Monta Ellis returned to Oracle Arena in what felt like a happier return than past trips, and if I wanna slip on my armchair psychologist hat it’s because Warriors fans no longer have to feel guilty about making comparisons. Andrew Bogut is healthy, the Warriors are contending and unsavory parts of that trade such as Richard Jefferson’s contract have come to pass. Monta, for his part, is doing great in Dallas and the public is finally starting to come around on a guy who has been coached by Don Nelson, Keith Smart, Scott Skiles and Scott Skiles’ replacement. Being used correctly under Rick Carlisle, Warriors fans can look at the deal – even if they have qualms with it – and say it has ultimately benefitted both parties.
To be fair, too, I was as big of a critic of the deal as any when it went down. Aside from the RJ contract, perhaps the biggest issue I had with it, I thought an injury-prone Aussie wasn't enough return. Most folks were going to gauge the deal on Andrew Bogut's health, and while things could change he looks great right now. While the RJ part of the deal is indefensible, the move has paid off and as a Dubs fan I'm more than happy to say they got that part right.
Ellis took the pregame applause in stride and scored 21 points on 8-of-20 shooting with four rebounds, five assists and three steals as he ran all over the Dubs, but wouldn’t you know Steph Curry would be the favorite son when he drained a game-winner with time expiring. Jose Calderon scored 18 points on 7-of-15 shooting (including three treys) with four rebounds and five assists, Dirk Nowitzki continued to crush expectations with 21 points on 7-of-14 shooting, three triples, seven boards, one steal and two blocks, and Shawn Marion scored 12 points on 5-of-10 shooting with nine rebounds, two steals, one block and a three of his own in the loss.
The big fantasy story for Dallas right now is the return of Brandan Wright from his shoulder injury, which could come as soon as Saturday against the Bucks. The fact that reporters are asking the question of who should start after his return should suggest he has a chance at that, and last night’s poor showing by the current bigs couldn’t have come at a worse time for DeJuan Blair and Samuel Dalembert.
Samuel Dalembert has been ice-cold lately and he turned in a zero-point, four-rebound, one-block night that included four missed field goals in 24 minutes, and DeJuan Blair hit just 2-of-8 shots for four points, nine boards and no steals or blocks in his 23-minute start. Blair has also fallen to 16-team levels in standard leagues over the past two weeks, and all of this has happened before Wright has stepped foot on the court.
While one of the two has a decent shot at holding some type of value when Wright returns, there’s no way to guess which one that will be and if you’ve held this long in a standard format then it’s time to let go. As for Wright, he has the ability to touch mid-round value in a better-case scenario and for that reason alone it’s worth considering an add. I’d consider him a mid-tier free agent right now with a decent amount of risk.
Stephen Curry is working hard to carry the Warriors right now, who are suddenly exposed for their lack of ballhandlers and inability to defend smaller, athletic guards – with both of those issues pointing out how crucial Andre Iguodala’s health will be in the playoffs. Aside from the aforementioned game-winner (click to watch) and with more highlights than a Limp Bizkit backup rapper, he finished with 33 points on 13-of-25 shooting, six 3-pointers, four rebounds, 10 assists and three steals in 44 minutes. Curry also had eight turnovers in this workhorse role, and he’s going to be a blast to own until Iguodala gets back (and beyond). You just hope they don’t run him into the ground.
Because the offense is somewhat bogged down, Klay Thompson is going to be more volatile than usual and last night was one of his off-nights, as he hit just 3-of-14 shots for 11 points but he made them count with all the makes being triples. With two 20-percent shooting nights in his last four games, he’s been more of an early-mid round value over the past two weeks than the top 20-30 guy he’s been on the year.
I’m not going to dive into the whys behind David Lee’s tumble in the media, both at home and nationally, but I’ll say that his bandwagon is pretty much limited to team employees and anybody that sips said boosters’ Kool-Aid. It’s been building for a while and a few articles were floated around the Twittersphere that essentially discussed the obvious defensive issues and a slight decline in his game, but now more than ever it seems like a consensus has been struck that Lee needs to cede some minutes to Draymond Green, in particular.
Team owner Joe Lacob is besties with Lee and the organization has wrapped itself around him for years now. Mark Jackson comes from the Scott Brooks coach-by-narrative school and believes that you dance with the one you came with. There is not going to be any wholesale role change, but the calls for less Lee will be loud and deafening if the Warriors lose and he is getting exposed nightly. Lee scored 15 points on 7-of-16 shooting with 11 rebounds, one steal and one block, and with three less mpg (33.6) per night than the previous season he’s a predictable top 70-85 value so far on the year. While it’s probable his 48.1 percent shooting will improve, the ever-so-slight loss of athleticism will make shots harder and I wouldn’t be banking on a return to the 50-52 percent shooting he has enjoyed the past two seasons.
