Lowe: Five NBA things I like and don’t like, including the Giannis-LeBron MVP ‘narrative’


Full disclosure: I didn’t really want to do this column. It didn’t feel right. Normal doesn’t feel right. But my editors encouraged me, saying perhaps people might want some normal. We’ll see. I swapped out a “dislike” about the Nets because no one needs negativity right now.

In the end, I didn’t see harm in trying. If it feels wrong, we won’t do it again. If the tone is off, maybe we’ll take a hiatus until games start again — whenever that is.

Above all, please be safe, everyone.

1. Too much “narrative”

“Narrative” has become a maddening word in sports discourse because it can mean (at least) two very different things. It can be used as shorthand for a story arc: LeBron as immortal demigod finally succumbing to age and injury, only to rise again amid doubt for a lion-in-winter run at a fifth Most Valuable Player award. That is an archetypal literary narrative.

“Narrative” is also used at times as a synonym for “line of thought that is wrong”: There is a narrative out there (circa 2011) that LeBron crumbles in the clutch. What do you think of the narrative that Dirk Nowitzki is soft? Before 2008, there was a narrative that Kevin Garnett quaked in big games.

We should just call many of those ideas wrong instead of imbuing them with ambiguity by exalting them as “narratives.” In cases in which there is ambiguity — perhaps Garnett’s pre-Boston postseason record — too many accept the “narrative” as ironclad black-and-white without bothering to research the complex underlying truth. (Check out what KG did in the 2004 playoffs, for instance.)

The first usage — narrative as story arc — is part of why we watch sports. It has to be something deeper than one team flinging a round ball through a hole a few more times than the other team because Team 2 played the night before and lost an hour in transit. We need a touch of mythology — of heroes and villains, setbacks and triumphs. Even the coldest analytical types concede those things are part of sports. Players really do conquer fears, and reach deep within themselves for strength and courage they didn’t know they had.

Sure, we might lend those stories a little more importance than they really have in explaining why one team wins. That is human nature. We need human agency. Also, it’s fun.

As Jalen Rose noted 10 days ago — and holy hell does that seem like 10 months ago — the danger comes in letting the good-hearted enthusiasm powering a literary-style narrative overcome facts.

If you think LeBron James is the MVP of the 2019-20 season, however that season ends, then make your argument using facts. The word “valuable” allows for quasi-facts that are hard (and sometimes impossible) to quantify or touch: a player’s impact on his team’s broader culture; his ability to lead a team through turmoil; whatever role he might have played in carrying a roster beset by injury. All fair game.

But LeBron shouldn’t win the MVP because you like the story of his 2019-20 season better than that of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Both guys have been amazing, in very different circumstances. I suspect some of the building support for LeBron stems from the notion that his game does and will translate into the postseason more cleanly than Antetokounmpo’s, and I don’t think it’s crazy to factor that feeling into your decision — consciously or unconsciously.

But it’s a regular-season award, and the winner should be the guy who was better and more valuable — and those things are almost the same, but not quite — in this regular season, not the guy whose story makes you feel warmest and fuzziest.

Antetokoumpo’s knee injury did crack the race open right before COVID-19 stopped the season abruptly.

2. Jonas Valanciunas does his job

Valanciunas arrived in Toronto — after the Cavs passed on him in the draft because he planned to play one more year in Europe — as a fish way out of water. He spoke broken English, so he struggled calling out coverages on defense; the Raptors could not play sophisticated, zone-style schemes with him on the floor, coaches remember.

He had the precise sort of game — slow, ground-bound, reliant on back-to-the-basket brutality — that was about to approach extinction. Kyle Lowry was not shy pointing out his mistakes.

“Jonas would sometimes say, ‘What can I do to get him to stop yelling at me?'” says Aaron Gray, who played parts of three seasons with the Raptors.

Toronto’s guards found it frustrating that Valanciunas, though an eager and aggressive dive man on the pick-and-roll, was not explosive enough to leap for lobs, coaches say.

“We are family, and sometimes family are hard on each other,” Valanciunas once told me of those early years. Lowry made sure to balance nitpicking with support.

Young Valanciunas ate poorly — soda, sauces galore. David Gale, a former Raptors assistant, remembers dining at a Toronto steakhouse with a voracious young Valanciunas, and watching in astonishment as Valanciunas phoned the pizza place a few doors down to order two pizzas he could pick up on the way home — a second dinner.

