Saturday, January 31, 2015

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Spread Revolution

When Mike Leach came to Texas Tech in 2000, no one knew what to expect. Tech had never been a huge football power in the state and they had struggled mightily since the formation of the Big 12 in 1996. They seemed condemned to mediocrity, stuck in the same division with two of the most storied programs in the history of college football and Texas A&M (boom, roasted) and without the resources to compete with the Joneses. The biggest problem for Tech was their location in the dusty oil town of Lubbock, located literally in the middle of nowhere and far away from the main recruiting areas in the state - Houston, Dallas and the I-35 corridor from Austin to San Antonio. A coach at Texas Tech had an uphill battle get the same type of players as his competitors.

If there's a bright spot at the center of the universe, we're at the place that's farthest from it.

Leach came with a palpable buzz - he was the OC at Kentucky where Tim Couch broke a bunch of records to become the No. 1 pick in the 1998 NFL draft (more on him later) and he was the OC at OU who helped Bob Stoops put the program back on the program. They won a national title the year after he left with Josh Heupel at QB, another decorated NCAA player who never lived up to expectations at the next level. Leach was known as an offensive guru, a guy who would spread out other teams and pick them apart with passing. They played "basketball on grass".



Me and my college roommates used to have epic Madden marathons where we would be in 4 WR shotgun the whole game, chucking the ball around. For the most part, if it was even close, you were going for it on every 4rth down. Mike Leach had turned football into a video game and the craziest part of all was that it worked. All of a sudden, Texas Tech became the one team none of the big boys in the conference wanted to face. They played such a unique style of football that it forced you to adapt to them and gave them a chance regardless of the disparities in talent.

Kliff Kingsbury, whom you might know now as the most handsome coach in college football, was the only one of his QB's to be drafted. It didn't take long for NFL teams to figure out that it really didn't matter who Leach had behind center. In a sport where finding good QB play sometimes seemed like a borderline miracle, Leach was churning out passing machines on an almost annual basis. Were it not for their names, it would be hard to tell most of them apart:


Everyone wants to act like football coaches are secret geniuses, but what Leach was doing was fairly simple. If you look at the highlights from his games, not many of his WR's were getting double covered. Leach had four guys running routes who were attacking vertically and horizontally, so he was putting the defense in a tremendous of space. From there, once one of his guys won their 1-on-1 match-up, the QB was supposed to get the ball out very quickly.

This had three important advantages for Texas Tech, a team that was usually punching up when it comes to future NFL talent.

1) They didn't need QB's with big arms (i.e big recruits)
2) They didn't need OL who could dominate 1-on-1 match-ups
3) They didn't need WR's who could dominate against the elite CB's on the outside. Leach's teams would kill you from the slot and force you to field 4 competent DB's all game long. Since most of the best athletes want to play WR, Leach had a pretty good chance of winning those match-ups against second and third string DB's, even without the best recruits.

Most importantly of all, the decision making process of the QB was simplified. He didn't have to take the ball from under center, drop back 5-7 steps and read a very complex route down the field before stepping into a throw with a 300 pound defensive lineman running at his face. Instead, the QB stayed 5-7 feet behind the line of scrimmage, surveyed the field rapidly and got rid of the ball as soon as he saw an open man in front of him.

Another benefit of making a lot of quick passes was the pace Tech could play at. Since there weren't a ton of collisions to untangle at the line of scrimmage, they could snap the ball quickly and get back in play. As a result, they always kept the opposing defense on their heels and forced them to simplify their defensive calls. You couldn't have Rob Ryan diagramming some exotic zone blitz for a bunch of 19-20 year olds who barely knew what was going on and were struggling to catch their breathe as Texas Tech relentlessly pressed the ball at them.

They never were able to win the Big 12, but they got awfully close a few times, waging some Titanic battles with OU and UT in the process. The Big 12 South when Stoops and Mack Brown were in their primes was a lot like the SEC West today - the best teams in that division were competing for a national title pretty much every season. In his last five years at Texas Tech, Leach had as good a run as any in school history - 9-3, 8-5, 9-4, 11-2, 8-4. The problem for them, and the recurring knock on his program, was their defense.

Was Leach's style of play and overall aggressiveness conducive to playing great defense? Most defensive-minded coaches preferred to play more conservatively, holding the ball and limiting the number of possessions for the other team. Leach didn't care how many possessions you got because he was pretty sure he was going to score when he had the ball. The reality is that Leach never had the athletes at Texas Tech to play high level defense in the Big 12 - that would require fielding a defacto NFL farm team on that side of the ball like Texas and OU. Leach was having to make do with two, three and occasional four star recruits and there was only so much they were going to do to stop guys like Vince Young and Adrian Peterson.

Nevertheless, the charge of him not caring about defense hung around him. What didn't help matters was his brash and fairly imperious attitude. Leach was the kind of guy who always had to be the smartest guy in the room and he made more than his few share of enemies in Lubbock. Being the head football coach at a big state school in Texas is a lot like being the head of one of the great houses in Game of Thrones - there is constant politicking going on at every level of the program and being a politician who knew when to bite his tongue was never Leach's strong suit.

It's still not entirely clear exactly why Leach ended up getting ousted in 2009. There was a guy in a locked room, a candidate for the Texas Senate and a series of contentious lawsuits over money. SI has all the gory details - even for the world of college football, it was pretty crazy stuff.

After a few years in purgatory, Leach wound up at Washington State, where he's trying to pull an equally difficult rebuilding project than the one in Lubbock, if not more so. The big difference this time around is that everyone is using his principles. He's no longer running a contrarian offense. Oregon, the big player in that part of the world, has taken the spread offense to a whole different level in terms of tempo and the caliber of athletes they are using. They are using Leach's principles with big-tine athletes and they are winning at a level he never could.

It's the same story across the country. From Ohio State to Oregon, TCU, Baylor, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Auburn and Texas A&M, most of the top teams in the country are running offenses based on uptempo spread principles. There are still plenty of teams running pro-style offenses, from Florida State to Alabama, but they are starting to be the new contrarians at the highest levels of the game. To be sure, this is a fairly simplistic dichotomy and all offenses exist on a continuum, but the broader point remains. Mike Leach may never won a championship, but the revolution is over. The principles he represents have already won.

***

When Mike D'Antoni took over as the interim coach in Phoenix in 2003, few knew much about him. After making the playoffs with a promising young core of Stephon Marbury, Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion the year before, injuries had knocked the Suns out of the playoff race and it cost Frank Johnson his job. MDA pretty much played out the string for the rest of the season, not getting to install his system until the following season. The Suns signed Steve Nash that summer and you probably know what happened from there.

Like Texas Tech, the Suns were never quite able to get over the hump against their two main rivals - losing to Tim Duncan's Spurs and Dirk Nowitzki's Mavs in the WCF. Like Leach, MDA was endlessly criticized for his offensive-minded approach even though he never had the players to form a great defense. Just like Leach, MDA has to sit there and listen to people act like he's a gimmick coach while his offensive schemes take over the sport. The Kobe/Pau Lakers were the last NBA champions to not crib liberally from what the D'Antoni did with the Suns.

The spread pick-and-roll, like Leach's Air Raid offense, was based on a few fairly simple concepts.

1) Instead of trying to pound the ball into the paint where the other team's biggest defenders are, MDA's teams elected to open up the floor and force the defense to move in space. The inside run is the post-up, the 8-year slant is the pick-and-roll.

2) MDA's system didn't require the hardest player in basketball to find - the elite low post center who could command a double team in the paint. There's no better offense than the Triangle to take advantage of a guy like Shaq. The problem is there aren't many guys like Shaq out there. Similarly, if you are Alabama and you can line up a five-star prospect at all five offensive line positions, there's no need to over-complicate what you are doing. If you are Auburn or Mississippi State, you need to figure out some way to level the playing field.

3) The key with both offenses is that it simplifies the decision-making process of the guy with the ball in his hands. When you are running a pick-and-roll against a spread floor, the decision-making process is pretty easy. If the defense switches, attack. If the defense goes under, shoot the jumper. If the defense extends out, hit the roll man. If the defense sends help, get the ball to one of the shooters and they rotate it for an open shot. No matter what the defense does, they have to give up something.

