We are now over 1.5 months into the NBA season, and it has been an incredible one  Each team in the league is between 24 and 29 games into their season.  Now, 29 games do not allow for definitive conclusions.  Some teams take longer to come together, others fizzle, and a few more make roster changes that affect performance.  Nevertheless, we have seen enough of the NBA this year to make some observations that will likely hold.  Here are three observations in the earlygoing

 

Kevin Durant made the right decision

We seem to go through this every time a superstar makes a big free agency decision to leave the team that drafted him.  The player is judged, lambasted, and accused of making a bad decision for his legacy.  Nevertheless, LeBron James’ career outcome should be reinforcement that when push comes to shove, players will be judged not for unpopular free agency choices, but by a combination of hardware and stellar individual play: the more of each, the merrier.

With an stellar 113.5 offensive rating, and a top seven defense, the Warriors start has been excellent; the adjustment period to integrate Durant was short.  The new death lineup has an unconscious 123.2 offensive rating and 96.3 defensive rating, and is just crushing opposing teams.

To anyone who understands how and why the Warriors rose before Durant, his successful integration is no surprise.  After surging to become a mid tier playoff team in 2013 at 47 wins and a second round exit, the Warriors, stifled by Mark Jackson’s limited ceiling isolation offense, plateaud in 2014 at 51 wins and a first round exit.  Then, they hired Steve Kerr.  He installed the free flowing, ball and man movement system the Warriors now have, and the results have been stellar, to the tune of 67 and 73 wins, a championship, and a finals game 7 appearance.  Kerr’s offense was never based on isolation basketball, but on each part enhancing its counterpart through ball and man movement.  Accordingly, it should have been no surprise that Kerr would be able to integrate Durant as a cog in his system, rather than trying to force him to “fit” with Curry, Klay, and the like.  The results have been expectedly stellar.

Durant, as a result, is now on a team better than any OKC team he was on, and, given the Warriors up and down style and team wide camraderie, is having the time of his life.  If 425 players chose the Warriors this summer, the reaction would have been “of course. That’s a great place to play.”  But Durant does, and that is a problem?  At the end of the day, all of the criticism of Durant is arguably old news already, and it will certainly become old news if Durant wins a championship.

Durant made the right choice for his legacy and happiness.

 

The Clippers made the right decision to keep their core together

For much of last year, there were murmurs of a potential breakup of the Clippers core.  It was started by Doc Rivers and his weird contention that a core cannot be together too long if it has not won a title.  Then there was the idea of dealing Blake Griffin last year, after a bad incident involving an equipment manager.

Then, something else happened.  The Clippers kept the core together; only three teams brought back a higher percentage of their players, when measured by minutes played. And now, sitting at 20-7, the Clippers have perhaps shown NBA fans that keeping their core together was the correct decision.

Nevertheless, that should have been obvious from the get.  Fans tend to talk in meritless absolutes, particularly about teams they do not like.  “The Clippers are not winning a ring, may as well blow it up,” is something common to hear from a casual NBA regarding the Clippers.  What that sentiment fails to appreciate, however, is that such a statement can be said about most any franchise, and will almost always be correct: nineteen teams are ringless since 1980.

All management of any franchise can do is build a contender – a team on that short list of those who can win it all, if things break right.  From there, that does not guarantee a title – the players must deliver that.  Still, if management has built that caliber of a group, there is no reason to blow that group up, because it is extraordinarily difficult to reach that level without luck.  Just look at how teams like the Jazz, Celtics, and Hornets have acquired talent, and done everything right in the team building process, but are struggling to take that step from good team to title contender.  “Blow it up” when you are a contender, and you never know when you will get back to that level.  It is smarter to keep shooting for a championship, and to hope that things break right along the way.

The Clippers are at that contender level.  We forget that if Paul and Griffin stay healthy last year, the Clippers become favorites to reach the conference finals, given the early playoff Steph Curry injury.   Why would the Clippers break up a routine 54-56 game winner – a routine top 4-7 or so franchise in the NBA?  How does dealing from that core bring you higher up the ladder?  The Clippers, if they blow it up, could spend decades trying to build a team this good ever again.

The Clippers made the right decision to keep the core together. The 20-7 record is reinforcement that was never needed.

 

The Pacers “Makeover” is a Reminder that Teams Provide Lip Service When They Want Someone Gone.

When Frank Vogel became Pacers’ head coach during 2010-2011, the Pacers, at that time, had no pedigree for playoff success, and were still trying to build a culture after the Malice at the Palace.

Vogel brought that culture, and that success.  The 2011 Pacers made the playoffs as a surprise young team.  The Pacers then, from 2012-2014, became the Miami Heat’s premier challenger in the east.  Vogel piloted an elite defense, while Paul George developed into a star under his watch.  As Roy Hibbert turned into mush and David West aged, the team did slip, but the Pacers never stopped competing, even when Paul George missed 76 games in 2014-2015.

Then, something strange happened.  Citing nebulous ideas that coaches grow stale (Rivers seems to think similarly of players; perhaps former players believe that contenders that don’t win right away are destined to be passed on the ladder and former players discuss this when talking basketball), Larry Bird chose not to bring Frank Vogel back.  The spin at the time was that the Pacers needed to play faster and become an offensive force.

Fast forward to now.  Nothing the Pacers have done suggests that they are on a sincere mission to play faster, or that the mission has worked.  First, Bird named Nate McMillan his coach even though McMillan’s teams historically have played slow.  Second, the Pacers were 10th in pace last year and dropped to 11th this year.  So much for this being the year of playing faster.  And while the offense has improved from 23rd in the NBA to 19th, it is still below average – and now the defense has slipped from 3rd to 17th.

We see this all the time in the NBA.  At some point, a team decides it just wants a coach (or a GM) gone.  When that person is gone, we then hear spin, for all the things that person did wrong and all the things the next person truly can accomplish.

The Pacers sold everyone on this idea that they were about to become a fast paced offensive dynamo.  That was all spin.

And that spin – designated player exception or not – may lead to Paul George developing wandering eye as he sees players he believes he is as good as or better than having more playoff success than him.

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