As for Green, he has been disappointing since Iguodala’s injury but he was a key to the Warriors’ win last night and finished with nine points on 4-of-5 shooting, five rebounds, four assists, one steal, two blocks and one trey in 28 minutes. Jermaine O’Neal is contemplating season-ending shooting wrist surgery (that I think he’ll play through if I have to guess), and the takeaway is that the frontcourt is both thin and injury prone – so the forward group could be pressed into more action pretty much at any time.
Iguodala’s absence has certainly opened things up for Green (20 mpg this season), but nevertheless it’s not hard to see 25 minutes per night as a baseline given Lee’s potential decline and the growing reality that the Warriors need Green on the court to solidify their frontcourt defense. This leaves him as a guy with some 14-16 team appeal right now, but if you start to sense that all of the aforementioned is underway then you’ll want to keep an eye on him in standard leagues, too.
EVALUATING THE RUDY GAY TRADE
I was watching the Kings game last night and was sort of in awe as to how a team can get railed on by observers for lack of effort when defensive rotations are failing left and right. I watched about 60 possessions while the game was still in doubt and guys were fighting through screens, playing hard and then when somebody whiffed on an assignment it really did look like effort was the issue, even though it was really the mental aspect that was breaking down. While one can argue that defensive awareness is in of itself a mental effort, there are simply guys that for whatever reason just don’t get it. Jason Thompson is that guy. He also doesn’t know when he fouls and that’s why he’s constantly complaining and in last night’s game he single-handedly turned the Kings’ defense inside-out.
Don’t get me wrong he’s a great guy and one of the player heroes of the team’s effort to stay in Sacramento, but he’s also the guy (in my opinion) that DeMarcus Cousins is talking about after many games when he says things like ‘we just can’t keep making the same mistakes,’ as he said last night. And when you pair him next to another guy in Derrick Williams (13 points, seven boards, one block, 6-of-11 FGs, 32 minutes) that lacks defensive awareness, it’s going to be a disaster on nights things aren’t going the team’s way.
The good news for Kings fans is that Thompson is the favorite to be the next player traded in Pete D’Allesandro and Vivek Ranadive’s quest to makeover their franchise faster than the Warriors did. Rudy Gay will also join the starting lineup, and unless the team decides they want to use Thompson as a place-holder starting power forward it looks like they’ll go with a smaller forward set of Gay and Williams.
Let’s reset real quick, though, because many of you have asked and I haven’t had a chance to write about this trade yet, and the new reality of the Kings has changed significantly since we last talked. To get it out of the way I’m somewhere between liking and loving this trade, with the ‘like’ portion of that lending itself to the risk-reward quotient of bringing in a guy like Gay, and the ‘love’ portion of that being the sole fact that Isaiah Thomas (20 points, seven assists) has been freed.
Gay is the poster boy for all that is wrong in the statistical universe and I’m pretty sure he sells dead parakeets to little blind boys, too. He peaked in 2010-11 when he was a first round fantasy player, shooting 47.1 percent from the field, 40 percent from deep for 1.0 triples per game, and that was the result of playing in a tight Grizzlies offense that tilted toward Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Then in 2011-12, Randolph played just 28 games and that necessarily meant that Gay would need to step up. Though he didn’t experience a big change in usage he was called upon to create more than before, which is where we first saw his efficiency drop (1.6% to 45.5 FG%), resulting in fantasy value in the top-30 range.
Having earned the right to initiate the offense more in Randolph’s absence, the cycle that has currently plagued Gay started to show its face. Yes, his offensive game was improving and at the same time Randolph’s game was off due to his knee injury, as well as the general decline that is normal for a player who at that time was in his 12th season.
Lionel Hollins chose to embrace the idea of Rudy freelancing more in 2012-13 and that’s when Bad Rudy was born. He shot himself into a 40.8 percent hole that year in Memphis, attracting the attention of the stat world while the Grizzlies simultaneously changed ownership and hired noted analytics expert John Hollinger into their front office. All of a sudden the media was Billy Beane and Gay and Hollins were Art Howe and the old crusty scout. The perfect storm was created when Toronto GM Bryan Colangelo was standing before the firing squad looking for a last-second pardon, amidst plenty of front office chaos, and he saw in Gay a silver bullet to turn things around so he triple-downed on the experiment.
Gay came into Toronto hailed by management as a No. 1 player and given carte blanche on the court, with old school Dwane Casey more than willing to play along with the idea that zone defense was still illegal. Rudy improved his shooting by a smidge when he got to Toronto and also jumped up a full 1.0 FGAs per game over his banner 10-11 campaign, with a notable rise in 3-point attempts (4.0/gm) and that has led to this year’s disaster, where Gay has taken a whopping 18.6 shots per game at a historically bad 38.8 percent clip.
