Friday, October 31, 2014

The David Lee Problem

Over at TrueHoop, Ethan Strauss makes the case for the Warriors chances of winning it all.

Long story short, they play really good defense, they play really good offense, Klay Thompson looks ready to take the next step and their depth (and their rotations) should be much improved from last season. There's a lot to like about the Warriors, but I still have one concern about the chances of them winning 3 seven-game series in the West - the individual defense at the PF position i.e. David Lee.

Since the turn of the millenium, the Western Conference has been the land of the great PF's. Tim Duncan is a C, Chris Webber is on TNT and Pau Gasol and Kevin Garnett are in the East, but you can still make the case that PF in the West is the deepest position in the league - Dirk Nowitzki, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Zach Randolph, Anthony Davis. To make it to the NBA Finals, a team might have to go through 2-3 of those guys and I'm not sure David Lee is up to it.

Over the course of the regular season, individual match-ups tend to even out. You play 29 teams over 82 games crammed into 6 months, with many stretches of 4 in 5 nights. As a result, teams can only afford to adjust their game plans so much - for the most part, they have to run the same stuff they run every night and look to involve everyone in the offense. That changes in the playoffs, when you can attack a mismatch to your heart's desire.

The perfect example of that is the first-round series between the Rockets and the Blazers, when LaMarcus Aldridge went for 46 and 43 points in the first two games. Terrence Jones was too short to guard him and too inexperienced to deal with the playoff pressure cooker and LMA spent two games telling him hand down, man down and raining jumpers on his head. Portland could slow the pace of the game and throw into LMA every single time and get a very, very high percentage shot.

Houston eventually made an adjustment, starting Omer Asik and Dwight Howard together, but there's a reason they abandoned their two 7'0 line-up in the regular season, as Asik wasn't nearly the offensive player that Jones was. In theory, they could have slid Howard over to LMA, but that would have taken their rim protector 20+ feet from the basket. If you do something like that, the other three perimeter defenders better be able to lock down their man, which wasn't exactly the situation the Rockets were dealing with.

Who knows who the playoff seedings will work out in the West, but Portland-GSW is definitely a conceivable first-round match-up. In that scenario, how does Lee have even a prayer of guarding LMA? Nor do they have many other options - go small with Draymond Green and Harry Barnes? Can't work against an elite 6'11+ shooter like LMA. Slide Bogut onto him? The 7'0 Australian isn't as comfortable moving his feet so far from the basket and it takes him out of rebounding position and opens up the rim.

To be sure, there are a number of match-up problems that the Warriors present the Blazers and Golden State looks to be a more balanced team than Houston was last year, but defense at the PF position is an Achilles heel for them that could rear its head in the playoffs.

If you look at the success the Warriors have had in the last two post-seasons, it has come from moving Lee off of PF.

- In 2013, Lee got injured in the first game of their opening round series against the Nuggets. Golden State went small with Harry Barnes at the 4, spreading out the floor with only one big man in the paint and beating Denver at their own game. That worked because Kenneth Faried had injured his ankle and he wasn't really capable of beating smaller players in the post.

- In 2014, Bogut was hurt before the playoffs even started. After trying several different line-ups, they eventually hit paydirt in Game 4 when they started Draymond Green at PF and slid Lee down to C. That strategic move coincided with TMZ's Donald Sterling bombshell, so it didn't get a ton of press, but it swung the momentum of the series and almost allowed the Dubs to get *this close* to pulling off the major upset. With Lee no longer on him, Griffin's stats went from astronomical (35 on 13-17 in Game 2, 32 on 15-25 in Game 3) to at least reasonable.

In essence, Golden State found their most success going small and changing the match-ups as opposed to playing a conventional two big man line-up. A lot of people (me included) have said they should think about doing that more often, but the problem with that strategy is that it is an underdog move that concedes a huge size advantage from the jump. My guess is Golden State has decided they have to play two big men together to survive the Western gauntlet.

If you look at the two teams who have dominated the West over the last three seasons - San Antonio and OKC - I don't think it's a coincidence that they both have a stopper at the PF position - Tiago Splitter and Serge Ibaka. Tiago and Serge are both near 7'0 with the strength to hold ground in the post, the quickness to move their feet on the perimeter and the length to contest shots. It's not to say that they shut down the great PF's out West (no one does), but they do make them work for their points and that's a crucial distinction.

Four years ago, San Antonio was famously upset in the first-round by Memphis because they didn't have anyone who could match-up with Z-Bo - they were throwing guys like Dejuan Blair and Matt Bonner on him. That's what people mean when they say you have to throw out regular season records and look at the match-ups - a mismatch that bad can completely tilt the playing field. The Spurs re-emergence since then has coincided with Splitter taking on a bigger role in their defense.

