No superstar required?

The Atlanta Hawks played seven games in nine days to open the season. Dick Bavetta’s hips are slowly turning to powder. League-wide shooting percentages scuttle along the floor of respectability. All this because owners wanted a system that evened out spending and would better distribute superstar talent.

But Denver thrives in a Melo-less ego vacuum and the egalitarian 76ers have stormed to the best record of the NBA. That old, vague religion of the necessity of superstars is under pressure.

Having an elite player may be necessary to win a title. But to win? Well, there are a few special teams proving that tough team basketball can more than keep the lights on while a franchise waits for a luminary talent. They are proving that not only individual brilliance, but team play, can be the organizing principle of a successful franchise.

Neither the Nuggets nor 76ers will win a championship this year, and they’ll be in good company with plenty of teams that do have superstars, like Orlando and Los Angeles. But how far can the Nuggets and 76ers, and for that matter the Pacers, can stretch their seasons isn’t the question. What’s more interesting is determining whether what is happening in these nationally-neglected markets is sustainable and replicable.

The Nuggets, Sixers and Pacers are three teams that are young, rely on an even mix of drafted and acquired talent (only Evan Turner is a recent high lottery pick), and play with toughness, energy, and intelligence.

These qualities show up primarily on the defensive end, where each team is in the top 7 in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions. A strong defensive philosophy is simply the surest and fastest way for a team to become good. Great defense requires certain (relatively abundant) physical tools, but more important

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HoopSpeak Network

Arron Afflalo: Evaluation Evolution

Not sure I can say that Arron Afflalo is a steal at 8.6 million per year. But I do believe he represented a different way of thinking about basketball efficiency, a different way of finding value–far beneath the box score sediment. To appreciate his output, you had to hug a subversive notion of what “good offense” could mean. Or as Henry explained it:

“Afflalo wastes very little of his teammates’ talents. When he catches the ball he quickly swings the ball to the open man if there is one, he takes the jumper if he’s open, or if there’s a lane to drive, he thunders to the hoop. Whatever happens is fast and it usually features one of his teammates shooting. As a result he is, as Hollinger, says, the fourth or fifth option offensively. Perfect.”

An offensive possession is a collaborative act, but it suffers if too many participants clumsily, well, participate. I envision basketball offense as a frenzied SNL-ish writers room in the midst of creating a series of vignettes (possessions).

There are two consistent voices at the table, geniuses who often direct the action, and inform its vision. There are two less consistent voices, adequate writers who generate many ideas (shots). Sometimes, they pitch bad ideas before a genius can conjure a better one. In the rush, many of their bad ideas become television vignettes that thud before a shrugging audience (failed possessions). Too many of these can mean a lost night, and too many lost nights will wreck a season.

Writer Arron Afflalo does not speak up when he has a bad idea. Actually, he rarely speaks in general. Often, he merely directs the room’s attention to someone who has a better idea, usually via a soft mumble. But in certain moments, if

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Zach Attacks: So now what do you do?


From December 12th to opening night, I’ll be releasing a random essay on each team in the league. This post is about the Denver Nuggets. You can follow the series with the “2011-12 Team Previews” and “Zach Attacks” tags at the bottom of the page.

When I decided to become a full-time blogger, I had to figure out what to do with myself.

I never wanted to be a reporter. I don’t have that desire and I honestly don’t think I would be any good at it. I wanted to be an opinionist. Now, my Microsoft Word spell check is telling me that this isn’t a word, but I’ve always assumed it should be. In the summer of 2007, I created my first website. I had no idea what I was doing. I built it using Dreamweaver software and realized very quickly just how little I knew about anything. There was a lot of trial and error, and if there had been people reading the site for the first year, they would have realized just how over my head everything was. I gave myself five years to get a job doing this. If I couldn’t create a career for myself in writing in five years then I needed to find something else to do. Continue reading “Zach Attacks: So now what do you do?” »

Nene doesn’t make sense on the Nets

There isn’t much debate over Nene’s status as one of the top available two free agents this off-season. What is up for discussion, however, is whether he would be a good fit for the New Jersey Nets – one of the franchises considered to be most interested in the veteran big man.

While he’s been productive and highly efficient in his tenure with the Nuggets, a move to New Jersey would likely mean pairing Nene with blossoming center Brook Lopez. Pairing the most physically imposting frontline in the NBA with Deron Williams has a definite allure, but the Nets should be careful, as playing alongside Lopez would likely negate some of Nene’s value as a scorer.

Nene’s offensive game is basic: post-ups, pick-and-rolls and crashing the offensive glass. According to Hoopdata, of his 11 field goal attempts per 40 minutes last season, eight were classified as at the rim–this means inside of three feet. While his mid-range game is solid (47% shooting from 16-23 feet), he rarely operates from this spot on the floor.

The profile isn’t all that different for Lopez, who spent over half of his total possessions in the post and pick-and-roll sets according to Synergy Sports Technology. The greatest difference here is the Stanford product’s ability to step away from the paint and knock down jumpers with greater frequency and consistency.

