Tag Archives: NBA

LeBron James and Michael Jordan

Is LeBron James a better player than Michael Jordan?

LeBron versus Michael. King James vs Air Jordan. Current great vs the greatest ever?

It’s a question that basketball fans will never tire of debating, but as LeBron James edges closer to rounding off his 15th season in the NBA, which matches Michael Jordan’s career total, it has has never been more relevant. So is LeBron the better overall player?

Let’s say you had first pick in a fantasy game against your boss for a big promotion; who are you picking Jordan or LeBron? I’m picking LeBron every single time, and I’m about to give my reasons why.

Firstly, one of the reasons this debate is so hard to settle is that Jordan played a different position to James, so we’re going to look at some stats on the fundamentals but seeing as we’re talking about positions, it’s only right that this is thrown out there first.

Although LeBron is a forward, he plays every position in the game more than proficiently, Jordan on the other hand and as versatile as he was, was more of an outfield player and would have never been able to hold his own beyond the small forward role. I know that’s not a proven fact – so sue me…

With the help of Basketball-Reference.com, let’s look at some of their regular season stats:

Field Goal percentage: Of course, Jordan was more than an efficient shooter, but James’ record has the slight edge with James hitting 50.4% of his career shots while Jordan retired at 49.7%.

Assists: This is another vital part of the game where LeBron has the edge. James is well-known for his passing ability, as we mentioned earlier he plays every position of the game more than proficiently, and despite being a small forward he averages 7.2 assistants per game, the highest for a small forward in NBA history and higher than Jordan’s 5.3 average.

Rebounding: Thanks majorly to his height and size advantage, James has a significant edge over Jordan when it comes to defensive rebounds, sitting on 7.3 to Jordan’s 6.2. It is worth noting, though, that Jordan has a slight edge over James when it came to offensive rebounding.

Three-point percentage: Despite not being the strongest part of James’ game and something he is often critiqued for, he is a deadlier three-point shooter than Jordan ever was. James is currently sitting on a 34.3% average while Jordan retired at 32.7%.

Triple Doubles: Although this isn’t really a stat that should decide who a better player is, it definitely helps illustrate the dominance on a court a player possesses to be able to post double figures across a combination of three key stats – points, rebounds, assists, blocks or steals. James sits on 71 so far in his career while Jordan retired on 28.

Now let’s look at some post-season stats:

Play-off win shares: This stat is one of the stats that illustrate how detailed stats get in the NBA today. It’s an estimate of how many play-off wins a player is individually accountable for with a combination of points, assists blocks, steals etc.…considered.

LeBron has a significant edge over Jordan on this one, with him currently on 45.8 while Jordan retired at 39.8. James and Jordan hold the top two spots for this stat in NBA history which makes James the only player to ever reach and breach 40.

Finals reached: Not only has LeBron reached two more finals than Jordan already with eight to Jordan’s six, it is also worth noting that LeBron has been to six finals consecutively while Jordan only managed three in a row. LeBron is also more than likely to reach a few more finals before he retires which – at the age of 33 – is looking like a long way off.

Play-off assists: Despite how often in the playoffs LeBron has had to carry his team on his back and produce most of the points, he maintains his regular season ability to elevate his team means and produce good scoring opportunities for them averaging 6.9 assists per game in the playoffs to Jordan’s retired average of 5.7.

Play-off rebounding: Like in the regular season, James’ rebound average takes the cake over Jordan’s in the play-offs with 8.8 to Jordan’s 6.4. The fact it is more significant in the post-season also shows how LeBron levels up when more is on the line.

Play-off triple doubles: Again, not a stat that says James is a better player but one that highlights how much more versatile his game is to post double numbers across 3 key stats in the game. LeBron’s playoff triple double total of 19 again goes beyond eclipsing that of Jordan who retired with 2 playoff triple doubles.

Play-off blocks: I will never forget when the Miami Heat faced the San Antonio in game two of the 2013 NBA Finals, and 6ft 10in Spurs big guy, Tiago Splitter took flight for an open windmill dunk finish in the paint only for LeBron to pop up out of nowhere to stop the ball mid-air with such power it nearly floored his opponent.

Besides saving them conceding the points, the show of sheer dominance boosted Miami’s morale, and they went on to win the game 103–100. Such is the importance of this defensive part of the game which again LeBron takes the edge over Jordan with 209 to 158.

Strong argument

With all these stats in mind, and LeBron’s clear dominance in terms of versatility all-round, it should be clear why I choose LeBron every time as my all-time best basketball player.

Most individuals on the Jordan side of this debate base their argument on finals record which yes Jordan is six for six while LeBron is currently on three of eight.

‘Of course, all the stats in the world can’t prove that LeBron is a better player than Jordan as it’s impossible to know how they would have faired up against each other’

It’s a fairly strong argument, but don’t get lost in the sauce and fail to notice that LeBron has reached two more finals than Jordan did in his career. And this needs to be put into the context of the much harder competition he faces in today’s game, with majority of teams looking like contenders.

LeBron has also never played with a team as strong the ones Jordan played on.

I know the Jordan torch-bearers will read this and still say ‘Yes, but he still has more rings than LeBron’.

But if it was down to the number of rings, then LeBron’s and Jordan’s combined total don’t even add up to Bill Russell’s, who won 11 championships in his 13 years with the Boston Celtics.

Of course, all the stats in the world can’t prove that LeBron is a better player than Jordan as it’s impossible to know how they would have faired up against each other.

But they definitely show that LeBron, in many aspects of the game beats Jordan and is the better all-round player and for me, the guy who will win me that promotion my tight boss is making me play for!

Can Derrick Rose ever regain his NBA MVP form?

Derrick Rose’s recent CV doesn’t make for good reading.

The 29-year-old point guard is currently trying to resurrect his career at the Minnesota Timberwolves after being waived by the Utah Jazz back in February.

This came shortly after being traded by the Cleveland Cavaliers after a year, who in turn picked him up after a season with the New York Knicks.

In short, Rose has suffered perhaps one of the most devastating career declines that has befallen an NBA star player in recent years.

He was originally recruited by his hometown team the Chicago Bulls as the first overall pick in the 2008 draft, after a year of playing college ball for the Memphis Tigers, and soon became one of the brightest prospects in the NBA.

Rose went on to earn Rookie of the Year in the 2008-09 regular season and then at the age of 22 became the youngest player in NBA history to win the MVP title.

His athleticism, speed, ball control and ability to blow past defenders in a flash to get into the lane and finish was unmatched, and at such an early stage he widely tipped to go on to be one of the sport’s greats.

Game over?

Unfortunately, in 2012 – just a year after being crowned NBA MVP – Rose suffered a devastating season-ending injury when he tore his ACL, and even though he has recovered from that he has suffered more injuries since and is no longer the elite player he once was.

But can he hope to ever recapture anything even close to his MVP form again? The answer to that question is, sadly, no he can’t. In essence, his career is over.

