VICE Sportshttps://sports.vice.com/en_usRSS feed for https://sports.vice.comenFri, 14 Dec 2018 17:25:38 +0000<![CDATA[Refreshingly Honest Joakim Noah Admits He Was "Too Lit" to Play in New York]]>https://sports.vice.com/en_us/article/439pgm/refreshingly-honest-joakim-noah-admits-he-was-too-lit-to-play-in-new-yorkFri, 14 Dec 2018 17:25:38 +0000It's really endearing to think of new Memphis Grizzlies center Joakim Noah as a party animal, because he puts out such a chill-ass vibe. But that's apparently how the man thinks of himself, along with a lot of other people, too.

In an interview on the "Chris Vernon Show" in Memphis, Noah talked about his hardship finding his place in New York from 2016 until the Knicks unceremoniously waived him this October. But when Vernon asked him to pinpoint why he struggled, Noah landed on one particular thing that he thought dragged him down:

“I can look back at it and say I was ready for New York City," Noah said with a bit of a smile. "But I wasn’t. Not just the pressure. I remember after the first game I had 60 people in my house. I’m too lit to play in New York City. Memphis is perfect for me.”

Aside from the fact that now it's a dad joke (he is a dad) for the 33-year-old to use the word "lit," Noah also said that it was different from his turnt days with the Bulls. “We were lit in Chicago but I was young so you recover faster," Noah said almost wistfully.

And while Noah's lower profile only grabbed a couple of party-related headlines about his penchant to rage, apparently his teammates were afraid to accept an invite to 1 Oak or whatever. Per the New York Daily News:

Noah’s partying was well known and young players, including fellow Frenchman Frank Ntilikina, were told not to go out with him, according to a source.

On December 4, Noah was picked up by the Memphis Grizzlies, and seems to be grateful for being plucked from the New York Party scene. Here's more from his chat with Vernon:

“When I got kicked off the team, it was New York Fashion Week and I was getting paid a lot of money and I had no direction,” he said. “And so I really had to make a decision of how I wanted to live my life because if I kept going in the direction I was going and staying in New York I probably wouldn’t be here right now.”

Well, it's only been ten days since he moved to Memphis, let's just hope he doesn't discover that they have clubs there too.

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439pgmLiam Daniel PierceSean NewellBasketballsportsnbaChicago BullsNew York KnicksLITmemphis grizzliesjoakim noah
<![CDATA[Edson Barboza Vs. Dan Hooker or: Speed Vs. Cunning]]>https://sports.vice.com/en_us/article/7xymaq/edson-barboza-vs-dan-hooker-or-speed-vs-cunningFri, 14 Dec 2018 15:45:00 +0000While there is plenty of MMA action scheduled over the next few days, the co-main event of the UFC’s card might be the most exciting fight of the weekend. Edson Barboza is a known commodity—he kicks extremely hard and fast, and he can do it over and over until his opponent’s insides are pulp. Dan Hooker, meanwhile, is a bit more of an undercard star, quietly building up a head of steam and a following amongst hardcore fans. For Barboza, this is the first non-wrestler he has met since 2017 and a chance to shine once more. For Hooker it is the most dangerous opponent of his career but the chance to leap from fringe Top 15 fighter straight into the Top Ten talk.

Since going up to lightweight, Hooker has done a wonderful job of deconstructing dangerous strikers. Take, for instance, Hooker’s UFC lightweight debut against Ross Pearson. Pearson is long in the tooth, but still good at what he does: slipping and countering; he has one of the nicest inside slips and counter left hooks to ever grace mixed martial arts. Hooker did everything you want to see a Pearson opponent do. He threw high kicks and front kicks to the face, making Pearson cautious about ducking or slipping. Hooker jabbed Pearson when Pearson stood upright or pursued with his head in place, and feinted whenever Pearson felt like he had a read on Hooker. He scored heavy low kicks when Pearson was out at range. When Pearson finally began to crowd Hooker a little more effectively, and used his head movement to stay inside of Hooker’s tremendous height and reach, Hooker timed a dip and met Pearson with a knee.

Marc Diakese was acrobatic and explosive, a thunderous knockout puncher and a deviously fast kicker, but Hooker bamboozled Diakiese at range. From the get go Diakiese was ready for a fire fight and when Hooker would show him the glimmer of a shoulder feint and Diakiese would leap into a counter kick that came nowhere close.

Hooker slowed the pace down, drew Diakese out with distance and feints, and made him look very average before submitting him in the third round. Most recently Hooker starched the very highly regarded Gilbert Burns in a higher paced affair where he took a few more shots than usual.

This is what makes this Barboza fight so interesting: Hooker likes a lower pace and a longer range, while all of Barboza’s problems in the cage have come against opponents who have crowded and flustered him. Hooker was the one calling for this fight so he must have some ideas, but a measured fight at long range seems like the type of bout that Barboza—with his insanely fast power kicks—can show his best looks in. Either Hooker will have to change his usual game up and get on the front foot, or he will have to beat Barboza at his own game which would certainly be a feat.

The wheel kick is almost synonymous with Barboza now. He sets it up as a counter to the opponent’s forward motion by retreating to draw the opponent on. This makes it more likely that he will have a target than if he went at the opponent trying to spin on the lead. Kevin Lee, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Anthony Njokuani, and Terry Etim all walked onto this kick.

The UFC’s show this weekend is headlined by a rematch between Kevin Lee and Al Iaquinta. Iaquinta won the first fight back in February 2014. Beef with the UFC kept Iaquinta on the sidelines for almost two years after a questionable split decision victory over Jorge Masvidal in April 2015, but Iaquinta stepped in to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov on short notice at UFC 223 and won tremendous goodwill from the MMA fanbase and media. So much so that with only one victory in the last two years—over the ghost of Diego Sanchez—Iaquinta is inconceivably ranked as the No. 8 lightweight in the world on the UFC’s official rankings. A stark reminder that the UFC rankings are voted for by just 14 men and none of them really know what they’re doing.

Kevin Lee, on the other hand, has gone from strength to strength since the first match with Iaquinta. He reeled off four victories, but then suffered a TKO at the hands of Leonardo Santos in December 2015. In recent years Lee has submitted Michael Chiesa and Francisco Trinaldo, technically knocked out Jake Matthews, and bludgeoned Edson Barboza into a mercy stoppage, with a solid performance against Tony Ferguson in an interim title fight in the middle.

Yet with one good right hand, Iaquinta could steal all of Lee’s work and leave him behind. That is Iaquinta’s gift: good wrestling and a monstrous right hand. While Lee is a powerhouse wrestler in his own right, he had a good deal of difficulty getting Iaquinta down on his terms in the first match. Lee’s striking is slowly catching up to the potential of his freakish 80 inch reach, but he is still fairly hittable on occasion. Yet Lee’s kicking game has looked strong of late and Iaquinta really is limited to the right hand for the most part. It is a decent fight for a Fight Night card.

Bellator Hawaii

The rest of the weekend’s action comes from Bellator, who are hosting a pair of cards in Honolulu. Hawaii has always had a strong MMA fanbase and has a great history of significant fights. In Rumble on the Rock, Jake Shields, Anderson Silva, and Yushin Okami fought in a welterweight grand prix, and B.J. Penn took on a young upstart named Takanori Gomi and taught him that he’d have to be more than a blanketing wrestler if he hoped to be the true number one lightweight in the world. In fact, the current UFC featherweight champion, Max Holloway can’t do a single interview without calling for UFC: Hawaii, so Bellator will certainly be banking some goodwill from MMA fans with this move.

On Friday night, the consensus best lightweight outside the UFC, Michael Chandler will meet Brent Primus for a long, long awaited rematch. In June 2017 Primus challenged Chandler for the title, but the champion turned his ankle and found himself on the end of one of the strangest losses in Bellator history. The referee didn’t allow the fight to go on and sort itself out—the standard procedure when a fighter suffers an injury—but instead called a time out and ushered in the doctor to examine the ankle. The doctor called off the fight but calling a time out for anything but a foul is pretty much unheard of in MMA.

Fans would have been skeptical if Primus stepped in and finished Chandler as Chandler was injured, but the referee didn’t even allow that to happen, so Primus has wound up looking like a paper champion. Moreover, Chandler has been staying busy but it has taken 18 months to get Primus back into the cage for the rematch. But Primus is a gigantic lightweight, a good wrestler and a powerful kicker, there’s nothing to say he can’t make it happen again if Chandler can’t put him away.

On Saturday’s card, Hawaii’s own Ilima-Lei Macfarlane defends her flyweight title against Valerie Létourneau. It isn’t a match up that is going to set the internet ablaze but Létourneau is tough and always good for a scrap, and Macfarlane has arm-barred her last three opponents and gone 7-0 since signing with Bellator. Not a bad turnaround for a woman who first found MMA fame after her legendary mismatch against The Soccer Mom. She even won her title via Dead Orchard—an arm bar made famous by Nathan Orchard which is completed by triangling the legs over the opponent’s shoulder rather than by passing the leg over the head.

A UFC legend is set to make his Bellator debut on Saturday’s card as well. Lyoto Machida’s best days are in the rear view mirror but he might still have it in him to beat former Bellator middleweight champion, Rafael Carvalho. Middleweight is Bellator’s weakest division and it is likely that they want to set up a largely unnecessary rematch between champion Gegard Mousasi and the aged Machida.

We have written extensively about Bellator’s welterweight tournament and how it might just be the best thing going on in MMA. Friday’s card finally gets the tournament moving along as Neiman Gracie and Ed Ruth open up the second bracket. Ruth is considered the Daniel Cormier of the tournament: an incredibly accomplished wrestler with dynamite in his fists, but also largely untested in MMA. It would not be at all surprising if Ruth were to run all the way to the finals based on his potential but it would still be a tremendous feat. Neiman Gracie, meanwhile, has quietly picked up the mantle of the Gracie name in MMA and while he isn’t as well known as Kron Gracie he has done good work in Bellator so far.

A solid weekend of fights all around, and if that’s still not enough for you, Invicta and Cage Warriors are both putting on events too. Get back here Monday and we’ll discuss the best bits.

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7xymaqJack SlackSean NewellsportsMMAUFCFIGHTLANDcombat sportsedson barbozadan hooker
<![CDATA[The Dallas Mavericks Rookie No One is Talking About]]>https://sports.vice.com/en_us/article/3k94yj/the-dallas-mavericks-rookie-no-one-is-talking-about-not-luka-doncicFri, 14 Dec 2018 14:30:00 +0000The below has been excerpted from this week's Outlet Pass, to get caught up on everything else you need to know in the NBA this week read the rest of the column here.

Jalen Brunson is a 22-year-old rookie, which, contrary to popular belief, actually doesn’t make him a puddle of toxic waste. He's solid, has room to grow, and, based on very little besides the fact that they attended the same school, are both strong as hell and were overlooked on their respective draft nights, why can’t he also be the next Kyle Lowry? Brunson sets great screens, makes smart passes, and plays with a scrappy fearlessness on both ends that partially mitigates his lack of gravity.

When Lowry entered the league he didn’t have a three-point shot. Brunson was only 9-for-33 from deep heading into Wednesday night's win over the Atlanta Hawks, despite shooting just under 40 percent in three years at Villanova. But that hardly defines his contribution. Minutes have been sparse off one of the league's most effective benches, but as Dennis Smith, Jr.'s temporary replacement in the starting lineup, Brunson has come equipped with a nifty floater and Metal Gear Solid off-ball movement along the baseline; he already makes the little Marcus Smart-esque plays that impact winning. The Mavericks have absolutely owned the defensive glass when Brunson is on the floor and box-outs like the one below on Sheck Wes Iwundu help clarify why that is:

There was also one play against the Houston Rockets that really stood out, where Brunson challenged P.J. Tucker off the dribble, then separated with a short baseline turnaround along the baseline. Not too many (zero?) rookie point guards are making this play right here.

As the reigning NCAA Player of the Year, a two-time national champion, and someone who clearly isn't fazed by the NBA, Brunson deserves more minutes in the Mavericks's rotation, and to be taken more seriously as an important part of their exciting young core. Hopefully, after DSJ comes back, Rick Carlisle can figure out a way to keep him on the floor.

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3k94yjMichael PinaSean NewellBasketballsportsnbarick carlislejalen brunsonthe outlet pass
<![CDATA[The 5 Worst Contracts in the NBA]]>https://sports.vice.com/en_us/article/59vq43/the-5-worst-contracts-in-the-nba-chris-paul-houston-rocketsFri, 14 Dec 2018 14:15:00 +0000The below has been excerpted from this week's Outlet Pass, to get caught up on everything else you need to know in the NBA this week read the rest of the column here.

Remember the amnesty provision? That hilariously cruel mulligan each NBA franchise was awarded by collective bargaining negotiations just after the turn of the decade? Back then, long before the salary cap spiked, the length of a contract had enough power to prevent an entire fanbase from knowing how “hope” or “joy” truly felt. But now “bad contract” is almost an oxymoron. They still have the power to restrict flexibility but none are definitively untradable. Not every team needs to shed someone from their books, though there are a few deals that already/will inevitably keep general managers up at night. Here are the five worst.

