Chris Bosh: Stepping back to step up

Chris Bosh once said that you don’t really know the sacrifices you’re making until you actually make them. When the big three first came together in Miami, rising up from the ground amid smoke, lasers, and an affirming crowd, it seemed as if the difficult part of the journey was over. But through the hardships of that first year, and even through the successes thereafter, Chris Bosh came to learn just how much he gave up for the sake of contention.

While LeBron and Wade made similar financial sacrifices, neither has had to relinquish either their stats or their perceptions as elite players to the extent that Bosh has. His numbers across the board have been on a steep decline from his days in Toronto, and his role on offense has been marginalized without its burden being any lessened.

“It’s a lot of hard work,” Bosh said of his new normal in Miami. “It’s been a long time, this role that I’m in now is difficult enough for me so it’s never a dull moment.”

Playing out of position and battling down low with the Roy Hibberts and Tim Duncans of the world has only fed the “soft” narrative that was always there in Toronto, but on a periphery that no longer exists with the Heat. Bosh’s reflective nature has stood in stark contrast to the bombast of Miami, and the mocking reaction to some of his more awkward antics have often taken a turn for the cruel.

Yet, as his recent performances against the Lakers and the Spurs proved, Bosh remains among an elite class of players. In the best power forward debate that tends to revolve around Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Blake Griffin, Bosh’s defense and versatility sets him apart from the crowd. His range, size, and athleticism is an utterly unique amalgam of skills otherwise unseen in the league today.

In truth, apart from LeBron, Bosh may be the Heat’s most irreplaceable player. Wade is certainly one of a kind but his sheer production could be somewhat replicated by a committee, like how the Thunder are compensating for the absence of Harden. But Bosh’s style of play cannot be replicated; he alone is the key that unlocks Miami’s revolutionary five-out style of play. There is no other player in the league who can stretch the floor, soak up competent minutes at center, and still play the necessary hedge-and-recover style of pick and roll defense like Bosh can.

Expectations are everything, and the Miami Heat are judged on a harsh curve that doesn’t often reward success outside of championships. But as LeBron garners accolades for his dominance of the league, and Wade gets to be the unselfish star who ceded control of Miami to James for the good of the team, Bosh remains the odd man out. He exists in a world where the failures of the team are usually assigned to holes he’s unable to plug and the successes are assumed and as such rarely credited to him.

But through all the hardships of the past four seasons, Bosh can always look back at his two rings as confirmation for why he gave up all that he did.
“Always,” Bosh said assuredly. “That’s what’s most important. I was putting up big number before I came here and nobody really cared, now it’s all about winning.”

Sacrifice is hard, and rarely does it ever arrive at the participant’s request. Even when it’s rewarded, the martyr is usually still the only one that feels the brunt of the cost. When Chris Bosh found himself perched atop that stage in Miami back in 2010, he couldn’t have fathomed what his decision to play for the Heat would really entail.

Yet in a league that doesn’t just encourage selfishness, but rewards it, Bosh has accepted his transformation from star to role player in a conversion that has little precedence. For all the denigration from fans and pundits alike for not doing enough, it is Bosh’s moderation that has allowed the Heat to thrive.

In a culture that lauds selflessness almost as much as it glorifies winning, Chris Bosh stands alone and yet unrecognized as one of the greatest embodiments of both.


HoopSpeak Network

When Blake Griffin throws down

The first time Dwight Howard did it, it was a rejection of the dunk. He did it in costume, as if to say he was the sole earthly descendent of a race that had advanced beyond the dunk. It was the statement, when married to the act of throwing the ball downward into the hoop, that made Howard’s nondunk so mesmerizing. I remember him, hips above the rim (they weren’t) and cape billowing (it wasn’t), frozen in a pose that said that the old notion of the dunk was literally beneath him. 

Howard’s dunk, sadly, has another legacy: the first of the prop dunks. We’re coming up on its six-year anniversary, and in the time since, we’ve seen a teddy bear grabbed off the rim by Serge Ibaka’s teeth, various former players jumped over, and a farce of corporate synergy when Blake Griffin vaulted a Kia to invigorate an otherwise nondescript dunk. Last year, Jeremy Evans brought the dunk contest to its hilarious Inception-meets-Surrealism moment when he dunked over a portrait of himself dunking over a portrait of himself dunking. The dunk—the performed dunk, at least, in the contest—had been ushered into the world in which the rest of us live and have grown weary. It had been made inseparable from the associations that were crowding its expressive purity.

