VIDEO: The Fast Break – March 19
NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Wizards owner says team can make playoffs — You can say the Wizards have been one of the more disappointing teams in the league and currently find themselves in the outside looking in regarding the playoffs. But Washington owner Ted Leonsis prefers to see the glass as being half full and believes the team can still make the playoffs, which mathematically is definitely possible. You wonder if “making the playoffs” sounds more like an ultimatum from the owner and whether heads will roll if Washington, which scored an upset over the Raptors last spring, fails to make the cut. Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post reports:
The Wizards have strangled and then revived their playoff chances more times than I can count. Most recently, they imploded in Chicago, then won four straight games. Then they lost five straight — including three on a brutal West Coast swing — before rebounding with three straight wins, two against playoff contenders. Don’t worry about these details: just know that when they reach the absolute precipice of disaster, they recover just enough to keep us interested until the next disappointment.
Washington’s schedule still looks forgiving; seven of its final 14 games are against truly awful teams. But only an extreme optimist could continue to have total faith in this team after the past few months.
Ted Leonsis is an extreme optimist.
During a radio appearance this week, Leonsis was asked serious questions about the Wizards future: about how this team could both miss the playoffs and lose its first-round pick, about his commitment to patience, and about how he would decide whether General Manager Ernie Grunfeld and Coach Randy Wittman deserve to be back.
“We’re going to make the playoffs,” Leonsis told Grant Paulsen and Danny Rouhier on 106.7 The Fan. “We have to believe that. We have to be focused on that. That’s all we’re looking at.”
Leonsis said this on Wednesday afternoon. That was before the Wizards beat the Bulls and Sixers to pull within a 1.5 games of the eighth seed. It wasn’t necessarily pretty; Washington tried like crazy to lose to Philadelphia on Thursday night. And the Wizards would still need to pass two teams to make the postseason. But Leonsis, like most of us, at least sees a path.
“This has been an outlier year, mostly because of how many injuries we’ve suffered,” Leonsis said. “We had a very poor road trip — Bradley Beal didn’t play at all — and then Bradley Beal plays 24 minutes [against Detroit] and the team just looks different. John Wall looks like a different player when he doesn’t have to be the first offensive scoring option, he can set other players up.
“And so we’ll take a look at how we end the season in the offseason,” the owner said. “But right now, we’re just focused on do we have our full contingent of players, can we play the kind of system that we want, can we amp up the energy defensively. And it seems trite, you hear this all the time, but we truly are in the mode of you’ve got to play one game at a time, and be totally focused and conscious of just that one impediment that’s in front of you tonight.”
No. 2: Ricky Rubio still showing growth — Slowly but surely, Ricky Rubio is coming of age, despite the constant trade rumors this season. He’s accepted among his teammates mainly because he’s a pass-first point guard, and while his jump shot remains a work in progress, he did beat Oklahoma City on a buzzer-beater this season. It’s sometimes hard to remember that Rubio is still just tapping his prime and never really had a mentor since arriving in the NBA. He also had a limited run in Europe and mainly as a teenager. Jerry Zgoda of the Star-Tribune tells the story of how Rubio first came on radar:
Back then, Rubio was a 15-year-old prodigy known in certain circles for making his Spanish professional playing debut at the tender age of 14.
But his name became known around the Internet — and thus the world — after his stunning halfcourt shot saved Spain and helped it beat Russia for the FIBA Under-16 European championship. All these years later, Rubio still considers the shot that defined his mind-boggling 51-point, 24-rebound, 12-assist, seven-steal performance that day a mystical moment.
It came three weeks after a childhood friend and teammate who played a career-altering role in his life by literally giving Rubio the sneakers off his feet was killed in a motorbike accident.
To this day, Rubio believes friend Guillem Raventos guided that shot into the basket and that is why he points his index finger skyward every game he plays now.
“Well, it was a sad story,” Rubio said, “but I’m always going to remember him.”
And the shot as well …
A game video — shot with one camera from the back row of a small, packed gym in Linares, Spain — still is out there on YouTube. (Watch it here, starting at 1:24.00) It shows Russia apparently winning the game in the final seconds on a three-point shot. But while Russian players ran back down the court leaping and his teammates jogged back stunned, a skinny point guard can be seen motioning for a teammate to inbound the ball.
A moment later, the skinny point guard gathered in a pass on one bounce at midcourt and in one lunging motion flung the ball past three Russian players. It banked high off the backboard and in just as the horn sounded. The home-country crowd erupted while Russian players stood motionless, their hands held behind their heads in disbelief.
“A lot, a lot,” Rubio said when asked how many times he has watched that shot since then. “But the quality is not very good.”
Spain won in two overtimes 110-106 for its first such title.
If there is such a thing as Legend of Ricky Rubio, did it start that day?
“Kind of, I mean, yeah,” Rubio said the other day. “That was the biggest game I ever played with numbers and winning on a big stage, too.”
His performance impressed Spanish national team officials, and two years later, at age 17 Rubio played in the Beijing Olympics against LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and current teammate Tayshaun Prince in the gold medal game.
He might never have made it there or perhaps even to the NBA if not for his friend Guillem. One day when Rubio was 14, the two friends watched Rubio’s older brother, Marc, practice with their hometown Joventut Badalona senior team when famed coach Aito Garcia Reneses called Ricky down from the stands because he had just nine players there.
“They needed an extra one, and I was wearing sandal shoes; Barcelona is nice, you know?” Rubio said. “I asked Guillem could I borrow his shoes and he did. So I practiced and practiced well and next thing you knew I was in training camp.”
And the rest, as they say, is …
Not long after, Rubio made his pro debut at age 14. The next summer, he made that stunning shot.
“I think I will never forget what happened there or the way it happened,” Rubio recounted on his website. “There is no doubt that someone up there caught hold of that shot and led it into the basket.”
No. 3: Sixers are trailing their long-time rivals — It doesn’t take a basketball Einstein to see the Celtics are further along in their development than the Sixers; heck, almost every team in the league can make that boast. But once Boston bid farewell to Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo, they were in rebuilding mode, too, and this was just four years ago. In that time, GM Danny Ainge made enough deals to restock the Celtics with youth, role players and future No, 1 picks heisted from others, mainly the Nets. Here is the take from Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who did some examining:
There was a time, not too long ago, when the 76ers’ future appeared brighter than that of the Boston Celtics.
Smart decisions over an extended period of time by the Celtics combined with the Sixers’ focus on acquiring assets over much-needed players have proven otherwise.
And it might be a long time before the Sixers can reach the Celtics’ level unless they’re lucky.
While the Sixers (9-60) felt it was best to extend their tank job into a third straight season, the Celtics (39-30), as of Friday night, had the sixth-best record in the Eastern Conference. The top eight teams advance to the playoffs.
But here’s something some folks in Philly might not know about the Boston squad that will face the Sixers Sunday evening at Wells Fargo Center: At this moment, they’ll have the most picks of any team in June’s NBA draft and plenty of cap space to go after A-list free agents to pair with all-star point guard Isaiah Thomas.
“They are in a great position,” said a league executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “If they want to make a trade, then they have a lot of picks to make a trade to get a good player.
“Meanwhile, everything has to go perfect for the Sixers to have a chance. They have to get the No. 1 pick this year. Joel Embiid has to be a star player. They have to get the [Los Angeles] Lakers’ pick. They have to have [Dario] Saric as a great player and [he] has come over. So everything has to to be perfect basically for the Sixers.”
With 13 games left, they have a five-loss cushion over the Lakers (14-55) to finish with the league’s worst record. The last-place team will get a 25 percent chance to win the first pick at May’s draft lottery.
The Sixers would also get the Lakers pick if Los Angeles falls out of the top three at the lottery. The Sixers are also expected to receive protected first-round picks from Miami (top 10) and Oklahoma City (top 15). The Heat pick would have been 23rd and the Thunder 26th had the NBA regular season concluded Friday night. The Sixers would also have the right to swap first-round picks with the Sacramento Kings. So if the Kings get the first pick, the Sixers will take it.
However, the Sixers will send their lone second-round pick, expected to be 31, to Boston due to their being a lottery team.
The Celtics will also receive the Brooklyn Nets’, the protected Dallas Mavericks’ (top seven) and Minnesota Timberwolves’ (top 12) first-round picks in addition to their own.
The Nets had the league’s fourth-worst record heading into Saturday’s matchup with the Detroit Pistons.
The Celtics would also pick 15th for the Mavericks and 21st for themselves if the regular-season ended Friday. With the league’s fifth-worst record, Minnesota would keep its pick.
In that instance, the Celtics would get a second-rounder from the Timberwolves in June and next summer.
This summer’s second-round from Minnesota would be the 35th pick. The Celtics would also receive the 43rd, 53nd (Miami) and 58th (Cleveland) picks of the second round.
So in addition to being 30 games ahead of the Sixers, they have more assets to take the team to the next level.
And this is just the beginning.
Boston has the rights to swap first-round pick with Brooklyn in 2017. The Cavs and Los Angeles Clippers will also have give up their 2017 second-round picks to the Celtics.
In 2018, they get Brooklyn’s pick and the protected Memphis Grizzlies pick (top 12) in the first round. The Celtics also will get second-rounders from the Detroit Pistons (2019) and Heat (2020).
Boston also only has around $34 million locked up in guaranteed salaries for next season, allowing it to go after top-notch free agents this summer. The Sixers will have around $24.5 million tied up. The salary cap for NBA teams could reach $90-92 million next season.
Having $9.5 million more available than the Celtics is nothing when you take into account that Boston will pay shooting guard Avery Bradley around $8.27 million next season, Thomas $6.59 and Jae Crowder $6.30.
Those three are solid players to build around, while the Sixers have yet to seriously construct a team outside of having a logjam at the center position with Embiid, Telial Goofier and Merlins Noel. And Embiid has yet to play due to two right knee surgeries since being drafted third overall in 2014.
No. 4: Curry a game-changer? — Our own eyes tell us that Steph Curry is helping the Warriors breeze toward another playoff appearance and maybe a second NBA title. But is he a game-changer in the way that Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan were once upon a time ago? With his emphasis on fundamentals and textbook shooting, Curry is causing youth coaches and players to re-think their basketball priorities, so says ESPN magazine, which devoted an entire issue to the Warriors. Here’s the verdict from Henry Abbott of ESPN magazine:
Funny things are happening at Harvard. Just ask Kathy Delaney-Smith, who has been head coach of the Crimson’s women’s team since 1982. In 34 years, she has seen a lot. But this year she’s seeing things she has never seen before. She found one of her assistants and several players engrossed in YouTube for an hour, rewinding again and again, breaking down YouTube footage of a one-handed Steph ballhandling series that ended in a crazy tough shot. “I found myself thinking, ‘Well if you’ve got a spare hour, I know some things you could be working on instead,'” Delaney-Smith says.
On Twitter, in March, I asked if people had noticed players outside the NBA “doing Steph Curry things.” The replies were immediate and unanimous: Wrote Dan Shanoff: “I coach 4th-graders and all they want to do is shoot extra-long shots (and, when they make them, tap their heart and point up).” Eric Johnson supervises recess at Ashland Elementary in rural New Hampshire. After Curry’s big game-winner over the Thunder, recess became all about making that shot. “What surprised me was that they never stopped shooting the shot … for 40 minutes. They each had to hit it. They talked about the game the whole time.”
Stephitis cannot be quarantined. LeBron James may have had his exhausted heart broken by Curry’s Warriors in last year’s NBA Finals, but LeBron’s 8-year-old son, Bryce, still wears No. 30 in honor of Steph.
It’s not all that unusual that, with tons of time on the shot clock, Ole Miss guard Stefan Moody recently used a fancy dribble combination into a step-back to score against Mississippi State in the second half. What’s a little strange is that he did so at least 8 feet behind the 3-point line.
Stephitis exists in the NBA, too, of course. If it seems as if the entire Association is suddenly shooting from super-long range, it’s because everyone is. According to Basketball-Reference data, Steph is averaging more than one made shot from at least 27 feet per game; no other player can touch that. But wow are they trying. In 2009-10, NBA players attempted a grand total of 1,880 shots from 27 feet or longer (excluding end-of-quarter heaves). This season they’re on track for 3,067.
There’s a delightful freedom to all of this, and two hard truths. The good news is that 3s, once viewed as “bad shots” by closed-minded coaches, have taken flight on the wings of advanced stats, and they are winning. Anyone with a pulse can feel the joy in that, and the excitement in watching super-talents explore the limits of their abilities. Eighty-footers, anyone?
The hard truth: The NBA has long been dominated by the toughest men, tested on win-or-go-home playground courts. Rich kids from the suburbs have mostly been ancillary in the league. Their advantages were things that used to matter less: lonely gyms, entire racks of balls to themselves, private shooting coaches, and free time to dial in the form. Steph, son of Dell, was born into all that, like a Kennedy. And the more he succeeds, the more he inspires kids like him, the more an influx of 3-point shooters, like foreign players before them, will cut into the career prospects of those who earned NBA work through grit and toughness.
But the other hard truth comes with a solution: hardly anyone else can actually do that. Steph has made the 27-footer a good shot … for him. It’s still a bad shot for most everyone else on the planet. The gap can be filled only with work. It just happens to be work that anyone can attempt.
Millions of youngsters, with joy in the hearts and Steph on their minds, are surely on the way. Sheer odds predict some of them will also have qualities like Steph’s incredible handle, balance, hand-eye coordination and diligence. This goes some way to increasing skill and a long way to teaching love of the game.
“Youth basketball has a problem,” Delaney-Smith says. “Kids are pressured so much, and it has stopped being about fun and passion for the game. But now freshmen can’t leave the gym because it’s so fun. That’s passion, and that’s probably exactly how Steph learned to do those same things.”
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: With little left to play for, will the Pelicans shut down a gimpy Anthony Davis? That’s a possibility … Last summer the Suns gave Tyson Chandler a four-year contract but if they’re potentially rebuilding, he wants no part of that … Was Dwight Howard guilty of using stick-em spray Saturday night against the Hawks? … Those Hickory-themed jerseys and shirts are flying off the racks in Indiana … It seems the Raptors want to be considered an elite team … The proposed Bucks arena is getting mixed reviews for design