Friday, February 19, 2010

Trade Deadline Musings: With Nate Robinson, Should The Celtics Create a Pressing Unit?

Wow, quite an active trade deadline here in 2010, with lots of notable names being moved around the country. Here are a few of our thoughts on the proceedings:

We touched on this topic generally in May, after Malcolm Gladwell's celebrated New Yorker article called "When David Beats Goliath" stirred up conversation.

In short, Sideshow Mal wondered why underdog teams didn't take more chances with unconventional tactics, using the example of an undertalented team of 12-year-old girls in California which achieved outsized success by employing a full-court press against opponents who weren't used to encountering such a defense.

In a subsequent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Jeff Van Gundy noted that "Hubie Brown used a press successfully with the Knicks, mostly a pressing second unit coming off the bench." Indeed, Hubie's teams rated 3rd and 1st, respectively, in defensive efficiency in his first two seasons in New York (1982-83 and 1983-84), after inheriting a team which ranked 17th of 23 in D in '81-82.

Further, in an e-mail exchange between Gladwell and Bill Simmons on in May, Simmons modernized and specified the concept. We'll run the same brief excerpt we ran in May here:
    With a 12-man roster, you'd only need to train five or six guys to pull off that press. Let's say next season's Bulls trained the following five: Joakim Noah, Ty Thomas, Kirk Hinrich, Lindsey Hunter and Generic Athletic/Hungry Swingman X. They practice and practice until they become a well-oiled pressing machine. For the first five minutes of every second and fourth quarter, they unleash that killer press on their opponents … who, by the way, would be playing backups during that time, making it even more effective. Wouldn't that be an ENORMOUS advantage? Wouldn't that swing a few games? Wouldn't opponents dread playing them? Wouldn't opponents have to waste practice time preparing to break that press? Wouldn't it be even better at home with the Bulls flying around and their fans going bonkers? The key would be not putting "press miles" on your top guys and your wealthiest guys (who would never be totally invested because, again, they're really, really wealthy and don't need this crap). In this scenario, the Bulls wouldn't press with Rose, Deng, Brad Miller, Ben Gordon or even John Salmons if they could help it.
Following Boston's acquisition of Nate Robinson, we ask: aren't the Celtics a pretty good candidate to give this kind of pressing strategy a whirl right now?

Here are our pros and cons:
1. Why not?
As things stand currently, the Celtics essentially have no chance to win the championship, even after the Robinson acquisition. The C's are old, they are flawed, and they lost 13 of 22 heading into the All-Star break. Why not try something different to mix it up? What is there to lose? Boston seems like a perfect Gladwellian example of a team which should be open to an unconventional approach. And on the heels of a Super Bowl which turned on an onside kick to open the second half, why not?

2. The freaks
The main point to me is just in looking at the team's strengths and weaknesses. The Celtics lack overall athleticism with KG, Ray Allen and Sheed all well past their physical prime, and Pierce on the wrong side of 30 as well.

Yet, they now have possibly the two freakiest small athletes in the league in Rajon Rondo and Nate Robinson. Both men can cover so much ground so quickly that I think they could be really disruptive flying around as the trigger men for a pressing, trapping D for a few minutes at a time, to try to create a few turnovers, pick up a few points, and change the tone of a game.

3. Restore home-court edge
Boston has still been an outstanding road team this year - its 19-9 road record ranks second only to Cleveland's 19-8. Where the Celtics have struggled has been at the New Garden, where they are just 15-9, the 17th best home record in the league.

As Simmons suggested, one of the side benefits of a pressing style is that it can really rev up the home crowd. Boston has a loud and knowledgeable fan base as it is - I think they'd really latch on to using a second unit in this manner, despite any lasting scars from the Pitino era.

1. Roster is close, but doesn't quite work
The pressing lineup that I'd envision for Boston would include Rondo, Robinson, Tony Allen, Marquis Daniels and Shelden Williams. As mentioned above, I think Rondo and Nate have the physical ability to be hugely disruptive forces. Tony Allen would probably maximize his ability in a system where he was primarily asked to just play crazy on defense. I'm not fond of Shelden Williams as a player in general, but again, a system where he is mainly asked to lay back and protect the rim, and grab boards to trigger a running game is pretty well-suited to his ability. We're just looking for 8-10 minutes from him here.

So it's close to a pretty good lineup overall, but the worry would be that you'd be wearing out your point guards, given that Rondo, Robinson and Daniels are the three guys who can handle PG duties on the club. Still, I wonder if Rondo and Robinson are in good-enough condition that they could handle 10 or so pressing minutes for a couple months with no problem.

2. Not practical to get in shape
The biggest problem is that, in the ideal scenario, you'd probably want a training camp and full season to get guys into shape and familiar with a pressing scheme. There's so little practice time that it'd be a challenge to install at this point in the season.

That said, the key guys - Rondo and Robinson - are probably in good enough condition for this today. Daniels would the guy who I'd be worried about, shape-wise, considering he is 29, and has missed so much time this season. And these guys have played basketball all of their lives, and have surely pressed and trapped at some point in their careers - it's not rocket science (note to self: do not take this for granted when it comes to Tony Allen).

3. Nate not considered a good defender
This would be the least of my concerns. As guys like John Schuhmann of and Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus have pointed out in recent days, guys like Rashard Lewis, Ray Allen and Mo Williams are examples of players who've moved to league-worst defenses to league-best defenses in recent years.

Defensive culture and coaching matter a lot, and the C's have both in spades. Nate Robinson certainly has the physical ability to be an effective pressing defender. As a Seattleite, I've seen Nate play pressure defense effectively in both high school and college - and geez, I even saw him defend on the football field as a ball-hawking cornerback (that's a joke, people... well, mostly) - so I think it's in him. I think he could accept the challenge, especially because I think it would be potentially beneficial to him.

Do I see a pressing second unit as a can't-miss, no-brainer for the Celtics? Absolutely not - there are plenty of potential pitfalls. Again, the point is that the Celtics are in a can't-win situation right now. It's the time to consider unorthodox tactics, and pressing for a few minutes at a time with Rondo and Nate might work. And, hell, it would be a lot of fun to watch. Why not?

Do I expect the Celtics would consider such a tactic? Absolutely not. I just said that Boston needs unorthodox tactics, but Doc Rivers is about the most orthodox basketball man I can imagine.

I've written about this multiple times in the past few years, but I really believe that Yao Ming has the ability to be the hub of a passing offense which is beautiful to watch, a la Walton with the '70s Blazers or Webber/Divac with the '00s Kings.

Now, with the acquisition of Kevin Martin, all of the potential pieces are in place.
- The architect of the Kings passing game, Rick Adelman, is here.
- T-Mac's ball-stopping, movement-stopping ways are gone, replaced by Martin, a man of perpetual motion.
- Luis Scola, long experienced in the beauty of the passing game/motion offense of the Argentina national team, is here.

We just need the Big Fella to get back healthy, and I have my fingers crossed that we'll see him stationed at the mid-post as the hub of the Rockets offense, with cutters like Martin and Trevor Ariza slashing around him, playing off of Scola's passing ability as necessary, and knocking down unblockable 10-12 footers all night long.

As much as a running game like the Suns' is fun to watch, I will take a passing game like the old Kings any time. Maybe I'm a dreamer, but I feel like Houston is actually really close to making this a reality. If I had just one wish for what I'd most like to see in 2010-11, I think it might be this.

The trade deadline action was so ferocious that some teams seriously denuded themselves in the chase for 2010 cap space, to the extent that there's probably more cap space than viable free agents at this point. As such, there are a few teams which are going to be looking at long rebuilds.

As Kevin Pelton wrote about the Wizards, "Since the team is going to be largely building from scratch, that is going to be a lengthy process even if Washington lands John Wall this summer. Think Portland Trail Blazers rebuild, but at its very beginning--2004-05, four years before the Blazers returned to the postseason."

Forget John Wall, after things shake out this summer, a couple teams are going to already be playing for Michael Gilchrist, the phenom high-school junior from New Jersey who is likely to be the big prize of the 2012 draft! And if things don't go as planned this summer... that means I'm looking at you, New York Knicks.


At 9:49 AM, Anonymous Ryan said...

I obviously want everything to work out with LBJ this summer but would be elated if the Knicks got Michael. I've followed St. Pats for his entire career and see him as a potential star in the NBA. Scary potential and a fire that is rare for a high school kid.

At 1:37 PM, Anonymous jylze said...

great entry all around.

one thought: wouldn't a full-court press with robinson and rondo (with daniels ready to sub in for rondo to get him rest), tony allen, and then shelden williams and big baby davis seem to make a little more sense overall? the two bigs could drift toward the lane and essentially play safety?

also, all those guys are athletic (except williams) and still pretty young.

At 6:06 PM, Blogger M. Haubs said...

I think that's a fair point - Daniels is definitely the guy who's most worthy of being subbed out. I was just looking for more agility than Big Baby, and I'm also wonder if Baby is sufficiently in shape to press. Though that may be a problem for Daniels, too, with all the time he's missed.

At 11:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article. Last comment is a little bit off though, as the knicks just traded away their 2012 first rounder as part of the Tmac trade. Man does it suck to be the knicks.

At 11:08 PM, Blogger M. Haubs said...

Oh crap, that's right! Thanks for the correction!

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