1. Andrew Wiggins - $146.6 million through 2023

Wiggins may still become a quality NBA player, but nobody should argue against him being first on this list. He turns 24 in February, is already in his fifth season, has never come close to making an All-Star team and doesn’t project to ever do so. If someone asked “what’s your favorite Andrew Wiggins moment?” could you even name one? He’s barely making 40 percent of his two-point shots and is ten percent less accurate at the rim than he was a year ago.

There has been no progress as a rebounder, defender, or playmaker, and aside from the uptick in threes and changing hairstyle, he’s the exact same person today that he was when Cleveland drafted him first overall. That player possesses unteachable athletic gifts and is not astonishingly terrible, but how many first-round picks would the Timberwolves need to attach if they wanted to get off it? Two? Good luck to whichever team is paying Wiggins the $33.3 million he's due in 2023.

Until then, the Timberwolves are an independent record label that bet the farm on an incoherent Soundcloud rapper who isn’t gregarious, seductive, or talented enough to infiltrate the mainstream. It’s a sunk cost, and an embarrassing one at that.

2. John Wall - $188.5 million through 2023—including a player option

While there’s a small chance Wiggins actually improves through the life of his current contract, the same can’t be said about Wall, who, while not close to bad, isn’t young or consistently healthy enough to transform his game for the better. Wall is 28 years old but turns 32 right before the $46.8 million player option on this contract transforms whichever city he’s living in to Pompeii circa 79 A.D.

While his numbers remain All-Star caliber and his speed off a high screen is too blurry to comprehend, Wall's outside shooting has regressed, and for the first time since his rookie year the Wizards are better on offense when he's not on the floor. To justify this contract, Wall either needs to be the best player on his team, or the side-kick to someone good enough to make the Wizards a title contender. Right now neither is true. That’s a pretty big problem that doesn’t even speak to Wall's penchant for taking plays off on the other end, impersonating a statue whenever a shot goes up as his man rushes by to tip in the miss or grab the rebound. (He averages a comical 0.3 box outs per game, while averaging just over 34 minutes a night. Yikes.)

There’s a reason trading this version of Wall is so difficult, and, to be frank, wouldn't be easy even if his contract weren't a grand piano dangling overhead by a strand of dental floss. He's a point guard in decline, with weaknesses that don't mesh with the league's most irreversible trends. I personally enjoy watching him play, but that's because I'm not a 12-year-old Wizards fan.

3. Dion Waiters - $36.3 million through 2021

So, like, is Dion Waiters ever going to play again? His most recent game was December 22, 2017, and there’s no timetable for his return from [checks notes] instability in the left ankle. The dollar amount on this one isn’t a cap crippler, but $36.3 million is a lot of money to pay someone not to play, and couldn't strike the fear of God into anyone when he was 100 percent healthy. I wonder if/when the Miami Heat stretch Waiters and move on.

4. Nicolas Batum - $76.6 million through 2022—including a player option

While Kemba Walker demolishes defenses with a late-career leap that’s comparable to those made recently by Steph Curry and Isaiah Thomas, the Charlotte Hornets are quietly good enough to ignore those all-too-frequent nights when Nicolas Batum doesn't show up. Last night he scored two points in 30 minutes and it didn't even feel like an outlier. His usage has plummeted and he's averaging nearly five fewer minutes than he has throughout the previous six seasons. Batum isn’t finishing at the rim or hitting above-the-break threes, either. This is a problem.

"That's my job, to help him take his offense to another level, become more of a playmaker, more usage. That will take our offense to another level," Hornets head coach James Borrego said when I asked him about Batum's dwindling production. "We've been pretty good offensively so far. Kemba's usage has been pretty high all season. We're trying to balance out the roster right now and how we're playing offensively."

It's not like Batum has been bad, but he just clearly isn't what the Hornets prayed he'd be when they signed him to this contract. His PER is a career low 11.9 and, despite being more efficient than previous years, is not even averaging nine points a night. He turns 30 tomorrow. There are so many red flags; nothing about Batum's season is particularly uplifting for a Charlotte organization that's smashing piggy banks to prepare for Walker's looming payday.

Instead of peaking, Batum turning into dust.

5. Chris Paul - $159.7 million through 2022

This take might accelerate global warming, but Paul's contract is already an anvil. He's a six-foot point guard who turns 34 in May. There's no historical precedent for this type of player being an All-Star, and there are still three more guaranteed years left the on deal. He's currently averaging the fewest points per shot in his entire career, and Houston's offense is just so-so when he's on the court. Bleh.

Paul can still skate to his signature spots and create enough space for himself from the mid-post. Every so often he'll drill a step-back three or dribble a defender out of their Nikes, but that's few and far between relative to how impressive Paul looked last year. He's banged up, and that's a reasonable excuse. But at this price point there are no asterisks; Paul needs to play at a superstar level, and his struggle equals doom for a Rockets organization that desperately needs him to shine.

It's unclear how Houston's new ownership would feel if Daryl Morey traded Paul, but that's one of two short-term options for a team that entered the season with championship expectations. How much longer can Paul’s post-prime last? What could they get for him if it became clear they wanted to move on? This is a little silly. Paul deserves the benefit of the doubt because he's an all-time legend. But if they regain health, don't turn things around, and either miss the playoffs or get bounced in the first round, major changes feel like they'll be right around the corner.

Honorable mentions: Chandler Parsons, Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love

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59vq43Michael PinaSean NewellBasketballsportsnbaHouston RocketsChris Paulthe outlet pass
<![CDATA[Here's Something Terrifying: LeBron is Adapting]]>https://sports.vice.com/en_us/article/yw7ekg/heres-something-terrifying-lebron-is-adaptingFri, 14 Dec 2018 14:00:00 +0000 The below has been excerpted from this week's Outlet Pass, to get caught up on everything else you need to know in the NBA this week read the rest of the column here.

In the first year of his second stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James went 3-of-9 on step-back threes. Four years later, we’re just 27 games into the season and James is already 17-of-32 on the same shot. I'm not sure if that volume makes this worthy of opposing scouting reports, but it belongs in there. It's at once demoralizing and a relief, a form of self-preservation that seemingly lets whoever’s guarding him exhale and wipe sweat from their forehead.

I’ve never defended LeBron one-on-one, but can imagine how glad it’d be after realizing he didn’t want to bulldoze his shoulder through my chest and dunk my whole being into oblivion. But three points are also more than two, and the threat of him careening into the paint makes the step back unguardable. It’s also the perfect counter for defenders who beat James to his spot and cut off his drive.

