The science of movement

In the waning moments of a Sweet Sixteen game this past March, Butler big man Andrew Smith received an inbounds pass and immediately scanned the court, desperate to make a play. As the seconds melted off the clock, Smith took a hard dribble to his right only to find his teammate blanketed by an opposing defender. With nowhere to go with the ball, Smith slowed his momentum in a vain attempt to change course, the weight from his 6’10 frame awkwardly collecting on his right foot, which somehow held firm, barely avoiding a travel. Stuck in this unwieldy position and out of options, Smith flung an off-balance shot toward the basket that didn’t even draw iron.

Smith’s college career ended with the same type of not-so-graceful movement that inspires doubt over his chances of a professional career, on this continent, at least. But the shifting economics of the NBA, along with crucial advancements in the science of movement, could actually make players like Smith an important resource to NBA teams.

As the new Collective Bargaining Agreement tightens it’s financial grip, franchises around the league are doing everything they can to employ capable, blue-collar role players on the cheap. Finding someone to do the dirty jobs in the NBA — like rebounding, setting screens, running the floor and generally bringing consistent energy over an 82-game season — is hard enough to find when teams have stacks of cash to throw around. But most teams spend that money where they need it most, acquiring big-time talent, while using exceptions and the veterans minimum to bring in whatever veteran journeyman is left floating around. It’s those spots that someone like Smith, who possesses some NBA-level skills, could capably fill with a little help.

“If I’m

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HoopSpeak Network

Will we see more Melo pick-and-rolls?

Look familiar?

With J.R. Smith out of the lineup against Boston in Game 4, the Knicks leaned heavily on isolation play from Carmelo Anthony. His jumper was not able to bear the load. Melo fought his way to the line, but only shot 8-21 combined on isolations and post ups. When we include turnovers, that’s just 16 points from 25 possessions!

But when we count the 19 (!) free throws and 16 makes he earned off of iso and post up plays (this counts a foul on offensive board that came off of an isolation), he actually scored 28 points off of approximately 33 possessions, or a very respectable .848 points per possession, a rate that is actually not far off his season average Synergy.

The problem is that such a disproportionate amount of the Knicks offense came on these plays. Carmelo performs relatively well in isolations and the post, but his individual production in those scenarios still falls well short of the Knicks team output for the season, which is closer to 1.086 points per possession (per NBA.com/stats).

The Celtics are expert at defending great individual scorers, and have rotated a few defenders on Anthony to apply maximum ball pressure and hopefully force him into jumpshots. Anthony has smartly countered by returning the physicality and fighting his way to the free throw line.

But there’s another way around the Celtics defense, and that’s with the pick-and-roll. Jeff Green, Paul Pierce and especially Brandon Bass are comparatively ill-equipped the navigate the intricacies of pick-and-roll defense, and Carmelo Anthony, as it so happens, is the best pick-and-roll scorer in the NBA.

That’s right, according to Synergy, no one scores more than Melo’s 1.12 PPP on these sets.

In the series with Boston, Melo has taken nine shots out

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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

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Have fun with that, Boston

I’ve been an NBA fan for as long as I can remember.

The first game I ever remember watching was between the Bulls and Celtics during the 1986 NBA Playoffs. I was watching with my dad and I was hypnotized by everything going on. I was four years old and just blankly stared at the television screen. There was a guy who kept doing everything for the red team. When it was explained to me that the object of the game was to put the ball into the circle with the net, it was pretty obvious that the one guy in red was the only person capable of doing that.

From that moment, any time I could get my hands on a basketball or watch a basketball game, my eyes would focus in. My pupils would dilate, absorbing as much of the imagery as my spongey brain could soak up. From that moment on, iconic NBA moments made up my childhood memories. Sure, there were road trips with my family, holiday excursions to Atlanta, that one year I lived in West Point, Mississippi and thousands of other moments that still sit in the back of my memory.

But nothing resonated with me as much as Michael Jordan finally getting past the Pistons, Chuck Person and Larry Bird screaming at each other as they exchanged jumpers like angry motorists exchange insurance information after a crash, John Paxson’s jumper thrusting itself into the chest of the Phoenix Suns, John Starks shooting his team away from a title, being furious the NBA Finals were a picture-in-picture because of OJ Simpson being chauffeured away from the authorities, Nick Anderson missing free throws and Rudy Tomjanovich urging us to never underestimate the heart of a champion.

