April 15th, 2010: Kevin Durant, at 21 years old, became the youngest player to lead the league in scoring. At 30.1 points in 39.5 minutes, Durant was no longer a young guy in a grown man’s game. While it wasn’t the last time he led the league in scoring, nor was it his highest points per game, Durant had a half a point lead over LeBron James, nearly two points per game more than Carmelo Anthony, and more than three points per game more than Kobe Bryant. In total points, he had a 200 point lead on second place LeBron, and nearly 450 points more than the third place Dwyane Wade.
Durant wasn’t he only guy celebrating big NBA achievements before he could legally rent a car. The previous year, 2009, Dwight Howard became the youngest player to win the Defensive Player of the Year, and went on as the only player ever to win it three consecutive years. In that third year, 2011, 22 year old Derrick Rose became the youngest player to ever win an NBA MVP.
This was a remarkable time in NBA history because of just how young these guys were. Just two generations of NBA players prior, 21 year old Kevin Durant, 23 year old Dwight Howard, and 22 year old Derrick Rose might have all been finishing their degrees and giving the NCAA tournament one last run. Sure Texas, North Carolina (the presumed choice of Howard), and Memphis would have all appreciated that, but what would the NBA have looked like had these stars waited to make the jump?
Ten years later, Durant (when healthy) has been a dominant force. Two finals MVPs in three seasons with Golden State cemented a Hall of Fame legacy still that has even more chapters to be written. Dwight Howard, closer to the last page of his career than Durant, has morphed into a key contributor off the bench in Los Angeles after a dominant run as the NBA’s best big man earlier in the decade. Rose suffered a devastating injury that could have nearly his career… but is still finding ways to average over 18 points a game off of the bench.
In the same year as Durant’s first scoring title, the 2010 NBA Rising Stars game featured rookies and future MVPs James Harden and Steph Curry vs. sophomore and future MVP Russell Westbrook. Rookies won 140-128 but to be fair a sophomore Derrick Rose sat out the game to play in the actual All Star game the next night.
Talent in the league was young, and the stars of today were starting to make headlines. Some were shining on more traditional rookie, sophomore, and young guy stages… but some were, like Durant, dominating the entire league.
Also ten years later, we have a new crop of young talent dominates headlines. Luka Doncic is in the top 6 in points per game at 20 years old, Trae Young is third at 21 years old, and Giannis Antetokounmpo may win a second MVP at the age of 25. And big name rookies like Ja Morant and Zion Williamson dominate games and headlines in ways no rookie has since, well, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose did more than 10 years ago. Each member of this “All 25 and Under” team could be the face of the league, if they aren’t already. Much like Durant was the internationally loved 21 year old in Oklahoma City, fans are excited to see what all five bring to the NBA for the next ten years or more.
When comparing eras, we understand Zion, Morant, Trae, and Luka are great young talents… But are the NBA MVP at age 22 great? Are they lead the league in scoring at age 21 great? Yes Giannis is an incredible defender, but can he be the league’s best three years in a row?
In part, this “WayBack Wednesday” exercise is to appreciate how incredibly great the young NBA talent in 2010 was. It was truly a generational group of players, even if injuries derailed a few careers. We understand how incredibly strong the 25 and under generation of NBA players are… but what that 2010 era of guys was doing was special. They dominated the league, forced a changing of the guard, and went toe to toe with veteran future Hall of Famers.
There is a different appreciation for the youth in 2020 than there was in 2010. In 2010, playing guys that young had just become more normal. Durant, Rose, and Howard benefitted form the generation just before them. LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony proved guys that can play need to play when they show up. There’s no point in “easing” a guy into playing basketball. The speed of an NBA game is unlike any league on Earth.
