NBA Cornerstones: Small Forward

Cornerstone players will be a recurring theme on Second Look Sports where I look at each position in a certain sport and I choose a cornerstone player to build my franchise around. I will have a couple of parameters for this selection though I will factor in age, potential, injury history, experience, reputation and production. I think it should be a fun and interesting topic to discuss on here. I hope that you guys agree.

The selection: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Honorable mentions: Tobias Harris, Kevin Durant, Gordon Hayward, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard

This decision was more of a consideration between youth and potential or experience and leadership. The only issue is, you really can’t argue with selecting the best player in the world. The selection came down between Kevin Durant and LeBron James, as it rightfully should. While James may be the older player at 30 as opposed to Durant at 26, James has an insane amount of big game experience. He has played 158 career playoff games to Durant’s 73. James also has two rings while Durant has still been unable to lead his team to a title. Both players are equally as durable missing minimal time and playing through injuries throughout their careers. The truth is that LeBron might be the best player in the world but right behind him is Durant. These two being at the same position makes this increasingly difficult.

For starters, both Durant and James are elite scoring threats. LeBron’s career average of 27.5 points per game is a shade higher than Durant’s 27.3. What makes James so scary though is the array of moves in his arsenal. He can take it to the bucket, he can hit the step-back jumper and he can back you down in the post. That makes him hard to defend because you are never quite sure what he is going to do next. It is hard to differentiate between the former MVP and the reigning one, but LeBron simply scores more effectively. James hits on about 50 percent of his shots, which is an absurd rate considering how many he takes per game (and it’s about 20). Durant converts 48 percent of his shots, but the extra push gives James the edge.

James also dominants in just about every aspect of the game. Over his eleven-year career, the four time MVP has averaged right around seven rebounds and seven assists per game. Looking at his full stat line, LeBron regularly puts up 27, 7 and 7. I don’t know if there is another player in the league right now who is capable of accomplishing that. Durant averages roughly seven rebounds a night but only dishes out between three and four assists. Those are still impeccable numbers but they do not add up to what James can accomplish.

Another thing that makes James so skilled is his cerebral play. I do not have any statistic to back this up but if you watch film of the Akron, Ohio native long enough, you notice his ability to get other players involved in the action. He makes sure guys get their points and promotes a team-first approach. He also has an incredible understanding of the game and acts as a coach on the court. Sometimes that can cause an issue as we have seen this season with David Blatt but in the past, under Mike Brown and later Erik Spoelstra, James has flourished and found a good mix between being the student and the teacher.
On the defensive side of the ball, LeBron has been an above average player. He consistently comes up with just short of one block and 1.7 steals per night. His defense has definitely started to slip a little over the past two seasons and it shows in his demeanor. James will certainly begin to decline in about two or three years but those few years are well worth the investment.

With all that James is capable of, he is not perfect. He is an average free throw shooter, only hitting about 75 percent of his attempts. He is also a middling 3-point shooter, with roughly 35 percent of his shot going in this season from beyond the arc. He has shot over 40 percent though in a season before, so there is reason to believe that James, who is known for adding elements to his game during the offseason, could improve his long ball still, even in the later stages of his career.

He also has managed to do a fairly good job with ball security considering his high usage rate. He has averaged 3.3 turnovers per game in his career, only slightly worse than Durant’s average of 3.2. He is not known for his ankle breaker dribbling either but he still knows how to make a couple of moves to get himself some space to shoot. His hesitation move is also one of the best in the NBA because of his explosiveness.

I get that this is a questionable decision because of his age and high number of minutes logged but sit back and think about building an NBA team. In James, you get a versatile player capable of adjusting his game play and style in a variety of ways. He is smart enough to be a coach on the court and he is athletic and strong enough to make some plays that others simply cannot. In a year or two, he will no longer be a worthy candidate for this title because he is definitely heading into his final years of contributing at a truly elite level. Until then, he will keep dominating opponents, always making his team a title contender.

For previous Cornerstones selections, click here.

NBA All Star voting flaws

The NBA announced whom the fans selected to participate in the 2015 All Star Game. The Eastern Conference squad features John Wall, Kyle Lowry, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Pau Gasol. The Western Conference side consists of Stephan Curry, Kobe Bryant, Blake Griffin, Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol. As always, there were some noticeable omissions from the lineup. On top of that, a couple of names made the list who were very debatable. Now, as everyone will want to know, who were the biggest names left off the list and who should have been left off the team entirely? I am not sold on how well the fans did at selecting these teams. Let’s take a look at the shortcomings.

For some context, this is just the preliminary roster with Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr and Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer set to name the reserves early next week. That means that some of the notable snubs will be added in that round of selections. Kerr is likely to add Thunder stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in addition to Clippers guard Chris Paul. For Budenholzer, he will likely name Heat forward Chris Bosh, Bulls guard Derrick Rose and Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving.

Another name that should crop up is James Harden, who more than likely should have been a starter over Bryant for the West team. This is a huge oversight by the fans. On his own merits, Bryant should never have been added to this roster, and definitely not as a starter. I have spouted off previously about Kobe and his steadily declining play. Meanwhile, Harden is in the midst of an MVP-caliber season piloting Houston to a tie with the Clippers for fifth in the Western Conference. The Rockets guard has averaged an NBA-leading 27.2 points per game along with 6.7 assists and 5.5 rebounds while converting the sixth most three pointers. Defensively, Harden has stepped up his game too with career highs in blocks and steals. Harden also ranks first in Win Shares and fifth in Player Efficiency Rating among starters. It makes no sense to me that he is not on this list and Bryant is instead, despite him having a disappointing year. Bryant will not be playing for the team anymore due to a torn rotator cuff and Harden should be his replacement.

The other glaring issue with the rosters is the makeup of the West’s starting five. You have Curry and for arguments sake, let’s say Harden. Then you have Griffin, Davis and Marc Gasol. Those last three are big men who play best as either a power forward or center. None of them could really make it as a small forward. So somewhere in this starting five, Kerr has to find a small forward for game day; there is not one there though. Griffin is the closest thing he has to a small forward and he would have his hands full playing against either Melo or LeBron, whomever he covers. The system of voting has left the Western team in a bind not really creating a true All Star lineup. I have always felt that the team should have a player from each position rather than general labels like guard and forward. That might be my opinion but it definitely would make for a cleaner lineup.

I do not have an issue with the selection that many people, most notably Charles Barkley, have openly disputed. Carmelo Anthony should absolutely be starting in the Eastern Conference. If this were similar to the NFL Pro Bowl, where the teams are not sorted by conference, then Melo likely would not make the cut. Under this current format, he is the best option available, and it is not even close. Anthony is second for forwards in scoring in the East with 24 points per game. The next highest scorer is Tobais Harris only averaging 18 points a contest. Melo is also tied for third with Paul Millsap for most assists per game behind only James and Joe Johnson. There is not a player in the East who has better qualifications as a starter.

The All Star game is still almost a month away and the rosters will be much more scrutinized once the reserves are announced. The All Star game does not stand for much but being named All Star is validation of your accomplishments as a player. Based on the immense split of talent between the East and West maybe it is time for the Association to adoptteams that are not conference specific allowing for truly the best players to compete in the game. Keep an eye for a list of the biggest snubs next week when the rest of the rosters are announced.

What’s wrong with the Cavaliers?

Cleveland was finally supposed to have something to be proud of regarding sports. This city was supposed to see an NBA superstar team rise up with the acquisition of LeBron James and Kevin Love this offseason. Those two, paired with Kyrie Irving were expected to turn the Cavaliers into a top 3 team in the Eastern Conference and compete for a spot in the NBA Finals. However, this team has been average at best. James has not been as dominant as usual. Love has struggled to find his where he fits into the offense on this team. With Cleveland announcing that center Anderson Varejao has been lost for the year due to a torn Achilles, this team does not seem to be in good shape.

They sit fifth in the Eastern Conference through 32 games and would be set for series against Chicago in the first round if the season ended today. The Cavs’ point differential is an average +2.5 and rank near the middle of the league in both points for and points against (13th and 14th). LeBron and company rank 11th in shooting percentage but a lowly 25th in shooting percentage against. This team commits the same number of turnovers as it generates. Every aspect of this team shouts average. The Cavaliers do not seem to do anything especially well, other than maybe scoring fast break points. With all of the moves the Cleveland front office made spanning for landing James in free agency, to mortgaging the team’s future on Love, to bringing in a new head coach in David Blatt, to signing veterans Mike Miller, James Jones and Shawn Marion. This Cavs team resembles nothing of what it did a year ago. And it has drastically improved, just not to the level it was expect to reach. Now it is time to uncover what is holding them back.

The biggest issue has been Love’s contribution to the team. The power forward was good in Minnesota as a scorer and rebounder. Part of that though was due to the sheer volume of the offense that ran through the former Timberwolf. Love is taking close to six fewer shots per game this season than last season and his shooting percentage has dropped from 45.7% to 43.4% from the field. From beyond the arc, the drop is even worse as Love has declined from 37.6% to 33.8%. As a result, Love’s scoring average has dropped from 26.1 to 17.1. On top of that, the All Star forward has seen his rebounding totals drop from 12.5 to 10.2. Much of this can be explained away by James and Irving’s offensive skill while Love is trying to learn a new system but this is a fairly large decline in production. Love does not really fit in well for Cleveland. The Cavs really need a defensive presence around the basket and he does not provide it. The best thing the Cleveland brass can hope to do is trade Love away in exchange for a couple of draft picks, a little more depth and, most importantly, a rim protector.

