Thursday, January 28, 2010

Checking In on Ricky Rubio

The "regular season" stage of the 2009-10 Euroleague season ended a couple weeks ago, and the "Top 16" stage tipped off on Wednesday. Jay Aych offered a full preview of the Top 16 yesterday, and I thought it was a good time to check in with an updated scouting report on the celebrated no. 5 pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, Ricky Rubio.

Rubio's Regal FC Barcelona squad ran roughshod through the regular-season phase of the Euroleague, with a 10-0 record and a +20.8 point differential. Additionally, FC Barcelona sits atop the table of the competitive Spanish ACB with a 17-2 record in domestic play.

The lads over at Ball in Europe suggested that Barca, with its deep roster of talent, has a chance to rank up with the best Euroleague teams of the past decade.

I've watched six of FC Barcelona's 10 Euroleague games off the DVR over the past couple weeks in order to put this report together, and I have to say they certainly are a fun club to watch, as they play as a true team and they have several NBA-quality players. As of now, they are the best team outside the NBA, and in a 7-game series vs. the Nets... well, who knows.

[Note: FC Barcelona's first Top 16 game, vs. Maroussi, can be seen on ESPN360 live on Thursday at 2:45 p.m. EST, or on replay. This game will also be broadcast on NBA TV on Saturday at 1 p.m. EST.

Here is the complete schedule of Top 16 games which will air on ESPN360. The Panathinaikos-Barca game should be a keeper - those are the two big favorites, with last year's champion (PAO) against this year's dominant force so far (Barca):
- Wednesday, Jan. 27 at 12:15p: Unicaja vs CSKA Moscow
- Thursday, Jan. 28 at 2:45p: Maroussi BC vs FC Barcelona
- Wednesday, Feb 3 at 2p: BC Khimki vs Olympiacos
- Thursday, Feb. 4 at 2p: Real Madrid vs Maccabi
- Wednesday, Feb. 10 at 2p: KK Cibona vs Olympiacos
- Thursday, Feb. 11 at 2:45p: Panathinaikos vs FC Barcelona]


Several players share primary responsibility for FC Barcelona's gaudy record, with Ricky Rubio being one of those, along with vets like Juan Carlos Navarro, Fran Vazquez, Pete Mickael, Terence Morris and Erazem Lorbek. What remains most remarkable is that Rubio is such an impact player after having just turned 19 in October.

Overall, I remain high on Rubio as a prospect overall, though I do find it uniquely challenging to try to project Ricky's NBA future because of these competing factors:

Pro: I believe Rubio truly has the court vision of an all-time great. Stockton, Magic, Nash - name who you want. I think Rubio sees the floor on that level.

Con: Rubio just cannot finish at the basket at all, and he doesn't really score in the lane, either.

Here are some other things my eyes tell me:
-- Beyond his court vision, Rubio has an exceptional basketball IQ, a precocious sense of how to run a team at such a young age.

In many ways, Rubio's style of play is Nash-like. Ricky has a somewhat similar style of probing the defense and his superior vision really stands out in the pick-and-roll - he often finds the player clear across the court who's left open on a tertiary rotation, though he can also deliver the pass to the roll man skillfully.

I've seen so much basketball that I can usually see plays develop a little in advance - Rubio sometimes makes passes that I just don't see coming, and there's almost nothing that makes me more excited as a fan than that. He's good for a 'Wow' play per game.

-- I mentioned Rubio's deficiencies as a finisher and a shotmaker above, and that is where his game diverges from Nash's sharply at this point - those are the most serious weaknesses in his game.

As a standstill shooter, however, Rubio is markedly improved. His shooting form seems more fluid and he has made 40% of his threes in the Euroleague, 46.3% in the Spanish League (he made just 2-12 threes in the 2008 Olympics). That said, he does not appear to have NBA range on his shot as yet - he missed all of the deep threes I saw.

Rubio has also become a good foul shooter, as he's made 24-25 (96%) in the Euroleague, and 84% on the season as a whole.

-- On defense, Rubio really plays the passing lanes well - great anticipation coupled with the long wingspan on his 6-4 frame helps Ricky create steals and deflections.

Rubio did a good job overall staying in front of guards like Terrell McIntyre, Jamont Gordon and Will Solomon, though they were able to get by him at times.