Before Durant, there was LeBron… But before that? Young pros had to wait their turn. Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant, who came straight to the NBA out of high school in 1996, sat behind Eddie Jones and wasn’t a full time starter until 1999. Similarly, Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett didn’t start the majority of his rookie campaign, either. Cleveland’s Ricky Davis thought the aforementioned LeBron James, the most hyped and sought after recruit of the 21st century, was going to make a great sidekick. And the aforementioned three time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard? There were hundreds of analysts claiming Emeka Okafor, who played four years at UConn, was the more mature and thus better pro prospect and pick.
Perhaps the current and exciting young group of NBA talent is as transcendent as the 2010 group. Perhaps it’s as historic as LeBron’s generation, or has a number of sure fire Hall of Famers like Kobe and Garnett’s. But the youth gets there chance now more than ever. Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey has said several times that NBA players, usually, have made their potential clear by their third NBA season… a guy that’s got the potential to bust is flaming out by then, a guy that is going to find a key rotational role is learning that role by then, and a superstar or Hall of Famer usually has a few moments that show it by then. They aren’t finished products by year three, but after three full years playing basketball as a full time profession, the future is clearer.
For example, three years ago was a draft that featured several players we understand a lot better now. Without divulging into potential busts, guys like Justin Jackson, Jarrett Allen, and Kyle Kuzma are proving to be key pieces that will likely be valuable starters role players on great teams. Donovan Mitchell, Bam Adebayo, and Jayson Tatum have separated themselves, and each is both an All Star and a potential future All Pro. Of those six, Jackson is 25 and Kuzma is 24. The three stars? They’re each 23 or under. Age played less of a factor than time spent playing, and Mitchell, Adebayo, and Tatum have each played large roles on good teams since their career started.
In 2020, this seems increasingly obvious. Young rookies dominate, we enjoy them, and the phenom story starts early. While they may not be leading the league in points at 21 like Durant, the impact of Luka, Zion, Morant, and Trae is palpable. Three years from now, we may be talking about LaMelo Ball (currently 18), James Wiseman (currently 19), or RJ Hampton (also 19) and the role they’ve carved out. Each is a projected top 10 pick in the upcoming NBA draft and a teenager. Now, we look for dominance in pros that young. We assess it, dive into it, and seek it out. But a decade ago, when Durant led the league in scoring and could barely (legally) pop champagne to celebrate, the shift was staring the league in the face, holding the individual accolades up over all of the older players around them.
Damian Lillard Named Cover Athlete for NBA 2K21
There aren’t many players in the NBA that are as exciting to watch as Damian Lillard. The Portland Trail Blazers point guard can drop 50 points on any given night, putting up statistics only seen in video games.
Due to his gaudy play this year, Lillard has been announced as the first of three players that will grace the cover of the NBA’s premier video game franchise, NBA 2K.
Lillard was in the midst of a remarkable season prior to the league shutdown, as he averaged a career-high 28.9 points and 7.8 assists per game. If the season resumes next month, Lillard will look to close a 3.5 games gap across an eight-game schedule to get his Trail Blazers into playoff position.
Regardless of how this season ends for Lillard though, it will still go down as another incredible campaign for the five-team All-Star. One worthy of his first selection as the cover athlete on 2K.
Lillard will be on the cover of NBA 2K21 for all the current-gen gaming consoles including PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC and Google Stadia systems. 2K still needs to announce another cover athlete for the new PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X consoles.
For the 29-year-old point guard, this honor is very gratifying as it continues to solidify his status as one of the game’s most elite players.
Due to the continued fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is still unclear whether NBA 2K21 will be released at it’s regularly scheduled drop-date in September, or if it will be pushed back to accommodate the league’s changed schedule.
If the season is played in it’s entirety, many don’t expect the 2020-2021 NBA season to start until late November, if not some time in December.
