Discover more from The Antisocial Basketballer
The return of one of the NBA's favourite sons. Plus trade rumours, NBL woes, Darius Garland and more.
The game of basketball is richer when Klay Thompson is playing.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The Warriors were contesting an enthralling 2019 NBA Finals series against eventual champions Toronto Raptors when, in Game 6, he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee midway through the third quarter in a close game.
Do the Warriors win the 2019 title if Klay doesn’t get hurt?
To do so, they would’ve had to reverse the most infamous margin in NBA Finals history, a 3-1 deficit only overcome once before, against these very same Warriors by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the famed 2016 NBA Finals, without All-World scorer Kevin Durant, who tore his Achilles one game earlier.
Klay exited the game in which he tore his ACL with 30 points already to his name, in a game the Raptors would eventually win by a meagre four points to seal Canada’s first NBA title.
While it’s fun to play the hypotheticals of that Finals series, the following 941 days were far beyond what anyone could have foreseen.
That summer, after one of the most devastating injuries a basketball player can suffer, Klay agreed terms on a 5 year contract extension worth $190 million (all figures in USD). The very next day he underwent the surgery to repair his knee and begin the rehab process, missing the entire next season in the process. It was a tremendous show of faith and loyalty by a Warriors organisation fostering a reputation of looking after their players, a quality that doesn’t go unnoticed by all potential free agents.
Klay returned to Warriors practice in September 2020, for a delayed start to the 2020-21 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic prolonging the previous year and forcing the NBA to recommence operations inside the famed “NBA Disney” Orlando bubble.
When a star player misses one full season, the anticipation for their return is palpable by fans, media and fellow players alike. That all sank like a lead balloon when it was announced that Klay had torn his Achilles in a pickup game in Los Angeles, subsequently missing another full season.
The last 941 days have been the ultimate limbo for Klay and Warriors fans. The obvious questions about how a player returns after serious injury were doubled with the nature of his absences.
The early signs have been positive from a Klay perspective, even if they’ve resulted in some scratchy performances from the Warriors as a whole as they work to integrate their returning star into an almost brand new team to the one he last played in. Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole, Jonathan Kuminga, Otto Porter Jr, Gary Payton II, Nemanja Bjelica are all brand new rotation pieces, while second year phenom James Wiseman is rehabbing his own injury issues.
The NBA regular season, for a team like the Warriors, is largely irrelevant. They can afford to sleepwalk games knowing they’ll pick up the requisite amount of wins to avoid a play in scenario like last season with a now healthy Stephen Curry surrounded by great depth and always-elite coaching.
Klay is slow rolling his way back to something resembling the elite level goofball we last saw in 2019, and with three months before the playoffs, there’s plenty of time for the Warriors to firmly re-establish themselves as a serious threat in the upper echelon of a packed Western Conference.
How much for your star?
NBA trade season is in full effect and with it brings the annual tradition of ESPN trade machine proposals and fans arguing online about which team’s young core is worth more in a trade.
As a Pistons fan, I feel compelled to weigh in considering the apparent prize of this trade deadline is athletic swingman Jerami Grant.
Jerami Grant presents a trade value discussion unrivalled by other players because of his career path, previous roles, and meaning to his current team.
Grant was a second round draft pick by the Philadelphia 76ers back in 2014, part of the infamous Sam Hinkie Process era. He came into the league as an athletic specimen capable of running in transition and defending, but with not many redeeming offensive qualities, which is the case for most second round picks.
Grant, to his credit, has worked himself over stops in Philadelphia, Oklahoma City, Denver and now Detroit into a more than useful offensive player. Capable of being a 20 point per game scorer given opportunity, he can score at all three levels and is now an 80+ percent free throw shooter.
Where Grant has maybe stagnated, ironically, is the parts of the game most conducive to athleticism; defence and rebounding. Grant is a passable defender and it might be that his current lapses are reflective of the youth and talent around him on a terrible Pistons squad, but for someone standing 6’9” with his vertical prowess, Grant is, to put it mildly, an atrocious rebounder, barely pulling down 4 a game over his career. Athletes tend to thrive on the offensive glass, and yet Grant’s career average is…one per game.
It’s these pretty defined limitations that give teams pause when pondering his trade package. Yes he has shown he can be a scorer, but Grant’s pet plays are in isolation and he loves to work the midrange, both statistical no-no’s in the modern NBA. Given a trade to a better team, Grant’s role and potential as a 20 point scorer is diminished.
It’s that promise of a bigger role and more shots, as well as Detroit’s celebrated black culture and black leadership with head coach Dwane Casey and GM Troy Weaver, who traded for Grant as a member of the OKC Thunder front office, and who hails from Washington DC like Grant, that drew one of the bigger free agents in the 2020 class to a struggling small market franchise which was typically seen as a place careers go to die.
Denver offered the same contract, but that role and cultural significance drew Jerami to the Motor City. That’s why he means so much to the Pistons, why he reflects a significant milestone for them as a franchise and for Troy Weaver as a GM, and why his trade value is hard to gauge.
Jake Fischer from ESPN reported that the Pistons offered Grant, as well as sophomore forward Saddiq Bey, centre Kelly Olynyk and a future first round pick to Philadelphia for Ben Simmons. Whilst I’m not against Simmons to Detroit, and I’m wary of being that fan that overrates their own guys, I don’t like the idea of giving up Bey for Simmons. Clearly, Daryl Morey wasn’t too enthused either, rejecting that offer.
Simmons, to me, isn’t the guy you accelerate the timeline for, for this Pistons team with Cade Cunningham. Simmons represents a clear talent upgrade; he’s a perennial All-Defensive and All-Star candidate when he plays, but on a team devoid of shooting and general talent, the Simmons fit is awkward.
Which brings me to the rest of Fischer’s report, outlining Jerami Grant suitors and potential trade pieces. Fischer outlines the Pistons want two first round picks, or one first round pick and an “intriguing young talent” for the 27 year old forward. Pretty boilerplate valuations of the leading scorer on a bad team.
I’m not going to re-hash the entire report, you can read it here, but I wanted to particularly discuss one mentioned suitor, the Minnesota Timberwolves, a name not heard in the Grant sweepstakes before, alongside more obvious contenders like the Portland Trail Blazers, Washington Wizards and Los Angeles Lakers (no thanks).
First, lets get the easy stuff out of the way. The Timberwolves, in somewhat of a rarity for the modern NBA, own all their future first round draft picks, so if they wanted to get to the head of the queue and the Pistons truly covet draft capital, Minnesota are in a pretty healthy position in that regard.
Next, the salary filler. Grant makes $20 million this season. The Wolves have a few guys on decent money that would help facilitate a trade by making up the majority of the salary matching needed. My guess is the Pistons would prefer Malik Beasley ($14.4 million) to add shooting help, but the Wolves also have Pat Beverley ($14.3 million) and Taurean Prince ($13 million) in that slot. Beverley is an important part of their rotation, while Beasley and Prince are bench guys, so it would probably be one of the latter two.
That leaves about $6 million in space and the desired “young player”. Now bearing in mind the young player mentioned isn’t a guarantee. It’s possible the Wolves offer two picks and the Pistons take on some ugly money the Wolves don’t want anymore, like Jake Layman or Josh Okogie.
But it’s unlikely the Wolves would mortgage two picks for Grant so let’s assume it’s just one.
Fischer’s report mentions Jaden McDaniels as the young player most likely to be involved. McDaniels has a comparable body type to Grant (6’9” but a stringy 185 pounds). As a green 21 year old, he fits the timeline of the future Cade Cunningham led NBA champions better than Grant does. Where McDaniels falls down is his strength and his outside shot, which has skydived to 26% after a healthy 36% in his rookie season, on similar volume.
McDaniels would be a project addition to a blank canvas of a team, the ideal trade target when young players are mentioned. If I’m the Pistons however, I’m asking for Jarred Vanderbilt.
A former teammate of Grant in Denver, Vanderbilt has found opportunity in Minnesota and taken advantage. While I said McDaniels had struggled shooting this season, Vanderbilt is a non-shooter, preferring to use his considerable athleticism in transition and on the offensive glass.
Where Vanderbilt adds value to the Pistons is as a rebounder and defender, something the Pistons lack on both counts. Vanderbilt averages just over 9 rebounds a game in nearly 26 minutes, but over 3 of those are offensive. He crashes the glass at both ends, and his defensive plus minus of 1.6 would actually lead the team of those who qualify for leaderboards.
Meanwhile, his box score plus minus of 0.6 would be second on the team for those who qualify, behind only…Jerami Grant, who registers a 1.0.
Vanderbilt is an awkward fit with Isaiah Stewart but there’s a universe where the Pistons start Kelly Olynyk on his return from injury and, provided this trade happens, roll with a bench unit of Hamidou Diallo and Isaiah Stewart, while Vanderbilt provides that rebounding and defence at the starting four spot like he does for Minnesota next to a stretch big (although Towns might be slightly better than Olynyk).
Grant is out with a thumb injury that will see his return before the Feb 10 deadline touch and go. At this point, he’s a known commodity around the league, and with reports of a potential bidding war beginning to stir suitors into a frenzy, the Pistons might find the value they’re looking for, if they decide to trade him at all.
Kings of the Hospital Ward
This Sydney Kings team was meant to challenge for the NBL title this season. Instead, they’re languishing at a miserable 3-5 record, good enough for 8th in the league, and with a myriad of injury issues.
When projecting the Kings this season on my NBL preseason podcast with Michael Houben from the Pick and Roll (episode link here), we spoke about a team with title aspirations and a clear vision built around a trio of very good imports and a solid base of local talent, full health in mind.
It hasn’t quite gone to plan.
For starters, presumed starting centre Jordan Hunter was ruled out of the entire season before appearing in it, fracturing the infamous navicular bone (think Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons) in his foot, after nearing a return from a fractured finger.
Hunter’s absence pushed star import Jarell Martin down to the center spot and the knock on effect has increased. The Kings are a poor rebounding team carried by the individual efforts of Martin and forward Xavier Cooks, who is putting together an impressive season despite the turmoil around him.
Lauded point guard Jaylen Adams, who followed new coach Chase Buford from the Wisconsin Herd to Sydney, has yet to hit the ground running. Robbed of a preseason through injury, the Maryland native has only appeared in three games, and while he has showed flashes, some questionable late game shot selection was a symptom of both Kings losses this last weekend.
Most disappointingly, RJ Hunter, the third of the trio of imports, tore his patellar tendon in the loss to Illawarra on Thursday last week, and has been ruled out for the season. Hunter, who battled knee soreness that caused him to sit for most games, fought against a tired narrative of “here for a holiday” as he didn’t suit up. Those fears, it later turned out, were legitimate.
So where to the Kings go from here? This team is still very talented, and with any new coach it takes time to implement a system. The Kings promised to be a transition heavy, attacking and exciting team this year, and while the results haven’t borne out yet, with Jaylen Adams, Dejan Vasiljevic and Angus Glover returning to full health, there is promise there, along with the always consistent frontcourt pair of Cooks and Martin.
Wani Swaka Lo Buluk, picked up off the scrapheap as an injury replacement player, has blossomed into a key starter, while the Maker cousins have both provided value off the bench (although Makur is currently hurt, as is young point guard Biwali Bayles).
The Kings are now in the market for a third import to replace RJ Hunter. If the current NBA season is anything to go by, getting a guy across to Australia right now could prove damn impossible, given the amount of fringe NBA/G-League guys getting NBA opportunities due to the league’s COVID protocols.
I do think the Kings will be targeting a wing with that slot to replace RJ Hunter. The front court has played up to billing while Adams, Bayles (when he returns) and Shaun Bruce is a solid point guard rotation. It’s a question of whether they can get a guy in that fits that profile and is new-age NBL level quality.
The Kings were poised for a big season, but a swathe of injuries and a suddenly restricted import market has turned the title challengers into playoff battlers very quickly.
The True Cleveland All-Star
The Cleveland Cavaliers have been the surprise, feelgood story of the NBA season so far, with a young and exciting squad currently sitting fourth in the Eastern Conference, tied with the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks and only 1.5 games off the top seed.
Much has been made of the vaunted Cleveland front court, with star rookie and presumed Rookie of the Year runaway Evan Mobley partnering with Jarrett Allen to form a real Monstar type level of length and athleticism. Hell, even Lauri Markkanen has turned into a competent small forward, who saw that coming?
While Mobley has been a star, Allen has generated the majority of the All-Star buzz. He’s averaging over 16 points and nearly 11 rebounds a game while shooting a hair under 70% from the field, gaudy numbers indeed.
But Darius Garland is the only true All-Star on this Cleveland roster.
Now, if you think I’m claiming this as some hidden secret or victory lap, it’s not. Garland isn’t some hidden gem I can’t wait to tell you all about. He had a 27 point, 18 assist game not three days ago. He’s averaging just under 20 points a game and nearly 8 assists, and when you’re on a winning team that’s fun to watch, at the top of the conference, that’s not a quiet 20 and 8.
Garland was good last year from a numbers perspective as well, averaging 17 points and 6 assists, but his advanced numbers really show the improvement.
Is part of that an increase in help? Yes, absolutely. The Ricky Rubio addition, while scoffed at the time and even early in the season as it appeared the veteran Spaniard was eating into the third year guard’s minutes, they proved to be a very effective rotation and tandem.
Also, of course, the addition of Evan Mobley and the Kevin Love renaissance. Mobley gives Garland the extra lob threat outside Allen, while Love provides that floor spacing allowing Garland to probe the lane, something he does very well despite his diminutive stature.
Cleveland pick and roll you to death, and you can’t stop it, even though you know it’s coming. Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley are the elite lob tandem in the league, and both are good screeners, making contact and forcing defenders into trailing situations.
