By Marc Stein
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Apart from the excruciating heat, this is my kind of August.
A major international competition looms at month’s end and International Lefthanders Day — one of my favorite holidays — falls on this Newsletter Tuesday this year.
Seeing a smattering of lefties at last week’s U.S.A.B. training camp in Las Vegas put me in the perfect mind-set to compile the 2019 edition of The New York Times’ (suddenly) annual All-Lefty Team. There were 42 players in the league last season identified as left-handed shooters, according to Basketball Reference, and four of them earned an invite to the desert to compete for a roster spot on the squad that will represent the United States in the World Cup starting Aug. 31 in China: Jalen Brunson (Dallas Mavericks); Thaddeus Young (Chicago Bulls); and the Sacramento Kings’ duo of Marvin Bagley III and De’Aaron Fox.
Unlike Major League Baseball, the N.B.A. does not officially track “handedness.” But it has always been a serious focus for me, not only as a fellow lefty but because of the inherent craftiness that all the best lefties in basketball are reputed to possess.
As the former All-Star guard Nick Van Exel, who has since joined the coaching ranks, told me last season: “I think being a lefty is always an advantage — except when we go shopping.”
Having covered Van Exel as a Lakers beat writer with the Los Angeles Daily News when we were both much younger, I relished asking Fox and Young about some of their lefty role models — and then hearing both mention Nick The Quick. Those conversations also gave me a natural (and predictably sappy) segue to the revelation of my latest All-Lefty Team selections:
James Harden (Houston Rockets) and Mike Conley (Utah Jazz)
Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic and the Washington Wizards’ Isaiah Thomas are former All-Stars on the comeback trail from injury who combined to play in just 48 games last season. Even so, narrowing down to a backcourt twosome without them was as challenging as I can remember, thanks largely to the emergence of Sacramento’s Fox and D’Angelo Russell, who was signed-and-traded to the Golden State Warriors by the Nets in July after becoming an All-Star in the East.
Harden, of course, is one of the consensus top-five players in the world. So this whole conversation starts with The Beard, who unforgettably told me for this project last summer that he “wouldn’t be where I am today” if he were right-handed.
Yet that leaves only one spot for Fox, Russell or Conley if we persist with the same format used in N.B.A. All-Star balloting: two selections in the backcourt, three in the frontcourt — with the bonus addition of a sixth man.
Fox, 21, has the most intriguing ceiling of the three, thanks to his game-changing speed, court sense and a blossoming touch as a shooter. He has work to do on his finishing and consistency but has essentially played his way onto the Gregg Popovich-coached World Cup squad by showing beyond-his-years poise in running a team.
That claim is bound to bring me more grief from the D’Angelo devotees who were already dismayed by my recent contention that Russell, with his constant need for the ball, is not a good long-term fit with the Warriors. Hopefully we can all agree that neither Fox nor Russell is quite ready to bump out Conley — although I should concede that Russell hasn’t received enough credit from me for the work he has done on his body and the leap he took as a scorer as a Net.
Conley narrowly claims the spot beside Harden as a proven shooter, shot-creator and defender arguably coming off his best individual season. He’s just a winner — someone other players want to follow. As a result, Conley’s arrival in Utah to complement the dynamic Donovan Mitchell has convinced many prognosticators that the Jazz will be a true threat in the loaded Western Conference next season.
Ben Simmons (Philadelphia 76ers), Joe Ingles (Utah Jazz) and DeAndre Jordan (Nets)
In the spring, when I got my first glimpse of Zion Williamson at Duke, I got duly swept up in Zion Fever and had a sneaky conversation with myself about potentially anointing Williamson as a member of this squad before he ever played in an N.B.A. game.
Then Williamson’s brief summer league experience with the New Orleans Pelicans, in which he airballed his first jumper and logged only nine minutes in one game after absorbing a knee-to-knee hit, led to a rethink. Zion may eventually succeed Harden as the face of International Lefthanders Day in the N.B.A., but he’s got to earn it.
The good news for Zion: He is in the right category, as a frontcourt candidate, to crack the upper echelon of Southpaws Only sooner rather than later. The choices here aren’t nearly as appetizing.
In response to the aforementioned backcourt overload that squeezed out Fox and Russell, we’ve “cheated” for the second year in a row and moved Simmons to a frontcourt spot based largely on his size. It is often suggested, after all, that Simmons — given how he moves, passes and bangs at 6 feet 10 inches — could be an ideal small-ball center in the modern game to try to offset his well-chronicled shortcomings from the perimeter. The issue there is that the center spot is not exactly a prime area of need in Philadelphia thanks to Joel Embiid.
Not that Simmons really had to worry about making this team somewhere. He is not only one of the three lefties who earned All-Star status last season (along with Harden and Russell) but he also recently scored a five-year, $170 million contract extension. Filling the frontcourt around him was the true challenge.
Ingles, a versatile and skilled glue guy, has always been a personal favorite. So I looked past his pedestrian player efficiency rating (13.4) last season and decided that Julius Randle, the Knicks’ new marquee signing, would have to duel Nets newcomer DeAndre Jordan for the final opening.
Randle is not without his critics, given his defensive deficiencies and what some scouts regard as a me-first nature offensively, but he did average a robust 21.4 points and 8.7 rebounds in New Orleans last season — and he’s just 24 years old. Randle was only snubbed here, despite that level of production, because the fact that both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving wanted Jordan’s rebounding and locker-room presence in Brooklyn could not be ignored.
Domantas Sabonis (Indiana Pacers)
Talk about daunting. For the first time in forever, there is a sixth-man opening on our All-Lefty Team because of the retirement of Manu Ginobili. That’s the same Ginobili, remember, who is destined to join Kevin McHale and Bill Walton as the only Hall of Famers who have also won the Sixth Man Award.
Sabonis, though, makes a compelling case to fill the void. He was a true sixth man who posted a player efficiency rating of nearly 22 for the Pacers last season — well above the league average of 15.
Questions persist about how well he’ll mesh long-term alongside Myles Turner, since Sabonis is not a floor-stretcher with his perimeter shot. But his arrival in the Paul George trade, alongside the All-Star guard Victor Oladipo, was a beyond-words bonus for Indiana, given his effectiveness as a rebounder at both ends and his mobility at his size.
The Scoop @TheSteinLine
To facilitate his recent trade to Houston, Russell Westbrook agreed to amend the pay schedule on his contract to make payouts more team-friendly and less front-loaded, league sources say. (Aug. 8)
One idea strongly under consideration, according to USAB sources, is Coach Gregg Popovich taking 15 or so players to Australia later this month as opposed to cutting the roster down to the 12-man limit before Team USA leaves the country. (Aug. 8)
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You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at [email protected]. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.)
Q: The two sports I follow most closely, like you, are American basketball and European soccer. And I’m fascinated by the differences and similarities between the two, especially when it comes to player movement. With the recent close of the English transfer window, I’m wondering if there’s anything you would borrow from the transfer window and apply to the N.B.A.’s trade deadline or free agency period — and vice versa? It could be anything from an actual rule to a cultural attitude or media behavior. — Jared E. Peterson
STEIN: I have to throw my racket in here and make sure I have paid homage to my top three, because I love tennis with equal gusto, but it does indeed sound as if we have lots in common. Thanks for a question you probably figured I couldn’t resist.
That said, given the frenetic manner in which star players have moved over the past three off-seasons, I don’t think the N.B.A. needs to borrow anything from any other league on the planet. #Thisleague boasts the hottest stove in sports, and I don’t see it changing for the three reasons I laid out it in this June piece I wrote for The Times’ Insider heading into the N.B.A. finals:
1. Basketball fans get to see almost everything in the social media era, which makes them thirst with increasing intensity for what goes unseen: moves their teams are plotting.
2. Also thanks to social media, we as a basketball public have been taken deeper into players’ lives, for better or worse, than any other major sport allows. The result: Fans (and media members) are invested in these “characters” and their back stories, travails and occasional feuds and flare-ups more than they have ever been. These passions are more club-based than player-based in English soccer.
3. In no other team sport can the addition of one superstar so drastically change a team’s outlook — for the simple reason that basketball is a five-on-five game.
The N.B.A. system, as a bonus, also happens to be far more democratic than international soccer’s because of the salary cap and the many trade regulations involved in establishing that trades are cap-legal. A salary cap that could work across all soccer leagues worldwide is obviously an impossible dream, but that means the richest clubs are bound to rule the transfer market forever.
Don’t get me wrong, though. The frantic nature of Transfer Deadline Day in England is certainly irresistible. That’s largely thanks to the suffocating coverage from Sky Sports News, which I must say ranks as my cofavorite sports channel (alongside Tennis Channel) since we’ve decided to get so personal here.