“He was like Andre the Giant,” Gale says.

Even then, Valanciunas loved work. He devoured film. He asked questions about opponent tendencies. When Tim Duncan bewildered him with counters atop counters in the post, Valanciunas slunk to the bench and declared to Gray, “I don’t know how anyone can stop this guy,” Gray recalls.

At every practice over the next two weeks, Valanciunas demanded Gray and Ed Davis, another veteran big man, play one-on-one against him — with Valanciunas playing only post defense, Gray says.

“Everything we worked on, he embraced 100%,” says Bill Bayno, a former Raptors assistant — now with the Pacers — who worked closely with Valanciunas in Toronto.

Save for the occasional ultra-slow-motion 3-pointer, Valanciunas never evolved into a modern center. Instead, he became the best version of his true self.

That player has thrived in Memphis this season: 15 points per game (in only 26 minutes!) on a career-best 59% shooting, and the fattest rebounding numbers of his NBA life. Valanciunas ranks 11th in offensive rebounding rate and sixth on defense. Some of that is due to positioning; Taylor Jenkins has planted Valanciunas deep inside the paint. Valanciunas is closer to the basket on average when an opponent shot goes up than any other player in the league, per Second Spectrum tracking data.

Valanciunas compounds that territorial advantage with some of the league’s nastiest boxouts.

Valanciunas does not offer much schematic flexibility on defense. He is not going to hound Damian Lillard types above the arc on the pick-and-roll; the Grizzlies depend on their guards staying hip-to-hip with such players around picks.

But Valanciunas has learned to play his style well enough. He’s smarter reading angles and moving his feet. He uses his length well around the rim.

He is in much better condition than he was in his early 20s. That process started in the summer of 2014, when Masai Ujiri, Toronto’s president of basketball operations, challenged Valanciunas to get into better shape. He spent the summer working out twice a day with Gale in Los Angeles. He ditched junk food.

Gale and Valanciunas remember celebrating a summer well spent at Nobu. Sitting outside at sunset, Valanciunas declared he craved edamame. Valanciunas decided to treat himself: He would order a beer with each order of edamame. “I think we had five orders of edamame,” Gale says, laughing. He remembers the bill being around $600.

Valanciunas had earned it. He has maintained a healthy diet and work ethic. On the right night, he can keep Memphis’ offense afloat in the post. He isn’t super-efficient against behemoths who can almost match his size. He’s still below average as a passer when help comes, though he has improved.

But if you start an undersized center against him, Valanciunas can beast. Switch, and he smushes little guys. He can use his left hand some after working almost one-handed in the early part of his career.

It was easy to forget Valanciunas after Toronto traded him at last season’s deadline. The Raptors, with Marc Gasol in Valanciunas’ place, won the title. Valanciunas was miscast on a rebuilding team in a tiny market.

He fit in anyway. Big-man pairings featuring Valanciunas with one of Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke, or Solomon Hill all proved workable. The Valanciunas/Clarke duo has been a big winner.

Memphis was one of the league’s happiest stories before this horrible virus stalled the league. Most of the focus rightfully went to their young stars — especially the fearless, charismatic Ja Morant. But Valanciunas was part of it. His old coaches and teammates have been watching, and smiling.

“He’s like a son to me,” Bayno once told me.

3. The Cavs get big and funky

It felt like a fluke when a triple-big lineup of Larry Nance Jr., Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson led the Cavaliers to a massive fourth-quarter comeback against Miami on Feb. 24. J.B. Bickerstaff tried something nutty before garbage time, and stumbled into a win. We’d never see it again.

Wrong! Bickerstaff kept busting it out with both Darius Garland and Kevin Porter Jr. injured. It worked! The Nance/Love/Thompson and Nance/Love/Andre Drummond trios are a combined plus-44 over 70 total minutes!

Nance is the nominal small forward, and he’s quick enough to defend some wings; he guarded DeMar DeRozan for much of Cleveland’s March 8 overtime win against San Antonio. Both Drummond and Thompson can hang with power forwards if Bickerstaff wants Love on slower opposing centers.

