Past Features

Enraptored! Read more

The dunk that saved a league. Read the story

Remembering Jordan and the Pistons. Read the story

Does the Hornets brand still have sting? Read the story

Muggsy Bogues and point guards of stature. Read the story

NCAA legend Dwayne McClain reflects on his Sydney Kings career and talks about the NBL's future. Read the Q&A 

Lauren Jackson helps us forget the end of the Seattle Sonics. Read the story








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Why the Spurs are still too good for the Rockets

Basketball is most compelling, I think, when two opposing styles meet. For instance, a fast-breaking team that thrives on inspiration, comes up against a half-court offense that uses set plays. The eighties iteration of the Los Angeles Lakers comes to mind, as they were so free-wheeling that just about every opponent played with a contrary style. It was always must-watch TV.

In 2015, a number of NBA teams allow the parameters of probability—revealed to their front office through statistical analysis—lead their style. For example, the San Antonio Spurs have been playing an entertaining brand of basketball in recent years, using a strategy that centres on rapid ball movement, and that often culminates in three-pointers. This is by design because no team has attempted more corner threes than the Spurs, according to ESPN's Great Analytics Rankings.

More than a few stats junkies in the media appreciate this, especially because as far as basketball shots go, three-pointers have become a logical favorite. It's hardly surprising, given that they're worth more than any other. I'm sure if every free throw was suddenly worth one-and-a-half points, we'd soon see the folks at the MIT Sloan Sports Conference spinning on the floor like Homer Simpson.

While the Spurs' staff are said to pore over the numbers as diligently as analytics leaders like the Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors, you might not know it. I didn't. Not until I saw ESPN's list of NBA teams that are really into the numbers—especially the newer ones, which are often referred to as 'advanced stats'. The Spurs were in the top five, which to my mind, was a highly improbable placing, mainly because they play such beautiful basketball. What I mean to say is, since when is splendid passing borne from numbers on a page?

The Spurs' style sees the ball pushed to the hands of open teammates with such conviction that it seems as though all five players on the court have memorised the choreography, which is certainly different to playing probabilities. That's more about moving into a position based on the likelihood of an outcome. But won't the likelihoods change each trip down the court? (I suppose if you're intent on shooting threes all the time, maybe they don't).

Over in Houston, the Rockets have a more explicit fascination with the numerical side of basketball, and I say that because at least in the columns of media outlets, it's a far more popular story. Led by general manager Daryl Morey, and his calculator, the Rockets are also greatly concerned with probabilities. Morey recently said that the basketball data his team uses is granular but rich.

"If you want to look at style of play, i.e., how quickly the players move, how much they get up the floor, how often they are spaced, how often they are clumped—that kind of data can really glean the different styles of play in the NBA, both at the team level and at the individual level," Morey said in an interview with Northwestern University. "If you want to look at all the derivatives of movement in terms of position, velocity, acceleration, jerk—you can get all those things with the data that we now have."

These measures sound interesting and presumably show the organization trends that can be suitably addressed in any future contest, and against any opponent—even perhaps the Harlem Globetrotters. The trouble, however, is that no amount of study about trends is likely to ever stymie a club like the Spurs, who, despite their own penchant for analytics, really seem to hit spots on the floor and find spaces based on what's presented to them. That's what I think, at least. Yes, the Spurs apparently use numbers, but there's something different about their application of them. For them, the game appears to always return to instincts—a kind of improvised magic—which might look choreographed, but clearly involves quick thinking and athleticism as well. Of course, good basketball teams do some planning, and even some after-midnight analysis, but any former player or fanatic of the game knows that plans—or set plays, or indeed the study of tendencies, shouldn't be used frequently but situationally. 

See, the concern one might have with an analytical focus to the game is that its proponents invest so much time and energy into the exercise that they rely on it too frequently. I think this was really at the heart of Charles Barkley's recent complaint—he didn't mean it like that stats people! Let's remember, Chuck was a great improvisational player: Why would someone with his skill level care about probabilities? Such players drop their head, plough forward and WILL score. Whatever the defense. No matter the consequences. 

Houston is known to rely heavily on three-pointers too, as well as creating scoring chances close to the hoop. They like the combo of the two in their offense, actually. This strategy, and the success that's come from it, has even led Grantland editor Bill Simmons to suggest that NBA players who can't contribute to it are now outdated. For example, on his podcast he regularly laments the shooting limitations of Dallas Mavericks' point guard, Rajon Rondo, who can't shoot the three and has been resisting the dribble drive too. And yet, Rondo plays for a team and owner who are 'all in' on advanced stats. Go figure.