‘So, what happens to a player like this after a series of serious injuries means they are simply not as explosive as they once were?’

Why? Well, let’s talk about some other point guards in the NBA currently, notable reigning MVP Russell Westbrook as to me he is the only player whose game compares to that of Rose back in the day.

He is lightning fast, athletic, blows past defences to get to the bucket like no other and finishes with assassin-like precision. Although Rose possesses these skills too, there are reasons why he will never come close to Westbrook, even though they’re both just the right side of 30 and playing the same position.

The main one is Westbrook also has the fundamentals in his back pocket, something Rose never has had. Rose’s style of play in his prime was quite selfish, ball watching on defence and taking the ball to the rim himself and scoring, with not many assists.

In his MVP-winning season he averaged 21.8 PPG (points per game) and only 7.9 APG (assists per game) but was never held accountable as he was scoring plenty and leading the team to wins, but as a point guard that assist percentage is pretty poor.

His long-range shooting was also always suspect, but again he wasn’t taken to task for this because he could get to the rim whenever he wanted.

Chase down

So, what happens to a player like this after a series of serious injuries means they are simply not as explosive as they once were?

That is where Rose has found himself in the past few years and that lack of the fundamentals now means his game isn’t even close to being good enough for the elite standards currently on display in the NBA.

‘First of all, Rose needs to accept he is no longer an elite point guard, go back to the basics and work on his defensive game’

Still trying to ball watch on defence is not working for him anymore because he can’t gather the speed to chase down a defender after losing them to make a block.

His shooting is still below average so you don’t have the confidence in him hitting most of his shots like other point guards including Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, Westbrook, Damien Lillard… this list could go on and on.

So, no Rose will never be able to rub shoulders with the elite of NBA again and get in on the MVP conversation, but that’s not to say he can’t rebuild his career and secure his status as a reliable above-average player again.

But first of all, he needs to accept he is no longer an elite point guard, go back to the basics and work on his defensive game, his shooting and his basketball IQ to improve his assisting ability.

I used to love watching Rose before his sad decline, and I just hope he makes these improvements before it is too late.

Is Lavar Ball helping or hurting his sons’ NBA dreams?

If you’re not already familiar with theBall family, bear with me for a few moments.

First, pick your favourite up-and-coming prospect in English sport. Let’s go with Marcus Rashford, for example.

Now imagine if Rashford’s burgeoning fame was being overshadowed by that of his own, wildly outspoken father, who let’s say, had set up his own sportswear brand selling £1,000 trainers, was being granted half-hour interviews on Sky Sports and hell, maybe even appeared on WWE RAW.

Now maybe this is a bit out there, but perhaps even imagine if Rashford’s dad tried – and succeeded – to get a female official removed from her duties mid-game after a call went against his son, or if he publicly called for his son’s head coach to be sacked after a poor run of results.

If you haven’t already guessed, as far-fetched as it sounds, these scenarios (and many more) have already unfolded within the Ball family since they rose to fame in 2016.

Indeed, we are now reaching the point where it appears the actions of 50-year-old Lavar, the loud-mouthed patriarch of the Ball boys, may be hurting his sons’ chances at NBA stardom far more than he is helping them.

Target on his back

Lavar’s oldest son, Lonzo Ball, has at least made it to the NBA. The 20-year-old was selected by the Los Angeles Lakers as the number two overall pick in the 2017 draft, but has struggled to adapt to the league’s relentless pace so far, like many rookies do.

But he has has settled well, and displayed a level of professionalism far beyond his years to keep himself as far away as possible from his father’s attention-seeking antics.

‘Most parents would know where to draw the line with their enthusiasm; not so, Ball Sr’

From the outset, though, Lonzo was a marked man – and much of this was down to his father. His much-anticipated NBA debut in October was spent being hounded by LA Clippers’ Patrick Beverley – who claimed the tenacity of his play came down to one reason.

“I just had to set the tone. I told him after the game that due to all the riff-raff his dad brings, he’s going to get a lot of people coming hard at him.”

John Wall, the Washington Wizards’ All Star, echoed Beverly’s sentiments: “His dad has put him in a situation where players are gonna target him.”

Whilst many parents would be rightly proud of their offspring’s achievements, most of them would know where to draw the line with their enthusiasm; not so, Ball Sr.

Where he did unquestionably overstep the mark however, was his suggestion that Lakers’ coach Luke Walton, beloved by fans and his fellow coaches alike, should be replaced in January. The oldest Ball claimed “You can see they’re [the players] not playing for Luke no more.”

Whilst Walton dealt with the remarks professionally, other NBA coaches – most notably Coaches’ Union chief Rick Carlisle, took umbrage with Lavar’s comments.

“Luke Walton does not deserve that. Two years ago, he took a veteran team and led them to 24 wins in a row, which is an amazing accomplishment. He earned the Laker job. To have to deal with these ignorant distractions is deplorable.”

Shoplifting, Lithuania and Donald Trump

Despite all the distractions, at least Lonzo has proved himself by making it to the big league.

His two younger brothers, 19-year-old LiAngelo and 16-year-old LaMelo, are on even rockier ground as they look to achieve their NBA dreams.

Both began the 2017 NCAA season in November committed to the prestigious UCLA Bruins, with LiAngelo scheduled to be on the roster for this season and the younger LaMelo an early commitment, ready to suit up for the Bruins in 2019.

Now, just a mere couple of months on, the younger Ball brothers, at this point two of America’s most famous teenagers, are living in a remote village in Lithuania, sacrificing their UCLA careers before they even began by playing professionally for Vytautas Prienai–Birštonas, of the Lithuanian Basketball League. You really could not make this stuff up.

A quick stat for perspective: 16-year-old LaMelo Ball has 3.1 million Instagram followers. That’s approximately 200,000 more people than the population of Lithuania.

Wasted potential?

LiAngelo Ball played a part in derailing his own UCLA career after he was caught on CCTV shoplifting from a Louis Vuitton store during the Bruins’ pre-season tour of China,  an incident that required presidential power to be resolved.

When the college suspended LiAngelo indefinitely, Ball Sr. took his son out of the programme altogether, although doubts had already been raised as to whether he was an NBA quality prospect to begin with.

But that’s never been the story for LaMelo. Ever since he got to Chino Hills High School, the youngest Ball brother has excited scouts up and down the country, and had firmly cemented his status as one of the brightest prospects in the class of 2019. He was committed to UCLA and as close to a nailed-on future NBA player as someone his age could be.

‘The Big Baller Invitationals have been truly farcical events’

But shockingly, in October 2017, Lavar made the decision to pull LaMelo out of school and put him into ‘home schooling’; essentially, taking full ownership of LaMelo’s basketball future, and in doing so taking him out of the most conventional route to the NBA, via high school and college.

This decision was questioned at the time, but most thought LaMelo would get back on track once he got to UCLA in 2019.

But nobody foresaw the unprecedented, frankly bizarre journey to Vytautas Prienai–Birštonas that Lavar had planned for his two youngest sons.

