Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Jim Boeheim

In the wake of a scandal involving widespread academic fraud in his program, Syracuse is at one of its lowest points in Jim Boeheim's 39-year tenure as the basketball coach. Will the team be able to survive the scholarship limits? Would the school really have to start thinking about pushing out such a legendary coach? Would his legacy be tarnished? The NCAA is stripping him of over 100 total victories - he is being publicly shamed in a way that it's hard to see every happening to guys like Coach K and Roy Williams. The difference between Boeheim and those guys is he doesn't pretend to be an idealist. He's a professional cynic. He has had to be to survive in a Siberian outpost like Syracuse. He knows his job is about getting wins.

When you are coaching on Tobacco Road in the middle of some of the most temperate landscapes in the country representing some of the most tradition-rich programs in the history of the sport, you can lie to yourself about what it is that you are doing. The players keep coming in and you keep winning. That's where the media goes when they want some self-serving bullshit about how coaches turn boys into men. When you are surviving winters in Syracuse, you are dealing with some cold, hard truths about yourself and the world you live in.

Before Roy Danforth took over in 1969, the program had no basketball history to speak of. They had made the NCAA Tournament twice in 50 years - this is not Duke or UNC or Kentucky or UCLA or Kansas we are talking about. In a world before ESPN, Syracuse was a basketball non-entity. So how did they become a national power? Boeheim, who played for Danford and then took over for him in 1976, followed his blueprint, making the 2-3 zone the foundation of the program. When you think Jim Boeheim, you should think the 2-3. There's a reason Coach K always brings him along on Team USA to be an assistant coach - there may be no basketball coach in the world who knows about the ups and downs of zone defense better than Jim Boeheim.

No NBA team uses a 2-3 zone full-time for the simple fact that NBA players are too good to zone full-time. If you consistently give NBA shooters open looks from the three-point line, no matter how far away they are from the basket, they are going to beat you. This is the basis behind most modern spread offense concepts - force the defense to extend out beyond the three-point line and attack them in space. Zones work in the college level because NCAA players aren't as good a shooters and they have more difficulty utilizing team offensive concepts to score. If you try to go 1-on-1 against Boeheim's zone, you are going to lose every single time.

If you have the right personnel, it's fairly easy to beat a zone. All you have to do is stick a passing + shooting big men at the top of the key and allow him to pick apart the defense. If you enter the ball into the high post, behind the top two guards, he will always have an opening, whether it's a shot or a pass. There's a reason that very few high-major NCAA teams run zone full time and why only one team that runs a zone (Syracuse) has won a national title in the last 15 years. Zone, as Bomani Jones always says, really is for cowards.

So why do it? It prevents you from having to man-up the other team, which is nice when you don't have the types of players they do. Syracuse plays zone against Duke and UNC for the same reason that most Olympic teams do when they play Team USA. Since 1977, here are the total number of McDonald's All-Americans at those programs:

UNC - 69
Duke - 60
Syracuse - 17

A lot of people ask why elite players come to Syracuse if they are going to play in a 2-3 zone that doesn't do a great job of preparing them for the NBA. The answer is they don't. As a rule, Syracuse is having to dig through the bargain bin for top prospects. In a given year, there are maybe 10-15 players in a freshman class who project as almost sure-fire NBA players, due to their combination of size, athleticism and skill-set. These are the one-and-done guys that have been in mock drafts since they were 15-16 years old. They tend to go to blue-chip schools with a long history of success beyond their current coach where the weather isn't below freezing for nine months of the year.

The guys Syracuse tends to get usually come with a few more flaws. The reason that Boeheim has been so successful is that he recruits guys whose flaws will be minimized by the system he runs. He recruits guys who don't fit positional archetypes - guards stuck between the 1 and 2, forwards stuck between the 3 and 4, big men stuck between the 4 and 5. The pitch is simple. Come play at Syracuse for a few seasons, rack up a whole bunch of statistics, win a whole bunch of games and then get drafted into the NBA. Once you are up there, you are on your own. That's how it goes in this world. All you can ask for is a shot.

Where people have it backwards is they think NCAA coaches prepare guys for the NBA. For the most part they don't. All an NCAA coach can really do is not fuck up a good thing. A lot of basketball players naturally get better between the ages of 18-22, whether they are playing in Europe, the D-League, the NCAA or the NBA. What an NCAA coach can do is put guys in a position to succeed by winning games and designing a system that maximizes their NCAA stats, which is what most NBA teams look for in young prospects. If your coach can't do that, unless you are one of those top 10-15 guys picked as future pros in high school, you are probably going to be out of luck when the NBA comes calling.

The NBA will reach down to smaller schools for stars and big men. If you are a role player, they might as well just draft you from one of the top programs, one of the schools they know regularly churns out NBA-level talent. Everyone puts Syracuse in that category because they win so many games. However, take a look at the Syracuse players drafted since the turn of the millennium and tell me if you notice a trend:

- Jason Hart
- Etan Thomas
- Damone Brown
- Carmelo Anthony
- Hakim Warrick
- Demetris Nichols
- Donte Greene
- Jonny Flynn
- Andy Rautins
- Wesley Johnson
- Kris Joseph
- Fab Melo
- Dion Waiters
- Michael Carter-Williams
- Tyler Ennis
- Jerami Grant

To paraphrase Jay-Z, that's one hot album every ten year average. Most NBA observers look at this list and think that Boeheim isn't preparing guys for the next level. What they aren't seeing is that Boeheim and his players have been systematically defrauding NBA teams that can't see the difference between a player's statistical averages and his skill-set. Does Dion Waiters get drafted at No. 4 overall if he's forced to play man defense in college? More importantly, if Waiters is forced to play man defense for 40 minutes, is his team one of the top teams in the country? 

NBA teams and media observers look at Syracuse players and their success against the top teams in the country and run their numbers through some computer models, thinking they can evaluate Syracuse players in the same way they do guys from Duke and UNC. Syracuse players exist in an alternate reality where a complete inability to play man defense has no effect on their team's ability to win basketball games. When they get to the NBA, the mask slips and the flaws in their game become exposed for the whole world to see. The problem is just as bad in reverse - you have to take anything a guy does against a Syracuse with a massive grain of salt. When Syracuse plays, you can put away the scouting notebook. What you are watching has almost no resemblance to a conventional NBA game.

When Otto Porter dropped 33 points on Syracuse, I knew he would be over-drafted. In a game like that, where he can dribble into open 3's, flash into the high post and cut into open spots behind defenders who aren't actually guarding him, he can look like a superstar. Otto Porter will have a 10+ year career in the NBA but he's never going to live up to be a No. 3 overall pick. If he got to face a 2-3 zone in a bunch of playoff series, that might be a different story.

Syracuse takes advantage of the fact that most NCAA players are not as fundamentally sound as Otto Porter. They don't have the type of patience and feel necessary to pick apart a zone that is attacking them. Most guys come into the NCAA game as products of the AAU system, with only a basic idea of how to play in a half-court game. Play against a team that controls tempo, forces them to execute in the half-court and throws a lot of random traps at them and they lose their minds. From there, Syracuse goes from defense to offense and gets a lot of easy points in transition to make up for the fact that they usually don't have an elite 1-on-1 scorer or playmaker.

It's no coincidence that their two most recent trips to the Final Four coincided with the two best players Boeheim has coached in recent years - Carmelo in 2003 and MCW in 2013. Those guys are the only two Boeheim stars who could have starred for any team in the country. With Syracuse playing their usually stifling defense behind them, Boeheim could give them the ball and count on them to bail out their less talented teammates on offense. It doesn't hurt that it's easy to hide shooters who spread the floor for Melo and MCW in a 2-3 zone.

Why have Melo and MCW been so successful at the next level? Because they have the physical tools and the skill-sets that some of their Syracuse counterparts have lacked. Jonny Flynn was a 6'1 combo guard. Dion Waiters is an undersized 6'4 scoring guard. Wesley Johnson is a 6'7 wing without a ton of offensive skill. Hakim Warrick was a 6'8 combo forward without an NBA position. Etan Thomas was an undersized 6'9 center. What all these guys have in common is they never had the tools to be high-level NBA players, regardless of who was coaching them. The difference is that because they played for Boeheim they were able to make a few million dollars out of unsuspecting NBA teams first.

“[Dion] had nothing to be frustrated about because he was 100 percent wrong,” Boeheim said. He added: “He played no defense last year. Not some. None.”

When you look at it that way, you can see why Boeheim doesn't have a ton of time for critics who blame him for his players lack of success in the NBA. The beauty of the NBA is that its basketball at its highest levels - a guy's individual flaws will be exposed. Your college coach can make you a marginally better shooter, scorer, passer, rebounder or defender by teaching you the basics and forcing you to be accountable but at the end of the day you are who you are in this world. All a coach can do is maximize the God given talent you already have on hand. People expecting Syracuse players to perform as well as Duke or UNC players in the NBA have the entirely wrong idea about what is really going on at the NCAA level.

The other thing NBA fans don't understand is that Boeheim doesn't really care who goes pro and who doesn't at the end of a given season. He would obviously rather have his best players on campus for as long as he can, but he doesn't need them. The guy has won nearly 1,000 NCAA basketball games in his life. His streak of 35+ seasons with at least 20+ wins is an NCAA record. He will be able to figure something out. Were it not for Chris McCullough's season-ending injury, Syracuse would have been right there in the mix for an ACC title, even with Tyler Ennis and Jerami Grant jumping early to the NBA.

Boeheim got a lot of flack for what he said about them but he was just calling it how he saw it. He knows that you only have so many chances at the NBA before teams move on. As soon as you get into the league, the clock starts ticking on your rookie contract. By the end of it, if you can't convince teams you can hack it at a high level, you are off to Europe. The only way you can convince teams is if you get on the floor and put up a bunch of stats and the only way you can do that is by either A) beating out a veteran who doesn't want to give up his job or B) having the team make a substantial financial commitment to you in the form of a high first-round pick.

Ennis was taken at No. 18 overall by the Suns but they never gave him a chance to earn minutes behind Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas. Now he's in Milwaukee and who knows how long he'll be there, given that they also acquired MCW in the same trade and they just cut ties with Brandon Knight even though he was playing at an All-Star level. If Ennis doesn't stick in Milwaukee, even if it has nothing to do with his game, people are going to start asking Q's. The problem with Ennis is that he doesn't have great size or athleticism, which was somewhat hidden in college by the Syracuse zone. He's never going to be great defensively so every aspect of his offensive game should be 100% on point before he comes in the league.

Grant is a different story primarily because he plays for the 76ers, who are trying something that isn't really attempted in the NBA all that often. You can't fault Boeheim for not expecting an NBA team to so fully embrace tanking and draft positioning - it's not something he has seen all that often. Most NBA teams never embrace that type of "commitment to youth" (i.e losing). In his experience, most NBA teams expect fully-formed players than get rid of them when they find out how much work they still need to do. If Grant was playing for any other team in the league, he would be a 2nd round pick at the end of the bench. See: KJ McDaniels in Houston.

If Ennis and Grant had stayed in school, they would be putting up big-ass numbers for a Top 5 team as underclassmen. Boeheim would have went Ennis - Cooney - Grant - McCullough - Christmas and destroyed people. In that scenario, Ennis and Grant are drafted higher than where they were. Neither would have been a senior this season. There was no real rush. Boeheim may have been thinking about himself a little bit but he wasn't some evil villain trying to screw over his own players. He had some pretty solid reasons to think Ennis and Grant should come back. Maybe it works out for them in the NBA or maybe it doesn't. When you have been around as long as Boeheim has, all you can really go by is your experience over 40+ years of being in the business.

Anyone who spends that much time doing anything is going to take the long view. Life becomes a bunch of probabilities - the probability that another team won't make its outside shots, the probability that a bunch of high-level basketball players won't have much interest in taking classes, the probability that the NCAA won't want to ask too many questions about one of its most high-profile programs. Syracuse has lost NCAA Tourney games because the other team shot them out of the gym with Boeheim steadfastly refusing to come out of his zone. He is a smart guy who plays the numbers and plays the odds and that's what this latest scandal comes down too.