Also, Rubio really needs to improve his pick-and-roll defense, as he continually struggles to get through screens.

-- I do think that Rubio may have trouble staying in front of NBA points given the changes in rule interpretations on the perimeter, though his length will help compensate for disadvantages in speed and quickness.

One thing I wonder in general is if the rule-interpretation changes work against Rubio a little bit. I wonder if he might lose more than others by not being able to use his hands on D, or by not having a game based on sheer speed and quickness on O. Oh well, guys like Steve Nash and Chauncey Billups are still thriving, so it can be overcome.

But again, improved shotmaking would go a long way toward improving Rubio's game.


Ricky's numbers bear out those primary competing factors above. At a glance, his Euroleague per-game statistics are not at all striking:

Rubio averages 6.4 points, 3.2 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.9 turnovers, while shooting 39% from the floor, 40% from three (and just 38% on 2-point shots), and 96% at the line. All together, his shooting numbers equate to an impressive .615 true shooting percentage (TS%), though just a .488 effective field-goal percentage (eFG%), which is not terribly strong.

Consider, though, that Ricky averages just 21 minutes per game (substitution patterns are different in Europe, where teams are more likely to play their entire roster, rather than lean heavily on starters), and consider also that Euro scorekeepers are much stingier in handing out assists (Rubio is actually third in the Euroleague in assists per game, and first in assists per minute). Rubio's Euroleague PER is actually a very solid 22.2.

John Hollinger has a formula for translating Euroleague stats to the NBA which he explains like this:
    • 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
    • Overall, PER drops by 30 percent
Let's go with per-36 minute numbers. Here are Rubio's per-36 numbers in the Euroleague:
11.0 pts, 5.5 reb, 9.7 ast, .390 FG%, 22.2 PER

And here's what Ricky's per-36 minute numbers look like when translated to the NBA:
8.3 pts, 6.5 reb, 12.7 ast, .343 FG%, 15.6 PER

-- Consider that Steve Nash leads the NBA in assists per 36 minutes with 11.8, followed by Chris Paul at 10.6, and Rubio's 12.7 number jumps off the page.

-- Consider also that Kyle Lowry leads NBA point guards in rebounds per 36 minutes with 5.8, followed by Jason Kidd at 5.3 and Russell Westbrook at 5.0, and you start to get a sense of Ricky's nose for the ball as a rebounder, too.

-- Yet, on the other end of the spectrum, consider how bad that .343 FG% is - Trevor Ariza is last among qualified NBA players at .378, followed by Brandon Jennings at .383 and Vince Carter (!) at .390.

-- And that 8.3 points per 36 is really low, too. Out of all NBA players, it would rank 377th, behind notables such as Chris Duhon and Jason Kidd at 8.8.

Of course, these aren't precise numbers, especially based off of a 10-game, 210-minute sample, but it at least should give a sense of how Rubio is at extremes as a passer/ballhawk on one end and as a scorer on the other.


Increasingly, I wonder if Kidd might be the most apt comparison for Rubio.

Let's take a look at selected per-36 minute numbers from Kidd's career. Again, remember that Rubio is just 19. Let's look at Kidd's rookie year, when he was 21, and his 2002-03 season, when he led the Nets to the Finals near his peak at age 29:
Age 21: 12.4 pts, 5.8 reb, 8.2 ast, .385 FG%, 15.1 PER
Age 29: 18.0 pts, 6.1 reb, 8.6 ast, .414 FG%, 22.2 PER

Both players are unselfish with excellent court vision, and are very good rebounders for their position. Even Kidd increased his scoring ability in his prime (though that 18.0 was easily a per-36 career high - he is 13.2 for his career). And Kidd also had great value as a ferocious ball-hawking defender in his prime. Rubio is a disruptive force in the Euroleague passing lanes, but it remains to be seen how that will translate to defensive value in the NBA.

