NBA Rookie of the Year race down to two

Justin Norris | Staff Writer

The rookie class that has headlined the 2017-18 NBA season is one of the deepest classes in recent memory. Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Kyle Kuzma, Lauri Markkanen, Lonzo Ball, Dennis Smith Jr. and others have all given their respective franchises hope about being potential cornerstones for years to come.

Despite the number of rookies having strong inaugural seasons, the race for the Rookie of the Year award has virtually been cut down to two. These men are Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz and Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers.

These two rookies have been the catalysts behind their teams reaching the playoffs in dominating fashion. After Gordon Hayward’s departure in free agency last summer, the Jazz were not expected to compete for a playoff spot in the highly competitive Western Conference. However, Mitchell stepped into Hayward’s role on offense and led the Jazz in scoring at 20.5 points per game. A rookie has not led a playoff team in scoring since 2004, when Carmelo Anthony accomplished that feat. Mitchell’s emergence as the go-to option for Utah inspired its turnaround from a non-contender to a team that nobody wants to play in the playoffs.

Ben Simmons has enjoyed one of the best all-around seasons the NBA has seen from a rookie in a long time. Simmons’ averages of 15.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 8.1 assists per game put him in the same class as his close friend and mentor LeBron James. Like James, Simmons has been blessed with the physique of a power forward with the speed and ball skills of a point guard, making him a matchup nightmare for opponents. ESPN writer Kevin Pelton went as far as to pose the question of “whether there has ever been a rookie — including LeBron James — as versatile as Simmons.”

Despite having an almost non-existent jump shot, he has helped lead the 76ers to the third seed in the Eastern Conference by using his overwhelming size and athleticism to create easy shots for himself and his teammates. On the defensive side of the ball, Simmons is constantly wreaking havoc, which often results in turnovers for the opposing team. Despite Joel Embiid being sidelined with a facial fracture, Simmons and the 76ers remained one of the hottest teams in the NBA by riding a 16-game winning streak into the playoffs.

The drama around the two primary candidates has increased over the past week. Mitchell sparked the debate by wearing a black hoodie with the definition of the word “rookie” on it. The definition read “an athlete playing his or her first season as a member of a professional sports team.” Mitchell’s argument is that because Simmons sat out his first season with a broken right foot last year, so he should not win Rookie of the Year.

On the opposite side, Simmons did not play at all last season, so he is still technically eligible for the award. This uncommon situation has precedent. In 2011, Blake Griffin unanimously won Rookie of the Year over John Wall despite being drafted in 2009 because he sat out the entire 2010 season with a broken kneecap.

With that being said, both rookies have had outstanding rookie seasons and exceeded even their loftiest expectations. In most seasons, Mitchell would have run away with the award. However, Simmons’ versatility and impact on both sides of the floor as a 6 foot 10 full time point guard is too much to ignore.

 

LeBron piles up the stats, but will a playoff foe make his numbers pointless?

Justin Norris | Staff Writer

LeBron James is having perhaps his most statistically dominant season in his transcendent 15-year career.

James is on pace to play in all 82 games for the first time in his career, and he is surpassing his lofty career averages in almost every major statistical category. King James is averaging 27.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and 9.1 assists per game, while shooting 54.7 percent from the field, 36.1 percent from 3-point range and 73 percent from the free throw line. This is his highest scoring average since his first stint in Cleveland, and his highest rebound and assist averages ever.

In addition to these jaw-dropping numbers, James, at 33 years old, is leading the NBA in minutes per game, while serving as the only constant for a wildly inconsistent Cavaliers team that has seen even its head coach miss games, and has used 26 different starting lineups this season.

Earlier this season, James also became the youngest of seven players to reach the elusive 30,000-career-points milestone, and just eclipsed Michael Jordan’s record for most consecutive games with double figures in points, with 867. James’ level of play appears to be at an all-time high. It’s no wonder that he told reporters after recording his career best 14th triple-double of the season, “I’m like fine wine, I get better with age.”

Despite the greatness of James, the Cavaliers are not expected to win the NBA championship this season. A LeBron-led team has never finished below the second seed in the Eastern Conference in a season that he advanced to the NBA Finals. Yet, James told reporters earlier this season that “it doesn’t matter to me if I’m a sixth seed, or a 3 seed, or a 2 seed, 8 seed. If I come into your building for a Game 1, it will be very challenging.”

