Quick Thoughts On the Chaos That Was the 2013 Draft

So, yea, last night was pretty crazy. I’m just now making sense of everything that went down. Here’s a short list of things that caught my attention.


  • The Anthony Bennett, Sergey Karasev, Carrick Felix Cavs haul



My biggest complaint about the Tristan Thompson pick for Cleveland wasn’t so much about the actual player, it was that Thompson didn’t project to be one of two vital things when it came to complementing Kyrie Irving — he wasn’t a stretch 4 and he didn’t have the size to be a competitive small-ball five (You could play him there, but there’s zero chance the Cavs would stop anyone from scoring. Ever.). This draft showed me they want to put Irving around as much shooting as possible. Felix, Karasev and Bennett should all prove to be at least capable from behind the 3-point line, giving their star point guard a lineup with loads of spacing to break people down off the dribble. If Cleveland can develop that group and add in a Tyson-Chandler-esque 5-man when Varejao breaks down and/or leaves town, look out.


  • Alex Len in Phoenix could pay off huge



There are two things about the young Len I thought he required to have a great chance at reaching his potential — time to develop and a strength staff that made his body stronger without just blindly adding weight. Given the logjam in the Phoenix frontcourt, Len won’t be forced into major minutes and, most importantly, a role where he’s counted on to produce in ways he’s not ready for. If the Suns keep Gortat (or even if they don’t), they have plenty of bigs to soak up minutes while Len grows into his body, improves his skills and learns the game at whatever timeline is best for him. It stands in stark contrast to how another super young prospect that needs time, Cody Zeller (more on him later), is going to be thrown to NBA wolves from the word ‘go’ and because of it, stands a chance to get his confidence destroyed by being exposed to major minutes (and expectations) well before he’s ready. As far as the weight room work goes for Len, landing in Phoenix is the best possible thing that could have happened to him. If any team is going to maximize his athleticism through strength training without exposing him to a higher injury risk, it’s going to be the Suns.


  • Are Jeff Teague’s days in Atlanta numbered?



The Hawks selected Dennis Schroeder, a bright young point guard prospect, as they prepare to enter a new era under former Cavs GM and Spurs exec, Danny Ferry. I’d be curious to know if this is at all an indictment on Jeff Teague, Atlanta’s incumbent point guard who is entering restricted free agency. Schroeder seems to be more of playmakers (though he looks to score as well) than Teague and he comes from overseas, not the American AAU circuit that Teague came up in. Perhaps Ferry sees how the Spurs cast of mostly foreign-born, team-first players shared the basketball so unbelievably en route to their epic Finals run and thinks Teague has too much of a selfish streak to captain a Spursian version of the Hawks. Or maybe he envisions Schroeder developing behind and at times playing with Teague. He hasn’t said much yet publicly, but it will be interesting to see how this all plays out.


  • No one noticed, but Chicago had a nice draft



I wrote a little bit on Grantland about how the situation a player gets drafted into effects his development. With that in mind, I couldn’t think of a better place for Tony Snell than Chicago. He’ll be surrounded by a fiery competitor in Joakim Noah and have blue-collar workers like Jimmy Butler, Luol Deng and Derrick Rose around him every day. Needless to say, Snell is going to have some serious peer pressure to bring a high intensity to every practice, game and workout. And obviously, Tom Thibodeau will be his normal, demanding self when it comes to Snell fitting into a role offensively and paying attention to every detail on the defensive end of the floor. Also, don’t count out second round selection Erik Murphy. He’s tough, played for a winning program and can shoot it. If Murphy can show in summer league that he could be capable of handling limited minutes in a NBA rotation, it could spell the end of the Carlos Boozer era in Chicago while giving the Bulls a true stretch big they’ve never had.


  • The Bobcats timeline of development



Adding Cody Zeller to the selections of Kemba Walker, Bismack Biyombo and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in recent years makes you wonder if the Bobcats are every going to pull themselves up from the NBA cellar. I wasn’t super high on Zeller but he has a rep of a good kid and hard worker so at just 20-years-old, he’s got a chance to build himself into a productive NBA player, it’s just going to take time. Which points to the notion that despite a run of lottery picks over the past few years, Charlotte is already all-in on tanking yet another season for more lottery help in 2014. This is the downside of the ballyhooed Oklahoma City model. The Bobcats have tried to land lottery luck but still are years — and lots of hard work from players like Biyombo, Kidd-Gilchrist and Zeller — away from respectability. Now landing a stud like Andrew Wiggins in next year’s draft helps matters, but if they end up with another Zeller-like prospect in 2014, it still be a long, slow grind to the top that will take years of subtle, internal improvement. And if Zeller doesn’t pan out and they whiff again in next summer’s draft, it would officially be time to wonder if ‘Cats are the taking over the title of “league’s perennial doormat” the Clippers held from their inception to the late 2000s.

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Theories on why you don’t like the Spurs

Check out the Spurs-Grizzlies Western Conference Finals TV ratings so far. It’s brutal. Least viewed Conference Finals since 2007. And who played in that one? Yep, those same old Spurs.

One of the better-watched NBA Finals since MJ involves the Spurs, actually. Yes, those Spurs. The unpopular ones. In 1999, San Antonio routed the Knicks in front of a large national audience, a far larger audience than would ever see either team again. New York was the main draw, but this was San Antonio’s launching pad for a decade of renown. Many forget, but young Tim Duncan was lithe and quick–not unlike young Kevin Garnett. Before he was Shaq-branded as “The Big Fundamental,” Duncan was something else entirely. He was so many exciting possibilities. He was a shot-swatting power forward in a center’s body who could pass like a guard. As a rookie, he scored 32 points in his first career playoff game as the announcers lost their minds. It would have seemed inconceivable, back then, that his glory would play to crickets.

It’s almost remarkable that the Spurs haven’t caught on after so much time. Eventually, a brand has to build, especially if it’s synonymous with success. Much of catching on nationally is just about cluing the public into who you are in the first place. Appear in the playoffs, thrive in the playoffs, and you have yourself some cachet. Familiarity equals brand recognition and brand recognition brings the ratings. Peyton Manning in the playoffs? “Let’s watch, I am familiar with that person,” so says the casual fan brain.