At no point did Casey tell him to stop shooting – and in fact he did the opposite – he encouraged him to shoot more.
This is what happens when somebody tries to step into big shoes and comes up short. It doesn’t mean he’s a bad player, and in the case of Gay he’s still a very good player, albeit an expensive one if he takes a $19 million player option next season that will be hard for him to turn down if he crashes and burns in Sacramento. The operative question, other than the freeing of Isaiah Thomas, is what the Kings could have done with that money. And I think the answer to that question is vague enough to make this deal work if we’re strictly speaking on the merits of acquiring Gay.
Free agents are still in a wait-and-see mode when it comes to Sacramento, though that will change as Ranadive projects to be a top-tier owner in the association. If Gay works out they will have the inside track on re-signing a player in his prime at a position they’ve been woeful at for years. If he doesn’t work out or is simply ‘meh,’ they can be off the hook in enough time for when they’re truly serious about competing. Gay might play well enough to command a 3-4 year deal at $10 million per year or more and decide to walk. There are a lot of different ways this can play out and the deal has upside without much downside, and that’s before we get to the real crux of the issue and that is the Pizza Guy.
I’m sure many of you pictured me in a pool of my own vomit after celebrating the news of IT being freed. The move should have been made when he was a rookie and by waiting the entire team was set back considerably in terms of their development. To put a number on it, the Kings lost at least 100 games in which they could've been molding Thomas into something even better than he is right now, while extending that same courtesy to teammates that would've had better overall experiences on the court.
For fantasy leagues this means an upgrade on the entire team. Even in last night’s loss, following the previous game in which they handled Dallas, they were still able to show a tempo and rhythm that cannot exist when you have a timeshare at the point guard position.
The players have wanted to embrace Thomas' consistency since he jumped onto the scene in his rookie year. They've played exasperated basketball under a Maloof-Keith Smart combo that I challenge anybody to top in terms of chaotic dysfunction. This is a development that they are already embracing with open arms, and while I understood taking what was free money in Greivis Vasquez when parting ways with Evans – it just turned out to be fool’s gold.
A well-meaning and excitable fellow, Vasquez eagerly anointed himself a team leader basically while he was on the plane to Sacramento, and that’s a hard sell when you’re letting your man blow by you every night. It’s also a hard sell when Thomas has been the heart and soul of the team since arriving. With two different players with two different styles in a lineup desperately needing continuity, the Kings continued to look disjointed and it was obvious which guy needed to take the reins.
Now, with Thomas they have a guy that doesn’t turn the ball over much, a guy that can get out and run, make plays, pass the ball, and most importantly dictate the tempo. This is the rising tide that lifts all boats in Sacto. And even though he gets no credit for this locally, the elite on-ball defender changes the equation on the other side of the floor, too. Look for Ben McLemore (four points, 1-of-8 FGs, 33 minutes) to continuously improve, look for Williams to do the same, and when Gay arrives expect him to step in line behind the leadership of Thomas and DeMarcus Cousins (21 points, 11 boards, 23 minutes).
Yes, you read that right, Cousins. The big man is blossoming under Mike Malone, who is a legitimate top coach in the association. Cousins has walked the line all season with very few blowups, all while experiencing the blowback from referees he has earned in his career, all while being targeted by opponents that are trying to get in his head. Off the court he has been a model citizen and if you covered the name on his jersey one might put him up for some sort of achievement award. He’s not going to let Gay enter his locker room and start hoisting up a ton of bad shots. Neither is Malone and neither is Thomas.
So Gay is returning to his Memphis roots by way of Sacramento, and if all goes right for fantasy owners he will rediscover that early round magic, which means he’s a green-highlighter buy low candidate after posting just top 50-80 value this season (Writer's Note: there was a typo here earlier). He might take a handful of touches away from Cousins and Thomas, but more than likely they’ll come from the cast of characters that is either already gone or on their way out.
There is no reason he can't get up 14-16 shots per game, and again the big story in both fantasy and reality will be his efficiency. Look for the Kings to get him moving toward the basket and shooting with his feet set. With proper coaching and support I think he'll once again be able to look at the stat sheet. You have until Friday to swing a deal and maybe a few games after that.
McLemore and Williams are going to be worth owning for the rest of the season, and while I wasn’t cheerleading the Williams deal he is well-positioned to learn defense in this arrangement. He’s going to play 30-35 minutes per game and is a big part of the uptempo attack. McLemore is already playing that much and is built to fly.
And in a trade that was headlined by the battle over stats and substance, the Kings will have found their point guard of the future, even though he was sitting under their noses the entire time. In their defense, it only took new ownership 18 games to figure it out. It’s taken everybody else much longer.