#IMHO: Small-ball Rockets, Dunk Contest memories, and bold predictions

Grind City Media’s Lang Whitaker and Michael Wallace have been covering the NBA since shorts were short and socks were long, but their opinions about the League don’t always mesh. #IMHO is their weekly chance to weigh in on the most pertinent news from around the NBA. What’s lit? What’s lame? Find out each week right here.

 

From: Lang Whitaker

Date: Tuesday, February 11, 2020 at 11:11 AM

To: Michael Wallace

Subject: IMHO

We are officially what I call the Southwest Airlines part of the season: “Do you want to get away?” Players are tired and stressed and in need of a break, and thanks to LeBron everyone is about to get a whole week off, which is much needed.

I think that exhaustion is playing a part in guys sniping back and forth right now. And whenever there is a Twitter beef, that includes, as always, Joel Embiid. Last night Embiid tweeted about being a villain, and Jimmy Butler slid into the comments and seemed to suggest Embiid would be more welcome elsewhere, which Embiid seemed to agree with. (Man, all this subtweeting is exhausting.)

The Sixers were supposed to be one of the biggest stories of the season, but even after signing Al Horford in the offseason, the Sixers are in fifth place in the Eastern Conference. Are the Sixers ready to be a contender? Or would you try and do something to fundamentally change the structure of this team?

 


From: Michael Wallace

Sent: Wednesday, February 12, 2020 at 5:58 AM

To: Lang Whitaker

Subject: Re: IMHO

The Sixers are indeed one of the more perplexing teams in the league this season. I can’t figure out what’s exactly wrong with them. On one hand, they are the best home team in the league, having won 23 of their first 25 games in Philly. But then they go out on the road and seem to implode in every meaningful game they get a chance to play. The Sixers have an imposing core of Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Horford and Embiid, but are missing a true glue guy to tie everyone and everything together. The loss of Butler to Miami and JJ Redick to New Orleans took away the soul and spirit of this team.

Having said all of that, I’m not sure I’d want to face the Sixers in a seven-game playoff series if they’re healthy. They are a team that seems to get bored of the regular season and know they’ll only be judged on what they do in the playoffs. The Grizzlies were just in Philly last week, and I saw firsthand how Embiid and Horford dismissively motioned to their own heckling fans to hush and pipe down after they hit shots. It’s like Philly fans are getting into the heads of their own team’s best players. It was weird, man.

Lang, as we hit the All-Star Break, which one of the weekend’s events do you look most forward to watching up in Chicago – if everyone doesn’t freeze to death up there in the Windy City? There was a time when this was a no-brainer to me. It was always the Dunk Contest, year in and year out. But I began to lose a bit of interest once the rules changed and they allowed guys to repeatedly miss dunks and keep trying until it went it. I prefer the days when you got one shot at it. These days, I’m most interested in the Rising Stars game, because I think those young guys really want to prove something. And I like the international flair, with the World Team facing the USA. It’ll definitely be worth watching this year with Grizz guys Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke being involved on opposing teams.

 

Joel Embiid arms up

From: Lang Whitaker

Date: Wednesday, February 12, 2020 at 9:47 AM

To: Michael Wallace

Subject: Re: IMHO

Well, considering I grew up in Atlanta when Dominique Wilkins was in his prime, for me the yearly Dunk Contest was something of a referendum on Nique’s place in the pantheon of Eastern Conference stars. I didn’t care about what he did in the game on Sunday, I just wanted to see him beat Michael Jordan in the dunk contest. Because while MJ was more artistic and had the burgeoning Nike marketing machine behind him, Nique just wanted to jump off two feet and dunk it as hard as possible, all while wearing those weird Brooks basketball sneakers.

And Nique did win it in ’85! The next year his teammate Spud Webb won it, and then two years later, in Chicago in 1988, Nique got jobbed by the hometown judges. The great KC Johnson just published a terrific oral history of that dunk contest, and he recounts how Nique broke out a two-handed windmill for the finals, where he brought the ball down by his shoes, and we all knew what was happening. As Nique says in the story, “I got a 45. And I’m like, ‘Uh oh. Is the fix in?’ I knew I was in trouble.”

I was just a child watching it all unfold, and I knew something was amiss. I suppose, in retrospect, it was good for me to learn, even way back then, that everything isn’t equal, that sometimes, someone will put their thumb on the scale and make things go the way they weren’t supposed to naturally turn out. Which sucks, but that’s the way the world works. Life ain’t fair. Even if I had to learn this important lesson thanks to the NBA Slam Dunk contest.

Speaking of the way the world works, Mike, these days almost every NBA team employs some version of pace and space, spreading the floor and jacking up shots and trying to get up and down the court with varying degrees of alacrity. But the Houston Rockets have decided to go all in on this, using lineups stuffed with shorter players, not even giving lip service to the idea of a big man on the court – I’ve been calling them the Six-Three Mafia. And while it sounds completely crazy, it’s sorta working? They beat the Celtics last night, and for the most part have competed well.

Are Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni onto something? Or is this just a wild shot at something that’s not actually going to work long term?

 

Dominique Wilkins win dunk contest

From: Michael Wallace

Sent: Wednesday, February 12, 2020 at 10:18 AM

To: Lang Whitaker

Subject: Re: IMHO

The Rockets are certainly throwing another wrinkle in the system here with this Small Ball 2.0 they’re playing. And by the way, I love the Six-Three Mafia nickname for it. There are at least two reasons it’s working in the short term.

First, it mitigates interior rebounding and the size typically required to have an advantage there. With pace and space and prolific three-point shooting, the misses tend to create longer rebounds that bounce farther out and often outside of the paint. So that creates an opportunity for offensive rebounds for the Rockets, who have stronger, bigger wings in James Harden, Russell Westbrook and others. So while the Rockets may give up some size at center and power forward, they make up for it with bulky, explosive wings out on the perimeter who can get to the ball.

Secondly, the game has turned inside out in recent years. Bigs want to be wings and shoot threes. Fewer and fewer power forwards and centers are comfortable playing in the post and with their backs to the basket these days. Guys would rather face you up and attack off the dribble. So that means putting the ball on the floor to get to the basket, which means giving smaller, quicker defenders opportunities to swipe at the ball, create deflections and steals that often lead to transition baskets on the other end. The Rockets are masters at that.

Houston isn’t really reinventing the wheel. They’re just updating the technology a bit. Don Nelson used a similar system years ago with Golden State. Even D’Antoni went to this style during his breakout run with the 7-seconds-less Suns.

Lang, we’ll wrap up on this: As we head into the All-Star Break, give me one bold prediction for the second half of the NBA season that you are completely fine potentially living to regret. Here’s mine: The Toronto Raptors will repeat as NBA champions. Yes, I could have stopped at Eastern Conference champs, which would have been a bit bold considering the Bucks are steamrolling toward a 70-win season. But I don’t think any part of what the Raptors are doing right now is a fluke. Dare I say it – they lost a Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard and one of their highest-paid players in Marc Gasol is clearly on the decline, and this squad just may have gotten even better.

 

Pascal Siakam All-Star

From: Lang Whitaker

Date: Wednesday, February 12, 2020 at 7:12 PM

To: Michael Wallace

Subject: Re: IMHO

The Raptors are having an incredible season, no doubt, and they’ve been coming to play night after night this season, even without Kawhi in the lineup. But I wonder if they’re one of those teams that plays so well in the regular season but is easier to figure out in the postseason? Almost like Houston, they’re tough to prep for when you’re in the middle of a season, but when these coaches have time to really settle down and prep, and when there’s no Kawhi Leonard waiting at the end of the shot clock, I don’t know if Spicy P is enough to get you a ring.

As for my bold prediction, I’ll go to the other conference and say this: The Los Angeles Clippers are going to win a championship. I think Kawhi and Paul George have been battling injuries and load management all season, and once they get to the postseason and get everyone going full-blast, with Doc Rivers on the sideline, this is a team nobody is going to want to have to face. They could be the best halfcourt defensive team in the league, and with the way the NBA turns into a halfcourt game in the posteason, it seems like a recipe for success for the Clippers.