4) The converse of that is guys running conventional offenses have to make plays in tighter windows. You hear that all the time about NCAA QB's - do they know the difference between NCAA open and NFL open? In the NBA, all you have to do is look at the amount of space that Mike Conley plays in with the Grit N Grind Grizzlies verses the amount of space that Steph Curry and Klay Thompson have in Golden State. Conley is being asked to cut through rush hour traffic. Curry and Klay are cruising down open lanes on the highway.

5) Here's the most important point of all. If it's easier to be QB/PG in the spread offense that means that the talent pool of guys who could play QB/PG is much wider than we had previously imagined. The spread isn't making guys look better than they actually are - the spread is changing the way we have to evaluate the position entirely.

This concept is pretty easy to grasp when Leach is turning 2 and 3 star recruits into 5,000+ yard passers at Texas Tech. However, when a coach like Urban Meyer does it with big-time recruits at Florida and Ohio State, we still have a tendency to pin everything on the QB even though Meyer's offenses have a long record of churning out record-setting numbers pretty much regardless of whose behind center.

Let's consider Tim Tebow aka the greatest QB in the history of college football. After watching him in the NFL, are we really so sure it was his indomitable will that was leading Florida to those national titles? Not running behind Mike and Maurkice Pouncey, who are now two of the best interior linemen in the NFL? Not throwing the ball to Aaron Hernandez and Percy Harvin? Chris Leak, not Tebow, was the starting QB for Florida when they won their first national title in 2006. I'll submit to you that you would have to be a pretty garbage QB to not win 10+ games a year in Meyer's system with that type of personnel.

 Can't wait for the 30 for 30 on that team.

Remember when Ohio State was doomed when they lost Braxton Miller for the season? Remember when they had no chance without JT Barrett? Cardale Jones was their third string QB - surely no one could have three QB's that good on their roster! Look at their passing numbers at OSU and try to tell me they weren't all replaceable cogs in the Urban Meyer Machine:

Braxton Miller (2013) - 2,094 yards, 24 TD's and 6 INT's on 63.5% completion percentage
JT Barrett (2014) - 2,834 yards, 34 TD's and 7 INT's on 64.6% completion percentage
Cardale Jones (2014) - 860 yards, 7 TD's and 2 INT's on 60.9 completion percentage

Teams running a pro-style offense are devastated by the loss of their QB. For a team running the spread, it's kind of like losing an OG. Plug the next guy in and keep it moving. My first thought when I saw Cardale Jones getting NFL talk was how many high school QB's could play in the NFL if only they got the chance to play for Urban Meyer, run his system and put up a whole bunch of stats on national TV? Remember Tim Couch, No. 1 overall pick in 1998? He probably doesn't get drafted in the first day if he's not playing for Mike Leach. Here's Chris Brown at Grantland going over this idea in more detail when he talks about "the democratization of the QB position".

What's funny is that everyone in Texas was freaking out about how Urban could have 3 good QB's and we don't have any. Maybe instead of focusing on the personality quirks of 18-19 years olds we could look at the offensive structure they have been put it? Maybe the system they are being put into is dysfunctional? Here's my guess - Cardale Jones would have really struggled behind the garbage offensive line that UT had this season and then everyone would have been like, wow Mack Brown really didn't know anything about evaluating QB's, how come he didn't recruit Hot QB Prospect A who wound up at Ohio State?

At TCU, they kept the QB (Trevone Boykin) and changed the system, bringing in Sonny Cumbie, one of Leach's old QB's at Texas Tech, to install an Air Raid inspired offense. Take a wild guess as to what happened:

Boykin (2013) - 1,198 passing yards, 7 TD's and 7 INT's on 59.7% completion percentage
Boykin (2014) - 3,091 passing yards, 33 TD's and 10 INT's on 61.2% completion percentage

I wonder if there have been any dramatic turn-arounds like that in the NBA recently? Let's take a look at what Brandon Jennings and DJ Augustin were doing in Detroit before and after they got rid of Josh Smith and began running the spread pick-and-roll:


In the Pistons first game without Jennings, DJ Augustin went for 35 points, 4 rebounds and 8 assists against a Toronto team that cut him the year before. I'm a big Kyle Lowry fan but it's pretty obvious that he got outplayed in that game by a guy who was an NBA journeyman a few years ago. It's not because DJ is better than Lowry - it's because the game is a lot easier for him. How many points and assists would Lowry have running the P/R with Drummond? More importantly, how many PG's are out there could run that play with him at a high level? The Pistons got 2 points and 2 assists from Spencer Dinwiddie (a rookie 2nd round pick from Colorado coming off an ACL injury) in 11 minutes against Toronto.

Maybe the reason there are so many good PG's in the NBA is because it has never been easier to put up big offensive statistics at the position than ever before? Maybe Jeremy Lin succeeded with MDA in New York for the same reason that all those QB's succeeded with Mike Leach at Texas Tech - because it would have been almost impossible not too. I like Jeremy Lin and I think he's an NBA player, but you can't tell me there aren't a number of guys in the D-League who could put up numbers like he does if given the same opportunity.

It don't take genius-level PG play to throw alley oops to Tyson Chandler just like it doesn't take a high-level NFL QB to hit Michael Crabtree on a 7-yard slant. The key with the spread offense is that it isn't about the guy throwing the ball, it's about the guy catching it. He's the one who has to make the 1-on-1 play and get open or force the defense to send an extra man and leave someone else open. All the decision-maker has to do is read his receiver and make the right play.

In case you have forgotten (and Texas fans never will), here's the biggest play in Leach's tenure at Texas Tech:



Everyone looks at the success of the New England Patriots with Tom Brady and a bunch of different WR's and says oh Brady can make anyone WR look good. Well the reverse is just as true. There are a lot of guys like Graham Harrell out there. There aren't many Michael Crabtrees. There are many guys who could be Brandon Jennings, but there's only one Andre Drummond.

In the 21rst century, QB's and PG's are becoming increasingly replaceable. That's the end point of the spread revolution.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

D-League Prospects

With the All-Star Break still a month away and the D-League Showcase behind us, this is the time of year that you often see teams reach down for guy on a 10-day contract, whether it's to shore up a hole in the rotation or take a flyer on a young guy they think has some potential. So far this season, there have already been three clear success stories in terms of guys being found off the waiver wire - Hassan Whiteside on the Heat, Justin Holiday on the Warriors and Robert Covington on the 76ers.

Whiteside is a huge story that I plan on getting more into in the near future, but for now suffice to say that an uber-athletic two-way 7'0 like that being available for absolutely nothing should tell you a lot about how the market for pro basketball talent actually works. This ain't NBA 2k15 - there are plenty of really good basketball players out there waiting for a chance. Don't assume that a guy not being in the NBA means he can't play. NBA teams miss on guys all the time if for no other reason than it's hard (if not impossible) for a young guy who wasn't drafted in the top half of the first round to break into the rotation of an even half-way decent team. If there are three established guys at your position ahead of you, there's not much you can really do to unseat them as long as the team is playing well. That's just not how the world works.

I don't think it's any stretch to say that there are a number of guys in the D-League who could help NBA teams right now or who are at the very least better than some of the guys currently on rosters. A lot of it comes down to path dependence - once a team invests a draft pick in a guy, they are going to be more committed to developing him, if for no other reason than to make the FO look good. So once you slip out of the NBA once, you have to be a lot better than young guys on other teams to get back in. That's how guys slip through the cracks. It almost happened to Hassan Whiteside!

The more realistic outcome is Justin Holiday, a 25-year old rookie SG for the Warriors. After graduating from the University of Washington in 2012, he bounced around the fringes of the NBA and the D-League for a few years. The Warriors took a chance on him because of his combo of length, athleticism and shooting ability and it looks like they have found a solid 3-and-D role player to come off their bench. If a young guy can play regular minutes on a team as Golden State without messing with everyone else's chi, it's an accomplishment.

