It's hard to say when NBA Twitter first found each other, but it's possible that its first cult hero was Brandon Jennings. He had a built-in constituency among those of us who feel the one-and-done rule encapsulated everything wrong and paternalistic with David Stern's post-Palace vision of the league, and Jennings had the game to back up his bold move to skip college for a year among the Romans.
Jennings was his era's Kevin Garnett: a young man who chose his own path and did it on his terms when the majority of the basketball establishment wasn't merely against him, there were sizable portions waiting anxiously for him to fail. Unlike KG, Jennings didn't inspire a generation of followers, which makes his decision all the more remarkable. His first month in the league produced numbers that trumped Linsanity -- witness that 55-point outburst against the Warriors -- and in his very first game he nearly recorded a triple-double.
"Yeah, we lost that game, though," he said shaking his head. "I'd rather have this one."
This one was a 21-point, 13-assist, six-steal tour de force against the Celtics and one of his primary tormentors in Rajon Rondo. They had met 10 times before Friday night's matchup and Rondo had won seven, often in convincing fashion. "He didn't just have good games, he owned me. I'll be honest," Jennings said. "But this is a different year. I know I have to be more aggressive."
It must be strange to be no longer a phenom at the age of 23, and while there have been flashes of brilliance, Jennings has never been able to sustain that incredible shooting that marked his first month in the league. "Just become more efficient," his coach Scott Skiles said when asked what his point guard needed to do to achieve that long-sought breakthrough, and those four words define him as much as those ill-advised step-back jumpers he's still prone to take on occasion.
It wasn't really a surprise that Jennings and the Bucks didn't agree on an extension before Wednesday's deadline, but that doesn't mean it didn't sting when classmates from the 2009 draft like Ty Lawson, Stephen Curry and Jrue Holiday landed sizable paydays.
"Just makes me hungrier," Jennings said. "I've been through this situation before when I went to Oak Hill, when I went to Europe people kept saying it's not going to work, it's not going to do that. All I'm going to do is go out there and play basketball and let everything else work out for itself."
Their gain is Jennings' opportunity. With those three off the market, Jennings will hit restricted free agency as one of the top point guards available this summer and, for all the knocks on his game, his talent is evident. Yes, that pesky shooting percentage needs to rise, but Jennings has produced solid playmaking numbers, he's careful with the ball and he's been durable.
"He likes to play. He's been easy to coach. This is a big year for him," Skiles said. "You never know how that's going to effect today's player. Some guys can play right through stuff like that and some guys succumb to it. You never know."
Equally unknown is how the Jennings/Monta Ellis backcourt will perform. In short time, they produced tremendous numbers offensively, but the concern has always been defense. The Bucks stacked the roster with scores of big men to protect the paint to go along with a handful of shooters on the wing, and the whole thing may be just crazy enough to work. Ellis has an early termination option after this season and both players have sizeable incentive to figure it out.
"They get along. They pass the ball to each other. They move the ball to their teammates," Skiles said. "I haven't really seen any issues."
So, Brandon Jennings stands at a crossroads. No longer a rebel with a cause, he's simply trying to carve out a place for himself among the rest of his point guard peers.
"I'm just trying to go out there and compete every night, whether I shoot bad or not," he said. "Just as long as every guard knows that I gave my all and they felt me that night."
GRADING THE EXTENSIONS
James Harden, Houston (5 years, $80 million): A+
The easiest call on the list. Harden is the long-sought game changer for the Rockets, who instantly makes them a playoff contender and keeps their options open to add another big contract at some point in the future. Harden will not only produce huge numbers, he will also take some of the playmaking pressure off Jeremy Lin, which should allow both players to thrive.
Let's not cry crocodile tears for the Thunder, however. GM Sam Presti had choices to make and signing Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka are easily defensible moves. Does anyone seriously think Presti didn't factor Harden into either of those decisions? Further, can anyone seriously begrudge a player taking $25 million more to play a leading role? Please.
It's possible to say that Presti made a fine deal under the circumstances and also think that the Thunder are worse off in the short run. That's the business of basketball, and what's more, that's exactly the business model the owners risked losing an entire season to put in place. If you want to blame anyone for the premature breakup of a potentially great team, blame them.
There's a not-insignificant injury risk here, owing to past history as well as Griffin's kamikaze style, not to mention the looming issue of Chris Paul's free agency that could change everything about the way the Clippers have been built. There's also the notion that Griffin's game lacks polish and that his free throw shooting could be a major concern. However. This is the Clippers we're talking about, and when a franchise player comes along who also happens to be a marketing dream, you don't pull a David Kahn and give him a reason to think about looking elsewhere.
Ty Lawson, Denver (4 years, $48 million): A-
The winner of the semi-annual Rajon Rondo award for the extension that will only look better with time. Lawson is a really good player, but these deals can't be viewed in a vacuum. He's a really good player for a team that has been built with the whole in mind as much as the individual parts, and paired with the likes of Danilo Gallinari and Andre Iguodala, he's the right fit at the right time.