Let's do something similar for a cross-section of other top point guards - Nash, Paul, Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose. Let's look at their rookie per-36 numbers and their 2009-10 per-36 numbers:

Steve Nash (using second season since he played only 10.5 mpg as a rookie)
Age 23 (2nd year): 14.9 pts, 3.5 reb, 5.7 ast, .459 FG%, 15.6 PER
Age 35 ('09-10): 19.8 pts, 3.4 reb, 11.8 ast, .523 FG%, 23.0 PER

Chris Paul
Age 20 (rookie): 16.1 pts, 5.1 reb, 7.8 ast, .430 FG%, 22.1 PER
Age 24 ('09-10): 19.1 pts, 4.3 reb, 10.4 ast, .505 FG%, 26.6 PER

Rajon Rondo
Age 20 (rookie): 9.9 pts, 5.7 reb, 5.8 ast, .418 FG%, 13.1 PER
Age 23 ('09-10): 13.9 pts, 4.2 reb, 9.5 ast, .534 FG%, 20.0 PER

Derrick Rose
Age 20 (rookie): 16.3 pts, 3.8 reb, 6.1 ast, .475 FG%, 16.0 PER
Age 21 ('09-10): 19.6 pts, 3.7 reb, 5.9 ast, .477 FG%, 17.7 PER

Across the board, it's a consistent message: Rubio appears to be far ahead of the curve as a passer, but well behind it as a scorer, and it seems he is going to have to become a better scorer to become an elite NBA point guard.

Back prior to the draft in June, my personal draft board looked like this:
    1. Blake Griffin
    2. Ricky Rubio
    3. Brandon Jennings
    4. Tyreke Evans
As of now, I would move Tyreke up to no. 2, and all told, I would rate John Wall ahead of Rubio as a prospect, but I would still rate Rubio ahead of any point guard drafted in 2009, including Brandon Jennings and fellow Minnesota draftee Jonny Flynn.


Of course, at the rate FC Barcelona is going, they should get 10 or so more Euroleague games to increase the Rubio sample set. We'll see if he can keep it up as the competition gets tougher, though I should note that Ricky's virtuoso performance of the regular-season phase came in Barca's final game, on Jan. 14 against Montepaschi Siena.

Siena is considered to be a Euro Final Four contender, they are also a perfect 15-0 in the Italian League, and feature former Clemson star Terrell McIntyre, who has made the Euroleague First Team the last two seasons, at the point.

In just 25 minutes, Rubio scored 14 points on 4 shots (2-4 FG, 9-10 FT), with 10 assists, 4 steals, 3 rebounds and just one TO. He led Barca to a run to start the game, and then also on a decisive 11-2 run after he checked in early in the fourth quarter, as Barcelona ended up winning 85-70. Ricky was brilliant.

If you've made it this far, treat yourself to a little Rubio video. First, here's a 10-minute package from said Montepaschi Siena game which focuses on Rubio. It's a thorough look at how Ricky played, and we highly recommend you at least watch the first play, which demonstrates Rubio's flair for the game.

Here's a similar package focused on Rubio and Juan Carlos Navarro for the Siena game from earlier in the season. We recommend the second play, a gorgeous creation.

Finally, here's a quirky one, a truly Nash-like sequence vs. Fenerbahce which didn't result in a bucket but again displayed Rubio's creativity.

I can't wait to get Ricky Rubio over to the league to see what he becomes. For now, I'll savor him on this perfectly balanced FC Barcelona club.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

2009-10 Euroleague Top 16 Preview

The first stage of the Euroleague regular season has been completed and now it's time for the Top 16 stage of the 2009-10 season to begin. The extraneous fat (Asvel, Lietuvos Rytas, Orleanaise, Union Olimpija, EWE Baskets) has been sliced away and now we're left with a tightly packed group of 16 teams with little-to-no filler teams. Though, the Top 16 field could be slightly better if Fenerbahce Ulker and Lottomatica Roma had not underachieved in the first stage.

The Top 16 round starts on Jan. 27th and continues until March 11. The Top 16 is divided into four groups of four teams. Each team plays home & away against the other three teams in the group for a total of six games. The top two teams from each group advance to the quarterfinal. The quarterfinals are a best-of-5 format that starts on March 23rd. The quarterfinal winners advance to the Euroleague Final Four in Paris on May 7-9.

Fans can watch select Euroleague games on ESPN360 live or on replay. ESPN360 will commence Top 16 stage coverage on Wednesday with CSKA vs. Unicaja (12:15 p.m. EST live). On Thursday, ESPN360 will show Regal FC Barcelona facing off against Maroussi (Greece) at 2:45 p.m. EST, a game which will be broadcast on NBA TV on Saturday at 1 p.m. EST.

