Andre Iguodala: The No-Stats Hall of Famer

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Andre Iguodala: The No-Stats Hall of Famer

Andre Iguodala is not your prototypical Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame candidate. In his 15-year career, he’s made only one All-Star game and has never been named to an All-NBA squad. 

Based on those two pieces of information alone, you might think Iguodala is wholly undeserving of Springfield immortality. But those who doubt Iguodala’s Hall credentials are losing ground in the debate by the day. 

The 35-year-old’s game-sealing, series-tying 3 with 5.9 seconds left in Game 2 added yet another gem to his incredible career. With the clutch shot, Iguodala is three wins away from earning his fourth championship, solidifying a fascinating Hall of Fame case that will surely be debated in TV studios, barbershops and group chats across the world. 

But in Steve Kerr’s book, there is no question that Iguodala belongs in Springfield.

“It depends on your version of the Hall -- if it’s based on stats, maybe not,” the Golden State Warriors coach says. “If it’s based on champions and winners and brilliant basketball minds and impact on the game and impact on championship teams … he’s a Hall of Famer.”

Iguodala is a perfect representation of what the traditional box score misses. He has never led the NBA in a major category in any season, except for games played (82). More damning, he’s rarely thrived as a go-to scorer. How could a wing who averaged 12.1 points per game in his career be a Hall of Famer?

A decade after the New York Times dubbed Shane Battier as The No-Stats All-Star, we have found The No-Stats Hall of Famer in Iguodala. 

And we have modern metrics to prove it.

* * *

It’s fair to say that Kerr is the Kevin Bacon of the NBA. He has played with Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Dennis Rodman. He has coached Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. In Phoenix, he was the GM for Steve Nash, Grant Hill and Amare Stoudemire. He has brushed shoulders with just about every great of the last three decades. 

When it comes to sizing up the all-time greats, Kerr has nearly peerless perspective.

“I think he’s a Hall of Famer,” Kerr said. “To me, he’s on par with Scottie Pippen as a defender. Unbelievably smart. He understands the game as well as anyone I’ve been around -- Scottie included.”

Bob Myers moved mountains just have a chance at bringing in Iguodala. As the general manager overseeing a capped-out Warriors team back in 2013, Myers traded away Richard Jefferson, Andris Biedrins, Kareem Rush and five draft picks just to create enough cap space to acquire Iguodala. 

Myers knew it was a gamble. The Warriors had just faced him in the playoffs when he was a member of the Denver Nuggets, averaging 13.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists for the surprise team that season. Solid numbers to be sure, but enough impact to attach an unprotected 2014 first-round pick, an unprotected 2017 first-round pick and three second-rounders to get him? Enough to waive Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry -- two contributors to the Warriors 52-win team in 2012-13 --  simply to carve out the necessary cap room?

Three championships later, it’s hard to argue with Myers’ roll of the dice.

“If you think about the Warriors, he saw it before everyone else did,” Myers said. “He took a gamble. He came here and turned down better offers elsewhere (in Sacramento and Denver). He saw something in the team that we didn’t see. He chose us, waited on us and believed in us.”

What Myers acquired wasn’t an MVP player. Turns out, Iguodala was an MVP slayer, and defense is where Iguodala has set himself apart. 

In 2015, Iguodala won the Finals MVP after throwing a blanket on LeBron James. A year later, in the 2016 Western Conference Finals against OKC, Kerr called for Iguodala’s rescue again against MVP Kevin Durant. Down 3-2 in the series after Durant scored 40 points in Game 5, Kerr inserted Iguodala into the lineup to start the second half in Game 6 over Harrison Barnes to maximize Iguodala’s time on KD. (The Warriors won Games 6 and 7 to clinch the 3-1 comeback, with Durant held to 40 percent shooting over the last two games.)

“Every time, every series,” Kerr says. “He guards the hardest guy time and time again.”

In the 2019 playoffs, Iguodala did the same for reigning MVP James Harden, putting the clamps on the best scorer the league has seen since Jordan. Thanks to modern-day analytics, we are now equipped with the tools to shed a light on Iguodala’s impact. 

Over the last two seasons, Harden has averaged 40.3 points per 100 possessions against the Warriors and shot 41 percent from the floor, but those rates tumble to 29.0 points per 100 possessions and 31 percent in the 124 possessions he’s been guarded by Iguodala, according to NBA.com matchup data

If you question his role in that matchup, consider the fact that, including postseason matchups, the Warriors are now 8-5 over the last two seasons when Iguodala starts against the Rockets and 2-6 when he doesn’t.

With James, Durant and Harden on his list of vanquished MVPs, Iguodala could have stopped there, but he wasn’t done. It was Iguodala who bottled up Damian Lillard at the end of Game 1 in this year's conference finals. He also stole the ball on the final play to clinch the victory. It’s no coincidence that Lillard had his best game, putting up 28 points and 12 assists, when Iguodala skipped Game 4. 

Here are the five players that Iguodala has defended the most this postseason: Harden, Lou Williams, Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul and Lillard. 

That’s the leading scorer for each of the Warriors’ four opponents and a nine-time All-Star in Paul.

“What gets play out [in the national conversation] is points,” Myers said. “That’s what it’s been and may always be. But when you’re trying to win a game, you ask, can this player provide the best defense against some of the best players in the world? And what’s the value of that? Realistically, what is the value of that? Is he more valuable going out there and scoring 20 points and being a non-factor defensively? Or is he more valuable being the factor that he is and scoring 11 points? 

“To me, it’s pretty simple.”

Says Kerr: “When you factor in winning -- which should count, that’s the whole point -- Iguodala is a Hall of Famer.”

If only there was a simple metric for an individual’s impact on winning. Enter plus-minus. 

* * *

Iguodala’s traditional numbers may not pop off the page, but a more comprehensive modern metric screams Hall of Famer. Plus-minus represents the raw point margin for a player’s team when the player is on the floor. If a team outscored the opponent by five points with a player on the floor, that player is a plus-five. If the team got outscored by five, that player is a minus-five.

In theory, this is where a player like Iguodala will shine. If he’s making winning plays, in the long run, it’ll show up in plus-minus. Turns out, Iguodala shines. Guess who has the Warriors’ best plus-minus in the five Finals series? It’s not Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green or Klay Thompson. 

That’s right, it’s Iguodala. And by a fairly wide margin.

NBA Finals plus-minus
Since 2015

Andre Iguodala        plus-164
Draymond Green    plus-145
Stephen Curry          plus-124
Kevin Durant            plus-119
Klay Thompson        plus-60
Data: NBA.com advanced stats

In fact, once you broaden the scope and look at all players in the Finals since 1997 when the NBA began tracking plus-minus, Iguodala is second only to Ginobili and just ahead of Duncan. 

NBA Finals plus-minus
Since 1997

Manu Ginobili           plus-177
Andre Iguodala        plus-164
Tim Duncan              plus-157
Draymond Green    plus-145
Stephen Curry         plus-124
Data: NBA.com advanced stats

If that doesn’t sell you on Iguodala’s immense value, consider the flipside of the equation. In the last four Finals, the three-time champion Warriors have imploded without Iguodala, getting outscored by 25 points in 423 minutes with the Iguodala on the bench. No other Warriors All-Star has such a strong impact that the team couldn’t outscore the Cavs when he was on the bench— not Curry, Green, Durant or Thompson. 

Legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has a term for guys like Iguodala, one that Kerr has adopted for his own locker room: Amplifiers. The so-called “glue guy” pieces things together, but amplifiers do more than that. They make others better by amplifying their skills.

“Andre does that at the highest level,” Myers says.

He’s a battery for his teammates. In the Rockets series, putting Iguodala on Harden freed up Curry and Thompson to allocate their powers elsewhere. Thompson could check Paul and Curry could save his energy for torching the nets. Though Thompson has held his own guarding Harden, the Warriors as a whole were far more porous defensively with Thompson  guarding Harden (116.5 points allowed per 100 possessions) compared to when Iguodala checked the reigning MVP (104.0 points per 100 possessions).

“(Andre) makes the game so much easier for us,” Kerr says during the team’s fifth straight Finals, the first team to do that since the 1960s Celtics. “He’s an integral part of a team that just accomplished something that nobody’s done in 50 years.”

* * *

Channing Frye, who has played with Iguodala as a college teammate and as a Finals opponent, is convinced that Iguodala is toying with us. 

“I think he’s like, ‘How much impact can I have without even being in the box score? I don’t even need to score one point to win. My challenge is to do everything else absolutely flawless.’”

Frye remembers when he first played with Iguodala. Back in 2002, on the University of Arizona campus when they were teammates for the star-studded Wildcats, a teenage Iguodala walked into the practice gym and just started dunking on an open basket. Frye was a grade above Iguodala and heard about his hops but to see his dunking prowess in person was a different experience.

Boom,” Frye shouts over the phone. “Boom. Who is this kid?” 

To Frye, it was an elaborate plan to fool the gym. Oh, you think all I can do is dunk? The pickup game started. Iguodala played point guard and brought the ball up the floor. He started alley-oops more than he finished them. He defended everybody and hit open shots almost just to prove a point. He was everywhere.

“He’s the fixer,” Frye said. “If you have a house, you need someone who knows that house inside and out who can take care of everything. Your pool is broken? Andre’s got it. Your door is off the hinge? Andre’s got it. Cable? Dishwasher? Andre’s got it.”

In Iguodala’s second season, he led the Wildcats in rebounds and assists per game. Frye contends that if Iguodala played in today’s positionless era of basketball, he’d average a triple-double in college. After two seasons with Frye at Arizona, Iguodala entered the NBA draft and was picked ninth overall by the Philadelphia 76ers. ESPN’s Dick Vitale said leaving college was a huge mistake

Iguodala’s career in Philadelphia was a rocky one. After the team traded Iverson, the Sixers never reached the Finals again and many blamed Iguodala as a bust. In 2013, the Sixers traded him to Denver in a three-team deal primarily to acquire Los Angeles Lakers big man Andrew Bynum. Iguodala’s run in Philadelphia didn’t end on a high note, but he left his mark with teammates. One of those, Evan Turner, shared this opinion on Sunday night.

To Myers, Iguodala’s stint in Philadelphia is an essential part of Iguodala’s story.

“I think that shaped him,” Myers says  said. “In the media and in life, what the NBA means. That early indoctrination that he experienced in Philly, (was his) ‘Welcome to the NBA.’ And he got that at a young age. I think it probably shaped him, hardened him in a way that is somewhat necessary in today’s NBA. It was a fast education. Dropping yourself in Philly with Iverson and then post-Iverson. I definitely think it was a part of his growth.”

Frye understood quickly that Iguodala was different, playing a thinking man’s game. His sophistication wasn’t limited to hoops. Frye remembers Iguodala carrying books in his gym bag to pass the time.

“When we were in college, he was actually interested in reading and doing stuff like that,” Frye says said. “He was the most talented guy on our team and getting straight A’s in class. To this day, he has books all over the place.”

Recently, Iguodala walked up to Myers and asked him if he’d seen Barack Obama’s best books of 2018. Myers said he hadn’t. Iguodala kept moving. To Myers, it felt like Iguodala was testing him and Myers had failed. A couple hours later, Myers got a text. It was Iguodala with a link to the Obama list. His GM needed to be informed.

“He’ll enlighten me in many areas mostly things outside of basketball,” Myers says. “He’s constantly educating me on race. Andre has got some ... there’s an edginess to him sometimes. There’s a great depth to him. There’s layers to Andre. It took me years until I feel like I had a sense of Andre. And I think it’s a compliment. The easiest people are the ones you figure out in five minutes. The ones you question, and wonder, and develop equity and trust, he’s definitely one of those guys.”

Frye doesn’t think Iguodala’s intelligence gets talked about enough. 

“Andre challenges everybody,” Frye says. “Not just his teammates, the media, everybody. Andre’s going to make you work for it.”

When I bring up Iguodala’s plus-minus record as an illustration of his genius and making opposing MVP’s work for it, Frye laughs.

“It’s an 'F you' to everybody,” Frye says. “Listen, I can have the biggest impact on the court and I don’t even need the ball.”

* * *

The Hall of Fame doesn’t have a cut-and-dry criteria. But they do follow a fairly predictable path. Basketball Reference has tracked voter data and developed a trusty algorithm to estimate a player’s chances at Springfield based on his NBA career alone. Voters typically look for championships, All-Stars and interestingly, height (the taller the better).

Put Iguodala’s NBA career in the Basketball Reference machine and it spits out a discouraging number. It suggests that Iguodala has just a 6.1 percent chance of getting the nod.

That’s not a strong endorsement, to be sure. When future voters assess his credentials, many will consider that to be a deal-breaker. But that lens admittedly provides just a limited view of Iguodala’s body of work. The model is clear in that it does not account for international play where Iguodala has an Olympic gold medal (2012 in London) and a FIBA World Championship gold medal (2010 in Turkey).

“For us, Andre’s been one of our best players,” Krzyzewski said of the 2012 Olympics. 

Despite what the math says, international play matters (see: Dino Radja’s induction). It also matters that, with the exception of Boston’s Cedric Maxwell, every Finals MVP since its inception in 1969 has either made it to Springfield or is well on his way (yes, Chauncey Billups, Paul Pierce and Tony Parker will get in). Furthermore, the Basketball Reference model bases its judgment as if the player’s career ended today. That isn’t the case with Iguodala.

He may lack the All-Star accolades, but Iguodala has had a pretty incredible career by more modern measures. Interestingly enough, Iguodala ranks 96th all-time in career win shares (96.4) and is about to pass Iverson on that list, who ranks 91st with a 99.0 figure

Actually, if you include playoff win shares, Iguodala’s combined total of 107.4 win shares has already eclipsed Iverson’s total of 106.3. This isn’t suggesting that Iguodala is better than Iverson. Iverson had much higher peaks, but Iguodala’s longevity with five Finals appearances and three championships cannot be ignored.

Already, Iguodala finds himself in esteemed company in career totals. Not only is 100 win shares a tidy round number, it also serves as a pretty handy barometer for Hall of Famers. Of the 25 players eligible for the Hall of Fame who have between 100 and 120 career win shares (playoffs included), most of them, 15 to be exact, are already in, including Iverson (106.3), Vlade Divac (105.0), Grant HIll (102.5) and Tracy McGrady (101.8). The handful of those who aren’t in the Hall in that range -- Detlef Schrempf, Kevin Johnson and Eddie Jones to name a few -- lack Iguodala’s multiple championships and gold medals.

Iguodala has gone on the record to say he doesn’t think of himself as a Hall of Famer. But a more comprehensive look says he has more than a reasonable case considering his longevity and uncanny ability to win at the highest level. If he continues to limit Leonard and win another title, it may not be a debate anymore.

Will Iguodala get in? To Kerr, there’s no question.

“He’ll make it,” Kerr says. “He may not make it the first time, but he’ll make it.”

But to get there, voters will have to change their balloting behavior. 

To those voters, Myers has some advice: 

“Look a little further than points per game.”

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Buy or sell? Checking in at NBA's one-month mark

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Buy or sell? Checking in at NBA's one-month mark

Well, that was quick. We’ve reached the one-month mark of the 2019-20 NBA season and, admittedly, it’s been a bit of a rocky start. Between the Golden State Warriors falling apart, a slew of PED suspensions hitting the league, and rookie sensation Zion Williamson still sitting out, things have not exactly gone as advertised.

But there are plenty of other feel-good storylines and fascinating developments that have made the season a pleasure to watch. Let’s highlight five trends that I’m buying or selling at this stage of the season.

BUY: Luka Doncic, MVP candidate

Don’t look now but the Dallas Mavericks have the top offense in the loaded Western Conference so far, scoring 112.9 points per 100 possessions. Can the average NBA fan name more than two starters on that team?

It starts with Doncic, who is averaging an astounding 28.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 9.1 assists for the 6-4 Mavericks. Those stats aren’t juiced by a turbo-charged NBA; Unlike the rapid-fire Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks, the Mavericks rank just 20th in the league in pace. Instead, Doncic is seeing the game faster in his sophomore season and, well, he’s playing a lot faster, too.

Following a rookie season in which he was noticeably doughier, Doncic looks like he’s in better shape this season after taking the summer off from national basketball. A source close to Doncic says he’s largely kept away from bread and sugary foods as part of his effort to prepare for the 82-game grind. That’s no small thing for a 20-year-old who flies around the world for a living.

Doncic has trimmed the fat in his game too. He has taken two -- two! -- shots between 16 feet and the 3-point arc this season, per NBA.com tracking. One was an 18-foot floater, which he made. The other was a late-game mid-range pull-up in the epic showdown against the Lakers (he missed). Doncic probably has a slick mid-range jumper, but he’s too good around the rim to settle there.

Like I mentioned on the Habershow with Brandon Payne, Doncic is a puppeteer. At least once a game, he’ll get a 7-footer to bite on his pump-fake in the lane and giggle on his way back on defense after he lays it in uncontested. It’s mean. He’s currently shooting 64.6 percent on shots in the paint, per NBA.com. Only three players have converted a higher percentage with at least 75 attempts in the paint: Clint Capela, Montrezl Harrell and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Those three are dunk factories. Doncic has one dunk so far.

Doncic’s bag of tricks goes deeper than almost any NBA player at this point. And he will only get better as Kristaps Porzingis shakes off some rust and takes some pressure off of the Slovenian. The Luka hype is very real. 

SELL: The coach’s challenge

Doc Rivers has said it over and over: He hates the newly instituted coach’s challenge. And that’s probably because coaches aren’t winning the challenge much, if at all. 

Outside of the occasional out-of-bounds challenge, it’s been a frustrating experience for NBA coaches. Through Sunday’s games, there have been 95 coach’s challenges, with 32 calls being overturned, a success rate of just 34 percent. Drilling down even further, challenges on foul calls have only produced a 30 percent success rate, which makes sense given the nature of personal foul calls (Again, Doc really hates this rule.). The more clear-cut judgment calls -- out-of-bounds plays, specifically -- have been successful in six of the 11 challenges. That also makes sense; those plays are easier to see.

Behavioral economists will have a field day with the other aspects of the data. The league offers by-quarter breakdowns, which show that only six percent of the challenges have come in the first quarter, but those first-quarter challenges are tied with the second quarter challenges for the best success rate at 50 percent. Challenges in the fourth quarter, when coaches are possibly more emotional and using a might-as-well-burn-it mentality with the challenge, have the worst overturn rate at 24 percent. 

I don’t think the overturn rate is high enough to justify the buzzkilling stoppage in play. Fourth quarters in the NBA are long enough as it is and the overturn rate is so low that it’s mostly a waste of time. Tracking data from inpredictable.com provided to NBC Sports shows that NBA games this season are, on average, two hours and 16.4 minutes long, which is 4.6 minutes longer than last season and just shy of the 25-year high mark set in 2009-10 (two hours and 16.5 minutes).

The NBA deserves big kudos for transparency in this space. They didn’t just open their referees to extra scrutiny by implementing the coach’s challenge, but they’re also publishing the data from them to their media website. It’s also good for fans to know that the league wants to get calls right, but this is a one-year trial that fans shouldn’t expect to stick. Most of the head coaches I contacted agree with Doc. When asked whether he was for or against the coach’s challenge, one NBA coach simply responded back: “Ugh.” Another’s take from a long-time coach: “I’m a coach, not an official. Gets me focusing on the wrong things. Hate it.” And no, that’s not a quip from Toronto coach Nick Nurse, who finally got one overturned after six unsuccessful tries.

But here's my favorite bit of data. Every coach in the NBA had used the coach’s challenge through Tuesday’s games. Except for one: Gregg Popovich. That streak ended on Wednesday night when he challenged a foul call on LaMarcus Aldridge. 

Popovich lost the appeal. He may never do it again.

SELL: The Phoenix Suns are a playoff team

To be clear, I love what the Suns are doing right now. I’m a proud subscriber to the Aron Baynes Fan Club feed. That satirical Twitter account has been replying to viral NBA tweets with insanely pro-Baynes propaganda for years and it is somehow becoming more accurate by the day. Since being salary-dumped by the Boston Celtics this summer, Baynes has been absolutely fantastic as DeAndre Ayton’s fill-in, averaging 16.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists with a 70 percent effective field-goal percentage (weighted for 3-pointers). Yes, Aron Baynes!

He’s the face of a suddenly very-grown-up Suns team under new head coach Monty Williams, who last coached a fiery New Orleans Pelicans team that held its own against the eventual champion Golden State Warriors in the 2015 playoffs. After fielding the second-youngest roster in the league last season, the Suns added actual adults like Baynes and Ricky Rubio to the starting lineup next to Devin Booker and now they’re playing like an actual playoff contender. Three of Phoenix’s four losses went down to the final minute, including Tuesday night’s close loss to the Lakers. This is a team that could be 9-1 with a couple bounces going their way.

So why am I selling? This feels like a best-case scenario start to the season. Booker and Baynes aren’t going to make half their 3s all season. And I think Ayton coming back will actually hurt them. While his 25-game suspension looks bad from an optics standpoint, I think it actually helps the team win in the short-term with Baynes filling in his minutes. 

He wasn’t the No. 1 overall pick, but Baynes does the little things that don’t show up in the box score. Baynes pancakes opponents on screens, ranks fifth in box-outs and is second in charges taken -- all while playing in just 24.3 minutes per game. Ayton, meanwhile, was among the least-impactful rim protectors in the league last season. It’s hard to imagine the Suns bringing their franchise big man off the bench, especially since he’s a favorite of Suns owner Robert Sarver, a fellow Arizona Wildcat. They could trade Baynes and his $5.8 million expiring contract to a contender. You know who could really use him? That team in Boston.

SELL: LeBron James’ double-digit assists

Just when you think you know a guy. In his 17th NBA season, James is averaging a career-high and league-leading 11.1 assists per game. He has never compiled this many assists in the opening 10 games of the season. The closest he came to this level was in 2016-17 when he registered 97 assists and 37 turnovers in the Cavs’ first ten games. This season, he has 110 assists, and four fewer turnovers (34). It’s obscene.

When the trade winds were swirling last February, I declared Anthony Davis as the best teammate LeBron James would ever have, better than Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving. So far, so good. The on-court chemistry between the Klutch clients has been other-wordly. Of James’ 122 assists, 29 of them have been distributed to his new prized big-man Davis. No other Lakers teammate has more than 18, per Basketball Reference tracking

James is certainly on a mission to show love to Davis, who, as Bulls fans will remind you, is an unrestricted free agent this summer. Using data from NBA.com’s stats page, James is feeding 25.5 passes per 36 minutes to Davis while they’re on the floor together. That’s a huge number. For perspective, Jrue Holiday sent 18.4 passes per 36 minutes into Davis’ hands last season when they shared the court. You think James is excited about his new toy?

With that said, I don’t think this keeps up. For one, it’s not a good sign that Davis’ shoulder is already giving him issues. If James’ favorite target goes down for any chunk of time, that’ll obviously hurt the King’s ability to rack up assists. Secondly, Rajon Rondo’s back. Lakers fans know how I feel about this clunky partnership. But the numbers don’t lie: James’ assist rate last season fell from 11.9 assists per 100 possessions without Rondo on the court down to 8.9 per 100 possessions with Rondo on the court, per PBPStats.com tracking

It appears that Davis’ presence has given James new life, especially in the assist column. But Davis’ health and Rondo’s arrival doesn't make me optimistic about James’ ability to set a new career high -- even if the King and the Brow have been a joy to watch so far.

BUY: Pascal Siakam, back-to-back Most Improved Player

I’m all for breaking tradition. I know the Most Improved Player award is conventionally given to an up-and-coming player who ascends from plucky role player to legitimate star. Siakam’s selection last season was just that.

But what about star to MVP candidate? That leap is way harder to pull off and Siakam is doing it right now. You can see the door opening for Siakam’s candidacy. Gordon Hayward and Khris Middleton’s injuries have delivered a significant blow to Boston and Milwaukee’s staying power atop the East. Kyle Lowry’s fractured thumb won’t keep him out nearly as long and Fred VanVleet can fill Lowry’s void better than Hayward and Middleton’s backups can for their respective clubs.

But Siakam is that good. He’s improved his scoring average more this season than he did the previous season, in which he won Most Improved Player. Siakam’s scoring average is higher than LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Kemba Walker entering play Thursday night. And it’s not because of unsustainably hot shooting, like in the case of Brandon Ingram and Booker. Siakam is shooting 49.1 percent from the floor and 37.3 percent from downtown, which is more or less where he’s been in his career. 

The difference -- and this is so difficult in today’s NBA -- is that he’s maintained his efficiency despite nearly doubling his field goal attempts per game from 11.8 last season to 20.9 this year. His improved ball-handling and sharpened shot-making have made him a legitimate scoring alpha. To put Siakam’s scoring load in perspective, the 25-year-old’s usage rate is higher than Kobe Bryant’s in his age-25 season. 

Siakam’s climb is pretty much unprecedented, even when compared to his former Toronto Raptors teammate. It’s cliche to make the Kawhi Leonard parallel, but the truth is that Siakam’s rise has been steeper. Leonard didn’t become “MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard” until his sixth season in the league. This is Siakam’s fourth. And as crazy as Leonard’s ascension was, Siakam rose from a lower floor, averaging just 4.2 points per game in his rookie season after being selected 27th overall in 2016. (It’s early, but Siakam may end up being the best of a class that also features Ben Simmons, Ingram, Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis.)

With the top of Eastern Conference battered and bruised right now, the Toronto Raptors should remain in the hunt for the No. 1 seed. If Siakam keeps this up -- and I think he can -- there will be whispers about his MVP campaign. He might not win it, but if there’s a player who deserves to be the first two-time Most Improved Player award, it’s Siakam.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Kemba Walker's departure still stings in Charlotte

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Kemba Walker's departure still stings in Charlotte

CHARLOTTE -- Muggsy Bogues, Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning greet customers as they walk into the buzzing North Davidson Street establishment. Immortalized on a painted mural on the wall, the legendary Charlotte Hornets trio is a deliberate fixture of Salud, a local hangout nestled in Charlotte’s art district.

Jason Glunt, a lifelong Hornets fan, opened Salud’s doors in 2012, two weeks after his daughter Jade was born and three months before Charlotte lost the Anthony Davis draft lottery. Three life-changing events, Glunt says now, with a laugh.

Glunt makes sure the painting -- a reminder of the Hornets’ glory years -- is the first thing people see. The whole place is one big play on nostalgia. The shop’s motto hangs on the wall, “Sour Beer. Old School Hip Hop. Pizza. Nintendo. Salud.” 

Behind the line of beer taps rests a team-issued Kemba Walker campaign poster from the 2015-16 season during the presidential election year, urging voters to “Win With Walker” and stuff the ballot box for Most Improved Player. Fans in Charlotte adore Walker, who ascended from the wreckage of a dreadful 7-59 season and developed into an All-NBA talent. When Charlotte hosted All-Star weekend last year, the team marketed Walker’s All-Star candidacy with the tagline: “His City, His Time.” For years, Glunt kept losing Walker souvenirs in the shop because patrons would take them home.

“I just do old-school Hornets memorabilia,” Glunt says. “But I made an exception for Kemba.”

His daughter Jade grew up watching Walker on a nightly basis, wearing his jersey to games (Jason and Jade share season tickets with Jason’s brother-in-law, Dalton). This summer, when Boston acquired Walker in a sign-and-trade, the 7-year-old asked her father why Walker wanted to leave.

“It’s not that simple,” Jason told her, before attempting to translate complicated cap machinations into terms that a first-grader can understand. 

We couldn’t afford Kemba, you see. 

“She’s so confused,” Glunt says. “It’s really weird here. For kids, Kemba was a good role model. Kids loved him. And he was their size.”

Earlier this season, Glunt flipped through the channels when his daughter saw the Milwaukee Bucks-Boston Celtics game pop up on the TV. She told him to stop.

“Kemba’s on the Celtics,” Jade said. “I want to watch Kemba.”

Together, they watched Walker do the things he used to do in purple and teal. He crossed over the reigning MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, for a game-sealing bucket and unleashed a wide grin, celebrating two of his 32 points in a victory over the towering Milwaukee Bucks. Glunt couldn’t help but sigh. He knew what it meant. 

Another beloved Hornet went elsewhere in search of playoff glory.

* * *

In many ways, Walker embodies what a franchise pillar is supposed to be. Selected with the ninth pick in the 2011 draft, the UConn legend became a three-time All-Star and averaged 25.6 points last season while playing in all 82 games. A beacon in the Charlotte community, Walker is a two-time recipient of the NBA Sportsmanship Award and has never been ejected in his NBA career.

Jeremy Lamb knows what kind of person Walker is. He played four seasons with Walker in Charlotte, reuniting with his college teammate after they won a championship together at UConn in 2011. Two years older than Lamb, Walker used to put his arm around Lamb as the freshman struggled in Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun’s system. 

“I didn’t really know my way,” Lamb said. “One day, Kemba told me, ‘Keep working hard and you can do whatever you want on the court. You’ll go as far as you’ll want to go.’ That really stuck with me.”

Last season, when Lamb hit a game-winner at home against Detroit in December, he was mobbed by his teammates and promptly doused with water. In the postgame interview, Walker snuck up from behind him and hugged him on camera, rubbing his head like a big brother. But it was clear this moment went a little deeper for Walker. Lamb had gotten off to a cold start that game, but Walker trusted him with the final shot.

“Of course!” yelled Walker. “That’s my son! I raised him!”

It was hard to see then what laid ahead for the Hornets. Walker and Lamb posted career-highs in scoring, but the Hornets finished 39-43 and out of the playoffs. Charlotte let both players go in free agency. This week, as Walker comes back home to Charlotte, Lamb reminisced about their time in the Queen City.

“Everyone knows he’s a great player on the court,” Lamb said. “But he’s a great person off the court. He continues to get better, continues to be a great leader, night in and night out, he brings it. There’s never any excuses, whether it’s a back-to-back or five games in seven days, whatever is, he gives it his all.”

Walker was the only player on the team that played all 82 games last season and helped instill a  culture of hard work. 
“I’m excited to see Kemba, I’m excited to see him,” Hornets coach James Borrego says. “He was wonderful for me and to me. I will always think highly of that player and that person. Special player, special person.”

* * *

When the NBA and the NBA Players Association agreed to implement luxury tax punishments to the collective bargaining agreement, they were intended to discourage deep-pocketed teams from bullying small markets in free agency. Then, in 2017, Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City to go to the juggernaut Golden State Warriors. Later that summer, the league and the union came to an agreement to add supermax contracts to give teams with a homegrown superstar a financial carrot to keep those players from bolting for bigger cities or brighter lights. Or so the league thought.

In the case of Walker, both provisions backfired. By making the All-NBA team, Walker locked in his “supermax” eligibility, which, in theory, would give the Hornets an upper-hand in free agency. The other 29 teams could only offer Walker a four-year, $141 million deal, while the Hornets could entice Walker with a package totaling $221 million over five years, including a $32 million supermax bonus thanks to the All-NBA selection.

But that supermax bump had the opposite effect. When asked when they felt Walker was going to leave, multiple Charlotte team officials told NBCSports.com that it was the day he earned All-NBA status. For Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, whose net worth is pegged at about $42 billion, a supermax contract that pushes L.A. deep into the luxury tax might be a drop in the bucket. But that’s not the case for the Hornets principal owner Michael Jordan, whose net worth is but a small fraction of his technocrat peers in NBA ownership circles. In late June, Charlotte general manager Mitch Kupchak was asked whether the Hornets would go into the luxury tax if it meant keeping its team together. Kupchak confirmed what Hornets fans dreaded, saying: “I would not anticipate that is something we would look to do.”

The Hornets indeed balked at paying the tax and reportedly offered Walker about $60 million less than the supermax, a gulf Walker saw as too wide to overcome. Months after telling ESPN’s Zach Lowe that “he couldn’t care less about big markets,” Walker agreed to a four-year, $141 million max with one of the biggest markets in the NBA. 

In the same summer when Anthony Davis, Paul George and Russell Westbrook fled small markets for bright lights and big cities, Walker stood out as a potential worst-case scenario for the league’s more frugal franchises. The Hornets helped Walker develop from an undersized combo guard into one of the league’s most dangerous perimeter players, only to watch that success make him nearly impossible to keep.

Borrego spent 11 seasons on the Spurs’ coaching staff and had a front row seat for the Kawhi Leonard experience, which saw the homegrown superstar miss almost an entire season en route to forcing his way out of town over, at the very least, a difference in medical opinion. In the player empowerment era, teams can only do so much to keep their stars, especially if you’re in a market like Charlotte.

“It’s a reality in today’s NBA,” Borrego says. “That’s not going anywhere. That’s our new NBA. The days of San Antonio are gone.”

* * *

When Charlotteans look at Kemba Walker, many see themselves. Charlotte is a shiny metropolis in the New South, a growing center of transplants who migrate south for a warmer climate and an easier cost of living. Walker, a New York City native who went to college in New England, came south for work and instead found a second home.

For many, this is why it was so painful to see Walker leave. It’s the story of Jason Glunt, who moved to Charlotte in 1988, the inaugural season of the Hornets, when his family decided to leave the cold winters outside Detroit, Michigan, for the promise of a bright, new future. Glunt was 6 years old then, about the same age as his daughter is now.

“They just don’t get it,” Jason says of Walker’s departure. “A lot of the kids are sad.”

And then Jason remembers his childhood heroes Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning and Glen Rice leaving Charlotte and reaching the Finals elsewhere, and in the case of Mourning and Rice, winning titles.

“It was like when I was growing up,” Jason said. “When you think of Glen Rice, what do you think about? You think about the Heat. Same with ‘Zo.”

Glunt wonders if Walker will have the same story. After a series of rebuilds, the Hornets still haven’t made the conference finals in his lifetime. He cheers himself up by reminding himself that Walker still has a house in Charlotte. Perhaps he’ll come back one day and live in town, just like Muggsy Bogues did.

“I’m kind of sad, but also excited for Kemba,” Jason says. “He can try to make the Conference Finals. And we can move on, and try to rebuild.”

After watching the Celtics-Bucks game in their apartment living room, it was time for Jade to get ready for bed. After Jason turned off the television, Jade looked up at her father.

“Can Kemba come back next year?” she asked.

That probably wouldn’t happen, Jason explained. Contracts and all that.

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