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Miles Bridges Is the NBA’s Most Exciting Dual-Threat

There are a handful of Michigan rappers who can work in clever lines about David Stern, Shane Battier and Sallie Mae all in the same verse. And there are a handful of NBA players whose dunks leave their team’s play-by-play guy speaking in tongues. Miles Bridges is the only person in world history who can do both.

It might just be semantic nit-picking, but Miles Bridges is a rapper and an NBA player rather than just a rapping NBA player. Whereas NBA rappers have traditionally either penned toothless club “bangers” or 90s boom-bap schmaltz about the virtue of hard work or something like that, Bridges makes songs that don’t sound like they were co-written by his PR person. A Flint, Michigan native, he raps over roiling, tinny, distinctly-Michigan beats, spitting lyrics that would give Adam Silver an ulcer. Like Babyface Ray, his flow carries a casual, downhill momentum; like YN Jay, he’s a jokester with an ear for punchlines; like Sada Baby, he pulls from a deep codex of obscure sports references. That is to say that he makes the same kind of niche, regionally-faithful Michigan rap music that’s become an underground phenomenon—and that he’s pretty good at it to boot.

But what separates Bridges from Babytron (besides like 8 inches and 75 pounds) is that when he raps that he “play against Bron and sell some work where the Lakers play,” the first part of that proposition is actually true. In his fourth season, the 22 year-old Bridges has cemented himself as LaMelo Ball’s best running mate on the Charlotte Hornets. While Bridges has always had the athleticism and theoretical shooting to provide the rough outline of a good player, he’s now parlaying his potential into production.

Averaging 20.0 points per game, Bridges is Charlotte’s leading scorer despite having only the fourth highest usage rate on the team. With Ball—and, to a lesser extent, Terry Rozier—at the helm, Bridges has learned to become a flexible and accommodating offensive weapon. Amongst the 37 players averaging more than 19.5 points per game, Bridges has the second-lowest time of possession, holding the ball for just over 2.4 minutes per game, per Second Spectrum Sports. Similarly, Bridges averages just 2.32 seconds per touch and 1.56 dribbles per touch, both of which are the lowest of any volume scoring non-center. In this sense, he’s a flammable scorer, yet one who doesn’t require much oxygen. 

Accordingly, he’s developed a rich and varied scoring portfolio; his signature move is his utter want of a signature move. Like a hooping character actor, he disappears into a variety of usages and succeeds in nearly all of them. He’s a lob-threat who takes spot-up jumpers on a plurality of possessions, a transition hellcat who doubles as his team’s best isolation scorer. Most impressively, he’s the only player in the NBA to rank in the top quartile as both a pick-and-roll ball-handler and roll-man, evidence of his portable, adaptable skill-set. 

In this sense, Bridges is the evolution of the traditional play-finishing scoring big man, albeit one who’s been liberated to explore all areas of the court. At 6’6, Bridges uses his tweener-ness to his advantage by expertly coloring in the margins around Ball’s game wherever is necessary. Just as his music is a direct product of Michigan, his game has grown to bend towards Ball’s sunlight—the Ball-to-Bridges assist battery is the seventh-most prolific in the league. He’s the most explosive player on the NBA’s most explosive team— there’s no limit to how high he can up the score

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Sports Strength

Is LaMelo Ball the Next Jason Kidd?

Once upon a time, when basketball was a more simple game, point guards were typically not known for their size. Tiny warriors like Bob Cousy, John Stockton, and Isiah Thomas were the prizes of the position. Of course, there were anomalies like Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson, but those unicorns felt more like exceptions to the rule than archetypal mainstays.

By the turn of the century, though, Jason Kidd made the super-sized floor general a permanent part of our NBA landscape. Since Kidd’s two Finals runs with the Nets, many GMs have taken flyers on larger guards in the hopes of finding his successor. A few have flamed out. Others have found some success. But no one has quite been able to emulate the level of impact Kidd achieved at his apex (2nd in MVP voting in 2001-02). 

Enter LaMelo Ball. At 6’6, the youngest of the Ball trio possesses a rare combination of size and court vision that has led many to compare him to Kidd. As we know, comparisons are cool in theory, but how is this analogy playing out in practice? Can the progeny ever reach the level of the progenitor?

Offense

On offense, the parallels between these two go well beyond their physical dimensions. Saying that either of these guards were merely good playmakers would constitute a disservice because these two grade out among the best of their eras:

Mat Issa

As the above chart shows, Ball and Kidd both rank well into the top ten among guards in Passer Rating, Box Creation, and Offensive Load, statistics that measure both a player’s efficiency and volume. 

Along with their playmaking chops, the two guards share a penchant for ripping and running out in transition.

Where Ball is still lacking is in his efficiency in these situations. You see, Ball has got Jay Gatsby’s flair for grandeur. And while that’s a beautiful thing and part of what makes him so special, it sometimes leads to him choosing the extravagant pass over the efficient one.

On this play, he opts for the flashy one-handed dime to James Bouknight in the corner over the potential rim assist to Mason Plumlee. His eye manipulation here was wonderful (per usual). But the problem is that Plumlee is a 73% finisher around the rim (1.46 PPP) with only a much smaller Conley there to offer resistance, while Bouknight is shooting 35.7% on catch and shoot threes (1.07 PPP) and staring down a Bogdanovic closeout.

Against the Suns, a 4-on-1 sequence for the Hornets only amounts to free throws because Ball decides to go behind the back to Oubre (the offensive player Booker was in the best position to make a play on) rather than known aeronaut Jalen McDaniels or his partner-in-crime, Miles Bridges.

Despite the Hornets being second in pace this season, they are only 21st in points per transition possession, and I believe this is at least in part because of Ball’s decision-making in these spots.

In contrast, Kidd’s Nets were never nearly as fast (9th in pace at their best), but they were able to make the most of their opportunities on the break because the man behind the wheel operated with the efficiency of an early 2000s Prius. 

In the play above, his choice seems simple, but look closely, and there’s a lot more nuance involved. Kidd sees the backline defender cheating over to Jefferson and knows that the pass to Harris will force him to shift over just enough that it will give the normally dangerous Jefferson a chance to finish at the rim. The great ones almost always predict the extra pass!

To reach savant status as a transition conductor, Ball will need to strengthen his decision-making while moving at full speed. And speaking of strength, Ball also needs to learn how to leverage his size advantage at the guard position to torture smaller defenders in the post.

When Kidd wasn’t going blitzing opposing defenses in transition, he could create offense in the halfcourt by operating out of the post. In a 2006 playoff game against the Heat, Kidd scored on Jason Williams on three consecutive possessions by bullying him down low. On the third possession, Williams tries jumping the passing lane because he knows if Kidd receives the entry pass, he will muscle right through him (hint: White Chocolate’s gamble doesn’t pay off).

While not nearly as prevalent as it once was, post-centric offense is a great way to force double teams and create high percentage looks for your teammates, especially in the playoffs when the game slows down. In today’s game, we’ve seen Jrue Holiday, a guy who is a notch below Ball as a playmaker, create efficient offense in these situations (number one in PPP among guards), so imagine how lethal Ball could be if he added this facet to his game.

Like Kidd, Ball isn’t a great scorer at the rim or in the mid-range (35th and 40th percentile for his position, respectively), so making the most of his transition opportunities and superior size may be his only hope for raising his offensive ceiling.

Defense

J-Kidd was an excellent offensive player during his time, but the reason he’s widely recognized as one of the 75 best players ever is because of the unique value he provided on the defensive end of the floor. From 1997-2013, Kidd averaged over a 1.0 in Defensive Box Plus-Minus (DBPM) and was a part of nine top-8 defenses during that stretch (per Basketball Reference).

Kidd was the rare player who could both quarterback an offense and spearhead the point-of-attack on defense. He weaponized his size and high basketball IQ to keep players in front of him and make their existence a living h-e-double hockey stick. In his 2002 playoff battle against Baron Davis, he held the All-Star to 7 percent below his normal True Shooting average (per Basketball Reference).