Panathinaikos vs. Partizan and Real Madrid vs. Efes Pilsen round out Wednesday's Euroleague schedule (games not shown on ESPN360). Four other games on Thursday besides Barca vs. Maroussi, highlighted by Caja Laboral (Tau Ceramica) vs. Olympiacos and Montepaschi vs. Maccabi.

Here is the complete schedule of Top 16 games which will air on ESPN360. The Panathinaikos-Barca game should be a keeper - those are the two big favorites, with last year's champion (PAO) against this year's dominant force so far (Barca):
- Wednesday, Jan. 27 at 12:15p: Unicaja vs CSKA Moscow
- Thursday, Jan. 28 at 2:45p: Maroussi BC vs FC Barcelona
- Wednesday, Feb 3 at 2p: BC Khimki vs Olympiacos
- Thursday, Feb. 4 at 2p: Real Madrid vs Maccabi
- Wednesday, Feb. 10 at 2p: KK Cibona vs Olympiacos
- Thursday, Feb. 11 at 2:45p: Panathinaikos vs FC Barcelona

Below we examine the groupings:

GROUP E: Barcelona; Panathinaikos (PAO); Paritzan; Maroussi
This grouping is pretty top-heavy, though Partizan can't be taken lightly. Barcelona absolutely steamrolled through the first stage of the Euroleague season. Have a ridiculous scoring margin of +20.8--nine of ten 1st round games were won by at least double digits. Barca easily dispatched a very good Montepaschi Siena twice (+19 at home, +15 on road).

Barca has looked superb on both ends of the floor--great at every facet of the game--and is currently the best team outside the NBA. This team has a lot of raw talent that has subjugated egos and accepted roles to form a scary, cohesive unit. Rubio, JC Navarro, Pete Mickeal, Erazem Lorbek and Fran Vasquez have all played great for Barca. My partner should have a more detailed look at Barcelona coming soon.

Reigning Euroleague champs Panathinaikos' only two first round losses came at the hands of Real Madrid. PAO's roster has not really been at full force yet because of injuries scattered across the roster. Marcus Haislip was recently acquired to help cover for the injuries on the frontline. Minny TWolves property Nikola Pekovic continues to mahhandle opponents in the post and leads PAO with 15 ppg on 60% shooting in only 22 mins per game. Vasilis Spanoulis continues to solidfy his standing as one of the best guards outside the NBA by providing PAO with 11 ppg & 4 apg.

Partizan has been a mild surprise this year since this season was projected to be a rebuilding year. Though, Partizan's Top 16 chances have taken a hit with the probable extended absence of Aleks Maric due to injury. Maric was having a breakthrough year before injury, averaging 17 ppg on 72% shooting & 9 rpg. Maroussi surprised by advancing out of the first round and advancement to the quarterfinals ain't happening.

GROUP F: Real Madrid; Montepaschi Siena; Maccabi; Efes Pilsen
I would say Group F is the toughest group overall, not much separates the four teams. Should be the most competitive group with loads of talent spread among the four teams.

The vet-laden bunch in Real Madrid has performed admirably under the guiding hand of Ettore Messina. Darjus Lavrinovic has been one of the top players so far this season, averaging 14 ppg on 62% & 5.4 rpg. Solid play from the likes of Pablo Prigioni, Sergio Llull, Novica Velickovic, Garbajosa, R. Kaukenas and Louis Bullock. Madrid has recently added more firepower to an already overloaded roster with the addition of Marko Jaric and Ante Tomic (NBA prospect).

Montepaschi Siena provides Group F with another veteran-packed team that is extremely tough. Siena's only two losses came at the hands of Barcelona. Siena is a devastatingly effective defensive team that combines a stout base defense with an ability to cause a boatload of TOs. Ksystof Lavrinovic is mirroring his twin brother's strong play, averaging 15 ppg & 5.6 rpg for Siena. Romain Sato put up 13 ppg & 4 rpg in the first round, not to mention great defense. Take very good care of the ball on offense which which allows Siena to have a superb TO margin. Also, have shot the long ball very well--44.5% from 3pt. land in the first round.

Maccabi's strength lies on the perimeter with their collection of American guards: Alan Anderson, Chuck Eidson, Andrew Wisniewski, Doron Perkins and David Bluthenthal. Point-forward Eidson is having another strong season in Europe thanks to multi-skilled game--Chuck led Maccabi with 13.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3 apg and 2 spg. Alan Anderson (12.6 ppg) and A. Wisniewski (10 ppg) have also been solid so far providing scoring next to Eidson. Need to get a little bit more production from their frontline in this round of play, especially since Maciej Lampe was let go.

Efes Pilsen was rather unimpressive in the opening round, finishing 4-6, but Pilsen has plenty of raw talent to challenge for a quarterfinal spot. Pilsen's roster has not meshed well and would say their cohesion is the polar opposite of Barcelona's chemistry. Too many guys who need the ball in their hands--doesn't seem that Igor Rakocevic has been accepted as the #1 option by some of the other players. Need to figure out some pecking order going forward.

GROUP G: CSKA; Unicaja; Zalgiris; Asseco Prokom
CSKA Moscow lucked out being placed in the weakest group, and should advance to the quarters with little trouble. Stud vets Trajan Langdon and Ramunas Siskauskas are once again shining in Euro play. Langdon leads CSKA with 15 ppg (50% from 3pt.) while Siskauskas follows with 14 ppg, 4 rpg and sizzling 58% 3pt. shooting. CSKA has gotten terrific auxiliary support around Langdon & Siskauskas from the likes of Vik Khryapa, Sasha Kaun, JR Holden & Z. Planinic. Still a solid defensive unit in Coach Messina's absence. Recently added Pops Mensah-Bonsu to help upfront with Matjaz Smodis' health status still dicey. Think 2nd place is up for grabs with Unicaja probably being the fave to join CSKA in quarters.

Unicaja looked superb early in the season but faltered the last few weeks. After starting 5-0, Unicaja went 2-3 to close out first round play and the two wins were both by only +2. Combine this with Unicaja's lackluster ACB record (9-10), and I'm really not sure how to read Unicaja heading into the Top 16. Not to mention, their best perimeter threat, Taquan Dean, moved to Caja Laboral for the Top 16 round. Unicaja can still turn to NBA draftees G. Printezis (14 ppg & 5 rpg) and Joel Freeland (11 ppg & 5 rpg in 20 mins per) for support. Also, PG Omar Cook has been one of the top PGs (leads league in assists) so far this season and is shooting the ball as well as he ever has.

Zalgiris sort of backed its way into the Top 16 thanks in some part due to the disappointing opening round play of Fenerbahce Ulker. Zalgiris finished the first round 3-7 but won the tiebreaker game vs. Ulker to end the opening round. Zalgiris has been led by former U of Virginia Cavs PF Travis Watson, who averaged 12 ppg and 11 rpg (4.4 off) in the first round.

Asseco Prokom (Poland) is a potentially dangerous team thanks to their collection of athletes. Led by Qyntel Woods, who was one of the top performers in the first round--17.5 ppg (2nd best in Euro), 6.7 rpg (5th best) & 2.4 apg. Asseco combo guard David Logan (5th-best scorer in Euroleague action with 16 ppg) adds more explosive scoring next to Woods. Asseco needs to shore up its outside shooting and is vulnerable to zone looks--27% from long range in first round.

GROUP H: Olympiacos; Caja Laboral; Khimki; Cibona
Olympiacos should win this group, but they still have a tendency to play to the level of their comp sometimes. They really should have finished the first stage undefeated like Barcelona instead of 8-2. Nonetheless, Oly can be deadly when they're focused, thanks to their bottomless tub of talent led by Linas Kleiza.

L. Kleiza is a serious Euroleague MVP candidate, currently leading the league in scoring at 17.6 ppg and his 7.7 rpg is good for 3rd best in the league. Also, have received nice contributions from Josh Childress (15 ppg), T. Papaloukas (7.6 apg), Milos Teodosic (11 ppg, 4.3 apg, 1.7 spg), G. Bourousis (10 ppg & 4.6 rpg in 17 mins per) and Nik Vujcic in the first round.