Here's how I look at it - are there a lot of team who could use a guy with the older Holiday's skill-set? Yes. Are there more guys who can have an impact like Holiday floating around the D-League? Almost certainly. All they need is a chance.

I'm not going to say I've watched these guys a lot in the D-League, but they are all guys I've seen play plenty in college. Given the stats they are putting up and what I know about their skill-sets from their college days, here are 7 guys I think are worth a shot at the next level. My guess is that the "replacement-level basketball player" is better than a lot of people give it credit for. Teams just have been willing to give young guys a chance.

PG's:

Lorenzo Brown (NC State)

- 6'5 190 with a 6'7 wingspan
- 24 years old
- 17/5/4 on 51/37/80 shooting

This is an easy one. Brown is a huge PG with good athleticism who can match up with multiple positions. The concern about him coming out of college was his three-point shooting and he appears to have firmed that up in the D-League. This is a guy who could help a lot of teams as a backup PG right now. He may not have the high-level play-making ability to be a starting PG on a good NBA team, but he definitely has the physical tools to be one. As long as he can consistently stick 3's, he is a huge plus in a rotation considering what he brings to the table as a driver, passer, rebounder and defensive player.

Doron Lamb (Kentucky)

- 6'4 200 with a 6'7 wingspan
- 23 years old
- 18/3/3.5 on 43/40/88 shooting

He played as a SG in college but I think it makes more sense to think of him as a larger combo guard who can swing between either guard position on a second unit. He'll never be a full-time floor general, but his assist-to-turnover ratio in the D-League (3.5 to 2.1) shows you that he's a guy who can get you into offense, take care of the ball and initiate ball movement with a pick-and-roll. Add to the fact that he has good size for a PG and he's a plus shooter and he's definitely better than guys like Austin Rivers, Jimmer Fredette and Gal Mekel.

I wrote about whether Lamb could make the Mavs and beat out Ricky Ledo before training camp at Mavs Moneyball.

Wings:

Adonis Thomas (Memphis)

- 6'6 230 with a 7'1 wingspan
- 21 years old
- 17/4/1.5 on 40/35/88 shooting

Thomas is the classic example of a guy who went pro too early, declaring for the draft after two very inconsistent seasons at Memphis where he never averaged more than 12 points a game. Why he thought he would be drafted when Will Barton went in the second round after being an All-American, I have no idea. Thomas has bounced around the fringes of the NBA world for the past two seasons and he appears to be coming into his own this year, when he would have been a senior in college. For a guy with the skill-set to play on the perimeter, he is freaking enormous - he is essentially built like Ron Artest. As long as Thomas can consistently knock down 3's, his ability to match up with multiple positions on defense and increase overall team length/athleticism makes him a very intriguing player.

Jabari Brown (Missouri)

- 6'4 200 with a 6'8 wingspan
- 22 years old
- 22/4.5/2 on 46/39/80 shooting

Brown fell victim to a case of positional crowding and bad coaching in college, as he shared a backcourt with Jordan Clarkson, a 2nd round pick of the Lakers, on a Missouri team that couldn't even make the NCAA Tournament (thanks Frank Haith). He was always really nice, but the concern was that if he wasn't even the best player on his mediocre college team how could he really be? After not being drafted, Brown is showing what he can do in the D-League - the guy is a great shooter who just knows how to get buckets. There's a lot of Randy Foye in his game. A team who needs offense and shooting from the perimeter could do a lot worse.

Jamaal Franklin (San Diego State)

- 6'5 190 with a 6'11 wingspan
- 23 years old
- Just signed with the Lakers D-League affiliate

If Thomas projects as the defensive specialist on the wings and Brown projects as the scorer, Franklin is the most well-rounded of the bunch. Of the three, he was the best college player, but a transition to an NBA role won't be easy since he's such a ball-dominant player. If I was starting an NBA team with one of the three, I'd go with Franklin, but obviously no one is doing that. He's long, athletic and he can create his own shot and create shots for others, but he was a very inconsistent three-point shooter in college (like many of SDSU's players) and unless he can prove he can make that shot in the NBA, teams won't respect him playing off the ball. There's definitely some talent there - you can't hold him not cracking the Memphis Grizzlies rotation as a second-rounder against him.

PF's:

Tony Mitchell (North Texas)

- 6'9 235 with a 7'2 wingspan
- 22 years old
- In limbo after being cut by the Suns following a trade

Mitchell is the captain of my guys who never a got a fair shot in the NBA the first time team. He was drafted into an impossible situation where he had to sit behind Greg Monroe and Josh Smith in Detroit and then he became a casualty when there was a changeover in management. In terms of talent, though? Holy shit. We're talking a guy who could have been a lottery pick had he been eligible out of high school and played at Missouri instead of being forced into the world of partial qualifiers in the Sun Belt conference. In the very, very limited minutes he got in Detroit, he produced. My man got a 18.3 PER! Mitchell is free money on the ground, waiting to be picked up.

I wrote a big feature about him at SBNation before the 2013 draft.

Richard Solomon (Cal)

- 6'11 225 with a 7'0 wingspan
- 22 years old
- 9/7 on 64% shooting

The funny thing about Solomon is you wouldn't have found many fans or coaches in the Pac-12 last season who thought Travis Wear was the better player. Solomon is bigger, faster and more skilled - he's kind of a downscale version of Dwight Powell, the Stanford PF who has made a huge impression in Dallas since coming over as part of the Rajon Rondo trade. He can play out of the high post and the low post and he can defend multiple positions in the front-court. He never got a ton of shots at Cal, but he stuffed the shit out of the stat-sheet - 11 points, 10 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal and 1 block a game on 54% shooting as a senior. He will probably need to figure out a niche for himself at the next level, whether it's as a rebounder, perimeter shooter or finisher on the pick-and-roll, but the tools are there for a long NBA career.

C's

The thing about good two-way C's is they are pretty much impossible to find outside of the top of the draft. That's what makes the Hassan Whiteside story so remarkable.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Cleveland 2.0

After scuffling around .500, losing Anderson Varejao to a season-ending injury and seeing their coach installed on the hot seat by the national media, the Cavs re-shuffled their roster last week, shipping off Dion Waiters and bringing in Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert and JR Smith. When they get everyone healthy, Cleveland will have almost a completely different team than the one they started the year with. Here's my guess as to how their rotation will look by the playoffs:

PG - Kyrie Irving
SG - Iman Shumpert, JR Smith
SF - LeBron James, Shawn Marion
PF - Kevin Love
C - Timofey Mozgov, Tristan Thompson

All things considered, Cleveland 2.0 has a pretty solid Top 8. You have three of the best players in the NBA in LeBron, Love and Kyrie as well as two-way starters at the other two positions in Shump and Mozgov and three important bench pieces - a 6th man gunner, a versatile defensive swingman and a rotation big man who can swing between PF and C on a second unit. After cashing in a lot of assets to put this group together, this looks like the team going forward. The only obvious place they could upgrade the rotation over the next few months is backup PG, where they have Matthew Dellavedova, whose perimeter D may not be able to hold up over the course of a seven-game series.

At the very least, the team is going to want to see these guys grow together over the next few weeks and then re-assess where they are (and whether they need to do anything about the coaching situation) at the All-Star break.

Of course, that doesn't mean we can't jump to conclusions already. After all, that's most of the fun of blogging. When I look at the roster, what jumps out to me most is the lack of athleticism on the front-line. In that sense, Love and Mozgov reminds me a lot of the lumbering low-post combination of Love and Pekovic in Minnesota. There are clear differences - Mozgov is a much better rim protector and Pek is the much better scorer - but the underlying dynamic of two slow-footed Goliaths in a 4-out, spread pick-and-roll league is still there.

To be sure, you can win and win big with that type of personnel, as the Memphis Grizzlies have shown. However, that requires a team-wide buy in on both ends of the floor, in terms of pounding the ball inside, controlling tempo and not taking a lot of quick shots early in the clock that don't allow you to take advantage of your big men in the paint. Most importantly of all, it requires high-level defensive play at almost every position, since a team like the Grizzlies is not going to be able to outscore teams like the Warriors and the Mavs.

