Friday, June 26, 2009

2009 NBA Draft Musings

Well, I don't know that any NBA championships of the 2010s or beyond were decided last night, but it was a pretty fun evening nonetheless.

It's so hard to even determine any winners and losers, when the final destinations of key players like Ricky Rubio and Stephen Curry still seem to be up in the air.

Here are some of our random musings from NBA Draft Night 2009:

- It was a great night for kids from Southern California. Three top 10 picks hail from L.A. (Harden, DeRozan, Jennings) and four more Southland products were picked in the first 31 (Daye - 15, Holiday - 17, Collison - 21, Pendergraph - 31).

- Staying on the West Coast tip, it was the second consecutive strong Draft night for the Pac-10, which produced 3 of the top 9 picks, and 7 of the top 31. This is after the conference dominated the 2008 Draft class with 5 of the top 11 (Mayo, Westbrook, Love, B. Lopez, Bayless) and 7 of the top 21, not to mention second-round steal Luc Mbah a Moute.

- The ACC actually led the way in terms of first-round picks by major conference, even though the first ACC player was not picked until 12 (Henderson):
    ACC: 7
    Pac-10: 6
    Big East: 4
    Big 12: 2
    Big Ten: 1
    SEC: 0
The Big East gets extra credit for having 4 of the first 7 guys picked in the second round.

What a disaster for the Big Ten, which did not see a player selected until project center B.J. Mullens at 24, and the SEC, which did not have a player selected until 41 (Jodie Meeks)!

- My gut is that the story of this draft in five years time may well be about how many teams passed up point guards Ricky Rubio, Brandon Jennings, and Ty Lawson, all of whom went too low, in my opinion.

I have Rubio rated as the no. 2 prospect, even with concerns about his ability to score, and I think that Oklahoma City and Sacramento may regret passing on him down the road (I'm excluding Memphis and Washington from the trail of tears only because my sense is that Rubio would have used his leverage to go elsewhere, as I believe he'll do now).

I respect the basketball minds of Sam Presti and Kevin Pelton as much as anyone's, so it makes me nervous when I differ with them, but I have to say I'm not exceptionally high on James Harden.

I watched Harden play three times: vs. Washington, in the disastrous NCAA Tournament loss to Syracuse, and then recently in a game vs. Arizona that I had saved up on the DVR, mainly because I wanted to give the guy another chance.

There's a lot I appreciate about Harden: strength, wingspan, ability to draw fouls, court vision. I understand where the Brandon Roy comparisons come from, in terms of being guys a little under the radar from the Pac-10 with sneaky athleticism and good basketball IQ in general. But on a certain level, I don't get the comparisons at all. Harden is a much less efficient player than Roy across the board. On top of that, Roy has always been such an assertive player who's controlled his team's offensive decisions, whereas Harden has been much more passive in the games I watched.

He did not step up and take charge in any of the three games I saw, even though ASU desperately needed him to do so each time - he just kind of drifted through the games offensively. In the Arizona game, his numbers looked good: 7-12 FG, including 3-6 3PT, but all 3 threes were created by others, wide-open shots because of a brain-dead Arizona zone, and another was an easy dunk inside off of a nice assist. Harden didn't really create any offense for himself, though he did create some open shots for others. I will note that he did rebound and pass well when I saw him, though he is also a high-TO player - Arizona knocked the ball out of his hands on several occasions.

Harden's defense was somewhat amusing to me. For all the talk about how no one's been able to see Brandon Jennings play, every time I watched him for Roma, I saw a guy who got out and pressured the ball defensively, scrapping against smart guards in pick-and-rolls and pro-style sets.

Meanwhile, I watched Harden basically stand on the elbow all day in Arizona State's zone - there were several possessions against Arizona where he literally did not move from one spot! I feel like I have essentially no information about Harden's defensive ability, though he does seem to get his hands on a lot of balls, aided by his wingspan.

Ultimately, while Harden has some definite plusses to his game, I have a hard time seeing him as too much more than Just A Guy as an NBA shooting guard. We'll see.

I would have gone with Rubio and tried to make it work with Westbrook. If nothing else, those guys - along with Thabo Sefolosha - had the potential to be a hugely disruptive defensive force on the perimeter. And geez, Kevin Durant's so good that he could still probably average 30 going 1-on-3 with no shooters to space the floor!

But, I don't know, as a Seattle resident who loves the game, I think that a Rubio-Durant combo in OKC might have driven me to weep, so it's probably for the best.

Oh, and, I also watched the UA-ASU game to get another look at Jordan Hill. Without getting too deep into it, he's another guy who has some interesting abilities but seems pretty much like Just A Guy on the NBA level - New York would have been better served with Jennings, Lawson or others.

- As far as Sacramento... man, so close to a great night. I really liked the trade which brought them Sergio Rodriguez for an exchange of the 31/38 picks. I know that the Portland management and fan base is down on the guy at this point, but he still just turned 23 and was 7th in the league in assists per minute last season. I realize that there are some significant weaknesses in terms of shooting, defense and turnovers, but I still think there's a world of potential here, which may be unleashed by changing coaches from Sarge McMillan to Paul Westphal. Sergio's game is just not suited for the coach who plays at the slowest pace in the league.

Still, even though I like Evans and Casspi, I would have preferred Rubio and Blair for Sac. In any event, 10 years after White Chocolate hit Sacto, it's time for some Spanish Chocolate. If Serge and Tyreke can get things going, this team has some serious late-night League Pass potential if nothing else, which can hopefully start to draw the league's best fans back to Arco.

- I think our other thoughts about the best value picks of the night are consistent with others: certainly DeJuan Blair for San Antonio at 37 and Lawson to Denver at 18. And I also like Jennings to Milwaukee at 10. Also liked Calathes to Dallas and Green to Cleveland down in the second round.

We thought that Portland and Houston really missed a golden opportunity to grab Blair for absolutely no risk at the top of the second round. But those are two of the savviest front offices around, and they certainly saw that the numbers favored Blair, so geez Louise, that guy's MRIs must be more disturbing to look at than the Abu Ghraib photos! There just doesn't seem like another good explanation.

- One comment on the Shaq-to-Cleveland trade is that it seems to have been made specifically to counter Orlando, and most of the analysis has focused on this angle, yet the irony is that this is a team that built itself to counter Boston last year - and did so quite well! Only problem, of course, is that they didn't play Boston in the end. Cue the sad trombone. It's hard to plan for one playoff opponent because often it just don't work out like that.

- One media note: due to the early start time on the West Coast, we watched the draft via DVR, a couple hours behind, so we couldn't follow along on the internet. The increasing disparity and disconnect between the amount of information available on television and the internet in all categories - news, entertainment, sports - is increasingly striking. I logged on after the Draft and it was like I had entered a different world. For example, there was no reporting on TV, unless I missed something, about what was ultimately the story of the night: the fact that Rubio and his family had made comments that he was cold to the idea of playing in Minnesota, and that his ultimate destination seemed highly uncertain by night's end.

- The most under-reported story of this Draft cycle - by a Blake Griffin-size margin over the rest of the field - has to be the one that Tom Ziller resurfaced on Fanhouse, about how Tyreke Evans' cousin was sentenced on Tuesday to 9-20 years in prison for a drive-by shooting murder in which Evans was the driver of the car. How on Earth did this one fly so far under the radar in the modern media climate?

- In our Jennings manifesto from earlier this month, we stated that we thought there were five potential stars in this draft class: Griffin, Rubio, Jennings, Evans and DeRozan, with the caveat that DeRozan's range seemed to stretch from Vince Carter to Gerald Green. For the record, we'd like to add Earl Clark and Terrence Williams into the mix to cover our tracks, even though they are probably longer shots along the lines of DeRozan.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

TrueHoop Network Live Blog

Follow all the draft-day action with the marathon TrueHoop Network Live Blog of the 2009 NBA Draft:

Quick Analysis of Sergiy Gladyr

Sergiy Gladyr
MBC Mykolaiv (Ukraine)
6-5 shooting guard
19 Years Old

On Tuesday we took a detailed look at Euro prospect Jonas Jerebko, today we take a look at another Euro, Ukraine's Sergiy Gladyr. Gladyr is a 6-5 shooting guard with nice athletic ability, who was the second leading scorer on MBC Mykolaiv of the Ukrainian League. Sergiy averaged 15.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.4 apg, & 1.5 spg in 29 mins. a game in the Ukraine.

Sergiy is currently projected as a 2nd round prospect, and possibly could have been a 1st-rounder if he had more exposure. Didn't get to see Gladyr play quite as much as I did with Jerebko, so realize this analysis is based on a small sample size.

What makes Gladyr intriguing is his shooting--he's one of the better pure shooters in the draft. His shooting numbers are not overwhelming (36% from 3pt), but he clearly has a sweet-shooting stroke. As opposed to Jerebko, does a great job getting his legs into the shot and shows great balance on his jumper.

Only 19 years old but already shows the ability to drill shots coming off screens. A few times where he pulled the trigger in triple-threat position with a defender in his grill. Overall quick release on his shot. Seems pretty confident in his abilities.

He's not strictly a shooter thanks to his athleticism and good ball-handling. Pretty nice handle where he loves to use his left hand, and has an effective crossover dribble. Looked comfortable playing off the dribble, and showcased solid finishing ability.

Did have some issues when trapped on pick/rolls which led to a handful of turnovers; had some issues in general when a second defender approached him. Seemed to be a little careless with the ball sometimes. Solid rebounder for a 2-guard.

Sergiy is a pretty good athlete by Ukrainian League standards, but how he rates as a NBA athlete is hard to gauge. If he was a Top 10 scorer in the ACB (Spain) or Italy then I'd feel more assured of his potential. But the Ukrainian League is a considerable step down from those domestic leagues. Though, Draft Express said Gladyr's athleticism appears pretty good at the Euro Reebok Camp, so that's encouraging for his NBA future.

Could very well turn into a 2nd-round steal if his athleticism can transfer over, because he might have the most polished offensive skill-set of any 2-guard in the Draft after James Harden.

*****P.S.--Don't forget to clear your day planners to join the True Hoop Network Crue celebrate the Draft Day festivities. The good times begin at 5 pm EST

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Closer Look at Jonas Jerebko

Jonas Jerebko
Angelico Biella (Italian A League)
6-9 SF
22 years old

This year's crop of int'l prospects is pretty thin, and after Ricky Rubio you will likely not see another int'l player taken until the very bottom of the 1st round. Sweden's Jonas Jerebko makes a strong case to be one of the handful of int'l players taken in the 1st round.

This post will take a more in-depth look at Jonas Jerebko, an athletic 6-9 small forward who just finished his '08-'09 season with Angelico Biella of the Italian League. Biella advanced to the Italian semis where they were bounced by emerging Euro power AJ Milano in four games. For the '08-'09 season, Jonas averaged 9 ppg on 50.7% shooting, 5.5 rpg & 1.2 spg in 25 mins. a game.

Got to see a fair amount of Jerebko on tape this season (especially vs. AJ Milano), and think the general consensus of him as late 1st round/early 2nd round material is pretty accurate.

Besides his nice physical tools, his greatest attribute might be his activity on both ends. Not quite the perpetual motion machines that Manu & Rudy are, but brings nice energy for a big 3-man.

Very strong rebounder for a natural small forward, and loves to crash the glass on the offensive end (averaged 2 off rpg) Also, cuts to the basket with purpose and runs the floor well, and will often finish with strong dunks.

Another aspect that makes him enticing to NBA front offices is his defensive acumen. Primarily matched up with former Temple standout David Hawkins in the semi-final series vs. AJ Milano. Did a very commendable job guarding the 6-3 Hawkins on the perimeter. Impressed with his lateral quickness on the defensive end, consistently changed direction pretty well. Never really got burned by the quicker Hawkins.

What holds Jerebko back from being a lottery prospect is his raw offensive skill set; offensive rebounding might be his best offensive skill.

Jonas' jumper is mediocre at best (shot 35% from 3pt.). Main issue is not getting his legs into his spot-up shot. His right elbow flails out a little too much which adds noise to the shot. Also, adds a subtle twist in the hips where his right foot lands out in front of his body on the follow-thru. This might have to do with him not getting his legs properly balanced underneath him. Though, have to say his shooting form is not terrible, and just needs some tweaks as opposed to being totally overhauled.

His ball-handling is very dicey, which makes his ability to create offensively basically non-existent. The few times he did try to go off the dribble, it mostly led to very awkward pull-up shots or unsightly off-balance runners.

In the Biella offense, Jerebko got most of his touches on spot-ups off of ball screens or iso action of the guards. As mentioned before, he does a solid job cutting to the basket and is an effective finisher.

Was a little surprised Jerebko was rarely called upon to post-up vs. AJ Milano, especially with David Hawkins guarding him so frequently. The few post-up opportunities he had were unimpressive.

It was kinda hard to get a read on his low box skills, though supposedly he was showing off some skills at the Euro Reebok Camp a few weeks back. You hope there are some post instincts because if not, you're wasting one of the distinct advantages of being a 6-9 small forward.

In summation, Jonas has the tools to carve out a niche as a reserve combo forward in the League. His combination of athleticism and activity helps him on the glass & on the defensive end. Exactly something NBA teams are looking for at the back end of the 1st round.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Finals Musings: In Praise of Odom, Gasol, Ariza

So, the Lakers have won no. 15 as a franchise, no. 10 in L.A, and Phil Jackson has won a record-setting no. 10 to boot. Congratulations to the Forum Blue & Gold faithful. We examined Kobe Bryant's playoffs in depth last week, so let's take a look at some other Lakers in this post-championship hour.

Pro athletes are often hammered for pursuing money above and beyond all else, including winning.

Let's take a second to remember a key moment in the Lakers' championship season, back in preseason in October when Phil Jackson commented that he wanted Lamar Odom to come off the bench - clearly the best move for the ballclub. Andrew Bynum could play a larger role as a starter, and the versatile Odom was the perfect guy to run the show for the second team, and of course he'd have plenty of opportunity to play with the first unit as well.

A complicating factor was that Odom was due to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of '08-09. He averaged 15.9 - 9.8 - 4.8 in 39.3 minutes in 2006-07 and 14.2 - 10.6 - 3.5 in 37.9 minutes in 2007-08. These are impressive numbers that were sure to go down in lesser minutes off the bench, as they did: Odom averaged 11.3 - 8.2 - 2.6 in 29.7 minutes in 2008-09.

Odom balked at the bench role ever so briefly in October, before accepting it with essentially not a peep of dissatisfaction the rest of the season (though the Bynum injury did get him back into the starting lineup for a good chunk of the season).

By accepting a lesser role, Odom placed the good of the team ahead of his own self-interest in terms of trying to maximize the dollars he could command as a free agent, and that acceptance was a key element of L.A.'s season.

It doesn't always work out like this (hello, Shawn Marion). It's not hard to imagine a situation where a player of Odom's caliber objected to the lesser minutes, and became disruptive enough to either affect his own production negatively or even force a trade.

It is sacrifices like these, up and down the roster, that championships are made of. A key to San Antonio's run has been Manu Ginobili's sacrificing multiple All-Star appearances by accepting a role with lesser minutes, which keep his stats artificially low. And now Odom's acceptance of lesser minutes in a free-agent year has helped put L.A. over the top, and he deserves praise for it.

The irony is that - after performing so well in the Playoffs and becoming a champion - Odom may still command the same amount of money he would have with more minutes/better stats.

Also, did you notice that the dude shot .514 (18-35) from 3-point land for the Playoffs, after hitting on .320 (33-103) for the season and .314 for his career. Not just that, but he was .500 or better in each of L.A.'s four series.

After bearing the brunt of a ton of criticism following L.A.'s loss to Boston in the Finals last season, Pau Gasol has deservedly earned a ton of praise for his play in this year's Finals, in which he averaged 18.6 pts, 9.2 reb, 1.8 blk on .600 FG%. He's also received a lot of credit for his play on the defensive end in the Playoffs, up to and including his work on Dwight Howard in the Finals, again deserved.

All good, but there's one element of the big guy's game that I think has been overlooked: what about the way he runs the fast break?! Multiple times during the season and postseason, we've seen Gasol lead the fast break and finish by both making the correct decision and delivering the pass for an assist. How many 7-0 center-forwards in league history have been able to do this so readily?

Watch the play at the :40 mark from the Game 5 highlight package - an Ariza steal which leads to an Odom-Gasol fast break that Lamar finishes spectacularly off the Pau assist. Think about that: a fast break executed successfully by a 4 man and a 5 man - how many teams have that kind of luxury?

Remember Shannon Brown's big dunk over the Birdman in the Western Conference Finals? Again, facilitated by Gasol leading the break like a textbook point guard:

And of course, there was the play from January that made Chris Webber's season - Gasol's Showtime-worthy through-the-legs / no-look underhanded pass to Ariza against the Jazz:

As massive as the Pau Gasol trade was in leading to tonight's celebrations in Southern California, we also have to wonder if the Lakers win this series had Orlando not traded them Trevor Ariza for Brian Cook and Mo Evans in November, 2007.

Ariza averaged 11 points and 6 rebounds in 37.8 minutes for the series, and was a huge factor in the Lakers' pivotal runs in both Game 4 and Game 5. Beyond that, Ariza's pick-and-roll defense against Hedo Turkoglu was a key to the entire series.

Throughout the playoffs, the versatile combo of Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis caused huge matchup problems, but Ariza and Odom (with some good work by Gasol, as well) proved to be a perfect combo to shut down the Magic forwards. Ariza was especially important in constantly fighting through screens to disrupt the Turkoglu-Howard pick-and-roll which had been so lethal throughout the playoffs. Just having someone who could match up with Hedo was a big advantage for L.A., and it's amazing that the player was one who was essentially given to them by the opposition.

Ariza's outstanding work against the team which had traded him for a song was the final example of how quiet, unsung transactions played fairly pivotal roles, especially in the Western Conference, in a postseason in which it became clear that there really isn't *that* much separating the best NBA team from the 8th-best team right now.

You had Denver thriving with key contributions from Chris Andersen, Dahntay Jones, Anthony Carter and J.R. Smith, all players who were available essentially for nothing at one point. You had New Orleans devastated by a truly atrocious bench, even though solid bench players Brandon Bass, J.R. Smith and the Birdman were all Hornets at one time. You had Houston with Luis Scola and San Antonio without him (not too mention that the Spurs also could have Tiago Splitter and J.R. Smith if not for bad luck, essentially). Change those rosters around based only on the transactions that were largely unheralded at the time, and there would be significant change in the standings.

And all this after a year in which the $50M+ signings of Brand and Baron Davis and Maggette from the previous summer barely made a ripple. Who knows, maybe a big Shaq-to-Cleveland trade would have a decisive impact on next season's result. But maybe it just might be someone signing for $1 million or less come August, too.

At this point, it's really hard to fathom that, 20 months ago, Kobe Bryant's departure from the Lakers seemed like it could be imminent. The guy who was on the spot as much as anyone was Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak. In the next 4 months, Kupchak turned Kwame Brown, Brian Cook, Mo Evans, Javaris Crittenton and Marc Gasol into Pau Gasol and Trevor Ariza, and the rest is Lakers history.

Before the Cleveland Cavaliers overreact to the disappointment of a second-round exit, they should take a deep breath and revisit the Orlando Magic's three-point shooting numbers for the playoffs, keeping in mind that the Magic hit at a .381 clip in the regular season:
    vs. PHI: .346
    vs. BOS: .346
    vs. CLE: .408
    vs. LAL: .330
Now, three-point shooting is not done in a vacuum - defense matters in terms of affecting looks at the arc, and I thought that L.A. did a nice job in 3-point D, starting with their nice work against the Turkoglu/Howard pick-and-roll, spearheaded by Ariza's tough play against Hedo. But the fact remains that the Magic knocked down a ton of open looks against the Cavs that they couldn't buy vs. the C's or the Lakers, and I think that Orlando's relative shooting from downtown really affected the course of all three of those series.

The celebrity-laden crowds at Staples Center for last year's Finals were justifiably criticized for being so lifeless. But tonight's crowd at Amway Arena in Orlando was significantly more pathetic, as it seemed to be comprised of 50% Lakers fans. I can't remember the last time an arena has been taken over by so many opposing fans in the Finals. A really pathetic showing by Magic fans tonight.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Kobe Bryant's Best Playoffs Ever?

[June 15 note: Stats have been updated as of the end of the 2009 Playoffs.]

I have been of the belief that Kobe Bryant is slightly past his peak as a player at age 30. Now, don't get me wrong, Kobe is still an all-time great player and still one of the league's very best players, and still capable of putting together MVP-caliber seasons, and I'm certainly not trying to say he isn't. I'm just trying to say that, compared to himself, he is past his peak as a player mainly because his physical gifts have receded such that he can't quite score at the basket the way he once could, and he relies more on the jump shot, which is more inconsistent by nature. Bryant can still lead a championship team and accomplish things that build a resume as an all-time great, as he's currently doing before our eyes, he's just past his peak.

I offer that preamble mainly to note my surprise upon learning that, statistically, Kobe Bryant is having the best postseason of his career. His 26.8 PER is the highest single-season mark he's ever had in the playoffs, easily besting his 25.0 marks from 2001 and 2008.

Here are Kobe's key playoff numbers from the six seasons in which he's advanced to the NBA Finals:
- 2000: 19.3 PER, 22 g - 39.0 min, 21.1 pts - 4.5 reb - 4.4 ast, .442 FG - .754 FT
- 2001: 25.0 PER, 16 g - 43.4 min, 29.4 pts - 7.3 reb - 6.1 ast, .469 FG - .821 FT
- 2002: 20.5 PER, 19 g - 43.8 min, 26.6 pts - 5.8 reb - 4.6 ast, .434 FG - .759 FT
- 2004: 21.0 PER, 22 g - 44.2 min, 24.5 pts - 4.7 reb - 5.5 ast, .413 FG - .813 FT
- 2008: 25.0 PER, 21 g - 41.1 min, 30.1 pts - 5.7 reb - 5.6 ast, .479 FG - .809 FT
- 2009: 26.8 PER, 23 g - 40.9 min, 30.2 pts - 5.3 reb - 5.5 ast, .457 FG - .883 FT
- Career: 22.0 PER, 175 g - 39.4 min, 25.0 pts - 5.1 reb - 4.7 ast, .447 FG - .811 FT

2008-09 also marks the season in which Kobe has easily had the biggest increase from regular season to postseason PER, jumping a full 2.5 from 24.3 to 26.8. In most seasons, he has actually been down in PER, as his career marks are 23.6 for the regular season and 22.0 for the playoffs.

(Disclaimer: I DO NOT consider PER to be an end-all, be-all statistic for evaluating players. I DO consider PER to be very valuable for what it is: a measure of production based on box-score stats.)

I've always considered 2001 to be Kobe's gold standard in terms of postseason performance. The number which sticks out is the 6.1 ast, a career playoff-high for Bryant. The Lakers shot well above their season three-point percentage in the late rounds of the playoffs that year, and I just seem to recall Kobe expertly pitching out to Fisher, Horry & .co for wide-open looks at will.

What's been different that's made 2009 unique statistically compared to the rest of Kobe's playoff career? Well, the key statistics seem to be assist percentage (estimate of the percentage of teammate field goals a player assisted while he was on on the floor), TO percentage (estimate of turnovers per 100 plays), and free-throw shooting.

Kobe's assist percentage has been 26.0, actually higher than his 25.4 number in 2001, when he had a higher raw number of assists, and second only to his 26.9 last season.

His turnover percentage has been a career-best 8.7 - his 9.8 in 2002 was the only other time he's been below 10 for the postseason.

Bryant is also scoring at a productive clip of 30.2 points per game in the playoffs. He's topped that number a couple times in his career, but in heavier minutes. He's never seen such a large increase in scoring from regular season to postseason as this year (3.4: 26.8 to 30.2), even though his 4.8 jump in minutes per game is not out of line with the rest of his career.

A fair amount of the scoring increase Bryant has achieved can be attributed to his performance at the free-throw line. He is shooting .883 at the stripe, well above his playoff norm. As important, he's been getting to the line 8.6 times a game in the playoffs, ahead of his 6.9 FTA mark in the regular season, and flying in the face of my assertion that he can't get to the basket any longer.

In fact, Kobe's done some of his best work in terms of drawing free throws in the playoffs in the last two seasons, and his best FTA years have generally corresponded to his best PER years. Here are his playoff FTA numbers by year this decade:
-2000: 5.7
-2001: 9.4
-2002: 7.6
-2003: 8.7
-2004: 7.5
-2006: 5.3
-2007: 6.8
-2008: 9.2
-2009: 8.6
Perhaps, then, it's not surprising that the team which held Bryant to his lowest FTA this postseason (Houston, 6.0) is the team which extended L.A. to the longest series.

Certainly, Kobe's passing has been exceptional in the Finals, as he's averaged 7.4 assists (though he also has 3.2 TOs) to go with 32.4 points, and he delivered two huge assists in Game 4 - the gorgeous spin move/drop pass to Gasol which cut the lead to 87-84 in the final minute of regulation, and the kickout to Fisher for his game-winning three in the final minute of OT.

Add the 18 assists Kobe had in L.A.'s final two wins over Denver, and he's averaging 8.3 assists over the Lakers' 6 games from Game 5 of the WCF to Game 4 of the Finals, in which they are 5-1.

Here are Kobe's series-by-series numbers for this year's playoffs:
- UTH: 40.8 min, 27.4 pts - 5.0 reb - 5.6 ast, .466 FG - .897 FT
- HOU: 37.9 min, 27.4 pts - 5.0 reb - 3.7 ast, .453 FG - .833 FT
- DEN: 42.0 min, 34.0 pts - 5.8 reb - 5.8 ast, .481 FG - .931 FT
- ORL: 43.8 min, 32.4 pts - 5.6 reb - 7.4 ast, .430 FG - .841 FT
- TOT: 40.9 min, 30.2 pts - 5.3 reb - 5.5 ast, .457 FG - .883 FT

I have especially marveled at how Bryant has seemed to step up in pivotal games such as these:
- @Uth, Game 4 (series 2-1 LA): 38-6-1 (16-24 FG)
- vHou, Game 2 (series 1-0 HOU): 40-6-3 (16-27 FG)
- vHou, Game 5 (series 2-2): 26-4-3 (10-19 FG; in just 31 min in rout)
- @Den, Game 3 (series 1-1): 41-6-5 (12-24 FG, 15-17 FT)

I'm frustrated that the NBA Hot Spots do not have data loaded in for the 2009 Playoffs, because one thing I'd be curious to know is whether Kobe is hitting a higher percentage of long two-pointers in the playoffs. It feels like Bryant has hit a disproportionately high percentage of contested jumpers - note that in the Utah game listed above, 14 of 16 FG came outside the paint, and in Game 2 vs. Houston, 12 of 16 were out of the paint - but I'd like to know if that is just my perception, or actually reality. Kevin Pelton indicated to me that Kobe's FG% on 2-point jumpers is largely consistent with what it was in the regular season, so perhaps my mind is playing tricks on me.

In any event, there's no mistaking the reality that Kobe Bryant is richly deserving of the Bill Russell Finals MVP trophy which he should be hoisting soon, along with his 4th Larry O'Brien trophy, his 1st as the best player on a championship team.

Thanks (as always) to Basketball Reference and for the stats.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Will Brandon Jennings Laugh Last?

I have watched Brandon Jennings play about four times this season for Lottomatica Roma, via the Euroleague Game of the Week on NBA TV.

Considering that statistics and reports out of Rome have indicated that Jennings has had an erratic year as a rookie 19-year-old, I've been surprised at how impressed I've been by his play.

Given the way that NBA rules are currently structured to give an advantage to speed on the perimeter, I consider Brandon Jennings to be the no. 3 prospect in the 2009 NBA Draft.

Jennings is extremely quick with the ball, he can finish at the basket in traffic at 6-2, and also has excellent court vision. He is reminiscent of a Tony Parker- or Aaron Brooks-type player in terms of speed with the ball, though I would say Jennings is a better passer than those players, but not as good of a shooter. Outside shooting is a big weakness for Jennings right now (he made just 23% of his three-pointers on the season), but I do think he has a pretty good stroke to work with.

He also doesn't yet have an effective floater or general craftiness inside like Parker or Brooks, though he does have a sheer explosion at the rim, even with a slight build (approx. 170 lbs.), that neither of those players have. I saw him score over 7-0 Tiago Splitter, one of the best defensive centers in the world, by impressively elevating and taking a drive right into Splitter's chest and scoring.

Another "con" point, per se, that I'd note is that Jennings hasn't played a pure point guard in the games I watched from Italy, it was more of a motion offense/point-guard-by-committee deal. But again, I see Jennings as more of a Parker/Brooks-style guy than a classic point man, and geez, he certainly played at least as much PG as Jrue Holiday did at UCLA, and Holiday is moving up the charts rapidly.