Stephen Jackson: Journey Man
Nearly two months ago, when the NBA announced the 2020 Hall of Fame class, and in the midst of having no sports to televise, ESPN ran a series of important games from Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Tim Duncan’s careers. For Duncan, ESPN played his near quadruple-double to seal the 2003 NBA Finals. In the fourth quarter, when the Spurs needed buckets, the New Jersey defense collapsed in on Duncan, who kicked to a wide-open, third-year NBA player named Stephen Jackson. Jackson hit three big three-pointers, Spurs win. For many, some combination of that performance (being the secondary star in a non-primetime, 17-year-old basketball game) and his All The Smoke podcast with Matt Barnes was the most thought given to Stephen Jackson in quite some time. Jackson went on, after a brief stint in San Antonio, to play for six franchises in eleven years before retiring in 2015. Many would call him a journeyman for his travels in the NBA, and assumed his life would settle down after that.
Last week Stephen Jackson put himself, and his cause, in front of everyone. Following the brutal murder of George Floyd by four police officers, Jackson took to his Instagram to let the world see and hear the pain he had for his lost friend. Floyd grew up in Houston, Jackson in Port Arthur. For those not acquainted with Texas’ geography, the two went to high school just over an hour apart. Many in Port Arthur residents, like Jackson as a child, go into the city of Houston when they need things you’d find in the city. Port Arthur is a tough-minded oil town that functions as both a suburb of the city of Beaumont and the city of Houston. It’s produced the likes of Jimmy Johnson, Jamaal Charles, Pimp C, and Bun B… but Stephen Jackson is the only notable NBA alum that cites it as home. You can see Port Arthur’s toughness in Johnson, Charles, and Jackson. You can see its swagger in Pimp C, Bun B, and Jackson.
And now, you can see him representing Port Arthur, and making a difference.
Everyone ended their Memorial Day weekend watching the same horrifying viral video. It hit everyone differently. For some, it was a wake-up call to the deadly realities of police brutality. To others, it was an anger-inducing “another one?!” To still others, it was horrifyingly close to home, with a mirror-like reality. And to Jackson? It was his lifelong friend. His “twin.”
Jackson and Floyd have known each other since childhood. Both were active athletes from similar neighborhoods and backgrounds, but the “twin” moniker came not only because they were figuratively brothers, but because they look eerily similar to one another. The two played pick-up basketball in the Cuney Homes housing complex of Houston’s Third Ward. (Jackson has, in the last week, really done an intentional job of pointing out how talented of an athlete Floyd was. To be frank, it is very important. The difference in Floyd’s life cut short and Jackson’s life in the NBA can come down to a few breaks or ball bounces here and there.)
While much of the nation’s initial anger over George Floyd’s murder was in their own homes for the initial twenty-four hours, Stephen Jackson’s was cast for the world to see.
In the following days, Jackson continued to post homage to Floyd while he made his way to Minneapolis to lead protests. Once there, he made his message clear: no one was going to diminish Floyd’s name. No one was going to rest until action was taken. Change was coming, and Jackson was ready to work for it.
Jackson was surrounded by the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie, actor Jamie Foxx, Houston area rap artist Trae the Truth, amongst other protestors. After speaking to the crowd, Jackson and others went outside marched to the Hennepin County Government Center.
Protests and marches have been commonplace all over the United States of America this week. In an effort to combat police brutality, communities are banding together to have their voices heard. Both in-person and online, at the forefront of these protests continue to be high profile athletes and celebrities. In North Carolina, Dennis Smith Jr. and J. Cole were mixed into the marches like everyone else. Jaylen Brown did the same in Atlanta. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote an op-ed for the LA Times. It clearly did not take being connected to the situation like Stephen Jackson to take the lead in the community.
In the week since publicly sharing his pain, Jackson has become the face of NBA players involved in the protests, and his movements are seeing results. Within hours of his statements in Minneapolis, the police officer who murdered Floyd was arrested. Protests have continued, calling for both the arrests of his three partners who watched him idly, and for their four convictions. Since Jackson spoke out, major shoe brands, EA Sports, and even Adam Silver have come out in support of the protests. Jackson, who made a career as a reserved tough guy, pushed much of the NBA world to the point of speaking up. While COVID quarantine certainly helped further the cause (everyone is stuck at home with little other distractions, searching social media), Jackson’s activism is the inspiration we look for.