LeBron’s embrace of the three-point line isn’t new—nor is the step-back, which he’s pulled out of his bag from various distances in big spots throughout his career—but the pure, undisguised awareness of it is. If a path exists for him to get behind the line, even when presented with a runway to the rim, that’s what he’ll usually go down.

If you include his step-back jumpers inside the arc, LeBron’s effective field goal percentage on these shots is 71.9. (Last year it was 53.3.) Sometimes they have a comical effect, especially to those who remember how LeBron’s outside shot was treated by defenses earlier in his career, up until the San Antonio Spurs begged him to pull up—the hesitancy that came of it was the closest LeBron's ever come to feeling mortal. Now, he’s so damn comfortable out there. In the clip above, watch him completely dismiss Aaron Gordon, then barely leave his feet to drill the straightaway three. Old LeBron is Adapting LeBron, toying with the competition, taking his sweet ass time, and still evolving in his 16th season. Lord have mercy.

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yw7ekgMichael PinaSean NewellBasketballnbalebron jamesLos Angeles Lakersthe outlet pass
<![CDATA[Jerry Dipoto is So Addicted to Trades He Finalized Encarnacion Deal from Hospital]]>https://sports.vice.com/en_us/article/a3ma94/jerry-dipoto-is-so-addicted-to-trades-he-finalized-encarnacion-deal-from-hospital-seattle-marinersThu, 13 Dec 2018 21:07:42 +0000The Mariners are used to having a revolving door, with their general manager Jerry Dipoto having the itchiest trade trigger finger in MLB. But if there was one moment players could feel safe holding onto their home lease in Seattle, it would be when Dipoto was in the hospital, right? Well...

On Thursday, Dipoto decided he didn't need any rest for his wicked self, despite being hospitalized for blood clots in his lungs, because he went ahead and brokered a trade from his hospital bed anyway:

And it wasn't an uncomplicated trade either. Per the Seattle Times, Dipoto needed both the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cleveland Indians involved in order to pick up first baseman/designated hitter Edwin Encarnación. In exchange, the Mariners sent first baseman/designated hitter Carlos Santana—whom Dipoto had just picked up from the Phillies on December 3 [deep breath] not two hours after trading Robinson Cano to the Mets—back to the Indians. The Rays then received first baseman Jake Bauers from the Indians, in exchange for third baseman Yandy Diaz. But wait, there's more.

Dipoto then secured $5 million from the Rays, so that he could then go ahead and send $6 million to the Indians.

The absurdity of Dipoto trading from his hospital bed aside, it seems that Dipoto is, thankfully, recovering well and will be released from the hospital today:

According to MLB.com, Dipoto has made over 60 trades since becoming Seattle's GM in 2015, with the Rays being the most frequent team he trades with. He's even traded and reacquired two players—Patrick Kivlehan and Anthony Misiewicz—and once had a player (Mallex Smith) for just an hour, in the process of trying to Frankenstein his team up. He's traded in every month of the year since becoming Seattle's GM in 2015—except October, when, you know, baseball has other things on its mind.

But the hospital bed trade surely will stand out as the craziest. The man can't quit.

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a3ma94Liam Daniel PierceSean NewellsportsmlbBaseballtampa bay raysCleveland IndiansSeattle Marinersedwin encarnacionjerry dipoto
<![CDATA[Stadium Concessions Stands are Way More Disgusting Than You Think]]>https://sports.vice.com/en_us/article/43957p/stadium-concessions-stands-are-way-more-disgusting-than-you-thinkThu, 13 Dec 2018 16:28:55 +0000As if you needed another reason not to buy a $20 hot dog at your local stadium, a new report might make you rule out concessions all together. (Or just vomit.) A report by ESPN's Outside the Lines scoured over 16,000 food safety inspections conducted at all 111 venues from the country's big four professional sports leagues (NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL) and found that a jaw-dropping 28 percent of the stadiums had high-level sanitary standards violations at half or more of their concessions stands

Inspectors found dead mice, moldy burger buns, seafood gone awry, a food poisoning plague upon a marching band, a mouse in a box of cracker jacks, animal poop everywhere, cockroaches, employees mishandling food, beer leaking through the ceiling, pigeon infestations—you name it. The gruesome picture details a $2 billion industry that is designed to provide temporary food services that pack up and often waits for weeks at a time between services. By all accounts, concession stands at sports venues seem to be a petri dish for unsanitary conditions.

While the report makes sure to mention that incurring a high-level violation may not specifically mean that the environment is unsafe or unsanitary, it does point out why that might not be so comforting: the scale of these operations dwarf your typical restaurant where these ratings are most commonplace.

Here's Patricia Buck, the co-founder and executive director of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention, via OTL:

"There will be thousands of people at the stadium and there will be maybe 100 at a restaurant, so the sheer number of people being exposed is going to be higher, so it would tend to be riskier if something like contaminated romaine lettuce was going to be served on a taco," said Buck, referencing the recent E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce that has sickened at least 43 people in 12 states.

There's also the difficulty of tracking the full number of illnesses resulting from food poisoning, and the lack of frequency that food inspectors visit concession stands. In some cases, inspectors won't visit certain venues for over a year.

Among the worst offenders are the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina with 92 of its food outlets incurring high-level violations, the now-closed Palace of Auburn Hills near Detroit with 86.1 percent, American Airlines Center in Dallas at 83.1 percent, and Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte at 82.6 percent. Safe to say that if you're a Panthers or Hornets fan, you should probably save your pretzel cravings for later. The hallowed ground of Yankee Stadium was also up there, with 79.1 percent. We've reached out to several arenas, including Spectrum Center and Bank of America Stadium, and will update when we hear back.

One of the most frequent violations came from employees not washing their hands thoroughly enough. Due to the fleeting nature of concessions, many employees are temporary workers with a high turnover, and they don't have the proper training or frequency of work to maintain consistency. People carry diseases, people.

With thousands of people eating from these temporary food shacks that just-so-happen to be near a sporting event, you can imagine the impact of something like, say, a bad batch of lettuce. Now you know where ground zero will be for the zombie apocalypse. Let's just make a pact that we'll stick to tailgating, shall we?

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43957pLiam Daniel PiercesportsMunchiesNFLFOODnbacarolina panthersCharlotte Hornetsstadiumsconcessionsfood grossness
<![CDATA[The Godfather of D.C. Basketball was Also a Cocaine Kingpin]]>https://sports.vice.com/en_us/article/kzvkbv/the-godfather-of-dc-basketball-was-also-a-cocaine-kingpin-curtis-malone-aauThu, 13 Dec 2018 16:11:37 +0000The “godfather of D.C. basketball,” Curtis Malone guided three NBA lottery picks and hundreds of Division I players through his Washington, D.C. AAU program. Behind the scenes, however, there was something else going on and in 2014, he was convicted for his role in a massive cocaine and heroin ring.

