Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Manu and TP Show & Some Random Musings

Over the past week-plus, the San Antonio Spurs have been involved in two of the most eye-pleasing games of professional basketball I've seen all season, a 106-97 win over Orlando last Monday and a 109-95 comeback victory over New Orleans on Sunday to establish themselves as the NBA's league leaders at 14-2.

During a run of 50-win seasons which extends back through all 12 seasons of the Tim Duncan era, the Spurs have never ranked better than 5th in offensive efficiency, and have never ranked higher in offensive efficiency than defensive efficiency. But S.A. is doing it with an improved offense so far this season, ranking 3rd in offense and 9th in defense currently (they were 9th and 8th, respectively, last year).

And the Spurs offense has been a anti-Heat thing of beauty to watch, a well-orchestrated blend of motion and spacing and ball movement and lights-out outside shooting and the simple concept of the right players getting the ball in the right places at the right times.


So far, 2010-11 has been a season in which the backcourt combo of Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker has taken on more of a primary role than ever. The TP-Manu pairing has obviously been a key factor in three championship seasons, but it's always been Tim Duncan who's had the team's best PER and who's driven the team from his role as defensive anchor.

Duncan's still a vital part of the Spurs' success, of course, but Ginobili (25.0) and Parker (21.0) have both surpassed Timmy (20.4) in PER for the first time, and Duncan's minutes are being rationed more than ever, down to 29.4 per game (he has averaged 36.3 for his career, and last season's 31.3 is his previous career-low).

In a few Spurs games I've watched this season, I've noticed that Gregg Popovich now seems to wait absolutely as long as possible before reinserting Duncan into the game in the fourth quarter. In Sunday's comeback over the Hornets, Timmy didn't come back until the 4:15 mark, and probably didn't need to come back, period, because Manu won the game single-handedly with a stunning burst of production in the first 3:30 of the fourth quarter.

San Antonio trailed by as much as 17 (68-51) in the third, before outscoring New Orleans 58-27 over the final 21 minutes, including a 37-18 thumping in the fourth quarter.

As mentioned, the key sequence was the opening minutes of the fourth, in which San Antonio turned a 77-72 deficit into an 89-81 lead with a series of 7 possessions which produced 17 (!) points, and Manu Ginobili had a hand in all 17 points. Yes, I went double italics. It was that good. Check out the play-by-play:

In that stretch, Manu had:
    • 5 points on 2-2 FG (a pullup three and a strong drive)
    • 4 assists which led to 10 points (two of the assists led to threes)
    • The only 2 rebounds available in that stretch (both defensive)
    • 1 steal, which turned into a George Hill basket five seconds later, the only points for which Manu did not score or make the assist.
It was a virtuoso combination of smart ball distribution and superior individual performance - one of the most impressive shows of individual dominance in a season which has already had several.


The early-season performance of Tony Parker has already been well-documented by Tom Haberstroh of ESPN Insider, who called TP a sleeper MVP candidate so far. Also, Zach Lowe of the outstanding new blog The Point Forward, on SI.com, analyzed how the Spurs offense is being driven by playing at a much faster pace than they've ever played at during the Duncan era.

One note stood out to me in Lowe's piece:
    Overall, only six teams are playing at a faster pace than the Spurs. Of note: It’s a trend that excludes Duncan, or at least marginalizes him to a role as a rebounder and outlet passer. He has been involved in just five transition finishes all season, according to Synergy, compared to nearly three-dozen each for Jefferson and Ginobili, and a whopping 64 for Parker.
Yes, I went bold and italics there, because it's consistent with my observations that these Spurs are one the more bizarre fast-paced teams that I've seen.

In watching San Antonio, it doesn't even feel like they're looking to run fast breaks as a team, it really just feels like Parker increasingly looks to take off on one-man forays. Usually, TP breaks one of the cardinal rules of transition basketball: he never has the numbers. Really, almost never. He converts at an amazing rate, considering that he always seems to be going 1-on-3 or 2-on-3.

This phenomenon really stood out to me in San Antonio's 103-94 win over Chicago on Nov. 17. I went back at looked at Parker's clips on Synergy Sports for that game. For the season, Parker has been producing about 1.3 points per possessions (PPP) on transition plays, a strong rate. In the game vs. the Bulls, he was credited with 11 points on 5 transition plays (2.2 PPP). I mean, the Bulls are a good defensive team that plays hard - this is a crazy number. Indeed, a play-by-play analysis of the video showed that the Bulls were getting back on defense... but they still couldn't stop Parker. Here's a play-by-play breakdown:
    1) 2-on-3 break: TP Bucket
    2) 1-on-3 break (4th defender collapses at end): TP Bucket
    3) 3-on-3 break (4th defender chases in at end): TP Bucket And 1
    4) 2-on-3 break: TP Bucket
    5) 2-on-3 break: TP Bucket
Not once did Parker have the numbers, yet he converted every single time. Another thing I noticed is that, on any break above where it was 2-on-3 or 3-on-3, the non-Parker Spurs always looked to spot up behind the three-point line, rather than run to the basket, and were really trailers more than what we commonly think of as active participants in fast breaks.

It really might be the most bizarre fast-break approach I've seen: they have one little guy who gets the ball and dribbles like crazy, as he runs a one-man break which he can finish uncommonly well, even against the numbers, and even though he's not a physically dominating guy - he essentially can't even dunk in a game! And his teammates don't even look to run to the basket, they're just running to the line.

I think the conventional wisdom is that the Spurs take a fairly conservative approach, but I'm impressed at how Popovich has been open to embrace the unorthodox.


Random musings:
Miami: The Heat set a new low for me in the game vs. Dallas on Saturday, when LeBron James chose of his own free will to throw an entry pass in to Joel Anthony, matched up in the low post vs. Tyson Chandler, even though Dwyane Wade was... wait for it... standing in the corner watching.

For me, it established a new standard for worst post-entry decision, topping the several times that Baron Davis threw the ball in to Ben Wallace with his back to the basket during the 2002 World Championships. Maybe Wallace wasn't the absolute worst post player, I grant you, but consider that it was a Team USA roster, so there were always multiple 20 ppg scorers also on the floor and that there was a trapezoid lane which pushed Big Ben further away.

But this - Joel Anthony vs. Tyson Chandler - was worse. Couple that with a Mario Chalmers-Joel Anthony pick-and-roll run with both Bosh and Wade on the floor, and I just can't take this team any more. While I do find plenty wrong with the offensive philosophy of the coaching staff, at a certain point, these are veteran players, and they have to make better decisions then dumping the ball in to Joel Anthony. The bigger problem is that it's an emblematic play: Miami doesn't play offense with any kind of systematic awareness or purpose of what the hell they're trying to accomplish. Contrast that to... oh, I don't know... say, the Spurs.

Sacramento: One story developing quietly in the West is the regression of Tyreke Evans in his second season in Sacramento. He's down in PER from 18.1 to 14.1, down in FG% from .458 to .408, down in FTA from 6.5 to 4.7. Moreover, in a couple games I've caught, Evans has made stunningly bad decisions repeatedly in crunch-time situations, whether taking horrendous fadeaway shots despite his imposing physical frame or making careless turnovers on stuff like jumping in the air aimlessly with no idea where he wanted to go with the ball. Just high-school stuff, really. Plays that a second-year pro shouldn't be making.

NBA vs. NFL Discipline: The past couple weeks of the NFL season have seen punches thrown on the field of play by Richard Seymour as well as Andre Johnson, in his vicious altercation with Cortland Finnegan on Sunday. While Seymour and Johnson were both ejected, it's surprising to me that neither player was suspended further, only fined. It highlights how the discipline for fighting is much tougher in the NBA.

Carmelo Anthony was suspended for 15 games for throwing one punch in Denver's 2006-07 fight vs. the Knicks. I'd imagine that Johnson, with his three roundhouse blows, would have merited about 25-30 games (the rough equivalent of 5-6 NFL games) by NBA standards.

Certainly, there's an extra level of vigilance necessary in the NBA because fights are much more likely to spill into the stands (as the Nuggets-Knicks brawl did), and probably an extra level of tolerance for NFL fighting because the game is so violent that it makes it more inevitable. Still, there's no doubt that the NBA has staked out a much stronger line against on-field fighting, as well as dissent towards referees, for which there is essentially no penalty in the NFL, as opposed to the increasingly strict standards for technical fouls, and their accompanying point penalties, in the NBA.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Is It Yet *Another* "What If" Era for
The Portland Trail Blazers?

With an impressive core of young talent amassed in the late 2000s, the Portland Trail Blazers seemed poised to challenge for multiple NBA championships in the middle part of the 2010s. Now, that ostensible window appears to have closed quite abruptly, following this month's news that Brandon Roy's days as an All-NBA player are apparently over due to the deterioration of his knees, and that Greg Oden's promise will continue to be delayed indefinitely due to yet another serious injury.


One of the things which I found most engaging about reading Bill Simmons's The Book of Basketball was the "What If" concept. What if this trade or draft pick or twist of fate would have gone in a different direction - then what would have happened? In looking backwards at basketball history - at past seasons and past championship teams already etched in stone - it can sometimes seem as if things were destined to be, as if there could be no other result. Simmons's in-depth look back reminded me how easily things could have been different.

By the end of the book, I was struck by this realization: man oh man, there's no other franchise which has had as many potential NBA championships left on the table as the Portland Trail Blazers, and as far as I can tell, it's really not even close.

Obviously, "Sam Bowie" is the probably the first thing which comes to mind when broaching this topic. But forget for a minute even talking about bad decisions (which is where we'd classify the Bowie v Jordan blunder) or titles that were tantalizingly close to being in the grasp (such as in 2000).

Let's just talk about the centers who became ghosts.

Bill Walton and 1977-79. After leading Portland to its famed 1977 Blazermania championship, the Blazers were an even better team the following season. They had won a championship with a 49-33 team, but in 1977-78 they were dominating the league with a 50-10 record when Walton went down with a broken foot and the season collapsed. They finished 8-14, lost to Seattle in the playoffs, and an injection of a painkiller into Walton's foot for the playoffs left the big redhead angry at the organization. He would never play for Portland again.

Meanwhile, here are the records of the 1978 and 1979 finalists:
    1978: Washington (44-38) defeats Seattle (47-35)
    1979: Seattle (52-30) defeats Washington (54-28)
And here are the ages for the top five players in terms of minutes played for the '77-78 Blazers:
    Lionel Hollins, 24
    Johnny Davis, 22
    Bob Gross, 24
    Maurice Lucas, 25 (RIP, Big Luke)
    Bill Walton, 25
This was a team on the rise. And this was one of those cases in which the light bulb went on for me while reading The Book of Basketball. Perhaps I'm dense, but because I hadn't lived through the '78 and '79 seasons as a cognizant fan, I'd never really questioned those title teams, and had assumed them destined to be so.

The destiny which opened the door to two of the more mediocre champions in NBA history was actually Walton's broken foot. Looking back, I think the 1978 championship was a near certainty for Portland, and the 1979 championship was likely as well, if Walton had stayed healthy.

[Note that, in the book, Simmons frames the question as "what if the Blazers hadn't traded Moses Malone to Buffalo on the eve of the '76-77 season?" He argues that Moses could have taken wear off of Walton's body and/or provided an MVP-quality insurance policy for the redhead's injuries. I tend to agree, though I'd chalk that one up as a bad decision more than bad fortune. In any event, the Moses saga only strengthens my belief that the 1978 and 1979 championships were as there to be taken by the Portland Trail Blazers as any titles have ever been.]

Arvydas Sabonis and 1990-92. Simmons did not include this one in the "What if" section, but did discuss it as he ranked Sabonis as the no. 86 all-time player by "exercising the 'what could have been' clause".

The legendary 7-3 Lithuanian was drafted by Portland in 1986, but was not allowed to leave the Soviet Union until 1989. At that time, Sabonis opted to play in Spain rather than the NBA, and did not end up coming over until 1995.

Since I didn't fully understand the value of per-minute stats back in the '90s, sometimes the numbers of past players jump out at me when I'm looking back at them on Basketball Reference, and Sabonis is definitely one of those guys. Check it out.

In 1995-96 as a 31-year-old rookie who'd lost significant athleticism due to multiple injuries, Sabonis averaged 14.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.8 assists in just 23.8 minutes per game (24.7 PER).

Sabonis played his heaviest NBA minutes in 1997-98, when he averaged a 16-10-3 in 32 minutes per game (20.9 PER).

