Friday, February 6, 2015

The Next Danny Green

One of the most intriguing free agents in this year's summer class is Danny Green. He's a huge part of what the Spurs do, but since they will almost certainly have to max out Kawhi Leonard, a huge money offer to Green could put San Antonio in a tough situation financially. He would be a perfect fit on a team like the Mavs, who desperately need three-point shooting and perimeter defense, two things Green provides in spades. He is the quintessential 3-and-D role player, an archetype increasingly in vogue league wide. An elite team almost has to have a few players like Green because of the force multiplier effect they add.

The funny part is that it wasn't too long ago that Green was fighting his way into the league. This is not a lottery pick destined for stardom. Green was the No. 46 pick in the 2009 draft - he spent one season in Cleveland and he bounced around the minor leagues before landing in San Antonio, where he was cut multiple times before slowly earning his way into the organization. This is a guy whom anyone in the NBA could have had. The question becomes is that if he is really that valuable now, are there more guys out like a young Danny Green, waiting for another chance? Why pay full freight for Danny Green when I can get a Danny Green starter kit for 95% off?

When you look at the conventional tools - Green's size (6'6 210 with a 6'10 wingspan), athleticism (he's not Gerald Green) and offensive game (he's never going to be an elite shot-creator, ball-handler or passer) - there's nothing all that extraordinary about him. He's not Kawhi Leonard. You don't find guys like Kawhi floating around the D-League too often. So if there are more Danny Green's out there, where are they? The key is to find guys in a similar situation as Green - guys who didn't get much of a chance to crack a rotation in their first stop in the NBA.

A lot of people will look at Danny Green's story and think that he must have changed his game or re-dedicated his life to Jesus or something to make it back to the NBA. The reality is that he just needed an opportunity. He played 115 minutes in 20 games as a rookie in Cleveland - this was enough for them to tell he wasn't an NBA-caliber player? Of course not. They were just trying to win a title and they had a full roster and they didn't really have time to bring along a younger player, especially one who wasn't projected for stardom. That's something I've been trying to stress a lot in my writing about the draft lately - it is very, very hard to get a "fair shot" in the NBA.

If a team doesn't need you they aren't going to play you and if they don't play you, how will anyone else know how good you are? You think these analysts are trying to go back and through your college days and find out how good a player you are? No. They are going to look at whatever meager statistical outputs you were able to generate in your limited amount of time in the NBA and sit on you in judgment like Commodus in The Gladiator. They have consulted with the formulas. The projections have spoken. The rest is just math.

The Gods of this world have found you wanting.

Unless you are a franchise player type, you are not going to necessarily put in a position to succeed. No team is going to build around you. They are going to throw you in the fire and hope for the best. Even worse, they may just never throw you in at all. If you don't work out, there are 10 more behind you who might.

This is an interesting quote from Paul Flannery's profile on Ryan McDonough, a former Celtics executive who is now GM of the Suns:
"If a guy is talented enough to be in the NBA, you have to constantly monitor him until he retires," says McDonough. "I’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t want that guy, or he’s not my kind of guy.’ Well, it’s difficult to dismiss somebody with NBA-caliber ability."
That quote jumps out even more in the context of the Suns latest move, swooping in on a three-team deal between the Clippers and the Pelicans in order to grab Reggie Bullock, a former UNC SG who had struggled to find minutes on a title contender in his first two seasons in the NBA. Does that sound familiar to anyone?

Bullock played a little more than Green - 668 minutes in 69 games with LA, most of them in garbage time. There just weren't many opportunities for him to get on the floor, as Doc Rivers continually brought in wave after wave of 30-something veterans to soak up any additional minutes around his stars. Doc, like a lot of player turned coaches, is a firm believer in the power of veteran experience. Ask yourself this - how many teams does Doc Rivers the coach think Doc Rivers the player could have helped? So why wouldn't Doc Rivers the GM look for guys that remind him of Doc Rivers the player? Which player fits most closely to his perception of himself? The wily old veteran with friends throughout the league who Doc knows he can trust? Or the young guy who makes a ton of mental mistakes and hasn't paid his dues? Doc paid his dues. These young guys can too.

Most people focus on minutes per game, points per game and wins and losses, but here are the numbers with Bullock that interest me:

1) He is 37 for 113 from 3 (32.7%) in the NBA.
2) He shot 38% from 3 in his sophomore season at UNC and 43% from 3 as a junior.
3) He is 6'7 200 with a 6'9 wingspan and he has a max vertical of 36.5 inches.

This is a guy who needs a chance, but it's not going to be any easier for him to get one in Phoenix. The Suns are just racking up talent, in large part because McDonough is finding free money on the ground all around him. He keeps picking it up because why not. The only thing he had to give up to get Bullock is Shavlik Randolph. All he had to do to get Eric Bledsoe was move along Caron Butler and Jared Dudley.

If Bullock is going to get minutes, he will have to find his way through this logjam on the perimeter:

PG - Eric Bledsoe, Isaiah Thomas, Tyler Ennis
SG - Goran Dragic, Gerald Green, Archie Goodwin
SF - PJ Tucker, Marcus Morris, TJ Warren

Where I would differ from most people is that if Bullock doesn't get much of a chance in Phoenix, I still wouldn't be ready to write him off. Why? Because I'm looking at his tools and wondering whether they will translate to his stats. Most people are looking at his stats and coming to conclusions about his tools.

It's really a matter of Bayesian probability. What that means is that by the time guys come into the NBA, I already have a long list of things I believe to be true about them. I have watched them in college and I have covered them in the draft process, where I'm really focusing on what their tools are. How big is this guy? How fast is this guy? Is he a good shooter? Is he a good passer? Can he create his own shot? Can he defend an NBA position? Etc. etc. That's where the disconnect exists between those who "watch the game" and those who rely on stats. If you aren't watching for the right things, it doesn't really matter. If you are watching for the wrong things, it would be better (from an analytical POV) if you didn't watch the game at all and just relied on the stats.

As a result, I'm going to take the first few years of their data in the NBA with a huge grain of salt, whereas most people who only watch the NBA are going to look at that data as the only data worth having about a player. That's why I can look at the same data about a young player and come to a radically different conclusion than a lot of the conventional wisdom.

Which brings us to another young player who I have been tracking for well over 5 years, who I think just needs to go play for a coach who believes in him - Jeremy Lamb. My man has been pretty unfairly villified since the second he came into the NBA because of his involvement in the James Harden trade, which many observers found to be personally offensive on some level. How dare the Thunder trade away one of the best players in the NBA for a bunch of unproven young players!? These young guys better be good because if they are not we are going to roast Sam Presti & Co. Lamb, since he has not been able to carve out a consistent spot in the rotation is OKC, is ipso facto a bust and a failure. The guy just can't get it done. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Let's play a game. Here are the per-36 minute statistics of a few players this season. You tell me who is playing better.

Player A: 16.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists on 1.5 turnovers and 1.3 steals on 41.6% shooting, 36% from 3

Player B: 14.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists on 1.9 turnovers and 1.9 steals on 38.7% shooting, 27.7% from 3

Player C: 6.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists on 1.3 turnovers, 1.4 steals and 0.9 blocks on 45% shooting, 21.6% from 3

Player A is Jeremy Lamb. Player B is Dion Waiters. Player C is Andre Roberson.

Now you can spin those numbers any way you want, but those are the only numbers the players have any actual control over. They don't control minutes per game or points per game - that's entirely on the whims of the coach. When a team is winning games, it's hard to criticize the coach for his rotation decisions. When the team isn't winning games, you would think the coach would try to look at what's happening on the floor and see if there are any adjustments on the bench. I don't see Scott Brooks doing that.

