Why don’t more teams play fast?

The Nuggets system extracts maximum value from players like Corey Brewer.

On TrueHoop today I posted some thoughts on an interview George Karl gave with the Dan Patrick Show.

The gist there was that the Nuggets are playing fast, which is fun, and also smart. As teams become smarter in their preparation, it’s wise to force as many open court situations that these smart teams can’t prepare for. That those scenarios are the most entertaining is a happy side effect for the league and it’s fans.

So an effective style that is also entertaining — shouldn’t that be the goal of every NBA team? Then why don’t most teams play that way?

Some thoughts on this:

It’s hard. Running the floor like the Nuggets, Rockets and Spurs do takes great conditioning and a mental commitment to running. In reporting on the Nuggets and Rockets, I’ve heard the same thing a few different ways: every player says they want to run until they have to run, and then they want to walk. For this style to really work, you can’t run selectively. You have to do it off makes, misses, turnovers — everything. A lot of guys just aren’t about that life. Veterans and stars don’t want to run. This isn’t to say that players who would rather play in the half court are selfish and lazy. Look at Chris Paul, he purposely depresses the pace of the game to exert maximum control in the half court. Another example: Rajon Rondo. That hit-ahead pass the Celtics are throwing up the right sideline can’t happen if Rondo is to control the possession. Only good teams should be trying to run because maximizing the number of possessions favors the most talented teams. This is Dean Oliver’s argument. It makes the coaches

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All that Josh Smith can be

“I feel like I’m a max player. I feel I bring a lot to the table. I have a lot of versatility. For what I do and what I give this ball club, I feel like I’m worth it.” – Josh Smith, to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Josh Smith, a free agent this offseason, believes that he is worthy of receiving the biggest contract teams can offer him. If he got his max contract, about $16.5 million per year, he would become the 15th highest paid player in the league. Is Josh Smith really that good?

Any analysis of Smith’s game should begin on the defensive end. With his 6’9” and 225 lbs. frame, he possesses an uncommon combination of size, speed and mental dexterity that allows him to effectively guard multiple positions. Defense is notoriously difficult to quantitatively assess, but Bradford Doolittle’s latest attempt to measure perimeter defense ranked Josh Smith the best in the league, ahead of elite wing-stoppers like Andre Iguodala and Tony Allen. Despite being a bit small for a power forward, Smith is a pretty effective post defender as well. In 96 post-ups this year (according to mySynergySports), Smith’s opponents only shoot 38.5%. He also fouls very rarely, 6.3% of the time, while (along with his team) causing a turnover on a full 25% of post-up attempts.

Smith is averaging 1.3 steals and 2.3 blocks per 36 minutes this year, which is right in line with his career averages. The only other players to do that for their careers are Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Ben Wallace and Andrei Kirilenko, winners of a combined seven Defensive Player of the Year awards and 26 All-Defensive Team selections. Smith has been voted to the NBA’s All-Defensive 2nd Team once, and he probably should have made it a

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Daryl Morey thinks of himself as Macklemore and Ryan Lewis

At first glance, this tweet is merely amusing in its sentiment and delivery. Daryl Morey likes a popular song! A song with rap! And cursing!

OK. I can admit it. I love this music video from Macklemore youtube.com/watch?v=QK8mJJ… — “Ice on the fringe, it’s so damn frosty!” #NSFW

— Daryl Morey (@dmorey) January 9, 2013

Sorry for stereotyping, but the reserved Romney-funding Morey would not seem to be the demographic for “Thrift Shop.” He even tweets it as some kind of confessional, almost as though he’s embarrassed to like what he does. There’s more here, though, in my opinion. The lyric Morey tweets says a lot about why the song might appeal to the NBA’s Moneyball representative: ”Ice on the fringe, it’s so damn frosty!”

The song, if you haven’t heard it, is about Macklemore’s predilection for finding and flaunting the coolest clothes at a discount. The idea is that, even though these accoutrements got discarded by society, they still possess the ability to dazzle in the right setting.