The people worrying about his legacy forget that he's a cynic first, a ball coach second and a "leader of young men" third. It's not that he has something against being a father figure and he seems to have a good relationship with guys like Melo. It's that he knows his job is to win and that people don't really care about academic scandals if their team wins enough games. No one in an NBA front office expects Boeheim to teach trigonometry or to make sure his kids don't plagiarize other people's papers. They know that cheating is rampant in college and that it happens at every program and every school in the country. If a young man has no interest in getting an education, there's only so much you can do to force him to get one.

That was the point of his widely mocked defense about how this investigation took longer than the Black Sox. If you start poking around any NCAA coach in the country for 8+ seasons, some shit is going to pop up. Let's be serious for like 2 seconds. The entire system of college basketball is built on a house of lies and everyone knows it. If NCAA investigators went through the academic notes (!!) of every college basketball player and the financial statements of every player's relative, there wouldn't be a high major team in the country that could fill out a roster. We would be looking at a Patriot League vs. Summit League Final Four. Being an NCAA basketball coach is like speeding on a freeway. Everyone is breaking the law so the law can pull over anyone they feel like and hassle them.

Within the world of basketball, Jim Boeheim is a legend because he wins like he was at UNC or Duke despite coaching in the middle of nowhere. A lot of coaches get talked up in the media about their X-and-O ability when they run the same sets as everyone else, have the same offensive and defensive concepts and stick to a very narrow view of how to run a program. The only thing that separates them is the quality of the players they bring to campus. People talk a lot about "thinking outside the box" and "re-inventing the wheel". Jim Boeheim actually did it.

Whether or not his wins are "vacated" by the NCAA doesn't really matter either. They still happened. The NCAA isn't the MIB - they can't actually rewrite history. If you want to know how many games Boeheim won at Syracuse, you can look it up online and it takes like 2 seconds. The NCAA may have the "official history" but anyone whose really into the game of basketball can look up Boeheim's track record, peep game and decide for themselves how good a coach he really was. Joseph Stalin could edit pics and re-write the Russian Revolution all he wanted, people still knew who was there and who wasn't.

Boeheim's wins matter not because of what they say about him as a coach but because of what they mean for the history of Syracuse's basketball program. Basketball is a way of life in that part of the world and that's primarily because Boeheim has won at such a high level for such a long period of time that he has developed one of the biggest fan bases in the country. College basketball is a sport on the fringes of the national consciousness - they can't afford to thumb their noses at any part of the country that actually gives a fuck about what happens between November and February.

People pretend that college sports are popular because of amateurism when the reality is they are popular because we have allowed the professional sports leagues to run cartels that force the vast majority of places in the country to look somewhere else for a "home team". There's no NBA team in Kansas or Northern New York but people in those places are just like people in New York City and Los Angeles - they still want to belong to something bigger than themselves, they still want to root for the good guys against the bad guys and they still want to come together as a community to watch sports at a high level.

That's why Boeheim's job has never actually been in jeopardy - because no one can win at that school like he can win. Syracuse isn't Kentucky or UNC or Duke. They need a professional basketball coach first. They don't need someone whose selling an image. If someone is going to win there, they need to run Boeheim's schemes and recruit Boeheim's players and if he's still up to do it what's the point in changing up? If McCullough can come back at 100% next season, Syracuse should have one of the top teams in the country. It's not like depth is a huge deal at his program either. One of the beauties of running zone is you only have to play 6-7 guys the entire game.

Boeheim's legacy is the 30,000 people who come to the Carrier Dome to watch a bunch of 18-22 year olds play zone defense. That's real. Everything else is just a bunch of make believe.


  1. Great read! I share many of the same thoughts.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


    Play Angry Birds Space!
    The sky is no longer the limit! Explore the galaxy with Angry Birds and their Superpowers. Angry Birds Games Free Download. Big collection of free full version games for all devices. Angry Birds Games Free Download and play for free.
    So download this awesome game and play today!
    Download The Game