But, after 16 years, the San Antonio Spurs have failed to prompt that thought process. Since the least-viewed-ever NBA Finals in 2007, the Duncan-Ginobili-Parker triumvirate hasn’t grown in fame or stature, apparently.

That those Finals came against LeBron James is notable because it served as James’ introduction to a whole lot of casual fans. Back then, not too many Americans wanted to tune in for some kid futilely “fighting” Goliath. Some years passed, LeBron became a better known figure. Many grew to love him, and later, to despise him. As a consequence, Game 1 of last year’s Finals drew the best number since Shaq and Kobe in 2002. Miami’s 2011 Game 6 demise drew the best Game 6 number since Reggie Miller fell to those same Lakers in 2000.

It can’t all be explained away by “small market.” The Green Bay Packers have parlayed victories into status as a “public team,” despite their small market. You could say that basketball is different, but the Thunder are a consistent ratings draw. The public watches Durant and Westbrook like they play in Madison Square Garden.

So what the hell is it? Why are we at a point where basketball’s best franchise also might be terrible for the sport’s bottom line, should this success continue? I’ve listed a few theories.

Big Man Bias

We like to watch the lil’ fella. Spurs-Warriors actually drew far better early ratings than Spurs-Grizzlies in a higher round. Some of that is because the Bay has more people than Memphis, but I also suspect Stephen Curry’s influence. People enjoy watching a normal-sized person go up against titans (See: Steve Nash, Allen Iverson, Derrick Rose, and oddly, not Chris Paul). Tony Parker should qualify as a draw, but the Spurs are in large part defined by Tim Duncan. Big men don’t sell sneakers, and Duncan certainly doesn’t sell himself. That brings us to our next theory.

The Spurs Hate You

Okay, maybe not “hate you.” But they’re certainly, publicly indifferent. I once tried to write a (positive) piece on a specific Spurs topic, and found the swift access rejection to be a little surprising. I shouldn’t have been too disappointed, I suppose, considering how Chris Ballard and Joe Posnanski have both written about the difficulties of getting access to the Spurs.

This isn’t a criticism, just an observation: The Spurs are collectively aloof, and secretive enough to contribute to their own lack of popularity. They shroud themselves in camouflage, and we’ll never know the reasons because they’ll never tell us. This is why the familiarity of seeing the Spurs for near-20 years doesn’t matter to fans. Fans don’t feel like they know these guys in the first place. I’m enough of a basketball nerd to have favorable impressions of Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Tim Duncan. But to many, the Spurs are an opaque borg-like entity, devoid of feeling or free will.

The Spurs Make Basketball About Something You Hate

Generally speaking, basketball strategy pieces don’t tend to generate a lot of hits. Some writers can pull off delving deeply into O’s and X’s, but it’s incredibly difficult to get readers to take that dive with you. I used to think that readers eschewed this (to me, fascinating) information because it’s too complicated and they’re busy and Dancing With the Stars is on. I’ve come to feel that this is only part of the picture.

The problem with basketball strategy is that many hoops lovers don’t want basketball to be about basketball strategy. This sport is about individual accomplishment. How many rings does Kobe have? Can he catch Michael? Is LeBron the new MJ? How does he prove he’s a “winner” with “killer instinct”? This way of viewing the NBA conceives of team success as resultant from individual will or genius. It’s a world apart from appreciating how San Antonio’s Motion Weak offense probes defenses till someone like Danny Green gets an open 3.

The Spurs are innovators, the first to grasp the corner 3′s potential. But, in that innovation, they’ve learned to chuck hero ball for a more collectivist approach. Suddenly, basketball isn’t about Kobe draining a game winner because he’s “an assassin.” Basketball is about executing a superior strategy, with even the best players serving more as cogs than deciders.

The Spurs Were Branded

Ever try to get rid of an unseemly nickname? It’s tough, isn’t it? I’m not sure as to the origins of “The Spurs are Boring,” but damned if the trope isn’t sticky. Perhaps Shaq’s framing of Duncan as “fundamental” has done much to dissuade folks from ever paying attention. It’s a shame because the Spurs create new ways of playing more than they honor old ways of playing. They’re more wildly creative than fundamentally sound.

Either way, the meme has stuck. The San Antonio Spurs have lost a national election that they never tried to win in the first place. For them, the journey’s been fantastic. So much winning, so much respect around the league. For the NBA, their success has been TV ratings poison and a real threat to league popularity. I’m not interested in how the Spurs feel about it. I’m interested in why Joe Sports Fan doesn’t feel anything for them. Actually, that’s a lie. I am interested in how the Spurs feel about it, but they’d never tell me. I’ll probably have better luck getting Joe’s side of the story.

When LeBron James Chooses Stats Over Team

The above picture shows LeBron James collecting a rebound with 2.7 seconds to go in the first quarter of Thursday night’s Heat-Mavs game. After James secured the rock, he jogged his dribble towards the halfcourt line, never bothering to try a buzzer beater heave. LeBron wore an expression of utter disinterest as the arena’s blaring alarm and flashing red lights argued with James’ languid face.

This is a familiar sight to those familiar with the Miami Heat. When LeBron James is presented with the chance at a long buzzer beater, he errs towards protecting his field goal percentage. This is another way of saying that LeBron James chooses to marginally hurt his team for the sake of his long term statistics.

He’s far from the only one. While I ironically do not possess statistics on this statistics vanity, it does seem as though buzzer clutching is at peak levels. What does that mean? Do modern superstars indulge in a selfishness that might turn Bill Russell’s beard into an even grayer shade of gray?

Actually, I would argue that this buzzer clutching is indicative of a positive development, a development not so divorced from John Hollinger’s Memphis Grizzlies hire. “Yay points!” used to be the ruling NBA ethos, with little concern as to how well-known players compiled their point totals. In a less informed era, scoring leaders were lauded, considered better than their peers, even if the points came on shoddy shooting. This past decade of increasing analytics-savvy is different.

The percentages matter a lot, and they gain a new life when plugged into popular catch-all statistics like PER, Win Shares, and Wins Produced. If you’re hurting your field goal percentage, you’re also dropping multiple other indicators of your value, indicators that will get seen and passed around by fans and NBA executives alike.