It was predicted, sensibly, that the teenagers would struggle in a professional league (the LKL) against hardened veterans, in a nation where basketball is the sport of the people and taken very seriously.

Neither registered a single point on their debut, they struggled for any real game time in January and have even been criticised by their own coach Virginijus Šeškus for their failure to adapt to the team’s style.

Of course, there is the argument that being thrust into professional games against fully-grown men could speed up the development of the brothers, although quite how they are supposed to learn when they are not given significant playing time is anyone’s guess.

Farcical

Ball Sr’s influence just makes things more complicated. Since the arrival of the family, he has managed to convince Vytautas to withdraw from the Baltic League, of which they are reigning champions, and instead compete against semi-pro and youth teams in invitational matches, dubbed “Big Baller Invitationals”, after Lavar’s sportswear brand.

These have been truly farcical events. For one, the gulf in quality between Vytautas and their opponents has been laughable, with Vytautas regularly anilhating their opponents by tallies of up to 50 points, with the Ball brothers shooting the basketball an absurd amount of times in the process.

‘This is such a unique situation, spearheaded by a truly unique character in Lavar Ball, that there is no real historic precedent’

And then there is the crazy level of sponsorship. Lavar’s Big Baller Brand logo is plastered literally everywhere – on the court, on the players jerseys, even on the referee’s uniforms. Videos of the brothers’ highlights are posted instantly and everywhere you look, it is impossible not to see the BBB logo staring back at you.

In their most recent Invitational game, Lavar even assumed head coaching responsibilities for the team himself.

Really, the signs do not look good for LiAngelo and LaMelo’s NBA future, as their struggle for meaningful game time looks likely to continue, with Vytautas currently dead last in the LKL and not in a position to experiment too much.

But in truth, all of this is such a unique situation, spearheaded by a truly unique character in Lavar Ball, that there is no real historic precedent to compare it to.

I would not be at all surprised to see the entire Ball clan end up joining the NBA fraternity, because so far, for better or worse, almost everything Lavar has predicted has seemingly come true.

As the man himself loves to remind everybody: “I never lose.”

Preview: Celtics and 76ers head to London

The NBA makes its annual pilgrimage to London this week, as the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers come to the O2 Arena on the January 11th to compete in what is probably the highest-profile NBA game ever held on British shores.

Boston arrived with the NBA’s highest win tally this season, sitting at 33-10 and comfortably topping the Eastern Conference after their high-profile trade for Kyrie Irving in the summer turned out about as well as anybody could have imagined.

And the 76ers, despite sitting just one spot outside the play-off places at the halfway mark of the campaign, remain one of the most exciting teams in the league, due in large part to the incredible promise shown by their two young stars, Ben Simmons and the incomparable Joel Embiid.

Unicorns

As strange as it sounds, the word ‘unicorn’ is probably somewhat overused in the modern NBA, after being coined by veteran US sportswriter Bill Simmons (no relation to Ben) to describe “someone simply showing up and making you say, WOW, I’ve never seen that before”.

It can, however, be fairly applied to both Simmons and Embiid, both have which have displayed plenty of signs this season of being genuinely transcendent talents.

‘Embiid is thriving in his new found stardom, becoming one of the most engaging personalities in all of sports’

Simmons, the tallest conventional point guard the league has seen since the glory days of Magic Johnson in the 1980s, has had one of the most impressive rookie seasons in NBA history.

He is averaging 17 points, eight rebounds and eight assists per game and displaying a maturity far beyond his years to adapt to the most challenging position in basketball as quickly as he has done.

But it’s Embiid, the 7ft 1in Cameroonian, who is the true star of the show in Philadelphia. Drafted back in 2014, the 23-year-old at one point looked doomed to a career spent mostly on the treatment table (seven-footers and foot injuries have proven to be a terrifying combination in the past), but he has flourished in his first full season on the court, putting up 22 and 10 with two blocks per game.

And just as encouragingly, Embiid is thriving in his new found stardom, becoming one of the most engaging personalities in all of sports, a fountain of hilarious tweets, on-court trolling, and thoughtful quotes.

The NBA has always done a good job in marketing the personalities of its stars, but that has sometimes resulted in a certain level of corporate, cookie-cutter images for a lot of the NBA’s more high-profile players.

Embiid’s approach to social media self-marketing may not be wholly in line with the NBA’s image, but it is that level of uniqueness, as well as his willingness to take everything less seriously than most of his peers, that has translated so well with so many.

The leaders

Over in Boston, it has been something of a return to the norm for the 17-time world champions. Despite losing all-star free agent Gordon Hayward to injury in just seven minutes into his Celtics debut, coach Brad Stevens has masterfully weaved together a league-leading rotation from his cast of young, interchangeable players, and his two stars, Irving and veteran centre Al Horford.

‘The Celtics look more likely than anyone to end Cleveland’s vice-like grip on the Eastern Conference’

In his former role as LeBron James’ number two in Cleveland, Irving was required to do little more than put the ball in the basket as often as he could, while James assumed the bulk of the playmaking and leadership responsibilities.

With his new team, Irving is not only the number one scoring option, but also the Celtics’ primary playmaker, leading the motion offence that coach Stevens has implemented to great effect.

Horford’s resurgence has been a pleasant surprise, with the 31-year-old big man leading all centres in assists with 5.3 per game, and showing signs of improving his rebounding, which came in for severe criticism during the Celtics’ failed 2017 play-off run.

With promising young swingmen Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum providing far more than what was expected of them to fill the Hayward-shaped hole in the team, the Celtics look more likely than anyone to end Cleveland’s vice-like grip on the Eastern Conference, and maybe even challenge the almost inevitable Golden State triumph.

Big occasion

Casting an eye towards Thursday’s encounter, it is obviously hard to look past the team with the far superior record.

But if I was a betting man, my money would be on Philly.

The two teams’ last encounter at the beginning of December finished 108-97 in favour of the Celtics, after Boston took advantage of Embiid’s absence (he did not feature due to minor injury) to punish the 76ers in the paint.

With the Cameroonian back in the line-up on Thursday, you can expect that 11-point gap to be cancelled out, and then some.

Embiid, ever the showman, has shown a real flair for the big occasion so far this season, and with all eyes on the much vaunted annual London game, it’s fair to expect the kind of dominant performance that he has shown himself to be capable of when the spotlight is shining on him.

Can fresh impetus be added to UK hoop dreams?

It’s sometimes said in the world of American sports ‘If you don’t think you’re a winner, you don’t belong here,’ and it doesn’t just apply to coaches motivating their players in locker rooms.

For 40 years, basketball in the UK has failed to get its act together, due to a noxious cocktail of factors, but chiefly poor governance and a funding system that never gives it a chance.

So how optimistic should fans be now that a new firm, Premier League Basketball (PLB), have set up camp in London with the aim of launching a brand-new league to rival the British Basketball League (BBL).