But chances are New Jersey isn’t going to want their star center tossing up 18-footers while Nene carves out space on the block (though it probably wouldn’t hurt Lopez’s anemic rebounding rate). Planting both players down low simultaneously is problematic as well, clogging the lane and making it much easier to double the post.

It’s tempting, but resist thinking of Nene and Lopez as an even bigger version of Memphis’ Zach Randolph and

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Can Durant’s defense stifle the Mavs’ 3-point attack?

For all of the well-earned praise Kevin Durant’s prodigious playoff scoring has generated, his significantly improved defense has gone overlooked. Much as Serge Ibaka has been unleashed defensively by the arrival of Kendrick Perkins (and departure of Jeff Green), so too has the NBA scoring champ reaped the benefits of another big body in the frontcourt.

By allowing Durant to shift almost exclusively to guarding perimeter players, the Thunder star has begun to realize his awesome potential at the defensive end. This promise has manifested itself quite prominently in Oklahoma City’s playoff run and will unquestionably be a factor in the Western Conference Finals with the Dallas Mavericks.

Based on Durant’s physical profile alone (tall, long, thin), it makes perfect sense that he would fare much better as a perimeter defender than he does battling in the paint. The numbers tend to back this up. According to data from 82games.com, power forwards had a PER of 13.9 against him during the regular season, while small forwards and shooting guards checked in at 12.0 and 10.1 respectively. Play-type data from Synergy Sports suggests the same as Durant struggles defending post-ups and screeners in pick and roll sets, but is a well above average defender in isolations, spot-up plays and jump shots in general.

Durant’s defensive shortcomings prior to the Perkins trade were two-fold. In addition to often being forced to cover post players, Durant also spent tons of minutes alongside Jeff Green. Green is a pooor defender and his presence (or lack thereof) put added pressure on the other Thunder players on the floor to compensate for this weak point. A frontcourt of Perkins and Ibaka not only allows for the Congolese power forward to run wild as a shot blocking menace, but gives Durant the security to be

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Against Instant Replay

The following isn’t timely which underscores its message. Life would have been perfect had I written about instant replay immediately after Ginobili and Neal hit their Game 6 hoists. It’s been a whole two days since. If you have a point to make it’s best to make it on the backs of last night’s memories. A fever robbed me of the chance, now these words seem orphaned because their reason passed.

In this business as I know it, every story needs a “time peg,” an article’s connection to some zeitgeist in the world. The Internet’s gaping maw craves content connected to fresh events. I can’t go on about Heat-Sixers Game 1 when all anyone cares about is Heat-Celtics Game 1. That would seem stale and vaguely crazy. You’d expect to find 17 cats living in my apartment.

A “big three” of present, immediate past, and not-too-distant future dominate the attention of fans and writers. I’m fine with this, it makes sense for humans to obsess over what’s going on right now. Twitter has made it easier for us to share our in-the-moments, and I’m fine with that too. It’s thrilling to collectively engage, especially when sports are involved. Sports can reach into your living room and trick your vocal cords into involuntary yelps. A buzzer beater can throw you from a chair without your legs cooperating.

These moments–the joy and the pain–bring such brief clarity to a life often replete with neurotic doubting. But, instant replay seeks to bleach these moments of their color. Nagging questions can sap the significance. Watch that controversial .4 Derek Fisher shot on Youtube, and you’ll hear “They’ll have have to review it..” amid the hysteria. Is that the kind of call you want in basketball history’s time capsule?

(A buzzer beat–oh…did he

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Working/Not Working: OKC-Denver (2), San Antonio-Memphis (2), Los Angeles-New Orleans (2)

Working/Not Working is a new daily HoopSpeak feature that will keep you updated on the major trends throughout the playoffs. Come back tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day!

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER vs. DENVER NUGGETS THUNDER: Working: In the first half, James Harden poured in 14 points while Serge Ibaka netted 10. That sort of production from the ancillary Thunder players–Thabo Sefolosha and Eric Maynor were also aggressive and effective– hints at serious post season potential. The Thunder’s first bench unit blew the game wide open, crushing the offensive glass and being active in the passing lanes. The whole Thunder team played with excellent energy, out-Nuggeting the Nuggets in every facet of the game.

Not Working: With everything working for the Thunder role players, Westbrook’s shot selection seemed even more indefensible. As Harden and Ibaka blossom into players who can give the Thunder 20+ points on any given night, Westbrook should look to penetrate and facilitate ala Chris Paul rather than getting his Monta Ellis on. NUGGETS: Working: The Nuggets felt they ran too many pick and rolls in game one, and tried to work more of a passing/cutting offense in the opening quarter. However all this did was allow the great length of the Thunder wings to disrupt ball movement and induce contested two point jump shots. Oklahoma City did a great job of rotating to Nugget big men curling into the middle and kept them from getting their balance and finishing around the the rim. Then, all the sudden the Nuggets went back to the pick and roll game late in the second quarter and started creating better offense. Their pick and roll attack forced the Thunder defense to sink into help positions and opened up passing lanes for ball rotation. The Nugget big men

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Denver: Carmelo Alchemy

Me: Did anyone see the post-trade Nuggets coming? Henry Abbott: No. Not even the Nuggets.