This brings us to the recent Spurs-Rockets contest in which San Antonio not only outplayed Houston but outsmarted them. (And no, I'm not referring to the sneaky good but contentious block by Tim Duncan in the final seconds). The truth is, Houston could print off all the data inside their laptops, tuck torn pages of it into the shorts of its stars for quick reference, and they'd still fail to keep up with the ball when whipped around by the Spurs—from the top of the key, down to the corner, into the low post, then back to the point, and over to the foul line extended. 

But here's the thing—the Spurs shot the three terribly in this one, connecting on just 4 of 17. So there's no way they should have won, right? Especially with the Rockets hitting 9 of 21 from deep by comparison. I mean come on! That's 27 points to 12 in the three column—a significant advantage. But, you know, the Spurs have other methods, ways of adjusting, tinkering on the fly and playing the game as it unfolds.

The Rockets also used big man Dwight Howard for their interior play and, as such, dominated the shot chart with 'x's' inside the paint. This made up a great deal of their offense and proved to be potent. Meanwhile, the Spurs attack featured a number of long twos, which must have thrilled the Houston front office, who have practically led a campaign to rid the game of such disgusting habits. Well, San Antonio's shooters connected on these 'ill-advised' shots as if they'd been up watching Karl Malone clips all night. Then, Patty Mills chipped in a few timely threes, they shared the ball some more, and finally, there was no denying the value of their excellent team defense. The Spurs showed the Rockets the full repertoire in their 104-103 win.

What does this all mean, anyway? Does the Spurs' talent and depth simply outweigh the Rocket's analytical effort? Is it possible that the two positives of these numerically inclined clubs have created a negative for the Rockets? Or is it simply that physics, biology and yes, chemistry—subjects at which no team excels more than San Antonio—will always trump good math?

Don't ask me, I just like good basketball. 


The Nuggets' Rocky Mountain Low

By J.P. Pelosi

If you just tuned into the Denver Nuggets season because, oh I don’t know, you’ve been too busy with news about deflated footballs, and working out why Damian Lillard isn’t an NBA All-Star, well, you may be in for a shock.

The Nuggies’ record is 19-30, just two games up on the Utah Jazz, who’ve gone 4-6 in their last 10, as per NBA.com. Hey, that’s actually solid in the plodding Northwest Division, especially when you consider that the Nuggets are 1-9 over their last 10 outings.

This horrible run of basketball, which led one CBS Sports columnist to call the team a ‘train wreck’, seemed to come to a head in a 104-86 rout at the hands of the Charlotte Hornets last week.

If only it did. The Hornets loss was just one of many stings, with no relief in sight.

Apparently intent on giving up on their club, coach and Denver’s loyal fans, the Nuggets additionally mailed in their most recent performance against quite possibly the league’s worst team, Philadelphia, losing 105-98.

And don’t let the close score fool you: the Sixers’ Hollis Thompson, who hit 1-of-9 shots against the Pistons last week, and 3-of-7 against the cowering Wolves, couldn’t miss on this occasion.

His lights-out shooting in the first half gave the 76ers a 61-40 lead at the break, a gap so insurmountable that even the quick-triggered legend Michael Adams couldn’t have thrown up enough 3’s to close it in time.

Still, point guard Jameer Nelson looked to be trying in the second half, as he mostly has since arriving from Boston last month. That’s at least something. And Danilo Gallinari finally sunk a few buckets for 22 points, though at this point it’s unlikely anybody noticed.

I say this because Denver is in a weird place right now. And I’m not talking about one with rainbow striped buildings. That’d at least be fun.

No, the word on the street, across the web and echoing through Colorado’s old gold fields is that the Nuggies aren’t even trying. Coach Brian Shaw insinuated as much to the press recently, as covered by The Denver Post, and judging by the on-court product of late, it’s hard to argue.

How did we get here?

I mean earlier this season I was among those touting this group as a potential eighth seed in the west. Now they’re shipping players, battling a locker room mutiny, and the most positive piece of news on the club’s website is that Rocky, the team mascot, is gearing up for Valentine’s Day this year.

Now I’m not certain I understand what ‘Send your Valentine the gift of Rocky’ actually means, but hopefully its something more appealing than the passionless basketball we’re currently seeing in Denver.


*This story first appeared on Sir Charles In Charge.


Can the Thunder beat the Spurs when it counts?

Ish Smith charged up court and into the San Antonio Spurs’ key, where he was greeted by the typically towering and intimidating silver and black defenders. Smith stopped, turned, and tossed the ball to a trailing Serge Ibaka, who awkwardly nailed a leaning three-pointer.

Commentator Hubie Brown called it “good basketball,” but like so much Thunder ball, it was really more opportunistic than anything else. To the keen observer, Oklahoma City finds chances that aren’t really there, and more often than not, it’s up the middle of the court.

Read the full post on SI.com's Fansided blog, Sir Charles In Charge


88 miles per hour! 

It’s easy to forget that a flux capacitor, a barrel of plutonium and a top speed of 88 miles per hour in combination, can send you hurtling through time.

Luckily, we have Russell Westbrook to remind us that when he’s on the basketball court, the application of this method permits him to rip across the court like Doc Brown’s DeLorean. The instant he pushes down on the accelerator there’s simply no catching Westbrook, who roars by opposing defenders like they’re stuck in 1955, and he’s headed for 2015.

Indeed, the Oklahoma City Thunder have already tossed away their 2014 calendars and are gazing toward June 2015, and a shot at an NBA Championship. That hope, firstly hinges on Westbrook’s blistering pace and supreme energy, which was on full display last week when he returned to the court against the New York Knicksafter being injured for a month.

The only sign of his injury, in fact, was a protective brace on his shooting hand, which may as well have been for show, because at a glance, Westbrook looked as brilliant as the airborne time machine in the Back To The Future movie. That this team started with a 4-12 record is surely now an afterthought, like the fiery vapor trails that vanished from the Hill Valley sky.

When Westbrook is on, dribbling high – then low – with a cross and a spin, leaping beyond defenders to lay it in or slam it down, there’s no stopping him. No way. When he’s tuned in like that, as he was against the hapless Knicks (who should just add the word ‘hapless’ to their moniker), you simply want to be a Thunder fan because it’s riveting.

Read the full post on Fansided


Why the Nuggets are the Northwest Division sleeper

Everything we’re hearing about the Denver Nuggets right now is that they have depth. And while it’s certainly good to have a lengthy and versatile roster in the NBA, it won’t exactly drive jersey sales.

When a team is said to have depth, it’s like a pretty girl calling you a “good friend.” In this regard, the Denver Nuggets have become the dorky rom-com buddy who’s always polite and punctual, but never gets his lenses fogged up. This can be advantageous though, because as we all know, the dorky friend always beats the popular jock in the end.

So just how will the Denver Nuggets stand up to the likes of the much cooler Thunder and Blazers? Well, with the very versatility that their strange and eclectic roster boasts. Coach Brian Shaw has said he wants to run and gun, but also be physical inside. While seemingly contradictory thoughts, I think I know what he means.

(It’s a confusing roster, so we should expect any ideas about how it will be utilized to be equally perplexing!)

Read the full post on Fansided


Previewing the finale of Kobe's Lake Show

Everyone realizes it’s one of those down eras for the Lakers that swing by more infrequently than Halley’s Comet. Great clubs need moments of rejuvenation every now and then, you know, where they can ice the knees and sip some Gatorade.

That time is now for LA’s purple and gold, which conversely has meant good fortune has fallen upon their red and blue brethren, the Clippers. Yes, Jack Nicholson knows this is as bad as it gets, while Billy Crystal no longer has to scare up support for his squad.

For all the criticism the Lakers are getting ahead of the new season, mostly because their roster doesn’t look good enough to compete with the Washington Generals, there’s something admirable about this mob. It’s a team of young and unaccomplished parts, spear-headed by two of the sport’s all-time greats, one of whom especially, refuses to surrender to the rust that’s setting into his joints.

Fine, Kobe Bryant isn’t the self-catapulting basketball ninja that he once was, but he’s still one of the best ever, and won’t go quietly into the night. We know this, that even on one ankle, with the soles of his sneakers wearing thin, blindfolded with his pants pulled down, Kobe is still a threat.

His grinding down reminds me of Magic at last call, when instead of bustling his way across court with the ball being bounced up at his ears, Magic turned his back to the basket like a kid trying to keep it from his bigger brother. In this position, which seemingly lulled defenses into a slumber, Magic continued to pull a rabbit from the hat. That’s just the way it is, you play to your strengths.

And so to Kobe, who has no sharper arrow in his quiver than his self-belief. If Michael Jordan invented the hyper intensity of take-no-prisoners basketball, Kobe refined it, pushing himself to succeed when everyone else said he should be inspecting retirement homes in Boca Raton. Well folks, all he’s ever cared about is the equipment in the fitness centre. Oh, and the tapioca pudding I'm told.

While he’s never been my favorite Laker, I appreciate Kobe’s extraordinary effort. How can you not? No matter how close the Lakers drop to the NBA floor this season, setting off more alarms than a sweaty Ethan Hunt, his hunger to compete has surely never been more evident. You only need to consider the current roster and the prospect of him having to carry it to see this.

Conversely, there’s a likeable vulnerability to Kobe now, which is seeping into the picture of his career like the decaying edges of an old photograph. Like that photo, Kobe’s no longer crisp, but rather imperfect, and this undoubtedly troubles him as it does all the great athletes. And yet, from the sideline, it’s hard to not admire his seemingly endless and tireless pursuit for victory, buoyed by a melancholic sense of invincibility, which still yet might produce something noteworthy. 

