Thursday, April 30, 2009

Euroleague Final Four: Seven Men to Watch

Also: Euroleague Final Four: Team-by-Team Analysis

One of our favorite events on the hoops calendar is coming up this weekend, as the Euroleague Final Four - the best annual basketball competition outside the NBA - takes place in Berlin this Friday and Sunday.

In the U.S., the games can be seen live on or on tape delay on NBA TV. Here's the schedule:
    FC Barcelona vs. CSKA Moscow, Noon ET (NBA TV: 8 p.m. ET)
    Olympiacos vs. Panathinaikos, 3 p.m. ET (NBA TV: 6 p.m. ET)

    Final, 2 p.m. ET (NBA TV: 8 p.m. ET)
This year's Euro Final Four has the potential to be the most entertaining and interesting for NBA fans in years. These are four powerhouse European clubs in general - CSKA Moscow is in the Final Four for the seventh straight year, for example. This year, these are some of the most loaded clubs in terms of talent that we've ever seen in Europe - each of these teams brings NBA-quality players off the bench.

The all-Athens Olympiacos-Panathinaikos semifinal matchup speaks for itself, as it's one of the most intense rivalries in world basketball, and there should be a raucous atmosphere in Berlin for this one. Old friend Josh Childress of Olympiacos says:
    "I already know the arena is going to be CRAZY. We have the best fans I have ever seen.... Our fans have been non-stop for the past eight months about the importance of beating Panathinaikos. We have no shortage of fan support. It seems to me that something like two-thirds Greece's entire population are Olympiacos fans.... I can't wait!!!"
On top of all that, there are several people participating in the Final Four who may be playing important roles in the NBA in the near future. Our TrueHoop Network colleagues at Ball in Europe did a fine job with a thorough breakdown of all players with connections to American basketball, and we encourage you to check that out. Jonathan Givony of Draft Express has also posted a scouting report of key players on CSKA Moscow and FC Barcelona which is a must read if you're interested in the Final Four.

For the purposes of this post, we're going to focus in on seven men to watch who could be playing key roles somewhere in the NBA in the relatively near future. Here we go.

1. Nikola Pekovic, Panathinaikos
The draft class of 2008 has already proven to be extraordinarily deep, yet there is still more talent to come, as Nikola Pekovic of Montenegro could prove to be one of the steals of the draft.

Pekovic, a rugged 6-11 F/C, was considered to be a mid-first round talent, but fell to Minnesota at #31 (the first pick of the second round) due to contract issues - he is not expected to make his way to the NBA until 2010-11. Considering the relative strengths of the 2008 and 2009 drafts, it's not a stretch to say that Pekovic could be a top 5 pick in this year's draft, though his upside is reduced now that he is 23 years old.

We've caught Pekovic a couple times on the Euroleague Game of the Week on NBA TV and have been impressed. It's a little jarring at first because he sort of resembles a guy like Peja Drobnjak physically, but he is really quite mobile and skilled, with good hands, touch and length, even if he is not the most athletic guy, per se.

You can go to Draft Express or Canis Hoopus for further scouting reports and opinions on his strengths and weaknesses.

Pekovic has averaged 13 points and 3.9 rebounds on .636 FG% in just 18.2 minutes per game in Euroleague play, impressive per-36 minute numbers of about 26 and 8. John Hollinger has a method for translating per-minute stats from the Euroleague to the NBA, using the following formula:
    - Scoring rate decreases 25 percent
    - Rebound rate increases by 18 percent (there are more missed shots in NBA play)
    - Assist rate increases by 31 percent (Euro scorers are tightwads with assists)
    - Shooting percentage drops by 12 percent
Using that translation, Pekovic's per-40 minute numbers for the NBA look like this: 21.5 pts, 10.1 reb, .560 FG%

His 2007-08 stats translated to this: 18.3 pts, 12.0 reb, .514 FG%. Not bad.

All in all, Pekovic looks like a guy who's a pretty skilled and efficient scorer and rebounder, but not terribly strong on the defensive end. Potentially good news and bad news for Wolves fans, as you can never have enough skilled bigs, but those strengths and weaknesses sound an awful lot like those of Mssrs. Jefferson and Love - Minny could potentially be looking at a lot of 120-115 games in its 2010s.

Still, I'm going to try to dodge the lightning bolt, and take a big gulp, and ask this question: did Kevin McHale actually set up the Wolves pretty well for the future at the tail end of his checkered tenure, with his acquisition of a potent young low-post scorer in Jefferson in '07 and two skilled bigs in Love and Pekovic in the '08 draft?

I'm still reeling from the Peter May piece in February which persuasively argued that ex-Orlando GM John Weisbrod, widely considered a disaster, actually set the team up well for its current success. I don't know if I'm ready to also contemplate that McHale might be doing same in Minnesota - it's too much for me to handle at once.

Oh well, we won't know that answer for a couple years still. See for yourself on Pekovic this weekend - he's easily the player I'm most interested in watching at the Euro Final Four.

2. Ettore Messina, CSKA Moscow
It was two-and-a-half years ago in these pages that we first floated the idea that Italian Ettore Messina might eventually become the first European head coach in the NBA.

Now, Messina coming to the NBA increasingly seems like an inevitability, and it increasingly seems like the time may be now. After all, the new NBA Coach of the Year - and possibly soon to be the new NBA champion coach - Mike Brown, has learned from Messina in recent summers, picking up some of the offensive tricks which helped the Cavs this season, so why not? Also, the Knicks quietly interviewed Messina for their head-coaching opening last summer.

The Raptors have long been considered the logical place for Messina, due to the management combo of Bryan Colangelo (who brought Mike D'Antoni over from Italy) and Italian Maurizio Gherardini (for whom Messina worked at Bennetton Treviso earlier this decade, succeeding D'Antoni), but Peter Vecsey recently reported that:
    The Raptors aren't distinct in considering Italian Ettore Messina as their head coach for next season, I'm informed. Two fail-safe sources reveal the Kings also are contemplating turning over the sidelines to the first ever non-American [ed. note: Raptors interim coach Jay Triano is Canadian, so Messina would actually be the first European, to be more accurate]. Currently coaching CSKA Moscow, Messina was recently contacted by a Sacramento representative regarding interest in an interview. It's in stone Raptors president Bryan Colangelo plans to meet with Messina during the European Final Four.
Messina's credentials are impeccable - he's won 4 Euroleague titles (including one with Manu Ginobili at Kinder Bologna in 2001) and has now taken CSKA Moscow to the Euroleague Final Four in each of his 4 years there.

There has always been some question as to whether NBA players would accept his more autocratic style of coaching, but in that regard, the Raptors roster is a great fit. Players like Jose Calderon, Andrea Bargnani and Anthony Parker all have experience playing in Europe, and familiarity with and - I'd bet - respect for Messina. Bargnani has already given an endorsement, saying, "Ettore Messina is a great coach who would do well in the NBA." And a couple of autocrats named Popovich and Sloan haven't done so bad in the last decade or two, either. Gotta have the right players, no doubt, but it can work.

Anyway, I don't know that there's a lot to watch, per se, in terms of Messina working the sidelines this weekend - it just seems notable as he seems to be on the cusp of making some basketball history.

3./4. Josh Childress/Jannero Pargo, Olympiacos
One year ago, these two guys were key players contributing off the bench in the NBA Playoffs, and certainly, the Hawks and Hornets are missing these guys this season. It's still somewhat remarkable to see two American players of this caliber - quality rotation players in their 20's - taking an NBA sabbatical for a Euroleague adventure.

We already know what they can do, and we expect them to be back in the league next season, but we're still fascinated to see how these guys will perform - especially Chills, since he made so many headlines with his departure - in the intense crucible of not only the Euroleague Final Four, but also a matchup against their arch-rivals.

Both players have posted unspectacular stats in the Euroleague:
- Childress: 8.7 pts, 4.7 reb, 23.9 min
- Pargo: 3.8 pts, 1.5 ast, 13.5 min
It's probably amazing to American fans that these numbers are so low, and especially that both these guys averaged more minutes per game in the NBA than in the Euroleague. Of course, the game is shorter (40 min) there, but it also speaks to the depth of the Reds' roster, and also the egalitarian nature of European ball, where the minutes are generally spread around widely.

5. Ersan Ilyasova, FC Barcelona
Ilyasova, a 6-9 forward out of Turkey, did not make much of an impact in his one season in the NBA in 2006-07, as he averaged just 6.1 pts and 2.9 reb in 14.7 min (12.1 PER) for the Milwaukee Bucks.

But keep in mind that he was just 19 years old at the time (although DraftExpress says that he "probably is older than his 1987-listed date of birth"), and then you might not be surprised that Ilyasova has progressed nicely since returning to Europe last summer, and is still a solid NBA prospect.

Ilyasova has averaged 11.2 pts and 7.3 reb in 21.7 min in Euroleague play this season (translates to 15.2 pts and 15.9 reb (!) per 40 mins in the NBA under the Hollinger formula), and had a strong performance of 19 pts, 10 reb, 4 ast in Barca's decisive Game 5 victory over Tau Ceramica in the quarterfinals, which qualified Barcelona for the Final Four.

Draft Express saw Ilyasova in February, and had this to say:
    Ilyasova is playing the power forward position almost exclusively for Barcelona, where he stands out primarily for his ability to space the floor and his terrific rebounding skills. Super long, athletic and very quick off his feet, Ilyasova has emerged as one of the best rebounders in European basketball these days, ranking #1 in both the ACB [Spanish League] and the Euroleague.

    It’s funny that we compared him to a European version of Rashard Lewis at best, or Bostjan Nachbar at worst back when we wrote up his initial profile four years ago. That’s a very accurate way of describing his strengths and weaknesses, although he’s probably a better rebounder than those two.

    Ilyasova might not be in a huge rush to return to the NBA anytime soon, but he would likely fare far better now that his game has developed.
As with all things Bucks, Brew Hoop is all over it. They offered this intel in February:
    Having caught a couple Barcelona games this season, I'd caution against expecting too much from Ilyasova--he's probably a Nocioni-type at best, though he's so scrappy on the boards and defensively that he's probably not a threat to be a complete bust, either. He's a bit of a tweener at 6'9", but having three point range means he can contribute as a floor-spacing PF or bang with the burliest of SFs.

    Those traits should appeal to Scott Skiles, and don't forget that Director of Player Personnel Dave Babcock helped draft Ilyasova in 2005 and has continued to keep close tabs on him since he left for Spain two summers ago. You might also remember that Ilyasova was back in Milwaukee last summer working out at the Cousins Center, and Gery Woelfel also mentioned a while ago that his wife is from Milwaukee. So yeah, there's ample reason to think both sides would be interested in getting Ilyasova back in a Bucks uni.

    The biggest problem with bringing Ilyasova back is that he's already making a nice chunk of change in Spain--reportedly something in the ballpark of €2.5 million--and because most European deals are net of tax, that means the Bucks would have to give him close to MLE dollars just to match his current take-home pay. Obviously that's not going to happen, but the allure of the NBA could very well convince Ilyasova to take a paycut to come back to Milwaukee. If Ilyasova does want to come back stateside, the Bucks continue to hold his early Bird rights (ie he'd be an RFA), which in all likelihood makes them the only game in town. I don't see another team making him a big offer, but the Bucks will likely take a wait-and-see approach.
Here's more on Ilyasova from Brew Hoop:
- 4.12.09: Video: Ilyasova leads Barca to Euroleague Final Four
- 5.11.08: Study Abroad: Ersan Ilyasova

6. Fran Vazquez, FC Barcelona
Vazquez is a 2005 lottery pick who jilted the Magic after being selected no. 11 that year, changing his mind and deciding to sign a long-term contract in Spain. After struggling last season, Vazquez (a 6-10 PF/C) has revitalized his game this season.

Draft Express writes:
    One of the revelations of this year’s ACB season has been the sudden revival of Barcelona big man Fran Vazquez.... Vazquez has really embraced his role as defensive stopper this year, showing terrific activity level on this end of the floor. As mentioned, per-minute he ranks as the #1 shot-blocker in both the Euroleague and ACB, and his impact extends beyond the paint, as he’s able to accurately hedge pick and rolls and even stay in front of opposing guards. As a post-defender, Vazquez is not quite as effective, as he lacks the strength to hold his ground against the bigger and burlier big men he’ll go up against at times, and also some awareness not biting on fakes on such, as he’s not the smartest guy you’ll find around. Still, his combination of size, length and athleticism makes him quite a presence on this side of the floor, and would also make him a valuable asset in the NBA. Not particularly known for his mental toughness, and never considered much of a self-starter, he’s done a better job staying focused and motivated this season, even when things aren’t going his way.

    Even though his development was stunted somewhat as he struggled to live up to expectations since being drafted back in 2005, Vazquez seems to be back on the right track and is clearly having the best season of his professional career. Still only 25 years old, Vazquez is very clearly an NBA caliber rotation player, and relative to his price would be an excellent addition for the Orlando Magic if they were somehow able to bring him over.

    Vazquez has just one more year on his contract after this, and considering his salary slot on the NBA’s rookie scale as the #11 draft pick—nearly two million dollars—could still be a realistic target if Orlando (or any team that trades for his draft rights) were able to bring him over. Talking to his NBA agent Marc Cornstein about that, he thinks that from the Magic's perspective "the door has always been open for him if he wants to play in the NBA," although he pointed out that he has not discussed that matter recently with them. "With Fran it's always been more a matter of desire rather than money."
Vazquez certainly seems like he might fit in well with Stan Van Gundy's defensive-minded Magic, especially if Orlando loses underrated center Marcin Gortat, but it's still far from clear that Vazquez will ever choose to jump to the NBA after his contract expires in 2010, or anytime thereafter.

Fran's reticence to leave Spain is in evidence in this answer to a fan question recently on
    Mr. Vazquez, you have played all over in Spain, in four different clubs. Would you like to someday play for some other good European teams, like CSKA, Panathinaikos, Olympiacos or Maccabi? Thanks and best of luck in the Final Four!
    Vasiliy Belanov - Moscow, Russia

    "So far, I am very happy here in Barcelona. I don't think much about my future. I felt comfortable with all four teams that I played for and I have been here for several years already and feel great at this great club. I hope to stay here in Barcelona in the future, or at least in Spain."
7. Giorgos Printezis, Olympiacos
There are many other players in action in Berlin this weekend who are better than Printezis, a 6-9, 24-year-old forward averaging 9.1 pts and 3.5 reb on .632 FG% in 18.9 min in Euroleague play. He was a second-round pick in 2007 whose rights are owned by the Raptors.

We include him here only b/c the Toronto Star ran a story this week entitled "Hard-nosed Athenian may be answer to Raptor need for toughness," which included a quote from GM Bryan Colangelo saying, "There's definitely an edge to him. He could very well fill that (need for toughness)."

We're skeptical, but we just wanted to give Raptor Nation a heads-up to check Printezis out b/c we know those cats in the T.O. are insatiable, and we're just trying to keep 'em fed.


OK, last thing: we're predicting that Josh Childress will end his year abroad in Athens as a Euroleague champion, as we're picking Olympiacos over CSKA Moscow in the final on Sunday. Really looking forward to watching the action from Berlin this weekend. Good night.

Also: Euroleague Final Four: Team-by-Team Analysis

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Ridiculousness of Flagrant Foul Interpretations

OK, a lot of talk about whether the Rajon Rondo foul on Brad Miller should have been called a flagrant. We've got two cents to pitch in.

First, for the record, here is an excerpt from the official NBA rules:
    Section IV--Flagrant Foul
    a. If contact committed against a player, with or without the ball, is interpreted to be unnecessary, a flagrant foul--penalty (1) will be assessed.
Here is further interpretation on a page about misunderstood rules:
    Flagrant Fouls: These fouls are considered unnecessary and/or excessive. There are two types of flagrant fouls, 1 and 2. A flagrant 1 is unnecessary contact. This is usually when a defensive player swings and makes hard contact with the offensive player or makes hard contact and then follows through.
Here's our opinion:

Did Rondo deserve a flagrant foul, based on the letter and spirit of the rule? Yes, absolutely. He did not make a play on the ball, and made unnecessary and dangerous contact with Miller's head.

Did Rondo deserve a flagrant foul, based on the way the rule is consistently interpreted? No, absolutely not. The ridiculousness of the flagrant-foul interpretation is that, in practice, it is determined almost entirely by whether the fouled player hits the floor in an awkward, scary-looking manner, and Miller ultimately did not hit the floor that hard.

Many times, you'll see a guy go for a legitimate blocked shot on a breakaway, and get called for a ridiculous flagrant ONLY b/c of the way the fouled player falls. I had been planning to write this all day, and then lo and behold we got a textbook example of this tonight.

Go to the :58 mark in the highlight package from tonight's Hawks-Heat game:

Dwyane Wade, one of the best shotblocking guards ever, attempts to chase down Maurice Evans for the block, and doesn't miss by much in what is unquestionably a legitimate attempt at a block. Evans hits the floor hard and in a strange manner. Wade gets a flagrant, and in NO WAY does he deserve one, but that's how it's consistently called.

Two nights ago, in the Hornets-Nuggets bloodbath, I actually thought that the Anthony Carter foul on Rasual Butler did deserve a flagrant. The play can be seen at about the 1:28 mark here:

I thought Carter had no chance to make the block and came in from behind mainly to push Butler in the back in a dangerous manner. I understand, this one's borderline, I can understand if you disagree. But still, I think the key factor in not awarding a flagrant here was that Butler landed normally. In any event, there's no way - no way - that this was a more legitimate block attempt than D-Wade's.

The problem with the rule, in my opinion, is entirely based in how it is interpreted in practice. Call the flagrant based on whether the contact is unnecessary and excessive, not on whether the fall is scary and awkward.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

NBA Shooting At Historic Highs; Scoring Cracks 100

My sense is that the perception lingers among casual sports fans that the NBA game is lacking in basic basketball fundamentals, especially compared to NCAA ball. Subjectively, it's a somewhat comical sentiment to anyone who watches the game with a truly critical eye. Objectively, the numbers say at least this: the quality of shooting in the NBA has never been better.

It's time for us to once again examine the overall league statistics, as we did after the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons. Once again, the stats show that offense continues to be on the rise in the NBA, continuing a decade-long trend.

1. Scoring cracks the 100 ppg mark! (Well, pretty much.)
On a wild final night of the 2008-09 season, Daniel Gibson and Michael Finley sent games to overtime with last-second shots in regulation. Among the effects of those buzzer-beaters is that the subsequent OTs allowed enough points to be scored for the NBA to crack the 100 ppg per team mark for the first time since 1994-95, according to totals gathered on Basketball Reference.

By my calculation, there were 245,879 total points scored in 1230 games, for an average of 99.95 per team. Round that baby up to 100.0!

Subtract Devin Harris connecting on a fumbling half-court three in midseason and the total was 245,876, which equates to just 99.949 per team!

Here are the annual ppg numbers dating back to 1994-95:
    94-95: 101.4
    95-96: 99.5
    96-97: 96.9
    97-98: 95.6
    98-99: 91.6
    99-00: 97.5
    00-01: 94.8
    01-02: 95.5
    02-03: 95.1
    03-04: 93.4
    04-05: 97.2
    05-06: 97.0
    06-07: 98.7
    07-08: 99.9
    08-09: 100.0
Of course, as "Dave" Hollinger wrote on in 2004, the slowdown in the pace of the game was easily the biggest factor in the two-decade decline of raw points per game to that point.

Basketball Reference shows that Pace Factor was actually down slightly this year, from 92.4 to 91.7 possessions, which meant that Offensive Efficiency (points per 100 possessions) was actually up from 107.5 to 108.3, which was also the highest number since 1994-95.

2. Three-point shooting again better than ever.
One of the major evolutions in the way the game is played that's occurred over the last generation is that the number of three-point attempts has continually increased over time - and three-point percentage has, too (with some aberration in the three years in which the line was moved in).

Three-point field-goal percentage took a big jump for the second straight season, up from .358 in '06-07 to .362 in '07-08 to .367 in '08-09.

This season's mark of .3667 was just short of the all-time mark of .3670 in 1995-96, which was one of the three seasons in which the line was moved in, so this season's shooting percentage is easily a more impressive feat.

Average threes made and attempts were once again at record levels of 6.6-18.1 per game.

Here's the evolution of three-point shooting per game per team averages over time (thanks to Basketball Reference):
    79-80: 0.8-2.8 .280
    80-81: 0.5-2.0 .245
    81-82: 0.6-2.3 .262
    82-83: 0.5-2.3 .238
    83-84: 0.6-2.4 .250
    84-85: 0.9-3.1 .282
    85-86: 0.9-3.3 .282
    86-87: 1.4-4.7 .301
    87-88: 1.6-5.0 .316
    88-89: 2.1-6.6 .323
    89-90: 2.2-6.6 .331
    90-91: 2.3-7.1 .320
    91-92: 2.5-7.6 .331
    92-93: 3.0-9.0 .336
    93-94: 3.3-9.9 .333
    94-95: 5.5-15.3 .359 (line moved in)
    95-96: 5.9-16.0 .367 (line moved in)
    96-97: 6.0-16.8 .360 (line moved in)
    97-98: 4.4-12.7 .346
    98-99: 4.5-13.2 .339
    99-00: 4.8-13.7 .353
    00-01: 4.8-13.7 .354
    01-02: 5.2-14.7 .354
    02-03: 5.1-14.7 .349
    03-04: 5.2-14.9 .347
    04-05: 5.6-15.8 .356
    05-06: 5.7-16.0 .358
    06-07: 6.1-16.9 .358
    07-08: 6.5-18.1 .362
    08-09: 6.6-18.1 .367
To update a comparison we ran last season, in 1985-86, Michael Cooper ranked 7th with a percentage of .387; in 2008-09, he would have ranked 58th with that mark.

Isiah Thomas ranked 19th that season with a percentage of .309. In 2008-09, that would place Zeke 125th, ahead of just six players who qualified for the league leaders (including Baron Davis and his shameful .302 mark).

We said it last year, and we'll reiterate it now: Today's players are the greatest outside shooters in the history of basketball, period.

3. Free-throw shooting at a near all-time high.
Foul shooting was up to .771 in '08-09, second-best in NBA history, just a fraction behind the .771 mark in 1973-74.

This year's .771 was somewhat of a surprise, considering the percentage had been .755, .752, and .745 in the last three seasons, and had not even been above .759 since 1990-91.

The individual FT% marks were incredibly impressive as well, led by Jose Calderon's staggering .981, which shattered Calvin Murphy's single-season record of .958.

Not far behind were Ray Allen (.952, 4th best ever) and Steve Nash (.933, 15th best ever). Chauncey Billups (.913) and Mo Williams (.912) were also above 90%.

4. Field-goal efficiency at an all-time high.
Finally, field-goal percentage was up slightly, from .457 last year to .459 in '08-09, the highest FG% number since .462 in 1995-96.

Of course, with the proliferation of three-point attempts in today's game, Effective Field-Goal Percentage (i.e., granting an extra .5 FG made for each three-point shot made, to account for how many points are scored per field-goal attempt) is an increasingly valuable metric - a more accurate measure of field-goal shooting than raw FG%.

Effective Field-Goal Percentage was up from a record .497 in '07-08 to a new record of .500 in '08-09.

No matter how you slice it, shooting in the NBA was better than ever in 2008-09.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

2009 NBA Playoffs Predictions: Lakers Over Cavs

It's the day of the Playoffs / Wow-wow-wow. No surprises here, folks. We had it in our preseason predictions in this space back in October, and we're sticking with it now: Lakers over Cavs in the NBA Finals.

Certainly, the KG and Ginobili injuries have taken a little starch, suspense and excitement out of the opening of the playoffs. While we're looking forward to seeing the return of Blazermania, watching D-Wade and CP3 for at least a couple weeks more, with the prospect of some compelling potential second-round matchups in Cavs v. Heat and Lakers v. either Blazers or Rockets, we imagine this year's postseason is going to be a rather mundane affair until the potentially enormous payoff of a Kobe-LeBron Finals, the biggest collision of superstars since the 1993 Bulls-Suns Finals, when Air Jordan met Sir Charles. The 131 combined wins for the Cavs (66) and Lakers (65) would also be the most for two Finals teams since the Bulls (69) met the Jazz (64) in 1997.

Without further ado, and for the record, here are our full playoff predictions:

First Round: Cavs in 4, Celtics in 7, Magic in 6, Heat in 6
Conf Semis: Cavs over Heat in 5, Magic over Celtics in 6
Conf Finals: Cavs over Magic in 5

First Round: Lakers in 5, Nuggets in 6, Mavs in 6, Blazers in 7
Conf Semis: Lakers over Blazers in 7, Nuggets over Mavs in 6
Conf Finals: Lakers over Nuggets in 5

NBA Finals: Lakers over Cavs in 6

It's Playoff time, baby. Let's get it on.

Friday, April 17, 2009

More 2008-09 NBA Awards, Starring Crazy Stan Van Gundy, Derrick Rose, and Dwight Howard

Earlier this week, we handed out our MVP award to LeBron James. Here are our thoughts on other '08-09 postseason awards.

1. Stan Van Gundy, Orlando
2. Mike Brown, Cleveland
3. Nate McMillan, Portland
4. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio
5. Doc Rivers, Boston

Stan Van Gundy wins for us, as we don't think that this Orlando team had any business winning 59 games this season, and most notably, we find it truly shocking that the Magic were no. 1 in the league in defensive efficiency with their personnel, including forwards Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis, who was one of the key elements of a Sonics team that was considered to be an historically bad defensive team in 2005-06. Also, Orlando and SVG dealt with the midseason loss of its second All-Star as if it were barely a speed bump, integrating a new player in a fairly seamless fashion.

We certainly think that Stan wrung every ounce of success that he could out of this ballclub, but we wonder at what cost. Pretty much every time we saw a clip of a miked-up Magic huddle on a national TV game, we started laughing. Every time, no matter the situation, Stan was manic, screaming and gesticulating wildly. Every single time, even during the middle of one of Orlando's signature wins of the season, a 116-87 thrashing of the league's top team, Cleveland, there was Stan, frantically yelling himself hoarse in the TO's, despite huge leads.

It drove *us* crazy to watch, and we only had to see a few snippets a handful of times a year. We have to think it drove the Magic players a little nuts to deal with this all day, every day over the course of an 82-game season. Dwight Howard confirmed as much in taking questions from fans on his blog recently:
    QUESTION: How do you guys learn to use Coach Van Gundy's screaming as a motivator? Does it not bother you? Don't you get sick of it? — Omar DaShiki

    DWIGHT: Sometimes it’s motivating, but 90 percent of the time it does upset me. But he has a way of saying all of the right things. But when you are on the court, in the heat of battle, you don’t [want] somebody getting on you. But that’s just the way it is with him.
We just wonder if Stan is going to wear out his welcome more quickly than expected in Orlando. Jerry Sloan and Gregg Popovich have proven that you can have extended NBA coaching careers while being tough and harsh and blunt with players at times, but even those guys seem to pick their spots. There's a constant urgency with Stan that seems more likely to lead to player burnout, though you can't argue with his remarkable results with the Orlando defense that his style begat in '08-09.

Mike Brown also had a team that didn't seem to have the horses to win as many as it did (66), even though he does have a thoroughbred for all time. He gets credit for expanding the offensive repertoire of his club while not sacrificing any of its defensive prowess.

Nate "Sarge" McMillan gets credit for leading the youngest team in "effective age" to win 50+ games in the last 30 years, for turning in one of the best seasons in the league with the second-youngest playing rotation - that's not supposed to happen.

Gregg Popovich navigated rough waters of injuries, and what has to be one of the least-talented rosters in the league 4 through 15, to lead San Antonio to one of the top five records in the league. The Spurs won several games thanks to last-second heroics, often due to perfectly drawn up and executed plays (see the Finley shot on Wednesday). No one is better at calling plays in the huddle at crunch time, and it paid off more than ever this year.

Doc Rivers somehow got 62 wins out of a team that played the last quarter of the season without its heart and soul, and dealt with injuries to other key players in the rotation as well.

1. Derrick Rose, Chicago
2. Brook Lopez, New Jersey
3. Kevin Love, Minnesota
4. Marc Gasol, Memphis
5. Michael Beasley, Miami

Derrick Rose tops an outstanding rookie class after averaging a 17-4-6 as the floor leader for a 41-41 playoff team. He gets the call narrowly over Brook Lopez, who was quite frankly much better than we expected him to be after watching him in Pac-10 play. If you'd prefer to swap the Miracle Glass Cleaner from the West Coast (Kevin Love) and Señor Scruffy from Spain (Marc Gasol) in the 3-4 spots, be our guest. It was close, and both players have some similar unselfish skills, to boot.

Russell Westbrook would have been on this list for much of the season, but from March 22 on, he averaged a putrid 12.4 ppg on .346 FG% shooting, as OKC stumbled home to a 4-9 record after showing some promise midseason. Meanwhile, Mike Beasley rumbled home with 20.6 pts and 8.6 rebounds on .553 FG% in April. He is the legitimate no. 2 scoring option for a 43-39 playoff team, and he edges Westbrook for no. 5. We wouldn't be surprised at all if Beasley is top scorer in this class next season, and if he's over 20 ppg.

In fact, after laying low for much of the season, we'd have to say that two of the most celebrated rookies - Beasley and Greg Oden - are among the most intriguing X-factors in the entire playoffs. Be Easy looks increasingly comfortable, to the point where we thought to ourselves, "Geez, you can't really stop the guy from scoring when he's on" in watching him a couple times in April. He attacks in a smooth and varied fashion on the offensive end.

Meanwhile, Oden also seemed to be gaining strength and confidence over the course of the season. He was one of the most productive rookies per minute, but the trick, of course, was keeping him on the court, either due to health or fouls. Now, he could be a pivotal factor in the postseason, as Portland matches up against Yao and the Rockets and then, if they advance, the Lakers' long frontline. If Oden is able to step up, and stay on the court... man, Portland could really be a handful for the Lakers.

Eric Gordon, Rudy Fernandez, and O.J. Mayo were among others who merited consideration in this shockingly deep class of rooks. And, as a side note, within an outstanding rookie class, it was an especially good year for Pac-10 rookies, as B. Lopez, Love, Westbrook and Mayo were among the best in the class, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute was one of the most pleasant surprises.

1. Dwight Howard, Orlando
2. LeBron James, Cleveland
3. Ron Artest, Houston
4. Kevin Garnett, Boston
5. Tim Duncan, San Antonio

Dwight Howard was an easy choice as the DPoY, as the anchor and indomitable presence at the back of the league's top defense. LeBron James finally harnessed his all-time great athleticism on the defensive end, and man, it was kind of scary. At his best, he roamed the court in a Pippenesque manner, and this is with more of a Karl Malone body. Scary. Two of the most diametrically opposed personalities in the league, Ron Artest and Shane Battier, are the top perimeter defensive tandem in the league. Whatever works. Ron-Ron brought the crazy in a good way this season, mostly, and that's about all you can ask for with him.

We can't leave Kevin Garnett off the list even though he missed a quarter of the season. The Celtics were still easily the best defensive team in the league when he was on the floor, and KG was still the dominant defensive player, and defense was still a huge key to Boston's 27-2 start, which is what carried them to the no. 2 seed. As easy a choice as Howard was, we're certain that Garnett would have been our DPoY had he played a bit closer to 82. Let's hope that KG's mysterious knee problems don't mean that his days as a defensive superstar are permanently over.

Tim Duncan's knee problems caused him to slip out of his perennial ranking in our top 2, but he was still the anchor of a San Antonio defense that rated no. 6 in the league, and does not have terribly impressive personnel surrounding him, especially with Bruce Bowen declining out of the rotation.

If you want some proper All-Defensive Teams, sub in Rajon Rondo at guard with the top four above, and then make this the Second Team:
    G Chris Paul
    G Dwyane Wade
    F Shane Battier
    F Tim Duncan
    C Emeka Okafor
1. Jason Terry, Dallas
2. Lamar Odom, LA Lakers
3. Travis Outlaw, Portland
4. Nate Robinson, New York
5. Andrei Kirilenko, Utah

We strongly support the objective analysis movement in basketball, but the Sixth Man Award is one where we tend to go by feel a little bit, with so many guys lumped in a similar range of PERs. That said, The Jet was an easy choice with his efficient 19.6 ppg and 19.35 PER off the pine as a Dallas stalwart.

Lamar Odom's numbers were solid, and we think they would have been much more impressive numbers if he wasn't surrounded by so much talent. He was a true glue guy for a 65-17 team as an unselfish force on both ends. Travis Outlaw is a killer in the clutch - Portland's true no. 2 option in fourth quarters. At a certain point, Nate Robinson's numbers cannot be denied, although we think they're inflated a little by SSoL ball, but geez, you gotta respect a 5-7 guy who averages 4 reb in 30 mpg, among other things, no? Andrei Kirilenko was an underrated presence, especially on defense, and the Jazz really struggled when he was out of the lineup.

1. Rajon Rondo, Boston
2. Nene, Denver
3. Devin Harris, New Jersey

We'd rather that this award didn't exist, as it's rather hard to define, and somewhat pointless, but we'll play along. We had Rajon Rondo tied for 15 on our MVP ranking, on our All-Defensive First Team, and just missing our All-NBA third team. We just think that that's fairly shocking and remarkable progress for the young guard.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Two Shots

Here are the final standings in the Western Conference:
    1. LAL 65-17
    2. DEN 54-28
    3. SAS 54-28
    4. POR 54-28
    5. HOU 53-29
    6. DAL 50-32
    7. NOH 49-33
    8. UTH 48-34
Let's take a look at two shots from the start and the end of the season.

Nov. 6: Brandon Roy lofts a miracle 30-footer that gives Portland a 101-99 win over Houston in OT:

If Roy misses that prayer, Houston would have home-court advantage instead of Portland. Instead, Portland is the 4 and Houston is the 5. Something to remember if this series goes 7, as it well could.

Apr. 15: Last night, Michael Finley comes off of a Tim Duncan back screen and buries a contested three to send the game vs. New Orleans into OT, a game the Spurs would eventually win 105-98:

Now, if Finley and the Spurs can't perfectly execute that play, look at what it would have done to the Western Conference seedings (actual seedings in parens):
    1 LAL (1)
    2 DEN (2)
    3 POR (4)
    4 HOU (5)
    5 SAN (3)
    6 NOH (7)
    7 DAL (6)
    8 UTH (8)
Five seeds change, and three out of four matchups are different. On one shot!

San Antonio is living a charmed life right now, with two consecutive last-second saves, not to mention a couple game-saving shots from Roger Mason Jr., and a couple from Tony Parker during the season.

No matter what their experience is, I think that playing San Antonio without Ginobili is still one of the preferred matchups in the West.

As such, I think the Finley shot last night was a huge boost for the Spurs and the Mavs, and a tough blow for the Blazers and the Rockets, who are the two best teams outside the Lakers in the West right now, in my opinion, even though it's quite close.

If *both* of these shots miss, then Houston is a 2 seed instead of a 5.

Obviously, this is a highly arbitrary exercise. The West was so close that dozens of shots could have been selected to make similar mischief. Still, it's just kind of incredible that, out of a 1200+-game season, you could point to, say, 10 last-second shots, and if the results changed, we'd have completely different playoff seedings and matchups.

While we're on the topic, we'd also point out that the March 28 game between Utah and Phoenix - when the Suns rallied from a 21-point deficit in the third, only to blow a 7-point lead with 2 minutes left and lose in OT - proved to be decisive in the race for the 8 spot. If Phoenix had held on, both teams would have ended up 47-35, with the Suns holding a 3-1 edge.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Painted Area's 2008-09 NBA MVP: LeBron James

Last year, our MVP pick of Kevin Garnett required a fair amount of explanation, as we leaned heavily on a subjective rationale which focused in no small part on how much KG meant to Boston's transformation into a defensive juggernaut.

This year, scarcely little argument is necessary: LeBron James has turned in a season for the ages, and is the NBA MVP for '08-09, easily, even in a year when five players turned in legitimate MVP-quality seasons.

Here is how I rate the top 15, with some commentary to follow:
1. LeBron James, Cleveland
2. Dwyane Wade, Miami
3. Chris Paul, New Orleans
4. Kobe Bryant, LA Lakers
5. Dwight Howard, Orlando
6. Tim Duncan, San Antonio
7. Brandon Roy, Portland
8. Yao Ming, Houston
9. Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas
10. Tony Parker, San Antonio
11. Pau Gasol, LA Lakers
12. Chauncey Billups, Denver
13. Deron Williams, Utah
14. Carmelo Anthony, Denver
15. (tie) Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett/Rajon Rondo, Boston

This has been one of the most incredible seasons for individual performances in NBA history. All of the top 5 guys on the list have been truly outstanding, truly MVP-worthy. LeBron had a season for all time. D-Wade turned in one of the best-ever sustained stretches of all-around play after the All-Star break, yet still never had a chance for the MVP. CP3 had one of the best statistical seasons for a point guard ever, yet he's 3rd for me, and will probably finish 5th in the balloting. Kobe was the leader of a 65-17 team and once again the top clutch scorer in the league. Howard was the only star on an improbable 58-win team, and the likely Defensive Player of the Year as the anchor of the league's no. 1 defense.

Statistically, it's been ridiculous, with three guys with PERs over 30, which is unheard of - we're seeing 3 of the top 15 PERs in league history in one season.

It's been my favorite season for individual performances since 1992-93, when the four division winners were led by Jordan, Barkley, Ewing, and Olajuwon, and all four players were at near-peak performance in their careers.

Now, check out the ages of the top players in each season:
Jordan - 29
Barkley - 29
Ewing - 30
Olajuwon - 30

James - 24
Wade - 27
Paul - 23
Bryant - 30
Howard - 23

The point is this: it's only getting better from here. Throw in Brandon Roy and his merry band of under-25s in Portland, and 20-year-old Kevin Durant, and the 2010s are shaping up to be one of the great golden ages of basketball history, in part because it looks increasingly likely that we may have a player take a run at - gulp - the throne of greatest player of all time and, believe me, I didn't think I'd be writing a sentence like this again in my lifetime. It's just an incredibly exciting time to be a basketball fan. Stop pining for the past, the new golden age is here.

66-15, 81/37.7, 28.4/7.6/7.2, .489/.344/.780, 31.75 PER
LeBron James is the only true star player on the best regular-season team in the league - a team which can become the 10th club to win 67+ games and also tie for the best home record ever at 40-1 with a win on Wednesday. James has produced one of the greatest statistical seasons in NBA history, while also transforming himself into a top-tier defender.

While LeBron's season compares, statistically, to some of MJ's best years, I'm just not ready to go there yet with the comparison. I want to see the postseason success, I want to see the all-around excellence sustained over time, I simply need time to adjust and absorb that we may have an heir to the throne coming down the pike.

So for now, I'm going to leave it at this, a comparison that I feel is plenty impressive for the time being: if the Cavs can close out the season with a championship, LeBron's season will likely be the best we've ever seen from a small forward. And yes, what I'm saying is that, with a title, LeBron would have a season better than Larry Bird ever had.

1985-86 was Larry's quintessential year. Consider first that Cleveland is one game away from matching the 67-15/40-1 home records of that Celtics team, probably the greatest single-season team ever.

Here's Larry's stat line:
67-15, 82/38.0, 25.8/9.8/6.8, .496/.423/.896, 25.6 PER

The numbers look comparable overall, but the rather large difference in PER is due to the fact that LeBron's raw numbers are held down because the game is played at a much slower pace than it was a generation ago (fewer opportunities to build up stats), and the Cavs also play at a slow pace relative to the current era. (As I'm sure many of you have seen, Basketball Reference estimated in February that LeBron would be averaging 40.1 pts, 10.3 reb, 10.0 ast if the league played at 1962 pace, the year when Oscar averaged a triple-double, when there were about 35.5 more possessions per game.)

On top of that, with LeBron's development on the defensive end, he is now a much better defender than Bird was.

Of course, Larry had an outstanding postseason as well, here are his numbers:
15-3, 18/42.8, 25.9/9.3/8.2, .517/.411/.927, 23.9 PER

So, LBJ's still got some work to do, but I think that if he's hoisting the Larry O'B come June, it'll go down as the best season ever by a small forward, and that's plenty good enough for now, don't you think?

Here are the numbers for the rest of the top 10:
42-39, 79/38.6, 30.2/5.0/7.5, .491/.317/.765, 30.42 PER
D-Wade was the unofficial MVP of the Olympic basketball competition, and kept right on rolling into '08-09. He spearheaded Miami's 27-game improvement from its dreadful '07-08 campaign. Led the league in scoring, and also went over 100 steals and 100 blocks, the latter an incredible achievement for a 6-4 player.

Post All-Star break stat line was insane:
33.9 pts, 5.2 reb, 8.3 ast, 2.3 stl, .514 FG%, .370 3P%, .807 FT%


49-32, 77/38.4, 22.8/5.5/11.0, .504/.360/.870, 30.08 PER
One of the greatest statistical seasons ever for a point guard, though the assists are inflated a little due to the friendly scorekeepers at home. Led the league in assists and steals (2.78), and is on the cusp of 50 wins with a roster that consists of David West and an ample amount of gar-bage, especially considering how much time was missed due to injury by guys like Chandler and Peja (who wasn't that great when he did play).

We'll also kindly note that CP3 outrebounded Kobe and D-Wade, among other things.

65-17, 82/36.1, 26.8/5.2/4.9, .467/.351/.856, 24.46 PER
I know the Kobe true believers are going to kill me for this, but I don't know what to say. Kobe Bryant is one of the best basketball players I have ever seen, and I think he had an MVP-quality season. It was just a season when we had some historically great seasons.

I think the Lakers are going to win the title, and they are a hugely talented team. They are great because of Kobe *and* because of the trio of long, skilled, agile, unselfish, athletic players known as Gasol, Bynum and Odom. I just saw too many games this year where one member of that triumvirate was the single key player in a win. I saw very few games involving my 1-2-3 MVP picks in which anyone other than those players was the single key player in a win.


58-23, 78/35.9, 20.7/13.9/1.4, .574/.000/.594, 25.45 PER
Narrowly edged out by Kobe for no. 4, mainly because there was such a disparity of production in the clutch.

Still, D-12 had a breakout year on the defensive end as much as anything. He is the likely Defensive Player of the Year, and the clear stud for a Magic club that had no business winning this many games.

53-28, 74/33.6, 19.3/10.6/3.5, .503/.000/.691, 24.39 PER

53-28, 77/37.4, 22.8/4.7/5.2, .481/.381/.823, 24.21 PER


53-28, 76/33.6, 19.6/9.9/1.8, .548/1.000/.866, 22.77 PER

49-32, 80/37.6, 25.8/8.3/2.4, .478/.359/.892, 23.13 PER


53-28, 71/34.0, 21.9/3.1/6.9, .505/.292/.784, 23.42 PER

Monday, April 13, 2009

Nike Hoop Summit Scouting Reports

It's been a nice little hoops weekend getaway to Portland for The Painted Area, as we caught Blazers-Lakers on Friday and the Nike Hoop Summit on Saturday. Here's our report from the Hoop Summit, which matched up 10 of the best high-school seniors in the U.S. against 10 top under-20 international players.

The Hoop Summit is preferable to the McDonald's All-American Game for scouting purposes because it's an actual competitive game, with both teams really digging in on D as they play to win as much as to impress.

This year's edition was something of a bizarre game, as the U.S. seemed to have a significant edge in talent, yet the World team rode a 36-19 edge in the fourth quarter to a fairly shocking 97-89 win.

It wasn't as if the World team displayed a sterling exhibition of team basketball to overcome superior individual talent. Not to take anything away from the World team - they were tough and scrappy as they came back on multiple occasions when the U.S. seemed poised to pull away - but the Americans actually played pretty well together overall. USA repeatedly jumped out to big leads with its first unit, only to see the second team give them up, keeping the World alive for its big fourth quarter push.

The U.S. was done in by a huge 48-29 World advantage on the boards and a big disparity at the foul line [23-33 (70%) for the World vs. 7-16 (44%) for the U.S.]. I actually thought that U.S. coach John Olive contributed to the loss as much as anyone, with poor lineup management. He often went small - at one key stretch in the fourth quarter, he had 3 guards who were about 6-3, a 6-6 forward, and one 6-10 big, while the World was going 6-9 / 6-11 / 7-0 up front. Olive was certainly outcoached by Aussie Rob Beveridge, the dean of Hoop Summit coaches, who scored his first Summit victory in five tries. We should, however, note that the World team did have significantly more practice time than the U.S.

Certainly, the USA bigs did not distinguish themselves, either on the boards or on D in general (more on that below), but a good part of the big rebounding disparity was simply due to being considerably outsized.

OK, enough preamble - let's get to our scouting reports:

John Wall (6-3 PG, Undecided) was the unquestioned star of the evening as he turned in a spectacular performance en route to 13 points, 11 assists and 5 steals.

This highlight package features several Wall beauties (he's #11), including a dunk at the :15 mark that was the play of the game for me, as he showed superior athletic ability to have the body control to evade a defender in mid-air and then also to have the explosion to still be able to finish the play with a dunk at 6-3. Unfortunately, the camera angle here doesn't fully do the play justice:

Wall was close to the complete package, highlighted by his ability to deliver assists that were at once both flashy and fundamentally sound decisions. He was able to get into the lane at will - often with spectacular, spinning moves - and he was able to finish at the rim from all angles, and impressively able to do so even after drawing contact.

Overall, Wall displayed good basketball IQ and court vision. Didn't see much of his outside shot (he was 0-2 on 3's), and it's reported to be streaky, but his shooting form seemed pretty good overall. Also not sure if he has much of a floater at present. My other quibble would be that he held the ball a bit too long a couple times, bringing the USA offense to a standstill, but that's correctable.

Defensively, Wall was outstanding. He and Avery Bradley made life miserable for the World guards with relentless ball pressure all night long.

It wouldn't surprise me one bit if we see John Wall take home the NBA Rookie of the Year Award in 2010-11. We try to keep a level head here when it comes to player projections, but we honestly don't think it's a stretch to say that Wall is potentially somewhere between Chris Paul and Derrick Rose as a prospect. He certainly has the speed and athleticism, and while he's not as strong as Rose, we'd say he has better court vision, more like CP3. Keep in mind, we're not trying to say he's as good as CP3 - not on a day when the man went 31-9-17 - let's just say the kid's a hell of a prospect.

Avery Bradley (6-3 G, Texas) has shot up the Class of 2009 rankings ever since his impressive showings last summer, and one could see why last night in Portland. He is a fundamentally sound ballplayer all the way around.

Bradley had 21 pts on 10-14 FG, and 3 reb. He's known as an outstanding two-way player, and as mentioned above, the D was on display last night. His defensive stats were not impressive - just 1 block and 0 steals - but he forced TOs and generally disrupted the World guards with his excellent on-the-ball defense.

Bradley also got out on the break and showed some of the athleticism which helped him win the slam dunk contest at the McDonald's game.

My main concern with Bradley's long-term prospects is that he is listed as an SG even though he is just 6-3. However, he has a good basketball IQ and his unselfishness is widely considered to be one of his best strengths, so I think there's a good chance he can make the move to PG, which I think he will need to do in order to thrive in the league.

He's really more of a combo guard than a straight 2 right now, so I don't think it'll be much of a stretch for him. He did only have 1 ast (and 0 TO's), but I think that's partially a function of the fact that Wall was handling the playmaking when he was on the floor. All in all, Bradley's an impressive prospect.

Xavier Henry (6-6 SF, Undecided) put up the Michael Redd-like line of 22 pts, 1 reb, 1 ast with his 7-12 FG consisting of 6-11 from three-point land. Kid's got a beautiful lefty stroke, but he didn't provide much else.

Renardo Sidney (6-10 PF, USC) was the same enigmatic presence we saw last year at the King Holiday Hoopfest in Seattle. A couple times he showed glimpses of his superior gifts, such as when he led the break all the way down the court and made the assist - at 6-10/260, mind you - and also when he stripped the ball away from a World player in the lane and had the awareness to immediately loft out a perfect outlet pass which led to an easy fast-break bucket.

In Sidney's 21 minutes, he had impressive numbers of 4 ast, 3 stl and 1 blk. The problem was that he contributed just 2 rebounds. He was a complete non-factor in the lane on D and on the boards while the World racked up 25 offensive rebounds. Sidney's non-presence inside was frankly a big reason the U.S. lost the ballgame. Shooting numbers of 2-8 FG, 0-2 3PT, 2-4 FT were not impressive, either. Would be unstoppable if he developed a disciplined low-post game - especially with his court vision - but he prefers to wander aimlessly. So much talent, but it's largely being wasted right now.

DeMarcus Cousins (6-10 F-C, Kentucky) and Abdul Gaddy (6-3 PG, Washington) both had poor games which contributed to the USA loss. Cousins scored 4 pts on just 1-6 FG and 2-4 FT in 18 mins. He was part of the problem on the boards - he did have 5 rebounds, but only 1 was on the defensive end. Did contribute 4 ast, 2 stl and a block.

Gaddy looked discombobulated in his 13 minutes. His shot was way off (he was 1-3 FG / 1-2 3PT / 0-2 FT) and he uncharacteristically made some bad decisions (he had 0 ast/1 TO). I don't have +/- available on the box score, but I'd imagine it was well in the negative for both these guys. We should note that Gaddy was easily the youngest player in the game, having just turned 17 in January.

John Henson (6-10 SF, North Carolina) is a stringbean of a guy at 6-10/195, with very long arms. Good athleticism and skills - he had 10 pts, 9 reb, 2 blk in 17 minutes. But as with the rest of Team USA, he wasn't enough of a presence on the defensive boards, as he had just 3. Certainly not a physical presence inside, but we can see why he's considered one of the top 10 in the class.

Milan Macvan (6-8 PF, Serbia) was the man for the World team, compiling a line of 23 points, 14 rebounds and 6 assists in 33 minutes, throwing in two threes to boot, including a big one down the stretch. The big guy (listed at 6-8/258) seemed to be having a great time doing it, too, as he was the clear team leader and seemed to have a smile on his face most of the time.

I have to say I honestly don't know what to make of Macvan as an NBA prospect. He's been described as a less-athletic Kevin Love, and that makes some sense - he certainly has a variety of skills and good court vision, as his threes and assists would attest. Macvan just really seemed to struggle inside against the athleticism of the U.S players - he was reluctant to go up with a point-blank shot inside on more than one occasion - but he had racked up a big stat line by the end of the night.

I think Macvan was aided by the poor interior defense from the U.S., which left him open at the rim a few times, but I still have to respect the performance. Still, if you wanted to ask me for a comparison, I'd have to throw out a name like Nikola Vujcic, a skilled Croatian center who has had a distinguished career in the Euroleague, but is just not athletic enough to make it in the league.

Donatas Motiejunas (7-0 F, Lithuania) was widely considered to be the best NBA prospect on the World team, as he currently sits at number 14 on Chad Ford's Big Board for the 2009 Draft. Motiejunas is a rail-thin forward (7-0/220) who was a strong contributor to the World win with 21 pts, 8 rebs, 3 ast in 29 minutes.

For a seven-footer, Motiejunas has an impressive ability to score in a variety of ways inside and out - he can drive, he has a nice low-post game, he can play with either hand, he was 10-14 at the line, and he even knocked in a three. The obvious comparison is to Dirk, though, as others have noted, I'd say Motiejunas has a more promising low-post game, but is not nearly as a good of a pure shooter.

I would say that he seemed to struggle a bit with the athleticism of the U.S. team in terms of the physicality - he only converted 5-15 FG. His scouting report on mentions that he has poor body language on court at times, and we saw some of that last night.

Among the things Motiejunas has going for him is that he is only 18 - he's an advanced player for that age. I could definitely see him sneaking into the late lottery if he enters this year's draft, but that's partially because it's such a weak draft. Nice prospect, though I don't really see him as a star player in the NBA, and he needs to get stronger.

Kevin Seraphin (6-9 PF, France) was one of the keys to the World comeback, as he contributed 8 points, 9 rebounds and 4 blocks in just 22 minutes. Seraphin is a very nice athlete at 6-9 with a 7-3 wingspan. He keyed an important sequence in the fourth quarter, when he blocked Cousins inside, scored on a dunk on the other end, and then blocked Wall on the next possession. Not a skilled player, needs to develop in that regard to become a legitimate prospect.

Edwin Jackson (6-2 PG, France) was considered to be one of the better prospects on the World team, but man, he was just swallowed whole by the intense ball pressure that Wall and Bradley put on him. He was eaten alive. Jackson had a poor game, with just 5 pts, 4 reb, 4 ast, 5 TOs on just 2-7 FG. Wall and Bradley are on a completely different level.

Tomislav Zubcic (6-11 F, Croatia) also had a nice game with 17 pts, 5 reb, 2 ast, 2 blk in 19 minutes, also went 8-9 at the line. Classic skilled, skinny Euro big man who prefers to do his damage from the perimeter.

Here's more info on the Nike Hoop Summit:

- Blazers Edge: Wide-ranging coverage, including some great photography

- Draft Express: Detailed game recap

- Draft Express: Practice scouting reports on the U.S. team

- Draft Express: Practice scouting reports on the World team

- Complete game video, headlines, and rosters

Also, here's a complete highlight package from

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Musings on Seattle and New York Prospects

Last fall, we spotlighted our area of residence as we pointed out that the Seattle-Tacoma area was the home to players rated no. 1 in the country in the high-school classes of both 2010 and 2011 at that time.

Amazingly, the hits just keep on coming for a region which is increasingly one of the premier hotbeds for producing basketball talent.

The season-ending ESPNU 100 for the Class of 2009 was released on today, and the new no. 1 player is Avery Bradley, who attended the somewhat questionable "high school" called Findlay Prep outside Las Vegas this year.

Bradley, a 6-3 guard and an excellent two-way player who is headed to Texas, is a Tacoma native who teamed with fellow McDonald's All-American Abdul Gaddy at Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma prior to this year.

That means that the Seattle-Tacoma area is home to the following players in the ESPNU rankings:
- Class of 2009: No. 1 - Avery Bradley, 6-3/G (Tacoma/Findlay Prep/Bellarmine Prep)
- Class of 2010: No. 2 - Josh Smith, 6-9/C (Covington/Kentwood H.S.)
- Class of 2011: No. 2 - Tony Wroten, 6-5/G (Seattle/Garfield H.S.)

It's a remarkable achievement for the 15th-biggest market in the U.S. - consider that there are zero New York City players in the top 10s of the 2009-11 classes (the no. 1 player in '11, Michael Gilchrist is from Elizabeth, NJ), and just two L.A. players ('09's Renardo Sidney (no. 7) and Jordan Hamilton (no. 8)).

And, if that's not enough, the Seattle-Tacoma area is also now famously home to the no. 1 player in the class of 2014, Allonzo Trier of Federal Way, he of the celebrated cover story in the New York Times Magazine last month.

Of course, that one's to be taken with a grain of salt, due not just to the ridiculousness of ranking 7th-graders, but also because the ranking has been bestowed by Clark Francis of Hoop Scoop, who seems to get blinded by hype - currently he rates Lance Stephenson no. 1 in the class of '09 (more on him below), and he was quoted in the Trier story as saying, "Brandon [Jennings] had to be the best player all the way through, just like LeBron James, Kevin Garnett and Sebastian Telfair. That's the challenge. How do you stay up there?" Huh? Which of those three players doesn't belong. Hint: it's the overhyped New Yorker, who was not better than Dwight Howard in the class of 2004, not even close.

Back in February, we asked "What Happened to the NYC Ballplayer?" as we noted that what New York basketball produces more than anything else in this era is hype, based on a reputation which no longer has any basis in reality, especially considering that there are exactly 0 NYC All-Stars in the league, compared to the 2 NYC-bred players who were asked to stay away from their teams all season in Marbury and Tinsley.

The trail of ridiculously over-hyped NYC players includes Felipe Lopez, Lenny Cooke and the most over-hyped high-school player of the last 25 years, Sebastian Telfair. Now it appears that we may have another Lincoln High product to add to the list in Lance Stephenson.

Remarkably, Stephenson is currently featured on the covers of both SLAM and Dime magazines, and was the subject of a front-page "The Bonus" feature recently on

Stephenson is clearly a talented player, but you know what? So is Xavier Henry, and so is DeMarcus Cousins, and so is Derrick Favors, and so is John Wall, and so is Avery Bradley. There is no single standout superstar player in this class right now. [Correction: After watching the Hoop Summit, I'd like to say that there is a standout superstar prospect in this class, and it's John Wall.]

Let's be clear here: the only reason that Stephenson is being singled out to draw this type of attention and hype is because he is from New York City. The ONLY reason.

The evidence from respected analysts such as DraftExpress is that Stephenson seems poised to waste away his talent and follow in the recent tradition of New York head cases. ESPNU has him all the way down to no. 12 in its year-end list of prospects for the Class of '09.

When can we get over the outdated idea that there is something inherently special about New York players? If anything, they are fundamentally *unprepared* for higher levels of competition in this day and age. There used to be something uniquely savvy and street-smart about the NYC player. No more. Now, top New York players seem to be leading symbols of everything that is wrong with the player-development system in the U.S., with summer teams run amok.

We're sorry, SLAM, we love you, but we are going to need to see the evidence before we believe all this hokum. We've seen this Lincoln High movie before. Don't believe the hype.

Since we're talking player development and Seattle and New York, we just wanted to touch upon the Allonzo Trier story, which we haven't previously commented on.

We thought the story was quite well done overall, and that author Michael Sokolove was not overly judgmental. We think it's interesting that one's first instinct is to say, "Oh my god, they're ranking 6th graders! What is the world coming to?!" But the portrait of Trier was a lot more nuanced - he really comes across as a kid who just really wants to be a great player and absolutely works his butt off, of his own motivation rather than being pushed in a Marinovichian fashion.

He just comes off as an impressive kid, and how can you really complain, other than to say (from a paternalistic standpoint, I might add) that it's all good as long as he keeps up with schoolwork, so as not to put all his bags in the one basket of his basketball dreams. Put it this way: there are a lot of kids worth worrying about in this country, but given his demonstrated work ethic, Allonzo Trier will probably be just fine, one way or another, even if he never makes it to the league someday.

Related to what we were discussing above, this was one of the more disheartening elements of the story to me:
    [Mom] Marcie herself has become immersed in grass-roots-basketball culture. She worries that her son does not encounter sufficient challenges close to home, expresses her opinions to his coaches and is open to opportunities for him beyond Seattle. In recent years, several players who have come through Trier’s A.A.U. program, Seattle Rotary Style, have gone on to the N.B.A. But Daryll Hennings, the senior athletic director at the Rotary Boys and Girls Club, which sponsors the team, told me that Trier is flying at a higher altitude — traveling more, competing for a greater number of teams, mixing with more out-of-town coaches and promoters, creating more buzz. "Every year, everything gets bigger, the whole scene, and he’s caught up in it," Hennings said.

    In just three months last summer, Trier flew on four separate occasions to the East Coast to play in events in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia — in addition to making shorter excursions to Los Angeles and San Diego. When I was with him in January, his mother took a call from a coach in Southern California who wanted to fly him down for a tournament the following weekend. (She declined; he was already committed to play in Texas one week after that.)

    The father of a top player in New York, Jerron Love, had also been in touch and was hoping to lure Trier to a new team, one that would not practice together but rendezvous in various cities for big tournaments.
Ms. Trier seems to be looking for something bigger and better, yet the irony is that the Seattle AAU scene is actually one of the healthiest places for her son to be b/c they are focused on teaching the kids how to play basketball first and foremost, rather than looking to attach themselves to and feed the young ego of a meal ticket who can potentially bring them riches down the road.

This is a big reason why there is a disproportionately large number of Seattle kids in the league (with more coming) - they spend their summers being coached and working to improve their games, whereas so many summer programs are really just vehicles for glorified pickup games.

We're not breaking news here - there's been national coverage lauding the quality of the player-development programs in the Seattle area on both and

Among the many people who deserve credit for building these programs is George Karl, who helped get the program rolling when he was the Sonics head coach in the mid-90s - he even coached some practices of top area high-school players back in the '90s.

Allonzo Trier would not only be just fine in the Seattle program, but he is probably actually best served to continue to develop his game within the programs of the 2-0-6.

We attended a state quarterfinal game last month between Garfield from Seattle (featuring Tony Wroten from the Class of '11, as noted above) and Gonzaga Prep from Spokane, whose point guard was David Stockton, son of John, who played at the same school 30 years ago.

It was just amusing to look across the court and see one of the greatest point guards who has ever lived - who was about to be selected to enter the Hall of Fame - just standing and cheering and looking like any of thousands or millions of dads cheering on their kids at high-school basketball games. Man, we're getting old here at TPA.