“It’s like the most dysfunctional Robin Hood story ever,” Malone’s stepdaughter said, claiming he sold drugs only to help pay rent for players’ families or help out friends in need. RED CARDS investigates, discovering corruption and scandal behind one of the best basketball training programs in the country.

RED CARDS, presented by Ryot, is a six-part series exploring some of the most notorious true crime stories in sports. New episodes available each Tuesday.

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kzvkbvVICE Sports StaffVICE SportsDrugsBasketballsportscocaineAAUhigh school basketballred cardsRed Cards Presented by Ryotcurtis malone
<![CDATA[The Outlet Pass: All Hail LeBron's Step-Back Three]]>https://sports.vice.com/en_us/article/ev3kvp/the-outlet-pass-all-hail-lebrons-step-back-threeThu, 13 Dec 2018 15:36:02 +0000 Terrifying: LeBron is Adapting

In the first year of his second stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James went 3-of-9 on step-back threes. Four years later, we’re just 27 games into the season and James is already 17-of-32 on the same shot. I'm not sure if that volume makes this worthy of opposing scouting reports, but it belongs in there. It's at once demoralizing and a relief, a form of self-preservation that seemingly lets whoever’s guarding him exhale and wipe sweat from their forehead.

I’ve never defended LeBron one-on-one, but can imagine how glad it’d be after realizing he didn’t want to bulldoze his shoulder through my chest and dunk my whole being into oblivion. But three points are also more than two, and the threat of him careening into the paint makes the step back unguardable. It’s also the perfect counter for defenders who beat James to his spot and cut off his drive.

LeBron’s embrace of the three-point line isn’t new—nor is the step-back, which he’s pulled out of his bag from various distances in big spots throughout his career—but the pure, undisguised awareness of it is. If a path exists for him to get behind the line, even when presented with a runway to the rim, that’s what he’ll usually go down.

If you include his step-back jumpers inside the arc, LeBron’s effective field goal percentage on these shots is 71.9. (Last year it was 53.3.) Sometimes they have a comical effect, especially to those who remember how LeBron’s outside shot was treated by defenses earlier in his career, up until the San Antonio Spurs begged him to pull up—the hesitancy that came of it was the closest LeBron's ever come to feeling mortal. Now, he’s so damn comfortable out there. In the clip above, watch him completely dismiss Aaron Gordon, then barely leave his feet to drill the straightaway three. Old LeBron is Adapting LeBron, toying with the competition, taking his sweet ass time, and still evolving in his 16th season. Lord have mercy.

The Wedgie Rule

This is all-time Outlet Pass pedantry and has probably already been a topic of conversation elsewhere, but when a player's shot gets stuck between the rim and the backboard (a.k.a. a wedgie), why is there a jump ball? Why should the team that shot the ball be rewarded with a second opportunity? This doesn't make any sense. The offense did not do what they were supposed to do. The defense, however, prevented the ball from going into the basket. Give the defense possession!

Coach Cam

Last weekend, for only a few minutes, I found myself watching Duke basketball. While the game was being played, the announcers couldn't stop talking about Zion Williamson, who wasn't playing. So the camera cut to him live, sitting on the bench, watching the same action I was.

It was a little strange, but sparked an idea: What if you could opt into that same feature during an NBA broadcast, except instead of players on the bench, you'd get a zoomed-in look at each head coach? I would pay extra money for those facial expressions, to observe how they'd react to each pass, shot, and whistle. Think about how much you could learn by scanning their body language and, from there, deducing what their team should've done vs. what they did? It’d be 10,000 times more instructive than a sideline interview, and I very much hope that someday it becomes a real thing.

Jalen Brunson is...Lefty Lowry?

Jalen Brunson is a 22-year-old rookie, which, contrary to popular belief, actually doesn’t make him a puddle of toxic waste. He's solid, has room to grow, and, based on very little besides the fact that they attended the same school, are both strong as hell and were overlooked on their respective draft nights, why can’t he also be the next Kyle Lowry? Brunson sets great screens, makes smart passes, and plays with a scrappy fearlessness on both ends that partially mitigates his lack of gravity.

When Lowry entered the league he didn’t have a three-point shot. Brunson was only 9-for-33 from deep heading into Wednesday night's win over the Atlanta Hawks, despite shooting just under 40 percent in three years at Villanova. But that hardly defines his contribution. Minutes have been sparse off one of the league's most effective benches, but as Dennis Smith, Jr.'s temporary replacement in the starting lineup, Brunson has come equipped with a nifty floater and Metal Gear Solid off-ball movement along the baseline; he already makes the little Marcus Smart-esque plays that impact winning. The Mavericks have absolutely owned the defensive glass when Brunson is on the floor and box-outs like the one below on Sheck Wes Iwundu help clarify why that is:

There was also one play against the Houston Rockets that really stood out, where Brunson challenged P.J. Tucker off the dribble, then separated with a short baseline turnaround along the baseline. Not too many (zero?) rookie point guards are making this play right here.

As the reigning NCAA Player of the Year, a two-time national champion, and someone who clearly isn't fazed by the NBA, Brunson deserves more minutes in the Mavericks's rotation, and to be taken more seriously as an important part of their exciting young core. Hopefully, after DSJ comes back, Rick Carlisle can figure out a way to keep him on the floor.

Julius Randle’s Defense is Still Not Good

As an anachronistic big who’s useless outside the paint, Julius Randle has turned himself into an efficient and useful offensive player. Since he replaced Nikola Mirotic in the starting lineup on an apparent full-time basis, Randle has put up numbers worthy of All-NBA consideration in a six-game sample size.

“If you look at his numbers as a starter and what he’s done, it’s definitely something we have to sit down and talk about,” Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said, when asked if Randle’s role would permanently change.

But the Pelicans lost three of those games. And for the fourth consecutive season, Randle remains thoroughly detrimental to his team’s defense. While his All-Universe teammate Anthony Davis ranks first among power forwards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus, Randle is 91st out of 93 players. When Davis cleans up Randle’s mess (a.k.a. they play together), the Pelicans rank just outside the top-10 in defensive rating. When Randle is out there without Davis, they fall to 24th (which, coincidentally, is where New Orleans ranks overall).

None of this is a coincidence. As a bullish but undersized center, Randle doesn’t have the wingspan or intuitive awareness to affect plays as a help defender. Opponents almost shoot 60 percent at the rim when he’s near it, and so much of that number is thanks to late rotations from the weak side. According to Cleaning the Glass, New Orleans’s defensive free-throw rate ranks 23rd when he’s on the court and second (second!) when he sits. Plays like this illustrate why.

