Minute Basketball: Regrets

  
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If you don’t have any regrets, then you haven’t actually lived. 

I don’t know where I heard that first, but I do know that I hear it pretty regularly coming from inside my own head. It’s good to be positive! 

It’s the same in the NBA. You’re supposed to have a short memory, in that if you make a mistake on one end, miss a shot or a blockout, you can’t let it affect your behavior on the other end. There’s no time in a basketball game to pout or remember. There’s no time for regrets. You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take, as Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan were both reputed to have said.

At the same time, regrets are what differentiate the best from the role players in the NBA. It also differentiates normal basketball players from good ones, even if they don’t make the NBA. When I lived in Kingston, I met a friend who played pro ball in Germany and held a number of records at Queens University, since broken. He told me a story about scoring 40-odd points in a big game, but missing a free throw late in a close loss. He was still furious, a decade later. It was visceral.

Those same regrets in the NBA inspire greatness. Kyle Lowry still aches to talk about being blocked at the buzzer of game seven against the Brooklyn Nets. He hides as much of himself as possible from the media, but he can’t hide that. 

Hiding emotion from the media is what inspires Kawhi Leonard to work out after games. (Does he still lift weights for hours after games in Los Angeles to duck the media? I don’t know) While most players hit the game court after emotional losses for the photo op, some truly do it because of their regrets. Those players, to be as dull as possible, are built different.

So regrets can be helpful, if painful. Or sometimes, in the case of the 1984 Houston Rockets, you can make a technical mistake but live happily ever after. On the other hand, a failure to even try, a lack of action, could be the most regrettable thing of all.

This week in Minute Basketball: Regrets.

Zatzman - Regretting the Draft

Do you think the Houston Rockets regret not picking Michael Jordan in the 1984 draft? Probably, in a sense, but in a much larger sense? No, not at all. Akeem Olajuwon (the ‘H’ would be added later) was dominant at the University of Houston, leading the nation in rebounding and blocks. He practically didn’t miss from the field. He was a unanimous home-run pick, akin to LeBron James in 2003. And ten years later, the Rockets won two consecutive championships with Olajuwon in the driver’s seat. That’s a larger-than-expected return for a first overall pick. You do it again, of course you pick Jordan. But you’re pretty happy with the returns on Olajuwon. The man was peerless in many ways, if not as many as Air Jordan.

Unfortunately, Jordan didn’t go second in that draft either. The Portland Trail Blazers picked before the Chicago Bulls, and they already rostered a young and promising shooting guard in Clyde Drexler (interestingly enough, Olajuwon’s teammate at the University of Houston). They decided to pick a big man in Sam Bowie. I will believe forever that, like Greg Oden over a decade later, if Bowie’s knees had held up, he would have been a star. But they didn’t hold up, and the Trail Blazers ended up passing on Jordan for a player who averaged 10.9 points per game in a 10-year career. 

So there are mistakes you do not regret and mistakes you very much regret. 

Which will it be for the Sacramento Kings in passing on Luka Doncic to select Marvin Bagley III?

The Kings are already on the wrong side of the regret tracks in the reason why they passed on Doncic. They made the choice because they already rostered De’Aaron Fox, a promising young guard (see the similarities to the Blazers in 1984?) who needed the ball in his hands. And like Bowie for the Blazers, Bagley has been unspectacular for the Kings. He may well end up with the best years of his career played elsewhere. But Fox. Oh my do the Kings have something magical in De’Aaron Fox.

My guy Samson wrote about Fox previously for Minute Basketball in our Your Own Worst Enemy episode. As always, he did a wonderful job. It’s worth checking in on Fox half a year later. This is what Samson wrote then:

He’s adventurous, pulling up off-the-dribble, as most talented point guards are, but perhaps it’s best that he continues to do what he’s best at, and allows for moderate progression from downtown… Of course it would be nice if Fox became a heat-pump from downtown, but that’s rarely the outcome of these situations… You have the roadrunner and a pogo stick packaged into one player, let him wreak havoc with those attributes. The Kings need to stop being their own worst enemy.