Those were the moments I took with me from my childhood.  Continue reading “Have fun with that, Boston” »

Why Ray Allen might not care about Boston fans

Many are shocked that Ray Allen would “betray” his Boston fans. “Judas Shuttlesworth,” they call him. That’s a clever jab, one that’s also funny because it places the stereotypical Massachusetts sports lover at the Last Supper table, serene expression, open palm protruding out of his beer-stained Sawx jersey.

Steve Nash left for the Lakers, the archetypal hated team to those Nash-loving Phoenix fans. Dwight Howard probably uses a metaphorical Magic fan voodoo doll as an insole.

The aftermath of fan slight prompts punditry on how athletes just don’t get how much we love them, or about how they just don’t love us like we love them. I disagree with both notions. My guess is that pro athletes understand the depths to which we love them, but also perceive that the love as false, or worse, unsettling.

Think about it from their perspective. In the absence of knowing someone, how much should your affection matter to that person? And if you don’t know that person, then what is that love? It can be obsession. It can be misplaced narcissism. Fans are body snatchers, living vicariously through these men until the bodies break. At that point, the vessel is discarded, exchanged for a newer, springier avatar by which to romp around your TV screen in.

Ricky Rubio’s draft night was an informative, formative experience for me. The two of us experienced it together, though Ricky probably doesn’t remember my name. I was his draft escort, the PR sherpa who was charged with dragging him through hours of repetitive English interviews. His hatred of that night was palpable. Perhaps he sees my stupid, sweating face in his nightmares. I have an inkling as to what else Ricky might also glimpse in those dark dreams.

It’s a vision that still haunts me.

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LeBron is better while being worse

There were a few Game 7 fourth quarter plays where LeBron James was matched up against Brandon Bass. Now, it’s remembered as LeBron torching Bass, or Doc making the mistake of putting Bass on James. And yes, LeBron dunked on poor Brandon in semi-transition. It was a stunning crossover that morphed into a tomahawk in a way that made it all look like part of the same movement.

But, what followed did not reflect so poorly on Bass. An exhausted James had difficulty beating him off the dribble, which resulted in a lucky dagger of a deep three. In the subsequent possessions, a flagging LeBron settled for two bricked jumpers. He was tired, the victory was largely in hand, but I couldn’t help but think:

Cleveland LeBron would make a planted windmill out of Brandon Bass.

Cleveland LeBron thrice averaged over 10 free throw attempts per game. Cleveland LeBron beat the entire Detroit Pistons team off the dribble en route to a Game 5 victory that felt like history’s closest trouncing. He was a brilliant passer and an inexorable force when driving. To call LeBron “just that” would be reductive, but those qualities defined him.

It did not look as though he needed much else, well, maybe apart from a slightly improved jumper. In 2008-2009 LeBron posted 31.7 PER and .318 win shares mark. He was dominant in the 2009 playoffs, though his team failed him against Orlando. James was nearly as good the next season, but in the 2010 playoffs, LeBron was memorably mortal in that Game 5 versus the Celtics, for reasons that still aren’t clear. Still, it was only a game. His playoffs were altogether brilliant, and his supporting cast was altogether mediocre.

Cut to last year with the Heat, when Dallas cut off his driving

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Whither the Grin?

(Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

“He had a smile on his face as he was waiting for the pass!”

With two minutes and thirty nine seconds left in last night’s game and Miami trailing Boston 91-94, Shane Battier gathered a defensive rebound, dished the ball to LeBron James and ran up the right side of the court to the right corner, where he spotted up for an entire possession.

Elsewhere: A LeBron/ Haslem pick and roll fizzles and dies, Dwyane Wade surveys the defense, LeBron half-heartedly posts up Rajon Rondo—through it all, Battier sits in the corner, twitching his fingers with his hands ready for the pass. Finally, LeBron swings the ball across the court to Mario Chalmers, and Chalmers finds Battier in the corner. Tie ball game. As they run down the court, Mike Breen tells us Shane Battier was smiling as he received the pass.

Video evidence is inconclusive. None of the angles available capture his face. As we see Battier running down the court, he is once again focused, stoic. So we’ll have to take Breen’s word. Some how, for some reason, Battier found some private well of contentment, joy even, while he waited for the pass. So what was he thinking?

Battier often plays with a knowing joi de vivre that borders on the haughty. Those opalescent teeth, that canyoned chin, his yearbook smile. If the NBA were a live production of the Beauty and the Beast, Shane Battier would be the waffle-headed Gaston, toothily unshaken in his confidence. But why? He’s been slower than most of the league for years, and the apex of his career came when the New York Times wrote about him for being, like, way better than he looks, you guys. Now, he is a

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Enough about LeBron and his fouls

LeBron James and his lack of fouling has (again) become a talking point, mostly thanks to a much-bemoaned Dwyane Wade no call on Rajon Rondo (Well that, and Miami’s 47 free throws to Boston’s 29 FTs). This is quite similar to how LeBron gets blamed for not taking a buzzer beater that Wade misses. If Dwyane catches a cold, LeBron gets the flu–while also getting ridiculed for starting the bubonic plague of AAU-me-first-passivity-shrinkingism.

The “He doesn’t get called for fouls! superstar non call!” trope has resonance because it riles up those who feel that LeBron James was presumptuously marketed to them, that his is a false reign, propped up by NBA puppet masters. This is a deranged, paranoid way to think. So of course, it’s quite a popular sentiment.

I’ve read a bit about how James only had three (Three!) fouls in the Indiana series. The charge is spat as though it’s a self evident uncovering of malfeasance, as though the mere existence of this data is something on the level of basketball’s Pentagon Papers.

Show me some visual evidence and then we can discuss whether David Stern’s pointing the real JFK murder weapon at his refs and demanding they follow Maverick Carter’s orders. Show me something compelling, because LeBron James averages a mere 1.5 fouls in the regular season. Against Indiana, he averaged .5 fouls in the small sample size of six games. One foul fewer per game isn’t exactly a dramatic shift from what you’ll see on League Pass in January.

Six games against the Pacers would have projected to yield James roughly nine fouls. That he notched only three isn’t exactly setting my hair ablaze, considering the paucity of minutes. Remember, LBJ had a combined nine fouls over just two consecutive playoff games versus the Knicks.

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Philadelphia vs. Boston: Adjustments for Game 2

In a series that pits two of the best defensive teams in the league against one another, the biggest tactical adjustments in Game 1 came out of a need to create offense. The Celtics in particular departed from their normal style play in two ways.

The first and most obvious was Doc River’s willingness to go small with Paul Pierce at the four in order to both match up with Philadelphia and speed up the game.

However the biggest difference was Boston’s focus on the offseason glass. After watching the Bulls pound Philly on the boards for six games, Rivers and his staff perhaps thought they could squeeze out a few precious points by doing the same. This is quite the departure from the norm, as Boston has neglected the offensive glass to the point of setting a historically low offensive rebound rate during the regular season.

However, in Game 1, Boston appeared to commit 2-2.5 players to the boards on nearly every possession. Their nine offensive rebounds was a slight uptick from their regular season Offensive Rebounding Percentage and perhaps gave them a few second chances opportunities they may not have enjoyed otherwise. The flip side to this commitment to the glass is fairly obvious: it made it much easier for Philadelphia to get out in transition. This zero-sum game is why I’d expect Boston (aside from the occasional Rajon Rondo kamikaze efforts) to revert back to its old habits the rest of the series and focus on corralling the Sixers into the half court.

Shooting Bigs In an odd twist, nearly every big man in this series is better at popping into space than diving to rim off ball screens. Philadelphia generates quite a bit of offense from Elton Brand, Lavoy Allen and Spencer Hawes flaring

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NBA Playoffs: Adjustments for ATL-BOS, LAL-DEN

Notes on Tuesday night’s games. For my thoughts on how Chicago should play without Derrick Rose, click here.

Atlanta Hawks (1-0) vs. Boston Celtics (0-1)

The Celtics find themselves perilously close to facing a 2-0 deficit thanks to the suspension of Rajon Rondo and uncertain health of Ray Allen. The big question facing Boston is where they will find offense in the absence of two of their best creators. The answer honest to that question is simple; they won’t. Going into Game 2 the C’s main focus should be on slowing the pace, limiting possessions and doing their best to keep the game in the 70s.

Larry Drew, meanwhile, should be making any minor tweak he can to his scheme and lineups to do the exact opposite. To ensure a two game lead before heading to Boston, Drew must implore his troops to continue playing up-tempo and forcing a short-handed Celtics team to score with them. Jason Collins justified his minutes (and his mixtape) with his traditionally sublime post defense on Kevin Garnett, but Atlanta may want to go smaller with Josh Smith at the 5 in an attempt to make this game as much of a track meet as possible.

When Atlanta is in the halfcourt, they should use far more pick-and-rolls and much less isolation. Boston had quite a bit of difficultly keeping Jeff Teague out of the paint and Smith has been a terror as a dive man on the pick-and-roll. The Hawks should really only seek isolations when Smith has the chance to attack Brandon Bass or Greg Stiemsma in the mid-post.

The offensive explosion the Hawks had in the first half was mostly a mirage produced by Smith and a host of others making long, 2-point jumpers. To compound matters, Drew also seemed content to

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