Even though his NBA career spanned the ages of 31 to 38, Sabonis still averaged a career 21.2 PER, with 12 points, 7 rebounds and 2 assists in just 24 minutes per game.

I do believe that a healthy Arvydas Sabonis in his prime would have been in the Olajuwon-Robinson class of centers. For 45 seconds of heavily-pixilated joy, check out this highlight video from when Sabonis matched up with David Robinson at the 1986 World Championships, to get a sense of the skills and athleticism of the young Vydas:

Now remember that, in 1989-90 - the season in which Sabonis could have come over as a 25-year-old - the Blazers won 59 games and lost in the Finals to Detroit in five games with Kevin Duckworth starting at center (RIP, Big Duck).

In 1990-91, Portland won 63 games before being upset by L.A. in the Western Conference Finals, and in 1991-92, they took the Jordan Bulls to six games in the Finals.

This team was close enough to the Larry O'B. as it was. If they could have added Arvydas Sabonis in his prime, and he'd been able to stay healthy, I do believe that Portland would have won at least one championship from 1990-92, and possibly all three.


And now Greg Oden, and Brandon Roy. Again, don't even worry about what's turned out to be the bad decision of taking Oden instead of Kevin Durant for now. Just judge what Portland's actually had.

Obviously, this Blazers team never proved that they could make a championship run, as the late-'70s and early-'90s editions did. But I still believe that the Roy-Oden-Aldridge nucleus was talented enough to make deep playoff runs in the mid-2010's.

I still believe that Oden has the talent to be a dominant center, and I'd still point to how he dominated Joakim Noah almost exactly one year ago (24 points, 12 rebounds, 2 blocks on 7-8 FG in 27 minutes) as an example of how well he was coming along.

At this point, though, while Oden still has hope at just age 22, he certainly can't be counted upon, and it pains me to say that I don't see how Brandon Roy, a guy I've been watching since high school, can regain his superstar form, given the nature of his injury.

While lots of teams have lost individual championships due to injuries or losing close games and/or bad calls, in reading the Simmons book, and in pondering it further, I don't see any NBA franchise with anything close to having multiple potential multi-championship runs wiped away due to lost players. [Please feel free to let me know in the comments if you think I'm making glaring omissions.]

[The closest thing I could find was actually with the Boston Celtics, who could have easily won championships in 1973 and 1958 if not for playoff injuries to John Havlicek and Bill Russell, respectively, and then who knows what could have been, if not for the deaths of Len Bias (in 1986) and Reggie Lewis (in 1993). But to say, "well, they could have 22 championships instead of just 17!" doesn't seem to fit the spirit of this sad exercise.]

And then... to go back and consider bad decisions, and add Moses and Michael into the Blazers equation... well, it's enough to make your head spin. Could this franchise have 10 championships since 1977 with just a few twists of fate which aren't terribly far-fetched?

Yet the devoted Rip City fan base has but one championship trophy to hold on to. Readers in Phoenix say, "No sympathy, at least you have *one*." Readers in Seattle say, "No sympathy, at least you have a team."

Still, I feel for you, Blazermaniacs. Even though you've had a successful, model franchise for a long time, with multiple winning eras, you've been so, so close to so much more.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Curious Comments of the Miami Heat

I normally try not to put too much stock into comments by players and coaches. They are just words, after all, and sometimes intentions may be misconstrued if an off-the-cuff answer is not phrased as precisely as it should be, or taken out of context.

That said, the Miami Heat have unleashed a series of comments over the last couple weeks which have left me scratching my head.

Of course, there was the post-game doozy from Chris Bosh on Wednesday, just as he had seemed to relieve some of the intense pressure building against him, with a 35-point performance:
    "[Coach Erik Spoelstra] knows he has to meet us halfway. He wants to work, we want to chill, but we're going to have to work to get everything down, to get our timing down, and to get our chemistry down."
This was one of those kind of quotes that I think sounds worse than it actually is, but there's no question that it sounds terrible, with Bosh seeming to have a Palin-daughter-esque lack of self-awareness of how public words would be received.


I'm still even more confused by this LeBron James comment following Miami's loss to Boston last Thursday:
    "For myself, 44 minutes is too much. I think Coach Spo knows that. Forty minutes for D-Wade is too much. We have to have as much energy as we can to finish games out."
In 11 games so far this season, LeBron has averaged under 30 minutes played in five of those games which were blowouts. I would expect that trend to largely continue - this team will blow the doors off of so many lesser teams that there will be many nights when LBJ doesn't need to log more than 30 minutes.

But against Boston? A chief rival? The defending Eastern Conference champions? A team which embarrassed LeBron in May? A team which spanked the Heat around just two weeks prior on opening night?

Especially considering all the rest he gets in Miami's many blowouts, how did LeBron not want to play the full 48 in that one? What player wouldn't want to play 48 in that environment?

Again, it's probably worse than it sounds because, yeah, in reality, those guys do need reasonable rest given the load they need to carry for this team. The statement just feels a bit dissonant when the message seems like it should be: "I'll do whatever it takes to beat the Celtics." Especially when that did not necessarily seem to be the case in May.


The comment which I found most surprising was this one by Coach Erik Spoelstra, contained in the dialogue between Kevin Arnovitz and Tom Haberstroh on what pace the Heat should be playing at. Spoelstra was asked about whether he thought the Heat would succeed with a Suns-style Seven Seconds or Less pace:
    "Our team? Yeah, they’d be pretty spectacular offensively. But I wouldn't even know how to coach them. But I'm sure our guys could get up and down in at least seven seconds or less.... See I can't even reinvent myself or the Miami Heat philosophy or fabric. That would be a little bit too much of a stretch for me. We spend so much time on our defense and we feel it's important to be a championship contender and to be a championship defense. That takes a lot of time, a lot of sweat and practice time."
Again, it's important to recognize the context here. I believe that the Heat should play at a faster pace to get James and Wade into the open court, but I don't think they should go as far as "Seven Seconds or Less". I do think it was fair for Spo to say "I wouldn't even know how to coach them" in that instance, even though that comment may not sound great out of context.

It was the rest of the comment that really got me, saying that he can't reinvent the Miami Heat philosophy or fabric.

First of all, I always very strongly believe that a team's philosophy or fabric should reflect the strengths of its personnel first and foremost, not the other way around.