Clever, as Samson always is. But it seems Fox may have bucked the trend and progressed in exactly the area that Samson recognized was his greatest need: pull-up shooting. Fox has never shot above 35.9 percent on pull-up 3s, but over his last 10 games, he’s been scorching the twine at a 38.0 percent clip. That’s not Steph Curry level, but it’s enough to punish defenders who already live in terror of his drives. Fox has said that for the first time in his career, defenders are chasing him over screens. Thus his pull-up shooting buys him space to devour the paint like Godzilla. If he can keep hitting those shots, all the NBA will be his, like Simba claiming all the light touched in The Lion King.

Not coincidentally, the Kings are 7-3 over their last 10 games during an exceptionally tough stretch. Fox has turned into a legitimate superstar, as dominant on the offensive end as anyone else in the league during the last 10 games. If he can keep hitting those shots, then he could, in the perfect context, feasibly be the best player on a championship team.

You know who’s struggled over the last 10 games? Predestined superstar Luka Doncic. The Dallas Mavericks have gone 4-6 as Doncic continues to shoot clunkers on pull-up 3s, something that, for all his frequency in attempting the shot, he has never mastered. 

I am, of course, being hyperbolic. One 10-game stretch does not a career make. But for the first time, the Kings have another perspective, a disembodied glimpse of their own fateful draft-day decision in 2018. And in this manic dream, the Kings may not have any regrets. Surely, like the Rockets, given another chance, they would pick differently. But for the first time, Fox may yet have them comfortable with their decisions regardless.

Folk - What If?

How many players are there in the NBA, currently, that could be the best player on a championship team? The list would vary depending on who you ask, of course, but it must be a bigger list than most people would think, right? Every once in a while someone comes out of nowhere, and surely there’s a few players in the league who can get to that level in sequence with their team. It’s true, success in the NBA is generally limited to certain players in certain eras, but anyone can crash the party and eat the cake in front of everybody. Pistons, Raptors, Mavericks - party crashers and cake eaters, the lot of them. Aside from eating cake, they’re shrewd team builders, and opportunistic sharks. 

That’s what makes the NBA so fun, right? The Rockets had a generational talent, one of the best offensive players ever, and they went for it, and they lost. Facing off against one of the most impressive rosters ever assembled and coming inches short. As far as pure talent goes, that Rockets team might be one of the best of the past 15 years. And yet Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, Kyle Lowry, and Pascal Siakam all have a championship ring that James Harden and Chris Paul don’t have. The Raptors were very low risk for a long time, until they weren’t, and now they have a banner. It’s not just being willing to push the chips in, you have to do it at the right time and for the right pot. How do you even begin to look for what works if you don’t have Kevin Durant or LeBron James? Especially the latter. 

This brings me to the Boston Celtics. Push. The. Fucking. Chips. In. 

Holding onto Jaylen Brown has (according to rumours) held up numerous blockbusters in Beantown. The reasoning? Well, they thought that Brown would become an absolute star, and he’s very much there right now. Brown paired with Jayson Tatum is the type of high-level talent that, quite frankly, puts you in a position where you have to get to a Finals appearance or two - and build the type of team that actually wins one. It’s lazy work on my end to point at a team and say “make it happen”, but if there was one team who you could point to for this type of executive action, it would be the Celtics. If Tatum wasn’t on your list of “guys who can win the chip as the #1 option” Brown has probably taken the requisite leap - I mean, he’s been one of the league’s best shot-creators, that’s a huge deal -  that allows the Celtics to push earlier than they expected and to keep pushing year after year as they both grow. 

They’re at the intersection of the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets. At least the Rockets did everything in their power to fight the Titans of their era. The Thunder didn’t realize that the opportunity was in their hands, and meant to be seized. Instead, they sacrificed the present for the future and by proxy of their lack of purpose for the young quartet of James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and Serge Ibaka, they helped create a dynasty elsewhere. They accomplished more than the Rockets, sure, but which team got closer to their ceiling?

Maybe it’s just me. But, when you zoom out, most people would rather regret action than indecision, at least opportunity is usually couched in with action. 

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