Instead of stopping Andre Drummond’s roll and forcing Reggie Jackson to either skip the ball to the opposite corner or get swallowed whole by Davis’s pressure, Randle gambles for the steal and is, per usual, a split-second slow. Sometimes he doesn’t bother to rotate at all. It’s impossible to ignore someone with Randle’s numbers, but over the long-haul Gentry may want to reconsider how his new big man’s flaws tangibly negate those impressive counting stats.

For all the rambunctious good he does when New Orleans has the ball, Randle’s game was designed to give it right back on the very next play. It’s unfair to call his stats empty, but it's also unclear how the totality of his contribution amounts to a winning player, and if the Pelicans make the playoffs, teams will go out of their way to attack him ad nauseam.

Jaylen Brown Should Dominate His New Role

As a starter, Jaylen Brown has been one of the most disappointing players in the entire league. Off the bench, he’s been a Rottweiler. Against the Pelicans on Monday night, the Boston Celtics were without Al Horford, Gordon Hayward, and Kyrie Irving, among others, but Brad Stevens still chose to bring Brown off the bench, a notable decision that forecasts long-term placement in that role. So far, for him and the team, that’s been a good thing.

Both sample sizes are extremely small (like, three or four games) and against weak competition (the Cavaliers, Knicks, and Bulls, for example), but Boston’s new starting five—which has Marcus Morris and Marcus Smart replacing Brown and Hayward—is +6 in 48 minutes, with an offense that annihilates everything in its path. The unit has a more natural hierarchy and is absent the uncertain selflessness seen from the original starting five (a group that still needs to figure each other out if the Celtics want to reach the Finals, by the way).

For now, though, Brown looks terrific. Just look at his starter vs. reserve splits, courtesy of Basketball-Reference. (On top are his 19 games as a starter.)

splits
via Basketball-Reference

While minutes are basically the same, Jaylen is thinking less than before, and, as one of the most athletic players in the world, he's finally getting to the free-throw line! As a starter, 13.3 percent of his points came at the line. As a reserve, that number has climbed up to 22.2 percent. Brown is attacking the paint without hesitation, off pin-downs and flairs and catch-and-accelerate line drives. He’s turning the corner with ease, jacking up more threes off-the-bounce, and generally resembling the free and confident blue chipper he was six months ago.

Big picture, moving Brown to the bench lets the Celtics (when healthy) start the second and fourth quarter with units that feature him, Hayward, Terry Rozier, Aron Baynes/Daniel Theis/Time Lord, and Semi Ojeleye (or literally any one of the starters). That is uncut ridiculousness and, from a talent standpoint, unmatched by every other team in basketball.

Sometimes Jaylen’s aggressiveness gets the best of him and there are two or three possessions in every game since he’s returned where his tunnel vision eclipses the correct play. But the Celtics will accept sequences like the one below—where Brown drives into a scrambling Knicks defense to draw the foul instead of kicking out to a wide-open Jayson Tatum in the strong-side corner—over those where he’s timid, limp, and forgettable.

Brown is a key part of the Celtics future, both as a trade asset and member of their ceiling-free young core. He was always too talented to stay in the slump that plagued his start, but even though 58 percent from deep isn't sustainable over the next few months, it’s crucial that he rediscovers the active, loose, and carefree elements of a skill-set that are always fun to watch.

Checking Up on the NBA’s Five Worst Contracts

Remember the amnesty provision? That hilariously cruel mulligan each NBA franchise was awarded by collective bargaining negotiations just after the turn of the decade? Back then, long before the salary cap spiked, the length of a contract had enough power to prevent an entire fanbase from knowing how “hope” or “joy” truly felt. But now “bad contract” is almost an oxymoron. They still have the power to restrict flexibility but none are definitively untradable. Not every team needs to shed someone from their books, though there are a few deals that already/will inevitably keep general managers up at night. Here are the five worst.

1. Andrew Wiggins - $146.6 million through 2023

Wiggins may still become a quality NBA player, but nobody should argue against him being first on this list. He turns 24 in February, is already in his fifth season, has never come close to making an All-Star team and doesn’t project to ever do so. If someone asked “what’s your favorite Andrew Wiggins moment?” could you even name one? He’s barely making 40 percent of his two-point shots and is ten percent less accurate at the rim than he was a year ago.

There has been no progress as a rebounder, defender, or playmaker, and aside from the uptick in threes and changing hairstyle, he’s the exact same person today that he was when Cleveland drafted him first overall. That player possesses unteachable athletic gifts and is not astonishingly terrible, but how many first-round picks would the Timberwolves need to attach if they wanted to get off it? Two? Good luck to whichever team is paying Wiggins the $33.3 million he's due in 2023.

Until then, the Timberwolves are an independent record label that bet the farm on an incoherent Soundcloud rapper who isn’t gregarious, seductive, or talented enough to infiltrate the mainstream. It’s a sunk cost, and an embarrassing one at that.

2. John Wall - $188.5 million through 2023—including a player option

While there’s a small chance Wiggins actually improves through the life of his current contract, the same can’t be said about Wall, who, while not close to bad, isn’t young or consistently healthy enough to transform his game for the better. Wall is 28 years old but turns 32 right before the $46.8 million player option on this contract transforms whichever city he’s living in to Pompeii circa 79 A.D.

While his numbers remain All-Star caliber and his speed off a high screen is too blurry to comprehend, Wall's outside shooting has regressed, and for the first time since his rookie year the Wizards are better on offense when he's not on the floor. To justify this contract, Wall either needs to be the best player on his team, or the side-kick to someone good enough to make the Wizards a title contender. Right now neither is true. That’s a pretty big problem that doesn’t even speak to Wall's penchant for taking plays off on the other end, impersonating a statue whenever a shot goes up as his man rushes by to tip in the miss or grab the rebound. (He averages a comical 0.3 box outs per game, while averaging just over 34 minutes a night. Yikes.)

There’s a reason trading this version of Wall is so difficult, and, to be frank, wouldn't be easy even if his contract weren't a grand piano dangling overhead by a strand of dental floss. He's a point guard in decline, with weaknesses that don't mesh with the league's most irreversible trends. I personally enjoy watching him play, but that's because I'm not a 12-year-old Wizards fan.

3. Dion Waiters - $36.3 million through 2021

So, like, is Dion Waiters ever going to play again? His most recent game was December 22, 2017, and there’s no timetable for his return from [checks notes] instability in the left ankle. The dollar amount on this one isn’t a cap crippler, but $36.3 million is a lot of money to pay someone not to play, and couldn't strike the fear of God into anyone when he was 100 percent healthy. I wonder if/when the Miami Heat stretch Waiters and move on.

