the other professional leagues. In baseball, teams don’t just have one bad season, and then acquire a transcendent talent in the draft who makes an immediate impact the following year while also being an organizational cornerstone for the next 15 years. For example, the Houston Astros lost over 100 games in 2011, 2012 and 2013 and had the number one overall pick in the draft after each season. Two of those three number one overall picks are not in Houston’s organization right now yet the Astros currently have the best record in baseball and made the playoffs in 2015.

MacPhail (left) and Klentak have not had much to smile about
so far during 2017.
It takes time to develop a talented minor league system when you consider where the Phillies were after the 2014 season when the team finally opted to rebuild and began to break up its nucleus of veterans. Since the end of 2014, the team has been through a managerial change and changed general managers after the 2015 season. The Phillies also added current President of Baseball Operations Andy MacPhail to the front office in 2015. The farm system is better but still not elite in the eyes of many minor-league experts. Players with the big club like Odubel Herrera and Maikel Franco once looked like building blocks for the future and have struggled mightily so far this season. Trading established big leaguers for prospects who are not major-league ready is an inexact science.

Preaching patience by no means guarantees a brighter future in two or three years. However, it serves as a reminder that while we all expect a linear progression, it’s not always that simple when transitioning to a group players under the age of 25. While it’s been almost impossible to watch the Phillies so far in 2017, a couple of short-sighted moves or big contracts in the winter would be detrimental well beyond this season. It doesn’t sound like an appealing alternative, but there truly is no better option than playing out the string and hoping that the grass is greener on the other side.