Or maybe it won't. Listen, Magic remained my favorite player after he shaved the goatee, perhaps a sign that he was no longer young enough for fast styles, or breaks. Like Kobe now, he played on in the slower years, the old dog – the underdog, as it were – giving it one last heave before the era finally ended. That's all you can ask for.



Why the Wizards don't have the NBA's best backcourt

One of the reasons it’s so easy for the Washington Wizards’ Bradley Beal to claim he and John Wall are the NBA’s best backcourt, is timing. After all, Both Beal and Wall are in the early part of their careers, while other notable backcourts are no longer performing at the peak of their powers, or are simply too often injured. (The Spurs’ Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili must scoff at these sorts of arguments the way George Clooney would shrug at the rise of Ryan Gosling).

Reporting from the team’s media day, The Washington Post shared Beal’s zeal for the duo’s potential, which after a strong season that saw the Wiz make the playoffs, isn’t completely misplaced. Wall was an All-Star last year, of course, and Beal posted solid shooting numbers in his second season.

But is this enough to be the best?

Adi Joseph of USA Today addressed the topic too, clearly unsatisfied with Beal’s conclusion, which is suitably lofty like many claims that come out of the capital. Looking ahead, rather than at what we’ve seen, Joseph decided that the best pairing heading into the new season is actually the Warriors’ Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Certainly on the measure of outside shooting, there’s no question these two are in the conversation, though I find it hard to place them at the very top of such a list.

Where this debate gets as convoluted as a flowchart from the HR department, is when you think about each backcourt player with regard to their respective position, as opposed to the combination. When a club constructs a backcourt, it surely weighs up these opposing aspects and works out which type of guards suit the roster overall. Traditionally, teams needed one guard to run the floor, like Magic Johnson once did so brilliantly for the Lakers, and a second guard to compliment him with offensive punch, as Byron Scott did Magic.

However, this approach seems less common in 2014, mostly because there’s a shortage of outstanding off-guards. So, in a number of instances, teams are using two point guards, as is the case in Phoenix, which starts Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, while in others, there are essentially two shooters, as is the case with the Warriors. Comparing such backcourts is a little like choosing between Mad Men and Curb Your Enthusiasm: both work incredibly well but yield very different results.

Going by the traditional one-two format, I’d argue that the Clippers really have the best backcourt with Chris Paul and J.J. Redick. This isn’t based on numbers, nor a particularly good sample size, but the general effectiveness of their combination - one as a floor general who creates for his teammates, the other as an outstanding shooter who tires defenses, and both players as a formidable defensive combo on the perimeter.

Listen, there’s no question that Wall and Beal have incredible upside as a duo. But if the Clippers and Wizards met in the NBA Finals, you’d have to take experience over youth, wouldn’t you?


The Ex Files (part 3): Where did Dante spring from?

Dante Exum is mostly known as 'The Australian Kid' in NBA pre-draft circles, a point guard squeezed into a two guard's body, who wowed onlookers at the Nike Hoop Summit last year. Draft boarders label him as the next big thing at the point, which is fine, they have to quantify unknown quantities somehow. But I think his slashing and cutting is the stuff that shoots scoring guards to the moon. 

In Australia, we've been following Exum for a while. After all, he's the son of one-time star of our local league, Cecil Exum, a talented small forward for teams like the Geelong Supercats and Canberra Cannons. Canberra, the nation's capital, is also important in the story of the younger Exum because it's where he honed his ball skills, tested out dunks, no doubt, and developed the court vision you see today. His years at the Australian Institute of Sport, our version of the collective college sports experience bundled up into one place, cannot be underrated. The coaching he received there from the likes of Ian Stacker and Paul Goriss, seems to have had the same type of meaningful impact that a man like Dean Smith had on, say, Michael Jordan.

Now I won't dare compare Exum to MJ - or Kobe, for that matter, though some have - but I certainly understand the hope. Not only is he six-foot-six and a similar weight (Jordan was 195 pounds in college according to Sports Reference), but he has that dash of flair Jordan had at a similar age - a sort of quiet confidence and patience that the right crease will present itself. He glides into the play, if you know what I mean. Listen, he has a way to go, of course, but the foundation is there.

“Basketball has always been part of my family and I have grown up around it with my dad coaching so that has been good for my development,” Exum said in an AIS interview recently.

“The AIS has helped me progress and take that next step to the NBA draft.”

There are a few Aussie ball players coming up through the AIS ranks in fact, and like Exum, they're the kids of National Basketball League greats. But Exum is all the talk right now: he has the moves, the look, the catchy name and even an element of the unknown, which can only work to his advantage.