But what exactly is the "Miami Heat philosophy or fabric"? It seems safe to assume there is one and only one man responsible for creating it, and that's Pat Riley. Lest you forget, Pat Riley had some decent success playing up-tempo basketball once upon a time.

In fact, here's how Riley was quoted on transition basketball in the 1986 book Winnin' Times, written about the Lakers by Scott Ostler and Steve Springer:
    That's how I like to play. That's how I was taught. It's the best way to play basketball, the most fun way and most conducive to the kind of talent that comes off college campuses now. They are very agile, versatile, quick athletes whose instincts are to attack. I will always continue to be big on the wide-open running game.

    In this game you have to get easy baskets. You can't always grind it out, grind it out. There's more wear and tear on players in that kind of situation than there is in the freelance running game. You've got to be able to get 20 percent of your offense on easy baskets - layups or opportunity jumpers off the break.
The second paragraph above is the exact explanation of why I believe Miami needs to run more: they have struggled to consistently get easy baskets against good teams, and I think it would actually reduce the grind on James and Wade. I don't think they need to play at the fastest pace in the league, just at an above-average pace... as Riley's Lakers did in the '80s.

Here's how Riley's Lakers ranked in the league in Pace, Offensive Efficiency and Defensive Efficiency through the mid-80s:
    '81-82 4 2 10 Champ
    '82-83 10 1 13 Finals
    '83-84 6 5 9 Finals
    '84-85 9 1 7 Champ
    '85-86 10 1 7 WC Finals
    '86-87 10 1 7 Champ
    '87-88 11 2 9 Champ
The ranking in Pace Factor is probably lower than one would think, especially considering that there were just 23 teams in the league. Without specifically remembering the full picture of the mid-'80s, I'd guess that having one of the greatest half-court options of all-time in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar caused L.A.'s pace factor to be less than complete breakneck in reality.

Of course, Riley changed course drastically once he left L.A. for New York and Miami, becoming much more of a grind-it-out, defensive-oriented coach.

Still, one point is that is it possibly to win championships with a team that plays fast, and is great on offense, and merely very good on defense. Not only did Pat Riley do this, but that's how he made his name! That's where he experienced the most success.

Another point, again, is that I very strongly believe that a coach needs to fit a style of play to his players, and not vice versa. Let's go back to the style-of-play debate between Arnovitz and Haberstroh. I respectfully disagree with Kevin, who believes Miami can overwhelm his opponents in the half-court. In one of his comments, he said this:
    "If I’m a coach with superior talent and skilled players, I want a conventional battle. There’s a reason guerrilla warfare is waged by undermanned armies with inferior weaponry and training. They want to turn order into chaos because they can’t possibly compete on a level battlefield."
I understand what Kevin is saying, and against 20+ teams in the league, it's really not going to matter what style Miami plays - they will steamroll two-thirds of the league no matter what.

But in playoff series against elite teams like Boston, L.A. and even Orlando, I think Miami's peculiar personnel dictates that *they* are the ones who will need to employ asymmetric warfare. I believe they are too undersized, and undertalented up front, to be able to consistently get easy baskets and beat Boston or L.A. in a half-court game. Even against Orlando, whom Miami has already dismantled, I think it's in their interest to get a running game going to reduce the huge advantage that Dwight Howard has against their bigs on both ends of the court.

Am I making too much of a mid-November answer to one of the five million questions Erik Spoelstra has already answered about this team? Perhaps. The Heat are still formidable at 7-4 (with a seriously fluky loss to Utah) and a huge point differential. They'll be fine and crush much of the league.

Still, I get the sense from watching this team, as well as reading their comments, that it's one which is trying to fit its personnel into an existing system and philosophy, instead of vice versa, and I think that that could hurt them come May and June.


Note: Thanks to College Crunch for including us on their list of 20 Best Basketball Blogs for the NBA Fanatic. We appreciate it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Hoping for a Higher Level of Heat

While I have personal NBA rooting interests here and there, for the most part, I don't care who wins or loses. I really just want to see good basketball. Ideally, I just want to see full potential reached in quality of play for teams and individuals... and ultimately the game itself.

While I was somewhat bummed that LeBron's Decision seemed to take him off the narrative track that all-time greats have followed, I was ultimately more excited by the prospect of seeing basketball played at its highest and most beautiful level - by the wonder of what could be with the combination of James, Wade and Bosh.

With just ten games played, this Miami Heat era is still in its infancy, so it's far too early to make definitive pronouncements. Despite Miami's early stumbles to 6-4, I still think they'll be able to cruise toward the 60-win range in the regular season.

Beyond the wins and losses, my biggest frustration with the Heat so far is that I haven't found their brand of basketball to be particularly enjoyable to watch. I didn't expect these Heat to come out of the womb achieving the Winterian ideal of the triangle, but so far, the whole has been far less than the sum of its parts, aesthetically. Far from seeing a beautiful game, I've often found the Heat to be ugly and even boring at times to watch.

Of course, it's Miami's job to win games rather than entertain me, but I do think style of play is affecting results a bit, and I do believe that the lofty expectations for this team include playing the game in such a way that captures our imagination.

So much interesting stuff has been written about these Heat in the past few days. Arnovitz and Haberstroh and Krolik and Pelton and Lowe and others have done a fine job dissecting what is and is not working to date for Miami. Let me see if I can find some new ground by explaining my frustrations with the Heat through 10 games.

Issue 1a: Too Many Long 2s via Pick-and-Pop
The Miami Heat are second in the league in field-goal attempts from 16-23 feet. At times, their offense seems to consist of a cavalcade of pick-and-pops. LeBron to Big Z for a 21-footer! LeBron to Udonis for a 17-footer! How about... LeBron back to Big Z for another 21-footer! You can't miss this dazzling show of mid-range jumpers, America! It's the "Big Z for Big Zzzzzzz's" offense.

Even though Miami is last in the league in field-goal attempts from 10 feet or closer, and last in the league in points in the painted area, it doesn't seem to be hurting them overall, as they are third in the NBA in offensive efficiency. The fact that Miami leads the league in FT/FGA (one of the Four Factors which correlate most closely with winning) certainly helps mitigate their numbers in the painted area.