4. Nicolas Batum - $76.6 million through 2022—including a player option

While Kemba Walker demolishes defenses with a late-career leap that’s comparable to those made recently by Steph Curry and Isaiah Thomas, the Charlotte Hornets are quietly good enough to ignore those all-too-frequent nights when Nicolas Batum doesn't show up. Last night he scored two points in 30 minutes and it didn't even feel like an outlier. His usage has plummeted and he's averaging nearly five fewer minutes than he has throughout the previous six seasons. Batum isn’t finishing at the rim or hitting above-the-break threes, either. This is a problem.

"That's my job, to help him take his offense to another level, become more of a playmaker, more usage. That will take our offense to another level," Hornets head coach James Borrego said when I asked him about Batum's dwindling production. "We've been pretty good offensively so far. Kemba's usage has been pretty high all season. We're trying to balance out the roster right now and how we're playing offensively."

It's not like Batum has been bad, but he just clearly isn't what the Hornets prayed he'd be when they signed him to this contract. His PER is a career low 11.9 and, despite being more efficient than previous years, is not even averaging nine points a night. He turns 30 tomorrow. There are so many red flags; nothing about Batum's season is particularly uplifting for a Charlotte organization that's smashing piggy banks to prepare for Walker's looming payday.

Instead of peaking, Batum turning into dust.

5. Chris Paul - $159.7 million through 2022

This take might accelerate global warming, but Paul's contract is already an anvil. He's a six-foot point guard who turns 34 in May. There's no historical precedent for this type of player being an All-Star, and there are still three more guaranteed years left the on deal. He's currently averaging the fewest points per shot in his entire career, and Houston's offense is just so-so when he's on the court. Bleh.

Paul can still skate to his signature spots and create enough space for himself from the mid-post. Every so often he'll drill a step-back three or dribble a defender out of their Nikes, but that's few and far between relative to how impressive Paul looked last year. He's banged up, and that's a reasonable excuse. But at this price point there are no asterisks; Paul needs to play at a superstar level, and his struggle equals doom for a Rockets organization that desperately needs him to shine.

It's unclear how Houston's new ownership would feel if Daryl Morey traded Paul, but that's one of two short-term options for a team that entered the season with championship expectations. How much longer can Paul’s post-prime last? What could they get for him if it became clear they wanted to move on? This is a little silly. Paul deserves the benefit of the doubt because he's an all-time legend. But if they regain health, don't turn things around, and either miss the playoffs or get bounced in the first round, major changes feel like they'll be right around the corner.

Honorable mention: Chandler Parsons, Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love

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ev3kvpMichael PinaSean NewellBasketballsportsnbalebron jamesLos Angeles Lakersthe outlet pass
<![CDATA[Oklahoma City's Defense is Dominating in an Unusual Way]]>https://sports.vice.com/en_us/article/bje38v/oklahoma-citys-defense-is-dominating-in-an-unusual-way-russell-westbrook-paul-georgeWed, 12 Dec 2018 16:17:39 +0000We’re waist deep in an era of NBA basketball that’s defined by offensive favoritism. Rule changes are viscerally accelerating the game's migration towards quicker shots from deeper distances. It’s a joy to watch, but has also nudged defensive strategy to the edge of its own dark age. And it’s there, in the shadows, where the Oklahoma City Thunder refuse to bow.

They don’t own the Western Conference’s highest winning percentage because the three-point line is their best friend, and their two All-Stars don’t turn every game into a fireworks display. Instead, games are won with the league’s best defense, one currently limiting opponents to fewer points per possession than any previous team in franchise history. Since they started 0-4, the Thunder has the NBA’s best net rating by an insane 4.1 points per 100 possessions. (That same gap stands between the league’s second and 11th most successful teams.)

Like any great defense, Oklahoma City has found synergy between its personnel and playing style. They’re long, quick, rabid, and experienced enough to let Billy Donovan conceptualize a formula that peels the roof from what those qualities can accomplish. They’re succeeding with an admirable degree of difficulty, too; their identity is aggression, and requires air-tight rotations sans safety net.

“They’re a little different from a lot of teams,” Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson said. “They’re coming. They’ll blitz that pick and roll. It’s a little different from what a lot of teams are doing now, you know, dropping their big, playing more conservatively, not giving up threes.”

It’s essentially a trust exercise and everyone on the team happens to trust everybody else. (This should make Jason Kidd—who actualized the same idea when head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks—feel emboldened and depressed at the same time.)

In theory, it’s a brilliant way to force turnovers, sow chaos, and mitigate their own offensive weaknesses. At their best, the Thunder turn each possession into a galactic struggle over every inch. At their worst, they’re a house of cards. So far, they have turned theory into practice in a way that will either carry them to the Western Conference Finals or, as we saw last year against the Utah Jazz, blow up in their face. Their personality offers very little grey area.

But even without Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City’s defense cedes little ground. They know it’s impossible to take everything away on a nightly basis, but their reach and anticipation turns an ostensibly elusive goal into reality more often than not. They collectively take pride in wanting to get a stop every time down the floor, headway that’s encouraged by new and improved characters who aren’t afraid to tap dance on a tightrope.

Terrance Ferguson and Jerami Grant are good, bordering on great, in the larger roles they fill. Nerlens Noel is an ideal backup center in this particular context. Dennis Schröder takes nothing off the table. Hamidou Diallo is anti-gravity. Paul George might be the Defensive Player of the Year. Steven Adams is one of a handful of seven footers who flourishes on the perimeter more often than he merely survives.

“The athleticism pops out,” Atkinson said. “Also it seems like they’re connected...they have a lot of continuity there, so guys know what the heck they’re doing.” On the play seen below, Ferguson illustrates what that looks like.

“I saw my teammate was fronting, so I knew I had to be on the backside whenever he threw the ball over,” Ferguson told VICE Sports. “And when he got the ball I was already there. I’ve got my teammates back at all times. I know my teammates got my back.”

Even with internal improvement and new pieces filling meaningful space, George’s growing comfort in year two has sanctioned enough institutional knowledge for him to dip in and out of passing lanes without ever being too reckless. Just like every other help defender on this team, he lives at the nail and in the paint, baiting skip passes that are ripe for a steal. (The Thunder rank third in deflections and first in defensive loose balls recovered.) He’s more familiar with teammates, and isn’t totally caught off guard when one of them (for example *clears throat for 25 seconds* Westbrook) flies off script for a steal.

But even as they dominate, meaningful questions remain. One being: Will their asphyxiating energy sustain against the best of the best? So far, OKC has breezed through the easiest schedule in the league. Their two games against the Golden State Warriors came on opening day and the night before Thanksgiving (when Steph Curry and Draymond Green didn’t suit up). They’ve already been blessed with the opportunity to pulverize Phoenix three times and Cleveland twice.

“The encouraging part is Andre has not played in any games this year and I know that we haven’t played ‘all the best offensive teams in the league’ yet. Our defense will be tested there,” Donovan said. “But...I think we’ve been a pretty consistent team defensively, and I still think we can get better.”

And, as Atkinson alluded to, most teams don’t defend like the Thunder because A) they don’t have the length, mobility, and cohesiveness, and B) they can’t stomach how vulnerable it’ll leave them against spot-up looks on the perimeter. It’s only one series, but the Thunder allowed a wide-open three on nearly one out of every four shots the Jazz attempted during last year’s first-round battle. That’s awful, and wasn’t a total outlier, either. In the regular season, they finished last (in a tie with the Atlanta Hawks) by allowing 20.8 percent of their opponent’s shots to be wide-open threes, per NBA.com. Unsurprisingly, the Thunder also allowed the most corner threes.

It’s tempting to compare this group to what the Thunder were last year, particularly before a ruptured patella tendon ended Roberson’s season. (They had the fifth-best defense at the time, and were 16th from that point on.) Schematically they are similar, a “no middle” team that fundamental desires to keep the ball on the sidelines. When facing a pick-and-roll, they bring their big up to the screen, pull help defenders in from the opposite side, and direct the ball-handler towards his screener’s man. It deters penetration and typically forces at least one difficult pass. (In the screen capture below, Alex Abrines is all the way over, persuading Rodney Hood to skip the ball to Collin Sexton in the opposite corner.)

Alex Abrines is in the paint

“[Last year] we wanted to take away the middle of the floor, and in doing that you’re going to give something else up. And a lot of those straight line drives or drives to the basket put us in rotations,” Donovan said. “I think trying to put more of an emphasis on guarding the ball, squaring up, more of an emphasis on the three-point line, more of an emphasis on not fouling. I mean these were things we talked about last year—I don’t want to make it seem like we just totally blew everything up and started over from scratch—but there were some minor changes that I felt like from watching film that we needed to make.”

Today’s difference also comes from who they play—more minutes for Grant, Ferguson, Schröder and Noel, fewer minutes for Ray Felton, zero minutes for Corey Brewer and Carmelo Anthony—and how those players keep the ball in front of them while sprinting in and out of help positions. This roster is built to switch, too. And they’re more willing to do that for extended stretches, without fear of getting beat on the boards or off the dribble.

"Our length," Schröder said when I asked what stands out about Oklahoma City's defense. "Everybody is so long."

Their opponent’s three-point volume is down overall, and teams are only converting 29 percent of their open threes—the second-lowest number in the league. It’s an aggressiveness that’s yet to burn them, but keep your hand on the stove for an entire season and shots like this will eventually fall. (They still forfeit a bunch of corner threes, just not as many as last year.)

It’s reasonable to wonder if this is sustainable. The Thunder want to generate a ton of turnovers and they do so more than anyone else. But they also want to keep offenses off the glass and contest shots without fouling, two objectives harder than they have to be when trying to pull off a game plan that demands continuous rotations, pulls bigs out to the perimeter, and sucks guards into the paint.

But the Thunder swarm with purpose. Back-line rotations are crisp and there’s always someone with freakish tentacles waiting down low, either forcing another pass or protecting the basket. Only five teams are allowing a lower shooting percentage at the rim. Grant is a special brand of menace in this area. Instead of putting out fires early on, he’ll (intentionally!) wait for an opponent to go up with the ball and then disintegrate them in midair.

The Thunder get back on defense and drag out possessions, be it after a missed shot or a turnover. That discipline matters. (The Houston Rockets are the only team that chokes a higher percentage of their opponent’s field goal attempts with seven or fewer seconds on the shot clock.)

"Yeah, there’s a bunch of shit that goes into it.”

“It comes down to effort,” Adams said. “Wanting to actually get stops, forcing them to take shots that they probably don’t want. Yeah, there’s a bunch of shit that goes into it.”

The Thunder wouldn’t play the way they do if Adams couldn’t comfortably glide his 250-pound frame along the perimeter. Same goes for Noel, who’s so incredible at poking the ball from ball-handlers as they drive towards the rim. But the Thunder know they can’t trap every screen and rely upon help defenders to bail them out in the paint. Here’s what happens when Adams is a step too low and Ferguson is a step slow:

And so they’ve adopted a few new principles and tweak how they want to play based on different matchups. Sometimes they’ll switch everything and help accordingly, looking like an even more horrifying and clenched version of last year’s Rockets. (Don’t be surprised if in a few months this is how they treat most defensive possessions; fluidly switching every screen is the only way to stifle the Golden State Warriors, and if the Thunder aspire to make the Finals that’s the offense they’ll need to stifle.) Sometimes they’ll have both weak-side defenders in the paint before a roll man can gain any momentum.

“You’re not going to in today’s NBA have one cookie cutter defense that’s going to work for everybody,” Donovan said. “For instance, the other night against Blake Griffin, we felt like with our power forwards we needed to come a lot of times and provide help. There’s a lot of games where maybe at the power forward spot we don’t have to provide help, so those situations create different challenges schematically. But in terms of the things that are important to us, like contesting shots, defensive rebounding, trying to eliminate layups, trying to take away silly fouls and putting people in the bonus, those things are going to carry through for 82 games.”

Defense matters, but for them to actually defeat the very best teams in the league four times in seven tries, they’ll need to score a lot of points that aren’t directly leveraged by their excellence on one end. That means the Thunder need to add another three-point shooter, someone opponents won’t go out of their way to attack in the playoffs.

They can’t trade their own pick this year because they owe a first to Orlando in 2020 (and a first to Atlanta in 2022), but how about Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Abdel Nader, and a future second-round pick for Wayne Ellington? Or TLC and a second-round pick for Sterling Brown? Or Patrick Patterson and two future second-round picks for Justin Holiday? For a variety of reasons, seeing these transactions through won’t be easy. Outside shooting is at a premium for a reason. The Thunder have instead chosen to secure the other side of the ball, then hope those players would eventually develop enough to balance everything out.

But they have a right to feel impatient. This is a championship-caliber defense right now, one that matches up well with the defending champs, along with the Eastern Conference’s most elite teams. Westbrook isn’t getting any younger, and there’s only so many years of embracing a frenetic struggle before the players who bought in start to lose focus. It’s far too dramatic to label this Oklahoma City’s last stand, but with a defense this good, it’d be a damn shame if their front office didn’t treat it that way.

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bje38vMichael PinaSean NewellBasketballsportsnbarussell westbrookOklahoma City Thunderpaul george