As you might have guessed, that isn't exactly the situation in Cleveland.

Their loss to the Suns on Tuesday was a perfect example of the problem. With the Suns spreading the floor and attacking the Cavs slower big men off the dribble, Blatt was forced to go super-small, playing Thompson at the 5, LeBron at the 4 and surrounding them with Kyrie and a bunch of wings. Neither Love nor Mozgov had any answer for Markieff Morris, who had 35 points on only 15 shots. And if those guys can't guard the Morrii, how are they going to be able to stick Al Horford and Paul Millsap? The answer is they won't. If the Cavs play the Hawks in a seven-game series, LeBron is going to have to stick Millsap.

As you start to break down the match-ups and look at the way the NBA is trending, one thing becomes abundantly clear - if the Cavs are going to be an elite team, it's going to be with LeBron James at the 4. This is what ended up happening in Miami, where they didn't really hit their stride until Year 2, when an injury to Chris Bosh forced the Heat to go small with LeBron at the 4. When Bosh returned, they slid him into the 5 position and played five-out basketball with LeBron, Bosh, Battier, Wade and Chalmers.

Here's the problem in Cleveland. Bosh is much longer (7'5 wingspan to 6'11 wingspan) than Love and he is a much better athlete, so he has the tools to at least survive at the position. Even with Bosh, the Heat were constantly having to fight and claw to beat back bigger teams like the Indiana Pacers. Roy Hibbert could score 30 points a game against Kevin Love. There's just no big man on the Cavs roster, whether it's Mozgov, Thompson or Love, who has anywhere close to Bosh's skill-set on both ends of the floor.

Without a big man like that on hand, you really can't play five-out basketball. In looking for a formula with the players they have on hand, the one that jumps out to me is Golden State. Keep in mind this is not a direct comparison of the players on these two teams, just a look at their size and skill-sets and how they could fit together as a unit.

Steph = Kyrie
Klay = JR
Iggy = Shump
Draymond = Bron
Bogut = Mozgov

If Draymond Green can be a full-time PF in the Western Conference (where the PF's are much bigger and much more skilled), there's no reason LeBron can't either, especially as he starts to lose some of his athletic ability now that he is on the wrong side of 30. Bron at the 4 puts defenses in an impossible bind, since no conventional big man has a prayer of guarding him and there's much less room to send help with only big man on the floor for Cleveland. If they keep their 4 out there, he has to slide over to the 3. This is what happened to the Mavs the last time they played the Warriors - they put Chandler Parsons on Draymond and Dirk on Harry Barnes.

Bogut, like Mozgov, isn't the quickest guy in the world, but he's freaking enormous and the Warriors put so many athletes around him that it doesn't matter. He can just occupy the paint, clean the defensive glass and trigger the fast break. The Warriors play 4-out basketball with a mountain in the middle and it has been remarkably effective.

What the Cavs could really use is someone in the Harry Barnes role, a swingman who can defend multiple positions and provide value on both ends of the floor while also increasing the overall amount of team speed and athleticism. If was drawing up the ideal basketball trade for the Cavs, it would look something like Kevin Love for Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins. That would do two things - it would add a ton of speed to the line-up and it would give Blatt a lot more options in terms of the types of line-ups he could use:

PG - Kyrie
SG - Shumpert, JR Smith
SF - Wiggins, Shawn Marion
PF - LeBron, Anthony Bennett
C - Mozgov, Tristan Thompson

You could have an all D line-up with LeBron at the point and Wiggins, Shumpert and Marion on the wings. You could have an all O line-up with Kyrie, Wiggins and LeBron on the perimeter and Tony Bennett and Thompson as your 4 and 5 men.

The basic game-plan would be to play really aggressive man-to-man defense and try to turn over the opposition, knowing you have Mozgov behind you to cover up the rim. On offense, you have LeBron playing in maximum space, so there's no way other teams are going to be able to stop you. Of course, there would have been a lot of young guys and a ton of up-and-down play, but that is a legitimately exciting team who could conceivably beat the Warriors or the Thunder at their own game. Let's throw Wiggins on Steph Curry/Russell Westbrook and see what happens. And then LeBron gets KD/Klay Thompson.

Over the course of the season, LeBron could take the occasional night off and use the last two No. 1 overall picks like a video game controller, telling them where to go on both sides of the floor. It could have been a 21rst century twist on the Spurs, with LeBron as Tim Duncan, Kyrie as Tony Parker and Wiggins as Manu Ginobili. I always thought LeBron and the Kids was the more compelling basketball storyline for his comeback to Cleveland. We got a pretty good feel for the whole LeBron and his Super Friends experiment in Miami and it didn't seem like there was all that much need for a sequel.

After the insanity of the last four years, it would have been nice to see LeBron on a team where there wasn't an impossible amount of expectations from Day 1. I got a little worn out just watching the circus surrounding him in Miami. The circus isn't quite as big in Cleveland, but that's because there's no way it could be. Things just aren't as interesting the second time around. You can see everyone trying to do the same beats - did LeBron just push his coach? Are there enough shots to go around for Kyrie and Love? What are LeBron's friends doing behind the scenes? - but the energy just isn't there.


The main difference this time around is the other two leads aren't as good. Wade, Bosh and LeBron were so good on offense AND defense that it really didn't matter who you put around them. If Joel Anthony and Mike Bibby walked through that door and were starting on this year's Cavs, they aren't winning 58 games, I can tell you that right now. Love and Kyrie aren't as versatile as Wade and Bosh, which limits the number of ways you can build an elite team.

This group of Cavs would probably be best as the 2011 Mavs (once again - this is just a comparison of size and skill-sets, not overall ability)

Kyrie = Jet Terry
Shump = Kidd
LeBron = Matrix
Love = Dirk
Mozgov = Chandler (?)

If you are going to have two defensive liabilities like Jet Terry (Kyrie) and Dirk (Love) out there, you need a back-line defender like Chandler, a super-fast 7'0 who can cover a lot of ground on defense, defend the post and play above the rim. In other words, you need someone with a little more recovery speed than Mozgov.

You have to build around Love the same way that the Mavs built around Dirk. They had two long, athletic and versatile defenders around him at the 3 (Matrix) and the 5 (Chandler), which meant they could always hide him on defense. A good example of this is the Mavs first-round series with Portland in 2011, when they switched Chandler onto LaMarcus Aldridge. If Dirk had to guard LMA for seven straight games, he would be in foul trouble for most of it and LMA would have put up numbers like he did against Houston when they had Terrence Jones trying to guard him. To win a title with Dirk as their best player, the Mavs needed a big man who could play elite 1-on-1 defense at the 5 and the 4.

It's also worth pointing out that Chandler guarding LMA is only half the equation. The other half is that if you have Dirk at 5, you had better not be allowing much penetration from the 1-3 positions. Chandler playing at 20+ feet from the rim meant there was no second line of defense, so everyone else had to tighten up. The good news it the Mavs had the personnel to do it. They started Jason Kidd, DeShawn Stevenson and Marion and they could bring Cory Brewer off the bench, so they could lock you down on the perimeter. That was the most underrated aspect of that 2011 team and that's where this year's Mavs team falls short.

That, in turn, brings us back to the problem of trying to build an elite team around Love and Kyrie. You can hide one defensive weakness on the floor, but it is hard as hell to hide two. There's only so many holes a ship can have before it starts to sink. If you look at the Warriors, they took David Lee out of the starting line-up and Steph has really improved as a defensive player. They don't have any real weak spots on defense anymore.

To me, if you are keeping Kevin Love, the first question is how can I find a Tyson Chandler? And when you look around the league for a potentially available guy with that skill-set, one guy jumps out at you - Larry Sanders.


The Rodman to LeBron's late era Jordan?

As Charles Barkley always says, every championship team needs a crazy guy on it.

I don't know what Sanders deal is anymore, but that's the kind of piece Cleveland is going to need to put around their Big Three. And even that would still depend on Kyrie Irving developing on D, which might be a few years away in a best-case scenario. The point is that if Cleveland was going to have to wait on Kyrie anyway, maybe they should have thought about waiting on Wiggins too? What's the point of rushing to the finish line when you don't have the pieces to cross it?