Still, it seems like Miami could make better use of developing more of a pick-and-roll game in addition to the pick-and-pops. Bosh is particular seems like he could be better utilized as a roll man. The usage rates for James (30.9) and Wade (32.7) have not dropped too much compared to recent years, but Bosh's usage has plummeted from 28.7 to 20.1.

[Note: Usage Rate is the number of possessions a player uses per 40 minutes, calculated as {[FGA + (FT Att. x 0.44) + (Ast x 0.33) + TO] x 40 x League Pace} divided by (Minutes x Team Pace)]

In terms of field-goal attempts, Bosh is down at all distances, but especially so in at-rim attempts:
             Total    At Rim
BOSH FGA Per Game Per Game
'09-10 16.6 5.9
'10-11 11.0 2.7
The more granular data available from mySynergySports, accompanied by video, allows me to dig a little further, of course with the caveat that we still have a very small sample for 2010-11.

In plays in which Bosh is designated as the "Roll Man" in the pick-and-roll, he is averaging a solid 1.17 points per possession (PPP), probably a negligible difference compared to 2009-10 in Toronto, when he averaged 1.24 PPP in the same role, ranking him 15th in the league in that granular category.

Observing several samples of these plays from this season and last, I tend to see a different Bosh. As the "Roll Man" in Toronto, he seemed to more consistently set his screens with purpose, directly in the circle above the free-throw line, and he dove straight to the hole more frequently, and to good effect.

In Miami so far, Bosh's pick-and-roll action has looked more tentative at times, more often seeming to set his screens almost as an afterthought, from less consistent locations - often sort of on the wing, and very often further away from the basket - and he seems to be relying on the pop rather than the roll more often.

It seems like getting Bosh more in a comfort zone of consistently setting his screens around 17-18 feet away, directly above the rim, and rolling harder, would make the Miami PnR game even more lethal, and more fun to watch, too.

Issue 1b: Too Many Long 2s via Impatience
I can understand if Miami is still adjusting the nuances of its pick-and-roll game in mid-November, but too often I've seen inexcusable shot selection consisting of James and Wade settling for long jump shots early in the shot clock.

Even in the first half vs. Utah, when Miami scored 51 points and built a 19-point lead, here was a stretch of possessions in the first quarter:
    • James MAKE (21 ft) - 2 PTS
    Pull-up at :16 on the shot clock after no passes.

    • Bosh MAKE (18 ft) - 2 PTS
    Open shot at :16 after a couple passes draws defense away.

    • James Miss (21 ft)
    After taking a pass on the wing, LeBron sizes up Kirilenko in isolation for a few seconds before missing a 21-footer without a dribble.

    • Wade MAKE - 3 PTS
    Dribbles up court and knocks down a three at :18.

    • Jones MAKE - 3 PTS
    Double high-post set vs. Utah zone - LeBron draws D over and sets up Jones for open corner 3. Nice play.

    • James Miss (22 ft)
    Dribbles up court and pulls up with a foot on the line at :19.

    • James Miss (12 ft)
    After good motion, three passes, and a James-Bosh side PnR, LeBron misses a running hook in the lane at :04. Pretty good shot.

    • Wade Miss
    On side PnR with Bosh, D-Wade takes a dribble past the screen and jacks up a somewhat-contested 3 at :08.
So that's eight possessions which actually resulted in 10 points, that's efficient offense overall, but it was just so ugly.

Three isolation long 2s by LeBron at 12-16-19 in shot clock (one make). Two Wade 3's, basically jacked up.

I feel like I've seen sequences like these far too often, with LBJ/Wade repeatedly settling for 16+-foot shots off the dribble. It's just inexcusably ugly and frustrating to watch. These shots will be there whenever, they can get better ones. These guys are veterans, they should know better, and they can do better.

Issue 2: Too Slow
It makes me a little nervous whenever I'm in lockstep with a major Charles Barkley talking point, so I'll try not to belabor it. First of all, Miami has two of the most unstoppable open-court basketball players who have ever lived. Number one, the Heat are playing at the sixth-slowest pace in the league, are ranked 19th in fast-break points, and are struggling to consistently produce easy buckets, especially without a strong low-post presence. So, first of all, they need to play faster!

Tom Haberstroh did a really nice job of breaking down how the Heat need to create more turnovers to generate a better running game, and that the return to health of Mario Chalmers may help in that regard. Haberstroh also showed how Miami doesn't have the personnel to run a full-fledged Suns-style "Seven Seconds or Less" running game, and I certainly agree.

Still, I think there's plenty of room in the space between for Miami to play a bit faster, in the name of giving James and Wade more open space to attack and create.

I would make a football analogy in comparison. If you are a fan of a football team with a bad run defense, and an opponent chooses to kick on fourth-and-short, you exhale and feel like you've dodged a bullet. I'd imagine you feel similar as a fan a team opposing Miami. Please, please, please don't let them get out in the open court, you think, and breath a sigh of relief when you're able to keep them in the halfcourt and the stagnant pound-pound-pound the dribble game.

I just want to see LeBron James and Dwyane Wade out in the open court together! That's what I signed up for as a basketball fan here. Is that really too much to ask?

Issue 3: Not Enough Imagination
Again, part of what we loved about the '80s Lakers was the beauty of the Showtime running game, part of what we've loved about the Phil Jackson Bulls and Lakers is the space and logic and passing game of the triangle offense.

When I watch these Miami Heat, I not only want to see the beauty and skill of the game, I want to see something new. It's an almost unprecedented collection of talent at the top end. Imagine some way to play the game that maximizes this combination's talents.

So far, Miami's been like a jazz group that plays all solos, with limited plays in the halfcourt where even two of the three main guys work together, much less all three. Pick-and-pop. Pound-pound-pound the dribble. Pick-and-pop.

One interesting stat I found on Synergy was Bosh's 1.25 PPP on Isolation plays, currently ranked no. 1 in the league, and up from 0.92 last year. Who knows if it's a sample-size aberration or something telling, but it certainly makes sense that Bosh's driving lanes should be more open as a no. 3 option instead of a no. 1.

What about running a variation of the Dribble-Drive Motion Offense (Explanation, Diagrams), which seems like it could insert more motion into Miami's game, while also taking advantage of the superior ability to create plays off the dribble owned by James, Wade and even Bosh?

I don't know, I just want something else. These guys are too dynamic, too unselfish, too exceptional to be relegated to a steady diet of pound-pound-pound the dribble and pick-and-pop ad infinitum.

Zach Lowe of SI in particular has pointed out that we've seen glimpses of Miami's Big 3 working together, and again, it's only been 10 games. I don't expect them to have reached mystical levels of team cohesion so far.

It is part of my hope and even expectation for this group, however, that they achieve a level of beautiful play as well as excellence eventually, and I'm impatient to see more steps in that direction.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Washington Wizards Are Quickly Becoming Our NBA League Pass Favorites

In the course of following the NBA season, we certainly enjoy following the grand narrative of marquee teams like the Lakers and Celtics and Heat and Spurs and Magic in the chase for the championship. That's what it's all about, as they say.

But we appreciate the whole tapestry of the league, and derive joy from watching developing young players and teams, and competitive games and entertaining basketball and spectacular athleticism even if it has absolutely nothing to do with who's going to raise the Larry O'B come June.

Thus, we bring to you the chase to become our favorite 2010-11 NBA League Pass team. We define a "League Pass team" as one which is scheduled for fewer than 10 regular-season games on ABC/ESPN/TNT combined, and whose games must be enjoyed largely via the splendors of the NBA League Pass full-season package, a.k.a. one of our most prized possessions.

17 teams qualify under that condition, and three teams have stood out from the pack for us so far, simply in terms of being the most entertaining to watch:

New Orleans: Remarkably, the Hornets were scheduled for just *one* ABC/ESPN/TNT game this season! They must not have gotten the news that Chris Paul would be back. No surprises here, CP3 remains a sheer joy to watch with the way he can control a game with head, heart & handle. Beyond the spectacular plays which Paul generates directly, New Orleans always seems to be organized and purposeful under Paul's direction. We could watch him play all day and night. Stay healthy, CP3.

Golden State: The Warriors have been a perennial League Pass favorite for us - there's something about West Coast teams, playing after two-thirds of the country has gone to sleep, which lends itself to the secretive, hidden delights of a good League Pass team. The W's have also been, in years past, a perfect example of how a League Pass team merely needs to be entertaining, rather than good.

There were even entertaining last season despite the Nellie train wreck, perhaps even *because of* the Nellie train wreck. Monta Ellis might go for 50 points on 40 shots, Steph Curry might bust out a triple-double as a rookie with an old soul's game, Nellie might play 5 guys under 6-6, he might play 5 D-Leaguers, they might finish the game with 4 players on the floor, the game might get into the 130s with the lack of defense and breakneck pace, and Amar'e Stoudemire might throw down the dunk of the season on someone's head. Anything was possible, and of course, the crowds have consistently, inexplicably been great despite years of being beaten down by front-office incompetence.

Now, this season, Golden State appears to actually be good, while retaining plenty of its entertainment value despite the insertion of sanity on the sidelines and in the owner's box. Monta is playing more efficiently, Steph is developing into a stud, and the Curry/David Lee pick-and-roll duo has promise to be among the league's best. Dorell Wright has been one of the league's top mad bombers early, and there's always the chance that Jeremy Lin might come in and earn a raucous ovation for correctly executing a dribble in 2 minutes of playing time.

We still love the Dubs, but we're accustomed to the late-night delights from Oracle. We're especially enjoying the new blood this year, which is part of the reason why we're picking the Washington Wizards, who are scheduled to be on ABC/ESPN/TNT just three times (and just once after Thanksgiving), as our favorite NBA League Pass team through the first couple weeks of the season. Here's a taste of why:

John Wall: One of the things we're blessed with in the 2010-11 NBA season is three rookies - John Wall, Blake Griffin and Derrick Favors - who are not only talented but also appear to be blessed with nuclear-powered athleticism of some sort. [Note: Griffin's Clippers, with its talented young Erics - Gordon and Bledsoe - in the backcourt to complement the Human Missile, Griffin, up front, narrowly missed making our League Pass short list.]

Ever since we first got a glimpse of Wall at the 2009 Nike Hoop Summit, we've thought he's been underrated as a prospect, if anything, and nothing we've seen in Wall's young career so far changes our opinion.

Wall seems to commonly be compared to Derrick Rose in terms of potential. We're looking forward to seeing the first Wall-Rose matchup on Saturday night, and we love Derrick Rose and the strides he's made this season. Still, we think Wall is significantly ahead of Rose's progress at the same age, and projects to be significantly better. So far, we think John Wall looks like a potential all-time great. Increasingly, with Wall's combination of lightning speed, court vision, handles, finishing ability, defensive potential, and competitiveness (not to mention, noticeably improved shooting form), we think we might be looking at a 6-4 Isiah Thomas.

Here's what Wall's basic numbers look like so far:
    Wall 20 40.3 19.3 10.2 18.6
Here's what the best active point guards did in their rookie seasons
    Paul 20 36.0 16.1 7.8 22.1
    Williams 21 28.8 10.8 4.5 12.4
    Rose 20 37.0 16.8 6.3 16.0
    Rondo 20 23.5 6.4 3.8 13.1
    Nash 22 10.5 3.3 2.1 10.8
    Kidd 21 33.8 11.7 7.7 15.1
And here's how some of the all-time greats stacked up as rookies:
    Big O 22 42.7 30.5 9.7 25.9
    Magic 20 36.3 18.0 7.3 20.6
    Isiah 20 33.8 17.0 7.8 14.5
    Stockton 22 18.2 5.6 5.1 13.3
    Payton 22 27.4 7.2 6.4 13.2
Of course, players develop at different rates, and have all sorts of different circumstances as rookies. These tables are not meant to be definitive. They're just meant to say: man, do you realize how historically good of a start Wall is off to?

You might say, well, he's only played six games, and that's fair. Who knows where the numbers will be after 82. But we'd say that we're shocked he has come out of the gate so strong, flirting with a 20-10 so soon into his career. We could believe it happening in March or April, but we didn't expect it in November of his rookie year. He should get better as the season goes on, not worse. Yes, his turnovers are high at 5 per game, but high turnovers are often a leading indicator that a player has room for improvement - he's making plays, and with experience, he should turn many of those bad plays into good ones.

As much as Wall's tour-de-force games vs. Philly (29 points, 13 assists, 9 steals) and Houston (19-10-13 triple double, plus 6 steals) have been spectacular to watch, the most impressive game might have been Wall's second game, when he led a near-comeback on the road in Atlanta with a 28-5-9, precisely because it was so *unspectacular*. While Wall flashed his speed down the middle in the halfcourt O a couple times, he didn't really produce highlight-reel plays for the most part. Rather, he displayed the poise to take what the defense gave him, knocking down jumpers and even stepping back for the first two threes of his career to keep the Wizards alive late in the fourth.

And now, that said, let's cut the measured coach-ly praise and say that, in general: the dude has been spectacularly exciting to watch on a consistent basis. Some of the plays which have been the most exciting haven't even been successful ones, such as when he went the length of the court in 2.1 seconds at the end of the first half vs. Cleveland, for a dunk that was a fraction of a second too late.

Or there was this stunner in overtime vs. the Sixers. Yes, Wall committed a foul on Andre Iguodala, but it was remarkable not only that Wall was able to catch one of the premier open-court players in the league, but also that he had the strength to deny him at the rim. (And the foul ended up saving a crucial point for Washington.)

(The DC Sports Bog did a great job of rounding up this play and comparing it to Redskins cornerback Darrell Green famously announcing his speed as a rookie by catching Tony Dorsett from behind in the open field.)

I can't believe Wall caught him, and made the challenge. I'm not sure how many other players in the league have the combo of speed & explosiveness to do it.

So much of John Wall's game is exhilarating to watch. His jets in the open floor are off the charts (and thankfully, Flip Saunders is letting him run - Washington is playing at the 7th-fastest pace in the league); he is able to make all kinds of varieties of steals (most spectacularly when he had 6 in a *quarter* vs. Philadelphia), with his superior quickness and length; he's a willing and able passer, already connecting with teammates from all over the floor.

Based on the revelation of John Wall's rookie season alone, the Wizards would be a top League Pass team. But wait, there's more.

JaVale McGee: The JaValevator might be the most underrated player in the league in terms of sheer entertainment value. He combines spectacularly athletic and/or mindless plays routinely, sometimes in the same sequence, like no other. Against Houston, he made an ill-advised lunge for a steal in the backcourt and overran the action the wrong way by about three steps. Even though the Rockets pushed the ball upcourt, there was McGee, racing back from out of the picture to somehow block Brad Miller at the rim (the ball was probably inside the cylinder, which may have actually made the block more improbable).

I swear no one corrals an average rebound higher than McGee, who seems to routinely grab them at about 12' up on the glass. I swear he jumps for every blocked shot like some combination of an Olympic high-jumper and volleyball player, reaching as high as possible and swatting with reckless abandon.

JaVale pulls LOL plays out of thin air, such as when he brought the ball upcourt vs. the Sixers and inexplicably went to a behind-the-back/spin dribble combo when confronted by a defender at half-court.

Against Atlanta, McGee seemed to have 14 blocks and 14 illegal screens. He got a poke steal in the open court then made a great catch on the run for an and-1 finish. Then he tried a behind-the-back pass on the run in the halfcourt, which did not work.

JaVale may have the goofiest collection of post moves I've ever seen. The footwork - i.e. the hard part - is often there, but the easy stuff can be a little off, such as vs. Houston, when he made a move from the left block to the middle with a right-hand dribble.

Every game, McGee seems to execute some of the most ridiculously exciting blocks, and ridiculously obvious goaltends, that you'll ever see.

I've seen JaVale convert runners with the foul. I've seen JaVale throw down monstrous dunks (Hello, Spencer Hawes). I've seen JaVale catch a block vs. Cleveland. I've seen JaVale attempt a follow dunk over Yao Ming's back.

JaVale's elastic facial expressions only add to the entertainment value. JaVale McGee brings joy to my life.

Andray Blatche: Blatche often forms something of a bravura unintentional comedy big-man duo with McGee, with his comically bad shot selection complementing the JaValevator grab bag of athleticism.

One of my favorite Blatche plays this season was against Philly. After taking all sorts of ill-advised shots, Blatche was double-teamed on the left baseline. One defender fell down and a pass fake sent the double-teamer lunging away, leaving Andray wide open from 12 feet and then he... DIDN'T SHOOT.

Blatche strikes me as something of an ABA-style player, gifted with size and skill and length and athleticism, and you never really know what you're going to get. Just when you've written him off as an irredeemable black hole, a mindless chucker, he'll find McGee with a gorgeous touch pass, reminding you, that - oh yeah - he's a 6-11 player who averaged 3.6 assists after the All-Star break last year.

Or he'll bust out a move like he did vs. Houston, a combo of an imagined ABA move and a Dream Shake, showing the ball one way with a long one-armed shot fake, and then spinning back the other for the hoop.

After a broken foot sidelined him for the summer, Blatche is just now rounding into shape. His FG% percentage has plummeted from .478 to .412 as he has become one of the league leaders in FGA from 16-23 feet. He did get 10 attempts at the rim vs. Houston, which is a promising sign.

Hopefully, he can get back to the player who averaged 22.1/8.3/3.6 after the break last season. Blatche does have a nice shooting touch, he just needs to clean up his shot selection while, you know, still taking the occasional completely-ridiculous contested fadeaway 19-footer off a spin move for entertainment purposes only.

All this entertainment value, even though Gilbert Arenas seems to have lost his explosiveness. While Gil has been up-and-down, he's knocked down some key threes, and co-existed well with Wall, such as on their gorgeous alley-oop connection vs. Houston.

Even if Gil can't recapture his past glory, and even if the Wiz aren't terribly good, we still say that - headed by the development of John Wall and the insanity of the JaValevator - the Washington Wizards are still a poop-in-a-shoe entertaining team to watch, our favorite League Pass team early on.

Monday, November 01, 2010

OKC Thunder D: Cause for Concern?

In the grand scheme of things, how much does an assistant coach matter to the fortunes of an NBA team? There were two key offseason moves involving assistant coaches, affecting three teams, which we're tracking.

One high-profile move involved Tom Thibodeau, who moved up from Boston's top assistant to the head job in Chicago, and whose work as the Celtics' so-called defensive mastermind was well-documented in his three seasons with the team.

The other move went far under the radar, and it involved Ron Adams, who deserved the mythical award of NBA Assistant Coach of the Year in 2009-10 for his work in transforming the Oklahoma City defense, and its role in the Thunder's substantial improvement. Adams left the Sooner State to join Thibodeau in the Windy City as his top assistant. Adams had previously been with the Bulls from 2003-08 during the Scott Skiles era, when the team's defense was a perennial top-ten unit.

To replace Thibodeau, the Celtics made what I considered to be a strong hire in Lawrence Frank, a former head coach with a reputation for strong preparation, whose Nets teams were a top-ten defense from 2004-06. Couple that with Boston's cast of veterans, and it seemed as if the C's would be able to maintain their defensive prowess.

To replace Adams, the Thunder surprisingly did not make a major new hire, and head coach Scott Brooks handed over the primary defensive responsibilities to Brian Keefe, a coach with scant NBA bench experience. How well would the defensive principles established by Adams in 1 1/2 seasons be retained by such a young team?

In February, Basketball Prospectus wrote about the Thunder's improved D, and included this quote from Kevin Durant on Adams: "His segment in practice is defense. We go over the same things over and over again. It might get boring to us sometimes as players, wanting to do something new, but I think it's helping us. We want to be perfect at it, even though that's not possible, and have it become second nature."

Reductive reasoning would suggest that the Bulls are headed for a massive improvement in defensive efficiency (they have jumped from 10th to 5th in league rankings so far), the Celtics are likely to be able to maintain the status quo (they are 6th, just like last year, to date), and the Thunder... well, the Thunder seem to be headed in the most uncertain direction.


We are less than one week into the 2010-11 NBA season, so let's call this the "Small Sample Size Overreaction Theater", but the (very, very) early returns on the Thunder defense leave some cause for concern.

Despite the team's 2-1 start, the last two results have been eyebrow-raisers for me. On Friday, OKC needed a last-second shot to overcome Detroit on the road, 105-104. While the Pistons were expected to be one of the league's weaker teams, they have been competitive in all three games, even though they are 0-3.

Still, 104 points seemed like a high point total allowed, considering that Detroit was 21st in offensive efficiency last season, and they also scored 107.2 points per 100 possessions (league average is just 101.0 so far). But that's fine, no big deal, it's a long season and there are plenty of outlier games, right?

Sure, but on the heels of Friday's narrow win, it was the 120-99 shellacking which the Jazz laid on the Thunder in Oklahoma City on Sunday which was a truly startling result.

Consider the following:
  • The 21-point defeat was worse than any loss Oklahoma City suffered at home in all of 2009-10;
  • After December home losses to Boston by 18, Cleveland by 13, and Dallas by 14 last season (remember that the Thunder got out of the gate just 13-14 before taking off), OKC's biggest home loss after Dec. 16 was a 106-96 defeat to Chicago on Jan. 26;
  • Oklahoma City allowed 120+ points just three times all of last season;
  • The Thunder allowed 116.5 points per 100 possessions on Sunday; they allowed 116.5/100 or more only six times all of last season.
As a caveat, Utah was the opponent two of the six times that OKC allowed 116.5 pts./100 poss. or more last season, including the 140-139 OT instant classic in April. Perhaps the Jazz are just a bad matchup for the Thunder, and indeed, Utah has consistently been one of the league's best offenses for the past several seasons.

But this year, Utah is integrating several new players, and was off to a dreadful start offensively, rating just 29th in offensive efficiency before Sunday, following anemic showings in blowout losses to Denver and Phoenix, neither considered to be a defensive juggernaut.

Oklahoma City did make a run in the third quarter when they went small with a Westbrook-Harden-Sefolosha-Durant-Green pressing unit that briefly made the Jazz look like a sad-sack high-school JV team which couldn't get the ball across half-court, but the Jazz still managed to post 35 points on the board in the third when all was said and done.

Certainly, the Thunder are having problems offensively, as well. Their effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) ranks just 29th in the league, at .422 (last year, they ranked 11th at .547), and their lack of ball movement was noticeable on Sunday, as Utah held a stunning 32-10 edge in assists.

Indeed, in terms of points per possession, Oklahoma City is down by similar amounts on both sides of the ball after a week. Consider, though, that overall NBA offensive efficiency is at just 101.0 so far, compared to 104.9 last season (offensive numbers generally start slow and rise over the course of the season, presumably both because offenses take longer to get on track at the start of the season, and because defensive intensity wanes at the end of the regular season).

Viewing the numbers in the context of league rankings better illustrates OKC's issues over the first week:
    08-09: 21st (106.9) 08-09: 29th (99.9)
    09-10: 8th (101.6) 09-10: 12th (105.8)
    10-11: 20th (105.0) 10-11: 13th (102.6)
After the embarrassing loss on Sunday, the Thunder's numbers show ample regression on defense after a week.

Is this because of Adams's departure? Is it because of the absence of underrated defender Nick Collison? The Thunder were 7.6 points per 100 possessions better defensively (one of the best numbers in the league in that +/- department) with Collison, who led the league in charges drawn, on the floor last season. Collison is out with a bone bruise in his knee, after playing 75 games last season (charmed luck with injuries in '09-10 was a significant factor in the Thunder's meteoric rise).

Or is this all just a bunch of words about a small sample size? Last year's worst defensive team, Toronto, ranks 3rd, and last year's best team, Charlotte, ranks 29th, after one week.

The Thunder did have a good night defensively against Adams's new team, the Bulls, whom they held to 93.1 points per possession in their home opener.

OKC gets games vs. weak offensive units in the Clippers and Sixers coming up, which should bolster the numbers. More interesting tests to watch should come in upcoming matchups vs. Portland (Thu. on TNT and next Fri. on ESPN), which has been one of the most efficient offensive teams per possessions over the last couple seasons.

Royce Young of Daily Thunder wrote facetiously in the wake of last night's loss that OKC partisans should "freak out" now that the Thunder will not go 82-0. As Young went on to write, more seriously, "It’s the third game in. Like last season, this isn’t a finished product yet. Remember, those guys that won 50 last year hovered around .500 for the first two months of the year before really figuring things out. So despite my earlier advice, don’t freak out."

Absolutely, it's only three games, nothing's close to set in stone yet, but, considering that the Thunder have been widely perceived by many to potentially be L.A.'s chief challenger in the West, I do think that Oklahoma City's defense in the post-Adams era is an early cause for concern, and worth keeping an eye on going forward.