You saw a great example of that in the second round of the playoffs last year, when San Antonio took on Portland. All of a sudden, with Splitter on him instead of Jones and Asik, LMA had only one game above 21 points. The Blazers could no longer count on completely scrambling the other team's defense and they bowed out anti-anticlimactically in a gentleman's sweep.

Take a look at the Spurs playoff opponents out West in the last three years:

2012 - Utah (Millsap), Clips (Blake), OKC
2013 - Lakers (Pau), Golden State, Memphis (Z-Bo)
2014 - Dallas (Dirk), Portland (LMA), OKC

Here's what OKC had to go up against:

2012 - Dallas (Dirk), Lakers (Pau), SA
2013 - Houston, Memphis (Z-Bo)
2014 - Memphis (Z-Bo), Clips (Blake), SA

Long story short, if you are going to win the West, you are going to have go through one All-NBA caliber PF, probably two. Interestingly enough, Golden State matches up with OKC and SA a lot better than they do with many of the teams in the chase pack, since they can go small against Splitter and Serge with relative impunity, though Boris Diaw did start putting in work on them in the second round in 2013.

A path might open up where they don't have to deal with a great PF or they have enough of an advantage at the other positions so that it doesn't matter, but it might not either. Here's one conceivable set of match-ups they could have - Anthony Davis and New Orleans in the first round, Dirk and Dallas in the second, Blake and the Clippers in the WCF. Do I think David Lee can survive that type of gauntlet without taking down his team? No.

Here is a very reductive and far too simple way to look at things, but I think it does have some value as a thought exercise:

Imagine a team as having 10 possible slots in a line-up - offense at PG, SG, SF, PF and C and defense at all five positions. The Warriors, as it stands, can put a + in eight boxes, with the only weaknesses coming from the individual defense of Steph Curry and David Lee. They are a really good team and I think Curry, Thompson, Iguodala and Bogut can all be starters on an NBA champion, but I am dubious about Lee.

If you don't have a transcendent superstar like KD or LeBron, you better be a solid team without any weak links on either side of the ball, i.e. the Spurs - San Antonio could put multiple 10/10 line-ups on the floor. Golden State might be able to get away with 9/10, but 8/10 is pushing it, especially when one of those weak spots is individual defense at PF. That's not an Achilles heel you want to have in the Western Conference.

You saw this line of thinking pop up in many of the discussions surrounding a possible Klay Thompson for Kevin Love trade this summer. Here's Tim Kawakami:
As USA Today's Sam Amick has pointed out, the Warriors are very worried that Love's defense is no better - or might be worse - than Lee's D.
And if the Warriors take Thompson out of their perimeter defense, then they are exposing Curry more than they ever want to ... with no guarantee of ever getting another 2-guard who can shoot like Thompson AND defend the opponents' toughest perimeter players.
A team that could have as many three holes on defense is going to have a lot of trouble getting stops when it really matters. So while everyone was talking about Love, there's another All-Star PF whose quietly been put on the trade market who would solve a lot of Golden State's issues.

Zach Lowe had a note earlier in the pre-season about Al Horford being shopped, especially if the Hawks make an ownership change and decide to begin a full rebuild. When executive around the league saw that, I imagine a thought bubble popping up in a lot of heads - Horford is a guy who can potentially swing the balance of power for the right team.

Horford plays as a 5 in Atlanta, but he's a prototype 4 in the modern NBA. He can do it all - on offense, he can score with his back to the basket, he can space the floor and he can facilitate offense out of the high post. On defense, he can protect the rim, defend the pick-and-roll and match-up with the best PF's in the post. In 27 games with Atlanta last season, he averaged 18.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.5 blocks on 57% (!!) shooting. He can seamlessly step into Lee's role on offense and dramatically improve the defense. This goes back into my thing about two-way players from a few weeks ago - Horford has 80% of Love's offense and 200% of his defense.

I don't really know if the Warriors have the pieces to make a deal for Horford and I'm not sure how he would affect their finances, but that's the type of go for broke move that could push them over the top in the West.

You don't see as many mid-season trades in basketball as you do in baseball, but every once in awhile, you see a team in Golden State's position roll the dice and make a run for it - I'm thinking of Detroit in 2004, when they acquired Rasheed Wallace. Without Sheed, they don't win it all. They needed a 4 man who could play defense and stretch the floor and I don't think it's a coincidence that there are players with that skill-set on a lot of championship teams. Golden State might could win it all with David Lee, but I would feel a lot more comfortable picking them if they had Al Horford in his place.

1 comment: