Thursday, April 28, 2011

What Was Battier Thinking?, and Other Random NBA Playoffs Musings

What a couple weeks of NBA playoff basketball. With the Brandon Roy game and Wednesday's dramatic Game 5's and more, it's already been draining, and it's not even May yet. Great stuff. Here are a few random musings on a wild night of playoff basketball, and more:

1. Surprising Lack of Awareness from Shane Battier
A couple weeks ago Shane Battier experienced one of the greatest days of his life as he made a game-winning three-pointer in Game 1, and his wife also gave birth to a baby girl. Last night in Game 5, Battier - one of the smartest and most attentive-to-detail players I've ever seen - made a pair of out-of-character plays in which his lack of awareness kept the door open for the Spurs' miracle comeback.

On Gary Neal's game-tying three, Battier inexplicably stuck with Tim Duncan inside the arc, even though only a three could keep San Antonio alive, and even though he had a clear angle to contest and bother Neal. Battier should have been prioritizing the three-point line, and Neal, at all costs. (Battier is famously a numbers guy, but I wonder if the memory of Duncan's game-tying three against the Suns in Game 1 in 2008 made Battier overcompensate how much he stuck to Duncan, even though Timmy is just 3-19 on threes since his miracle.) The master, Sebastian Pruiti, broke down the video expertly on

On the previous Memphis possession, Battier was inbounding the ball in the frontcourt with the Grizz holding a 95-94 lead with 2.2 seconds left. O.J. Mayo ran all the way into the backcourt, but his defender, George Hill, stopped at halfcourt and turned back. If Battier had thrown back to Mayo successfully, I don't think San Antonio would have had time to foul him before time expired, and certainly would have had less than 1.7 seconds for its final play. It wasn't a cut-and-dried bad decision. There's certainly some risk associated in throwing into the backcourt, and Battier only looked at Mayo briefly, as a decoy. Still, the reward of passing to Mayo seemed to far outweigh the risk, and playing the odds like that is supposed to be a core strength of Battier's mental game. He is usually so sharp on these types of subtle plays that it was surprising to see the lapses.

Speaking of Battier, I was very surprised that Lionel Hollins - who has outcoached Gregg Popovich in the series with superior game-planning - stuck with Battier exclusively in the overtime period, at the expense of Sam Young, who was fantastic all night long, with 18 points, 6 rebounds, 2 steals and a block on 7-12 shooting, and also played disruptive defense in 32 minutes. Young played only the last eight seconds of OT, when the outcome had been decided.

Memphis is still in tremendous shape, going home for Game 6 after looking so good in Game 5 on the road. But they could be preparing for Game 1 vs. Oklahoma City right now.

2. Shutting Down San Antonio's Core Offense
I continue to be amazed at how well the Grizzlies defense is taking away what San Antonio prefers to do on offense, given that the numbers suggest these were team weaknesses during the season.

According to the detailed play-by-play breakdowns from Synergy Sports Technology, here are the three most-common play-types in the San Antonio offense in the regular season, with a look at what percentage of total offense each play type accounted for, how many points per possession (PPP) they scored on each play type, and where they ranked in PPP:
                 SPURS O    |   GRIZZ D
Spot Up 24.2% 1.08 3 | 1.01 22
Pick/Roll 21.3% 0.94 2 | 0.90 17
Transition 11.9% 1.19 8 | 1.17 20

Here is how San Antonio has fared in these categories against Memphis:
           PCT%     PPP
Spot Up 21.5% 0.82
Pick/Roll 26.5% 0.89
Transition 13.2% 0.83

The "Spot Up" numbers reflect how well the Grizzlies have shut down San Antonio's corner-three game. Zach Lowe expertly analyzed how that's happening last week.

I continue to marvel at how Memphis is denying San Antonio's transition game, as the steep drop in PPP illustrates. Early in the season, I wrote about San Antonio's transition game, emphasizing how Tony Parker's superlative finishing ability allowed him to convert fast breaks even when the numbers were against him, in 1-on-3 opportunities, for example. As the increase in percentage of offense shows, Memphis is not shutting down the Spurs' transition opportunities, they're just doing an incredible job of denying conversions. Against Parker in particular, my eyes have simply seen superior individual defensive plays in creating blocks or deflections or poke aways, by multiple players like Sam Young, Tony Allen, and Mike Conley.

It's just really amazing to me that the Grizzlies D is faring so well in areas where they struggled during the season. I know the numbers aren't iron-clad here, especially since the Memphis defense improved over the course of the season, but I'm still surprised.

3. Is Sam Presti the Real MVP?
With each passing game, the Oklahoma City Thunder look more and more like a legitimate threat to win the 2010-11 NBA championship. This isn't supposed to be happening. Their two best players are both 22 years old, and their likely next-best two players (James Harden and Serge Ibaka) are both 21. This isn't supposed to be happening.

In fact, if Oklahoma City manages to end up as the NBA champions, I'd argue that it would possibly rank as the best team-building job ever done by a general manager. Yes, Presti was fortunate to land Kevin Durant in the lottery, but beyond that, it's been a series of impeccable, brilliant decisions and moves which has rebuilt and positioned his franchise for championship contention far, far faster than expected. Off the top of my head, I can only think of Red Auerbach's work in acquiring both Bill Russell and Tommy Heinsohn way back in 1956 to jumpstart the Celtics dynasty, and also how he managed to put/steal together the Big 3 in 1980. (Note: I'm not the biggest Jerry West fan.)

It leads to this question I've been pondering: if you were starting a franchise, and you could have either any one player in the league, or Sam Presti, which would you take?

I would generally always take a player, and would probably still do so in this case, but I really have to think about it. It's a testament to the fact that Presti is, in my opinion, easily the best general manager in the league currently, and is already getting close to establishing himself as an all-time great.