When people were looking at Wiggins vs. Love, they were looking at all the wrong things. It was never a matter of how many stats or All-Star appearances that Wiggins would have in his career or how many Love had already racked up - the real question was always how their skill-sets would fit with Kyrie and LeBron.

Here's the funny thing about Wiggins and Cleveland. If his worst-case scenario is James Posey, that would have been a best-case scenario for the Cavs. James Posey is exactly the type of player they need!

Monday, January 12, 2015

The 4-Out Revolution

Through the first few months of the story, the three biggest stories (from a team POV) have been the Warriors, the Pistons and the Hawks. None of those teams made a bunch of personnel moves in the off-season - in fact the biggest change Detroit made was getting rid of a guy - but all three have made dramatic improvements. They all share one thing in common - they spread the floor with athletes who can shoot the ball and make defenses play in space.

They each have a variation on the formula, but the underlying principles are the same.

1) Golden State plays 4-out with a massive center in the middle. Bogut isn't a great shooter, but he's an excellent playmaker who can serve as the hub of a 4-out offense and he's a one-man wrecking crew on the glass and at the rim, allowing the Warriors to play smaller and more athletic guys around him who can swarm their man.

2) Detroit plays classic 4-out basketball, with an offense built around the high spread pick-and-roll and two devastating roll men in Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe.

3) Atlanta plays 5-out basketball, which I discussed in a lot of detail last week.

A system depends on the players that are running it - if you have Andre Drummond on your team, by definition, you are not running a 5-out system. Just as guys like Bogut and Drummond don't make sense in a 5-out world, guys like David Lee and Josh Smith, power forwards who can't consistently stretch the floor, have little use in a 4-out world. The Warriors didn't become one of the best teams in the NBA until David Lee got injured and the Pistons were one of the worst teams in the NBA when Smith was on the floor. Those two guys are living out a Twilight Zone episode - they woke up one morning and the world had totally changed. They were doing the same things they always did except those things were no longer considered valuable.



David Lee and Josh Smith aren't bad basketball players. They have each received max contracts and Lee has even made a few All-Star teams. None of that matters anymore, though, as they have both been tried and found guilty in the court of NBA basketball. There are still ways to win at a high level with a non-shooting PF, but they require a specific skill-set (i.e Z-Bo, David West) that neither Smith nor Lee have. Smith can no longer finish at a high level around the rim and Lee has never been able to play defense.

Just like that, their days of starting for a good team have come and gone. Lee is never starting for the Warriors again barring injury and Smith is going to have a tough time holding off Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones (a younger version of him) in Houston. If they start in the NBA, it's going to be in a situation like Carlos Boozer with the LA Lakers. If they are playing on a winner, it's in a much smaller role coming off the bench.

Any team trying to get better should be trying to improve in the same way that Atlanta, Detroit and Golden State did - by adding 3's, 4's and 5's who can shoot the ball and play defense. If you don't have guys like that, it won't matter how good your guards are. I would argue a huge portion of Klay Thompson's improvement this season is that he no longer has to share the floor with David Lee and he is able to play in much more space, where his ability to shoot makes him almost indefensible. This is why Kyle Korver is shooting at an all-time high in Houston and why it looks like everyone on Detroit suddenly remembered how to shoot over the last few weeks. Conversely, this is why I think Mike Conley has always been underrated - it's hard to rack up huge efficiency stats when Gasol, Z-Bo and their two defenders are camped out in the lane.

If you look around the NBA, there are a couple prime candidates to be the next stop in the 4-out revolution. No non-shooting PF should be too comfortable because the sands of time are shifting under their feet. David Lee and Josh Smith will not be the last casualties of the revolution. Like any revolution, it must have its bodies.

1) Sacramento - Jason Thompson

Objective A: Let DeMarcus Cousins play in space.
Objective B: Play a more uptempo style.
Objective C: Play a more entertaining offensive style with a lot of ball movement.
Objective D: Make Vivek Ranadive look like a genius.

The best way to accomplish Objective D would be to install the Grinnell offense like he did at the D-League level and swamp the rest of the league. In the world of reality, the best chance Vivek has of riding the paradigm is getting a stretch PF and running a 4-out offense through DeMarcus Cousins. I'm sure he's aware of what is going on down the road in Golden State. Installing Draymond Green in place of Jason Thompson is the obvious way to achieve Objectives A, B and C and a guy who can achieve all of those things is almost certainly worth a max contract.

2) Utah - Enes Kanter

Kanter's injury opened up playing time for Rudy Gobert, who has grabbed it with both hands. They are currently trying Derrick Favors at 4. If that works out, they are going to be a very serious team. Gobert/Favors is something I'm tracking very closely, although we may not see it pay off for another year, when Alec Burks and Dante Exum would presumably be their starting backcourt, not Trey Burke and Joe Ingles.

3) Denver - Kenneth Faried aka The Manimal

Faried fits the formula to a T. Like David Lee, he's not a great defensive player. Like Josh Smith, he's not a great outside shooter. Like both those guys, he has made a lot of money and put up a lot of stats but it hasn't always correlated with winning. Though, to be fair to Lee and Smith, Faried's best season in the NBA was 14/8 on a team that won 35 games.

You could see the writing on the wall for Faried all the way back in 2013, when the Warriors knocked the Nuggets out of the first round. After David Lee went down with an injury, Golden State went small with Harrison Barnes at the PF and ran Denver off the floor. Faried wasn't big enough to consistently punish Barnes on the block and he had no chance of guarding him on the perimeter. With Manimal trying to guard him, Barnes looked like the Black Falcon for a fortnight, dropping 20 points a game and looking like the star he was always projected to be.

Barnes vs. Faried was the evolution of the game in real time.

What this season should have made obvious to Denver, if it hasn't been obvious already, is that the Nuggets are going to need a full rebuild. The pieces they have now aren't good enough to make the playoffs in the ultra-competitive West. The question they will have to answer is whether they want to rebuild from the 8-13 spots in the draft or the 4-8 spots, since getting 1-3 is just a matter of luck. Either way will work and they are off to a good start in that department after they fleeced the Chicago Bulls for Jusuf Nurkic AND Gary Harris for the price of Doug McDermott.

Nurkic already looks like a real keeper and they just moved Timofey Mozgov so they could give him more minutes at the C position. If they are going to build around a low-post scorer at C, they are going to want more of a shooter at PF. And if they are going to start a 19-year old at C, they are going to want some guys who can play defense around him. Either way, if the question becomes Nurkic or Manimal, there's no question the current FO is going to go with the younger guy with more upside whom they drafted.

4) Indiana - David West

This is more of a long-term thing. It's not that West is a bad player, but that he's 34 years old and has played 11 seasons in the NBA and is putting up the worst stats of his career. At a certain point, Indiana has to start planning for their future at the PF position. That's what I would do with the lottery pick that the departures of Paul George and Lance Stephenson kind of dropped in their laps. George and Roy Hibbert are both locked into long-term deals - the next time they are an elite team, it might be with a stretch PF who allows them to play 4-out and covers up some of Hibbert's lack of speed and quickness.

There are a number of interesting shooting PF's in the college game and I'll have much more on them as the season goes on. The bigger story isn't about any one player, though. It's about the game itself. The era of revolution is upon us.

1) If I was a young team trying to improve really quickly, I would install the spread pick-and-roll and have a shooter at the PF position.

2) In a decade, there won't be more than a handful of non-shooters at the PF position. There won't be many non-shooters at any position outside of C.

3) The really interesting thing is what happens in 20 years - will even C's be shooting 3's at that point?

As fans of the game, we are living in some very interesting times.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Oklahoma State Preview

At Barking Carnival, a look at the challenge that a reeling Texas team faces on Saturday.

SMU Big Men

Memphis never had much of a chance on Thursday, losing 73-59 at SMU in a game that was essentially over by halftime. After losing four senior guards to graduation, Josh Pastner's team is struggling to shoot the ball and run offense in the half-court, which makes it almost impossible to beat a quality opponent like SMU on the road. Pastner has never been able to get out of the shadow of John Calipari in Memphis and the program's first true rebuilding season in his tenure is only going to fuel his many doubters. It's not like there still isn't a lot of talent in the program - their two starting big men (Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols) are both fringe NBA prospects.

That's what was most impressive about SMU's win. Their big men, primarily the trio of Yanick Moreira, Markus Kennedy and Ben Moore, was once again able to dominate their individual match-up against elite competition. The Mustangs got only 8 points from their starting backcourt of Nic Moore and Ryan Manuel, but it didn't matter because they got 15 from Moreira, 12 from Ben Moore and 21 from Kennedy off the bench. The Tigers big men, in contrast, were totally held in check, with 11 points on 12 shots for Nichols and 5 points on 3 shots for Goodwin.

Goodwin is an athletic 6'9 230 power forward while Nichols checks in at 6'8 230 and is one of the leading shot-blockers in the country. Think of them like a poor man's combination of Montrezl Harrell and Kyle Wiltjer - they are bigger, longer and more athletic than the vast majority of college frontcourts. That wasn't the case against SMU, though, as Nichols and Goodwin struggled with the combined amount of length and athleticism from the Mustangs big men. On offense, they were pushed around and got their shots repeatedly sent back in their face. On defense, they struggled to defend in space and couldn't handle a frontcourt that could punish them from every part of the floor.

If there's a consolation for Memphis, it's that Goodwin and Nichols are hardly the only highly-touted big men to struggle against Larry Brown's boys. Earlier this season, while Kennedy was still sitting out because of an academic issue, Moreira and B. Moore had little trouble with Alan Kennedy of UC-Santa Barbara in a 70-63 OT win at home. Kennedy, a 6'8 265 ball of muscle, has been making short work of most of the low major teams he faces to the point where DraftExpress has him as a late second-round pick in their latest mock. He is averaging 20 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3 blocks a game on 47.5% shooting. Against SMU, he had 9 points on 14 shots.

The key was Moreira, a junior college transfer whose turned himself into a legitimate NBA prospect in his two seasons on the Hilltop. At 6'11 220, he's a long and athletic shot-blocker with a growing offensive game. He has a consistent 15-20 foot jumper, he can put the ball on the floor and he can shoot over the top of smaller players in the post. On the other end of the floor, he can move in space and play above the rim. The biggest thing he needs to improve is gaining some strength, as he will need a little more heft to bang with some of the bigger C's at the next level. He reminds me a lot of former Maverick great Bernard "Sarge" James - if he can get to 235-240 pounds, he could have a long career in the NBA as a back-up 5.

Moreira's stats don't really jump off the page because he is a part of such a deep SMU team, which plays four big men significant minutes. (Cannen Cunningham, a 6'10 230 senior, is a warm body who plays a little over 11 minutes a game off the bench). To see how well Moreira is playing, you have to look at his per-minute numbers. It's much the same story for Kennedy and Moore, the two other key cogs in the Mustangs rotation upfront.


Per Game
Per 40 Minutes
Yanick Moreira
12 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2 blocks on 61% shooting
19.5 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks
Ben Moore
9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists on 45% shooting
13 points, 9 rebounds and 3.5 assists
Markus Kennedy
8 points, 4 rebounds, 1.5 steals on 51% shooting
18 points, 9 rebounds and 3 steals

Moore has been one of the biggest revelations this season, taking over the starting PF spot when Kennedy was suspended and holding on to if even after his return. At 6'8 185, Moore is more of a combo forward, a perimeter-oriented player who prefers to face up guys out of the high post and attack off the dribble. He's got a rare combination of size, athleticism and skill, as he also doubles as SMU's emergency PG. In terms of pro potential, Moore will have to improve his three-point shooting and play as a SF, which was the original plan this season before Kennedy's suspension. He's still only a sophomore, so there's a good chance he could develop into the American POY before his college career is over.

Kennedy is an interesting case - a transfer from Villanova, he has the biggest name and the most advanced offensive game of the three. At 6'9 245, he's a tank who can bully smaller players at the rim and take bigger ones off the dribble on the perimeter. But while he would have been the perfect backup PF on an Eastern Conference team in the mid 1990's, Kennedy's game isn't suited for the modern NBA, where he would be too small to be a C and not skilled enough to play as a PF. Still only a junior, if he's going to have a chance to play at the next level, he's going to have to be automatic from 15-20+ feet.

All three guys work well together and Larry Brown does a good job of cycling through them over the course of a game, giving the other team a number of different looks in the frontcourt. Brown likes to run a lot of offense through the high post and the high pick-and-roll and his big men's ability to step out and knock down a perimeter jumper, make the extra pass and play high-low gives his team a ton of different options in the half-court. On defense, Moreira is the shot-blocker, Kennedy is the low post anchor and Moore is the perimeter stopper. No one is talking about these guys, but they have one of the best front-courts in the country.

As a unit, they have only really struggled in two games this season - they lost in the first week of the season at Gonzaga, which features an even bigger trio of NBA prospects in Przemek Karnowski, Kyle Wiltjer and Donatas Sabonis and they were outmatched by Arkansas big man Bobby Portis, one of the most underrated players in the country, who was able to score on them on the perimeter and on the block in a convincing win at Moody Coliseum in November. If you are a big man who can dominate SMU, you are almost certainly an NBA player. The good news for the Mustangs is there aren't many of those guys in the American.

With the exception of Memphis, the only other team with an NBA prospect upfront is UConn, which features 7'0 sophomore Amidah Brimah. Brimah is bigger than Moreira, but he's nowhere near as polished a player. Expect SMU to try and make him defend on the perimeter and open up the defense behind him. It will be interesting to see whether Kevin Ollie elects to put Brimah on Moreira, the taller player, or Kennedy, the better post scorer.

When you combine the trio of Moreira, Kennedy and Ben Moore with Nic Moore (no relation), Ryan Manuel and Keith Frazier on the perimeter, the Mustangs have one of the most balanced and well-rounded teams in the country. It took Larry Brown's a little time to find their sea legs this season, but they are rounding into shape at the perfect time. If they can get into the field of 68, which won't be easy given that the American may end up being only a one or two bid league, they aren't going to be a team that anyone wants to face in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

Detroit Pistons

At RealGM, a look at their recent winning streak and the triumph of 4-out basketball.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Atlanta Hawks Big Men

Over the last month, the Atlanta Hawks have quietly become the talk of the league. The Hawks have never been the most high-profile franchise and now that they are being run like San Antonio East, their media profile has never been smaller. However, like the Spurs, their play on the court speaks volumes for what they are about. Atlanta is 26-8 and they have won 18 of their last 20 games. Nor are they beating up on a bunch of sorry East teams either - their recent streak includes wins at Houston, at Dallas, at Portland and at the Clippers.

In a recent article over at True Hoop, Kevin Arnovitz tries to diagnose the unexpected success of the Hawks, a team many had barely sneaking into the playoffs and now looks like a legit contender to win the Eastern Conference:
These are the Atlanta Hawks, who are every bit as measured off the court as they are on it. These are grown men who go about the business of surgically dissecting two Western Conference contenders, then go en masse to a non-mandatory team dinner, something they do routinely after both wins and losses. The camaraderie is authentic, even if the personalities are, with a few exceptions, pretty mellow.  
“The reason it’s authentic is that everyone has bought in,” Al Horford said. “We enjoy working with each other.”
Working isn't an idle word choice. Locker rooms come in any number of shapes and sizes.  A giddy one doesn’t mean the players inside aren't serious about winning basketball games, but spend time with the Hawks and there’s a distinct air of buttoned-up professionalism -- an office populated by well-balanced adults who understand work-life balance and the division of labor. 
“We have guys who don’t play, who have guaranteed contracts beyond this year and they work their asses off because they want us to be better and want to contribute,” veteran big man Elton Brand said.   
One thing that often gets lost in the discussion about culture and chemistry -- the system installed in Atlanta by way of San Antonio demands a strict selflessness. Break off from the sequence of actions in the half court and the stuff falls apart. Everyone on the floor devotes himself to the idea that if you stay in motion, the ball will work its way to the logical recipient before the shot clock expires.
The Hawks, as Arnovitz tells us, are full of professionals who always give reporters good quotes, who eat dinner together after games and who play the game The Way It Was Meant To Be Played.