However, the road to James’ fourth championship and a second title for Cleveland, particularly through the Eastern Conference, is more arduous than it has been since his return to Cleveland before the 2014-15 season. The Toronto Raptors and the Boston Celtics should provide a legitimate test for James and the Cavaliers even before facing likely either the Golden State Warriors or the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals.

The problem for the Cavaliers has never been about scoring points. Their issues start on the other side of the ball. They are the fifth in the league in points per game, but they also have the fifth-worst defense in the league.

The only possible way for the Cavaliers to win their second title in three seasons is to increase their lackluster regular-season effort and intensity levels defensively once the playoffs begin. This is something they have shown themselves incapable of doing for the past three years. In order to avoid postseason disappointment and beat the Raptors, Rockets or Warriors, the Cavaliers must be able to generate stops against the top 3 offenses in the NBA. If not, James could look to sign elsewhere when he becomes a free agent this summer.

The triumphs, trials and tribulations of Trae Young

Justin Norris | Staff Writer

Freshman phenomenon Trae Young, a point guard for the Oklahoma Sooners, has easily been the most talked about player in college basketball this season. Young is currently averaging 29.1 points per game and 9.3 assists per game, which both lead the NCAA. If Young maintains these gaudy averages, he will become the first player in the history of college basketball to lead the nation in scoring and assists in the same season.

His dazzling game has been one of the most polarizing subjects in recent college basketball memory. His supporters swoon over his seemingly limitless range and electrifying playmaking ability, which has drawn comparisons to two-time MVP and NBA champion Steph Curry. His detractors acknowledge his incredible talents but doubt that he can continue to play at such a high level in the NBA.

NBA legends LeBron James and Oscar Robertson heaped effusive praise upon Young. After the Sooners lost their fourth straight game, and seventh of their past nine games, Robertson called Young to give him some advice. According to ESPN, Young said that Robertson told him “how much he loved my game, how he enjoyed watching me play. He gave me a lot of encouragement.”

Although Young would not elaborate on his conversation with Robertson, he tweeted his gratitude and appreciation for Robertson’s advice.

If that was not enough approval from an all-time great, James weighed in on Young’s future. According to Sam Gannon of KOKH Fox 25 in Oklahoma City, James said that Young “better go pro,” and that the only adjustments he will need to make upon entering the NBA are “how much money he’s [going to] spend” and “how much he’s [going to] save.”

James went on to say that Young “is a very special player” who “can add a lot to any team [in the NBA].” The Cavs’ leader has known Young since he was in the eighth grade and has watched his game evolve to where it is now.

However, critics, such as Stephen A. Smith, predict Young will struggle at the next level. On First Take, Smith said he believes Young will not be as good as advertised in the NBA due to the increased physicality he will face. Smith thinks that because Young “is so tiny from a physical perspective,” it will be much more difficult to post the eye-popping numbers that he does at Oklahoma, and that teams will pick on him defensively because of his slender frame.

Young has cooled down slightly from his white-hot start to the season, where he tallied a record-tying 22 assists in a game against Northwestern State. The 23rd-ranked Sooners are an underwhelming 6-7 in conference play and are sixth in the Big 12 conference.

However, Young has shown the ability to rise to the occasion and play well against quality opponents. He’s averaged 27 points per game and 7 assists per game against ranked foes, and the Sooners are 3-3 in those matchups.

Oklahoma has five games left in the regular season, and their rematch in Kansas is the only game remaining against a ranked squad. If Young continues to play well, the Sooners can build upon their 16-9 record and potentially make some noise in the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments.

Grizzlies say goodbye to Fizzle

Justin Norris | Staff Writer

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espn.com

The Memphis Grizzlies fired coach David Fizdale after just 19 games into the 2017-2018 season. He coached the Grizzlies to a playoff berth in his first season as a head coach and was in the second year of a four-year, $10.2 million contract.