Even at 32, Kidd was a good enough defender to keep up with The Flash himself.

The Hornets currently dwell at the bottom of the league in defense (28th in defensive rating). Their ineptitude doesn’t lay solely on Ball’s feet, but his poor defense isn’t helping things either. Right here, the lowly Rockets get back-to-back easy buckets courtesy of LaMelo The Friendly Ghost.

Because of LaMelo’s deficiencies on-ball, Rozier is often tasked with point-of-attack responsibilities, which doesn’t really lead to a much better result. At a glance, one-number metrics like D-DRIP, D-LEBRON, and DBPM all paint the 2021-22 version of Rozier as a negative defender. And if I had to guess, this is probably because of the heavy on-ball load he’s forced to handle.

Even with his on-ball flaws, Ball provides value with his presence in the passing lanes. In his first two seasons, he’s ranked in the 95th and 84th percentile in steal % for his position, respectively (per Cleaning the Glass); the same court-mapping talent he displays as a passer allows him to be a dangerous playmaker with his off-ball defense.

Unfortunately, not all his attempts get converted into steals. Too often, he tends to sell out too hard on his help, and he ends up compromising his team’s defense because of it.

When Kidd wasn’t directly involved in the action, he would freelance into a zone while simultaneously keeping tabs on his man. In this clip, notice the difference in how he helps out in the post. Unlike Ball, his attempt at a sneak attack never endangered his team because he remained in close enough proximity to recover once the kick out occurred.

Ball’s instincts and length are enough to make him a net neutral/slight positive defender overall, but Kidd wasn’t just a slight positive defender. He was one of the greatest perimeter defenders the league has ever seen. For Ball to have a chance at reaching that threshold, he’ll need to become a better on-ball defender and a more disciplined off-ball one.

Conclusion

I have the utmost confidence that with better defensive personnel around him, LaMelo Ball can be in the closing lineup of a top-10 defensive team. However, there’s a big difference between being part of a successful defense and being the reason for a defense’s success. In this sense, Kidd wasn’t just a part of great defensive teams—he was often their first or second-best defender. Guards very seldomly anchor defenses (unless you’re Alex Carus-God), and I don’t see Ball being an outlier in this regard. 

Yet that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. What Kidd may have over Ball in defense, Ball can make up for with his offensive upside. At his best, Kidd was a near-complete player. He could pass, defend, rebound the whole nine yards. But he never really was a consistent shooter. In fact, Kidd was once infamously gifted the nickname “Ason” because of his lack of a jumper. 

From 1994-2007, Kidd shot 33.3% from three (per Basketball Reference). Meanwhile, this season, Ball is shooting 39.3% on his seven attempts from downtown, which is good enough for 73rd percentile at his position (when you remove end-of-quarter heaves). His outside shooting is part of the reason the Hornets are currently 3rd in the league in offense with a relative offensive rating of +3.1. In just his second season, Ball is quarterbacking an attack that rivals nearly any offense that Kidd engineered in his prime. 

Considering that Ball is still only twenty years old, there’s a chance that he unlocks a level that Kidd never could offensively. If he does that, there’s a chance that the student surpasses the master. But even if he doesn’t, it’s still almost certain that LaMelo Ball is in for a great career in his own right.

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Sports Strength

NBA Highlights From December 6th-12th

On any given night, NBA Twitter is abuzz with reminders to appreciate Lebron James or Kevin Durant while they’re still active. This week, they gave us ample opportunities to do so. To be sure, though, they weren’t the only players in the league to have notable performances. Down below are our four takeaways from it!

LeBron and KD continue to add to their highlight reels

While their greatness gets anticipated on a nightly basis, James and Durant somehow surpassed even the loftiest of expectations this past week. In addition to leading their teams to a combined 6-2 record, the pair of former NBA Finals MVPs produced one signature performance after another.

Between Durant scoring 51 points, the most scored by a player this season, and James becoming the oldest player in league history to produce a 30-point triple-double on Sunday night, it only served as additional highlights on their overwhelmingly extensive resumes.

Kelly Oubre Jr is becoming must-watch TV

Despite his obvious talents, Kelly Oubre Jr. has flown under the radar and hasn’t really showcased the true breadth of his abilities. But throughout this month, the 6-foot-6 swingman has played the best basketball of his NBA career, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for the playoff-contending Charlotte Hornets.

Oubre Jr is not only averaging 26 points per game since December 1st, but he’s helping the Hornets as an additional playmaker who takes some pressure off of star point guard LaMelo Ball. And the Kansas product should be applauded for being a willing rebounder, too, as he snagged ten rebounds against the Philadelphia 76ers last Saturday night.

Luka’s conditioning is now in the spotlight

Although many things said on social media about NBA players and teams don’t gain any traction, the conversations surrounding Luka Doncic and his conditioning have only gotten louder. Ever since he arrived in the league, the Mavericks’ superstar has thrived despite not being in top shape, and fans have wondered what it would be like if he were.

But with his recent ankle injury expected to have him out for multiple games, Doncic’s health is being examined more than ever. Alongside dealing with various ailing injuries over the years, Doncic has struggled with his weight and conditioning, especially with the star confirming his issue of staying in playing shape.

The LA Clippers have discovered another talent in Brandon Boston Jr

When people think about the Los Angeles Clippers, they immediately think of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, but the franchise has quietly become one of the league’s best talent developers. This season, Terrence Man has built on the role that he established in last year’s playoffs and second-round rookie Brandon Boston Jr. has wormed his way into the rotation.

The 2021 second-round pick from the University of Kentucky had his best NBA game against the Boston Celtics last Saturday. Boston Jr scored 27 points and was a marksman from downtown, making five out of eight three-pointers. Even though George and, eventually, Leonard will determine the Clippers’ immediate success, their team’s ceiling could be defined the development of its promising young talents.

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Sports Strength

NBA Highlights From the Season’s Opening Week

If there’s anything to accept about the NBA, it’s that there’ll never be a week without action or drama! As we’re officially one week into the 2021-2022 season, fans and media have been left with plenty to discuss. Between this year’s rookie class getting off to a good start, various games having exciting finishes, and the reigning world champion Milwaukee Bucks looking better than ever before, there is a lot to unpack from the NBA’s opening week. So down below are the four biggest takeaways from it! 

The Bucks are clearly favored to repeat

Minus a rare blowout loss to the Miami Heat last Thursday night (They lost by 42 points!), the Milwaukee Bucks (2-1) have looked and played the part of a team that is becoming increasingly favored to repeat as NBA champion. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Averaging 22 points per game, 10 rebounds per game, and 5 assists per game) is gearing up for another run at league MVP. Right now, the Bucks have six players who are averaging double-digit points, with George Hill or Brook Lopez are on the precipice of becoming the seveneth(both are averaging eight points per game).

And by the way? Don’t sleep on second-year forward Jordan Nwora (11 PPG and 5 RPG). The Louisville product put a lot of people on notice on opening night with his 15-point performance against the Brooklyn Nets. If he continues to find his groove, the reigning NBA champion will have the kind of depth that contenders need to endure the long regular season, especially when the currently-injured Donte DiVincenzo returns. 

LaMelo Ball and the Hornets won’t remain your League Pass Darlings anymore

With more basketball fans watching games through NBA League Pass or other more illicit forms of streaming, there will always be specific players or teams that become must-watch TV despite their current lowly situation. Although that extra attention may be welcome, it’s often heaped upon teams as a kind of damning praise—the only reason they’re League Pass Darlings is because they aren’t good enough to merit many games on the NBA’s national broadcasts. But in the case of the Charlotte Hornets, this is a good thing. After fighting their way into the play-in tournament last season and being knocked out by the Indiana Pacers, the Hornets have returned wiser, stronger, and somehow more entertaining as they finished opening week with a 3-0 record.

Reigning Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball (22/5/6) and the ultra-dynamic fourth-year forward Miles Bridges (25 PPG and 8 RPG) are taking the leap you want to witness from your team’s brightest stars. Veterans such as Gordon Haywood and Kelly Oubre are providing top-notch on and off the court support. And who would have thought Ish Smith becomes a feel-good story at any point of this season while still proving his ability to get a bucket at any moment? 

We have another stellar rookie class to watch this season

Fewer things are more exciting than watching the league’s newest members thrive as pros, but when their impact is immediate? Priceless! As this year’s rookie class takes their first action in the NBA, it has become clear these guys will be game-changers for their franchises. Top picks Jalen Green, Evan Mobley, and Scottie Barnes have kicked off the Rookie of the Year race. Davion Mitchell might become the Sacramento Kings’ best two-way player in due time. 

And it isn’t a complete rookie class without those mid-late first-round picks (Indiana’s Chris Duarte) who are surprising everyone with their production too!

Exciting games = near heart attacks but it’s worth it

Of course, last-second games are expected throughout an NBA season, but what we watched during opening week? Chaotic! Between the double-overtime thriller between the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics and what we experienced on Sunday night with the Los Angeles Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies, the league is witnessing teams sharpen each other’s iron and set the tone for what’s ahead in the following weeks.

As the season continues, we’re going to witness the immediate effect of close games on teams regarding their load management and handling of rotations. But to a further extent, that effect could be felt sooner than later. 

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Sports Strength

The 10 Best Win Total Bets For The 2021-2022 NBA Season

There’s no better time of year for sports degenerates than October. MLB playoffs are in full swing, contenders are separating from the pretenders in the NFL, the NHL season is beginning and, most important, basketball is back. After a flurry of off-season moves, the NBA hierarchy has been restructured. Here are five teams that will exceed expectations—and five teams that will bust.

Busts 

Philadelphia 76ers: 

Key additions: Andre Drummond, Georges Niang 

Key losses: Ben Simmons (???), George Hill

Win Totals Over/Under: 50.5

No team in the NBA had a more painful off-season than the 76ers. In a protracted saga that felt like watching a toddler argue with their parents, Ben Simmons completely ghosted the franchise before returning this week without telling anybody. With the status of their all-star guard in flux, the Sixers may struggle to start the year. This team is still good enough to make the playoffs, but it’s unrealistic to expect them to reach the same level that made them the East’s top seed last year. Unless—until?—a trade suitor comes for Ben Simmons, it will be a long season in Philadelphia.

Dallas Mavericks: 

Key additions: Reggie Bullock, Sterling Brown 

Key losses: Jason Richardson 

Win Totals Over/Under: 48.5

Boasting a borderline MVP candidate in Luka Doncic, the expectations for the Mavericks get higher and higher every off-season. The problem with the Mavericks’ off-season moves is that they stayed too complacent. Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis’s relationship seems to be degenerating by the day. Worse, Dallas hired Jason Kidd as head coach. Granted, Kidd played a major role in Giannis Antetokounmpo’s development, but his coaching style has been described as “psychological warfare” and his ultra-aggressive defensive scheme in Milwaukee has fallen out of style. In a deep Western Conference, the Mavs could struggle to avoid the play-in tournament.

Phoenix Suns: 

Key additions: JaVale McGee, Elfrid Payton, Chandler Hutchinson 

Key losses: Torrey Craig, Jevon Carter, Langston Galloway 

Win Totals Over/Under: 51.5

The Suns’ NBA Finals run last postseason was electric—despite the fortunate fact that they didn’t play one fully healthy Western Conference team. In the Finals, though, their fatal smallness was exposed by a huge and physical Milwaukee Bucks team. Although the Suns bulked up their frontcourt by adding Javale McGee, their 51.5 over/under win total is overly ambitious, now that the rest of West have had time to heal.

Charlotte Hornets:

Key additions: Kelly Oubre Jr, Ish Smith, Mason Plumlee, James Bouknight 

Key losses: Devonte’ Graham, Malik Monk, Cody Zeller, Caleb Martin, Grant Riller 

Win Totals Over/Under: 38.5

The Hornets made a splash last season by almost making the playoffs but ultimately lost in a play-in game. LaMelo Ball has taken the league by storm and the rest of the team’s young core will continue to improve alongside him; the problem is that the East has, as a whole, significantly improved, too. As such, the Hornets should occupy a position similar to last year and get into the play-in tournament.

New Orleans Pelicans: 

Key additions: Jonas Valanciunas, Devonte Graham 

Key losses: Lonzo Ball, Eric Bledsoe, Steven Adams 

Win Totals Over/Under: 39.5

The Pelicans have struggled mightily since the departure of Anthony Davis. Losing key rotational guards in Bledsoe and Ball, the Pelicans will be hard-pressed to run the fast break as effectively as they have in the past. New Orleans is doing everything it can to keep Zion with them, but it feels like they’re making all the wrong moves. If another disappointing season is in store, expect Zion to be on the move in a short time. 

Boom

Chicago Bulls: 

Key additions: Demar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, Derrick Jones Jr., Tony Bradley, Troy Brown Jr. 

Key losses: Thadeus Young, Tomas Satoransky, Lauri Markkanen, Daniel Theis, Garrett Temple 

Win Totals Over/Under: 42.5

The Chicago Bulls have completely revamped their roster. Since taking over in 2020, Arturas Karnisovas has almost completely erased the mistakes of a Gar/Pax front office. This team is stacked with incredible wing defenders, great shooters and some of the highest flyers in the 

league. At their best, this Bulls team could contend for home-court advantage in the playoffs. The future is bright in Chicago.

Los Angeles Clippers: 

Key additions: Eric Bledsoe, Justise Winslow, Harry Giles 

Key losses: Patrick Beverly, Rajon Rondo 

Win Totals Over/Under: 45.5

The Clippers will be without their superstar forward Kawhi Leonard and many people have counted them out as a result. Still, the Clippers were able to reach the Western Conference Finals without Kawhi, behind a rejiggered five-out offense that should also help them generate regular season wins. LA has great wings and continuity, which will enable them to maintain their contender-status.

Toronto Raptors: 

Key additions: Goran Dragic, Scottie Barnes, Precious Achiuwa 

Key losses: Kyle Lowry 

Win Totals Over/Under: 35.5

At first glance, the Toronto Raptors would seem to be entering the first year of an extended rebuild. Despite trading franchise legend Kyle Lowry, the Raptors are in a good position to return to the playoffs after last year’s listless, mediocre campaign in Tampa. This team is poised to be a top 10 defense in the league, a common recipe for regular season success. Hopefully Pascal Siakam will bounce back from a disappointing season and the Raptors can make some noise this season. 

Boston Celtics: 

Key additions: Dennis Schroder, Enes Kanter, Josh Richardson, Al Horford

Key losses: Kemba Walker, Tristan Thompson, Evan Fournier, Tacko Fall 

Win Totals Over/Under: 46.5

The conversation in the East is centered around the Bucks and the Nets, and that’s about it. As a result, a promising Celtics team has been lost in the shuffle. Jayson Tatum has shown constant improvement, and Jaylen Brown is really coming into his own as a scorer. With a chip on its shoulder after last year’s disappointing season, Boston has an intriguing combination of talent and motivation. Moreover, with Al Horford back in the fold, the team’s chemistry should be A1 from day one.

Atlanta Hawks: 

Key additions: Delon Wright, Gorgui Deng, Jalen Johnson 

Key losses: Kris Dunn, Tony Snell 

Win Totals Over/Under: 46.5

Despite a slow start to the season, the Hawks surged late in the year to make the Eastern Conference Finals, showing they can handle the pressure in the biggest moments, even in enemy territory. Buoyed by last year’s run, they’re poised, once again, to win the Southeastern Division. If Trae Young can insert himself in the MVP conversation, Atlanta will finish even higher.