Garland’s value is all offensive. At a generous 6’1” and listed at 190 pounds, I assume wringing wet, without off the charts athleticism, it’s genetically almost impossible for him to be anything more than a pest on defence. He’s just too small.
But on offense he’s transformed into one of the elite high usage, yet efficient, ball handlers in the league.
First, the raw numbers. The 7.9 assists vs. 3.6 turnovers per game. It’s a good-not-great ratio until you factor in his 26.1% usage rate. His assist mark is good enough for 6th in the league, tied with Russell Westbrook and only behind James Harden, Chris Paul, Trae Young, Dejounte Murray and Kyle Lowry, while his assist percentage, a ridiculous 37.2%, rates 7th in the league.
Garland is a set up guy who’s fast developing into one of the elite dual-threat (score-pass) guards in the league. Differential stats like box score plus minus don’t like him because of his obvious defensive limitations, but in an offensive showcase like the All-Star game, he deserves his dues.
He’s leading his team to wins and he’s on SportsCenter most nights, usually for throwing yet another ridiculous lob pass. In the highlight era he’s made for it.
New Zealand Breakers: Legit or Mirage?
I was struggling for a fifth topic this week (although admittedly I spent far more time talking about Jerami Grant than I wanted to), so I threw it to Twitter to see if anyone had anything and friend of the show Regularly Wrong hit me back with this.
Now, I haven’t watched Brisbane enough this season to have a qualified opinion on them, but I have seen 3-4 Breakers games now so let’s chat.
The Breakers are an odd one to me. As was mentioned ad nauseum on the broadcast during the Kings-Breakers game over the weekend, they’ve made the curious decision to start both Hugo Besson and Ousmane Dieng at the expense of their two import guards in Peyton Siva and Jeremiah Martin.
I think Martin was always planning on being the sixth man, and Besson has certainly shown enough to deserve the starter role, but Dieng is an odd one to me.
For a league as competitive as the NBL, as a raw 18 year old kid, he’s getting a pretty healthy amount of minutes per game, 16.7 to be exact. But you have players who are 18 years old, and then you have players who really look like they’re 18 years old.
Dieng really, really looks like he’s 18 years old right now.
The skill and touch is there, it’s clear in the flashes we saw in preseason. But the pace of the game, the physicality, it all looks like it’s overmatching him at times. The NBL is the highest level Dieng has played at, with previous stops in Lithuania and his native France, but he looks out of his depth right now.
For starters, his shooting has been almost negative. 20% from the field and 13% from three, after proving to be capable of hitting the three at a low 30s clip in Europe. But more worryingly at this stage is the defence, but this was always going to be an obvious concern at his age and lack of strength.
There was a stretch of about a minute in the Breakers win over the Kings where Dieng subbed on and was immediately hunted by the Kings, whether he was guarding Xavier Cooks or Jarell Martin or whoever else it was. Dan Shamir recognised this and yanked him. You want to give your young guys minutes, but quality minutes. Minutes where they’re being repeatedly burned does nothing for confidence and doesn’t build good habits.
On the Breakers as a whole, they have the pieces to contend for a playoff spot, for sure, and it starts with Dan Shamir and Mody Maor, a quality coaching duo that probably elevates the base talent on this roster through scheme.
In fact, the coaching has probably papered over some roster holes. Due to only one Next Star being allowed per squad, Hugo Besson is classified as a fully fledged import, meaning all three Breakers imports are guards with Siva and Martin.
In a league where everyone has good imports now, as well, the point of difference is the quality of the locals. For the Breakers, it appears to have gone the other way. The Breakers have a very good local core in William McDowell-White, Finn Delany and Yanni Wetzell, but they may have missed a trick by doubling up on Siva and Martin.
Both are quality players, and offer different skillsets, with Siva being more a classic floor general while Martin is a more aggressive scorer, but their lack of legit wing depth behind Delany might inhibit their contending ceiling.
From a competitive perspective, the import market, as I mentioned above with the Kings, is pretty saturated right now. The Breakers brought in Chasson Randle, another guard, as cover for Peyton Siva when he went down with injury, but now Randle himself is injured and wouldn’t have been able to play anyway.
The Breakers will probably have to end up riding the lumps of Ousmane Dieng and Hugo Besson right now. Besson has shown quality, and even developed that alpha mentality and reputation as a clutch performer not afraid of the big moment. The return of Tom Abercrombie will also help New Zealand, I just question if they have the juice to maintain this level for a whole season.
Shamir and the coaching staff have done a great job, so if the Breakers do sneak into the playoffs, they’ll have a large part to play in it.
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