The new Nuggets are great in a way that defies our basketball knowledge. I say “our,” because their proficiency is a truth that everyone needs retrospect to rationalize. The best basketball writers are fixing current efforts on conveying a success they couldn’t foresee. After the trade, cognescenti consensus posited an instantly worse Nuggets roster. The Nuggs could live larger longer term, the thinking went. But dramatic improvement wasn’t predicted, not this soon.

Conventional thought shouters were even further from the truth, closer to Melo worship. In their view, Denver’s buttresses were tied to Anthony’s shoes. His exit meant implosion, visible in the rear view.

I’ve long considered myself in the upper 1% percentile of anti Carmelo Anthony sentiment. Thought him overrated, hated the trade for the Knicks based on salary concerns. And even I didn’t see these Nuggets coming.The stat geeks, the writing pundits, TV guys, the NEW YORK MEDIA, everyone, everyone, everyone was surprised by the outcome. Well, I shouldn’t say “everyone.”

Back in February, my friend Carlos Rojas predicted a better Denver. These days, he’s reminding me with increasing frequency. “C-Los” is not prone to crazy enthusiasm–far from it. Though his laughter is often, it’s often a cackle. He’s cynical, distrustful of institutions, embracing of a negative frankness. Carlos deemed me “a bad person” with unnerving sincerity. Last weekend, he greeted me with, “You’re getting fat.”

An artist and architecture major, Carlos could create clay animal statues on cue–in less than a minute. Back in college, I’d toss him a clump, yell, “tiger!” and be shocked to instantly return the creature’s gaze.

C-Los trusts an acute visual memory to smooth basketball’s deepest wrinkles.This guy is completely uninterested in advanced statistics

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The last time George Karl had a killer defense…

The talk of the NBA, aside from incessant jabbering about the MVP, is how incredible the Nuggets have been since trading Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups for a bunch of young players who play defense. The Nugget’s coach, George Karl, is typically known as a strong offensive coach– a guy who knows how to put his players in position to be successful. But this recent run by the Nuggets has been fueled by the defense, as the Nuggets have posted one of leagues the top defensive efficiency ratings since the trade—a big leap from where they were.

This got me thinking about the last time George Karl had a really excellent defensive club: in Seattle in the mid 1990s. The Sonics, like the current Nuggets, boasted a roster jam-packed with versatile athletes who could cover multiple positions (could Danillo Gallinari be the next Detlef Schrempf?!). Of course, the Nuggets don’t have Gary Payton, who from 1992-6 may have played the greatest defensive stretch of seasons by a point guard ever.

The Nuggets also don’t have Bob Kloppenburg, who was the defensive assistant with the Sonics from 1985-96, and developed the team’s defensive signature philosophy, SOS.

Kloppenburg’s system with the Sonics was just rude. Instead of reacting to the offense like a polite defense, the Sonics disrupted the opponent’s offensive actions by imposing a state of mayhem on the game. The roster of Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Kendall Gill, Schrempf, Nate MacMillan and Sam Perkins was tailor made for the task.

Offenses have a plan, and the SuperSonics’ switching, trapping defense was designed to attack the offense in such a way that the plan would need to be torched in favor of whatever would help the ball handler survive the immense pressure. As a result of the SOS system, the

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What’s in a market?

(This post is meant to accompany this data!)

The term “big market” gets tossed around a lot this time of year as NBA front offices negotiate and jockey for a chance to improve their team. It’s a common perception that larger media markets, because they generally earn more money from local TV deals and non-shared revenue like team store gear, have an increased ability to spend on free agents. In the view of many, this means that big market teams have an unfair edge when it comes to signing the most coveted players available. These advantages in resources tear top talents from cities nestled in the peaceful Mountain Time Zones like Utah, Phoenix and Denver, and deposit them under brighter lights in bigger cities.

But then how do we explain Miami or Portland, two cities that have been active and aggressive in acquiring talent over the past few seasons? Portland is in only the 22nd largest media market and Miami the 17th (neck and neck with LeBron’s old home market of Cleveland-Akron). To start, the two teams have the first and third wealthiest owners in the NBA, respectively. What’s more, Paul Allen and Micky Arison have both shown they are willing to shell out cash to pull in players, despite their relatively small-time locales.

Or consider the dichotomy between the Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers. The two teams play in the same building, but does anyone think of the Clippers as a big market team? Probably not, because it has historically been a cut-rate organization that could never develop the assets or cultural cache of the Lakers due to awful ownership and perhaps a bit of bad karma.

The 76ers play in the league’s sixth largest media market, but Philadelphia is so focused on football and baseball that seats

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