This season, under Fizdale, the team was in the midst of an eight-game losing streak and had lost 11 of their past 13. The Grizzlies’ firing of Fizdale came on the heels of him benching star center Marc Gasol in the fourth quarter of a 98-88 loss to the Brooklyn Nets.

The decision to get rid of the coach has become extremely controversial, and many around the NBA have spoken out in support of Fizdale.

LeBron James, who played for Fizdale while he was an assistant coach in Miami, tweeted, “I need some answers. Feels like my man was a fall guy.”

That sentiment has been echoed by other players and media. On First Take, Stephen A. Smith called the Grizzlies’ decision “a bogus firing. There’s no excuse for it, and they should be ashamed of themselves.”

Fizdale’s tenure in Memphis was plagued by various injuries to key rotation players. Franchise point guard Mike Conley has missed the team’s past seven games this season, which obviously coincides with their losing streak.

Small forward Chandler Parsons, who agreed to a four-year, $94 million contract before the start of last season, has been frequently injured since signing with the team. Due to Parsons’ inability to stay on the floor, his contract has been viewed as an albatross for the team.

The Grizzlies were also notorious for using their slow-paced, “Grit and Grind” style of play, while the majority of the NBA embraced a more up-tempo style that emphasized positionless basketball and 3-pointers. The aging roster Fizdale was in charge of was ill-equipped to adapt to the modern NBA due to the dearth of talent at his disposal.

It appears that Fizdale’s rocky relationship with Gasol played a significant role in his dismissal as well.

The Grizzlies’ front office has a track record for firing successful coaches.

Since 2013, the organization has let go of Lionel Hollins, Dave Joerger and Fizdale. Hollins led the team to a 56-26 record and a Western Conference Finals appearance the year before he was let go. Joerger guided the team to three consecutive trips to the postseason.  Fizdale coached an aging roster to a competitive first-round series against the San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs last season.

J.B. Bickerstaff was named interim head coach. Whomever the Grizzlies name as their next head coach will be interesting, because regardless of accomplishments or achievements, the head coach of the Grizzlies seems to have little-to-no job security.

 

What’s wrong with the Cavs?

Justin Norris | Staff Writer

LebronJames
Andres Kudacki | Associated Press

 

The Cleveland Cavaliers, three-time defending Eastern Conference champions, have gotten off to a lackluster 7-7 record to start the season.

So far, the Cavaliers have lost to supposedly inferior teams such as the Magic, Nets, Pelicans, Knicks, Pacers and Hawks.

It took a 57-point outburst, the second-most of LeBron James’ career, to avoid losing to the Wizards. This is the second-worst start to a season for James, with the worst coming in his rookie season.

Offseason acquisition Dwyane Wade told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, “Our first unit, we got to start off better.”

While Wade’s assertion is correct, there are multiple reasons explaining the Cavs’ struggles.

The Cavs are working in several new players to their rotation after trading Kyrie Irving in the summer, and there is always going to be an adjustment period when incorporating so many new players.

To make matters worse, All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas will not return from his hip injury until January.

The Cavs also simply are not making shots: they are making three fewer 3-pointers per game compared to last season.

Cleveland has been wildly inconsistent. The Cavs are averaging 118 points per game in wins and only 103 in losses, while their 3 point field goal percentage is 10 points higher in wins than in losses.

Perhaps the biggest cause of Cleveland’s struggles stems from their lackadaisical defensive play.

The Cavs rank dead last in defensive efficiency.

Their defense was poor last year, but their offense was dynamic enough that it covered up how porous their defense was.

This season, their offense has slipped slightly, and their defense has remained lousy, so the high-scoring games that they would have won last year are losses this year.

A bigger problem is that many of the players they’ve acquired are aging, injury-prone veterans who do not shoot well, which means that they are not a great fix next to James.

While many presume that the Cavs are just coasting until the playoffs, the one troubling aspect is that James’ scoring and rebounding numbers are up, so it is clear he is not mailing in the games so far.

This is the last season before James becomes a free agent.

The Cavaliers’ management must be worried about their slow start and what impact it might have on James’ free-agent decision.

James has made it clear that he will go to whatever team gives him the best chance to win championships.

He has left Cleveland once before, and after fulfilling his promise of delivering a championship to Cleveland, he has every right to leave again.