Nance is shooting 35% from deep, and has canned more 3s this season — 56 — than he did in his entire prior career. Between Love and this remade Nance, Cleveland’s gigantour lineups have (had? How are we doing this?) enough shooting to get by.

What really makes them go is canny interior passing. If you like old-school big-to-big passing — quick-hitting, short-distance wraparounds — the triple-big Cavs were (are?) a delight.

Nance and Love are good, clever passers. Thompson and Drummond are underrated in that regard; Drummond averaged about four dimes per game in 2017-18 before the Pistons acquired Blake Griffin, a much better passer who usurped Drummond’s role as elbow hub.

This isn’t genius, against-the-grain coaching. Given recent injuries, it’s really just Bickerstaff playing as many of his best players together as possible. But it’s humming, and it’s a cool wrinkle — one reason the Cavs went a good-for-them 4-6 after the All-Star break.

4. Sigh. The Jazz found a bench

One of the joys of the overlong regular season is watching every team go through its own jagged, unpredictable process of self-discovery. Sometimes there is no process: a team starts bad, and stays the same kind of bad. Sometimes the process is smooth and intentional: a team makes a trade to address a certain need, it works, and the team is better in precisely the way it sought.

Sometimes the process is more haphazard, and it is the most fun when that semi-randomness leads to a happy ending.

To wit: In the weeks before the shutdown of the season, and after many failed attempts, the Jazz appeared to have found a bench that worked. Remember: For all the (justified) hand-wringing over Mike Conley‘s fit into Utah’s starting five — and the accompanying demotion of Joe Ingles — the early-season Jazz were really losing games whenever two or more bench guys played together. Jeff Green didn’t fit. For perhaps the first time in his career, Ed Davis didn’t, either. Dante Exum stalled out. Emmanuel Mudiay did too after a somewhat promising early stretch.

Utah’s first step addressing all this was swapping Exum (and two second-round picks) for Jordan Clarkson, a prototypical bench gunner who quietly improved his shot selection and passing over the second half of last season in Cleveland.

That alone didn’t lock the team into place. It left Utah with a ton of guys — perhaps too many — who needed the ball. Around Christmas, Utah waived Green to free backup power forward minutes for Georges Niang, and handed Davis’ backup center role to Tony Bradley.

Utah soared with Conley injured, and then went through multiple wild up-and-down cycles toggling Conley from starter to reserve before finally reinstalling him as permanent starter — and demoting Ingles again.

In March, they appeared to land on the right bench group. Utah has outscored opponents by nine points per 100 possessions in 362 minutes with Niang and Bradley on the floor, per NBA.com. The hybrid lineup of Conley, Clarkson, Ingles, Niang, and Bradley — a mainstay in the weeks before the season stopped — is plus-45 in 78 minutes.

Playing with three ball handlers simplifies life for Utah’s backup bigs. Niang can spot up for 3s; almost 70% of his shots have come from deep this season, up from 56% a year ago, and he’s a knockdown standstill shooter who can speed up his release under duress.

Bradley is a dangerous lob-catcher with a soft touch on floaters and half-hooks. He has rebounded a preposterous 19.3% of Utah misses while on the floor, the highest offensive rebounding rate among all rotation players — and another benefit of playing with so many ball handlers who draw help around the rim. (Only five players have ever hit the 19% mark over a full season: Moses Malone, Dennis Rodman, Jeff Foster, Jayson Williams, and Danny Fortson.)

Bradley settled into his role on defense as a rim deterrent. He is not Rudy Gobert, but he improved his timing challenging shots.

The Jazz never reached their ceiling during a scattershot 64 games. They might not have in the last 18, and even at that theoretical ceiling would have been underdogs — and probably big ones — against either Los Angeles team.

But they would have been dangerous, and interesting, and it stinks on a pure basketball level that we won’t see Utah complete its evolution on the NBA’s natural timeline.

5. A good, old-fashioned ass pass

This is one of the most reliably awesome and funny plays in basketball:

Every inbounder should practice the butt pass. Anecdotally, it seems to have a massive success rate. We need advanced tracking data on this. Who are the best butt passers? Is it better to be taller or shorter? What, umm, types of butts make for the most effective targets? Do you want a fastball bounce-back or some cushioning? The wizards at Second Spectrum need to get on this.

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