So I do not view LeBron’s buzzer clutch as proof that he isn’t a winner or that he is unwilling to sacrifice. I see it as indivisible from his unselfish, smart, process-over-result style of play. LeBron James knows that his true value isn’t conveyed in raw point totals; It’s conveyed in efficiency. He wants you to know that, and two or three halfcourt makes per season isn’t worth clouding the message.

In a mico sense, the buzzer clutch is the result of bad incentives. By statistically punishing a risk-neutral attempt at an exciting long shot, the league compels players to go a boring, team-hurting route. In the macro sense, the ever-popular buzzer clutch reveals that players are responding to good incentives. These guys are aware of how their value gets considered, and efficiency vanity speaks to a want towards producing in a way that helps a team. LeBron isn’t a loser. He reveals winner-qualities in hewing his game to the stats that win. The buzzer circumstance just represents a strange, fairly unimportant glitch where efficiency is at odds with “efficiency.”

The next step is on us. These buzzer heaves should only count if they go in, or not be counted at all. We learn nothing from incorporating a risk-free miss on a near-impossible shot as though it’s the same as shanking a wide open corner three. Now that the players have caught up to efficiency metrics, it’s time to make the metrics more efficient.

Would you like Ray Allen to lie?

We desperately want to know these athletes, but we refuse to have a grownup conversation with them. We’re really too angry and jealous to be trusted with so much as a paragraph of their actual thoughts. If a quote can be potentially mocked, it will often get suctioned into the LOL vortex, where middle school sneering obliterates all memory of the source material context. If a great many fans are already angry at the quote giver, then LOL framing gives way to STFU framing. Mad people like to stay mad, or at least, to validate their rage. If you already hate an athlete, you’re liable to sculpt his sentences into one, long, middle finger.

It would seem that a certain former Celtic is trapped in that STFU box because he joined a historically hated franchise. Ray Allen is 37 years old. His team was inclined towards a future involving other, younger options. Allen wanted a different style of play from Boston’s PG-dominant approach. Few expected Ray to get through five Celtics seasons when he was traded there at age 32, so you could say that it’s been a bountiful relationship for both parties.

This is one of the most common occurrences in the NBA, as aging stars often believe in themselves more than their teams do. Reggie Miller is an exception that proves the rule. Even the most cherished, beloved players are either forced to go, or depart on their own accord–often in pursuit of championship.

And for the most part, they are forgiven for doing so, even if the new squad is a rival. Laker fans had few bad words for Derek Fisher when he signed with OKC. Robert Horry was a beloved kind of foe when he came back to Staples in a Spurs jersey. Rasheed Wallace was despised for many reasons, but not because he chose Boston upon leaving Detroit. Steve Nash will never buy his own drink in Phoenix, no matter how hot the desert sun gets.

Players are occasionally hated for leaving, but the issue is rarely their next destination. LeBron James could have stoked the same Cleveland rage by signing with New York, Brooklyn or L.A. Orlando fans would have loathed Dwight Howard, no matter his final landing spot. The anger results from a superstar taking his team’s chances with him out the door. The new team is usually immaterial.

So why is this Ray Allen situation a big deal? Allen leaves the C’s in no particular lurch. Actually, they have more shooting guards than the secret service. Boston is fine. If Ray helps the hated Heat, it’s probably a peripheral boost. As was mentioned earlier, this guy is 37 years old. The Celtics didn’t need him, and he only theoretically helps a Miami team that’s likely a lot better than Boston anyway.

Yet I’m seeing “TRAITOR” and “BETRAYAL” when I read stories on the topic. Kevin Garnett plays into the narrative a bit, talking about how he ditched Ray’s digits. Now fans are incensed over Ray Allen’s version of events. Allen’s synopsis of this story, as far as I can tell is this: He loved the city of Boston, but the team didn’t really want him anymore, and a source of his Rondo tension came after the team nearly traded the both of them to Phoenix, partially on account of 2009 Rajon’s temperamental nature.

Ray Allen is getting asked about what happened quite frequently by a lot of different reporters, and he’s responding with what appears to be frankness. I have no clue as to whether this all went the precise way Allen says it did, but these aren’t bombs he’s chucking. Everybody knows that Rajon Rondo butted heads with Rivers, and everybody knows that the Celtics tried to trade Ray Allen multiple times. So why are those who already know this angry at Allen for merely saying it? Study of Ray’s stats reveals that Boston really was phasing him out of the offense. So why are those who saw that angry at Allen for pointing it out?

Ray’s tame words are crammed into shrieking, blaring headlines that depict an angry man.  He’s “bitter,” he’s “emotional,” he’s “blaming” his old team for what happened. This talk helps elicit the highly click-able STFU reaction from fans, and it always helps portray a seemingly prosaic rift as a soap operatic screamfest.

The use of “blame” particularly strikes me strangely because it makes free agency sound like a crime to be answered for. Nobody should be “blamed” when a 37 year-old man changes teams. That’s like blaming either the sun or earth for a sunset. When Ray Allen claims that Boston didn’t want him, this isn’t an assignation of fault so much as an explanation of a perfectly understandable front office position. If Allen is happy in Miami, and if Boston is happy to have a deep guard rotation, then who’s exactly losing out here?  I’d credit both parties for being savvy enough to move on and find amenable situations.

If I’m looking to blame, I blame us. We make it all but impossible for athletes to merely communicate like basic humans–especially in all matters Heat, Lakers, Knicks and Celtics. I’ve read more than a few articles and comments telling Ray Allen to keep his mouth shut. It’s a funny request from people making the effort to read what Allen thinks. When we’re angry, we can’t handle the truth–and we’re twice as inclined to project our anger on the truth teller.

Harden and the opportunity gap

There’s no way to definitively discern how good James Harden and Russell Westbrook are in relationship to one another. This post will make no effort to determine such an order of merit. But that in itself is noteworthy, since Westbrook is widely perceived as elite while Harden is just very good. What’s important here is the reason people have a hard time accepting that Harden is Westbrook’s equal has nothing to do with things in Harden’s control, namely playing time and play calling.

Let’s begin with the obvious: Westbrook produces significantly more, per game, than Harden. 23.6 points per game compared to 16.8; 5.5 assists compared to 3.7. That Harden could be his equal in the face of such numerical disadvantage is a cousin of the argument that Manu Ginobili, in his prime, was every bit as deadly as Kobe Bryant even if the body count didn’t stack up accordingly.

