NBA Journey Week Eighteen: Taking Inventory

The 2017-18 NBA season has now passed the All-Star break. There will be scores of articles about questioning good teams, declaring individual award races over, and the bickering over true shooting percentage and defensive rating. There is also a feeling surrounding this season that we're headed towards the inevitability of a Golden State Warriors championship. Thus, some of the fun is met with a bit of gloom. Cheer up, lover of hoops. Basketball is a sport in which the journey of the season is just as important as its destination in the Finals. Here at TSFJ, we're going to highlight some things and people the basketball realm can be excited for between now and June.

Song of The Week: Parliament - "Supergroovalisticprosifunstication (The Bumps Bump)"

On this journey, we have not lost our way. The unofficial first half of the season is over. And despite every team having already completed nearly two-thirds of their respective schedules, and significant party members have been lost, we still continue onward. However, what has happened is that certain members with more gravitas have dominated our priorities and consciousness.

This weekly mile marker is dedicated to everything else. We must highlight everything that we see along the journey, because not even the greatest of spectacles and stories should overshadow the entirety of the experience. To use an old adage, "no one is bigger than the game."

So as we shift focus away from The King's throne, we can spotlight a few things. First, let's check in on the fledgling players: the rookies. While it appears Slam Dunk Contest winner Donovan Mitchell is beginning to separate himself from the pack, that does not mean several other rookies are not settling into their professional careers.

Kings rookie Bogdan Bogdanovic was the Rising Stars Challenge MVP for a reason. (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

A major commonality, especially among the guards, appears to be that most of them are struggling to shoot well from the field. Only the Lakers' Josh Hart and Sacramento's Bogdan Bogdanovic shoot above 45 percent. If we filter the rookies to just the top ten picks in this past draft (excluding Ben Simmons), only Boston's Jayson Tatum shoots above that marker. For all the noise that was made about Lonzo Ball's shooting struggles, Dennis Smith Jr. of the Mavericks shares similar numbers. Including Ben Simmons, though he shoots 53 percent overall, he hasn't taken many shots outside of the painted area, and that is mostly due to the fact he lacks confidence in his ability to connect from midrange and beyond. Even Mitchell, the leading scorer among rookies and our new darling, is shooting an average-but-respectable 43 percent from the field.

But we're excited about the young talent, and we should be. We should be a little kinder to the idea of growth and thus be more lenient with expectations. NBA careers are not binary. You're not either a superstar or a bust. There's room for average, good and really good players to exist. Let's allow these rookies to figure that out for themselves.

With a lot of the Eastern Conference chatter centered around Boston and Cleveland, it's actually the Toronto Raptors that sit atop the East standings. Head coach Duane Casey stated there would be a philosophical change in Toronto's offensive system after suffering yet another playoff exit at the hands of LeBron James and the Cavaliers. All-Star tandem Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan bought into the change, and along with a deep and cohesive roster, the Raptors look as formidable as they've ever been. While DeRozan has been spectacular in years past, him becoming a viable three-point shooter this season has allowed for better team spacing as well as open up his deadly midrange one-on-one game. The Raptors have been good for a few years now, but this looks to be their best iteration yet. Their record confirms that.

Next year's draft is loaded with prospects, especially those assumed to be selected in the lottery. Because of the structure of how the draft order is chosen, the worst teams have a better chance at getting a higher pick. For an example, look no further than the Philadelphia 76ers. Their process, starting earlier this decade under then-GM and madman-turned-innovator Sam Hinkie, included not putting the best players on the floor every night in order to further ensure multiple terrible seasons -- and high draft picks. Hinkie and the Sixers were ridiculed. They were awful. They were additionally mocked because the high picks were suffering injuries or terrible fits. Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor were eventually traded. Joel Embiid and the aforementioned Ben Simmons needed at least a full season to recover from injury. As the Sixers lost and lost, all seemed lost.

Until it wasn't.

The Sixers aren't the best team in the conference. They are not expected to contend for a while. But their talent is so intriguing that some wonder if a certain pending free agent in Cleveland will take his talents to The City of Brotherly Love. That philosophy is what teams imply now, even if front office execs don't explicitly say that. Younger players will play, veteran players will be traded for next to nothing and teams will attempt to lose in order to have a few more ping pong balls in the draft lottery.

Cuban - who has a much more grave matter to be concerned about right now - gave a blatant voice to the not-so-hidden concept of tanking. (EliteLeadership)

Mark Cuban went on Julius "Dr. J" Erving's podcast (Dr. J has a podcast!) and said more than he should about the idea of, "tanking." Cuban said losing more than winning is his Mavericks' 'best option,' blatantly revealing a plan the NBA doesn't want fans to know is in place. The last thing paying customers want to know is that the product they bought isn't the best quality it could be, especially if the owner of the product is okay with such poor quality.

The NBA is a business. Owners of a business will do what they feel is best for their business to succeed both short and long-term. Sometimes, long-term decisions take precedence over winning now if there isn't as much winning to be done. The Atlanta Hawks were a perennial playoff team several consecutive years. The franchise never did any substantial winning in the postseason, nor were they expected to. That mediocre stretch of success is insignificant when the goal in sports is to compete for championships. So if a franchise chooses to hinder its present success to perhaps secure a brighter future, then it should aim for the stars.

Post All-Star Blurbs!

  • One of the more amazing and frustrating things surrounding All-Star Weekend is the videos that surface of the dunks the Dunk Contest participants didn't do under the lights. Victor Oladipo has a video out of an insane 360 backboard tap dunk that the world needed to see. I understand not pulling out your best early, especially from him, but man. That would have been lovely to see Saturday night.
  • Draymond Green didn't attempt a shot in the All-Star Game, and that is the most Draymond thing ever that doesn't involve technical fouls or "inadvertent" kicking.
  • This week's Hooper Appreciation Blurb goes to the Miami Heat's Wayne Ellington. While Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside deserve a lot of credit for how well the team has been playing, Ellington deserves a lot of individual credit for revitalizing his career in South Beach. Eleven points per game isn't an eye-opening average, but making more threes than Damian Lillard and Kyle Lowry is praiseworthy. Ellington has been in the NBA for a decade now, and now has an important role on a playoff team.
  • With about 30 games to go, each team fully transitions into their identity as contender, playoff team or spoiler. In the Western Conference, seeds 3 through 10 are only separated by a handful of games. Will separation happen? Or will there be a jumbled race until the final few games?
  • Outside of an occasional sniping sound byte about The Man In The White House, there has been very little on the political front in the matter of protesting and other outward demonstrations to shed light on this country's social injustices. Did Commissioner Adam Silver's reinforcement of the rule regarding the National Anthem spook any of the players? Probably not. I do think that players would rather react than act, in regards to protesting. They'd rather be asked a question than just spout off on an issue that while current, would not be a part of most of the conversations before and after games. But there is still time left in the regular season for both demonstrations as well as a reason to demonstrate.

Eighteen weeks in, and the journey continues. Happy NBA, folks.

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