I'm not saying any of those things aren't true because I'm sure they are. What I'm wondering is if all those things held true last season, when the Hawks had a 38-44 record and barely snuck into the playoffs. Did the players become more professional in the off-season? More unselfish? More willing to hang out together after games? Or maybe it was because they got better players? Maybe having Al Horford healthy all season is the biggest reason for their turnaround and we should act like it instead of trying to pretend that the Hawks are better gentleman than the rest of the league. Because even if they are - who cares? The NBA is a bottom line business and the reason the Hawks are succeeding is because of what they are doing on the court.

If anything, my guess is the lines of causation are reversed. Atlanta isn't winning games because of their amazing on-court chemistry as much as all this winning has caused them to have this great chemistry. It's easy to be everyone's friend when everything is go well. Point me to the team that wins 18 of 20 games and doesn't have great chemistry and I'll be impressed.

The vast majority of NBA players, especially once they are in their second or third contracts, are pros who understand how to balance life and work, how to interact with their colleagues and how to make sense of their coach's X-and-O's schemes. The reason they don't win as many games as Atlanta is because A) they don't have the same type of schemes because B) they don't have the types of players to pull them off.

The biggest mistake you can make with the Hawks is to buy into the idea that they don't have a lot of talent, especially upfront. While they are built around a system, it's a system that requires very skilled, athletic and versatile big men and not many big men around the NBA can run it. When we focus on what type of dinner conversation they have, we are missing the picture on just why they have been so successful.

The first (and really the only) thing you need to know about the Hawks is that it all comes down to spacing. Atlanta plays five-out basketball, in that neither of their big men start the possession on the block. Al Horford and Paul Millsap can score with their back to the basket, but they are primarily used in Atlanta as face-up floor spacers, operating out of the high post and stretching defenses out to the three-point line.

All the space

If you look at the diagram, the first thing that should jump out to you is the amount of space around the rim. Unless the defense wants to play a zone, and open up shots along the three-point line for the Hawks shooters, there's no one they can keep around the basket. Everyone has a responsibility 25+ feet from the rim and it opens up driving lanes for all 5 of the Atlanta players on the floor. Ever since Mike D'Antoni and Steve Nash teamed up in Phoenix, the NBA game has been all about spacing and Mike Budenholzer, Danny Ferry and the Hawks are taking that revolution to its logical conclusion.

They play five-out basketball for all 48 minutes, bringing in two more big men off the bench - Pero Antic and Mike Scott - who can shoot 3's. You can see they are fully committed to their system in their drafting of Adreian Payne, a stretch 5 from Michigan State. Payne hasn't been able to get any minutes on this season's team, but he might as well have been built in a laboratory due to how perfectly he fits the Hawks system - an athletic 6'10 240 with a 7'4 wingspan who shot 42% from 3 in his final season of college.

Atlanta isn't the first basketball team to play true five-out basketball - Fred Hoiberg has been doing it for awhile at Iowa State and Miami did it with Bosh and LeBron. A generation ago, guys like Horford, Millsap, Bosh and LeBron wouldn't have been able to beat you from 20+ feet on offense. It's their ability to stretch the floor while still playing D and cleaning the defensive glass that allows their teams to be so successful.

If the Hawks do end up making the NBA Finals, it will be because Horford and Millsap can play enough interior defense to get them past huge teams like the Wizards and the Bulls and uber explosive offensive teams like the Raptors and the Cavs.

The really interesting thing, though, is what happens down the line, as more and more big men come out of college with games like Adreian Payne. In a lot of ways, you almost have to divide the best young big men in the sport along one dimension - can this guy play for the Atlanta Hawks or can't he? Given the way the league is going, someone who can't answer this question in the affirmative is going to have a hard time scratching out his career, unless he's big enough to be the only C in a four-out configuration, ala Andre Drummond in Detroit.

Over the last generation, the big question in the NBA has been four out vs. three out. A three-out team is a traditional team with three perimeter players and two post men. This is your archetypal mid 1990's Eastern Conference team. In this alignment, the PF doesn't necessarily need to be a great outside shooter because he is playing in either the high post or the low post for most of the game. A four-out alignment makes use of the stretch PF to open up the floor for four perimeter players to drive to the rim. Think Shawn Marion on the Suns. Five-out is the next step - two big men on the perimeter and no one in the paint. My guess is the next great philosophical battle in basketball will be five out vs. four out.

When it comes to evaluating young big men, you can put them in three categories. A five-out guy is a jump-shooting, perimeter-oriented big man who can function as a 5 or a 4 in a small-ball offense. A four-out guy, in this sense, is the traditional big man who dominates the paint and has the size and athleticism to be the sole big man protecting the rim on defense. A three-out guy is an interior minded player who doesn't have the offensive game to play on the perimeter or the defensive game to be the only rim protector. The key is that a five-out guy can play in a four-out and a four-out can play in a three-out but not vice versa. If you are thinking archetypes, five-out is Al Horford, four-out is Andre Drummond and three-out is David Lee.

Let's take a quick look at this year's crop of big men and see where they fit in. These are most of the guys in the most recent DraftExpress mock:

Five-out
Four-out
Three-out
Karl Towns
Jahlil Okafor
Cliff Alexander
Kriztaps Porzingis
Willie-Cauley Stein
Montrezl Harrell
Kevon Looney
Robert Upshaw
Chris McCullough
Myles Turner
Dakari Johnson
Kennedy Meeks
Frank Kaminsky
Mouhammodou Jaiteh
Chris Walker
Bobby Portis
AJ Hammons

Jarrell Martin
Kaleb Tarczewski

Jonathan Holmes



A few notes:

- I could go either way on Looney, Turner or McCullough. Turner might not have the mobility to be a five-out guy while Looney doesn't currently have the J, which is the same problem with McCullough. All three of those guys are uber-talented but (at the moment) those are the three who could probably use another season of school the most.

- Bobby Portis (Arkansas) and Jarrell Martin (LSU) are my two most underrated players at the moment. These are big-time athletes with the size to be NBA big men and the skill-set of perimeter players. They could both play for the Atlanta Hawks, let's put it that way.

- You don't want to be a three-out guy in the modern NBA. All the guys on that right list should be living in the gym to become better jump-shooters. Unless you are a 7'0, the bell tolls for the non jump-shooter. Even if you are a 7'0, the league would still like you to be able to shoot.

Check out this interview from the always fascinating Holger Gerschwinder, whom you might know as Dirk's Mr. Miyagi:
SPOX: How do you grade the balance of power int the NBA? Are the Spurs still the team to beat?

Geschwindner: The Spurs under Gregg Popovich have a concept. For example they know they’ll never get a high draft pick because of their constant success, so they look in other directions. They get players which fit into their system, like Tiago Splitter. It’s striking, that Gregg Popovich is one of the few remaining old school coaches. Even members of the next generation, like Rick Carlisle, have become rare and a whole new generation of coaches appears, like Jason Kidd, Steve Kerr and Jeff Hornacek - and with them, basketball is going to further develop and change a lot.  
SPOX: What do you mean?  
Geschwindner: We’re going to return to the basic idea of basketball. The game of basketball was designed as an offensive game, and when watching Golden State under Steve Kerr, the game returns exactly to that concept. Previously, teams had a specific players branding on them: Kobe Bryant and his Lakers, Dirk and the Mavs. In today’s NBA it’s more of a team challenge. You need at least three to five performers with firepower. I think in two or three years, any professional who can’t shoot has little chance to stay in the NBA. Even for the big guys, it won’t be enough to get a rebound and give it to a shooter. 
SPOX: The Spurs team basketball is only an interim stage? 
Geschwindner: In the past it was enough to be athletic. Now, almost everyone is. After that, teamwork and basketball IQ became increasingly important. Many have caught up in those fields. What matters now is shooting. Hit rates in today's basketball are not as high as they could be. Eventually, the guideline for made three-pointers won’t be 40 percent anymore, but 50 percent. That’s the future. Intelligent coaching can ensure the last possession and the team with the very last shot has an increased chance to win close games. 
When you are trying to project players into the NBA, skill-set is what you should be worrying about, not whether or not his facial muscles code him to be a good person. More often than not, basketball is the reason guys bust out and you can't always trust college statistics, not that some guys can't handle their money or don't have the mentality to be pros. As David Stern would say, it's all about them basketball reasons.