It seems to me most fans now favor the in-game posterization as the pinnacle of dunking. After the wizardry of Vince Carter and Jason Richardson, it became perhaps too daunting to keep finding ways reinvigorate the physics, though Andre Iguodala’s slam from behind the backboard is a latter-day masterpiece of the form.  But dunking on a defender during live action retains the old visceral thrill, removed from the excess of the ceremony. It’s the difference between a priest giving Sunday mass and a lay preacher laying on hands. 

There are a few possible explanations for why dunk authority has migrated from the dunk contest to in-game throw-downs. It is possible that most fans, like me, have grown tired of the forced enthusiasm, relentless branding, and repetitive imitation. But it is also true that dunks are among the most .gif-able moments in sports, and any fan with a twitter account has access, in effect, to a dunk contest every night. That LeBron never jumped over a car means far less than his annihilation of Jason Terry.

So if every night is now a dunk contest, we have for consideration whatever it is that Blake Griffin does. It seems to me that most fans have moved beyond arguing whether Griffin’s thunderbolts are dunks; clearly, they are not, but most of the discussion I see is no longer concerned with arguing their merits. It seems that fans have reached, blessedly, something of a consensus: not a dunk, but at least as good as a dunk.

Other players, in the past few years, have converted dunk attempts where they’ve been too far away from the rim to make contact, but Griffin does so with a frequency that suggests he is consciously attempting the notdunk. (The move sorely needs a name. Let’s call it the Throwdunk.)

It’s well known among defenders that Griffin likes to take off from what he refers to as his “launch point,” and as a consequence, defenders sprint out to beat him to that spot, as Humphries tries to do. So Griffin finds himself in the air, feet away from the hoop, and in possession of unusually short arms. Thus, even if he’s not rising up with the intent of throwing the ball through the rim, it’s clear that he’s developed the move as a tactic in response to sound defense.  It’s this consideration at least as much as the actual made basket that impresses me most about the undunk—the notion that Griffin is so aware of his own explosiveness that the defense has already lost by the time he has elevated.

I don’t know whether Griffin was consciously inspired by Howard’s Superman dunk, or whether the increasing league-wide prevalence of the throw-dunk attempt can be traced to that moment. But Griffin’s usage of the move translates Howard’s message into real-time action; whereas most players covet the rim as the court’s most valuable space, Griffin is above the play anytime he’s got a foot in the paint. The player whose ultra-sponsored Kia dunk represented the nadir of the dunk contest has mined one of the more potent contest dunks and incorporated it into his signature play. He’s combining Howard’s knowing rejection of the dunk with the posterizer’s declaration that his will to score overcomes the efforts of the defense; he doesn’t need to dunk, because he can dunk from anywhere. It’s a statement powerful enough that regardless of what happens in February, Blake Griffin has won this year’s dunk contest.


Klay Thompson does a whole lot with a little

Klay Thompson is using one skill to make a massive impact.

Every year NBA GMs are asked “who does the most with the least.” Usually they zeor in on players who seem aesthetically ill at ease, through both their lack of athletic prowess and, usually, their whiteness. But if you want to find the player who maximizes his value through the least diversity of quality skills, then you would have to look no further, on offense at least, than Warriors shooting guard Klay Thompson.

Thompson is currently setting the league on fire, posting a scorching effective field goal percentage of 65, ninth in the league amongst players taking at least 14 shots a game, and sporting a PER of 20.2. Perhaps only his backcourt partner, Stephen Curry, generates as much home crowd excitement factor when he raises up. At 6-7 and terrifying coming off any screen, he hardly seems the archetype for the “little engine that could” type player we usually peg for the overachievers.

And yet what other skills does Thompson currently posses on offense aside from dead-eyed shooting? His burgeoning post game is coming along, but he’s not exactly an adept passer, he hasn’t got a very good handle, he doesn’t rebound, he doesn’t draw fouls, and his movement off ball extends almost solely to getting in the best position for a catch and shoot jumper. Over 75 percent of his shots come from outside the paint and 78 percent of those shots are defined as some form of jumper per NBA.com stats database. He’s not much of an athlete — his vertical leap is four inches lower than Kevin Love’s.

It has only been 11 games and his shooting is most likely going to come down to earth at some point, but to date there has never been a guard in the league who has ever put up Klay’s current PER with his usage rate while doing so little in the assists and rebounding department. Essentially, he is putting up a borderline All-Star level number in a metric designed to measure the entirety of ones efficiency on offense, and doing it only with his shooting.

Thompson is only in his third year and he has already shown signs of growth in the outlying portions of his game. The post game is starting to flourish in limited usage and if his passing comes around he could truly become a force with his 6-7 frame, not to mention an already solid defensive skill set.

But right now Thompson kills teams with his shooting alone, and yet has somehow clawed his way to a tier in the league made up almost exclusively of players with scouting reports thick as a phonebook.

The player who does the most with the least is not the white center who sets really solid screens or the undersized point guard who just seems to will his way to eight points a game off the bench, but the human flamethrower who has taken his one skill and used it to set the league on fire.


The technician

NEW YORK — Kyle Korver waits for the rest of his teammates to clear the court before making his way out to his semi-private pre game warm up. In the locker room, he puts on his black knee-high socks, two per leg, and slips on startlingly low profile Kobe Bryant model Nikes. As Al Horford finishes miming pick-and-pop actions, casually knocking in 20-footers, Korver emerges and circles the court, dapping up Dominique Williams and smiling to fans from Chicago who say they came to Madison Square Garden to beg his forgiveness and won’t he please come back?

Horford’s working the bank shot as Korver picks up a 4-foot aerobics bar covered in white towel and wrapped in athletic tape. He performs precise squats, holding the bar above his head and arching his back as though in an Olympic lift.

This is how Korver readies his jump shot, from the ground up. Everything Korver does gives the impression of a craftsman polishing and assembling different parts of a high-performance machinery, testing each aspect of the system to calibrate it just right for show time.

Next Korver activates the flexibility in his legs necessary to be on balance when whipping around a curl screen. A series of lunges and band work engage small stabilizing muscles throughout his lower body.

Horford finishes his routine and heads in. There’s no one left on the court besides a few ball boys, three Hawks assistants, and Korver.

Finally Korver touches a basketball.

He begins at the elbow, facing away from the baseline as a coach feeds him from the top of the key. Korver is still focused on his legs. Quin Synder passes him the ball as Korver rotates as though on a hinge, catching and turning to get his shoulders square to the rim in one motion, then executes his impossibly compact release.

He shoots about 20 from each side, letting out an exasperated sigh with each of his four misses.

Now he’s moving in and out of a series of cuts. It starts with a basic curl. Bang. Then he flares to the corner 3. Bang. Now he works off the curl, shot fakes, takes one dribble and slides the ball in off the glass. Bang. Another curl: this time he passes to the coach who set the screen on his invisible defender, reverses direction, runs around a hand-off and shoots. Bang.

His coaches feed him the ball with a shared stoic seriousness. When a ball boy fails to pass a rebound out on time, Snyder lets out a disgruntled bark and Korver stares at the delay without altering his expression or tensed body position until things get back on schedule.

Everyone else has been back in the locker room for nearly 20 minutes by the time Korver winds it down and jogs in.

Now it’s midway through the fourth quarter the Knicks are still hanging around. The Hawks collect a rebound and Korver takes off up the sideline, running hard to maximize any extra space between him and his hustling defender, Carmelo Anthony. Korver hits the free throw line-extended on the left side and plants hard, springing back up toward the top of the key just as Al Horford comes crashing down with a screen on Anthony, who never has a chance.

The pass arrives on time and Korver catches in midair, landing lightly, his shoulders now square, his toes pointed towards the basket and just behind the 3-point line. He bounces straight back up, the ball locks into his shooting pocket and he snaps his elbow, casting his hand straight at the rim. Bang.


What’s happening to Denver?

It may be a few seasons before the full repercussions of what happened in Denver at the end of last year are fully realized. George Karl (2012-3 Coach of theYear) and Masai Ujiri (2012-3 Executive of the Year) worked together to assemble a roster built specifically to play Karl’s uptempo, slash-and-kick style. Tactically, coaching in the NBA is generally about two things: 1) knowing what wins (eg– FTs, corner 3′s, layups) 2) figuring out how your players can get your team as many of those as possible.

Karl and most of his players believed in his style, which routinely resulted in more layups and free throws than just about anyone else in the league. Ujiri made sure Karl had speed demons like Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala and Kenneth Faried to fulfill his strategy.

The 2013-14 Nuggets have started the season 0-3 and failed to score 100 points in any of their games. They are in the back of the pack in FT rate and average 10 fewer shots at the rim per game than last season. It’s all early, obviously, and last season’s Nuggets also started 0-3. But things feel different this year, as new coach Brian Shaw tries to impose his more half court oriented system on a team never designed to play that way.

If the Nuggets 57-25 record flips in terms of wins and losses, come back to these quotes in Mark Kiszla’s October 30th article in the Denver Post:

“Coach told me he wanted me to be aggressive. And I told him, ‘Well, where do you want me to go?’ How am I going to be aggressive if I beat my man, and then I have to beat the defender of our big in the lane, if he’s standing in the way?” Lawson said. “The level of frustration was pretty high.

“It’s been a big adjustment,” said Lawson, who added he is slowly learning to pick new spots and ways to attack the defense. “I like to penetrate and touch the paint. It’s a little bit harder when there are bigs in the lane, waiting for the
post (pass). There’s really nowhere for me to drive. Now, I’m working on passing inside and then cutting. I never really cut during my first couple years in the league. Now, cutting off the big could actually get me an easier shot, either from the corner or with a baseline layup. This could take my game to another level, make it more multidimensional.”

“Playing inside-out and throwing the ball in to our big men as a first option is not the most advantageous way for us to play as a team. I understand that,” Shaw said. “But we have to establish an inside game. That means throwing the ball inside and cutting off that pass, spotting up and stretching the floor in order for our team to have the correct spacing in order for us to do some of the things we need to do offensively.

“I understand completely why George Karl played the way that he did: ‘You big guys, you kind of stay out of the way and just wait for drop-off passes, get the rebounds and go set screens.’ And that still is part of this offense. But I want to build confidence that when we throw the ball inside to have a game plan.”

Sure, ideally the Nuggets would love to play just as fast and free as they did last year and, like Houston, have a post option to go to in the half court. But you can’t make JaVale McGee a viable low post threat just by giving him opportunities. What he does is catch and dunk and Karl’s offense limited him to what he did well.

The Nuggets are going through a rebuild in style. When the previous style didn’t work, such an overhaul can be immediately effective. But the Nuggets won 57 games last year, then got rid of arguably their best player in Igoudala. If that’s is how they want to rework a winning formula, they may not be far away from rebuilding the entire roster.


A happy marriage in Minnesota

It’s always fun to watch a really good player operate a system that perfectly fits his game.

Over in Minnesota, it appears Kevin Love and Rick Adelman’s corner offense are the path to achieving such a relationship. Adelman’s system positions Love in a spot where he can do a ton of damage, and Love has demonstrated an acute understanding of where his shots come from, and how to get the most out of his role.

Start with location; that is, where Love’s getting his looks. A full 75 percent of his shots in this young season have come from the beyond the arc or right at the rim, and he’s second in the league in free throw attempts. This is no surprise given where he handles the ball. On most possessions, Adelman’s offense, which is characterized by clever screen-the-screener action and plenty of hard curls that start at the wing and rip around a screen near the elbow, places Love about one long step inside the 3-point line.

This is such a sneaky and subtle way to get Love open beyond the arc. If Love stood right at the 3-point line, like most spot up shooters, defenses would know exactly how far to roam when helping off him. Instead, Love’s defender often thinks he is close enough to close out after lending help, only to discover that Love has taken one giant step backwards and is now wide open with his toes on the 3-point line.

The other thing Love does on most every possession is set screens. Lots and lots of screens. Huge shooters like Love, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant Ryan Anderson are just miserable to defend when they set hard screens. On almost every possession, Love either 1) sets a down screen for a curling shooter 2) a ball screen on the lane line extended or 3) executes a dribble handoff with one of the Wolves guards.

Just as his positioning right inside the 3-point line affords him extra space when he backs up just one step, his screens not only loosen the defense from the man he’s screening, but have the joint effect of pulling Love’s defender away from his hip.

Even though he’s shooting relatively poorly from deep so far (just 29 percent), Love behaves like the Wolves’ best or second-best deep shooter on most possessions … until Chase Budinger returns, he probably is. It goes without saying that most guys who guard Love aren’t well versed in the fundamentals of perimeter defense, but good luck sticking a smaller, quicker player on him to crowd his jumper. Before one of his teammates even shoots the ball, Love transforms from outside shooter to rebounding fiend, bull rushing his way to the rim.

Again, his position on the perimeter comes into play. Boxing out is about creating sufficient contact to freeze your man, then going after the ball like a maniac. When Love’s down in the paint, he shows a knack for sensing when a shot will go up and immediately moving so as to avoid a clean box out. He’s tough enough to wrangle when the defender is right next to him. But give him a six-foot running head start from the perimeter and he’s impossible to deter.

Instead of trotting back on defense like most big men when a shot goes up, Love is like a defensive end, using a mix of power and elusiveness to shove his defender too far under the rim or simply scoot around him into prime put back position.

Adelman’s corner offense has been a model for teams like the Miami Heat for years because it keeps the paint open for cuts, drives and quick post ups. Run responsibly, the corner’s spacing and movement works for virtually any personnel, especially with a big man who passes like Love (4 assists per game so far).

Love’s unique combination of catch-and-shoot touch and brilliant offensive rebounding is a natural fit, and we should expect to see Adelman continually insert clever wrinkles to take advantage of Love’s special talents.

The MVP numbers may not last, but the headaches Adelman and Love give defenses will persist all season long.


Finding extra value in the desert

Most die-hard NBA fans know about the Phoenix Suns’ legendary training staff. Players from Shaquille to Jermaine O’Neal have been rejuvenated by their cutting edge techniques and it’s easy to see how such reclamation projects prove the staff’s value. But the training staff’s potential impact on the recent deal between the Suns and Wizards hasn’t received nearly enough attention.

The thought is that the rebuilding Suns moved Gortat to snag an extra pick. That Okafor, who has a herniated disc in his back, may not be able to play much doesn’t matter because the Suns are more concerned with securing a prime lottery sport in next year’s draft.

But a healthy Okafor is still plenty valuable … especially to a team other than the Suns.

It’s definitely not a forgone conclusion that the Phoenix staff will be able to magically cut Okafor’s return timeline. Back injuries, as we’ve seen with Dwight Howard, are not to be rushed and perhaps there is nothing these desert health wizards can do to expedite the process. With that said, Phoenix’s staff have perhaps the best chance of any in the league to salvage Okafor’s season. Their ability to not only prevent injuries but get players back on the court quicker than mere mortals could be the difference between Okafor being a sunk cost or an extremely attractive trade chip in February.

If Okafor looks and feels healthy in a couple of months, giving Phoenix enough time to showcase him before the trade deadline, teams in need of a frontline boosts for the playoff or championship push may dangle a young player or protected first round pick for his services. What most teams may have typically chalked up to a lost cause would then have become a unique opportunity for Phoenix to continue to add to their pile of assets.

It’s entirely plausible the two teams could have struck a similar deal for Gortat that involved Trevor Ariza’s expiring contract — not Okafor’s — and the first round pick. But an athletic defensive wing with poor shot selection like Ariza doesn’t have nearly the resell value as a big man capable of anchoring a front court defensively. Suns G.M. Ryan McDonough perhaps factored this into the equation and is utilizing the Suns training staff in an attempt to get maximum value from this trade.


Dwight Howard is still my favorite

I am tired of reading about Dwight Howard. It’s a fair bet that you are, too, but it’s also a fair bet that we’re tired for different reasons. Very likely you’re tired of his relentless boorishness, tone-deaf self-aggrandizement, and constant waffling. That’s your prerogative. But me, I’m tired of reading about Dwight Howard because it seems like every person I read complaining about Howard has forgotten that he is awesome.

More to the point: it seems to me that the past year and change has made the majority of fans forget that Dwight did this:

Or this:

It is worth mentioning that the second clip there—Howard hanging more than 40 and 20 on the Warriors while wearing Orlando pinstripes—happened last calendar year. I found those highlights by typing in “Dwight Howard highlights” to YouTube, and while I grant that Howard is a uniquely annoying off-court presence, my response is basically to point to those YouTube results and say “scoreboard.”

Here is a small collection of things that Dwight does in those two videos:

At 3:48 in the first clip, from game 6 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, Dwight backs his man down with the third quarter coming to an end. Three defenders are in the paint, alternately crowding him and stepping into potential passing lanes for Orlando’s shooters on the perimeter. With the entire defense keyed on Dwight, Rafer Alston runs unguarded to the rim, where Dwight finds him for an impossibly wide open bucket.

At 4:50 in the same clip, Howard faces up Anderson Varejao in the fourth quarter. He takes two dribbles to his right, pivots, and spins back left, leaving Varejao three feet to his right. He finishes by dunking, one-handed, with his right hand, against his momentum. I suppose people who say Dwight doesn’t have a “post game” insist he must slam his butt into his defender for three dribbles before doing some kind of baby hook or up and under…but, uh, those people don’t know anything. 

At 1:36 in the second clip, the game in which Dwight set an NBA record for freethrows attempted, he scores a layup while Andris Biedrins intentionally pulls him down by both biceps. Which is to say, Dwight can do a 240 pound shoulder press, midair, while scoring a layup.

I picked those three highlights because they more or less show why Dwight is so great, at least on offense, where his excellence is most often questioned. His game is an unprecedented combination of power and agility for a big man, and if his back to the basket moves don’t impress with their fluidity, I’d argue that his ability to get into space around the rim and elevate while three defenders (always at least three) crowd him is a more impressive feat of skill and balance than just about anything else one can do on a basketball court. 

But most impressive to me is that first highlight, the Rafer Alston bucket. Take a minute and ask yourself how it is that Rafer Alston, in the second half of an Eastern Conference Finals game, could find himself getting an uncontested layup. The answer, of course, is Dwight’s presence, the threat of him blowing past his man and the threat of him finding the shooters so perfectly spaced around him. Three defenders shade toward him as he backs closer to the hoop. They jump and slide laterally when he glances toward the perimeter. Alston is almost able to simply walk under the basket, so intensely is the defense watching Dwight. If you want to learn how space and movement are the most valuable commodities in an NBA offense, watch Howard play.

In fact, I would argue that no single player has done as much to usher in the current era of the space-and-shoot offense as Dwight has. LeBron and Erik Spoelstra can claim credit for making it work in pursuit of a championship, but Dwight was anchoring a 4-around-1 attack before Twitter existed. His Magic teams were built around his ability to suck defenses into the paint and find his teammates on the perimeter; the space Dwight created was large enough to make Hedo Turkoglu look like a franchise player. Howard, maligned by his critics for lacking a certain grace and finesse, is the brute force that ushered in this era of beautiful offense.

And look where he is now. Playing on a team that emphasizes spacing and letting shots fly as much as any other in the league. With a pick-and-roll ball handler that makes the sidekicks of his glory days look, well, like Rafer Alston and a 32-year-old Vince Carter. Howard’s detour into Lakerland—and, yes, his amazingly backward insistence that he does not want to play in the pick-and-roll—have obscured the fact that a mobile paint presence Howard is what the Rockets offense is sort of already built around. He just hasn’t been there yet.

I am willing to write off the past year of insanity. Howard’s crimes are professional indecisiveness, ego, and a proclivity for terrible fart jokes. If that’s enough to turn you off of him forever, then I guess you also hate all the celebrities who’ve done actual gross things while plying their trade. You go ahead and keep hating on Dwight, but he and I will not invite you to our weekly Braveheart screening.

What it comes down to is that there is no other Dwight Howard. He is not even an archetype, because good luck finding a 6’9” center who can lead the league in rebounding and blocks while threatening to score 40 points any given night. It has often been noticed that Howard lacks the traditional post player build; his legs are skinny, his shoulders broader than his hips. What gets overlooked, because he is so strong, is that Dwight’s defining quality is his speed, his ability to slip into space and materialize at the rim in a way that belies his power.

And so I’m going to keep rooting for him, because it will be better not to feel cognitive dissonance when he is smashing James Harden alley-oops or precipitating an absolute hailstorm of threes this year. Free yourself from the echo chamber, friends. For as ungainly as his running hook may be, and no matter how ugly his off-court antics, nobody lays bare the game’s beautiful architecture quite like Dwight.


Perspective on Derrick Rose’s preseason

Derrick Rose’s “backness” is sure to be a topic of constant conversation in the early part of this season. There’s already been plenty of talk and speculation about what Rose’s game will look like after a surgery to repair the thin strip of tissue that keeps his thigh and shin from going in opposite directions when he cuts. Many commentators suggest that Rose will be more mature and, if not exactly cautious, judicious with how he uses his outstanding quickness. The idea is that he’ll rely on subtler means than jet-propelled bursts to the rim, just as Chris Paul has become a master of halfcourt jujitsu to submit his opponent in lieu of his old knockout-punch athleticism.

Five minutes in the second quarter last night’s preseason game against the Oklahoma City Thunder suggest this is not the case. Quite the opposite, in fact. Derrick Rose’s stunning burst is there in full effect, and he’s still using it as much as possible. What’s missing is what Rose (and others) refers to in vague terms as “rhythm.”

Before we dive into what “rhythm” really means, let us pause to rejoice.

Heavenly Father of Hoops, we give you thanks that Derrick Rose is once more the fastest man on hardwood. Let us praise your strength in restoring that long stride and high dribble to our televisions and computer screens. We confess our fallibility, that we did not understand what we had lost so quickly do we forget unequaled ability.

For what can remind us of such athleticism but witnessing the supreme manifestation itself? May he break the ankles of those who would stand between him and the hoop, and lo, that he bring the noise on many a highflying finish.

Amen.

Now, back to those five minutes. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch Roses’s sick move to dust Reggie Jackson then slip through the help defense:

Even here, on the move of the night, Rose fumbles the ball a bit. A few possessions later, he dribbles it right out of bounds with Derek Fisher applying minimal pressure.

What’s so fascinating about how Rose has played is that we can see the difference between Rose and just any super faststrongjumpy guy. His physical strength is back, but his lack of “rhythm” allows us to appreciate all the deft skill that’s currently flickering in and out of his game. It’s one thing to move at that speed, it’s quite another to do something that requires perfect timing and incredible coordination at said speed. What he can’t do consistently now, what he’s building towards, reveals the gap between pure athleticism and what truly sets Rose apart: the skill and kinetic inventiveness that Rose brings to the game.

As someone who has come back from an ACL injury, the very last thing that you get back is your high speed creativity. The first is the jump shot, and it’s no wonder that Rose has looked accurate on spot up 3-pointers (4-8 last night on 3s, and 2-7 on 2-pointers). But the reactive, improvisational stuff will take a bit of time.

It’s like he still needs that split second to work through all his options before he decides “yep, best thing here is to go backwards between my legs then throw a low crossover forward to split the defense then jumpstop, take the contact and spin it in.”

All that has to happen in about 0.7 seconds of actual time.

Confidence in your legs returns before confidence in your handle does.

When Rose won MVP three seasons ago, lots of writers who did not think he was worthy of the award blamed the narrative force of his season for swaying voters. It’s not hard to see why Rose was such a persuasive candidate. The hardest thing to do in basketball is to drive the ball all the way to the rim and score when the other team knows it’s coming. Even tougher: doing it in the 4th quarter of a close game.

But Rose does that sort of thing. And his preseason ups and downs suggests that it won’t be too long before he’s doing it again. When he does, that we watched him bumble away possession in the preseason will help us appreciate Rose’s genius.


2nd-rounders who stood out at OSL

Peyton Siva played with poise and precision in Orlando.

This past Friday, as the Las Vegas Summer League started it’s craziness, the one in Orlando quietly wrapped up. It’s natural to reflect on the promise of the big-name, first round picks, that dotted the ten rosters down in Florida, but for NBA teams, identifying that they may have uncovered a second round gem is just as vital.

Here are four intriguing players from Orlando that just may turn into second round steals.

Peyton Siva / 56th pick / Detroit

The term “court general” can be thrown around a little too loosely at times, but there is perhaps no better term for describing Detroit’s Peyton Siva. The young guard possesses a precocious feel for the position and ran his Pistons team this week with the savvy of a 10-year NBA vet.

“My job is to get others open shots.” Siva told me after his game against Miami last Thursday. And Siva is true to his word. He reads the floor well, rarely seems rushed and is able to make simple plays that routinely put his teammates in spots that make them successful. The Pistons offense functioned at a much higher level whenever the former Louisville star was at the controls.

The raw numbers back it up, too. Siva was +5 in the four games he played last week while the Pistons as a whole were -24. What makes Siva intriguing, more than a lock for the NBA, is that he did all this despite not being able to convert opportunities for himself. Siva shot just 29.6 percent from the floor, which makes his ability to make his team so much better so confounding.

But against the Heat, a lot of what Siva was doing well all week long was on display. He did a great job of combining with teammates out of pick-and-rolls. Travis Peterson — a middling pick-and-pop type big man — was given some great scoring opportunities against a Miami defense that had been wreaking havoc all week largely because Siva was able to draw the attention of the defense, the willingly throw the ball back, on time and on target, to the open man, whether it was Peterson or another open teammate. When I asked Siva what exactly he looks for during the pick-and-roll, he said t his approach changes depending on who pairs up with him to run the action.

“Tony [Mitchell] is more of a drag my player to get him to cut and roll. Same with Andre [Drummond].” Siva said. “We have another big in Travis who is a great pick-and-pop shooter and so my job is to keep dragging the four man out and that’s when I throw it back so he can shoot the 3.”

We talked a little more about approaching the different coverages he faced throughout the week and Siva mentioned that because he came off the bench behind Korie Lucious for the Miami game, a change given he started every other one, he got a chance to really study the way his opponent was going to defend him. It bodes well for any young player (and Siva is just 22) when he embraces such a professional and studious approach to his craft. If Siva can head to Europe (a reality now given the Pistons’ acquisition of Chauncey Billups) and prove he can make shots, his leadership on the floor will make up the rest and likely land him on an NBA roster in the near future.

Colton Iverson / 53rd pick / Boston

The question for Iverson coming into this week was whether or not he had the athleticism hang with higher quality athletes. Though the Orlando Summer League is still a step down from the NBA, Iverson acquitted himself quite well in his five games for the Celtics. Blessed with great size, length and power, the young big man did everything you’d hope a second round pick would do. He played hard, rebounded well (27 rebounds in 83 minutes, which would put his per 40 rate in the upper half of NBA big men) and finished near the rim when given the opportunity.

Iverson did struggle when forced to contain ball handlers in space after pick-and-rolls, a problem that will only get worse against NBA guards, but showed good effort and enough awareness on that end of the floor that there is hope he can become at least an adequate positional defender once he adjusts to the speed of the game. In a lot of ways, Iverson could become a very similar player to former Celtic (and current Pelican) Greg Stiemsma. The NBA is always need of blue-collar big men that can run the floor, rebound and finish, so Iverson’s rendition of that role in Orlando gives him a good chance to land a NBA contract.

Arsalan Kazemi / 54th pick / Philadelphia

I know, I know, I’m coming off as some kind of Kazemi fan boy, but you can’t have a list of intriguing second round prospects without the Iranian forward on it. After a poor first game, Kazemi returned to being the stat-stuffing machine he was during his collegiate career while floating between both forward positions. Thanks to his outstanding effort and length, Kazemi is one those rare players that can generate both blocked shots and steals on a consistent basis. In three of his five games this week, Kazemi had at least one block and one steal (the two games he didn’t, Kazemi played only 19 minutes combined).

Though it’s unclear where Kazemi’s best spot will be, it’s pretty much a given that he will be able to provide on impact with his high energy approach at the NBA level.

Romero Osby / 51st pick / Orlando

Even by the standards on this list, Osby is a bit of an oddball. The former Oklahoma forward is a card-carrying member of the Undersized Big Man Club, a player type that always proves extremely difficult to evaluate.

Osby, like the Kenneth Farieds and Paul Millsaps that have come before him, has the size of a small forward but operates like a traditional big man, doing most of his damage with a face-up game buoyed by an excellent combination of power and speed. Osby doesn’t do anything else particularly well and struggled rebounding the basketball this week (just 22 total rebounds in 106 minutes), but has a chance to be something of a Carl Landry-lite thanks to his ability to score points and generate fouls off of his face-up game.

Orlando’s frontcourt is currently clogged with big men at the moment, but don’t be surprised if Osby finds his way back on the NBA map as a frontcourt scorer off the bench after spending a year or two in Europe or the D-League to hone his craft.


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