4. Nene v Ibaka
Serge Ibaka's ninth block last night was an illustration of why I think NBA basketball is the best sport in the world. Thunder 98, Nuggets 97, 40 seconds left. Nene, a world-class athlete standing nearly seven-feet tall, goes up for a dunk. Serge Ibaka, another world-class athlete standing nearly seven-feet tall, meets and denies him, with the game in the balance. It's a breathtaking, exhilarating meeting of two superior athletes going mano-a-mano - a reminder that these playoffs feature the best athletes on the planet. It was one of my favorite plays of the entire postseason. Even though I knew Serge was good, and how much he's improved, he's still been the revelation of the playoffs for me: at 21, "Iblocka" looks like a no-brainer All-Star in the making. The Thunder are set.

Very early in the season, I wrote about how shoddy OKC's interior defense looked. Seems like a post from an entirely different era now. Perk and Serge seem like a perfectly complemented tandem to lock up the interior for years to come. (I also think there's potential in a buddy-cop spinoff titled "Perk 'n' Serge".)

5. I Love Watching Chris Paul Play Basketball
Switching to Lakers-Hornets, I just wanted to be on record with the above statement in case tonight is the end of the road for New Orleans. I think that Chris Paul had become the most underrated player in basketball by the end of the season, and a seriously underrated factor why was that the Hornets appeared on national television just twice all season - in February against the Clippers, and on the last night of the season vs. Dallas. Now we've all been reminded that, at his best, Paul is still the best point guard in basketball.

Make no mistake, Paul has been a better player in the playoffs (league-leading 32.9 PER) than in the regular season (23.8 PER). As much as I love the guy, I only had him on my All-NBA Third Team, partially because the competition was so tough at guard, and partially because Paul struggled in February when he appeared to be banged up, but also because there were too many games in which he wasn't assertive enough. Paul had the lowest usage rate of his career (21.1) during the season. He's up to 25.5 in the postseason, and I think it's a key factor why he's been so unbelievably good.

As a side note, here are the top six PERs of the playoffs so far:
1. Chris Paul, 32.9
2. LeBron James, 30.0
3. Kevin Durant, 29.7
4. Dwyane Wade, 27.8
5. Dwight Howard, 27.1
6. Derrick Rose, 25.7
The superstars have stepped up across the board, and it's been part of the reason these playoffs have been so great, so far.

6. Fisher & Blake Pick It Up On O
While the Lakers have been getting torched by Chris Paul, at least point guards Derek Fisher and Steve Blake have picked up their offensive play substantially. Fisher's PER has jumped from 8.9 in the season to 14.0 in the playoffs, while Blake has jumped from 7.5 to 15.1.

If it's spring, it must be time for Derek Fisher to find his playoffs Fountain of Youth once again. After shooting 39% FG and 40% 3PT on the season, he's up to 50%/63% so far, and has provided several key buckets. Twice in his career, he's been over 50% on threes in long playoff runs (2001/52%, 2003/62%), and his outside shooting was aberrantly good in last year's playoffs, too.

Blake, meanwhile, leads the entire league in playoff true shooting percentage (.857) and assist rate (57.1) in his admittedly small sample of 63 minutes of action.

On the flip side, Emeka Okafor's showing of 13 defensive rebounds in 157 minutes in the series (by contrast, Paul has 29 defensive boards in 207 minutes) is just killing the Hornets, who are getting pounded on the boards.

7. Just Say No to FIBA Goaltending Rules
In a recent interview with Dan LeBatard, David Stern said:
    "I'm going to urge the owners — and it's not very radical but we were talking about it for awhile — to adopt the international rule on basket interference. That is to say, once the ball hits the rim it's in play. Because I think that it's too hard to call. I think that we don't want to stop the game every time to see if it's the right call, but the camera that looks down on the basket can tell the story if the refs have gotten it right."
Count me as one who offers a strong dissent. I find there's some suspense in seeing a shot bounce in tantalizing fashion on the rim - will it drop, or will it fall away? With FIBA rules, it'll be too easy for NBA players to knock balls off the rim. I will accept the occasional human error inherent in this call, in favor of the greater drama of the current rule.

8. Just Say Yes to Crystal Thunderstix
I attended a game in New Orleans not too long ago, and with tonight possibly being the last home game of the season, I wanted to throw this in.... How pervasive is the influence of Crystal Hot Sauce in Louisiana? They even make Thunderstix out of them! While I'm usually decidedly against Thunderstix, I'm decidedly in favor of these:

Can't wait for more Playoffs. Just rooting for Game 7s everywhere.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Fast Breaks on Lakers-Hornets Game 4

In my latest edition of "Fast Breaks" for, I analyzed the otherworldly performance of Chris Paul in Game 4 of the Lakers-Hornets series following the game last night.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Fast Breaks on Lakers-Hornets Game 3

The good folks at have asked me to contribute immediate postgame analysis for selected playoff games. Tonight, I offered my "Fast Breaks" on the Lakers' Game 3 road win in New Orleans.

Other games I've analyzed so far have been Bulls-Pacers Game 2 and Hawks-Magic Game 1.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Playoffs Predictions: Lakers over Heat

It's the day of the playoffs, wow-wow-wow. Here's a quick post before tipoff to get our picks on the record. We're sticking with our preseason Finals pick of Heat vs. Lakers, though we're switching our prediction of the winner of that matchup to Los Angeles. The Lakers still have too many mobile, skilled bigs, and as much as the NBA has gone small in recent years, quality size has still reigned supreme come June. That's really the ultimate challenge for the LeBron-Wade combo - are they good enough to overcome the fact that they have less quality size seen in an NBA champion really since Jordan and Pippen were able to carry the Bulls? Note that Andrew Bynum's health is of paramount importance - we don't see L.A. winning it all without him patrolling the middle this year.