Caja Laboralis led by Tiago Splitter, who averaged 14 ppg, 6 rpg & 2 apg in the first round. Caja could be even better in the Top 16 stage thanks to recent pickup of Taquan Dean from Unicaja and the return of Walter Herrmann from injury (missed most of 1st round). Dean gives Laboral a much needed scoring punch on the perimeter to complement Splitter.

Khimki has been solid so far this season and are imposing in the painted area thanks to frontcourt rotation of R. Javtokas, Timo Mozgov & Paulius Jankunas. Wings Kelly McCarty and Keith Langford provide point production for Khimki, while the vet Spanish PG combo of Raul Lopez & Carlos Cabezas ably steer the offense. Khimki can challenge Caja for the 2nd spot in Group H. Cibona's chances of quarters berth are slim to none.

Monday, January 25, 2010

A Few Idle LeBron Thoughts

Just a few idle thoughts on just another week in the career of LeBron James, in which he averaged a 34-8-11 while leading the Cavs to a 3-0 week despite some major backcourt injuries, with all three wins coming against .500+ teams, including a showdown win vs. Kobe & the Lakers, and a last-second block of Kevin Durant to secure Sunday's win vs. OKC:

So, there's been lots of LeBron food for thought over the last week or so, including the very good LeBron column by Bill Simmons.

Simmons noted, "As crazy as this sounds, [LeBron]'s been the most underrated story of the 2009-10 season." As much as anything, the column was a reminder that - for all the day-to-day subplots of the season, and the legitimately compelling narratives of Kobe vs. LeBron or the quest to see which player (Kobe, Shaq, Duncan) can be the first to five championships - the overriding big-picture narrative in this era of basketball revolves around this question: To what heights LeBron James can take his game?

Zach Harper had a good post on Hardwood Paroxysm last week, as he pondered whether, if we can't come to a definitive answer across the board on LeBron vs. Kobe, then can we even say there is a best player?

I was quoted in the piece, and was fairly adamant in my feelings:
    "I think that LeBron is clearly the best player, and frankly, think that those who think Kobe is better are wrong. People always want to focus on W-L at a certain point, and underestimate the quality of teammates. The Lakers have an overwhelming amount of talent surrounding Kobe, the Cavs have a good collection of talent around LeBron. If the Lakers hadn’t acquired Pau, I don’t think that LeBron v Kobe would even be a conversation."
I say all this without the intention of demeaning Kobe Bryant in any way. It's certainly compelling to watch him continue to add to his game, and to see how high he can rise on the list of all-time great players. But he won't ever challenge to be no. 1 on the list; there is no comparison with Jordan.

And that's the thing: LeBron has a chance to challenge for no. 1. Yes, Kobe is a more accomplished player and ranks higher than LeBron for his career as of now. But LeBron has a chance to challenge for best player ever, and Kobe does not.

Matt Moore was much more nuanced and elegant than I in the Hardwood Paroxysm post, with the following quote:
    "It’s LeBron. And I say that not because of Dwyer, Simmons, Ford, Bucher, or anyone else’s opinions, which are all the same, but because it’s a fact. The problem is that it instantly creates a slant on Kobe. But that’s not true. Kobe is as good as I can possibly imagine Kobe Bryant being. And there are literally dozens of things that Kobe does better than LeBron. But you don’t need to be perfect to be the best player, you need to be better than everyone else. And a player that is that size, with that speed, that power, that strength, that range (check out his f***ing three point numbers! For a forward!), with his vision, leadership, game-domination-ability, and playmaking ability, is better than everyone else. He does so much during a game it’s insane. It’s just insane. Kobe can take over. LeBron is constantly doing everything. He’s the best player in the game, and that doesn’t mean I doubt Kobe for a heartbeat. It just means that LeBron’s better right now."
After I watched Kobe score from the low post on Thursday, and then read Matt's comment on Friday, I was reminded of what I think is a key distinction between the two players: Kobe has clearly realized more of his potential than LeBron, and it's not even close. There should be as little debate about this as there should be about whether LeBron is a better player overall.

I'd even argue that Kobe has possibly realized as much of his potential as any of the elite players in history. But LeBron's physical advantages are just too much to overcome, even if his game is not as fully realized.

Something that stands out about LeBron is that it's remarkable he's producing at such historically great levels when it still seems like there are so many ways in which he can improve his game and make it more efficient:

- What if he develops and mixes in a low-post game? His size, strength and quickness should make him impossible to single cover in the blocks, and his passing ability should make him dangerous to double.

- What if the Cavs ever start to run a little? I've said it in this space multiple times before, but LeBron is possibly the most devastating fast-break finisher in the history of the game, yet Cleveland plays at the third-slowest pace in the league, and ranks 18th in fast-break points.

- What if he stops shooting so many threes? Yes, LeBron is at a career-high .360 3PT%, but his 5.0 threes attempted per game (also a career high) still feel like far too many for a player whose advantages lie in size and strength more than shooting ability. It still seems like he should take the lead of Dirk Nowitzki, who reduced the number of threes he attempted down from a career-high of 4.9 per game in 2002-03 down to the 2-3 per game range (which actually feels too low for a guy shoots it as well as Dirk).

- What if the Cavs offensive schemes ever improve? The John Kuester era offered a brief hope for a more fluid Cleveland offense, but the team appears to be in a more stagnant mode once again, which too often ends up with LeBron going one-on-one starting from 25 feet away from the basket.

Specifically, I wonder: What happened to the UCLA sets, which looked so promising to me at the start of last season, but soon disappeared? They allowed LeBron to receive the ball around the elbow/high-post area, a la Nowitzki, where he is just impossible to guard, and also set him up nicely to run screen/roll with Varejao at the foul line, a potentially devastating combo from that spot.

So, that's the thing that's crazy: there's still so much room for improvement. If all the pieces come together, how scarily good can LeBron be?

One last idle thought...
- I noticed on the immediately indispensable site Hoopdata that LeBron's career-high FG% of .510 can partially be explained by a career-best mark of .755 in shots at the rim (he's been in the 71-72% range previously).

Something that caught my eye is that the number LeBron's field goals at the rim which have come off of assists from teammates is *way* up from previous seasons, at 50.9%, when that number's been at 37-38% in previous seasons. Not sure what the Cavs are doing differently to cause that change this year. I wondered if it was fast-break related, but Cleveland's fast-break points per game are up only 1.5 points over last year.

Coincidentally, Cavs: The Blog has an excellent breakdown of which players have assisted LeBron's dunks and layups. Check it out. Mo Williams has been the primary setup man - it'll be interesting to see if LeBron can keep up his career-best efficiency with Mo out.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Importance of Good Board Scores (Version 2010)

Since we're close to the midway point of the season, thought it was time for another installment of examining the rebounding margin of contenders. We've found examining a team's rebounding margin is a quick, simple way of projecting playoff success. This started in 2007, when we wanted to explore the correlation of rebounding and title chances.

In our April '07 post we examined the rebounding numbers of the NBA Finals participants between 1987 to 2006 (see chart at bottom of post). Last year, we looked at '08-'09 contenders at the halfway point.

It was no surprise that strong rebounding is a key component to winning titles. But we found it interesting that out of the 40 teams to make the Finals in that 20-year span between '87 to '06, only four teams had a negative rebound margin for the regular season. We also found that the +1 rpg margin threshold seems to be a strong indicator if a team can win the title. If your team rebounds below the +1 rpg margin for the regular season, you're unlikely to win the title.

Since we did the initial post in '07, Lakers won the title with a healthy +2.47 margin, Boston won a title with a +3.12 rpg margin & the Spurs had a +1.6 rpg margin for '06-07 reg. season. '08-09 Orlando finished the reg. season with a +1.12 rpg margin, the '07-08 Lakers had a +1.35 margin, the '06-07 Cavs were a tough boarding club at +3.66.

- In the last 26 seasons (1983-84 to 2008-09), only four teams have made the NBA Finals with a negative rebounding margin for the regular season:
    '86-87 Celtics (-0.1 rpg)
    '93-'94 Rockets (-0.4 rpg)
    '94-'95 Rockets (-2.8 rpg)
    '99-'00 Pacers (-1.6 rpg)
- In the last 26 years, every NBA champion besides the two Rockets' title teams has had at least a +1 rebound per game margin in the regular season.


Currently (stats as of 1/6/10), the Lakers (+2), Magic (+2.6), Cavs (+3.8) and Spurs (+4.1) are in good shape in the rebound margin department.