Whenever I watch OKC, I see a team that looks stuck in the mud in offense and has to work really hard to score points when KD and Russ aren't isolating and scoring at will. Maybe Waiters (doubtful) and Roberson (probable) are that much better on D that Brooks has no choice but to play them, but when your team is rated No. 18 on O and No. 9 on D, maybe he's looking for answers on the wrong side of the ball? What he doesn't seem to understand is that a bad offense can have consequences on your defense. If the other team doesn't have to guard Andre Roberson and they have an easier time getting stops, that allows them to get out in transition, where they will always have an easier time scoring than against a set defense in the half-court. It's hard to push the ball when you are inbounding it from under your own basket.

Most people will look at Lamb's lack of playing time and OKC's struggle to score and ask what the hell is wrong with him. I look at Lamb's lack of playing time, OKC's struggle to score and his consistent per-minute production and wonder what the hell is wrong with his coach.

Here's the important thing to remember about Lamb - he can't make Scott Brooks play him. When he's on the floor, the only thing he can control is how he plays. The big knock on him with a lot of OKC fans is that he's not consistent ... but he has been consistently better than Dion Waiters whenever he has played so what exactly is he supposed to do?

Scott Brooks reminds me a lot of Avery Johnson in that he seems to be constantly searching for ways to justify his own playing career in the way he handles his rotation. Scott Brooks the basketball player didn't have a ton of natural talent and didn't put up huge statistics, but he played REALLY hard and he REALLY wanted to win and etc. etc. etc. So when he sees a player like Lamb with a ton of natural talent who seems to "float" through the game it naturally makes him more upset than when he sees a guy like Roberson with a broken jumper who still plays really hard. How many times did a young Scott Brooks have to swallow his pride and watch a "more talented" younger player who was taken higher in the draft play ahead of him even though he didn't work nearly as hard? When he in charge, things will be different.

When I look at Jeremy Lamb, I see a 22-year old with good athleticism and plus length for his position (6'11 wingspan), whose always been a consistent three-point shooter and whose shown the ability to handle and pass the ball. Whenever he's on the court, he seems to find his way into points, rebounds, assists and steals. I'm fairly confident he's a good basketball player and I don't really hold his inability to convince Scott Brooks of his worth against him. In short, he reminds me a lot of Danny Green in Cleveland.

After all, who was Danny Green before the Spurs gave him a shot? A lot of NBA teams want Danny Green at 27 but they don't want to go through the trouble of developing Danny Green at 23. They want someone else to do it for them and to give them the statistical certainty they so desperately crave. Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Bullock are both younger than Green when he came to San Antonio. If you are looking for a market inefficiency, there it is. 


  1. First off, I'm a big fan of your blog. I enjoy following the NBA and you provide lots of great insights and perspective.

    I'm a big OKC fan and have always wondered why Brooks hasn't given Lamb a better chance. My question is - in your view, what kind of accountability does Brooks have to Presti for not playing Lamb? I imagine in a healthy organization that there's both autonomy for the head coach to make decisions but also alignment between the coach and management on the long term strategy, player personnel and development.
    Does Brooks have to justify to Presti his decision to keep Lamb out of the regular lineup? Or is it more whoever Brooks decides will be in the rotation is in the rotation and thats it?

    Keep up the great work

  2. Thanks.

    That's the $64,000 question in OKC. If there isn't a break between Presti and Brooks, then it really doesn't matter who is making the decisions. I have my theories but they run a pretty tight ship and it's hard to get much information about how they do things.

  3. Excellent piece!
    I think the Thunder are in such hubris, with their "model" that has yielded them a quick ascent to the upper echelon of the NBA that they've ignored what made them successful.

    Scott Brooks has helped mold Westbrook, Ibaka, Durant into stars and deserves due credit. But for quick gains, him and the management have abandoned what made them a juggernaut and are now mostly ignoring organic growth, especially at the ends of rotations.

    I still think Lamb has a chance to become a solid, even a good NBA player. Maybe just not in OKC

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