We're picking all the higher seeds in the first two rounds, and then going with 2-seeds L.A. and Miami to knock off 1-seeds San Antonio and Chicago in the conference finals. We've loved both the Spurs and the Bulls since early on. They were both teams we tabbed for the "over" on season wins prior to the season (happy to say we went 5-2 on season-win O/U picks overall, thankyouverymuch), and we had Lakers over Spurs in the conference finals from the start. However, our logic for San Antonio surpassing expectations was faulty, as we thought Tiago Splitter would play a key role, allowing the Spurs to play effectively with big lineups. That hasn't come to pass, and while it didn't hurt the Spurs in the regular season, we don't think they can beat the Lakers without contributions from Splitter, who would allow them to match up with the L.A bigs.

As far as picking the Bulls to lose to Miami, it's just a bit of a hunch that Chicago really maxed out its potential in the regular season, with Tom Thibodeau driving them through every possession. We'd still expect it to be a tough, close series, and the Bulls' depth of mobile bigs poses almost as much of a challenge as the Lakers' would. Still, we're going with Miami.

As much as there are several compelling characters and storylines as we head into the postseason - Derrick Rose leading a 1-seed as the presumptive MVP, Kobe Bryant going for his second threepeat and Phil Jackson going for his fourth, San Antonio and Boston vets trying to turn back the clock while Oklahoma City's kids try to speed it up - the guy we come back to is LeBron James. More than for others, his season really starts now. We know that he can dominate regular seasons, but his curiously detached and poor performance in Game 5 against the Celtics last spring raised previously unfounded doubts about his worthiness as a postseason performer. Only now - really only starting with a second-round series vs. Boston - can LeBron truly start to move on from Game 5, and fully restore and enhance his basketball reputation. My sense is that he's being slept on a little bit, as it seems like expectations for him are lower than they've been in some time. We gonna see.

Whaddaya say we tip these playoffs off, and decide who the best basketball team in the world is? To us, this is the best sporting event on Earth. Let's do it.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Painted Area's 2010-11 NBA Awards

With the 2010-11 NBA regular season in the books, let's get right to it with our mythical awards ballot:

1. LeBron James, Miami
2. Dwight Howard, Orlando
3. Derrick Rose, Chicago
4. Dwyane Wade, Miami
5. Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers

All in all, it's been a goofy year for the NBA's MVP award. LeBron James sunk his chances for a third straight award all the way back on July 8, and from there, MVP reasoning has seemed to go like this: James and Dwyane Wade cancel each other out because they have each other, and to a lesser extent, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have done so, as well. Meanwhile, a couple of the top teams - San Antonio and Boston - have done it by committee, while the Lakers have really done so as well, with Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum all getting deserved credit for carrying the team for stretches at various points of the season. That's disqualified Kobe Bean Bryant even though he's had another brilliant season, defying the aging process with 82 games played, among other things.

As much as anything, Derrick Rose is going to win the 2010-11 MVP award in large part for meeting this criteria: best W-L record with fewest superstars. I believe that's led to an oversimplification in the rush to anoint Rose, though I do believe there's a fair and solid case to make for a Rose vote.

I have agonized far more than I should over an imaginary vote - in my mind, it's very, very close between James, Howard, and Rose, and I could live with votes for any of the three. Rose has not had what I consider to be a truly MVP-caliber season, but the difference between this season and outrageous votes like Iverson over Shaq in 2001 or Nash over Shaq in 2005 is that there is no clear candidate who is being snubbed. The candidacies of James and Howard are far from airtight, I readily admit.

Overall, I find myself in a similar place as in 2005-06, when I thought LeBron, D-Wade, Dirk and Kobe were very close, and I ultimately decided to choose the guy I thought was the best player. That was Kobe Bryant, and I feel good about how that choice has held up over time. If anyone's career in basketball history has demonstrated how important quality of teammates is in determining W-L record, it's Kobe Bryant's.

So that's where I netted out: LeBron James is still the best player in basketball and he is my pick. The Decision has zero bearing on my pick, nor does Game 5 of last year's Celtics-Cavs series - just 2010-11 regular season. LeBron remains the dominant player in the league statistically, easily leading the league in PER once again despire sharing the load with Wade and Chris Bosh. (I thought LeBron was a better passer and a very slightly better defender, and that Wade cost Miami a couple games with terrible performances, which rarely happened with LeBron - but don't get me wrong, the two were close.) Beyond the core numbers, I would cite three other factors:

1. As much as people correctly talk about how incredible it's been that Dwight Howard's led Orlando to the third-best defense in the NBA without any supporting defensive talent, I think it's overshadowed Miami's remarkable achievement in finishing fifth in defense despite not having any quality defensive bigs other than Joel Anthony, whose playing time is limited by extreme awfulness on offense.

The other top defensive teams in the league - Chicago, Boston, Orlando, Milwaukee, the Lakers, Dallas - all have at least one stud defensive big inside, and often several. Miami's defense is keyed by LeBron and D-Wade being everywhere (Mario Chalmers has been an underrated factor on that end, as well). Mobile bigs are vitally important in today's game, and I'm exceedingly impressed that the Heat have played great D with so few of them.

2. A key argument in favor of Rose is that he carried Chicago through "all those injuries" (that's the phrase used by LeBron himself!). I don't deny that extended absences of Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah for 57 games combined were significant losses, but those to marquee losses overshadow the fact that Chicago lost almost no other games to any other player in its deep rotation.

LeBron, meanwhile, played without Udonis Haslem (69 games missed), Mike Miller (41), and Mario Chalmers (12) for a combined 122 games, plus another 11 games combined for Wade (6) and Bosh (5). I would still rate the Boozer-Noah losses as more significant (one could argue that Miller's production wasn't much different in the 41 games he played, after all), but I do think that the difference in the "injuries overcome" factor is much closer than conventional wisdom leads one to believe.

3. There's so much talk about how the "numbers" people favor Howard and James, while the "eyes" people are in Rose's corner. As my man Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus pointed out to me, though, one of the better "eyes" criteria out there is one that Bill Simmons has floated over the years: line up all the NBA players against the wall and choose up sides. Who gets chosen in what order? I'd find it hard to believe anyone other James would be 1, and I think there'd be a good chance Rose would finish outside the top 5.


I made the case for Howard a few weeks ago, and it hasn't really changed. The dude is a beast who is primarily and directly responsible for why the Orlando Magic wins games - a dominant defender and rebounder with improved offense.

Since I wrote that piece almost three weeks ago, Rose has closed with a flourish, and made me decision harder once again. All of the intangibles are in his favor. He has carried Chicago's offense on his back, an offense which has gotten better as the season has gone on (as Rose has, markedly improving his free-throw rate after the New Year) and which has been very good in late and close situations (as Rose has).

The clutch numbers are a mixed bag for all three players - here's a comparison from for stats from the 4th quarter or OT, less than 5 minutes left, score within 5 points:
             FGA FG% FTA FT% PTS REB AST  TO BLK
Rose 36.3 40% 19.6 89% 47.8 10.4 9.8 6.9 0.6
James 27.3 44% 23.1 84% 45.1 11.2 4.9 3.8 0.7
Howard 9.9 72% 17.7 59% 24.8 22.0 2.2 2.5 3.4

Rose has been fantastic, for sure, second in the league in clutch scoring (behind Kobe), with strong assist numbers, though those turnovers are the highest for all qualified players.

LeBron has been very good overall, as well, fourth in clutch scoring with a higher field-goal percentage.

Howard, meanwhile, has been extremely efficient, with an excellent FG%, but on low attempts, presumably because of the fear that he will get sent to the free-throw line. Also note that Dwight is second in clutch rebounding and has strong numbers in blocks.

So, who's clutch? I still give Rose the edge, both because he's had the shoulder so much of the offensive burden, and because he and Chicago have rather famously outperformed LeBron and Miami in end-of-game situations. But I think it's closer than conventional wisdom would suggest, and also underrates Dwight's clutch performance on defense (not to mention the clutch performance of Rose's teammates on D).

Still, I'm willing to say that Rose has been the most valuable player in the last three minutes of games this season. Is that enough to overcome the fact that I think James and Howard have been much more valuable over the first 45 minutes? For me, it's not. For you, it might be. I can respect the argument.

It's really, really close and I think it's going to be a year in which the playoffs help illuminate exactly who the most valuable players are, and I don't necessarily think that correlates with who wins the East. OK, enough MVP talk.

First Team
G Derrick Rose, Chicago
G Dwyane Wade, Miami
C Dwight Howard, Orlando
F LeBron James, Miami
F Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas

Second Team
G Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City
G Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers
C Pau Gasol, L.A. Lakers
F Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City
F Amare Stoudemire, New York

Third Team
G Chris Paul, New Orleans
G Manu Ginobili, San Antonio
C LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland
F Kevin Garnett, Boston
F Kevin Love, Minnesota

A few notes:
Dirk barely edges Durant for the First Team forward nod.... Something of an upset, considering where we stood at the end of the FIBA World Championships in September. If I'd told you an under-23 player was about to become NBA MVP acclamation, Durant would have been the overwhelming favorite.... There's recently been some criticism of Russell Westbrook's ability to run a team, which is fair, though I think it underestimates his impact in other areas of the game - he is an *awesome* offensive rebounder for a point guard, and I feel like I saw him win several games singlehandedly this season.... Chris Paul would rate higher if not for his poor February. I wish his usage rate had been higher, but I think we're underrating CP3 at this point. Please consider that he had seven teammates who played 1000+ minutes, and five of them were Trevor Ariza, Marco Bellinelli, Jarrett Jack, Willie Green and Jason Smith.... KG makes the team for defense in a tough call.... If there's one guy I wish I had room for, it's Tony Parker - I thought he was an incredible catalyst for the Spurs second-rated offense all season.

1. Dwight Howard, Orlando
2. Kevin Garnett, Boston
3. Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee

The backbones behind the third-, second-, and fourth-ranked defenses in the league this season. You know Howard is a beast nonpareil. KG ranks with Olajuwon, Payton and Mourning as my favorite players to watch play defense ever. Bogut anchors the tough Bucks D with both blocks and charges. If Andrew Bynum had played the whole season the way he played after the All-Star break, he might be no. 2 in this category.

1. Blake Griffin, LA Clippers
2. Greg Monroe, Detroit
3. John Wall, Washington

No doubt here, as Griffin projects as a Hall-of-Fame player already, based on his rookie production. We all know about the highlights, but I marvel at Blake's understanding of how to pass, and his footwork/varied moves on the low block at such a young age. What a joy to watch. I second Bill Simmons' idea for a Julius Erving Award for the player who was most exciting to watch, and there's no question it was Griffin.

Monroe outproduced Wall on the year (partially because a foot injury hampered Wall's production early in the season), but I still feel very confident that Wall is the one who projects as the second superstar in this year's rookie class. The low win total doesn't concern me - Kevin Durant and many other greats didn't win many as rooks, either.

Add Landry Fields and Ed Davis and you've got our All-Rookie First Team.

1. Tom Thibodeau, Chicago
2. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio
3. George Karl, Denver

it was really nothing short of one of the best regular-season coaching jobs in years turned in by Thibodeau - he transformed the team's D, improved their O by getting them to turn long 2s into 3s, and seemed to maximize the talents of his entire roster. Teams which filled coaching vacancies between the Celtics' 2008 championship and the Bulls' hiring of Thibs without making Thibodeau an offer probably need to re-examine their interviewing and hiring processes.

Pop did a great job in revitalizing a Spurs unit which was thought to be spent (though we thought he should have done more to develop Tiago Splitter). Karl was incredible in managing Denver amidst the Melo turmoil, with a top offensive team before the trade and a top defensive team after it.

As always, lots of guys deserve nods here. We'd like to throw some recognition at Rick Carlisle, who always had his seemingly over-the-hill gang fully prepared. To that end, if there were a Tex Winter Award for best assistant coach, we'd give it to Dwane Casey of Dallas for developing the team's zone defenses - someone hire this man as a head coach! Last year's Winter winner, Ron Adams, would be right there again this year for his work with Chicago's defense.

1. Lamar Odom, L.A. Lakers
2. Thaddeus Young, Philadelphia
3. James Harden, Oklahoma City

No-brainer here, with Lamar's outside season as the Lakers versatile glue guy everywhere - inside/outside, offense/defensive, shooting/passing/rebounding, halfcourt/fullcourt. Young is one of seemingly about seven Sixers who merit consideration as the league's most underrated player. Harden came on like gangbusters after a slow start.

1. Masai Ujiri, Denver
2. Gar Forman/John Paxson, Chicago
3. Pat Riley, Miami

As always, a tough call here, balancing different long-term and short-term objectives for different franchises. Ujiri gets the nod after he and young new owner Josh Kroenke turned the Melodrama into a brilliant trade, setting up the Nuggets beautifully both long-term and short-term after trading a presumed superstar.

Forman and Paxson did fine work overall in building out their roster, but I still think the Bulls were a triumph of great coaching more than great front-office management. Riley is in because he made James-Wade-Bosh happen, though his dreadful work with the rest of the roster explains why he's only third despite that historic haul.

All things considered, we may be naming this award after Sam Presti someday - another masterful move with the Perkins trade, and the Thunder are set for a long run of preeminence in the West.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

2011 Nike Hoop Summit: How High Should Bismack Biyombo Go?

For the fourth straight year, The Painted Area was able to do some live scouting of top future prospects at the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland. I attended both the game and both teams' practice sessions on Friday, while Jay Aych was at the game as well. Once again, we found the Hoop Summit to be an excellent scouting venue, as the centerpiece was a competitive game between top American players in the class of 2011 against a collection of international prospects, rather than an all-star game. Today, we're focusing on the World Team players; we'll examine the impressive class of U.S. players in the future.

Usually, the Hoop Summit is a look ahead at the following year's draft, but this year, the big story is Bismack Biyombo, a 6-9 18-year-old with a 7-7 wingspan from Congo who has been productive (averaging 6.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, 56% FG, and an incredible 2.3 blocks in just 17 minutes per game) for Fuenlabrada in the Spanish ACB (easily the best domestic basketball league outside the NBA), and who is skyrocketing up draft boards for this year's NBA Draft.

Biyombo was very impressive in Saturday's game, completely controlling the area around the hoop defensively at times, en route to a triple-double of 12 points, 11 rebounds and 10 blocks. Many of his blocks were denials right at the rim, including a few against the best U.S. players; by the fourth quarter, it seemed like Biyombo was swallowing guys whole when they tried to attack him inside. The dude was getting his hands on everything, either blocks or boards (though I was surprised to look at the box score and see that only 4 of his rebounds were defensive).

Offense was more of a mixed bag for Biyombo. He scored 12 points on 5-7 FG, a couple of those being powerful dunks off of offensive rebounds (the World guards were seriously bothered by Team USA's pressure and had trouble running a halfcourt offense), including a strong finish over Anthony Davis, considered the top American prospect.

Biyombo had four turnovers, as he struggled passing out of double teams, and his post moves were erratic. He did show a couple nice drop-step moves, though there were others which resulted in travels. Also, Bismack shot just 2-8 at the line in the game, though I thought he had a decent mid-range shooting touch in practice (he shoots just 55% at the line in Spain). Defense is certainly well ahead of offense for Biyombo, but I think there were enough glimpses on O to suggest that there's something there, and that he can be more than just a Ben Wallace-style one-way player.

Biyombo and Lucas Noguiera get some shots up at Friday's practice before the watchful eyes of NBA GMs, scouts and media.

Biyombo has often been compared to Serge Ibaka, understandable considering that they are fellow countrymen, and also, both burst onto the NBA radar quickly after emerging as impressive athletes in Spanish League play at a young age. Considering the "next Ibaka" tags for Biyombo, I was a bit underwhelmed by his performance at practice on Friday (others who had been there for the full week of practices suggested that Bismack looked tired on Friday).

In time, I realized that the two are just different athletes. After the 2008 Hoop Summit, I wrote that Ibaka had "supreme athleticism". Serge is really one of the most explosive athletes I've ever seen - he's an exceedingly sleek and elegant guy on the run. Biyombo doesn't have quite the same sheer explosion or polish as Ibaka, but I would call him more powerful, and his ridiculous length helps him even out the edge Ibaka has in vertical leap. Biyombo is really just tough inside more than anything - it shows that he's been competing against men in the ACB.

Make no mistake, Biyombo is an impressive athlete. He made good blocks and catches on the run, and he has plenty of hops in his own right. The "next Ibaka" moniker is a little too simplistic - they are different players even though there are plenty of similarities in narrative and general strengths/weaknesses at this stage.


That said, as Chad Ford wrote on Monday, the main question regarding Biyombo for this year's draft is this: on the scale of raw young African big men, is he closer to Ibaka or the immortal Mouhamed Saer Sene, drafted tenth by Seattle after blocking nine shots at the 2006 Hoop Summit? I would say that Biyombo is definitely closer in potential to Ibaka.

The even bigger question, then, is this: if Bismarck Biyombo projects to deliver something close to Serge Ibaka's production, just how high should be selected in this weak draft? Ford called him a late lottery/mid-first round pick based on his talks with scouts. DraftExpress moved him up to 7 in its 2011 Mock Draft. In both cases, Harrison Barnes, Kemba Walker and Brandon Knight are rated ahead of Biyombo.

I would take Biyombo ahead of all three players as of now. I like Walker as a potentially potent weapon off the bench, but not as a full-time starter. I'm uncertain about Barnes - I like him, but I'm troubled by his inability to get to the rim or create opportunities for others. And I don't really like Knight, with his low shooting percentages and poor A/TO ratio, despite his penchant for taking and making big shots. Biyombo projects as a dominant defensive force who could become a decent offensive player - I'll take him.

Out of American prospects, I like Kyrie Irving and maybe Derrick Williams better. I'd like to see some representative ACB games for Biyombo before making a decision vs. Williams.

Overall, given the way U.S. players are returning to college left and right (with Barnes possibly next), I think Biyombo should be in the mix for the top 3-4 picks.

I know this may sound ridiculous based on one game by a young kid you've never heard of, and that this sounds like another round of Darko/Tskitishvilian overhype, but remember a couple things:

1. This draft stinks, exacerbated by so many players pulling out. Again, ask yourself, if you thought a player could produce like Serge Ibaka, where should he go in this draft? I'd rather have Ibaka than Derrick Williams.

2. The problem with picks like Darko and Tskitishvili is that these were kids who had never produced against good competition in Europe. The fact that Biyombo has been so productive per-minute for a team in the hunt for a playoff spot in the ACB is an important data point to me. The ACB is better level of competition than the NCAA, without question, especially for big men (Biyombo would have eaten any big man in the NCAA Final Four for lunch).

Potentially a bigger variable for determining Biyombo's final landing place come June is how he rates against other international prospects, who are increasingly taking over the 2011 draft lottery, especially with so many Americans opting out.

Jonas Valanciunas (Lithuania), Enes Kanter (Turkey) and Jan Vesely (Czech Republic) are all also potential top 10 picks, while Donatas Motiejunas (Lithuania) and Nikola Mirotic (Spain) are lurking as well.

Valanciunas, a 6-11 center who has produced well in Euroleague play at age 18, projects to be better than Biyombo, but it's unclear if he will stay in this year's draft.

Kanter is hard to evaluate vs. Biyombo because he is so completely different. Kanter is in many ways very similar to Jared Sullinger, against whom he competed well at the 2010 Hoop Summit. He's skilled, rugged and has developed a strong basketball IQ (Biyombo is still learning the game), but is not terribly athletic and could be a defensive liability.

Vesely looked like a NBA player in a breakout performance at the 2010 Euroleague Final Four, the highest level of competition outside the NBA, but has had an erratic 2010-11 season.

So, there's still plenty of room for stocks to go up and down before the draft, but, as much as Bismack Biyombo has already rocketed up NBA draft boards, I think there's still room to go further still.


There were other international players in action at the 2011 Nike Hoop Summit. Here is a compilation of scouting reports by a combo of Jay Aych and me:

Lucas "Bebe" Noguiera (7-0 C, Brazil, age 18): Noguiera is a string-bean of a player at 7-0/218, with a 7-6 wingspan, and he looked quite impressive in practice, using his length to catch and dunk all sorts of passes. Then, despite the fact that DraftExpress had Noguiera projected as the only 2011 first-round pick in the game other than Biyombo, World team coach Roy Rana inexplicably played him for just 13 minutes - only one player in the entire game played fewer minutes. (While we're here, let's also note that Coach Rana was the second straight World Team coach to employ a zone - still ridiculous in a game meant to showcase players' abilities more than get a W at all costs.)

Noguiera's numbers were pretty good despite the short run - 4 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block, 0 turnovers on 2-4 FG. The block came against potential 2012 no. 1 Anthony Davis. We wonder if Noguiera might project as a mid-first rounder in this draft more than a late one, based on some of the glimpses we saw, but we really can't say for sure, given that we didn't really get to see him, you know, PLAY AGAINST THE GOOD COMPETITION. Just completely ridiculous and frustrating - it's as if Coach Rana were a European club-team coach trying to hide a young prospect from NBA scouts!

Davis Bertans (6-10 F, Latvia, age 18): Did not have the greatest outing vs. the athletes of Team USA (8 points, 2 rebounds on 3-10 FG/2-6 3PT in 17 minutes). His ballhandling appeared very dicey against the Team USA ball pressure, though, from video we've seen of Bertans, his ballhandling looks solid. But even with his uneven play on Saturday, there's no doubt this kid's jumper is pure. Beautiful stroke which looked great in practice on Friday. Does a good job getting legs into shot; gets solid elevation. No excess motion in his jumper, gets his shot up pretty quickly. Moves fairly well, to the point where you could hope he wouldn't get totally abused on the defensive end as a combo forward. Maybe could be compared to Peja. Anytime you're 6'10 and can shoot like Bertans, you should be able to carve out a niche in the NBA. Right now see him as late first-round material.

Kevin Pangos (6-1 PG, Canada, age 18): Appeared to be way out of his league in this game, playing vs. top-flight D1 caliber talent, and also in practice on Friday. Looked overwhelmed by the Team USA ball pressure, length, and athleticism. After watching his performance, one wondered if he might be better suited to matriculate at Eastern Washington University instead of Gonzaga. Realize it's only one game, but you hope to see some glimpses of pro talent like you saw from the likes of Bertans, Neto, Saric and Fournier. Just didn't see any from Pangos on Saturday. Could not create any separation and did very little in way of creating scoring opportunities for his teammates. His Canadian counterpart Myck Kabongo, a McDonald's All-American, is a much better prospect than Pangos. Highly unlikely he ever sees significant time playing in the NBA.

Kyle Wiltjer (6-9 PF, Canada, age 18): Reminds me of Nick Fazekas with highly-skilled inside-out game coupled with poor physical attributes. Odd body with same labored gait that Fazekas had, in which he looks like he's running with flippers on. Should be a nice college player like Fazekas, but should have the same difficulties finding a spot in the NBA. The athleticism and pressure of Team USA affected him - coughed up some turnovers not being strong with the ball. Possibly could find a role as a reserve big, but expect him to eventually be Euro material. Had 12 points, 0 rebounds, 0 FTA on 5-15 FG/2-6 3PT in 23 minutes. Does have an old-school full hook shot in his arsenal.

Raul Neto (6-2 PG, Brazil, age 18): Wish most of Pangos' minutes had been given to Neto (Pangos played 16 minutes; Neto, 17. What did Brazil do to scar Coach Rana, anyway?). Gave Team USA problems last year at Under-18 FIBA Americas - hurt them running pick/roll like a veteran. Wish he had run more pick/roll on Saturday. Did not seemed fazed by Team USA's pressure/speed. Quick with the ball, pushed it ahead in transition well, and created nice scoring opportunities for his teammates a handful of times. Ended up with 4 points, 4 assists, 2 steals, 0 turnovers on 1-4 FG. Converted a nice floater. Was a member of the Brazilian Senior National Team at last summer's World Championships as an 18-year-old (though he barely played). Still think NBA teams need to keep Neto on the radar--possible 1st rounder in the future, at worst a nice 2nd-round stash pick.

Dario Saric (6-10 SF/PF, Croatia, age 17): Overall, a very solid performance (7 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, 3 turnovers on 3-6 FG/1-2 3PT in just 14 minutes), especially considering he was easily the youngest player in the game (he just turned 17 on Friday). Put the ball on the deck well for his size and really liked his passing ability - made a few sweet bounce passes; also displayed good court vision/passing instincts in practice. Hit a nice pull-up in delayed transition and buried a 3 off of Neto penetration. Adjusted to pressure well after looking flustered early. Heady player. Definitely one to watch even though he won't be in the draft until 2013 at the earliest.

Evan Fournier (6-7 SG/SF, France, age 18): Hard to tell if he's destined for the NBA or the Euroleague; latter seems likelier as of now. Struggled at times but also showed some nice skills. Like his handle with both hands and he combined this with good footwork to score on a couple drives in the painted area. Good shooting stroke and scoring instincts overall, but not sure if he'd be able to finish in the league (he wasn't able to do so against Anthony Davis in the game). Dropped a nice bounce pass in transition coming out of a spin move. Had 6 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists on 2-8 FG in 22 minutes. Maybe a 2nd-round prospect because of skill package plus smarts.

Mateusz Ponitka (6-6 SG, Poland, age 17): Along with Biyombo, Pontika was the most productive World Team player, with 17 points and 4 rebounds on 7-13 FG/1-3 3PT in 25 minutes. Pretty solid athlete who did not seemed rattled with Team USA physical dominance. Strong drives and finishes multiple times, including a couple nifty reverse finishes. Moved well off the ball, made cuts to basket with purpose. Maybe could be a 2nd-round prospect down the line, outside shot at late 1st round.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Random Hoop Musings: Playoff Re-seeding, HOF Ridiculousness, League's Worst PERs, More

It's been a while since I dropped some hoop musings, and they've been piling up, so without further ado, let's knock a few out.

The estimable Mr. Tom Ziller is one of the best NBA writers out there, but I still disagree with the idea he resurfaced last week, which would see the NBA Playoffs revised to include the top 16 teams in the league, with teams seeded 1-16 regardless of record.

It sounds great in theory, but as I wrote almost exactly three years ago, I oppose this kind of re-seeding on the basis that it reduces the chances of rivalries developing.

To summarize what I wrote way back in '08, when Tom Thibodeau's defense ruled the world (oh, wait), throughout NBA history, the best rivalries have formed because of multiple playoff series within a short timespan. Having one big pool of 16 teams, rather than two pools of 8 teams, simply reduces the chances of teams running into one another multiple times over the years.

While Lakers-Celtics is the most storied rivalry in NBA history, almost every other notable rivalry has been intraconference. Bulls-Knicks, Lakers-Kings, Bulls-Pistons, Celtics-Sixers, Mavs-Spurs. These great rivalries are a lifeblood of the NBA, and there'd be a much lower probability of them occurring; as such, I'm strongly opposed to re-seeding.

Sometimes when you visit Hoopdata, you never quite know where you'll end up. Not sure how I got to the point of sorting which players with 750+ minutes played have the worst PERs in the league, but here's the current list:
    1. Steve Blake, LAL       7.6
    2. Raja Bell, UTH 8.2
    3. Christian Eyenga, CLE 8.4
    4. Derek Fisher, LAL 8.9
    5. Travis Outlaw, NJN 8.9
    6. Ryan Gomes, LAC 9.0
    7. Carlos Arroyo, MIA/BOS 9.2
    8. Mike Miller, MIA 9.5
    9. Sonny Weems, TOR 9.9
    10. Wesley Johnson, MIN 9.9
I was amazed by a few things here:
i. Egads, don't ever sign middling veteran free agents to long-terms deals, ever. Ever. Blake, Outlaw, Miller were also signed for four or five years, and Bell was signed for three, and expected to fill in for Wes Matthews as a starter on a playoff team.

ii. I knew the Lakers PG position was an open wound, but goodness gracious sakes alive. It's remarkable that L.A. is my favorite to win it all right now, given such extreme lack of production. I still think this Lakers team is in a bit more precarious position than the last two champions - they need Andrew Bynum to stay healthy this year, because they just have too few guys who produce. Can Fish pick it up in the playoffs yet again, at age 36? Well, probably yes.

iii. To continue on that line, man oh man, did the Lakers ever dodge a bullet when Raja Bell declined their efforts to woo him, and were able to procure Matt Barnes instead. What a disaster that would have been.

Congratulations to the Naismith Hall of Fame class of 2011, but once again the class announcement reminded me of the ridiculousness of basketball Hall of Fame system, which needs a complete overhaul.

Take a look at the official release. Ten people were elected in from some combination of the following smorgasbord of six committees: North American, International, Veterans, ABA, Women's, Early African-American Pioneers of the Game.

Satch Sanders is an accomplished and distinguished man, but it must be said that his election into the Hall of Fame as the 598th Boston Celtic from the '60s (estimate) to make it is just ridiculousness.

Here's the description from the release:
    "Contributor, a New York native who was a member of eight Boston Celtics championship teams between 1961 and 1969, playing a critical role in the teams’ legendary defensive success. Retiring as a player, he would coach at both Harvard University and with the Boston Celtics. Following his coaching career he would be instrumental in the development of the NBA’s Rookie Transition Program and was a founder of the player programs for the NBA, which served as the benchmark for league sports throughout the world. He has been enshrined into multiple Halls of Fame, served in critical roles for the Legend’s Foundation and is the associate director for the study of sport in society at Northeastern University. His remarkable career in basketball resulted in his recognition with the Hall of Fame’s John Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award. Elected as a Contributor from the Veteran’s Committee."
First of all, people from Tommy Heinsohn to Peter King and beyond are confused, and seem to think that Satch made it as a player rather than a contributor, which is understandable because it *is* confusing.

Sanders absolutely does not deserve induction as a player. He averaged 9 points and 6 rebounds (11.9 career PER) over the course of 13 seasons. Granted, he was more of a defensive stopper, but still doesn't deserve it on those grounds, unless you think Bruce Bowen deserves it, too. To pull a season at random, Satch is now the sixth player from the '64-65 Celtics to make the Hall of Fame. It would be the equivalent of players like Steve Kerr and Derek Fisher making the Hall, possibly worse.

As a coach, Satch went 23-39 with the Celtics, and 40-60 with Harvard. I'm going to say that's short of the coaching threshold.

So, essentially, Satch Sanders made the Hall of Fame as a contributor, for developing the league's Rookie Transition Program. The Rookie Transition Program is a wonderful thing, but think about that for a second. He made the HALL OF FAME for it.

The Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame is just out of control. I'm not in favor of abolishing it or anything; it can keep on inducting anyone and, more specifically, everyone, it wants. But now that there are Halls of Fame specifically for college basketball, FIBA basketball and women's basketball, we need a Hall of Fame dedicated specifically to NBA basketball.

All along, with such a weak draft class projected in 2011, we thought this was a great year in which to dangle unprotected first-round draft picks to make a bold trade happen, as the Nets did to acquire Deron Williams.

Now, with this draft depleted even further thanks to Jared Sullinger staying in school, and players like Harrison Barnes, Brandon Knight, John Henson and Jonas Valanciunas possibly on the fence, these trades could end up being pure genius, none more so than the deal the L.A. Clippers pulled off to acquire Mo Williams and Jamario Moon for Baron Davis and L.A.'s unprotected first-rounder.

The deal was good enough when the Clippers cleared $6M in cap space for 2012 while also acquiring a serviceable replacement for Baron, with Mo. Now it looks like they gave up an asset that isn't as nearly valuable as it looked on paper AND, by holding Minnesota's unprotected pick in 2012, L.A. gets to reap the rewards of Sullinger et al presumably strengthening next year's draft. They could end up being the long-term big winners of this year's trade deadline.

On the flip side, while the struggles of the Celtics and the Jazz and the Knicks following the deadline trades have been clear, has there been any team which was more quietly hurt than the San Antonio Spurs (assuming they retain the no. 1 seed) indirectly were? It looked like they'd have a relatively clear path to the Western Conference Finals. Oklahoma City might provide a second-round challenge, but it didn't seem like the Thunder were ready for primetime.

Now, with the Thunder and the Nuggets vitalized by their trades and poised for what should be a wildly entertaining first-round series, the Spurs seem like they're going to be hard-pressed to make it past Round 2. It's starting to get perilously close to a 50-50 proposition.

Ages of Butler's starters in Monday night's game:
    - Matt Howard: 22
    - Shawn Vanzant: 22
    - Chase Stigall: 21
    - Shelvin Mack: 20
    - Andrew Smith: 20
Ages of Oklahoma City's starters, if James Harden were subbed in for Thabo Sefolosha:
    - Kendrick Perkins: 26
    - Kevin Durant: 22
    - Russell Westbrook: 22
    - Serge Ibaka: 21
    - James Harden: 21
Additionally, in OKC's game in L.A. on Saturday night, the Clippers started three 22-year-olds in Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon and DeAndre Jordan, with Eric Bledsoe (21) and Al-Farouq Aminu (20) getting rotation minutes, as well.

Back in the glory days of college basketball, Hall of Fame players like Jordan and Worthy and Ewing and Olajuwon and Drexler and Mullin and Robinson routinely played into their junior or senior years. You had games like Houston-Louisville in 1983 which were awe-inspiring displays of athleticism, and it was really a beautiful thing and a great sport to watch. Even a Cinderella 8 seed like Villanova was anchored by a solid NBA rotation big in Eddie Pinckney, who could make plays inside against Patrick Ewing.

Those days are largely gone. The Tournament still has its unassailable format of all Game 7s and everyone's grandma filling out a bracket and Gus Johnson screaming and the retro '80s glory of One Shining Moment, but the quality of basketball played has deteriorated drastically. The best 21- and 22-year-old basketball players no longer play college basketball. They are in the NBA, winning MVPs (Derrick Rose, age 22). No American sport has seen such a steep decline in quality of play over the last generation. Things change. Oh well, the ball is tipped, and there you are.