Even after adjusting for court time, Westbrook comes out ahead. However we must consider efficiency and the benefit of such efficiency for the team. Harden turns the ball over less frequently, had a slightly higher Pure Point Guard Rating, is a better shooter, a better pick-and-roll player and every bit as devastating in the open court — he can’t equal Westbrook’s explosiveness but his results are better in fast breaks and pretty much every other offensive scenario, according the Synergy.

As great as Westbrook is, and he is obviously so, you’d have a hard time building a credible case that he’s tangibly better than Harden at anything other than playing more and having more opportunities by virtue of handling the ball a greater percentage of each game. As every possession Westbrook dictates is one Harden cannot, it’s legitimate and fair to say Westbrook limits Harden’s game-to-game numbers. It’s simply not reasonable to compare their production levels given their unequal opportunities. This needn’t imply a cent of malfeasance on Westbrook’s part, it’s just a mathematical reality — though conclusions about Harden’s comparative ceiling should be tempered some by the fact that he gets to be a bit more choosey in his attacking, and that if he were to play as Westbrook does (though it’s not clear Westbrook needs to play that way) he would likely lose some efficiency via the Kevin Love effect.

If you don’t buy that claim, consider that Harden basically never got the ball in crunchtime throughout the regular season then repeatedly and single-handedly demolished playoff defenses in the final five minutes once he got the chance. That he didn’t score in crunchtime was viewed by many as a meaningful  referendum on his crunchtime ability. But did he suddenly develop new skills, or was a latent ability activated by opportunity?

There is one thing that Westbrook unequivocally does better than Harden and that’s to find shots near the basket. The NBA’s stat site says Westbrook shot at the rim 6.5 times per game, second only to Tyreke Evans among guards and good for 8th in the whole league. How telling is that statistic? It’s hard to say. Westbrook is grouped between John Wall and Evans as guards go, though he did manage to shoot a few more free throws than Wall and far more free throws Evans. And he makes those count. He’s a great accumulator of points by blunt force trauma. The scoreboard cares not for artistry.

And if science ever finds out what it is that fuels Russell Westbrook we may no longer have to seek foreign sources of fossil fuels. His inexhaustibility, even when his efforts are thwarted for long stretches, has many times been a rallying force for his team. There are games when Durant looks listless and Perkins slow. It will appear the Thunder have disengaged from the proceedings entirely, except for one stalwart soldier dumping in jumper after jumper and creating single-engine fastbreaks then lowering his shoulder to the rim as though he might batter through his opponent’s spirit. Westbrook will carry a team emotionally and on the scoreboard long enough for a second engine, whether it’s Durant or Harden, to fire and push the Thunder to victory. He’s a force.

(This isn’t exactly germaine to the discussion, but Westbrook also seems to do this thing where he comes up with super clutch, hyper-hustley athletic plays, like snatching an offensive rebound in the last minute of a close game.)

Defensively, this one’s impossible to call. Westbrook’s athletic profile suggests an elite, lockdown player lurks within what’s really a very inconsistent and at times catastrophically unsound defender — remember Mario Chalmers scooting to the rim off ball reversals in the Finals? That was the result of Westbrook being way out of position then taking a poor closeout angle. There’s also that bit about needing to be taken off of Tony Parker in the Western Conference Finals because he was having so much trouble navigating pick-and-roll coverages.

Harden’s defense is “Just OK,” in the famous and probably charitable words of Jerry Colangelo, but it looked damn good against Kobe Bryant in the second round of the playoffs, and his length and strength are assets that allow him to guard three positions as long as the small forward isn’t LeBron James. Westbrook has the edge in terms of peak ability, but slow, veteran teams can still have top notch defenses for a reason.

The gap in their top-end athleticism is real, but I wonder if it’s manifestly substantial. Harden is a more clever and skilled player, and that’s a certain kind of athleticism that, like Westbrook’s astounding vertical or impossible work rate on the court, are borderline impossible to teach. It’s hard to exactly put your finger on it, but it’s best captured by “he got game.” Harden has loads and loads of game.

The preceding aims to convince you that Harden is in the same class of NBA player as Westbrook. He’s a year younger and has a year less experience, so factor that in too. Both have improved measurably each year in the league. Both have excellent reputations as teammates (and innovators of a personal language) and workers. Yay Thunder.

I’m fairly certain that had Harden been starting his whole career people would not see him as perhaps a bit passive, unfit to carry a team himself. We hear that starting doesn’t matter. That it’s the amount of minutes a player’s on the court, and that it’s more important to finish a game than it is to start. That’s all true, in terms of real statistical merit. Harden contributed more Win Shares in fewer minutes than Westbrook, so there’s a plain argument he was the more important player.

But whether it’s his beard that seems — perhaps unconsciously — to tell fans “I enjoy being a third option” or the fact that he was brought along a little more slowly and continues to come off the bench despite being a top three player at his position, there’s something subverting perceptions of his apparent greatness.

Stats may say when minutes are played doesn’t impact the final score. And they are correct, no doubt about it. But a lot more goes into player-evaluation than hard fact. There’s also amateur psychological evaluation and questions about context. This isn’t to say the Thunder don’t know how good Harden is, it seems silly to suggest they’ll do anything but sign him and figure out the rest later. But when basketball brains scoff at a player who longs to hear his name called in the opening lineup, keep Harden in mind. Opportunity implies ability; starting implies the merit to start. How people think about the work you do matters. That’s why starting matters.

How to capitalize on the D-League

Alonzo Gee went from a D-Leaguer in Austin to valuable NBA rotation player for the Cavs.

Last week ESPN released a series imagining what a full-blown NBA minor league might look like. Most of the experts around the league were of the mind that a 30-team, single-affiliate development league seems like an idea that cures the vast majority of the development problems facing young players in the NBA.

The implementation of such a system would most certainly be an overwhelmingly good thing. In the first post of the series, Brandon Doolittle does an excellent job of examining the many positives that could come with NBADL expansion such as veteran rehab and a capable arena to groom referees, front office personnel and coaches – a concept vastly undervalued by both the NBA and its franchises. However, the NBA personnel interviewed for the piece suggests that the D-League’s end goal is to become a launching pad for unpolished stars.