Another major setback for the Cavs has been the lack of production from role players. Players like offseason acquisitions Miller, Jones and Marion have fallen flat while younger talent such as Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson have failed to make enough of an impact. Waiters is the only player averaging over 10 points per game. Marion is averaging just over five points and Jones and Miller are averaging less than four points per game. If we saw anything from the James’ days with Miami, it was that role players make a huge impact on a team when they play well. Without them, it is very hard to be a top team in the league.

LeBron also hasn’t been the same dominant player he used to be either. He is scoring two points fewer per game. More importantly, his shooting percentage has dropped from 56.7% to 48.8%. That is a huge drop off and it hurts the Cavaliers due to James’ overall drop in efficiency. His rebound numbers are down by about two per game as well while his assists are on the rise. LeBron is morphing slightly this season but his transformation has not been enough to benefit the Cavaliers. He also has had all of the minutes he has played catch up to him as well. LeBron has missed a few games this season and has been playing banged up throughout the entire season to date.

This combination of players has essentially been a bit of an experiment. Mixing Irving, who is a score first point guard, Love, who relies on his outside shooting opportunity and a high usage percentage, and James, who is arguably the best pure scorer in the league behind Kevin Durant does not translate to success. These three players are each talented in their own right but do not mesh well as a team. This is not a team that is capable of winning a championship with its current roster. This offseason will surely see a lot of changes for the Cavaliers. There is a reason the James only signed a two-year contract. He wanted to be sure this would all work out. Do not be surprised if he looks to leave Cleveland again when it expires unless the roster is seriously overhauled. It simply does not work right now. I do not think it will ever work. The best thing for Cleveland would be to rework the lineup and find a pure point guard and a defensive big man in exchange for Love while switching Irving to more of a scoring guard role. All of this is unlikely but that’s the only way this team will be successful while keeping its current core.

Athletes recognizing social issues

Athletes have always been among the most polarizing people on Earth. They have the mostly unwavering attention of the media. Many of them are known in all corners of the world. These past few days, those same athletes, mainly of the NBA and NFL have been testing how influential they can be when stepping outside of the world of sports.

One week ago, a grand jury decided not to indict a police officer for the strangulation of a unarmed black man by the name of Eric Garner. The outrage following the decision has been seen nationwide already before a handful of players took it to the next level. A handful of players from both the NFL and the NBA wore shirts with the words “I Can’t Breathe” emblazoned on them as a response. It started with Derrick Rose this past Saturday night in Chicago, then continued with Reggie Bush Sunday in Detroit even made it to the West Coast with Kobe Bryant and his Lakers teammates donning shirts on Tuesday. The most notable gesture came Monday night in Brooklyn, not far where Garner’s murder took place, when the world’s most polarizing athlete LeBron James walked onto the court sporting an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt. ESPN had a field day with the story (as they do with just about anything James does). LeBron handled every question asked with a level head that displayed his social awareness and his desire to support Garner’s family in this difficult time.

This comes on the heels of a much more controversial sports protest against a major social issue. On November 30, five members came out of the tunnel before a home game with their hands held up in surrender, clearly in reference to the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The act sparked controversy with the St. Louis Police Department and they immediately demanded an apology. To the credit of both the league and the Rams organization, they refused to issue an apology or punish the players in any way. I tend to be very critical of the NFL but I am genuinely proud of the league’s decision to let these players speak their mind without any repercussions.

These also are not just uninformed athletes deciding to get involved. Rose pointed out that some of these athletes can relate to these issues. In an article from Bleacher Report, the Bulls’ guard stated, “I grew up and I saw it every day,” Rose said. “Not killing or anything like that, but I saw the violence every day. Just seeing what can happen. If anything, I’m just trying to change the kids’ minds across the nation and it starts here.”  I am glad that these athletes are taking the time to speak their minds and open up about the world around them. It is rare that we see this side of them because of how genuinely obsessed our nation is with their performance on the court or field.

It may not be much, but it is a start. It presents an uncommon source of spreading social awareness. You do not have to agree with all the statements these athletes are making to recognize the importance of what they are doing. This affects everyone. LeBron said it himself in an interview with ESPN, “It’s not a [Cavaliers] thing; it’s a worldly thing…. As a society we have to do better, we have to be better for one another, no matter what race you are.” That speaks volumes to me about what this means to athletes. Hopefully, we will continue to see more athletes speaking their mind about pressing social issues. Too often, they are relegated to an observer in these cases because of the role they play in representing an organization. I still have hope that this could lead to a positive change as well, but only time with tell.