Stephen Curry, Golden State (4 years, $44 million): B+
The only drawback here is Curry's notoriously flinty ankle, and to be fair, that's a very big concern. Yet the upside is too great to ignore and if Curry holds up, the deal will look like a steal. The Warriors have made so many catastrophically bad decisions in the past that it's easy to write this off as yet another blunder, but no one ever got better in this league by playing safe.
Jrue Holiday, Philadelphia (4 years, $40 million): B
I'm less enthused about Holiday's long-term projection, but at the same time it's a fair deal for a player with upside on a team in transition. No one really knows what the Sixers will look like now or in the future. So much depends on Andrew Bynum's knees and how long Doug Collins continues as coach. Even if Holiday ultimately grades out as a good but not great playmaker, it's still a solid investment.
Taj Gibson, Chicago (4 years, $38 million): B
An average annual value of $9.5 million is a little steep for a 27-year-old rebounding and defensive specialist, but once the Bulls let Omer Asik walk, locking up Gibson became a priority and the price isn't ultimately that exorbitant. Gibson is what he is and he's very good at the things he does.
DeMar DeRozan, Toronto (4 years, $40 million): D
Ziller already hit the major points, and at the risk of piling on DeRozan (who by all accounts is a wonderful guy), this makes no sense. The Raps have already committed starter money to Landry Fields (whoops) and drafted Terrence Ross, who is younger and considerably cheaper. So what was the rush in locking up a player who has shown little to no improvement in his three years in the league? (Grade inflated on the off chance DeRozan becomes more than Ron Mercer redux.)
STATS AND STUPID
It's hard to tell where Doug Collins was going when he told the Philadelphia Inquirer that advanced stats made him want to pull a Travis Bickle, but it's difficult to take his dismissal too seriously. In the brief amount of time I've been around Collins, he's talked about lineups and possessions like any other stat-geek. He even mentioned that he has a guy -- that's how he described him, "a guy" -- who prepares reams of information for the coach to process on a nightly basis.
SB Nation's own Derek Bodner has spent considerably more time around Collins and he came to much the same conclusion.
He might not know what PER is an acronym for, or the calculation that goes into figuring out a players win shares, but I think Doug Collins probably understands the tenets of what statisticians speak.
That's the thing. Whether Collins knows it or not, he's basically talking the same language as any other statistically-inclined analyst. Just a hunch, but if he were to sit down with say, Kevin Pelton, over a beer and talk hoops, they'd be hashing out concepts by the time the next round was on its way.
Here's the other thing. This isn't another referendum on stats vs. old school. That war is over and the smart kids won.
You can see it throughout the league, where people like Pelton are working for the Pacers. You can hear it when coaches, both old and new school, talk about the importance of efficiency. You can see it in major media outlets like Grantland, who smartly snapped up Zach Lowe. You can even see it in Philly where they hired Aaron Barzilai, the creator of the invaluable basketballvalue.com that geeks like myself spend hours poring over every single day.
All of these tools are important for anyone who cares about basketball, but that's all they are: tools. The geeks didn't reinvent the wheel, they just discovered a better way to tell stories with numbers than the old per-game averages that everyone used for so long. They also happened to jive with what a lot of really smart coaches thought about basketball for years but didn't have the ability to quantify. Stats don't lie, people do. In the right hands, they provide context that helps tell a more complete picture of whatever's happening on the court.
They are also just one component of a larger idea. The easy availability of video scouting has changed everything. If League Pass was crack for NBA junkies, then Synergy is its methamphetamine. The notion that nerds don't watch the game is the single dumbest thing about the so-called debate. Their Twitter feeds reveal that much.
Our eyes tell us a lot, but numbers help tell us whether they're true. They also provide hints for what we should be watching, not just what we think is important. In many ways, Collins has earned the right to trust his gut. He's lived several basketball lives and lived them well. I just seriously doubt that all he's using when making decisions is his well-honed intuition.
In the matter of Rondo v. Wade ... Dwyane Wade called Rondo's flagrant foul a punk play. Rondo fired back, saying he's not the one with a history of dirty plays. Just so we understand the situation: Two of the best players in the league -- who also happen to be competitive to the point of psychosis -- don't really like each other very much. What's the problem? The Heat come to Boston in late January for a nationally-televised Sunday showdown and everyone will be watching. That's not a bad thing.
The Suns' new-look home court is what happens when you cross Oregon State's floor with a Ken Kesey-fueled fever dream ... Having grown up on the real Princeton offense, it's safe to say Bob Scrabis and Kit Mueller are rolling over in their grave ... On the list of tortured Kevin Garnett analogies, playing like a pack of hyenas ranks somewhere between cooking with KG -- aka the tortilla incident -- and equating playing for Doc Rivers with life under Castro. His DVR history must be fascinating.