What’s both fascinating and disturbing is George Floyd was not the first unarmed black man murdered on camera. He wasn’t even the first of such since the COVID quarantine started, and the violent reaction to the protests imply he won’t be the last victim of police brutality either. But, his name and case are pushing people to a protesting brink at a national level. There are several factors, but Jackson and the ensuing NBA involvement is certainly a big one.
The murder of an unarmed person at the hands of the police shouldn’t need celebrity grief to become a tragedy. NBA players shouldn’t have to remind the public they’ve been wearing “I CAN’T BREATHE” tee-shirts since 2014. The news should sting on its own and, if you’re paying attention, it always does.
However, in Jackson’s grief he helped elevate this particular case. The NBA, and pro sports, can humanize black people for many white audiences that otherwise don’t get to interact with people that don’t look like them. For decades neighborhoods, schools, and public spaces have been (intentionally or unintentionally) segregated through various means. As pointedly illustrated in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crowe, these systems can perpetuate cyclically and lock people into only being around folks that look like them. Humanized professional athletes can bring new faces into white neighborhoods, as they connect with and idolize people on their team. Jackson is one of those faces, and he isn’t just “involved” in the ongoing fight in Floyd’s name. In his own words, he’s “all in.”
Jackson’s activism can bring those conversations into white homes, neighborhoods, and families. It can help force the issue and conversation. Recent generations of NBA players have been very socially active, and time after time we see the issues they take up carry significant weight. It’s sad to admit, but in many ways it’s vital. It makes the stories human to more people, because Jackson is a human known by more people.
Jackson has spent the last week publicly riding an emotional roller coaster. He mourned the loss of his friend, was firm in pursuing justice, and was open in sharing his story. As we enter week two of Jackson’s journey, he has accepted being the leader of the current athlete activists.
“Like, I’m honest with you: I did not expect to have the role and to have so many people waiting to see what I have to say and what’s the next move,” Jackson told ESPN. “Like, I didn’t ask to be in this position, but I’m embracing it. I’m embracing it.”
But what does that mean? What does embracing it look like for Journey Man Jackson?
“We got to vote,” Jackson continued. “I’m not just talking about the president. I’m talking about the local city council. I’m talking about your police chief, your fire chief. We need to vote for all that type of stuff because all that stuff’s going to matter at the end. And what we’re doing now as far as protesting everywhere around the world, we got to use that same energy when it’s time to vote.”
“Coming into this, I’ve seen so many situations not pan out right,” Jackson said. “I’ve seen the impossible happen also. And I think this is that situation. I think this [is] going to be the change. My brother’s death is going to be change. I think we’re going to get convictions for all of them. I think they’re drawing it out right now because this is the typical system. That’s why we got to change the rules — they look out for each other. They try their best to look out for each other. So this is expected by me.”
“But we’re going to fight. This is a marathon. And we’re going to continue this fight, and we’re going to outfight them. We’re not going to stop. We’re going to keep this thing going. They’re going to get tired of hearing about George Floyd. They’re going to get tired of hearing his name.”
The word “journey” carries a lot more positivity than “journeyman.” A journey can be life-changing, and it can be historically impactful. A journeyman is a wanderer; he’s lost or he has no home. A journey is going to be important. Calling someone a journeyman implies they weren’t important enough to stick in one place.
However, in the NBA journeymen are often beloved by other players because they have to be good teammates to survive. Journeymen change clubhouses frequently, and they’re more appealing to more teams if their past teammates can attest to their characters. But to fans, and outsiders, they tend to be the periphery of the storylines of the league. Sure, Stephen Jackson hit a barrage of three-pointers in the 2003 NBA Finals, but they were off of Tim Duncan’s assists. He’s an emblem of toughness, but Jackson never stayed in the same organization for more than two complete seasons (though he did have two separate two year periods in San Antonio).
