Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Deeper Look at Spurs' Signee Gary Neal

The Spurs made a splash earlier this summer by signing Tiago Splitter to a below-market deal. However, the Splitter deal was not the end of the Spurs' flirtation with impact players in Europe.

The Spurs got their hands on one of the top perimeter free agents available in Europe when they signed 25-year-old combo guard Gary Neal to a three-year deal (terms undisclosed) last week.

Neal was one of the best pure scorers in Europe and was on par with J.C. Navarro as an elite shot-maker in European ball. Neal was an explosive scorer at Towson St. and was the 5th-best scorer in NCAA Div. I in 2006-07, one spot behind Kevin Durant.

Neal starred on Benetton Treviso, a middle-of-the-pack team in Italy this season. Neal led the Italian League (Lega A) in scoring (19.4 ppg), which can't be taken lightly. Italy's Lega A ain't what it used to be, but still remains the 2nd-best domestic league top-to-bottom.

He actually finished the season playing 10 games for Unicaja Malaga in Spain. With Unicaja, Neal was strictly asked to score the ball, and was quite effective dropping 12.6 ppg (41% 3PA) in 20 mins/game.

In 22 Italian League games, Neal averaged 19.4 ppg, 4 rpg, 2.8 apg, 2 spg, 37% on 3PA and 63% on 2PA in 33 mins/game (Neal's numbers in 11 Eurocup games were nearly the same, except he shot a lower percentage). Neal had a stellar adjusted FG percentage of just under 60% for the season.

The first thing you notice about Neal is his terrific all-around shooting ability. Very impressed with his shooting off the dribble. Can hit pull-ups all over the floor going to his left or right.

His vast arsenal of shots includes runners, floaters and bankers. Quality finisher at the rim. Had a subpar year hitting shots on off-ball screens.

Does not require screens to set himself free for scoring opportunities. Can square his defender up and then get to spots to release high-quality shots. Uses hesitation dribbles, crossover and step-backs to great effect.

Primarily a SG but Treviso ensured him with ample playmaking responsibilities. Treviso often had Neal running the pick/roll and he acquitted himself nicely.

Could back-up at point guard in a pinch. Could play him with George Hill or Manu, and Neal could split ball-handling duties with both.

Not sure his defensive chops will be up to Coach Pop's standards. Does a poor job fighting his way around screens--gets hung up too much. Not sure if it's from a lack of alertness or just general indifference. Granted, screens can be held longer (moving) in Europe, but Neal still seems to lack max effort.

Neal appears shorter than his listed 6-4. Good athlete, but does not possess the exceptional athleticism you like to see in an undersized guard. Can he clear shots/create space vs. the longer defenders he will see nearly every night in the NBA?

His combo of solid ball-handling and footwork should allow him to create room vs. length. Plus, his ability to hit off-balance shots (kinda like Jeff Hornacek) should help his transition to the NBA. But it's not a sure thing his in-between game will thrive in the NBA.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Spain, Not Team USA, Should Be Considered Favorites To Win 2010 FIBA Worlds

An early look at the odds for the 2010 FIBA World Championships, which will be contested in Turkey from Aug. 28-Sept. 12, show that the United States is roughly a 1-3 consensus favorite to win the tournament, while Spain has the next-best odds at around 6-1.

I feel like these odds reflect the reputation of USA Basketball rather than the team I see being put together in 2010 (the U.S. Men's National Team is conducting its training camp in Las Vegas this week).

As of now, I believe that Spain, the defending FIBA world champion from 2006, should be considered the favorites to win the 2010 FIBA Worlds, ahead of the U.S. Certainly, the idea that Team USA is still a heavy favorite to win, based on the odds cited above, is somewhat ridiculous.

I'll explain my reasoning about Team USA below, and we'll certainly have more in-depth previews closer to the tournament, once rosters fully take shape and pre-tournament friendlies help sort out power-ranking pecking order. For now, here's a quick capsule look at the teams (other than the U.S.) which we consider to be top medal contenders at this early date:

SPAIN: Will be without Pau Gasol, who is taking time off after three straight long NBA playoff runs plus several years of service to his national team, but all of the other Spanish players should be available. Without Pau, brother Marc will step into the lead big-man role, and in Fran Vazquez, the Spaniards have another quality big to add to the roster.

This is a talented and experienced club in its prime, with golds at the 2006 Worlds and 2009 EuroBasket, and silvers at the 2008 Olympics and 2007 EuroBasket, under its belt.

GREECE: Experienced, deep side should have everyone other than veteran playmaker/catalyst Theo Papalouakas.

: No Manu Ginobili, and getting a bit long in the tooth without too much young talent in reserve, but Argentina should still have enough wily veterans to be formidable.

As far as sleepers, we like....
BRAZIL: With Nene, Anderson Varejao and Tiago Splitter scheduled to play, Brazil might well have the most talented collection of bigs in the tournament. Poor coaching has been the biggest problem for this ballclub in years past, so the addition of coach Ruben Magnano - under whom, Argentina not only won 2004 Olympic gold and 2002 World silver, but also played some of prettiest team basketball seen anywhere last decade - might be the most underrated personnel move of the tourney.

SERBIA: After hitting rock bottom in missing the 2008 Olympics, traditional power Serbia overhauled its roster and won a surprise silver at the 2009 EuroBasket with a young squad led by 2009-10 Euroleague MVP Milos Teodosic.

FRANCE: Plenty of NBA talent to draw from even with Tony Parker, Mickael Pietrus, and Rony Turiaf out for Turkey. Boris Diaw, Nic Batum and Roddy Beaubois should all make the team, but Joakim Noah is an uncertainty who could be a key X-factor. Poor shooting and lack of team cohesion have sunk the French in recent years despite the talent, and could do so again.

OK, on to Team USA....


After the 2008 Olympics, we wrote a post-mortem examining the key reasons why the U.S. had won gold after stumbling in major international competitions in 2002, 2004 and 2006.