Parsons oversaw the Clippers’ billion dollar sale

Richard Parsons, former interim chairman of NBA franchise the LA Clippers, will invest £1.6m to launch the start-up as an eight-team summer league in 2019 with outfits in Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Birmingham, Sheffield and  Glasgow, as well as the capital.

A good place to start to underline the sport’s failings in recent years is the BBL.

The 12-team competition, established in 1986, has long since seen it’s heyday of the mid 90s when the ’95-96 season opener between London Leopards and Manchester Giants attracted a crowd of over 14,000.

Nowadays, most league games average no more than a few hundred.

Exodus

Amaechi is a consultant for PLB

“There is nothing the BBL does well, except survive,” says one of the UK’s most recognisable faces in the game, former NBA player John Amaechi.

“It’s the cockroach of sports – it’s almost dead because of a nuclear holocaust, but yet it still survives.”

The poorly-managed administration forces many of the best talents to move to higher-quality continental leagues of the likes of Spain and Greece, or for the best one or two players further afield to the USA to ply their trade and have any hope of developing into truly elite players.

This exodus compounds the low standard of competition here, and the vicious cycle continues. This is one of the main things that the PLB claims it will address.

Brits abroad

“It’s not that the quality of British basketball is not good, it’s just a lot of the great players are playing abroad,” says Wanshu Yu, senior associate of marketing at PLB. “Part of our focus is to bring the very talented British players back to this country.

“Other than bringing British players back, we just want to create a very diverse and high level game so we will have Europeans and Americans – basically we welcome all players of all countries to come join.”

However, the evidence that British players are not cutting the mustard is stark. When the Boston Celtics meet the Philadelphia 76ers later this month in London for the regular-season NBA game, out of five Europeans to make either teams’ roster, not one is British.

The reality is British basketball, up to now, has been a tough sell for the brightest prospects. Low wages and the absence of an effective players union does not bode well.

“You should get paid enough to live,” Amaechi asserts. “I’ve had two different BBL players living in my house before because at the end of the season they get kicked out of the team accommodation.”

Amaechi in NBA action for Orlando in 2001

Amaechi, who these days works with FTSE 100 companies to maximise efficiency and output, speaks with the passion and knowledge you’d expect of someone who’s scaled the heights of professional sport.

The 47 year old former Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic and Utah Jazz forward has taken on a consultancy role with PLB despite distancing himself from British basketball’s authorities in the past.

Referring to his correspondence with PLB UK chief executive Ron Scott, Amaechi appears hopeful the new competition can finally put things right. “I told him that I will support any entity that comes into this country and meets my criteria.”

Living wage

He went on to outline those conditions: “Paying the living wage to every player. It’s a career and not a job. Not an organisation that requires the funnelling of public money through their system to pay players (like BBL)”, he reasons.

“As long as they stay clear of that, I will support something that is an aspirational target for young people in this country.”

The funding figure mooted is a drop in the ocean to start a new sports league, but the PLB marketers remain positive. “That £1.6m completes our seed funding which means we’re in the middle of our formal financing, and that figure is just to allow us to maintain ourselves until such time we meet out funding goal,” says Yu.

Look at any pro sports competition in the world and its not hard to see that money is at the heart of its longevity. One-off kick-starter payments are important, but so is a steady stream of income, and needs media coverage.

Coverage

BT Sport shows up to seven NBA games a week

“We’re in conversation with different broadcasters,” Yu tells me. “We believe basketball in the UK deserves more coverage. We think the change in season [winter to summer] will definitely give basketball more exposure – not only will the venues be more available but we also have more choice regarding broadcasting.”

It’s been reported that BT Sport are interested in showing two games per week from the new league to fill a large void left by the off-season absence of football and rugby.

A deal with the broadcast giants could prove decisive in having the financial clout to attract star players.

If anybody is willing to negotiate on behalf of players welfare it’s the English former NBA player. “Ron [Scott] consulted me on the minimum wage in his league”, says the performance coach.

“We disagreed but then they went with what I thought it should be, which is higher than the living wage because I feel  players should be rewarded for being pro athletes.”

Player welfare

Player contracts are something PLB is giving a lot of thought. “One of the special things about us is we have a single-entity business model which means from the beginning the league will build and own all the teams,” explains their marketing chief.

In other words, by applying the single-entity model, all players will be contracted to the PLB centrally rather than to individual clubs, as is the case in Major League Soccer (MLS).

“This allows us to do a better quality control so you have a consistent level of basketball and entertainment experience,” Yu goes on. It also means that they can implement salary caps.

This piece of contractual law has caused controversy in the MLS before when a group of players filed a lawsuit arguing that the ‘single-entity’ policy was artificially suppressing wages because they were unable to negotiate potentially better deals with other sides in the league. The court ruled in favour of the MLS.

Grime

PLB’s mission statement is to provide “high-quality, competitive basketball events in major UK venues, broadcast live in prime time with fresh, fast-paced, interactive entertainment experiences.”

“Britain has a slightly different taste to the US so the organ music or American style rapping might not be so welcome,” Yu suggests.

“The hottest thing right here now is grime. So what we want to do is incorporate the British culture in our entertainment offering to create an experience that is homegrown, organic and set to British peoples taste.”

However, those are the trimmings – it remains to be seen whether British basketball can be steered towards the mainstream after decades of languishing as a  minority sport.

UK Sport statistics show that hoops is the second-most popular team sport among 14-16 year olds in this country. But can PLB turn that interest to a viable sporting league, particularly now that the NBA casts such a long shadow with its social media activities and overseas broadcast deals?

Drafts and trades v transfers

When Neymar joined Paris St-Germain from Barcelona in the summer for just less than £200m, it was reported his annual salary would be approximately £28m.

PSG paid out plenty to secure an established world-class talent, but in America, pro sports franchises pay top dollar to sign rookie players straight out of college.

Markelle Fultz of the Washington Huskies university team was the number one pick in this year’s NBA Draft.

He will earn a maximum of $33,727,701 over the course his first contract with the Philadelphia 76ers, including $15,366,120 guaranteed during his first two years.

All that cash for a promising talent who only played one season for the Huskies and may not have what it takes to become a consistent elite-level performer in the NBA.

Welcome to the world of US sport, where money is spent on wages, not transfer fees.

Drafting talent

It’s a strangely egalitarian world, too, given the rampant capitalism which characterises most other walks of American life.

In the NBA and NFL draft system, for example, the previous season’s bottom team get first pick of the potential superstars produced by the US college system.

In reality, teams often trade early picks for more in later rounds of the draft. But in theory, the very best player could join the very worst franchise (according to last season’s standings).

It’s all about balance and trying to avoid one team dominating for years on end, but the other key thing to note is money – as in player transfers – is simply not a factor.

The draft system, in which (technically) amateur athletes join professional teams, sees most of those millions of dollars invested in player contracts and salaries.

The same goes for trades between clubs for established players. Cash rarely changes hands; it’s all about swapping one talent for another (or in some cases several others).

 Level playing field

The biggest trade of the NBA off-season saw Isaiah Thomas signed by Cleveland from Boston, with Kyrie Irving going in the opposite direction (much to his displeasure).

Boston reportedly agreed to give Cleveland a second-round pick in the 2020 draft to seal the deal. Thomas remained on a $30m-a-year deal, with Irving keeping his $20m annual salary.

In football, such exchanges are extremely rare, and even when they do happen usually involve player+cash (or more likely cash+makeweight player).

And any highly-prized footballer in the prime of his career would be looking for a salary upgrade when agreeing to be transferred – and possibly a bonus for signing in the first place.

Supporters of the American system argue it does its job by keeping the playing field relatively level in terms of team strength – although there will still be ‘dynasty’ franchises that rule the roost for several seasons.

The Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers have both dominated in the NBA in recent decades, while the NFL’s New England Patriots have won five Super Bowls since 2001.

Education

Proponents of the draft system also claim it encourages young players to get a college education as they seek a career in professional sports. For every player who ‘makes it’, dozens fall by the wayside, and others who join the pro ranks find their careers are short-lived.

‘When they are released – as the vast majority are – they are ill-equipped to cope with life outside of football’

So gaining a degree, the argument goes, gives those individuals an alternative career to pursue if their dream of playing professionally fails to become a reality.

In truth, the pressure is on young players to turn pro as soon as possible – and maximise their earning potential.

In recognition of this, the NBA now stipulates that they only have to wait a year before becoming eligible for the draft – and don’t even have to attend college in that period.

LeBron James, arguably the game’s biggest star, joined his hometown team Cleveland in the 2003 draft without spending anytime at university.

Released

Footballers are often part of the youth set-up at a professional club from a very young age and work their way through its age-group teams until – if they are one of the chosen few – they are offered a professional contract. More often, they are devastated to find they are not being offered one.

Although education is a mandatory part of their life as young players, critics claim being involved with clubs from early childhood encourages unrealistic expectations that they are already on the path to success, fame and riches, leading them to effectively switch off from gaining qualifications.

So when they are released – as the vast majority are – they are ill-equipped to cope with life outside of football, and many are at risk of mental health problems or going off the rails.

When it comes to young players being transferred for vast sums of money, the pressure on them to justify their new club’s outlay is immense – and sometimes damaging to their career.

Pros and cons

So which system works best overall?

In theory, football’s transfer system rewards clubs for developing young talent, or getting the best out of players.

‘Since the Premier League was launched in the 1992-93 season, it has been won by just six teams’

For smaller ones, selling players to bigger clubs offers a lifeline that may be the difference between financial stability and going out of business.

The risk – and reality – is that the very best players tend to end up at the biggest, best-supported and wealthiest clubs, and those clubs form a self-perpetuating elite which tend to win all the titles and trophies.

Is it that different in the US? In the NBA, only five teams have won more than three championships since the league began in 1947. On the other hand, those five account for 70% of the titles, with the Boston Celtics leading the way with 17, closely followed by the Lakers on 16.

However, eight different teams have won the NBA since 2000. In the NFL, the title has been secured by 12 different franchises since the turn of the century.

Since the Premier League was launched in the 1992-93 season, it has been won by just six teams.

So maybe there’s something in the thinking behind the US system after all…

Trade adds edge to Celtics-Cavs rivalry as NBA season begins

When the NBA season gets underway early on Wednesday morning (UK time), it will do so with a genuine blockbuster.

A repeat of last season’s Eastern Conference Finals would have been an entertaining spectacle under any circumstances, but after an unprecedented trade that sent the disgruntled Kyrie Irving from Cleveland to Boston in exchange for fellow All-Star Isaiah Thomas, there now exists that crucial ingredient to any stand-out rivalry: bad blood.

In a league where it has become commonplace, perhaps to the detriment of the NBA as a whole, for superstar players to join forces in an attempt to maximise their chances of glory, Irving’s decision to request a trade away from the Cleveland Cavaliers should be respected.

Ever since LeBron James returned to his hometown team in 2014, Irving has had the easy life.

James remains the best player in the NBA, and his unselfish playing style and likeable personality have drawn an outstanding ensemble cast to the Cavaliers, resulting in three back-to-back trips to the NBA finals, with an NBA Championship coming in 2016.

Ambition

But all of the success left Irving feeling somewhat marginalised. Drafted by the Cavaliers in 2011, he spent his early NBA career as the unquestioned leader and star of the team, before being firmly pushed into a number two role upon ‘King’ James’ triumphant return.

And so Irving chose to cast off on his own, saying publicly it was his best chance to develop as a player.

“It was my time to do what was best for me in terms of my intentions, and that’s going after something bigger than myself and being in an environment that was conducive to my potential,” he said.

“Now [I’m] taking that next steps as a 25-year-old evolving man and being the best basketball player I can be.”

But despite it being refreshing to see a player in Irving’s position want to lead his own team, it would be a stretch to call the news of his trade request truly shocking. The real surprise was his destination.

Loyalty

‘I want them to see how my getting traded — just like that, without any warning — by the franchise that I scratched and clawed for, and bled for, and put my everything on the line for. Loyalty – it’s just a word’

Isaiah Thomas has always been the underdog. Whereas Irving was the prized #1 draft pick when he entered the league in 2011, the 5ft 9in (yes, really) Thomas was taken with the 60th and final pick by the Sacramento Kings.

Seen by most as a talented player without the physical profile to ever grind out his place in the land of giants that is the NBA, Thomas has improved his game by leaps and bounds each season. He has defied the perceived limits of his diminutive frame to average a remarkable 29 points per game for the Celtics in the 2016-17, a tally good enough for 3rd highest in the league.

The 28-year-old point guard has always worn his emotions on his sleeve, and that passion resonated strongly with the hardcore Boston fanbase.

That connection between player and franchise has rarely ever seen a better example than April of this year, when Thomas’ sister Chyna tragically died in a car accident just one day before the start of the Celtics’ play-off series against the Chicago Bulls.

Thomas chose to suit up and play that very next day, and despite being visibly emotional throughout, managed to lead the Celtics to a 4-2 series win against the Bulls, eventually falling short against the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Injury

But in the often cold, analytics-driven world of the NBA, loyalty between player and franchise can often be a one-way street. When Irving, a younger player on a longer contract, became available, Thomas was the key asset in the Boston offer that persuaded Cleveland to do business.

Thomas, never one to disguise his feelings, has since voiced his thoughts on the trade.

“That s**t hurt. It hurt a lot… I get it: this is a business. Danny [Ainge, Celtics general manager] is a businessman, and he made a business move. I don’t agree with it, just personally, and I don’t think the Boston Celtics got better by making this trade.

“I think my trade can show people. I want them to see how my getting traded — just like that, without any warning — by the franchise that I scratched and clawed for, and bled for, and put my everything on the line for. Loyalty – it’s just a word.”