Every time I saw Jennings, he really competed on the defensive end - his quickness allowed him to be a pest even if his inexperience caused him to struggle in the pick-and-roll. As much as anything, I was impressed at how professional the kid was, at how mature he looked - there was no pouting, no self-indulgent individualism on display.

What I saw through the television was consistent with what Jonathan Givony reported in his excellent story on Jennings from Rome last month:
    Gone is the brash, arrogant teenager with the Kid ’N Play style flat-top who dominated the ball in absolute fashion and looked first and foremost for his own shot, his stats and the ultimate highlight play. In his place is a much more mature, respectful young man, always cheering on his teammates, showing great body language and painstakingly trying to do what his coaches ask of him, almost to a fault at times.

    In the second quarter, Jennings comes up with a steal and has a three-on-two transition opportunity. Not seeing the angle he was looking for, he pulls the ball out, waits for his teammates to run down the floor and calls a play, to the shock of everyone in attendance who had watched him play in America. "The Brandon Jennings of old would have never passed up that opportunity," the Director of Player Personnel sitting next to us points out while nodding his head. "Gotta limit those turnovers" Jennings explains to us afterward. "My job is to be a pass-first point guard."
What I saw was a kid who was making the most of an outstanding educational opportunity in how to play professional basketball, against grown men in the rigors of the best competition outside the NBA.

As Jennings has tweeted:
    it has been a great experience even though i don't play a lot. I understand the pro game. I've gotten Better.... I was hooping with Grown Men Everyday, Im Mentally Strong so I can go through anything!

This is certainly a tough draft to evaluate - I consider there to be five players with the potential to be stars at the NBA level:
    Blake Griffin
    Ricky Rubio
    Brandon Jennings
    Tyreke Evans
    DeMar DeRozan
Now, it's admittedly a weak draft, and out of those five, Griffin is the only one close to a sure thing. The other four all have question marks, for sure, with DeRozan being especially hard to peg - he seems like he could fall anywhere on the spectrum between Vince Carter and Gerald Green.

Jennings was widely considered to be the best player in the high-school class of 2008 - not only have I seen nothing which would make me change that evaluation, but rather I think Jennings has developed better against the tougher professional competition of the Euroleague than his classmates did in the NCAA.

Jennings tweeted this: i think if anybody went before me in the 08 class ill be kinda mad! i would really be on Kobe stuff then. lol!!!!

I agree. He should be the top player drafted from the class of '08, and, depending upon team need, I think that only Griffin and Rubio should be taken ahead of him, period. I will take Jennings over Thabeet and Jordan Hill, whom I think are insufficiently skilled, and James Harden, whom I think is insufficiently athletic, to be stars at the next level.

Fellow Class-of-'08 Angeleno Jrue Holiday from UCLA is an interesting prospect - he has better size (6-4, 200) than Jennings and is considered to be an excellent defender with a high basketball IQ. I rate Jennings higher, however, in large part because I think Holiday has displayed a complete inability to create offense for himself. I know he was in a tough position at UCLA in sharing the backcourt with PG Darren Collison, but I just didn't see any ability to create offense from Holiday.


Statistically, Jennings certainly does not look good - John Hollinger has a formula for translating Euroleague stats to the NBA and the translated numbers for Jennings in the NBA, per-40 minutes, look like this: 11.5 pts, 3.9 reb, 4.3 ast, .341 FG%.

Pretty ugly, especially that shooting percentage, and Hollinger's formula usually works pretty well, but look back at the link above - one big miss he had was with Nicolas Batum, who was just 19 in the Euroleague, like Jennings. Hollinger projected a dismal 8.89 PER for Batum's rookie campaign in the NBA, and the young Frenchman ended up significantly better, at a 12.92 PER as a starter for a 54-win team. That leads me to believe that Hollinger's formula may underestimate the significant natural improvement that a player achieves at such a young age - from 19 to 20 - so I'm not terribly concerned about Jennings in this regard.


OK, so I've stated my opinion and tried to make a case for Jennings reasonably, but really all of this is just preamble to my real point: What on Earth is going on with the mainstream evaluation and perception of Brandon Jennings?

First, you have the college basketball apologists, who crack me up. There is Jay Bilas on the draft lottery broadcast - OK, so he has Thabeet ranked ahead of Rubio, fine, but Jennings is his no. 12 prospect?! Behind Jonny Flynn and Eric Maynor? Are you kidding me?

As Jennings tweeted: Bilas probably going off STATS! And he's a COllege guy anyways! So I knew that was coming! DUHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

And then there was the unprovoked frontal assault that Len Elmore unleashed during the McDonald's All-American Game, insinuating not only that Jennings had made the wrong decision by going to Europe instead of the NCAA, but also that there were "grumblings" from Jennings that he regretted his decision. This was especially rich considering that, just two weeks prior, Jennings had very confidently stated, "This is the best decision I’ve made so far" in an interview from Rome with Bryant Gumbel on HBO's Real Sports.


OK, but those are college guys, who make their living off the college game. The NBA personnel guys can see through all the noise and evaluate Jennings rationally, right?

Well, here is a note that Givony posted on DraftExpress yesterday:
    There is a growing sense in NBA circles that Brandon Jennings may be making a mistake by passing up the Reebok Eurocamp in Treviso next week in favor of participating in private NBA workouts. Numerous teams in the lottery have pointed out to us that they do not feel comfortable with the amount of competitive five on five action they’ve seen Jennings partake in, and that they would have a difficult time selecting him based on the body of work he’s put together up until this point.

    NBA teams were not allowed to scout Jennings in high school, and many saw their scouting trips to Italy this year come up empty as they only were able to see him play for a few minutes at a time, often at the shooting guard position.
In a chat on Tuesday, Chad Ford said: "I think [that not playing in Treviso] will hurt him because teams aren't going to be able to get a feel for certain things in a workout that they would in five-on-five play."

To all of this, I say: are you kidding? To the suggestion that teams have apparently voiced that they haven't seen Jennings in enough "competitive five-on-five action".... Well, I'm sorry, but I have to go into John McEnroe voice and say: YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS!

Honestly, it's not like the guy has been playing in the 3rd division in Estonia; he's been in the freaking Euroleague, the most competitive basketball league outside the NBA, and the Italian League, one of the world's best domestic leagues!

I've seen Jennings four times my own damn self, and just the other day I finished watching him in a game against Tau Ceramica, one of the top clubs in Europe, in a game I had saved on my DVR from January. I watched him battle against Pablo Prigioni, the starting point guard for the Argentina national team, who has one of the highest basketball IQ's in the world. He abused Jennings with his savvy on the pick-and-roll, but on the other end, he had absolutely no chance of keeping Jennings in front of him.

As mentioned above, I watched Jennings take it right to Tiago Splitter, an excellent shotblocker at 7-0, at the rim. This guy would be the starting center for the Spurs if not for his contract - San Antonio could desperately use his youth and athleticism inside, and geez, Cleveland could have used the guy last week given their feckless interior D.

Tau also has Igor Rakocevic, one of the top scoring guards in Europe, rumored to possibly be coming over to Houston for next season. You're telling me this competition is not sufficient enough to evaluate Jennings? Are you kidding?

Honestly, if NBA personnel departments can't figure out how to find meaningful five-on-five footage of Jennings, they should be fired en masse. Can you people not figure out how to program a DVR for the Euroleague Game of the Week on NBA TV? Can you not figure out how to sign up for, which had even more Roma games, or the Euroleague.TV product online, which had all the games? Do you not have an account with Synergy Sports, who does European games as well?

I'm sorry that you folks didn't get to see him in person, but there is a significant amount of Jennings' body of work against top competition which is readily available.


So now, Jennings is slipping in mock drafts. Givony had Jennings at 4 after seeing him in Rome, but now he has dropped him to 7 [note: Jennings is down to 13 on DraftExpress as of 6/4], with this note:
    Should Jennings slip past Golden State at 7, he may be in for somewhat of a tumble on draft night, as players such as Jonny Flynn and Jrue Holiday appear to be the next point guards on most teams’ boards, and a franchise like Indiana could opt for a more experienced player such as Ty Lawson or Eric Maynor.
Ford has dropped Jennings all the way to 14 on the mock draft he compiles based on conversations with NBA personnel. I love these notes that have been added as part of Jonny Flynn's rise up the mocks above Jennings:
    "A number of GMs said Flynn gave the best interview of any of the prospects. His personal charisma seems to be helping him close the sale."

    "I thought they'd be taking a serious look at Brandon Jennings here, and they probably will, but Flynn has the leadership and heart that the Warriors desperately need. Jennings is a project who is much farther away."
You want heart, and maybe some mental toughness? How about this? How about a kid who grew up in Compton and then went to fricking Rome to play against grown men?!

All of this is to say that I feel like Jennings is being questioned and moved down draft boards for a bunch of reasons completely unrelated to this question: Can he play?


So, now, this is the funny thing to me.... Today, it looks like Brandon Jennings made a bad decision - it looks like his European adventure has hurt his draft stock. The unprecedented, even exotic, nature of his experience seems to have left NBA personnel staff without the reference points to properly evaluate him. The implication to read from NBA GMs, as Jennings slides down the board, is that he got worse by going to Europe. The stewards of the status quo of the college game can look down upon him with condescension and paternalism for daring to develop his game elsewhere.

However, I believe that in time, whether it's next week, next year or five years, the only question that matters - Can he play? - will be answered, emphatically, "Yes".

Yo, what happen if i go #1??? hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahhahahahahahha college basketball is done!!! its a joke though

I believe that in time it will be shown that playing in the Euroleague developed Jennings' game better than the NCAA game would have, and that it will be yet more proof that it is not necessary to play college basketball in order to develop into an elite player.

(As if more is needed: Note that the last 3 MVPs, and 4 of the 5 members of the All-NBA First Team, and as many as 7 of the 10 players starting in the Finals, did not play a second of college basketball, while NCAA icons Redick and Morrison bide their time on the pine.)

I feel like if i go top 5 more kids will go overseas!!! Trust Me!

I'm not sure how many players going forward will be able to follow in Jennings' footsteps and handle the difficult transition to Europe, but I hope that many more do so, rather than getting caught in crossfire a la Derrick Rose while paving a college coach's step up the golden ladder.

10 years from now, Ill look back and be like Im glad I did go to ROMA, ITALY!

Will Brandon Jennings laugh last? I think he will.

Monday, June 01, 2009

The Curious Cases of Top Teams in Recent Years

Through the 2004-05 season, 13 teams in NBA history won 64 or more games in a single season. Here's the list:
    96 CHI 72-10
    72 LAL 69-13
    97 CHI 69-13
    67 PHI 68-13
    73 BOS 68-14
    86 BOS 67-15
    92 CHI 67-15
    00 LAL 67-15
    71 MIL 66-16
    87 LAL 65-17
    83 PHI 65-17
    96 SEA 64-18
    97 UTH 64-18
In almost every case, these teams reached the postseason potential that was suggested by their regular-season prowess. 10 of these 13 teams won the NBA championship, and two others (96 SEA, 97 UTH) lost only when matched up against a team with more regular-season wins in the NBA Finals. The '72-73 Celtics were the only one of these teams to fail to make the Finals, and that was after their best player, John Havlicek, suffered a debilitating shoulder injury in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Knicks.

The past four seasons have seen a flurry of dominant regular-season teams, but for whatever reasons, these teams have had a much tougher time translating regular-season dominance into postseason success, falling short of the Finals three times out of five:
    06 DET 64-18 - Lost Conf. Finals
    07 DAL 67-15 - Lost First Round
    08 BOS 66-16 - Won Championship
    09 CLE 66-16 - Lost Conf. Finals
    09 LAL 65-17 - ???
All of this unpredictability makes Bill James' 2007 story "Where The Numbers Go Next" increasingly look like a piece of garbage. Here was the core of James' argument:
    The NBA's problem is that the underlying mathematics of the league are screwed up. In every sport, there is an element of predetermination and an element of randomness in the outcomes. Who will win the championship next year is not entirely a crapshoot. We know that Kentucky has a better chance of winning the NCAA basketball title than Nebraska does - next year, or in 2019. If we knew with certainty who was going to win the title next year, then we could say that the championship was 100 percent predetermined, 0 percent random.

    In the NBA, the element of predetermination is simply too high. Simply stated, the best team wins too often. If the best team always wins, then the sequence of events leading to victory is meaningless. Who fights for the rebound, who sacrifices his body to keep the ball from rolling out of bounds doesn't matter. The greater team is going to come out on top anyway.

    A fan can look at the standings in December, pick the teams that will make the playoffs, and might get them all. This has a horrific effect on the game. Everybody knows who's going to win. Why do the players seem to stand around on offense? Why is showboating tolerated? Because it doesn't matter. Why don't teams play as teams? Because they can win without doing so (although teams like these may crumble when they run up against the Pistons or Spurs).
Rather than one or even two teams anointed as the NBA's best - the clear champion - by midseason, in recent years the NBA title has been legitimately up for grabs even into May and June, as it has been again this year. Let's look at the past few years:

Many figured that the Conference Semifinal series between the Lakers (56-26) and the Spurs (57-25) would decide the eventual champion, with Indiana (61-21) expected to represent the East after posting the season's best record. However, the Detroit Pistons (54-28) went through them all after acquiring Rasheed at the deadline. And, oh yeah, Minnesota (58-24) was the top seed in the West, and Sacramento (55-27) took them to 7 games.

Let's say that that would be five teams who were legit title contenders, with pretty much no one expecting the Pistons to win it all up until they stole home court from L.A. in Game 1 of the Finals, at the earliest.

2005 was a wide-open year for the Playoffs, with San Antonio (59-23), Miami (59-23) and defending champ Detroit (54-28) all considered to be top contenders heading into the playoffs, and it was Phoenix (62-20) who owned the best record in basketball. These were the final four teams in the playoffs, with the Pistons outlasting the Heat in 7, helped by the D-Wade injury, and the Spurs blitzing the Suns in 5, helped by the Joe Johnson injury. Then the Spurs needed 7 to beat Detroit, with Robert Horry's game-winner in Game 5 the pivotal play of the series. Also, Dallas went 58-24 on the season.

Let's say that that would be four teams who were legit title contenders, with the top three being very evenly matched, given that two of the final three series came down to Game 7.

Detroit (64-18) had dominated the Eastern Conference throughout the regular season, and San Antonio (63-19) and Dallas (60-22) were considered the class of the West (and proved it with one of the greatest playoff series ever seen), but it was Miami (52-30) who hoisted the Larry O'B. after stunning the Pistons and Mavs in back-to-back series. Also, Detroit needed 7 games to get past Cleveland (50-32).

Let's say that that would be four teams who were legit contenders, with the team considered to be the most marginal of the contenders winning it all.

It was all about the Western Conference in 2006-07, as Dallas (67-15) challenged for 70 wins and Phoenix (61-21) was solid as well, while San Antonio (58-24) had the best point differential in the league. Detroit (53-29) was the top seed and favorite in the East and thought to have a puncher's chance in the Finals because of their experience.

What happened? Dallas fell in the biggest upset in playoff history, while the Spurs topped the Suns in a controversial series. Meanwhile, Detroit was stunned by LeBron's spectacular output in Game 5. We can't really truly call Cleveland (50-32) a title contender even though they made the Finals, though, given the way the Spurs ripped through them in 4.

Let's be conservative and say that that would be three teams who were legit title contenders - a smaller number, yes, so seemingly more predictable, but the monumental first-round upset was a big score for unpredictability.

The 2008 Playoffs went more according to form, with the best regular-season team, Boston (66-16), defeating the top seed in the West, L.A. (57-25), in the Finals, but many thought that the experience of Detroit (59-23) and San Antonio (56-26) would allow those teams to prevail in the Conference Finals, and the Lakers were clear favorites over the Celtics heading into the Finals. Not to mention that Boston barely escaped the challenge of LeBron and Cleveland (48-34) in the second round. And four other teams won between 54-56 games in a wild Western Conference.

Let's say that that would be four teams who were legit title contenders, with very few picking the Celtics to prevail in the Finals.

The conference competitions were widely expected to be coronations leading into LeBron and Cleveland (66-16) vs. Kobe and the Lakers (65-17) in the Finals, but of course Orlando (59-23) had a little something to say about that. Defending champs Boston (62-20) took the Magic to 7 but suffered from KG's absence, while Denver (54-28) played well throughout the playoffs and Houston (53-29) took L.A. to 7.

Let's give Boston and Denver each half-credit as a contender, and say that that would be four teams who were legit title contenders, and certainly a lot of unpredictability given that, as of about a week ago, no one had any clear idea who was going to be in the Finals.

The idea that the NBA Playoffs are utterly predictable is utter nonsense. Yes, the Playoffs determine the best team (and that is their beauty), but the best team is not pre-determined. That is, as they say, why they play the games.

The James argument is that too much predetermination hurts the NBA's popularity. First of all, there is far less predetermination than he thinks, and second, the TV ratings were terrible in 2005 when the Playoffs were up for grabs and have been great in 2009 when things have been similarly up in the air.

Certainly, there are times when there's little question who's going to win, such as in 2007 after the Mavs and Suns had been dispatched, and ratings did suffer for it. But you know, it happens in the NCAA's sometimes, too, such as when Florida (2006-07) and North Carolina (2008-09) were decisive no. 1s all the way back in preseason and then decisive national champs come March Madness.