Here's the problem. If you aren't looking for "basketball reasons" for why a guy didn't make it, you are going to start talking about his character and the way he conducts himself off the court. And here's the problem with that - EVERYONE has things in their character that don't reflect well upon them. Even the guy with the most impeccable character has things that they struggle with. We are all sinners. It doesn't matter who a person is or what he does, if I go into a story wanting to write something negative about him, I can do that. So when a guy doesn't win a championship or doesn't stick in the NBA, it's pretty easy for us to come up with reasons why.

Karl Towns vs. Jahlil Okafor

At The Cauldron, a look at why the statistics don't tell the full story in the race to be the No. 1 overall pick in 2015.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Dallas Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys may not end up winning a Super Bowl, but they have the best team since the last time they won in 1996. They have a 12-4 record and a remarkable 8-0 record away from home - their style of play translates anywhere and gives them a chance against anyone. The big difference for this year's team is their offensive line, which allows them to control the clock and keep the other team's offense off the field. The Cowboys control tempo as well as any team in the NFL and they force you to play their style of football.

The Cowboys have always been able to put up a bunch of points with Tony Romo at QB, but they have mostly done that through the air, with Romo connecting to guys like Terrell Owens, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. Under Romo and Jason Garrett, Dallas has traditionally thought pass first, pass second and pass third - the idea was to pass in order to set up the run. That philosophy has allowed Romo to break almost every passing record in Cowboys history, but it repeatedly came up short in the month of December and in the playoffs, where Romo has a career 1-3 record. 

The big change in their philosophy this season is they run to set up the pass. With DeMarco Murray running behind Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Travis Frederick, Dallas has been able to control the line of scrimmage for most of the season. It's real simple football. They force teams to commit extra men into the box to stop the run and then they kill them over the top with Dez Bryant, one of the most indefensible 1-on-1 players in the league. If they overload on Dez, Romo can kill them with guys like Witten, Terrence Williams and Cole Beasley. With the offense holding the ball for most of the game, the defense gets to play from ahead and the other offense has a hard time getting into any rhythm against them. 

That was the formula they used in one of the most impressive wins anyone has had all season - a 30-23 victory in Seattle in November. DeMarco ran the ball 28 times for 115 yards and they held the ball for 37 minutes. There's not much the Legion of Boom can do when the Cowboys are constantly picking up 4-5 yards on the ground on first down. Even if they have to go into Seattle in an NFC championship game, the Cowboys style of play gives them a chance. 

In that sense, they remind me a lot of the Memphis Grizzlies. Memphis is one of the biggest and most physical teams in the NBA and they are one of the teams that no one wants to face in the playoffs precisely because of their style of play. Since the Grit 'N Grind train got rolling, take a look at what they have done in the post-season:

2011:

- Beat Spurs (61 wins) in 6
- Lose to Thunder (56 wins) in 7

2012:

- Lose to the Clippers in 7

2013:

- Beat Clippers (56 wins) in 7
- Beat Thunder (60 wins) in 5
- Lose to Spurs in 4

2014:

- Lose to the Thunder (59 wins) in 7

They have sent three 55+ win teams home in the last four season and it's just not a match-up issue with one particular group of players - they have W's over the Thunder, Spurs and Clippers. Even when you beat them, it takes a lot out of you, as three of their four L's came in seven game series. 

The secret is their ability to control tempo with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. When people say the games slow down in the playoffs what they mean is that eventually you will run into a team with a lot of big men who can dictate tempo and force you to win in the half-court. It doesn't matter how fast you want to play, when the Grizzlies can hold the ball for 20 seconds and throw the ball inside, the game is eventually going to be played at their pace. The only other alternative is to speed up the game by aggressively pressuring and trapping their guards, but they have an All-Star caliber PG in Mike Conley who can't really be sped up. For a look at what this dynamic looks when a big team with shaky guard play has to face a small team that wants to play in transition, take a look at Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals between Miami and Indiana. 

Going into a series against Memphis, you know that their big men are going to hold the ball, create offense for themselves and create offense for others. On defense, they are going to control the offensive glass, beat you up physically and not allow you to get many free looks at the basket. Over the course of a series, as the refs get more used to their style of play, they are able to get away with more and more. Z-Bo has choked guys out and punched guys in the face on national TV. Ask Kendrick Perkins about how real it can get against the Grizzlies. 

#NeverForget

That's something you need to keep in mind when you hear some of these offensive gurus talk. All that scheming stuff is great until someone on the other team decides to physically assault you. You are going to have to take and deliver some blows if you play the Grizzlies. It's the same thing with the Cowboys - Chip Kelly's schemes are great, but they couldn't get his defense off the field when the Dallas offensive line imposed their will on the game.

When you compare them across sports, three big things stand out between Memphis and Dallas:

1) The Cowboys offensive line doesn't play defense. With Gasol and Randolph, the Grizzlies control the paint on both sides of the ball. Imagine how good an NFL team with one of the best OL's and best DL's in the league would be and you can see why Memphis is a perennial title contender.

2) The Cowboys secondary doesn't have anyone like Tony Allen. Allen is the Darrell Revis of the NBA - he's the best 1-on-1 perimeter defender in the league and no one has consistently made Kevin Durant's life more difficult. If you imagine a team like the Detroit Lions lining Calvin Johnson 1-on-1 against Revis and throwing the ball at him 15-20 times, you can see that Allen is still going to give up points to big-time scorers, but that he's always going to make you work for them. Dallas, on the other hand, has pretty average DB's. That could come back to kill them if they end up facing a QB like Aaron Rodgers in the playoffs.

3) There's no Dez Bryant on the Grizzlies. Conley is their Romo, but he doesn't have any big time playmakers on the perimeter he can give the ball to in order to close out games. When the game is on the line, Dallas can give the ball to Dez in any part of the field and hope he makes a play. Even if the defense can contain him, he will command so much attention that someone else will be open. The Grizzlies best 1-on-1 scorer on the wings is Vince Carter, who could end up being a huge addition for them.


Throw that X up!!

Neither one of these teams is perfect, but their weaknesses can only be exposed by other elite teams ... i.e in the playoffs. And if you are wagering on which sport is more likely to have a flawed champion, you have to go with the NFL. 

However, here's the good news for the Grizzlies and the Cowboys. As long as each team has those big guys upfront, they will be a threat to beat anyone. Big guys can play practically forever. Marc Gasol is 30 and he is playing the best basketball of his career. He is one of the best offensive linemen and best defensive linemen in the sport and he has Memphis playing high-level basketball on both sides of the ball. That's why he's my MVP of the first third of the season - he gives the Grizzlies a chance against anyone.

It's the same thing in basketball as it is in football. The MVP always goes to the perimeter playmaker, whether it's the QB, the RB, the WR, the PG or the SG. Those guys are important, but if you don't control the line of scrimmage and you can't dominate what Hubie Brown liked to call "the painted area", it doesn't matter. Eventually, you are going to run into a team that does and you have a real good chance of losing. Marc Gasol doesn't have the pure offensive numbers to beat guys like Steph Curry and James Harden for the MVP in the same way that the Cowboys offensive line doesn't have the statistics to put them above Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray. Romo and Murray are great. There's no question about it. But the Cowboys have had great RB's and QB's for awhile and have never been as good as they are now.

If they end up winning a Super Bowl, it's because they became the 1998 Denver Broncos. The pieces are there - Romo is John Elway, DeMarco is Terrell Davis and Jason Garrett is Mike Shanahan. None of that would matter without the guys upfront. There's only one thing Romo or Murray would need to say at a press conference for an MVP award: