Each week during the 2020-21 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into three of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
Someone will score 81 points again
Friday marks 15 years since late Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game. On a seventh-place team starting Smush Parker, Kwame Brown and Chris Mihm, Bryant made 28 field goals on 46 attempts (7-13 3P) and 18 of 20 free throws in 42 minutes of an 18-point win over the Toronto Raptors. Second only to Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 points in 1962, Bryant’s outing is the standard for modern scorers.
The question is whether anyone will recreate it.
The four-plus seasons since Bryant’s farewell game in April 2016 have seen a dozen 60-point games from seven different scorers, both equal to the number of 60-point games and scorers in the previous 22 years. Two of them have come this month from Golden State Warriors sensation Stephen Curry and Washington Wizards phenom Bradley Beal, suggesting we are closer than ever to witnessing another 81-point barrage.
Yet, even in a burgeoning 3-point era, nobody has come all that close. Even Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker’s 70 points against the Boston Celtics in March 2017 — 18 of which came in the final four minutes of a lopsided loss — fell well shy of Bryant’s night. Warriors sniper Klay Thompson and now ex-Houston Rockets star James Harden came closest, both scoring 60 points through three quarters of blowout wins.
It was Bryant’s 46 field-goal attempts that made the difference. It is no surprise that Booker’s 70 points — second only to Bryant this century — came on 40 shots, the most attempts in any of the 12 60-point games since Bryant’s retirement. Harden’s 60 points through three quarters last season came on just 24 attempts. He also scored 60 on 30 shots in January 2018. Curry’s 62 points this month required only 31 shots.
Since the advent of the 3-point line in 1979, a player has attempted 40 or more shots 11 times. The lowest point total is 53 points. Bryant accounted for four of them, including his final game, and Russell Westbrook has done it twice. Booker is the only other player to do it since Allen Iverson in 2002. The common theme is a player who has to singularly carry his team and can both shoot from distance and get himself to the rim.
Casting aside the singular nature of being able to accomplish the feat, the players who jump to mind as fitting that bill include Curry, Beal, Booker, Harden, Damian Lillard, Trae Young, Kevin Durant, Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray, the last two of whom combined for four 50-point games (on no more than 33 shots) in their first-round playoff series last season. A healthy Thompson would also be on that list.
Given his current supporting cast, Curry seems most likely to get there. Lillard, too, now that C.J. McCollum is out for at least a month. Beal is in that mix if Westbrook is out of the lineup, and the rest of that could very well be in a similar situation if COVID-19 health and safety protocols wipe out their rosters for a night.
But give me Curry, and give him those 46 shots one hot night. It is absolutely not out of the question that he could make 29 of those attempts, 11 of which are 3-pointers, and add 12 free throws. He has hit that 64 percent clip or better on 20 or more field-goal attempts in a game on 10 occasions in his career. Nine times he has made a dozen or more free throws, and he has hit 11 or more 3-pointers in eight games. Combine all three in a must-win game the Warriors need him for 40-plus minutes, and he could theoretically get there.
Once someone gets into that 60 range in 32 minutes or so, everyone starts riding the wave, trying to get him over the hump. Bryant scored the Lakers’ final 20 points over the last six minutes in his 81-point game, much of which with the outcome in hand. Of course, theory is different from practice, which makes Bryant’s performance seem less attainable, but it was really his willingness to chase history that made it possible.
NBA players should not be given COVID-19 priority
NBA players are among the healthiest and wealthiest individuals in the country, and yet there is an argument to be made they should be vaccinated after frontline healthcare workers and the elderly.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver recently amended his position on early vaccinations from the start of the season, when he told reporters, “It goes without saying that in no form or way will we jump the line.”
On Tuesday, Silver told a Sportico roundtable that the league is considering vaccinating players as part of an effort to promote the vaccine’s safety and efficacy in underserved Black communities that are skeptical of it “for understandable historical reasons” and disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Tuskegee Experiment is the clearest historical example. For 40 years, the United States Public Health Service left African American males untreated for syphilis under the guise of health care. It cost roughly a third of the participants their lives and reinforced doubts about a system that has failed their community.
“The sad fact, health care in our communities has never been anything other than subpar,” National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts recently told Yahoo Sports’ Vincent Goodwill. “Our community’s suspicions about the bona fide ease of treatment that’s offered to us as well, let’s face it, Black pregnant women have an exponentially greater possibility of dying in childbirth, than their white counterparts, solely because of the quality of care that they receive. So you know, the African American players in the NBA are members of the African American community, that to the extent our community has certain sensitivities, not surprisingly, our players are going to have those sensitivities.”
If the players’ union is convinced by health experts the vaccine is safe, then vaccinations in a league of predominantly Black men could be a vital public service, even if it also serves the NBA as a business.
And there is also this: Those 450 or so players are the backbone of a billion-dollar business that supports thousands of jobs. Coronavirus is threatening to stall the industry. There are certainly other organizations that can say the same, and this alone is not so persuasive a reason for them to “skip the line,” so to speak.
That line is not such a clear one. Disorganization and underfunding has stalled the distribution of millions of vaccines. The NBA has proven its ability to oversee similar complexity, and the league has the finances to help fund similar oversight in its communities. Some 500 vaccines could be a fraction of the overall effort.
Combined with its aforementioned public service, you can begin to see an argument why NBA players may classifiy as essential workers under phase 1C of the Center for Disease Control’s vaccination rollout plan.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are building a perennial playoff team
The Cavs were a train wreck when LeBron James left Cleveland in the summer of 2018. They had traded away future draft capital and were restrained by the salary cap even without James. What they did have was a top-10 pick from the Brooklyn Nets they received by way of Boston in the 2017 Kyrie Irving trade.
They had to nail that to have any hope for the future, and they did. Collin Sexton has emerged as a bona fide scoring threat in his third season, averaging 27 points on 53/50/77 shooting splits in the early going. His 20 straight points in overtime against the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday was evidence of a future star.
As an encore following an abomination of a 2018-19 campaign, the Cavaliers hit for extra bases again in the 2019 draft, taking Darius Garland as a backcourt mate to Sexton. Garland averaged 17.2 points on similarly efficient 47/45/89 shooting splits and 6.3 assists a night in six games before injuring his shooting shoulder.
It remains to be seen whether last year’s top-10 pick, Isaac Okoro, will be another big hit, but in nine starts so far this season he has shown flashes as an uber-athletic future 3-and-D staple on the wing. They all fit.
What was a seemingly misfit collection of bigs is full of valuable commodities. Former All-Star center Andre Drummond is one of those guys who was considered so overrated that he is now underrated. He only cost the Cavs a second-round pick and is again leading the league in rebounding while contributing 18.8 points per game. They can even afford to lose him. Cleveland acquired his replacement, Jarrett Allen, for a late first-round pick in the James Harden trade. Allen, along with Larry Nance Jr., are low-cost contributors.
As is unheralded wing Cedi Osman, one of the few holdovers from the James era. Quietly, Cleveland built a roster full of cost-controlled promising prospects. And J.B. Bickerstaff — the seemingly perennial interim head coach — has convinced these Cavaliers they no longer need to live in the shadow of James’ legacy.
They are 7-7, good enough for sixth place in the East through a fifth of the season. Their negative net rating and last-place offense suggest that could be somewhat of a mirage, but their second-ranked defense and growing number of games lost (including Kevin Love’s absence) are signs that further improvement is on the horizon. They may not be a playoff team come season’s end, but they will not be lottery-bound for long.
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