Thursday, October 16, 2014

Steve Nash and Two-Way Players

My piece about Steve Nash got pushed around the blogosphere a bit over the last few days and there were some interesting reactions too it. A lot of the disconnect between my perception of Nash and the conventional wisdom comes from a few underlying assumptions about how to evaluate basketball players which are worth unpacking. 

A good way to think about it is this - there are 22 starters in football and only 5 in basketball. The difference is that a football team starts 11 guys on offense and 11 guys on defense while a basketball team starts the same 5 guys on offense and defense. So when you remove a guy from the starting line-up, you are really removing him from two different units - the starting offense and the starting defense. 

When building a team, the idea is you want a good offense and a good defense. It's all connected - a good defense creates opportunities in transition by getting stops, a good offense prevents transition opportunities by scoring. Most guys are better on one side of the floor over the other, so coaches end up having to make a lot of trade-offs when it comes to setting up their rotation. If you start an offensive specialist, you want guys who are good at defense around him and if you start a defensive specialist, you better have guys who can score around him. 

The value of a good two-way player is that you can put them next to either an offensive or a defensive specialist, so it gives a coach much more flexibility when it comes to setting their line-up. That's why, when I evaluate guys for the draft, I am always looking for two-way players. When you are building a team, you want to give yourself as many outs as possible, because you never really know what type of player is going to be available in next year's draft or in free agency or on the trade market. 

This is a long-winded way of getting to one of the more non-intuitive things I said in the Nash piece - which was that no one-way player, no matter how good they are on that side of the ball, is truly irreplaceable. For as great as Nash was on offense, the Mavs brought in more defensive-minded players and re-distributed his possessions to other guys (i.e Dirk) who were already on the team. The Mavs went from being a very lop-sided team, with an all-time great offense and a below-average defense, to a more balanced squad which could win on both sides of the floor. 

You can draw some really interesting conclusions from this, which I touched on in the Nash piece but will go into more detail here.
Curry is probably the closest player to Nash in the modern NBA. He is one of the best offensive players in the league, with a combination of shooting, ball-handling and passing ability that is unprecedented in NBA history. He is one of the most fun players to watch in the NBA, he is widely considered one of its top 10 players and he is in the MVP discussion every season.

At the same time, he's not great on defense and the Warriors usually hide him on the other team's least threatening perimeter player, often cross-switching him with Klay Thompson. A lot of people would say that has more to do with Curry's offensive work-load than anything else and they would point his play in the World Cup as well as comments from Brian Scalabrine, the assistant coach who was pushed out by Mark Jackson and said that he thought Curry was more than capable of defending his own position.

Regardless of his defensive responsibilities (or lack of them), most people would look at the on-court/off-court numbers* with Curry and call him one of the most irreplaceable players in the league, but I'm not so sure. For example, let's say you switched him with Kyle Lowry, one of the best two-way PG's in the league, and spread out the play-making responsibilities more evenly among Lowry, Thompson and Andre Iguodala. Would Golden State be a worse team?

* Those numbers are especially tricky with the Warriors because Mark Jackson didn't stagger his starters nearly as much as most NBA coaches, preferring to go with all second-unit squads which really couldn't compete. I'm not a terribly huge fan of those numbers because so much of it depends on a guy's backup and his coach's substitution patterns.

If you had Lowry, Thompson and Iguodala pressing up on other team's ball-handlers and Andrew Bogut behind them, you would probably have the No. 1 defense in the NBA. And while Lowry isn't in Curry's league as an offensive player, he's no slouch either - he was the primary ball-handler on a good Raptors team who averaged 17/7/5 on 43/38/81 shooting last season. You couldn't build an entire offense around Lowry like you can with Curry, but if you are going to give out max contracts to Thompson and Iggy, they should probably have higher usage ratings anyway.

Lowry is not as good an offensive player than Curry and he's not as valuable to the Raptors as Curry is to the Warriors, but if he was the starting PG in Golden State, they would be more balanced. They would be a very different team and the other guys would all have different roles in order to replace what Curry does, but they have a lot of really talented guys on offense who could be utilized more. Would they be better? I don't know, but I think the possibility exists that they could.

The point isn't that Steph Curry isn't a great player - it's that Kyle Lowry is a fucking boss and he's one of the most underrated players in the league. Two-way starters who are really good on offense and really good on defense often are.

** It's also worth pointing out that replacing Curry with a good but not great shooter like Lowry could really affect Golden State's floor spacing, since they start two non-shooters upfront as well as a somewhat inconsistent one at SF in Iggy. At the same time, if they had a PG who could defend his position, Thompson's defensive versatility might not have been as big a deal and they might have been more willing to include him in a trade for Kevin Love. Everything is connected and all the pieces matter - shout out to Lester Freamon. 

It's almost impossible to replace a two-way star, especially upfront, as there are very few 6'8+ players with the skill to be great on offense and the length and athleticism to be great at defense. A perfect example of this is Dwight Howard and it's why I think he's under-appreciated by most people. Dwight is one of the best defensive players in the league - even if he's not quite at the level where he was winning 3 DPOY's in a row, he's still a premier shot-blocker, rebounder and post defender. He's one of a handful of centers who can be the centerpiece of an elite defense, allowing you to hide poor offensive players in front of him.

You know all those viral videos of James Harden's defense last season? The Rockets were still No. 13 in the league on D, so someone behind him was having to do some heavy lifting. They were No. 16 the year before because the previous center (Omer Asik) was also an elite defensive player. The difference between Howard and Asik is that Dwight gives you Asik's defense plus 19 points on 59% shooting. That combination is incredibly valuable - Dwight is elite on offense and on defense, which makes it A) really easy to put players around him while B) still having a good team.

So when you lose a guy like Dwight, there's no way to replace him because you can't replace all of the different things he did on offense AND defense. You either have to get a center whose as good on offense and defense - and those guys aren't walking through the door in the modern NBA - or you have to get a center who can replace him on one side of the floor and than add a whole bunch of two-way players at other positions to complement the one-way center where he is good and protect him where he is weak. In short, you need a massive rebuilding effort.

That's what's happening in Orlando and LA - when Dwight leaves, turn off the lights because the party is over. The Magic went from playoff team to worst team in the league and two years later, they are still in the bottom of the Eastern Conference. They are going to be terrible this season, they are going to be terrible next season and they will be lucky to be decent in two seasons. It's the same story with the Lakers.

To be sure, this is a very counter-intuitive way of looking at things and when you follow the logic to its conclusion, you find yourself in some weird places.
I hate to say it because Dirk isn't just my favorite basketball player of all-time, he's one of my favorite human beings of all-time. He was a paradigm-shifting player who changed the game of basketball and he's in the discussion for greatest offensive player of all-time, when you look at the way his shooting ability at 7'0 distorts the floor and opens things up for everyone else. Conversely, KG is one of the few great basketball players whom I really can't stand, in terms of how he acts on the court. Nevertheless, he was one of the great two-way players of all-time and Dirk was not.

What would have happened if you switched Dirk and KG in the early part of the 2000's? If you put KG on some of those Mavs rosters, I think they end up winning 2-3 titles. Those teams had no shortage of offense - you could have re-distributed Dirk's shots to Nash, Finley, Van Exel or one of the Toine's and had KG anchor your defense while still giving you 20/10/5 on 48% shooting. KG was such a monster and it was obscured by how awful his teammates were in Minnesota.

At the same time, I don't think that would hold true in 2011. What made those Mavs so great was all the pieces fit together perfectly - they put much more defensive-minded players around Dirk, which allowed him to maximize his offense to carry them to a title. If you look at, they needed the precise skill-sets of Chandler, Dirk, Marion, Kidd and Terry to succeed. It was damn near providential the way all those guys meshed together.

It's all about context - when you look at Dirk and KG, I think there are more contexts where you could put a championship team around KG than Dirk. That's what it comes down to for me when I'm evaluating players and I think that's going to become more important than ever in the NBA's new economic climate, where player turnover is at an all-time high. What made KG so great is that he was the ultimate Swiss Army Knife - he could do everything so well that he could succeed in almost any context.

Everyone knocked him for his lack of playoff success with the Wolves, but look at what happened to that franchise when he left. You can argue that they still haven't recovered 8 years later! Replacing what KG meant to their offense and defense meant a complete rebuild and the organization wasn't capable of finding enough players in the draft to get back into the playoffs.

A good test of this theory is what will happen with Minnesota this season. The Wolves will try to re-distribute Kevin Love's possessions to Pekovic, Rubio and Andrew Wiggins and play better defense with Thaddeus Young at the 4. I don't how successful they will be given that I'm not sure how good Young will be at defense, especially in the West, where his lack of size will be more of a problem. Nevertheless, if they are better than expected and hit the over on their season win total, my guess is it will be because they replaced a one-way superstar and became a more balanced team in the process.

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