Unfortunately, Thomas is unlikely to play in the season-opener due to a nagging hip injury that many feel was a key factor in Boston’s decision to trade him.

But with Irving’s immediate return to his old stomping ground will serve as the perfect introduction to what is sure to be one of the most dramatic NBA seasons in memory.

Book Review – Long Shot by Craig Hodges

“You don’t want to be like Craig Hodges.”

The first line in this autobiography, subtitled ‘The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter’, is a intriguing one.

The quote immediately makes you want to read on. Why isn’t Craig Hodges someone you want to be like?

For those not familiar with the name, Hodges, 56, is an American retired professional basketball player. He played in the NBA for 10 seasons, winning two NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls alongside Michael Jordan.

Hodges led the league in three-point shooting percentage three times and, along with Larry Bird, is one of only two players to win three consecutive three-point contests at the NBA’s annual All-Star Weekend.

Vilification

But in the story of American sport, Hodges is – as that subtitle suggests – more than just another good hoops player.

Always ready to speak out on issues and never happy to simply keep his head down and – in more ways than one – play the game, Hodges refused to  just take the money and run.

The foreword by firebrand US sportswriter Dave Zirin explains why sport and politics continue to make for uneasy bedfellows.

Not so long ago, as Zirin explains, any sportsman who dared to rock the boat would be blackballed and “written out of the history books with a casual cruelty that would make Stalin jealous”.

Sure, times have changed. But as NFL star Colin Kaepernick discovered when he began marking the national anthem with down-on-one-knee ‘Black Lives Matter’ protest, politically-outspoken elite sportspeople still risk vilification.

Speaking to current New York Knicks player Joakim Noah, Hodges says: “Don’t let those big paychecks buy your silence.”

It could be argued that modern-day athletes such as Kaepernick and NBA star Steph Curry have used Hodges as a role model in this respect.

Limits

Like many black American athletes, Hodges is proud of his African heritage. When visiting the White House, he wore a white Dashiki, saying: “I was raised to know that my history was unwritten, so if the books weren’t going to represent it, I would.”

“What happens when a college or the NBA doesn’t come knocking? In a certain sense, the child stops existing. An emptiness sets in” – Craig Hodges

He took the opportunity to hand a letter to President George Bush Sr, speaking about his beliefs and the battle for equality for African Americans.

But as the shooting guard says in his book, written with Rory Fanning: “I’d soon learn, however, that the overlords of the league had other plans for me and that my freedom of expression had serious limits.”

One of the main points I took from this fascinating read is that Hodges put his beliefs ahead of his career and it cost him.

Craig Hodges in 2016

But it was still a career that offered him a way out of poverty, although he makes the point: “What happens when a college or the NBA doesn’t come knocking? In a certain sense, the child stops existing. An emptiness sets in.”

Having watched the IVERSON documentary on Allen Iverson, there are similarities between him and Hodges.

Kids like them had to do all they could to make it into the big leagues or, as Hodges says, “end up in the Ford factory” – if they were lucky.

Fanning has helped Hodge to tell his story in a way which connects his personal and professional lives, his exploits on the court with the activism which so irked the basketball hierarchy.

Hodges claims, for instance he was traded from the Milwaukee Bucks to the Phoenix Suns because of his affiliation with members of the Nation of Islam, and his political views.

Criticism

In 1996, towards the end of his playing career, Hodges filed a $40m lawsuit against the NBA and its then 29 teams.

It claimed they blackballed him for his association with Louis Farrakhan and his criticism of “African-American professional athletes who failed to use their considerable wealth and influence to assist the poor and disenfranchised”.

‘Long Shot’ firmly places Hodges in a tradition of activist athletes which also includes Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Muhammad Ali – sportspeople who have often paid dearly for refusing to compromise their political beliefs, and they deserve credit for that.

After reading about the trials and tribulations he went through during his career, I finally understood the statement “You don’t want to be like Craig Hodges.”

However, as Zirin writes in his foreword, it should say “You DO want to be like Craig Hodges.”

Long Shot – The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter is available on Amazon UK for £14.99.

Elephant Sport’s NBA Quarterly Report – Pt. 2

A thrilling 2016-17 NBA season has thus far delivered entertainment, elite individual performances and plenty controversy.

But, best of all, we have only just reached the halfway mark. Allow Elephant Sport to run through some of the most exciting categories since our first instalment.

Best Team: Houston Rockets

Before even diving into the excellence of Mike D’Antoni’s team, we need look no further than the Rockets’ record during this half. Led by James Harden, they are sitting comfortably in 3rd seed with a 30-10 record. Add to this only two losses in 19 games.

If the Rockets were the most improved team in the first quarter, they are undoubtedly the best one in the league right now. This has been aided by the return of potential defensive all-star, Patrick Beverley.

A lot has been said about Houston’s lack of defensive prowess but, with the aforementioned point-guard back, many of the criticisms have been erased. Beverley is averaging more rebounds than any other player in the team. Meanwhile, the Rockets have climbed into the top 15 defensive sides in the league.

But beyond number-crunching, this is a team rich in chemistry and unity. In a recent match against the Dallas Mavericks, small-forward Trever Ariza got into a verbal altercation with Salah Mejri. At the end of the game, the entire Rockets squad waited for the Mavs’ centre in an attempt to confront him.

While violence is not to be condoned, especially in a professional environment, it’s refreshing to see the Rockets team stick up for one another when, just a few months ago, they had a lot of internal disagreements and issues.

The Rockets are flawed – they certainly struggle to close out games and protect the rim when Clint Capela is missing – but they are living and prospering by the 3-ball. It could very well see them usurp many teams in the play-offs come season end. 

Worst Team: Brooklyn Nets

Neither Jeremy Lin nor Brook Lopez can lift the Nets out of their current rut. Which is ironic, since an arrangement of both their names phonetically adds up to Brooklyn.

This pun is atrocious – much like the Nets have been this season. They are currently bottom of the Eastern Conference and, in 41 games, have yet to reach double digits in wins.

4411281683_af41eab4e7_b
Brook Lopez warming up

Where the Nets have struggled most is in the creative department. Lin has been underwhelming and inefficient when running the point. Even when he has been at his very best, he has a lack of sharpshooters to lay the ball off to.

On the other hand, Lopez has tried his hardest to deliver wins. But in the game where he dropped a mammoth 38 points – all from inside the post – his team still lost by a comfortable margin.

Perhaps the over-reliance on these two stars has created a pressure hard to overcome for the Nets. But what is certain is this: they have an inefficient bench unit and a non-existent supporting cast.

Sadly, they look to be tanking for the remainder of the season – a testament to how insurmountable they view a comeback or, at the very least, improvement. 

Most Improved: Utah Jazz

 The Utah Jazz were almost unanimously everyone’s sleeper tip going into the new season. Many suspected they would finish in the top four in the West and, while they are currently sitting in 5th, just imagining that would have been far-fetched 20 games ago.