Players love Jackson, that’s evident in his podcasting and TV appearances. But he was never integral to the NBA’s story throughout his journeyman-days. He was always going to be remembered as the guy who scored on Duncan’s kick out, or the teammate that got traded, or the veteran on a one-year deal. If you watched the NBA in his 14-year career, you knew who he was… but his playing days didn’t indicate he’d be an unforgettable piece of the story of the league.
But as the latest chapters of Jackson’s story is being written, he’s looking more like a man on a journey than a journeyman. If you persist he is a journeyman, he’s clearly chosen to focus on the breakdown of the word regardless of your perception.
And his leadership has proven far more than necessary in connection to the story of America in 2020 than it ever was in connection to the NBA.
If you have the means to, or would like to donate to help the cause Jackson is at the front of, please consider the following places to start:
#ThrowbackThursday: Game 6 Klay
Games in an NBA playoff series are interesting in how there seems to be something notable about each one. Game 1 is important because you’ve got to have a good start. The home teams need to protect, the visitor needs to split. Game 2? Well, you can’t go down 0-2. And if you’re up 1-0? You’ve got a chance to “take care of business” in Game 2. Game 3 comes with a change of scenery. The new home team needs to get that one. The now-visitor? If you’re up 2-0, you can put the nail in the coffin. Tied 1-1? Well, you have to get homecourt advantage back… and down 0-2? See up 2-0, then flip the script. Game 4 can literally be the last game in the series, or can be the vital chance to tie it up. Every game 5, you’re either looking at a team with a chance to win the whole series right then, or someone ready to split the tie. And we’ve all seen the ESPN stats about the winner of Game 5 in a 2-2 series…
And Game 7? Best two words in sports. It’s all the marbles, the entire series comes down to the final moments.
Game 6 gets kind of left behind. It’s inherently an elimination game for one team. It also is set in a different arena than Game 5 was or than Game 7 will be. And, if you can win a series in 4 or 5 games, you dominated it. If it goes 7 games? It was a close, or a competitive, or a great series. If it goes 6? Eh.
Game 6 gets left behind, it’s undervalued. Some of the best and most necessary performances in NBA history happened in Game 6 to allow for the Game 7s, or to cover up the blunder in Game 5.
One of those happened four years ago today: Game 6, 2016 Western Conference Finals. The performer: Klay Thompson.
Much like the underappreciated Game 6, Klay Thompson is synonymous with being the second or third fiddle. Klay has had some of his most historic playoff performances in Game 6s the last few seasons, as poetic as that may be. Last season, he tore his ACL in Game 6 of the NBA Finals to seal the Warriors fate. Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals a few weeks earlier? Klay had 21 in the first half to keep the game close while Steph Curry went scoreless, and hit the dagger three with 36.1 seconds to go to move past their rival Rockets in Houston. In 2018? Klay went 9-14 from the 3-point line in Game 6, racked up 35 points to avoid elimination survive Game 6 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals over the Rockets, who had a 3-2 lead and appeared to have figured the Warriors out.
But this connection started in Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference Finals. After a record 73-9 regular season, the Golden State Warriors were on the ropes. They were down 3-1 in the series to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Golden State won Game 5 at home to stay afloat, but had to travel to the Sooner State for a must-win Game 6.
Curry needed that second fiddle now more than ever. The two-headed monster in Oklahoma City necessitated multiple superstars to perform like superstars for Golden State to have a chance. Insert: quiet quirky Klay Thompson. It wasn’t that surprising. Thompson was the second-highest scorer on the team that historic season, was also on the All-NBA team and All-Star team. He hit 276 three-pointers that season… the most by anyone not name Steph Curry in NBA history to that point.
But the 11-18 three-point shooting barrage Thompson provided was more valuable than the 41 points Klay scored. Every time Oklahoma City’s crowd began to roar, Klay silenced it. He made them covered, he made them off screens, he made them on the fast break, he made them early, he made them late. It was as unconscious of a shooting performance in a playoff game as there’s ever been. His 10th three, to set the NBA playoff record, was off-balanced, covered, and with his heels at the midcourt logo. The 11th? Over the outstretched Kevin Durant, to give the Warriors the lead, with just over a minute and a half to go.
“I don’t know if I was born for it, but I definitely worked my butt off to get to this point… I guess you could say I was born for it.”
Thompson was born to be Game 6. Game 6 is Klay Thompson, just like Thompson is Game 6.
After his 2018 performance Curry and Durant, both Warriors at that point, shared a laugh when asked to compare Klay’s repeat Western Conference Finals Game 6 performance.
“I think we both blocked that whole year from our memory,” Curry answered.
The Warriors went on to win Game 7 in 2016’s Western Conference Finals, at home, and move on to the NBA Finals. Durant and Oklahoma City blew the 3-1 lead. A couple of weeks later, Curry and the Warriors would do the same to LeBron James and the Cavs.
Had Klay had even simply had an above-average game in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, all of NBA history could have been different. Durant, Westbrook, and the Thunder likely win the series that night. Klay’s 11th three made it 104-101, and only free throws were made for either team after that. If Oklahoma went back to the NBA Finals for the second time in four seasons, they may have had the experience needed to knock off LeBron James and Cleveland. After all, they did jump out 3-1 on the Warriors… who jumped out 3-1 on the Cavs. Clearly it wouldn’t have been inconceivable or impossible for the Thunder to win four out of seven games against Cleveland. If Durant and the Thunder win a title in 2016, does he sign with the Warriors, a team he just beat 4-2, that offseason? Does he even leave? Sure Kawhi just did it last season, but before Kawhi it was hard to imagine a superstar leaving less than a month after winning an NBA title.
And say the Thunder didn’t beat the Cavs. Sure, that makes it easier for Durant to feel comfortable about leaving the Thunder… But after hypothetically beating the Warriors 4-2 in the Western Conference Finals, is that where he thinks he has the best chance? San Antonio also took Oklahoma city to six games in this hypothetical, and Toronto had just taken Cleveland to six games as well. Regular season aside, wouldn’t those teams look like title contenders and favorites with Durant in town?
Who knows how the ball bounces is Klay Thompson even goes off for a thrilling nine made three-pointers. Who knows what happens that night, or in the coming weeks, or in the months after? The summer of 2016 forever changed the NBA, and who knows how much of that change never happens if Klay Thompson doesn’t catch fire on May 28th.
Truthfully that can all be set aside today. Game 6 Klay is a thing. Klay Thompson is the selfless superstar that can take over the moment without having his number called. He’s the same flamethrower that can score 60 points on 11 dribbles, only holding the ball 90 seconds, in less than three quarters of game action. He’s the NBA All-Star that has one supreme offensive skill, but is an unquestioned Hall of Famer. He’s the quiet voice in the huddle, but the reason Mike Breen emphatically exclaims “BANG!” throughout the last five NBA post-seasons.
He’s always been thought of as far from the Warrior’s MVP, but his injury and absence may have cost them a three-peat last summer.
Thompson doesn’t say much, but you cannot tell the story of the last decade in basketball history without saying Klay Thompson’s name many times. His skill set is both complimentary and suffocating. There is not a “superstar” or “alpha” in the NBA that Klay wouldn’t be a perfect fit for. He doesn’t require a lot of time with the ball in his hands, but his presence requires the defense’s attention for the entire forty-eight minutes. He guards the other teams star backcourt player to let Steph Curry or Kevin Durant focus on carrying the offensive workload, but was always running off screens to be their freed up safety valve.
It’s not that Thompson went under-appreciated in the last half-a-decade of Warrior dominance. It’s not that his quirks off the floor weren’t praised, or his stunts in China well documented. It’s that it may be impossible to ever really credit Thompson enough. Four years ago today, his performance will forever be written and appreciated in NBA history. It kept the Warriors alive against Durant and the Thunder, it led to the defeat of Durant and his exodus from Oklahoma City, and it led to the rematch with Cleveland in the Finals, setting up the most historic NBA Finals of a generation.
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