But I would argue that the stuff to truly envy that England has and we don’t is all tied to promotion and relegation rather than player movement. And that’s a model that just can’t be copied here no matter how often it gets thrown out as a fun hypothetical.
England has 92 professional soccer clubs across four league divisions all owned by separate entities. It’s a l-o-n-g and established ladder for teams to move up and down. I’m not sure we’ll ever even see promotion and relegation in American soccer, because Major League Soccer’s current owners are so determined to resist it by any means necessary to protect their ever-rising investments and maintain as much revenue certainty as they can.
We have so many regular-season games that are meaningless, in all of North America’s major team sports, because league status is never threatened. It would be endlessly fascinating if, say, the Knicks couldn’t miss the playoffs for six seasons in a row without some greater consequence.
Perhaps the threat of relegation is the mystical force that could finally make Jim Dolan cede control of the team to someone who would run the Knicks in a more sensible and appealing fashion.
But we’re also taking about two completely different sporting cultures. We’re likely still years (and years) away from promotion and relegation in U.S. soccer and it’s not even a structure you can picture ever being employed in basketball or baseball, so let’s end it there.
Q: You mean the weakest team “with” N.B.A. participation, since the USA roster in 1998 was certainly weaker than this one. — @contre_la_haire from Twitter
STEIN: Smart catch here from an astute reader in response to the repeated assertion, from me and others, that the @USABasketball roster for the FIBA World Cup will be the United States’ weakest since N.B.A. players were granted permission to enter international competition in 1992.
That assertion, on a technicality, is incorrect.
Because of an N.B.A. work stoppage in the summer of 1998, players with N.B.A. contracts were not allowed to join the Rudy Tomjanovich-coached U.S. team that placed third in the world championships in Greece that year.
The Americans lost two games in the 1998 Worlds by two points each and had no representation among the tournament’s top 10 scorers. The most recognizable names on Rudy’s roster included the eventual N.B.A All-Star Brad Miller and the former Nets front-office executive Trajan Langdon, who recently joined the New Orleans Pelicans.
Q: Your recent thoughts on the Christmas schedule reminded me to renew my longstanding plea for geographical proximity to be factored in. Lakers vs. Clippers is a natural for proximity as well as marquee value. There are other games that could be arranged that would allow players to be close to home on Christmas or Christmas Eve: Knicks vs. Nets, Warriors vs. Kings, Bucks vs. Bulls, etc. — Bill Ireland
STEIN: There is certainly some merit to your sentiments for the players’ sake, since so many of them, deep down, would understandably rather be with their families on Christmas.
But on what is widely regarded as the pinnacle of the N.B.A.’s regular-season calendar, it’s understandable that both the league and its television partners want to schedule the teams they believe can attract the biggest audiences.
Focusing on regional rivalries wouldn’t deliver that sort of interest — and it wouldn’t be fair to make it a policy to pick the same teams over and over for Christmas duty based purely on the map.
A total of 131 days will have elapsed between June 13, when Toronto clinched its first N.B.A. championship with a Game 6 victory at Golden State, and opening night of the 2019-20 N.B.A. season on Oct. 22.
The English Premier League, by comparison, went a mere 89 days between official matches between its May 12 finale last season and this season’s opener last Friday.
There are 17 Canadian players with guaranteed N.B.A. contracts next season, as counted last week by my Toronto-based pal @MichaelGrange, but only three have kept their names in for Canada’s entry in the FIBA World Cup in China. They are: Indiana’s Cory Joseph, Miami’s Kelly Olynyk and Orlando’s Khem Birch.
Russell Westbrook is owed $171.1 million over the final four years of his contract, with the Houston Rockets absorbing that total via trade last month. As @NYTSports first reported last week, Westbrook agreed to restructure the payment schedule on the contract to ensure that the trade would go through, thus sparing Tilman Fertitta, Houston’s team owner, from massive upfront payments previously stipulated in Westbrook’s deal.
The amendments have reduced the amounts owed by the Rockets to Westbrook on Aug. 1 and Oct. 1 from 25 percent of his $38.5 million salary next season to 12.5 percent in each of those first two payments, @NYTSports has learned. Those two installments have thus been reduced from $9.6 million each to $4.8 million each.
Hit me up anytime on Twitter (@TheSteinLine) or Facebook (@MarcSteinNBA) or Instagram (@marcsteinnba). Send any other feedback to [email protected].
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