After the first quarter, Utah looked devoid of confidence and quality. Despite the dominant play of Gordon Hayward and the robustness of Rudy Gobert, the Jazz were struggling to string offensive plays together.

Fast-forward to January and they are now one of the league’s in-form teams. While the aforementioned players have turned in titanic performances, it is in the coaching that the Jazz have seen the biggest improvements.

Quin Snyder has drawn up a variety of plays revolving around a combination of point-guard George Hill and Hayward that has led to some excellent ball circulation in recent weeks.

Whether it is the long-range alley-oop, or the bounce pass-to-scorer, the two have struck up a chemistry unlike anything Vivint Arena has seen this term.

Add to that Rudy Gobert averaging one rebound short of the number one spot and the Jazz finally look like that team everyone had expected them to be. 

Who Needs to Trade Immediately: Toronto Raptors

 The Raptors may be one of the finer teams in the league; in their conference, they are second to only the Cleveland Cavaliers. While there is no shame in being second to the reigning champions and LeBron James, there is shame in being miles behind them.

In the three times the teams have met up this season, the Raptors have been torn apart. Two of these games were in this highlighted half.

What the Raptors missed most was a dominant centre – somebody who could prevent Kyrie Irving from entering the pick ‘n’ roll with Tristan Thompson. Furthermore, they lacked a real presence on offence inside the paint. This isn’t a team that shoots outside the perimeter often, so their reliance on inside scoring requires a centre who can do it on both ends.

2014_toronto_raptors_fans_air_canada_centre
The fans at Air Canada could do with seeing a dominant centre every other night

Unfortunately, there are very few centres that can dominate on both ends that are available. Certainly DeMarcus Cousins seems attainable but, since he seems closer to the Boston Celtics, it makes little sense to include him here.

There is, though, one centre who is most definitely attainable. While he may still be young, the potential is there to become one of the finest at the five spot. That player is the Philadelphia 76’ers Nerlens Noel.

The 22-year-old is up for trade now that the 76’ers are shopping for a point-guard. He is the unfortunate collateral damage of this search, since the franchise deems Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor to be more valuable assets.

But when Noel plays, he dominates on both ends. And he is a former Round 1 pick in the draft (2014).

Under the wing of the Raptors – an inside scoring and rim protecting team – he could come into his own.

This is a risk worth taking because it benefits the Raptors in the years to come. They may not be able to challenge the Cavs just yet but, if they can unite the right pieces, that could change in coming seasons.

Surprise Package: Memphis Grizzlies 

The Memphis Grizzlies were predicted to scrape the play-offs; a true bottom-of-the-barrel team. To say they have exceeded expectations is an understatement.

In just the last 20 games, Memphis have defeated the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. Oh, and the former they crushed twice.

Mike Conley, a point-guard of immense quality, has been in and out of the team with injury. In his absence, they were unbeaten. Upon his return, they continued to win games.

In veteran centre Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies have found a sharpshooting rim-protector. While that may sound like a preposterous hybrid, it is exactly what the Spaniard has become. He has hit game-winning 3-pointers and combined that with blocks and defensive plays aplenty.

As the focal point of their play, Gasol has carried Memphis to 6th in the West within a couple of games off 4th.

MVP at the Half: James Harden

Only one man seems worthy of the award as of this halfway mark. James Harden has dominated the NBA in recent months, breaking records and personal bests alike.

He carved out his highest points (51), assists (17) and rebounds (18) in a historic night against the New York Knicks on New Year’s Eve. He is the first player in NBA history to amass a triple-double of 15-15-15 or higher; he also leads the league in assists by a country mile.

551px-james_harden_2012_3
Harden playing some defence for Team USA

Why Harden instead of Russell Westbrook, some may ask? It’s simple. Westbrook is registering crazy numbers, too. But his team isn’t winning as often, or emphatically, as the Houston Rockets.

That plays a part in contention for the MVP award, particularly when The Beard’s team were ruled out of play-off contention by many punters.

Coach D’Antoni has placed immense belief and confidence in Harden – asking him to command the ball with more regularity and lead the team. This was something Harden had been criticised for in the past: leadership.

That, and defence. It would be an understatement to say he has quashed those criticisms this season.

Houston are winning and Harden is playing his heart out. If voting were to end today, the MVP of the 2016-17 season would be as clear as day.

Rookie of the Year at the Half: Joel Embiid

Joel Embiid is the first, and only, repeat appearance of this series. Yet that’s more of a mixed bag than a clear indication of Embiid’s annihilation of the award.

While the Cameroonian centre has undeniably been the best rookie so far, there is an argument to be made that nobody is actually challenging him.

Buddy Hield, for all his enthusiasm, has struggled to find consistency in New Orleans. Meanwhile Brandon Ingram looks far too meek for the NBA as of right now.

Perhaps Embiid’s dominance is, too, down to the fact that he is one of the oldest rookies in contention for the award. This, of course, is owed to his 26 month injury. But, on the flipside, for him to be playing at the level he is considering said injury is mind blowing.

He could genuinely get into the all-star team come February – he’s currently fifth in the West’s frontcourt voting (top 10 take part in the all-star game). The last rookie to achieve such a feat was Blake Griffin in 2011.

He’s also averaging 19 points and seven rebounds a night, despite a minutes restriction to prevent injury. 

Offensive Play of the Half: Larry Nance Jr. Dunk

This was the best dunk of 2016 – and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if it remained better than anything conjured up in 2017.

Larry Nance Jr. channelled his inner-Michael Jordon to throw it down on one of the better rim protectors in the league: Brook Lopez. A man four inches taller than the Lakers’ power-forward. 

YouTube Preview Image

Defensive Play of the Half: Durant block to Curry 3

The best defensive plays either win you games or flip opposition possession into your own points.

Kevin Durant’s emphatic chasedown block, collected by Stephen Curry and dispatched for three, falls into the latter. And it’s a thing beauty.

YouTube Preview Image

Elephant Sport’s NBA Quarterly Report – Pt 1

With every team in the NBA having reached a minimum 20 games, we have arrived at the second quarter of the regular season.

The first was enthralling, unpredictable and offered up many exciting moments. Elephant Sport breaks it down into some fun categories.

Best Team: Golden State Warriors

ccurry
Curry lets fly from three-point range

It’s hard to look past the Golden State Warriors for this one. Despite losing their opening game to the San Antonio Spurs, and then suffering defeat to the Los Angeles Lakers a few days later, many were quick to attribute issues of chemistry to this Warriors side.

After all, this was the team to beat prior to the season. But how do elite teams bounce back? By winning. Golden State went one step further, though.

They swatted each and every single opponent out of their sight, notching a streak of 12 wins before falling to the Houston Rockets on their 20th match. They are currently nurturing a 17-3 record.

Kevin Durant and Steph Curry, contrary to popular belief prior to the season, have grown a strong on-court bond together.

The former is posting up career-highs in every single department – not least of which, points. Meanwhile Curry has embodied the role of facilitator, aptly putting his ego to the side.

Worst Team: Dallas Mavericks

It’s tough to argue against a side who has only won four of their 21 encounters this season. Unfortunately, there have been two teams that have recorded an identical record.

The difference between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Mavericks? The former have at least looked entertaining and have some young stars that are lighting up the league, eg, Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor.

dirk
Dirk’s injury has crippled Dallas

The 76ers have also taken the biggest of teams to overtime and tend to lose by small margins. The Mavs, on the other hand, are completely devoid of any quality.

Dirk Nowitzki – their only star – has been injured for the majority of the season, which has exposed how frail and disappointing the Dallas side is without the 38-year-old.

The most disappointing thing about the Mavericks is that players like Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut – two former NBA champions – have turned in good performances sporadically at best.

Bogut has been inconsistent when protecting the rim and has fouled out twice already this season. Whereas Barnes is failing to dish out assists, averaging only one per game. By having the highest ball-usage on the team, he should be producing more often.

Most Improved Team: Houston Rockets

482px-james_harden_rockets_cropped
Harden is producing his best numbers to date

The Rockets were lambasted in the off-season when they appointed Mike D’Antoni as head coach. This was seen as a signing that would continue to allow the Rockets to play shoddy defence.

But what most seemed to forget was that defence matters very little in the regular season, especially if you can create All-Star numbers on the other end of the court.

But, even then, many punters had the Rockets failing to reach the play-offs once the season ends. As of right now, the Rockets are sitting in fourth place behind only the Spurs, Warriors and Clippers – inarguably the three best teams in the Western Conference.

D’Antoni has assembled a team of cut-throat three-point shooters, including new boys Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon.

With this maximised potential on offence, the Rockets have broken two records already this season: most three-point shots attempted in NBA history (51) and longest streak of three-points made in NBA history (17).

James Harden is posting MVP numbers and very close to averaging a triple-double for the season. D’Antoni’s influence has allowed ‘The Beard’ to both orchestrate play and run it too.

The Rockets are currently 13-7 and are the only side in the league to have beaten both the Spurs and Warriors already; both on the road.

Who Needs to Trade Immediately: Boston Celtics

The Celtics are struggling more than most expected. Despite being third in their conference, a 12-8 record has been seen as a disappointment from inside the franchise.

Boston are in dire need of a strong rebounder – something they thought Al Horford could be. While Horford has been fairly good this season, his role seems to be more focused on getting points in the paint rather than winning possession off the board.

demarcus
The Celtics could prosper from a move for Cousins

With a consistent rebounder, the Celtics would lose a lot less. In fact, they currently lead the NBA in most second chance points conceded. This is, without a doubt, due to their lack of proficiency in the air when leaping for a rebound.

Who could they trade for? The Celtics aren’t devoid of pieces that they could put up. And they are also not a franchise unrecognisable to most.

With superstar Isaiah Thomas leading the floor, and a consistent army of good players surrounding him, now is the chance to join up with the Celtics.

In an ideal world, the Celtics move for Sacramento’s Demarcus Cousins. The often-aggressive centre is becoming disillusioned with what is shaping up to be another season of disappointment for his team.

He’s averaging over 10 rebounds per game, which should ring shouts of excitement in the ears of Boston. After all, how hard could it be to tempt a disillusioned player away from his suffering franchise while he’s in his peak years?

Sacramento needs picks in the draft to start building for the future. Boston could offer a pick or two, along with outcasts such as Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk. It makes sense.

Surprise Package: Los Angeles Lakers

Lakers at Wizards 12/2/15
Julius Randle, at just 22, is having a fine season

The Lakers post-Kobe Bryant were supposed to be an incoherent mess on the court. Plays on offence were going to diminish, meanwhile defensive presence was to continue being non-existent at best.

Having finished bottom of the West in the previous season with Kobe, one would be forgiven for thinking this season would be worse. Except they are already seven wins away from bettering last season’s measly 17 victories.

They are also one win away from a play-off spot already.

This is the first quarter they have had to play without Kobe’s influence in over 20 years. And they couldn’t look freer from his shackles.

Offensive play has been smooth, with sophomore D’Angelo Russell facilitating play from the point-guard position. His rotation partner, Jordan Clarkson, has also been posting up monster numbers from the bench.

Nick Young, often ridiculed for being a veteran with a kid’s mentality, has won two games for the Lakers with buzzer-beater shots and is leading the team effortlessly.

And then you have Julius Randle – by far the Lakers’ finest player this quarter. The 22-year-old has already registered a triple-double this season and is averaging 13 points and nine rebounds per game.

A supporting cast of Lou Williams and Timofey Mozgov has enabled the Lakers to flourish and, with a 10-12 record, they look like a dark horse for a play-off spot in a season where everyone expected the franchise to hit rock bottom.

MVP at the Quarter: Russell Westbrook

Wizards v/s Thunder 03/14/11
Russ is clinching historic numbers

Many predicted this, but nobody quite predicted the enormity of Russell Westbrook’s play.

Following the departure of Oklahoma team-mate and long-term friend Kevin Durant, it was expected that Westbrook would play out of his skin in every game to compensate for the fact that he is the only remaining superstar on the Thunder.

Fast-forward 20 games and the point-guard is averaging a triple-double per game, including six in a row, which has equalled and bettered greats such as Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson.

With his outstanding play, Westbrook is now averaging a monster 31 points per game, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. He has single-handedly dragged a quality-depleted Thunder side to fifth in the conference with an admirable 13-8 record.

James Harden seems like the closest contender but, if Westbrook does not slow down, elite names such as LeBron James, Curry, Durant and Chris Paul won’t even stand a chance next to the 28-year-old.

Rookie of the Year at the Quarter: Joel Embiid

Can anyone genuinely look past the eccentric 7’0″ Cameroonian centre?

After two long years of injury, nobody expected Embiid’s first NBA season to be one of such pure dominance on both ends.

sixers
Joel Embiid warms up with a dunk

Despite being restricted to just 23 minutes per game, Embiid is averaging 18 points, eight rebounds and two blocks.

Consider the fact that he is only appearing in half of every match, this is a fascinating return for the 22-year-old.

While honourable mentions such as Pascal Siakam and Jaylen Brown look impressive, they are nothing in comparison to the 76ers behemoth.

He moves as though he is several inches shorter on offence, and operates as a man possessed when protecting the rim on the other end. His entertainment factor is sky-high, often lighting up what is a very poor Philly side.

He already looks like an All-Star in the making.

Offensive Play of the Quarter:

A game-winner? Some fancy handles? A three-point shot?

How about all three combined into one smooth play by the Rockets’ James Harden against the Utah Jazz:

YouTube Preview Image

Defensive Play of the Quarter:

Two plays rolled into one, watch as Kristaps Porzingis cements two monster blocks deep in the fourth quarter and OT to deliver the New York Knicks a victory against the Charlotte Hornets:

YouTube Preview Image

Elephant Sport will be continuing this four-part series throughout the NBA season at every quarter.