The Mavs (+0.3), Hawks (+0.1) and the Celts (-0.1) have the rebounding chops to make the finals, but fall a little short of title-team caliber rebounding. The Nugs' (-1.2) and the Suns' (-1.8) current rebound numbers are troubling.

Should be some concern in Boston with their rebounding numbers. Boston's rebound margin is basically even for the year. Celtics qualified for the finals in 1987 with an identical -0.1 rpg margin, but could not take home the title. Obviously, Boson's mediocre boarding can be somewhat attributed to Garnett's knee problems. KG is only averaging 7.6 rpg in 31 mins. per game. KG averaged 8.5 last year, playing roughly the same amount of minutes. It would help if Garnett could regain some of his former rebounding mojo so as to help the Celts get above the +1 threshold by the end of the reg. season.

The Celts are not helped either by Pierce's rebound numbers dipping a little over the last few years. Rasheed Wallace has always been an underachiever on the boards for guy with nice length & mobility. Getting Glen Davis might spike the rebound numbers a little, although he could just be taking minutes away from Shelden Williams, a quality board man.

Slightly surprised the Mavs are not a better rebounding team currently. Have a great collection of rebounders on the roster, especially above-average rebounders at perimeter positons (Marion, Kidd, Howard). Granted, Howard has been dinged up, but still think Dallas should be better on the boards.

Can't ask much more from the center positon, where Dampier and Drew Gooden have been pounding the glass this season. Coach Carlisle needs to find a way to get some better rebounding efforts outside the 5-spot. Kidd is playing the same amount minutes as last year (35.6), but averaging one less rpg than last year. Not to mention, Shawn Marion is having the worst rebounding year of his career. Also, Dirk has slowly seen his reb. production decline over the last few years. Suffice to say, Dallas has been underachieving on the boards thus far, but the raw talent is there to improve internally.

The fan base that should be the most concerned about their rebounding derailing their title chances has to be Denver. The Nugs are currently at -1.2 rpg margin and not really sure Denver can increase their rebound numbers internally. No doubt the Nugs need to bolster their frontline, having no reliable back-ups at their forward positions. Another concern for Denver is that their defensive play has fallen off in recent play. Shoddy rebounding + subpar team defense = slim chance of reaching the Finals.

No surprise the Suns are back to pre-Shaq, D'Antoni-era rebounding ways, -1.8 margin. Couple this poor rebounding with a team defense considerably worse than D'Antoni-era teams and you have a recipe for playoff failure.

Basically if you want your team to make the Finals, you must hope for a positive rebound margin for the regular season. And if you want to take home the Larry O'Brien trophy, at least a +1 rebound per game margin is pretty much required. Don't have to be the best rebounding team to win the title, just can't be a subpar board team.


Here are the regular-season rebound margins for the Finalists of the past 26 seasons:
    1983-84: BOS +4.5 | LAL +2.3
    1984-85: LAL +3.5 | BOS +4.3
    1985-86: BOS +5.1 | HOU +2.1
    1986-87: LAL +2.3 | BOS -0.1
    1987-88: LAL +1.7 | DET +3.0
    1988-89: DET +4.6 | LAL +3.7
    1989-90: DET +3.9 | POR +6.0
    1990-91: CHI +3.3 | LAL +2.4
    1991-92: CHI +4.3 | POR +5.0
    1992-93: CHI +3.3 | PHX +2.6
    1993-94: HOU -0.4 | NYK +5.5
    1994-95: HOU -2.8 | ORL +3.0
    1995-96: CHI +6.6 | SEA +0.9
    1996-97: CHI +5.3 | UTH +2.9
    1997-98: CHI +5.2 | UTH +4.6
    1998-99: SAS +2.0 | NYK +0.4
    1999-00: LAL +3.9 | IND -1.6
    2000-01: LAL +3.4 | PHI +4.0
    2001-02: LAL +1.1 | NJN +0.4
    2002-03: SAS +1.7 | NJN +1.5
    2003-04: DET +2.2 | LAL +0.7
    2004-05: SAS +2.2 | DET +3.8
    2005-06: MIA +4.3 | DAL +3.9
    2006-07: SAS +1.6 | CLE +3.6
    2007-08: BOS +3.1 | LAL +1.3
    2008-09: LAL +2.5 | ORL +1.1