Doolittle writes: “We’re still waiting for the unpolished guy to be sent to the D-League and really take off based on his D-League experience,” said one league source, who added that he doesn’t see Jeremy Lin as an example of that.

While it certainly sounds glamorous to envision a minor league system becoming a proving ground for future stars, this notion obscures where the system’s true value lies – developing role players.

An NBA team’s affiliate shouldn’t be to set up to produce the next Jeremy Lin, but the next Alonzo Gee. Sure, Gee-sanity won’t ever invigorate a franchise’s fanbase, but he was a D-League regular that has proven to be a rotation-quality wing in the NBA. In Cleveland, Gee will compete for starter’s minutes but if slotted into a reserve role on a contending team, he’s the perfect example of what a full minor league system can accomplish.

The problem facing the NBA isn’t the inability to develop stars — we almost always see them coming — but that the league outsources the development of many young, end-of-the-rotation-type players like Gee to teams overseas. Due to roster restrictions, NBA teams are simply unwilling or unable to invest 2-3 years in a player with the upside of a 20-minute-a-night reserve. Instead they try to fill those roles primarily with veteran riff-raff and cross their fingers these vets hold off Father Time or their play somehow drastically exceeds their well-established but underwhelming career norms.

While stars no doubt dictate the heights of a team’s potential, the bottom of a rotation provides a crucial safety net. Take the case of the 2012 Celtics or 2011 Heat. By employing the likes of Chris Wilcox, Erick Dampier, Sasha Pavlovic and Carlos Arroyo, the two teams had nothing to pick up the slack as their star players suffered through poor performance, injury and fatigue.

Boston lost in the Eastern Conference Semifinals this past spring to Miami not just because that Heat team was flat out better, but because the C’s were unable to properly rest their core players. Kevin Garnett – and to a degree Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce – simply ran out of gas. A year earlier, a big part of the Heat’s Finals demise – outside of Lebron James wilting under the pressure– was the team’s decision to surround their three superstars with a geriatric group of has-beens.

Had a full minor league system been in place over the past decade, those two clubs might have been drastically different. Those examples are also a microcosm of how teams across the league are drastically undervaluing the importance of the 7-9 slots in a rotation (Looking at you, Mitch Kupchak).

Most players starting their professional careers without tremendous upside never get the chance to fill these spots. It’s simply too difficult for NBA teams to justify spending 2-3 years grooming a role player. With the exception of someone like J.J. Barea in Dallas, this generally fails to happen because the current structure in today’s NBA essentially forces a young player on the fringes to make a calculated gamble on his potential earnings.

Most lucrative European spots are filled long before NBA training camp even begins. That means if a player like Alonzo Gee accepts a camp invite to make a roster and fails, he will be in a tight spot. With just his relatively meager camp fee in his pocket, that player will be scrambling to secure a low-end job overseas or sign a less than lucrative deal with a NBADL team. It’s not hard to understand then why so many players capable of filling out a NBA rotation choose to ply their trade in Europe or China. They become accustomed to new rules and systems in foreign leagues while enjoying bigger roles and earning substantially more than any D-Leaguer.

The main objective for a 30-team minor league system should be to stop this current exodus of potential role players. By letting these players develop in NBA systems, more organizations can churn out young, productive bench specialists on the cheap instead of bringing Jerry Stackhouse back for his 18th year hoping he’s uncovered the fountain of youth during the off-season.

For a league that rarely has problems developing stars, that’s all a minor league system needs to do.

The NBA’s top pick-and-roll partnerships

Dwyane Wade draws three defenders, finds Bosh rollin’ to the rim.

[Note: This post is the first in a series of season preview posts here at HoopSpeak. Check back in the coming days for more on pick-and-pops, pin downs and other officially sanctioned rankings from the joint offices of David Stern/HoopSpeak. -- Ed.]

How it works

Over the last decade, the pick-and-roll has become the basis of almost every NBA offense. Ideally, the ball handler will have the burst to get to and finish at the rim, the timing to find passing angles and a jumpshot to keep the defense honest. His job is to use the screen to create a 5-on-4 advantage by rubbing his defender off the screen, or to draw two defenders to create a 4-on-3 elsewhere on the court. The roll man must have the brute athleticism to finish at and above the rim, but there’s also something subtle at work in the chemistry between great pick-and-roll partners.

First, there’s the screen itself — an element that is often overshadowed by the subsequent action. The big men in Miami and San Antonio are all well-trained to approach the screen at full speed then switch screening angle at the last second. Moving quickly into the screen keeps the defense off balance and helps prevent an effective hedge-and-recover or trap on the ballhandler.

From there, it’s up to the roll man to maintain a clean passing angle by keeping time in an improvisational dance with the ballhandler and two (or more) defenders. Once he gets the ball, the roller must have that combination of power and cleverness that defines the game’s best finishers.

Top pick-and-roll duos

1. Dwyane Wade – Chris Bosh

While this is a pick-and-roll list, it must be stated that Bosh doesn’t simply screen and dive with reckless abandon to the basket. In fact, Bosh excels at changing the pace and the location of his rolls, making him a threat to do everything from sink an open jumper to finish under duress at the rim. With a hedging defender so occupied with where and when he needs to recover to Bosh, the attack-minded Wade gains an even more decided advantage during his forays to the hoop.

2. LeBron James – Chris Bosh

James adds another dimension to Miami’s pick-and-roll attack with his ability to pick out players far on the other side of the court, further pressuring the defense to abandon Bosh on the roll. These two have fantastic chemistry, and at 6-8, James’s ability to slip in that pocket bounce pass — and Bosh’s soft hands on those low, sharp feeds — make this action one of Miami’s most reliable offensive plays.

3. Chris Paul — Blake Griffin

Unlike Bosh, Griffin hardly inspires fear with his jumpshot, so defenses are always anticipating a roll to the rim. This tends to mitigate the effectiveness of the action because Griffin has yet to play with a shooting big man who can open the middle of the court for his rolls. Still, Griffin has excellent hands and finishes at the rim better than any rollman in basketball, and Chris Paul is the best in the NBA when it comes to effectively dislodging his defender with the ball screen. Despite the “Lob City” nickname, it’s really more like Bounce Pass Municipality — Paul prefers to sneak the ball to Griffin off the hop because Griffin is so adept at finishing off of one dribble.

4. James Harden – Nick Collison

It certainly seems like a stretch to see a reserve big man make this list, but Nick Collison is no ordinary sub. He’s not exactly a top-flight finisher, but over the years Collison proved at least capable in that department (unlike his turnover-prone teammate, Kendrick Perkins). Combined with his best attribute – the ability to set bone-jarring screens — it helps Collison turn even marginal ball handlers into scoring threats. But his partner on this list is no ordinary ball handler — it’s foul-drawing machine James Harden. With Collison setting him loose, Harden becomes an even bigger threat to rack up free throws and buckets against overwhelmed defenses.

5. Steph Curry – David Lee

Curry’s ankle issues delayed the rise of what could be the league’s most effective pick-and-roll combo. Lee is a tough cover as the roll man because of his athleticism and dribbling skill (though, like Bosh, he also varies the pace and location of his roll). When coupled with a lights-out shooter like Curry, it puts immense pressure on the hedging defender. If he focuses too much on deterring a Curry jumper, Lee has more space diving to the basket. If Lee receives his attention, Curry most likely finds room to unleash his sweet stroke.

Emerging pairings for 2012-13

1. Steve Nash – Dwight Howard

Even with the legendary point guard closing in on 40, this is still a dream pairing. Nash is still a pick-and-roll savant and now he teams up with an elite finisher (and underrated screener) in Howard. If the Lakers can figure out spacing issues around them, this twosome has a chance to be the best in the league.

2. Jeff Teague – Josh Smith

With Joe Johnson now in Brooklyn, Teague — an absolute jet with the ball in his hands — has a chance to break out in a big way. With shooters spreading the floor around him, Teague in any pick-and-roll is nearly impossible to keep out of the paint. Paired with Smith, he has roll man that could be just as devastating as Amar’e Stoudamire was in his prime. If head coach Larry Drew cuts them loose, this could be a terrifying duo for Atlanta.

3. Steve Nash – Pau Gasol

Though the Nash-Howard combo will get more notoriety thanks to Howard’s thunderous dunks, the Nash-Gasol pairing might be just as effective. While Howard will make his mark slamming down lobs, Gasol — thanks to be superbly skilled — is much better suited to catch those patented Nash pocket passes early in the roll. From there he can use a dribble to finish at the hoop with either hand or read a weakside rotation and find the open shooter. But like we alluded to with Howard, the limiting factor on their success will be their teammates ability to knock down those open looks.

4. Gordon Hayward – Derrick Favors

Make no mistake about it, Favors — a Stoudemire clone — is going to be an absolute force in any pick-and-roll no matter who is handling the ball. But don’t sleep on Hayward. The third year guard has an enviable combination of size, handles, shooting ability and willingness to pass that very few wing players can match. He could function in much the same way as Hedo Turkoglu did in his Magic heyday. Putting these two together won’t make Jazz fans forgot about Stockton and Malone, but they have a chance to be quite good in their own right.

How Dwight Howard can learn from Gustavo Ayon

If you’re a true NBA junky, you should get to know Gustavo Ayon. ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh profiled Ayon’s underrated productivity while explaining why the Mexican big man will be a surprisingly effective replacement for the departed Dwight Howard in Orlando.

But Ayon’s play is worth noting even if you care not what he does on a bad Orlando team. The techniques he uses to find open spaces playing off the ball in pick-and-rolls will be instructive for the Magic player he’s replacing, Dwight Howard, when Howard takes the court with L.A.

Last year’s Hornets used a set that perfectly suited Ayon’s instincts, and could prove wildly effective for the Lakers. It’s a departure from the traditional Princeton, the offense L.A. claims it will pursue, but I’m willing to bet such departures will be a regular occurrence. What’s more,
this is one of the few offensive schemes or sets that can accentuate all the Lakers’ skills at once.

Here’s how it worked in New Orleans: During a middle pick-and-roll, Ayon would stay low on the baseline, ‘circle under’ the backboard (opposite the rolling screener) to put maximum pressure on occupied help defenders and get buckets near the rim.

It’s a simple motion, but with proper spacing and timing, it puts the defense in a serious bind.

Perhaps the best example of the pressure this movement puts on the defense is illustrated by the latter of the two clips against the Clippers. As Jarrett Jack comes off the screen, the hedging defender (DeAndre Jordan) looks to string him out toward the sideline.This makes Blake Griffin responsible for Landry’s half-roll to the middle of the free throw line (a.k.a the nail). Randy Foye, guarding Lance Thomas on the weakside of the play, is now faced with a very difficult decision.

If he stays with Ayon moving under the basket, Thomas will be left about as alone as someone can get in the halfcourt. Fearing that threat, Foye recovers early to Thomas, who lifts behind the screen, leaving Ayon with a layup and his teammate, Griffin, bewildered. Despite Thomas being far from an established NBA scorer, Foye – along with every other defender Ayon put in this predicament – was put in a no-win situation.

Now imagine swapping Thomas and Ayon in that situation with Bryant and Howard. A tough defensive assignment now becomes virtually impossible to defend. A team’s choices are either Bryant roaming totally unchecked on the perimeter or Howard alone with the ball less than five feet from the basket. And even if teams choose to let Bryant free on the outside, there’s no guarantee his defender will do anything to slow or stop Howard from converting a paint catch into a dunk.

Howard and Bryant wouldn’t be the only two Lakers to see good results from this play. In fact, the most likely beneficiary of this set would be the uber-skilled Pau Gasol. He fits perfectly into the role as the screener making that half-roll to the nail.

Gasol can make the 15-footer with regularity and can be trusted to make the smart pass from the middle of the court. In the picture below, you can see how Kaman’s roll forces Ayon’s defender to step up, leaving the circle-under cut available.

In the full clip, you’ll see how this strains the defense. Here, Kenneth Faried commits to Kaman’s catch and leaves open a lane for a nifty interior pass, which Ayon converts into a dunk.

Now if Kaman at that spot on the floor is a headache against a scrambling defense, then Gasol would be a raging migraine. Landry and Kaman both possess accurate jumpers, but neither can match the Spaniard’s effectiveness as a passer. And to top it off, if a lane is available, Gasol can also drive to a rim finish (with either hand!), an additional threat no Hornet could provide.

It’s never easy for a team lacking a true ‘stretch’ big to exert such strain on opposing defenses these days. Thanks to Monty Williams’ understanding of the subtle skills of Gustavo Ayon, the Hornets did just that. Now we’ll see if the Lakers can do the same.

Why the Nuggets will be a big deal

Don't look so glum, Brett believes in you!

There’s been a lot of excitement in Denver since the Nuggets netted standout swingman Andre Iguodala. There’s excitement, but many are somewhat patronizing in their praise. We know the Nuggets will be a must-watch on League Pass, but few see them as true contenders if they remain committed to their current core.

Perhaps that’s because the Nuggets are just as revolutionary a team as the Boston Celtics of 2008 that paired three superstars together on one roster. Not only is Denver brushed aside because their makeup is the antithesis of both that Boston team and today’s reigning NBA champs, they are dismissed by principles that have been taken as the absolute truths of the NBA (more on that below). But in many ways this team is the logical result of changes that have been going on in the league since the 1970’s.

Since the introduction of the three-point shot in 1979, the NBA, like a living organism, has continually mutated. Over the past three-and-a-half decades, changes big and small have altered the genetic makeup of the way the game is played. Traits that once allowed players to survive and thrive are slowly becoming obsolete.

Because of that, games even from the early 2000s are nearly unrecognizable when compared to the ones witnessed during recent seasons. The only thing that seems consistent is that they both were played with ten players, two hoops and one ball.

No franchise has adapted to this new environment quite like the Nuggets.

A team built for today … and tomorrow

True, franchise-altering superstars are scarce and because the current CBA depresses their market value, they have more agency to choose where and with whom to play. And where they choose to play is not Denver, despite its 300 days of sunshine.

In response to this reality, the Nuggets have molded a unit capable of exploiting the NBA’s new era as best they can. They’ve been the big beneficiaries of two major superstar trades, just not in the conventional way. In the process those deals have them poised to finish higher than teams like the Clippers and *gasp* the Lakers, two teams housing more stars but ones less capable of taking advantage of the changes in the game.

But even without a star, the game has changed in ways that offer Denver better odds of a deep post-season run.

New rules that truly favor team play

In 2004 the league began to crack down on contact on the perimeter. That same year, Mike D’Antoni brought the spread pick-and-roll system that had embarrassed Team USA in international play to the NBA. This was the start of the NBA moving away from isolation-based basketball and toward systems that required teams to move the ball quickly to different spots on the floor — often for 3-point shots. For a team like Denver that has little in the way of one-on-one scoring, this is a very good thing.

With those formal rule changes allowing ball handlers and screeners alike to be less restrained by physical play, speed — and these Nuggets are fast all over the court — became a greater asset than size. Teams began to rely more frequently on smaller lineups — and win. By 2011, the Dallas Mavericks (not a fast team in terms of personnel, but certainly in how they moved the ball) brought home a championship by allocating the majority of their backcourt minutes to three players under 6’4” who, while not all that talented compared to typical champion backcourts, specialized in spot up 3-pointers and running the pick-and-roll.

Thanks in part to more open schemes like D’Antoni’s, the 3-point shot also experienced a revolution. Routinely an afterthought pre-2000, it started to become an efficiently used weapon in team’s offensive arsenals. Stan Van Gundy’s 2009 Orlando Magic reached the Finals thanks to reliance on four shooters surrounding Dwight Howard. However instead of just posting Howard up and isolating, the Magic used Howard’s pick-and-roll skills to fuel its attack.

Ten years prior, Van Gundy’s philosophy would have been mocked relentlessly around the league — Just give the big man the rock! This year, Denver will not only play small, but feature lineups with four reliable shooters (Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Iguodala) spacing the floor for pick-and-rolls and the occasional Javale McGee post up.

Not to be outdone by their offensive counterparts, defensive masterminds like Greg Popovich and Tom Thibodeau came up with clever ploys to counter schemes like Van Gundy’s and D’Antoni’s while also taking full advantage of the newfound defensive freedom to attack isolation play. Popovich instituted the “baseline go” double team — a trap designed to come from the baseline side of a post player – that forced opposing big men to search for and execute the furthest pass away (the weakside corner). Reading double teams all of a sudden stopped being a routine chore and became a nuanced approach. The who, how and when involved in a trap can now change on a possession-by-possession basis.

Those innovative double teams were also a part of the general philosophy found in Thibodeau’s strongside pressure schemes, made famous during his tenure in Boston under Doc Rivers. After the Celtics 2008 championship, those schemes became widely implemented by the rest of the league. Before that, a big man flooding the strongside of the floor during isolation sets or sideline pick-and-rolls being sent to the baseline was rare (or illegal). Today they are commonplace.

And the Nuggets, who will look to force live-ball turnovers to fuel their transition attack, will use all these new tricks. They will deny reversals, trap post ups and rotate with speed and precision behind them. At times their aggressions will cost them layups and wide open 3’s, but more often it will go a long way in creating more of those same shots at the other end of the floor.

What the Nuggets are up against

Like I said, the assumption that the Nuggets can’t contend is based in decades of experience. The question is whether, in this new NBA landscape, these old lessons still apply.

“Defense wins championships”

Last season, the Nuggets finished 19th in defensive efficiency. The acquisition of Iguodala and a full season of an improved Javele McGee won’t be enough to make a below average defensive team a year ago the class of the league. They will surely be improved – possibly leaping into the top 10 — but their success will hinge largely on their ability to pile up points at a blistering rate (they were tops in offensive efficiency and points at the rim last season).

“The easiest way to score is through the post.”

Denver certainly won’t be getting their points from traditional post ups. McGee and holdover Timofey Mozgov won’t be confused for Tim Duncan anytime soon. In fact, the best post player on the roster is 6’3” Andre Miller.

Instead, the Nuggets will be lighting up scoreboards with their lightening fast pace in the open floor. Their transition game will be reminiscent of those Nash-led Suns squads from the mid 2000s. And when things slow down, the ball won’t be going into the post. The talented wings and guards that inhabit the roster will be looking to break down defenses with dribble-attacks and pick-and-rolls.

“You can’t win without a superstar.”

The biggest hole in their resume, however, is the lack of a bona fide superstar. As Zach Lowe pointed out, there is the possibility that Ty Lawson or Danilo Gallinari could grow into this role. But each player has to have quite a few things fall into place before they join the game’s elite.

Barring any trades or unexpected developments in-house, the Nuggets roster will contain three All-Star caliber players, but no transcendent talent. The question is whether they can nonetheless score reliably in the half court by developing an offensive action — think the Thunder’s pin-down screen or the Dirk-Terry pick-and-roll.

Their depth and versatility nearly ensure success in the marathon that is the regular season, but questions will abound in April. Can a revolving door of hot-hands win four straight playoff series?

Does the past dictate the future?

As spectators, just watching the Nuggets dash up and down the court is going to be a thrill. But they are an important team, and not just a fun one, because they will test all these absolute truths. They will be worth watching to see if a team constructed to exploit the superstar marketplace (despite being a small market franchise), as well as the rules that now govern how the pro game is played, can challenge teams that may have an advantage in top-tier talent. If they do, they could be an even more important contribution to the science of team-building than the Big Three model.

Change is Scary, Sarunas

One temperate Oakland night, probably in 1989, Golden State Warriors rookie Sarunas Marciulionis picked up his dribble and stepped sideways either to his left or his right. Suddenly, the Lithuanian guard jaunted back the opposite direction–either to his right or his left–as though on an invisible switchback trail. Maybe the move fooled that defender, or maybe Sarunas was called for traveling. We’ll never really know the exact moment at which the NBA was introduced to the “Eurostep.”

Marciulionis moved laterally, back-and-forth, in a way NBA players had never thought to. For at least a half century, Americans had always taken two steps forward after picking up their dribbles. It made sense, as the momentum carried them in that general direction. Nobody had ever thought to do it any differently. Or, if they had thought to, nobody had the confidence to make a public habit out of bipedal slithering.

Sarunas Marciulionis introduced this revolutionary move at a time when he personally must have felt quite warped. The season had started weeks after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, when the foreign rookie was getting his training camp bearings. Perhaps there is a natural tendency towards reversing course within Sarunas because on October 17th, 1989, he planned on going to a car dealership via the 880 freeway. At the last second, he decided on a different direction, visiting a back doctor instead. While in the office, one tectonic plate scraped against another, causing the earth to shudder buildings off her shoulders. The doctor’s building held steady, but the 880 freeway did not.

If you ask people about the fatalities in the 1989 quake, most would guess that the majority of carnage occurred on the Bay Bridge. I know this because I’m the kind of person who asks this question of people. And I ask this kind of question because that also used to be my assumption.

That assumption changed one day, when I was driving down the eerily wide Mandela Parkway in West Oakland. It’s a blighted area of town, but not without its hipster chic breakfast joints. I was looking for one in particular, but the restaurant was closed. I motored off in my rusting Ford Escort station wagon, down the spacious street that was split into two by a seemingly needless, gigantic lawn median. You can see cars moving down the other side of this two-way path, but they’re at quite a remove from the standard double yellow line. The distance casts an almost lonely pall over the drive, in the way pro tennis players might feel a sense of alienation from sharing an experience with an opponent so far away. Eroding houses and corroded factories don’t much sunny up this sensation.

I caught an odd sight out of my window. Next to the median, behind some trees, I made out the word, “Seconds” in large silver letters, stuck to a white brick fence. I stopped my car, hopped out to check on the incongruity. It was Sunday afternoon, so I had time. Behind some shrubbery, I could see that the fence read, “15 Seconds” in lettering that is preceded by a viciously oscillating richter scale line. A vague sense of lugubrious recognition arrived. Did something awful happen here?

This is actually the area Sarunas Marciulionis rushed off to after the quake hit. This is where the 880 freeway collapsed on itself, killing 42 people in a brutal clap of concrete on concrete. Marciulionis felt he needed to help the victims of his briefly considered route. He arrived, wearing a Golden State Warriors warmup jacket. He was told to leave by authorities, after 45 minutes of pacing around an unfathomable mess of gnarled pavement and blood. Mandela Parkway isn’t really a street–that was all an illusion. The street is just a placeholder for the absence of space. It’s the steady echo of those 15 seconds when a vast swath of the 880 freeway was disappeared by the earth.

When explaining the often suicidal madness that top physicists suffer and thrive with, David Foster Wallace wrote of the unconsidered confidence with which normal people live their lives. You know your feet will hit the floor when you roll out of bed, you know the sun will come up, you know that your wife will remember your name.

“The principle involved is really the only way we can predict any of the phenomena we just automatically count on without having to think about them. And the vast bulk of daily life is composed of these sorts of phenomena; and without this confidence based on past experience we’d all go insane, or at least, we’d be unable to function because we’d have to stop and deliberate and every last little thing.”

Basketball players and coaches are always looking for an edge, but they also must go about their chosen profession with a degree of unconsidered confidence. Athletes have enough to worry about without analyzing every tiny detail of their games per efficacy. The kind of NBA player who questions his two steps pre-1989 might also question a thousand other erstwhile instincts. Is the standard shooting motion best, or just the arbitrary winner of oral sports tradition? Would a three point hook shot work better? Maybe it’s smart to set screens with your back?

Play with that degree of doubt and you might crumble. This is how an improvement as simple as “two steps sideways” goes unnoticed for a century. The Eurostep was hiding in plain sight, but to see it would have meant seeing your instincts as incredibly fallible. How could you trust anything on the court if you couldn’t trust stepping towards the hoop?

I believe that there are thousands of Eurosteps out there–I’m just not sure what they are. Football is currently getting redefined thanks to “packaged plays,” calls that rely on reading the defense after the snap. Again, it’s a simple enough concept that went unseen for decades. Basketball is an abstract dance between time and space, replete with possibilities. When I see Rajon Rondo stir defenses with his pass fakes I wonder whether an offense based on timed pass fakes might be the new “seven seconds or less.”

Maybe it could be, maybe it couldn’t be. The new basketball leap might contain a far more discomfiting rebuttal on how we assume the game gets played. I just know that some staggering basketball advancement is within our intellectual grasp, but that looking for it might make the planet feel unmoored in our minds.

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