Macklemore also finger wags at the people who mindlessly blow their money on brand name items like a Gucci shirt:

“I call that getting tricked by a business That shirt’s hella dough And having the same one as six other people in this club is a hella don’t”

In essence, it’s a song about bargain hunting, a theme with obvious resonance for a bargain hunting NBA General Manger like Daryl Morey. I think that’s an over simplification, though.

The song exults in the face of group think. To outshine your peers by using perceived trash, you must be embracing a message more subversive than merely “bargain hunting is good.” You have to believe that your peers make dumb decisions based on the arbitrary whims of conventional wisdom and its labels.

Macklemore and Morey

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Daryl Morey and Houston’s Big Freed Three

I can’t remember another NBA moment where a team added three players whose contracts were so openly questioned. Jeremy Lin? A flash in the pan that reflected brighter under those New York lights. Omer Asik? You’re entrusting $25 million to a guy who can’t catch a basketball? Are you an idiot or just stupid? And James Harden, man, I don’t know about him. He just doesn’t strike ya as ya know, a number one guy. An Alpha Dog. The MAN. If he’s your No. 1, you’re never winning anything. You’re seriously going to max out a reserve?

In paying all three, Daryl Morey trusted something quite simple; He trusted what they did. Because, James Harden, Jeremy Lin, and Omer Asik were tangibly good when they played. These guys were doing decent work out in public. It was just a matter of someone trusting that public track record. We’re only three games in, but it would appear, at the very least, that Daryl Morey wasn’t a complete fool for going this route.

It would be ironic if stats-conscious Morey found value in ignoring small sample size concerns. Jeremy Lin’s critics fairly cite his too-brief track record, though some of them will ironically harp on Lin’s one Miami game as more meaningful than the body of work. It is difficult to know just how good Jeremy Lin will be, but we would do well to remember that his late winter success was the result of basketball skill, and not some fairy godmother’s wand wave. Just because “Linsanity!” felt magical, doesn’t mean it was magic. This was just a productive collegian, running a mean pick and roll at the next level.

Players like Lin are always battling against another statistical term–confirmation bias. If  a guy goes undrafted, we keep looking for

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Daryl Morey’s blameless failure

Daryl Morey trades Chase Budinger in a typically Morey move. Budinger was taken with the 44th pick; today he’s dealt for an 18th pick. With trades like this, Houston’s GM can appear like Bigfoot, the inventively frugal restaurant manager from Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. On the margins, Morey is a master.

So, I come not to question Daryl Morey’s wisdom, assiduousness, or even his decision-making. I come to question his effectiveness. He took over in May of 2007 and the Rockets have won one playoff series since. You can’t point to one monumental Morey choice that threw the team off course (perhaps Stern’s veto is an exterior one), but here Houston is, floating along lukewarm NBA waters like an aimless, harmless manatee.

I present a paradox. If a general manager has made largely good decisions, then how can you possibly criticize him?  Morey has wrung quite a lot from seemingly mediocre rosters. That superstarless 22-win streak is the most notable example. There have been a few miststeps along the way, but that’s not even my focus here.

I point to David Aldridge’s recent report that Dwight Howard would not sign with Houston long term, were the Rockets to trade for him. Morey is still probably in hot pursuit of the capricious center, despite the cold shoulder. Dwight might change his mind, but Chris Bosh won’t. Too late for that, obviously, as the 2010 object of Morey’s affections is on contract in South Beach, title in tow.

Morey pitched Chris Bosh on returning to Texas roots, but lost out to Pat Riley’s ambitious plan. Riley may not be an analytics maven, but he flaunts charisma and NBA cachet. This is the element of general managing we usually elide when fantasizing about being a GM: You must be something of a

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How to play better defense

The most important strategic development in professional basketball over the past ten years is Tom Thibodeau’s strong side half court pressure defense (working title). No other single innovation has had a greater impact on how the NBA’s elite teams play. Last season the Heat, Celtics, Bulls, Lakers and even Mavericks all deployed some semblance of the principles that transformed the NBA and made mobile power forwards and centers without any real offensive skills more valuable than ever before.

The essential principal is that every ball screen and every drive should be forced to the baseline; this often referred to as “downing” a ballhandler. Ideally, waiting on the baseline is a big man who stands all the way outside of the paint–as opposed to under the basket–to cut off passing and driving angles (the new zone rules, which don’t require that each defensive player be guarding someone, help make this technique possible). Off ball defenders occupy the passing lanes to make ball reversals more difficult.

The idea, one common in most man-to-man defensive systems, is to prevent the ball from switching sides of the court and to smother anything that goes baseline, which is exactly where the entire weight of the defense forces the action.

Of course the Thibodeau philosophy is much more complicated than a few sentences could ever express–after all the man uses measuring tape to make sure that his team is in inch-perfect position at all times. But while only Thibodeau knows all the lines and subtle shades of his system, just about any team with the will can approximate a rough outline.

Take the Houston Rockets, who are dead last in defensive efficiency this season. The Rockets rotten ranking belies roster full of bright players, and in the clip below you can see a distinct

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Zach Attacks: Thinking about giving her a call this weekend

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

The entire execution of dating by our society is a pretty hilarious thing.

We search out potential dating partners primarily through judging attractive physical traits. Is that girl curvy enough? Is she too curvy? That person is an awkward height for me. That guy’s eyebrows make him look too menacing. That guy’s eyebrows don’t look menacing enough. His wingspan is so long that I bet he gives the best hugs!

There almost always has to be some sort of physical attraction that draws you to this person, before you can begin judging whether or not they are mentally fit for you. And if not, can you at least get by for the mean time while you look for someone more appealing down the road? We make the same excuses for those people we try to justify wanting to date, even if it seems like a terrible idea.

- I don’t’ mind someone with a checkered pass.
- He only dealt drugs to pay for his kids’ daycare.
- She has a couple of kids by a couple of different guys, but I’m sure she’s ready to settle down with me.
- Sure, he went to jail when he was a teenager, but he HAS to have matured by now.
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Draft Banter: Houston Rockets

Team: Houston Rockets

2011 Draft Assets: 1st (#14 & #23), 2nd (#38)

2012 Draft Assets: 1st (NYK – Top 5 protected), 2nd, 2nd (Det)

DraftExpress Mock Selection(s):

#14 – Bismack Biyombo (PF/C) – Baloncesto Fuenlabrada (Profile)

#23 – Iman Shumpert (PG/SG) – Georgia Tech (Profile)

#38 – Malcolm Lee (SG) – UCLA (Profile)

Chad Ford’s Mock Selection(s):

#14 – Jonas Valanciunas (C) – Lietuvos Rytas (Profile)

#23 – Dontas Motiejunas (PF) – Benetton Terviso (Profile)

#38 – Darius Morris (PG) – Michigan (Profile)

Roster Analysis:

UFA’s of Significance: Chuck Hayes, Yao Ming

RFA’s of Significance: None

The Rockets are one of the most well run organizations in the league and their roster reflects it. They have no deadweight contracts and a nice collection of young talent. Kevin Martin is an efficient scoring machine at the 2 while Kyle Lowry blossomed last season into a top 15 point guard. Talented prospects like Courtney Lee, Chase Budinger, and Patrick Patterson provide the flexibility for Houston GM Daryl Morey to either move forward with his youth or perhaps package together some assets for another star to pair with Martin.

Needs: Size. Shot-blocking. Defense in the frontcourt and on the wings.


“Safe” scenario: With three picks in the draft, Houston has themselves in a position to continue to stockpile young talent around its veteran core of Luis Scola, Martin, and Lowry. Both mock drafts present somewhat of dream scenarios for the Rockets, particularly Chad Ford’s prediction that Valanciunas falls all the way to #14.

Should that not happen, players like Nikola Vucevic (USC), Chris Singleton (FSU), and perhaps one of the Morris twins make some sense here as well. But if the Rockets want safe, they’ll likely consider Markieff or Marcus Morris, the twin Jayhawks that have been slowly rising up draft

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