Let's take a look at how the prospective 2010 version of Team USA stacks up in the key areas we identified back in 2008:

After USA Basketball's struggles, hoop pundits often derided their teams as a mere collection of stars thrown together, with a need for additional role players to fill out a team. But, even considering everything that Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski did to turn Team USA into a true team, the single most-important factor in winning gold in Beijing was that the U.S. brought overwhelming talent in a way it had not done so since 1996. More stars, not more role players, made the decisive difference - having a big talent edge is vital for Team USA given all of the disadvantages these NBA players face in FIBA competition.

Excerpted from our 2008 post, here's a breakdown of the number of players on the USA roster who were All-NBA players or All-Stars in the seasons leading into their international summers, including projected numbers for the 2010 team:
                92  94  96  00  02  04  06  08  10
All-NBA 1st 5 0 4 3 0 1 1 4 1
All-NBA 2nd 4 2 4 1 0 0 2 1 0
All-NBA 3rd 0 4 4 1 3 0 1 1 0
All-Stars* 11 7 12 7 5 2 5 10 6
[* - includes players who made All-NBA teams but not the All-Star Game: Ben Wallace in '02, Deron Williams in '08.]

The 2010 U.S. Men's National Team projects to rival the 2002 and 2004 editions as the least-talented U.S. teams of the NBA era. While the potential total of 6 All-Stars doesn't seem so bad, consider that:
• Three of those players are point guards - Chauncey Billups, Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo - with Rondo hardly a lock to make the team.
• Gerald Wallace is another - he played in perhaps the only All-Star Game of his career in 2010, and his spot is not guaranteed, either.
• David Lee was an injury-replacement All-Star, whose availability is now in question following a finger injury on the first day of practice.

This is simply not an overwhelmingly talented team. It is well-stocked at the point-guard position (especially with Russell Westbrook in the mix in addition to the three players listed above), but particularly thin in terms of big men, especially with bigs dropping like flies as Amar'e Stoudemire and Robin Lopez have dropped out and now Lee has been injured.

In looking at the chart above, you might say, well, that 1994 team was able to win gold without overwhelming talent, but that was a different world of hoops. The talent level around the globe has increased drastically since then - teams like Brazil (with Nene, Varejao and Splitter) may have a more talented contingent of bigs than the group the U.S. fields, which is likely to be some combination of three out of Brook Lopez, David Lee, Kevin Love and Tyson Chandler.

One thing working in Team USA's favor is that several top players such as Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili, Dirk Nowitzki, Yao Ming, Tony Parker and Andrew Bogut are sitting out the Worlds.

Still, a team like Spain can field a roster loaded with NBA-caliber talent including Marc Gasol, Jose Calderon, Rudy Fernandez, Ricky Rubio, Juan Carlos Navarro, Jorge Garbajosa, Sergio Llull and Victor Claver. Is this Spain lineup as talented as the USA roster? No way. But with the other advantages they have (discussed below), they don't have to be. They just need to be talented enough to bridge the gap, and Spain certainly fills that bill.

Another area in which Team USA has taken a step back is in terms of big-game playoff experience:
• The 2004 team had just 1 player who'd won a championship (Duncan), 2 who'd been to the Finals (Iverson, Jefferson) and no one else who'd made it to even a conference finals.
• The 2006 team had just 1 player who'd won a championship (Wade) and no one else who'd been to even a conference finals.
• The 2008 team picked up much more playoff experience along the way, with 3 champions (Bryant, Wade, Prince), 2 who'd been to the Finals (Kidd, James) and 2 more who'd played in the conference finals (Williams, Boozer) - more closely resembling the '92 and '96 teams which were laden with players who'd made deep runs.

Now, the 2010 team is taking a big step back in terms of big-game experience. They will have a maximum of 3 champions (Billups, Odom, Rondo), but beyond that, not a single player has played in even a second-round NBA playoff game other than Tyson Chandler in 2008 and Gerald Wallace's rare and scattered minutes as a young King.

As we've written many times, Colangelo and Krzyzewski deserve an immense amount of credit for building a cohesive sense of team over the course of the 2006-08 cycle. But now we are back at the beginning of a team-building cycle for Team USA.

Despite all the efforts of Coach K and Big JC, roster turnover is still a major factor in affecting team cohesion. Teams like Spain and Argentina and Greece have a huge advantage because they have so much more roster consistency.

Back in 2006, we ran a post titled "How can Argentina and Spain compete with the USA?"

We offered this breakdown of minutes per game at the 2002 Worlds, 2004 Olympics, and 2006 Worlds, with players who played in all 3 events in bold, showing how deficient the U.S. was in roster consistency:

Oberto 27
Sconochini 23
Wolkowisky 23
Ginobili 22
Sanchez 20
Nocioni 20
Scola 18
Montecchia 17
Palladino 16
Fernandez 8

Ginobili 30.0
Scola 25.3
Nocioni 24.1
Oberto 22.7
Wolkowisky 21.8
Montecchia 19.9
Sanchez 18.5
Sconochini 13.8
Hermann 12.8
Fernandez 12.1
Delfino 9.5

Scola 24.4
Oberto 24.1
Sanchez 23.7
Ginobili 21.7
Nocioni 20.4
Wolkowisky 20.0
Delfino 18.7
Hermann 16.7
Prigioni 14.0
Fernandez 10.0

Gasol 30
Garbajosa 29
Navarro 28
Jimenez 23
I Rodriguez 22
Angulo 16
F Reyes 15
Paraiso 15
Marco 13
A Reyes 12
Calderon 6

Gasol 31.9
Calderon 31.4
Garbajosa 26.9
Navarro 23.7
de la Fuentes 19.9
Jimenez 18.3
F Reyes 14.0
Comas 10.7
Fernandez 9.0

Garbajosa 28.6
Gasol 25.9
Jimenez 21.6
Navarro 21.3
Calderon 21.0
Fernandez 19.7
Mumbru 17.1
M Gasol 11.9
B Rodriguez 11.1
Cabezas 10.1
F Reyes 9.5
S. Rodriguez 9.0

Finley 25
Pierce 24
B Wallace 22
A. Miller 22
B. Davis 21
Marion 21
J O'Neal 19
A Davis 18
R Miller 17
Brand 16
LaFrentz 10
J Williams 6
Iverson 27.1
Duncan 26.0
Marbury 26.0
Odom 22.0
Marion 19.6
Jefferson 18.5
Wade 17.5
Boozer 17.1
James 11.4
Stoudemire 7.1
Okafor 7.0
Anthony 6.7
Paul 24.3
James 22.4
Anthony 22.3
Wade 20.5
Hinrich 19.6
Johnson 19.4
Brand 16.7
Battier 14.9
Bosh 14.8
Howard 14.0
Miller 12.5
Jamison 9.0

After having 6 U.S. players carry over from 2006 to 2008, this issue is rearing its head for Team USA again in 2010, as they do not have any players who played for the National Team in either 2006 or 2008, though Billups and Chandler were with the team in 2007, and several players have been in training camps over the past few years. Widening the roster and adding a training-camp model has certainly been a smart Colangelo innovation - now it'll be interesting to see if it can help mitigate massive roster turnover.

Spain, meanwhile, could have as many as 8 players who played on its 2008 Olympic team, as many as 9 players who played on its 2009 EuroBasket champions, and even as many as 6 players who played on its 2006 World champions. They have years and years of experience playing together - in many big games - and it's a hugely underrated reason why teams like Spain get an advantage over more-talented USA teams.

This was a major issue during USA Basketball's slide - U.S. teams would have no respect for the opposition and get themselves into huge holes against teams like Argentina at the 2002 Worlds and Puerto Rico at the 2004 Olympics, and frantic rallies were too little, too late.

The Colangelo-Krzyzewski era has seemed to reverse this trend, and I don't expect it to be a problem for this 2010 group.

This was a major problem in many games such as the 2006 loss to Greece - the Team USA coaches and players had absolutely no idea about the strengths and weaknesses of the individual Greek players (none of whom had spent meaningful time in the NBA), and were absolutely shredded by Theo Papaloukas & friends on the pick-and-roll.

Hiring the well-regarded Tony Ronzone to overhaul the USA Basketball scouting department was a significant move which improved Team USA's preparation in 2008. It will be interesting to see if these scouting improvements can carry over effectively in 2010.

Think about it: night after night in the NBA, players are going up against opponents who have been scouted thoroughly. Over time, players gradually learn other players' moves and tendencies and strengths and weaknesses to the point where plans of attack become second nature.

Then, in FIBA play, NBA players are often thrown into competition against Euroleague guys they've never seen before, and have no idea about their playing styles or tendencies. It's been a major advantage for the Euroleague players over the years.

I'm confident that the 2010 U.S. team will get quality information about their opponents - and plenty of video on opposition players will be available to distribute to the Team USA guys. It'll be interesting to see if the U.S. players - so inexperienced in FIBA play - will be able to apply their scouting information in their first matchups against the world's best non-NBA players.

I would estimate that the U.S. loses an average of 4-5 net points per game just by being unfamiliar with the way FIBA referees call games, and with foreign rules such as offensive goaltending being legal. Again, Colangelo and Coach K have done a much better job of educating their teams on FIBA rules & refs compared to their predecessors. It's just tough for players to adjust habits and instincts after playing in scores of NBA games.

I'd also note that I think the most underrated rule difference in FIBA basketball is that unlimited zone defenses are allowed. Despite the fact that zones are allowed in the NBA, the existence of a defensive three-second rule really opens up driving lanes in the league which generally do not exist in the international game.

This rule really makes it tough for U.S. teams to exploit their advantages in athleticism in the halfcourt, and makes it imperative that the U.S. get out and press and run, and play a full-court game. It's a strategy Coach K has successfully employed in his tenure, and will certainly need to do in 2010, when the team's strengths lie in outstanding athleticism on the perimeter, and weaknesses will be a dearth of quality bigs.

[Note: Many casual observers always seem to blame a perceived lack of shooting for every USA Basketball loss. I've always found that to be an overrated factor. If you care to read my argument why, it can be found at the bottom of my 2008 post.]


I found the USA Basketball pre-tournament game schedule to be interesting: they'll play France, Lithuania, Spain and Greece. That is one tough schedule of tuneups, including perhaps Team USA's two toughest challengers. I sense that Colangelo and Krzyzewski know that they'll need to get this group battle-tested in a hurry. I'm guessing Coach K is viewing the pre-tourney schedule like he does a tough non-conference schedule at Duke: maybe they'll take a loss prior to Turkey, but if it gets them prepared to cut down the nets at the Big Dance, I'm sure he'll take it.

I'm certainly not counting out the U.S., but to me as of today, the signs point to Spain being the favorites to win gold, and extend a remarkable national sporting run including Rafael Nadal's Grand Slam titles, Pau Gasol's NBA championships, FIBA gold medals at the 2006 Worlds and 2009 EuroBasket plus silvers at the 2007 EuroBasket and 2008 Olympics, and football championships at the 2008 Euro and 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Bulls Sign Omer Asik at Cut-Rate Price

The Spurs seem to be getting plenty of accolades for their below-market signing of Tiago Splitter. No doubt that was one of the best bargains of the summer and should be applauded.

But the Bulls need more credit for their acquisition of a quality Euro big at a cheap rate. The Bulls pulled off one of the shrewder moves of summer by enticing Turkish center Omer Asik to accept a 3-year deal totaling $4 million.

Earlier in the week we highlighted the Knicks' signing of Timofey Mozgov to 3-year deal for roughly $10 mil. Asik and Mozgov are quite similar and are closely matched talent-wise at this point.

Like Mozgov, Asik is a 24 year-old, athletic 7-footer known for rebounding and defense. Both have an offensive arsenal based mostly on dunks and lay-ins. Asik actually might be a little better than Mozgov because of a better feel for the game, being less foul-prone and a better defensive acumen.

Not saying the deal for Mozgov is bad, just pointing out how the Bulls got Asik at a bargain-basement price. Granted, Mozgov had more leverage being a free agent while Asik's options were limited.

Still, Asik was worth at least twice as much as he got. Also taking into account Andris Biedrins makes $9 mil/yr and Marcin Gortat makes $6 mil, getting Asik at around $1.3 per year is an incredible value.

The one hesitation with signing Asik is his recent struggles to stay healthy. His 2009-10 season was cut short in mid-December because of a broken collarbone and his previous club season was derailed by a knee injury.

The collarbone is not a concern but the torn-up knee from a few years ago might be a reason the Bulls were reluctant to offer more money. I wouldn't be too concerned since he was moving well at Eurobasket and during the first few months of this season.

Here's what we had to say about Omer's Eurobasket play last September:
    The young center had a very solid showing this summer, averaging nearly 13 ppg. His 67% FG pct. led the tourney. Was Turkey's second leading scorer behind Ilyasova. Did most of his damage rolling to the rim or moving to open spots. Good finishing ability and showed nice body control to re-adjust for lay-ins on the move. Very mobile 7-footer who's known as a shot-blocker, but didn't block many shots in Poland. At this point, does not show much in the way of refined post skills. Did a good job on the offensive glass. Major liability at the free throw line--15 for 47 for Euro '09. Turkey had to pull him late in the 4th and all of OT in their quarterfinal loss vs. Greece. His shooting form needs more than just tweaking. Will play for Turkish power, Fenerbahce Ulker, this season.
    (Eurobasket '09 stats--12.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg (2.4 off), 67% FG)

In seven Euroleague games, Omer averaged 9 ppg, 6 rpg (2 off), 1.4 bpg and 66% from the floor in 22 mins per game (similar numbers in nine Turkish League games). Still an adventure when he goes to free throw line: 33-for-82 (40%) in his truncated '09-'10 season.

After getting to view most of Asik games this season, I came away more impressed with his defense play. Asik is the all-around package on defense, not just a shot-blocker. Splitter might have been the only finer defensive center in Europe.

Excellent post defender. Like how he uses his chest and lower body to defend on the block. Moves feet very well. Stout in pick/roll situations and recovers well to consistently contest.

Deceptive defensively--initially seems languid (but not bittersweet) at the start of defensive possessions but reacts very quickly. The Bulls should not lose much defensively when they sub Asik in for Noah.

As mentioned above, Omer's a capable finisher on pick/rolls, cuts and transition plays. Terrific in transition--has a knack of running straight to the front of the rim. Very smart finding open space and creating angles for the ball-handler to find him on cuts.

At this point, his post game is rather limited. Shows glimpses of decent footwork here & there. Not bad using drop-steps, particularly on the left block. Occasionally will throw an up/under move into the mix. When he tries to make moves to middle things usually turn ugly. Bulls fans don't want him attempting jumpers and Asik's smart enough to rarely take any.

If Biedrins and Gortat can carve a niche as viable centers in the NBA, so can Asik. Think Asik is comparable to Biedrins. Both Euros are 24 year-old, 6-11 mobile bigs. Both shoot a high pct. and have no post game or face-up game. Both are excellent rebounders and shot-blockers. And both run the floor well and are bad free throw shooters. Biedrins is the better passer and a better FT shooter (relative to Asik). Biedrins is slightly more athletic but think Asik is a better overall defender than Bierdins.

The addition of Asik next to Noah gives the Bulls one of the top defensive tandems at the 5-spot in the league. The big Turk should be able to give the Bulls 15 quality mins. a game right away. Coach Thib should love what Asik brings to the table.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The 2010s Miami Heat: Finally an Heir to '80s Lakers/Celtics?

Six days later, I'm still trying to make sense of the Miami Heat's coup, and I still can't really believe it happened: I can't believe LeBron James left to go to another superstar's city, I can't believe all three stars were willing to take less than max money, and I especially can't believe all this happened while all three players are in their primes, in their 20s. I can't believe that, after such an ego-engorging exercise of free agency, these players have chosen to pursue the course which requires ego sublimation.

I think the new Miami paradigm is difficult to grasp because it throws off our reference points for how things are supposed to work. LeBron's career had been following the arc of the early Jordan narrative, and we could evaluate ultimate success or failure based on whether he became a perennial champion. Even after LeBron's oddly detached performance in the Celtics series, when his legacy seemed to be taking a left turn, there was a precedent in the Wilt narrative: was James on the road to a similar career of overwhelming regular-season statistical dominance and strange postseason failures?

Now, James seems to have forfeited his pursuit of all-time top 5 status, and we have something essentially without precedent - the Heat's signings are a reminder that each narrative in sports is new. The main comparable to me is Wilt Chamberlain forcing a trade to the Lakers in the summer of 1968 to join forces with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, but those players were 30, 32 and 34 at the time, so it's really not even close. The Heat are poised to dominate with three stars in their primes, and anything less than, I would say, 4 or 5 championships will be viewed as failure.

-- After an initial reaction to how clumsily the soap opera of these transactions transpired, and a feeling of sorrow for the long-suffering fans of Cleveland (something I'll try not to ever forget)... well, I have to say that the fan of the game in me has taken over as I look forward, and I'm thrilled at the potential basketball ahead of us.

The Miami three - especially James and Wade - were key players on one of the most beautiful basketball teams I've ever watched, the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, and with LeBron and D-Wade both being such unselfish players, I think we have the potential to see some of the most beautiful - and best - basketball of all time by the middle of this decade.

I expect it to take a year or two to all come together (though I am shocked at how quickly the Miami roster is filling out with quality players like Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem following the superstars' lead and accepting lesser money), but I think that we will eventually have a team which can make a run at joining the 1986 Celtics, 1987 Lakers, and the 1996 Bulls - the three best single-season teams ever, in my opinion - as the greatest of all time.

If there's one thing that's been missing from the NBA over the last decade or so, it's that we haven't had a team truly take a run at all-time greatness - we're coming up on 15 seasons since the '96 Bulls. I'm not yet ready to call the Heat the favorites for 2010-11 (I think I still favor the Lakers because of superior size), but in future seasons, when they can use salary-cap exceptions to add more depth of quality bigs next to Chris Bosh, I do think we'll get a 70-win team at some point. I believe that the combo of two of the top three players in the league, at the very least, plus another top 10-15 guy will just be too overwhelming for the league in time, once they get used to playing together and finish filling out the roster.

Lots of times I hear complaints that the NBA just isn't as good as it was back in the glory days of the '80s, when the Celtics and Lakers fielded teams full of Hall of Famers (while, in my opinion, conveniently forgetting how much worse the quality in the middle and bottom of the league was).

That's the thing: in the 2010s Heat, we finally have a team loaded enough to be a potential heir to the '80s Lakers and Celtics. Yes, they still need to make it happen on the court, but the potential is there. I do also expect it's likely that we'll see another mega-team or two emerge to counter Miami as their dominance becomes evident in a couple years, though SuperTeam2 may develop in the East, which would mitigate the Lakers-Celtics effect a little bit, by not being a Finals matchup.

Getting beyond the supreme awkwardness of "The Decision", that's a pretty damn cool thing for an NBA fan to dream about, isn't it?

-- I will also say that my dream for the upcoming couple seasons, while the guys are still young, is for Miami to run, run, run. I hope the Heat play like the 1990-91 Bulls, known as "The Dobermans" for how Jordan, Pippen and Grant attacked teams with aggressive, trapping defenses - one of my favorite teams ever to watch. C'mon, Erik Spoelstra, give us a chance to see LeBron and D-Wade out in the open court.

-- What can stop a budding Miami dynasty in the 2010s? I think there are two main things to watch:
1. New collective bargaining agreement. If the new CBA clamps down on the availability of exceptions like the mid-level, Miami may have a tough time replenishing its roster as guys like Haslem and Miller (who are both 30 already) age.

Sam Amick of AOL Fanhouse also noted that, if the NBA makes major changes, to a hard salary cap with no grandfathering, the Heat could be forced to shed Bosh next summer.

2. Dwyane Wade's health. D-Wade is not only three years older (28) than his All-Star teammates, but he also has the longer injury history. While Wade's stayed healthy for the past two seasons, he played just 51 games in both 2006-07 and 2007-08, and broke down in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2005. With a team so top-heavy, a major injury to the Big 3 could be devastating. Wade's fearless style of attacking has long been considered an injury risk, not to mention the fact that he's had so much responsibility to carry the Heat on his back. One would think that the help of the SuperFriends trio should take significant strain off his body.

-- LeBron James certainly transformed from a hero to a villain in the blink of an eye - or, at least, in an hour of made-for-TV spectacle. Is there a way for him to restore his image - is there a way for LeBron to restore himself back in the running for one of the top-five players of all-time?

In terms of the all-time debate, I think it's going to be tough for LeBron to shake the perception that he took the easy way out. Charles Barkley captured the conventional wisdom:
    The notion that you can be born in your hometown and rise from the ashes, that would mean ... First of all, I think for these guys as reporters, if somebody said to you guys, I want to bring a championship to Cleveland. Even 15 years from now, if he hadn't won a championship, everybody would respect him more. Saying, you know that guy wanted to win a hometown championship.

    I talked to a bunch of players, and they all say, "If he would have took the challenge of staying in Cleveland..." Now, if he wins one in Miami, it's "Okay, congratulations."
On a recent edition of the B.S. Report podcast, Bill Simmons noted that Michael Jordan would have wanted to vanquish Dwyane Wade, not team up with him. I think there's some truth to that, and more truth to the fact that that's what fans want from their athletes.

So, how can LeBron change this perception, especially when D-Wade will presumably always have one more ring than him? Well, LBJ's obviously going to have to pile up some stratospheric accomplishments. I would say that he needs to lead Miami to a 72+-win season at some point, and at least 6 titles, or maybe at least a royal flush of 5 straight. I also think that averaging a 20-10-10 triple double or two - something which I believe is within his range - would capture the imagination of NBA fans and create a debate about whether he's comparable to - or better than - Magic Johnson.

Also in LeBron's favor is the age difference between he and Wade. As Wade becomes 33 and 34, LeBron could re-emerge as a true no. 1 carrying his team, rather than as a sidekick to another no. 1, and give extra weight to his number of championships, much as Kobe Bryant has done by adding 2 championships as a no. 1 to his 3 earlier championships as a no. 2.

-- Of course, all this is wildly premature. LeBron still needs to get to championship no. 1, after all, especially after his disappointing performance vs. Boston in May. We still have to play the games, and again, I wouldn't be surprised if it takes a year or two to coalesce in Miami.

Still, one thing that I'm interested to watch will be how the Miami SuperFriends affect NBA fan interest. I would imagine that this combo will be fantastic for capturing the imagination of fans - especially casual fans - in the first year or two, but if the Heat become an untouchable dynasty, with seasons feeling like mere formalities to Heat coronations, what will happen? I tend to think that fans are always captivated by greatness more than anything else, but, in the immortal words of Heat legend Timmy Hardaway: "We gunna see."

Other thoughts:
-- Kevin Durant's quiet handling of his contract extension has been widely praised as a sharp contrast to the free-agent circus of "The Decision" and beyond. Here's something to consider: if LeBron and the Heat take on the role of villains... and assuming that the Lakers remain a polarizing giant... does that mean that the Oklahoma City Thunder could take on the role of the league's ultimate white-hat good guys? It would be quite a quick 180 in image for a franchise so recently vilified for the circumstances of its move to OKC.

-- I don't really care that much about media scoops in this day and age, but I don't think Stephen A. Smith got enough credit for calling the James-Wade-Bosh move to Miami far earlier than others. As evidence emerges that the Big 3 made their decision earlier rather than later, Smith looks better and better. As much as I've never cared for Smith's on-air persona, I have to give credit where it's due.

Meanwhile, I'd like to tip The Painted Area's cap to John Hollinger, who wrote on August 6, 2009 that:
    The biggest winner of all, however, might be Miami.... They have virtually no money on the books beyond this season and could add one max contract and another fairly expensive star, all while keeping Dwyane Wade.
Out of what I read, Hollinger was the earliest, by far, in terms of national writers seeing what Pat Riley was fixing to do. As usual, Hollinger was ahead of the game, and that's one of several reasons I think he is the finest NBA writer working today.

-- Speaking of outstanding NBA writers, Brian Windhorst has already written the best story looking Inside "The Decision". I'm hoping Windhorst writes the definitive book detailing the long, winding road from Beijing (or wherever) to Miami for James, Wade and Bosh. It's a fascinating story about modern sports in so many ways, but unfortunately, I wonder if it's untenable for a Cleveland-based writer such as Windhorst.

-- If I may make another request to the esteemed Mr. Windhorst, I still really want to know exactly what happened in Game 5 of the Celtics-Cavs series. It was possibly the strangest basketball game I've ever seen, and certainly out of character compared to what I've seen from LeBron James' career. That said, there's no doubt James was strangely aloof and seemingly disinterested in Game 5, and it has colored my view of him. What the hell happened?

-- "The Decision" was bad, OK. But I've been trying to figure out why it didn't bother me that much. I think it's because, perhaps sadly, I'm inured to reality-TV culture. I find Survivor, The Bachelor, Jersey Shors, The Hills and on and on and on far more offensive. I guess I find no-talents desperate for celebrity less offensive than narcissistic talent. It's a race to the gallows, I know.

It's the same reason the Barry Bonds reality show didn't bother me that much. Yes, it was ridiculous, but I was at least curious about Bonds as a character. I view this all as entertainment, and find LeBron/Bonds/etc to be interesting characters. The average no-talent reality-show participant just engenders pure disgust from me.

-- Last, but not least: I'm sorry, Cleveland. You deserve better, really. As much as I might gush about and revel in the basketball played in Miami in years ahead, I'll try to never forget.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Knicks Stealthily Sign Timofey Mozgov

According to the reliable Jonathan Givony of Draft Express, Russian center Timofey Mozgov signed a 3-year, $9.7 million contract with the Knicks over the weekend.

Donnie Walsh seemed to pull this deal off totally under the radar. No indication Mozgov was interested in coming over to the NBA this summer. Have to imagine multiple teams would have been hot on Mozgov if they realized he was making himself available this summer.

Figured Timo could still use a year or two of seasoning in Europe. Timo had to split time with Euroleague vet Robertas Javtokas (one of the better centers in Europe) on Khimki Moscow this season. Javtokas was possibly looking to move to another club, so Mozgov would have been given the starting slot and more opportunity to shine next season.

A quality signing since the Knicks badly needed a true big on their roster. Have to wonder how the Nets missed on Timo, not to mention, Jersey gave nearly the same money to journeyman Johan Petro instead. Advantage Knicks.

After Brendan Haywood and Darko, Mozgov (turns 24 on Friday) was probably the best free-agent center candidate on the market this summer considering the rest of the viable centers are in their mid-30s (Shaq, Ben Wallace, Rasho, Big Z).

Compared to the money shelled out to Haywood and Darko, Mozgov's deal is a relative bargain - a low-risk transaction for the Knicks. Worthwhile gamble on a 7-footer with terrific physical tools and enticing potential.

Mozgov was the best free-agent big in Europe besides Giannis Bourousis and one of the best European free agents overall. Bourousis is more polished offensively, but Mozgov clearly has the athletic advantage. Timo is very mobile and runs the floor very well for a player his size. Think Andris Biedrins or Marcin Gortat.

Impressive physical package but still figuring out the game. Lacks polish and tends to be reactionary in his approach. His limited feel for the game leads him to take bad angles and gets him out of position, which leads to fouls.

One key question surrounding Mozgov's development: can he stay on the floor for extended stretches? Like we saw in the 2009 EuroBasket, Mozgov still has issues staying out of foul trouble. He averaged 3 fouls per game in only 13 minutes a game in Euroleague action (2.7 fouls in 18 mins/game in Russian SuperLeague play).

Here was our analysis of Mozgov after his breakout Eurobasket performance last September:
    If you can pick anyone who had a coming-out party at Euro '09, you might have to go with Timo. The 7-0 Mozgov was an imposing interior presence at both ends of the floor. Mozgov is a pretty good athlete for his size and has a nice frame that can handle more weight. Powerful finisher, might have led the tourney in dunks. No real signs of much of a post game, did most of his damage rolling to the rim. But there were a few glimpses of a decent touch on some short jumpers. Attacks the offensive glass. Did a pretty good job defensively protecting the painted area and wasn't too bad on ball screens. Dealt with constant foul trouble which limited him to 23 mins/game. His potential is enticing, and have to imagine most NBA front offices are keeping close tabs on the 23-year-old. (Timo's Eurobasket '09 stats: 11 ppg, 4.5 rpg (2.7 off.), 1.3 bpg, 59%)
The only thing we would tweak about this analysis after watching him play for Khimki extensively this season: his jumper needs work. He's not really a threat to face-up and currently does most of his damage inside the painted area.

In 16 Euroleague games, Mozgov averaged 6 ppg (50.6%) and 4 rpg in 13 minutes per game. Timo was a bit better in 32 Russian Superleague games--7.5 ppg (56%) & 4.8 rpg (2 off.) in 18 mins/game.

As we mentioned above, Mozgov's post game is lacking. His footwork on offense is actually not bad. It's just that his touch needs refining. Not much of a scoring threat outside of five feet. Scores off of rolls, cuts and occasionally off his post moves. Sometimes likes to finish with his left hand.

As mentioned above, very effective as the roll man in pick/roll action. Good hands--can catch the ball on the move and finish in one motion. The ball-handler can throw the ball up at the rim and Timo can go get it. Very dangerous offensive rebounder and adept at put-backs.

Holds up fairly well defending pick/roll action. His mobility is an asset in ball screens and allows him to be an effective help defender a majority of the time. Averaged 1 block per game in both Euroleague and Superleague play. His post defense could use some work.

Devastatingly good finisher on rolls with Team Russia last summer, better than he was with Khimki this season. What I noticed when comparing video of Timo's play with Team Russia against his play with Khimki, was Russia did a better job of keeping the middle of the floor open than Khimki which spaced out the help defenders. Some of this spacing was due to Coach Blatt's Princeton sets. Mozgov should have even more room to finish in the NBA thanks to D'Antoni's spread system and the deeper 3pt. arc.

Knicks fans need to be patient with the Russian big. He has not been playing high-level basketball for very long and can imagine the adjustment to the NBA, not to mention NYC, will be difficult. Assume D'Antoni will give Mozgov 15 mins/game off the bench and hopefully he can provide an interior presence (and rebounding) that D"Antoni's teams normally lack.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Meanwhile, Quietly in the West...

As the NBA world awaits a potential earthquake to its power structure - what with the impending decisions of alpha free agents LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh - the likelihood is that the major tectonic disruptions will be contained entirely within the Eastern Conference.

The Cavs, Bulls, Heat, Nets and Knicks are the franchises most likely to be extreme winners or losers based on where the three true difference-making major free agents land, but as Henry Abbott tweeted last week:
    All this talk about huge free agents for bad teams. But some GM is going to win a championship with little improvements to a good team.
No matter who emerges as the most extreme winner in the East, they will of course still have to go through the champion of the West in order to win a title.

Remember that the West was a conference in which just 7 games separated no. 1 L.A. from no. 8 OKC, and in which the Suns transformed from a lottery team seemingly on the decline into a near-conference champion with the development of young players and a few moves around the edges.

Small improvements can go a long way in the West. Before the earthquake strikes in the East, I wanted to look at some of the quieter, subtler shifts and potential happenings that could shape the next few years in the Western Conference.

Even though Kevin Durant is only 21 years old, sometimes I wonder if we may already be taking this guy for granted. Durant's comments to Dan Steinberg of the D.C. Sports Bog from June 28 were not news, per se, but they still stopped me in my tracks as they reminded me of the big picture of KD's career. In the midst of talking about how John Wall was going to be "big for the city" in D.C., Durant reiterated that he was committed to Oklahoma City:
    Durant, of course, will be a restricted free agent next summer, and more than a few optimistic Wizards fans dreamed a few Wall-Durant dreams. Sorry. Put them away.

    "No," Durant answered, when I asked if he's ever thought about coming home. "I mean, I'm just worried about Oklahoma City. I never envision myself playing at home, but you never know what'll happen. But I'm happy I'm in Oklahoma City, if that's what you're asking."
Step back and think about this as a reminder: a) Durant is from the D.C. area, b) an electrifying potential teammate in John Wall is coming to town, and c) Washington is widely perceived to be a more attractive destination for a young African-American than Oklahoma City.

Look at the cities being considered by the major free agents this summer. Other than Cleveland, which is in the mix only because it's LeBron's hometown, all of the potential destinations are glamorous marquee cities. What a franchise-making stroke of luck for the Thunder that they not only found a transcendent superstar, but also one who appears comfortable to play out his days in Oklahoma. I was going to label it a "Duncanian" stroke of luck, but on further reflection, it's even more remarkable - guys like Duncan, Stockton and Malone grew up in low-key areas, so small markets seemed like reasonable fits. But for a D.C.-area kid to accept a small, non-cosmopolitan market? Amazing.

Then, to read a tweet like this from Durant during the middle of the BET Awards last weekend, with who knows how many NBA players in attendance for the party:
    LA is definitely turnt up right now...but I'd rather be in Chicago getting this good work in!! No disrespect, but I'm tryna be the greatest!
And now, he's in Orlando to support the Thunder's summer-league team? I don't know if there's enough that can be said in admiration of how this budding superstar carries himself at such a young age.

The Thunder are now in talks with Durant about a contract extension which should be a complete formality - a maximum contract by acclamation of the entire Sooner State. Though lots of moves will draw a whole lot more noise and chatter, I think that only LeBron James' decision will be a more significant transaction this summer than Kevin Durant's contract extension.

The signing of Steve Blake should be a good one for the Lakers for the 2010-11 season - he seems like a good fit for the triangle offense and a supporting role for the two-time defending champions.

Yet, it is another example of the Lakers exchanging young for old - with 23-year-old Jordan Farmar about to depart the team via free agency as the 30-year-old Blake comes on board with a four-year contract - to the point where I wonder if the Lakers' championship window might shut more abruptly than expected after 2011.

In the 2012 Playoffs, here's what the ages of L.A.'s current rotation will look like, assuming that Shannon Brown re-signs, as seems likely, and I'll include Derek Fisher, too, even though he seems likely to re-sign with the Lakers for just one year:
    Kobe Bryant: 33
    Pau Gasol: 31
    Andrew Bynum: 24
    Lamar Odom: 32
    Ron Artest: 32
    Steve Blake: 32
    Shannon Brown: 26
    Luke Walton: 32
    Derek Fisher: 37
    (Also, Sasha Vujacic would be 28, but he will be a free-agent after the 2010-11 season.)
With players like Farmar and Trevor Ariza gone, nearly every key Laker player will be into the decline phase of his career by the 2012 Playoffs.

These Lakers are certainly worthy champions, but they have not been a dominant club. Their margin for error in the postseason has been small enough that I think these declines will sink them after 2011, especially considering that the team will not have much flexibility to improve next summer.

Even the aged Celtics had younger players like Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis and Tony Allen to give them a spark. Certainly, the age roll-call spotlights how heavily dependent L.A. will be on Andrew Bynum developing into an All-NBA center, in the manner that Rondo developed into an All-NBA player for Boston.

Hey, maybe the losses of Ariza and Farmar are minor enough that they don't change anything (though I still think every little bit hurts) - maybe the Lakers were destined to decline after 2011 anyway, and it's not as if Laker Nation will be in tears if another three-peat is the end of this group's road. I just think that the window of opportunity for this L.A. Lakers team is smaller than most people believe.

OK, after that spiel about how the gray-bearded Lakers are hopeless, maybe it's contradictory for me to now suggest that the Spurs' ability to return to championship contention is being highly underestimated, but here goes.

The last memory we have of the Spurs is seeing them get swept off the court and seemingly into oblivion by the Suns. Of course, as mentioned above, a year ago, Phoenix was a 46-win team with a one-way ticket to Secaucus in its future, before the development of young players, plus the health of its veterans, propelled the Suns back into contention.

If the Spurs can stay healthy - which is a big if, I realize - I like their chances to move back into serious contention precisely because all indications point to them getting an infusion of important young talent in Tiago Splitter.

As more and more crazy money gets thrown around in free agency - especially at big players like Darko and Amir Johnson, since size is at a premium - I become more and more convinced that 7-foot center Tiago Splitter will be THE value free-agent signing of the summer.

The 25-year-old Splitter, the reigning Spanish League MVP, is *just* what the Spurs need: a mobile big man who will be a strong defensive anchor, taking some of that responsibility off of the aging Tim Duncan, and who has methodically developed an solid offensive game over the years, flashing especially good passing skills in Spain this season.

Listen, I'm not the first to write this. The great Kelly Dwyer was all over this back in May, and the good folks at 48 Minutes of Hell have consistently been on the Splitter beat, as well.

I just feel like I need to reiterate the point, as I still often hear pundits suggesting that the Spurs need a big man, and it's just laughable. No, they don't; all accounts suggest that San Antonio has a good one coming.

Am I suggesting that Tiago Splitter will be an NBA All-Star? No. What I do believe is that he'll be a top-tier defensive center, he'll be someone who can help San Antonio match up vs. L.A.'s size, and he'll be a huge, huge upgrade for a Spurs team which too often had to play small and lacked the interior defensive presence which has defined the franchise's long run of contention. That is coming back: Splitter is ready now.

The interesting question for the Spurs now, especially with Richard Jefferson's surprising decision to opt out of the last year of his contract, is what they do with Tony Parker. At 28 years old and entering the last year of a contract which pays him $13.7 million, Parker's trade value will never be higher, and it's doubtful that the Spurs will want another long-term contract carrying through Tony's decline years.

The problem is that I think the Spurs will be hard-pressed to replace Parker's production in 2010-11 (I like George Hill, but don't think he can replace Parker on a full-time basis), and they may have a championship potential next year which will soon evaporate, given the ages of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili.

San Antonio probably needs to trade the asset while it can, but for all the talk about how they need a big man, the Spurs most pressing need in 2010-11 may be in the backcourt.

The two teams which have the best chance of bringing some earthquake effects to the West are the Rockets and Mavericks, both of whom have the most intriguing assets and appeal to draw a free agent such as Bosh in a sign-and-trade.

Meanwhile, the Rockets are quietly sitting on two of the most fascinating assets in the league this summer: New York's first-round pick in 2011, top-1 protected (essentially, as the Rockets have the right to exchange first-round picks), and also the Knicks' first-round pick in 2012, top-5 protected.

I'm not a believer that Amar'e Stoudemire is a huge upgrade over David Lee. If the Knicks strike out on major free agents, will they be much better? Certainly, it's only July 6 and lots can happen via the trade market, if not through free agency, so the Knicks still have plenty of opportunity to improve into the late-lottery or better.

But man, those are two tantalizing variable assets for Houston. If the Knicks stink, Houston could be have a chance to set itself up for the rest of the decade regardless of what happens with Yao's feet.

Daryl Morey's best course of action this summer might be to sabotage all productive transactions by the Knicks. What happens in New York may have a more profound effect on the future of his team than anything else this summer.

I'm not suggesting that the T-wolves will be sniffing Western Conference glory anytime soon. I just wanted to add a brief addendum to note that, as bad as the Darko Milicic signing was, Minnesota's signing of Nikola Pekovic to a 3-year, $13 million was quietly one of the best bargains of free agency so far.

John Hollinger's generally reliable Euroleague stat translations have projected Pekovic at the following per-36 NBA numbers over the past three seasons:
    '09-10: 18.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 53% FG
    '08-09: 19.4 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 56% FG
    '07-08: 16.5 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 51% FG
A full three seasons of data project Pekovic producing at a clip of around 18 points, 9 rebounds, 53% FG per 36 minutes in the NBA.

I'm not suggesting Pekovic is an All-Star - the guy can't defend a lick - but as with Splitter, consider the context: Pekovic is 6-11 and 24 years old - that's where the money's been going most crazy.

If he provides anything close to what his translated numbers suggest, he'll be a total bargain by current standards. Not that anyone will notice, with him playing in Minnesota....

Now that we've written all this about the subtle shifts and opportunities in the West, I'm sure there will be something like a Chris Paul-to-Portland trade next week which changes everything dramatically. Yes, it's probably premature to speculate, but it seems like several signs for the future of the Western Conference have already taken shape.