Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Small Ball (Almost) Saves OKC

Everyone will talk about the final 0.1 second of OT, but the most important storyline of the Thunder's Game 5 loss to the Grizzlies came early in the third quarter. Down 20 and with their season slipping away, Scott Brooks went small and took his worst offensive players off the floor, going with Ibaka-Durant-Butler-Jackson-Westbrook. That unit, along with one where Collison replaced Ibaka, then went on a 21-2 run.

Memphis had complete control of the game when OKC was playing with two post players, which they did for the majority of the first half. The Thunder couldn't turn them over, so the game was played station-to-station in the half-court, with the Grizzlies pounding the ball inside and controlling the clock. On the other side of the floor, Memphis clogged the paint and jammed up the OKC offense.

When they went 4-out, the floor opened up and the game started getting up and down. All of a sudden, there was room for Westbrook, Durant and Jackson to attack the lane and the Memphis defenders had to defend all 5 Thunder players all over the court. OKC was basically playing in semi-transition for the entire second half, where their advantage in athleticism and 1-on-1 play could take over.

The match-up that made that substitution possible was Durant guarding Marc Gasol. That's the thing about Gasol - even though he's 300+ pounds, he's more of a dancing bear who likes to beat you with finesse and pin-point passing. He's not a guy whose totally comfortable bludgeoning smaller defenders in the paint and looking for his own shot. KD couldn't stop him, but he made him work, the same as Ibaka and Collison.

Going into Game 6, there's going to be a lot of pressure on Scott Brooks. There are a couple personnel issues that have become apparent:

1) Thabo Sefolosha is killing OKC. He's not shooting 3's and Mike Conley has figured out how to get around his length on defense. How much rope is he getting from Brooks on Thursday?

2) That goes double for Derek Fisher, who garbaged into his way into a few spot-up shots but was otherwise totally useless. He takes bad shots, he doesn't play defense and he dramatically worsens their overall team speed and length. If he's in the game, it should only be because Westbrook and Jackson are too tired to play.

3) Most importantly, how much small-ball is Brooks going to be comfortable with? Memphis can't guard OKC when they are 4-out with KD and Ibaka/Collison upfront - that was clear from Game 5.

We'll see if Dave Joerger can make an adjustment, but if the Grizzlies get out to a huge lead because Brooks stuck with his starters, that should be about all she wrote for his tenure in OKC.

Playoff games are won and lost on a razor's edge, especially in a series where there have been 4 straight OT games. You need coach to be able to read the match-ups and make adjustments quickly - at the very least, if Brooks isn't going to be pro-active about altering his line-ups, he needs to be much more reactive than he has shown himself to be over the last few playoff runs.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Exposing Tyler Hansbrough

Game 3 started going the wrong way for the Toronto Raptors in the last few minutes of the first quarter, when they brought in Tyler "Psycho T" Hansbrough off the bench. Dwane Casey went with his starting frontcourt of Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson for most of the first quarter, then stayed big by bringing in Hansbrough and Patrick Patterson behind them.

Hansbrough, at 6'9 250 with alligator arms, is too small to be a backup 5. He's not a great shooter, so he has to play close to the basket, but he's not big or athletic enough to finish over the top of Mason Plumlee and Andray Blatche, the Nets backup centers. He doesn't protect the rim either, so he's bleeding points on both sides of the ball.

In short, Hansbrough is a second-line player. He's a decent enough 4rth big man, but when the games start to get serious, it's hard to have him on the floor. That's what happened to him in Indiana - even though they had a lottery pick invested in him, they just couldn't keep him on the floor in the playoffs, so they let him go in the off-season.

Hansbrough's numbers weren't terrible in Game 3 - 3 points and 2 rebounds on 1-3 shooting in 9 minutes - but he wasn't improving the offense or the defense. He was just eating minutes. The second quarter, where he played a lot in place of Jonas Valanciunas, was where the Nets pulled away. Jonas getting his 3rd foul with 4:40 left in the second absolutely killed Toronto.

The obvious solution for Casey is to stagger the minutes of his top three big men as much as possible, which is what most two-post teams end up doing in the playoffs. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph have played nearly as much apart as they have together against the Thunder - the Grizzlies need to have at least one of them on the floor at all times.

Having Patrick Patterson play as a stretch 4 next to either Jonas or Amir is just a much more effective two-man tandem than any of the three guys with Hansbrough. Casey has to make sure he gets the most out of his big men - he can't afford to have Jonas play only 30 minutes in a playoff game and think Toronto is going to win.

When you are a playoff team, you have to start thinking about how guys can fill 3-4 minute increments against quality teams. There's a place for a guy like Tyler Hansbrough in the NBA, but it's not on a contending team. If the Raptors are going to be better next season, part of it will come by improving the back end of their rotation.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Free Jordan Hamilton

After losing Game 1 and Game 2 at home, it's adjustment time for Kevin McHale and the Rockets, who are this close to seeing their season slip away. The most obvious move is in their perimeter rotation - Jordan Hamilton, whom they acquired from the Nuggets at the deadline, went from 15 minutes a game in the regular season to not getting off the bench in the first two games.

McHale went with experience in Francisco Garcia, but he's pretty much at the end of his rope. He's 32 years old and he was never that athletic to begin with. He's not hitting his shots and he doesn't add much value in the time he's on the floor. The 22 total minutes he got in the first two games are really easy places to upgrade your rotation.

Hamilton, a 6'7 215 shooter who can put the ball on the floor, is the perfect fit in the Rockets system. He stretches the defense all the way out to the three-point line, shooting 37% from 3 in his time with Houston. At 6'7, it's hard to close-out on him and affect his shot. If you do, he has the ball-handling ability to create an easier shot.

That's the adjustment Portland made in Game 2, when they gave Dorrell Wright 18 minutes at the backup 3 and 4 spots. Instead of having Thomas Robinson playing next to Robin Lopez when LaMarcus Aldridge was out, Wright played as a stretch 4, opening up the floor for the Blazers guards to attack. He scored 15 points on 4-5 shooting - that extra offense from their bench was huge.

Houston hasn't shown much of an ability to stop Portland in this series, so they need to get as much offense as they can on the floor. Here's the rule for adding offense - if you are playing on the perimeter and you aren't creating shots, you have to shoot 3's. If you can't do either, you aren't helping the team.

That's why the Rockets should look at cutting Jeremy Lin's minutes too. Lin isn't a great outside shooter and the Blazers don't really have to respect his shot. When he's playing off the ball with James Harden and Chandler Parsons, the defense is sagging off him. And while Lin is a decent scorer and playmaker, you don't want him taking possessions away from Harden and Parsons either.

If you put in Hamilton for Lin, you are adding extra space for Parsons and Harden to operate. You are also adding a lot more length and athleticism to your perimeter D - you are going 6'5, 6'7, 6'10. You can have Patrick Beverley at 1 and slide those guys to the 2-4 positions or you can have Terrence Jones at the 4 and have them at 1-3. Hamilton's perimeter D might be an issue with that second line-up, but it's not like Lin is locking guys down either.

The odds are against the Rockets, but there are several cards left for McHale to play. The only thing he can't do is not play any - if you go down 2-0 in a series, especially at home, you have to make a few adjustments. You don't want to go down without using every bullet in your gun - if you do, you become Scott Brooks.

Tim Duncan's Legacy

At RealGM, a look at one of the greatest players in NBA history at 37.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Evan Turner Problem

When you look at the big picture, it's not really a surprise that someone on the Pacers got in a fight with Evan Turner on the eve of the playoffs. Turner is a guy who never lived up to the expectations of being a No. 2 overall pick in Philadelphia and when he came to Indiana at the deadline, the Pacers almost immediately started losing. They are 15-14 since acquiring Turner for Danny Granger.

Of course, not all of the problems in Indiana are Turner's fault, but my guess is a lot more of them are than you might think. He has plenty of talent, but his skill-set - a ball-dominant wing who can't score efficiently, can't stretch the floor and can't play D - is not conducive to winning basketball. In the Pacers Game 2 victory over the Hawks, he played 11 minutes and took 1 shot.

What value is Turner bringing to the floor? When he's in the game, he's taking the ball out of the hands of Paul George and Lance Stephenson and operating as a sieve on defense. The defense doesn't have to respect his three-point shot - he's taken only 24 in Indiana - so the ball naturally winds up on his hands. He can't do enough with the ball to justify how often he stops it.

Before he came, Lance was the player who ran the second unit, scoring and setting up the Pacers reserves. It was the only chance he got to dominate the ball in the Indiana offense, since he had to play as a secondary role to George and David West on the first unit. If you let Lance play with a spread floor, which he rarely got to do as a starter, it's very hard to stop him.

The conflict between Lance and Turner was almost inevitable. They are both young wing players trying to make their way in the NBA and playing for a contract next season. They both need the ball in their hands and there isn't enough shots or touches to go around for both in Indiana. As a small-market team that has already given max contracts to George and Roy Hibbert, the Pacers can't afford both this off-season.

When they acquired Turner, my immediate thought was they were getting insurance for Lance. Because he was the No. 2 overall pick in 2010 and Lance was No. 40, Turner is an RFA instead of a UFA. When you look at his career in total, it's hard to see there being too many suitors for Turner this off-season, which would allow the Pacers to sign him to a cost-effective deal to be a third or fourth option.

This is almost certainly something that has gone through the head of Lance and his agents and it's exactly the kind of dynamic that can ruin a team. More importantly, though, just playing Turner 20-25 minutes a night is killing the Pacers, since he is holding the ball, not spreading the floor and not playing D. If they want to make a run in the playoffs, they are going need to bench him for guys who can shoot 3's and play defense.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Raptors - Nets

Toronto is faster and more athletic at every position. Brooklyn has more size and shooting ability. In a match-up like that, the team that controls tempo has the advantage. Toronto wants the game going up-and-down as much as possible, which allows them to use their speed and get easy shots. Brooklyn wants the game in the half-court - they want to pound it inside and then swing it around for open 3's.

Toronto was at their best when they could play in the open court and run into 3's. In the half-court, their offense stagnated and stayed on one side of the floor. Brooklyn didn't have to double-team anyone, so there was not much ball movement. Since neither Amir Johnson or Jonas Valanciunas could stretch the floor, Brooklyn packed the paint and dared Toronto to beat them from the perimeter.

The primary culprit for their lack of ball movement was DeMar DeRozan, who had 14 points on 3-13 shooting. He was just taking really bad shots - he couldn't create any separation on the Brooklyn defenders and he ended up hoisting a lot of tightly contested step-backs. He was at his best when he was getting to the rim and drawing fouls, which is something Toronto needs to emphasize going forward.

I would expect to see more Patterson as the series goes on, since Johnson can't really leverage his size against Paul Pierce. As a stretch 4, Patterson opens up the floor for Toronto to attack the rim more than Johnson. The other thing Toronto needs is more Terrence Ross, as foul trouble limited him to only 16 minutes. He didn't get the ball very much - it was sticking to Lowry and DeRozan too much.

Toronto needs to speed up the game in general, especially when they are playing at home. Brooklyn doesn't have a lot of guys who are going to blow by you, even if you are pressing up on them. You don't want to let them walk into their offense, you want to make them work to get into anything and force the issue. Brooklyn had only 8 TO's - that will be a category to watch all series.

That's what is going to make Brooklyn a tough out in the playoffs - they want to play at a slow pace and it's hard to turn them over. They are really good at imposing their will on the game, in terms of tempo. The game doesn't necessarily slow down in the playoffs. What happens is there are teams who want to play slow and it becomes very hard to speed them up, especially when they are at home.

When you spin it forward in terms of match-ups, you would think Toronto wants to get this game as fast as possible. They could move DeRozan to the 4 and have him play Pierce, which would allow him to play in more space. Lowry-Ross-Vasquez would be their fastest and best shooting perimeter trio - you could even throw in Patterson at the 5. Brooklyn won't kill you on the glass, either way.

This will be an interesting chess match between Dwane Casey and Jason Kidd. Casey was an assistant when Kidd won a title with Dallas - they both watched Rick Carlisle play the match-up game over those playoffs. Kidd won Game 1, which leaves the first move to Casey. He has to speed the game up - Toronto needs the games to be in the 90's-100's. If Brooklyn can keep it in the 80's, they will be in good shape.

Scouting The Spurs

At Mavs Moneyball, an in-depth look at the top seed in the West and the keys to their first-round series.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Will the Owners Pay for a Higher Age Limit?

The NBA leaked a game-changing proposal to reporters earlier in the week - the league would extend the age limit from 19 to 21, forcing players to wait 3 years after their high school graduation before they are eligible to play in the NBA. The D-League, in turn, would expand and allow players to enter directly after high school, posing a direct threat to the NCAA.

At the moment, the plan is merely a hypothetical. The owners can't make any changes to the CBA without the approval of the players and the NBPA is still searching for an executive director in the aftermath of the Billy Hunter scandals. Once they do, they could agree to open up negotiations right away or they could wait until 2017, when either side can opt out of the CBA.

The players have never been in favor of raising the age limit, but it's also not something their membership has considered sacrosanct in negotiations either. In short, it's a trading chip for the players - they might be willing to alter the system, but they won't just give it away for free. They will want something from the owners in return for moving the age limit to 20-21.

Here's the question - will the owners be willing to take less money in the new CBA in order to create this new system? If you look at their history over the last few lockouts, it's mostly been the story of them taking as much money as they possibly can from the players. Is a higher age limit worth a few points of BRI or loosening some of the luxury tax penalties?

That's what the players will want for such a dramatic change, at a minimum. If the owners are actually ready to put their money where their mouth is, the current system won't last for long. If they want to treat the NBA as a long-term investment instead of a short-term cash-out, there are any number of changes they can make to the youth basketball infrastructure in this country.

Alternatively, they could be using this proposal as leverage in CBA negotiations, something else to shove down the player's throats as they take as much of their money as they possibly can. If the owners really want to cut off the NCAA at the knees, they can do it any time. However, that would mean taking less money for themselves and that's something they've never shown much interest in doing.

The 2013 Lottery

At RealGM, a look at the star-crossed rookie season of the top 14 picks in the 2013 draft.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Giving Dwight Howard His Due

As award ballots come in all across the league, one player is conspicuously absent in the MVP balloting: that's the 28-year old center who has been to 8 straight All-Star games and is the best player on one of the best teams in the NBA. This might be news to people, but Dwight Howard is really good at basketball and he's lot more valuable than most of the guys getting MVP votes ahead of him.

It's not rocket science. Last year, the Houston Rockets won 45 games. This year, they won 54. Last year, the LA Lakers won 45 games. This year, they won 26. What was the common denominator for both teams? Of course, the Rockets did other things besides signing Dwight and other things happened to the Lakers besides losing him, but c'mon. It's pretty obvious what happened.

When you have a center who averages 18 points and 12 rebounds a game on 59% shooting AND is one of the best defensive players in the NBA - he really helps your team. Dwight's presence, in and of itself, means a team is going to have a good defense and a good offense. The Rockets had the 13th rated D in the NBA this season - and there aren't a lot of stoppers in front of Dwight. 

Omer Asik is one of the best defensive centers in the NBA, and Dwight was able to not only replace him and improve the team on defense but also add a whole other dimension to their offense. He gets a lot of flack for not being max efficient when playing with his back to the basket, but there isn't a center in the NBA who scores as many points and does it as efficiently as Dwight.

Dwight Howard makes every team he is on better. That's why he hasn't missed the playoffs since the age of 21, despite not playing with a lot of high-level talent around him. He does so many different things on a basketball court that you don't need to have a great supporting cast around him in order to be successful. No one else is bringing a team with Hedo Turkoglu as their 2nd best player to the NBA Finals.

If you want to understand his value, compare Dwight's offense to Kevin Love's defense. Basketball is played on both ends of the floor and there's two players who offer more two-way value than Dwight Howard. I'm sure there are people who would argue Love is more valuable than Dwight, but it's just not possible. Dwight is great at offense AND defense - that's what has been forgotten.

He's lost in the first round the last three seasons, but who was he playing with, exactly? The second leading scorer on Orlando in 2011 was Jason Richardson, at 13 points per game. He was injured in 2012 and Kobe Bryant was injured in 2013. The team in Houston, with James Harden, Chandler Parsons and Terrence Jones, is the most talented team he's ever been on. 

That's why the Rockets are a legitimate threat in the Western Conference, despite not getting nearly the publicity of teams like the Clippers, the Warriors and the Blazers, all of whom apparently have guys more valuable than Dwight Howard on them. Hate him or love him he's the best center in the NBA and he's going to remind everyone of that in this year's playoffs.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Empty Points: The Caron Butler Story

With all the different story-lines flying around the Oklahoma City Thunder, their pick-up of Caron Butler at the buy-out deadline has flown somewhat under the radar. In 20 games in OKC, Butler has quietly become one of the key players off their bench, averaging 28 minutes a game. Forget veteran leadership or championship experience - a guy who plays that much has to be measured by his on-court contributions.

On the surface, his numbers with the Thunder - 10 points, 3 rebounds and 1 assist a game on 40% shooting - are respectable. However, a closer look at his statistics and his game reveals a lot of questions about the value Butler is bringing to the floor. In short, Butler is in OKC to chew bubblegum and take a lot of inefficient mid-range jumpers - and it looks like he left his bubblegum in Milwaukee. 

At the age of 34, he's no longer very athletic. At best, he's passable on the defensive end, muscling up wing players on the perimeter and funneling dribble penetration to the Thunder big men. His per-36 minute rebound and assist numbers, meanwhile, are at career lows. When he's on the floor, he's spotting up off the ball and firing up 9 field goal attempts a game. 

Butler is putting up pretty much the exact same numbers he did in Milwaukee, where he averaged 11 points, 4 rebounds and 1.5 assists a game on 39% shooting. It's the same numbers he put up with the Clippers, except he took more FGA's and made them at a slightly higher clip and it's the same numbers he put up with the Mavs. Caron has been on 4 teams in 5 seasons for a reason - he isn't helping teams win.

He was a huge part of the Clippers for two seasons and they replaced him without breaking a sweat. In fact, redistributing his FGA's to more efficient players and his minutes to better defensive players has made them a better team. The number of FGA's on an NBA team is zero-sum - if Caron is hoisting J's, someone else isn't. You want to get more than 1 assist a game and 40% shooting from a guy who takes 9-10 a game. 

It's no surprise he shoots so inefficiently when you take a look at his shot chart. Of his 530 FGA's this season, only 124 are within 16 feet of the basket. He has taken 244 threes and made them at a 39% clip, which is great, but he has also taken 162 (!!) long 2's from 16-23 feet and made them at 38%. Caron can't get to the rim anymore, so when he's creating his own shot, it ends up being up a contested long 2.

There are some games where he has done well in OKC, because he's just firing up a bunch of shots. Every once in a while, he makes a lot of them. But then there are the games where he takes 8-10 shots, makes 2-3 of them and does nothing else in his time on the floor. For the most part, he's putting up a bunch of empty points in the 28 minutes a night Scott Brooks gives them.

This is a guy who is at the end of his rope, in terms of his NBA career. If he's going to be a starter, it will have to be on a 15-win team like Milwaukee. He's kind of like Shane Battier, except he doesn't know his role, he's not as efficient and he's never been known as a defensive stopper. This is a bad situation for OKC and it doesn't appear that he can do (or not do) anything that will make Brooks change his mind.

If he resembles anyone at this point in his career, it's Derek Fisher, another veteran retread whose being given minutes on a title contender purely out of the goodwill of Brooks. They have got two old guys coming off their bench who can't play good D, can't create shots for anyone else, can't rebound and take a lot of bad shots. That's a recipe for disaster in a seven-game series.

Butler and Fisher will probably have some big playoff games, just because they take so many shots some of them are bound to go in. But over the next two months, their percentages will regress to the mean. I'm not sure a team can win a championship giving Caron Butler and Derek Fisher 35 minutes a night. They have PER's of 10.3 and 11.6 for a reason - they are not very good at basketball anymore. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Phoenix Suns Scouting Report

At Mavs Moneyball, an in-depth look at the surprise team in the West and the keys to tonight's game.

Team USA's Hoop Summit Measurements

This might not seem like a super big deal, but it really is. When you are talking about playing in the NBA, every inch of height and reach matters.

A few thoughts:

- Theo Pinson (6'6 190 with a 6'11 wingspan) and Kelly Oubre (6'6 205 with a 7'2 wingspan) were the big winners among the wings. Pinson really impressed me at the McDonald's Game - he's super athletic and he can run point. If he can consistently make 3's next season at UNC, he could be a lottery pick. He reminds me of a young Will Barton. Oubre isn't quite as skilled, but he's very athletic and projects as a high-level 3-and-D wing. The 7'2 wingspan means he should be able to play the 3 in the NBA.

- From a physical standpoint, the gap between Stanley Johnson (6'7 235 with a 6'11 wingspan) and Justice Winslow (6'6 220 with a 6'10 wingspan) is the gap between being a starting 3 and coming off the bench in the NBA. That doesn't seem like a lot, but when you are going up against 6'9+ small forwards, every little bit helps. Winslow doesn't have great size and he's not totally comfortable on the perimeter - this is guy who might have to stay 2-3 years in Duke before he thinks about coming out.

- The LaMarcus Aldridge comparisons only continue to grow for Myles Turner, who checked in at 6'11 240 with a 7'3.5 wingspan. He's big, he's long, he's athletic and he can shoot. This guy is going to be a very good basketball player for a very long time.

- Jahlil Okafor came in at 6'11 270, which is good for a guy who makes his living in the low post. If he had come in at 6'9, he might not have been able to play as a C and projecting him to the next level would have been much more difficult. As is, he reminds me a ton of Al Jefferson - the question will be how he holds up defensively. Can he play as the lone big man in a 4-out system in the NBA or will he need to be in a two-post system that allows him to share some of the defensive responsibility?

- Tyus Jones (6'1 185 with a 6'3 wingspan) probably had the most disappointing measurements. He's not super athletic and he doesn't have the size or length to make up for it - he will have trouble defending PG's in the NBA. He's got a similar profile to Tyler Ennis - if he's going to be a starter at the next level, he had better be super efficient on offense and he had better not turn it over. DX has him as a lottery pick in 2015 - I doubt that holds up over his freshman season.

- Cliff Alexander (6'8 250 with a 7'3 wingspan) has the athleticism and measurables of a starting 4 in the NBA, but the question for him is going to be his overall skill level. Kansas was a good choice for Cliff - there's a lot of Thomas Robinson in his game. He needs a lot of polish before the thinks about going pro.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Credit Players, Not Coaches

Dwayne Casey was the defensive coordinator for the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, but that does not mean Casey is a great defensive coach. It means Tyson Chandler and Shawn Marion are great defenders. Casey's defensive schemes only worked because he had the personnel to execute them.

A good defensive coach without good defensive personnel is a guy re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. A coach is only as good as his players. There are certain defensive schemes that NBA teams need to use, but there's no one being outsmarted tactically out there - it's just not a very complicated sport.

In general, the media focuses way too much on tactics and not enough on strategy. It's not about how Team X likes to play pick-and-rolls - it's about the personnel Team X has and the types of pick-and-roll strategies they are capable of using. In the playoffs, you have to be able to adjust that stuff anyway.

If you have fast big men and long guards, you can switch, trap or hedge and recover. If your big men don't move their feet fast enough, a coach is pretty constrained with what he can do. There are certain basic things a coach needs to do, but most NBA games are ultimately won or lost by the decisions a GM makes.

Coaching is a trade. You learn the skills of the trade coming up through the ranks. Any NBA assistant with sufficient experience could be the head coach of a team. There are no secrets to what's going on there - for the most part, it's about who has the best players.

The reason coaches are big deal at the college level is because they function as GM's too. A college coach's roster is a reflection of their overall philosophy, in terms of the types of players they are bringing in. An NBA coach is a caretaker with a certain set of skills honed over a long period of time.

The biggest effect a coach can have is in how they deploy personnel. Jeff Hornacek isn't making guys in Phoenix better because of his magic coaching beans, it's because he is letting them play in more space by utilizing stretch big men - Channing Frye and the Morris Twins.

The Suns players are this good in the system they are using. In a different system, like the two-post half-court one in Indiana, guys like Miles Plumlee and Gerald Green aren't as valuable. It's not about the coach who installs the system - it's about the players he has that can make his system work.

Mike D'Antoni is the same coach he was in Phoenix, if not better since he has so much more experience. The difference is he doesn't have Shawn Marion, Amare Stoudemire and Steve Nash in their prime. The most important thing a coach can do is pick his players.

Joel Embiid The God

A column at RealGM about the clear No. 1 prospect in 2014.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The SEC Is Pretty Good At Basketball

The SEC had 3 bids in this year's Tourney - Florida and Kentucky were in the Final Four, Tennessee made the Sweet 16. That's a pretty good ratio. If you are looking for a reason why SEC teams over-performed, look at the front-lines.

Going into next season, all these guys are 6'8-7'0 and have a chance to be NBA players:

Bobby Portis (Arkansas), Jarnell Stokes (Tennessee), Johnny O'Bryant III, Jarrell Martin and Jordan Mickey (LSU), Chris Walker (Florida), Karl Towns, Dakari Johnson, Trey Lyles, Alex Poythress, Marcus Lee (Kentucky).

There might be more NBA big men in the SEC than in the rest of the country combined. It's just like in football - the SEC has the best athletes. If you are playing PF in the SEC, you are playing some monsters upfront. You are basically going through an NBA season.

Portis, Martin, Mickey, Walker and the Kentucky guys could all be Top 20 picks. If you are a big man in this conference, you are looking at the rest of the country like they are a bunch of little kids. Don't let an SEC team like Tennessee play a team from the A-10 (UMass) or a Cinderella team like Mercer. They just brutalized those teams upfront.

It doesn't matter what the rankings are. If you are bigger and just as fast as the guys you are going up against, you aren't going to be intimidated. If you are bigger and faster than them, you are feeling pretty confident.

You couldn't watch Tennessee vs. UMass and think Tennessee should have been the lower seed. There was just no way - UMass was in a fight for their lives and they were the higher seed.

Florida and Kentucky are the only two teams that consistently make the Tourney and they do pretty well. It's just like in football - the teams with the biggest and most athletic guys have a huge advantage.

The Jae Crowder Problem

At Mavs Moneyball, a look at what The Beast's suspiciously high RPM number tells us about ESPN's new stat.

The One and Done Model

At RealGM, a look at John Calipari's success at Kentucky and what it says about the way he has built his program.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Rise of The American

UConn's improbable run to the NCAA championship completed a remarkable first season for The American. The conference was thrown together after the ACC picked through the Big East and the Catholic schools (Villanova, Georgetown, St. John's etc.) split off to form a basketball-only league. There's no real rhyme or reason to the membership list. The American is just big state schools with money and private schools in huge cities - UCF and USF, Cincy, UConn, Houston, Louisville, Memphis, Rutgers, SMU and Temple. 

They are losing Louisville to the ACC and they don't have a lot of shared history, but they have the foundations of a strong conference, at least on the basketball side of things. UConn is obviously an elite program, Memphis and Cincy are perennial contenders with huge fan-bases and SMU is set to explode under Larry Brown. They beat UConn twice this year - they were just good as the Huskies and they have everyone coming back plus the No. 1 PG in the country (Emmanuel Mudiay) coming in. If they get Myles Turner, they should be a Top 5 team next season. 

If SMU can consistently keep guys local like Mudiay and Turner in Dallas, they will recruit as well as anyone in the country. That's what makes the American such an intriguing conference - they are on top of a lot of big recruiting areas. Kelvin Sampson took the job at UH because he sees what Brown did at SMU. There's so many good players in Houston and he's offering the chance to play big-time basketball in their home town. When UConn comes to town next season, that will be a really big game. SMU basketball was selling out NIT games - New Moody is about a good a home court as there is in the country.

It's easy to recruit when you offer the chance to play UConn, Memphis and Cincy every year. If you are going to a lesser known school, you want a chance to play against the best and get your name out there. That's what Buzz Williams was saying when he left Marquette - the players all came to play Syracuse and be in the Big East Tourney. It's going to be harder to bring in players now that the conference has a much lower profile. Taking the Virginia Tech job now, after all the jobs he could have had, kind of says it all about where he thinks the conference is headed.

The American might not be at the level of the Big 5, but it's clearly ahead of conferences like the Mountain West, A-10 and new Big East. The new Big East is just a bunch of private schools - you got to have a few state schools in the mix, that's what brings in the huge state-wide fan bases. Private school fans mostly went to those schools - so there aren't that many of them. UConn basketball is the biggest thing in the state of Connecticut. There's too much money invested in that program for them to be bad for any amount of time. UConn recruits as well as any school in the country - their list of NBA alums is a mile long.

In terms of the pecking order in the conference with Louisville gone, I think UConn and SMU will separate themselves a bit from Memphis and Cincy. Josh Pastner has done a decent enough job at Memphis, but I'm not totally sold on him as an in-game strategist. He had 4 senior guards this season - this was the year he needed to make it happen. Cincy hasn't really recruited on that elite level since Bob Huggins left - Born Ready is their only high profile alum in recent memory. Fran Dunphy (Temple), Kelvin Sampson (UH) and Eddie Jordan (Rutgers) are all good coaches in good situations and there's plenty of talent in Florida for USF and UCF to be decent.

UConn just won a national title, Memphis almost won one a few years ago and Larry Brown said he wanted to win one at SMU before he retired. The American could be as good a basketball conference as there is in the country in a few years.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Calipari vs. Ollie Chess Match

Kentucky vs. UConn was an excellent championship game with two good teams going back-and-forth for 40 minutes. The momentum of the game swung several times as both coaches made crucial adjustments with their line-ups in order to take control of the game. That doesn't always happen in an NCAA Tournament game - Billy Donovan vs UConn and Rick Barnes vs. Michigan are two examples of that. 

John Calipari and Kevin Ollie were playing chess out there and it was a lot of fun to watch.

1) The opening move was Ollie's. He had his much smaller and faster PG's - Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright - press up on the Harrison Twins in order to speed up the tempo of the game. UConn, as the smaller team, wanted to get the game going up and down as much as possible. 

2) Kentucky, as the bigger team, wanted to keep the game out of transition and in the half-court, where their size would be the difference. Calipari put his team in a 2-3 zone, forcing UConn to make 5-6 passes a possession instead of quickly scoring off the dribble-drive. In zone, his young players would always be in help position on defense. 

That was the story for the middle stretch of the game, which saw Kentucky slowly crawl back into it. With the game coming down to the line in the stretch run, the moves started coming faster.

3) Calipari went small first, subbing in Alex Poythress for Dakari Johnson. Instead of going with the biggest possible front-line, he has a hybrid duo of Randle and Poythress, who are more comfortable moving their feet in space and can be threats outside of the paint. 

4) That allowed Ollie to go small and slide DeAndre Daniels to the 5, the same move he made against Florida. Daniels at the 5 and Niels Giffey at the 4 is their best offensive unit, in terms of having shooting and ball-handling on the floor. 

5) In order to make up for their lack of size on defense, UConn went to a zone. Whenever any of Kentucky players drove the lane, they over-helped and tried to force difficult shots. 

6) The read the Kentucky players should have made was to look to pass the ball more. That was how they were able to get back in the game - Randle had 4 assists and Andrew Harrison had 5 assists, a lot of which were drive and kicks for open 3's. However, with the game on the line, Kentucky got back in their old habits and started trying to score through traffic, allowing UConn to get just enough stops and turnovers to seal away the game.

There was just a lot of different things going on in the game. Ollie and Calipari were going move for move with each other for almost the entire game. In order to predict this game, you had to game theory it out 4-5 steps - Ollie would do X, which means Calipari would do Y, than X, than Y. 

These counter-moves are where you really saw the absence of Willie Cauley-Stein for Kentucky. Johnson couldn't play the whole game - he's a really big guy and I'm guessing he was gassed after 25 minutes. As a result, they gave away a lot of their size advantage when they pulled him late. Having both would have meant 40 minutes of 7'0 pounding on the smaller UConn front-line. 

Nevertheless, Kentucky had their chances to win. The game followed the format of their last 4, with their size slowly wearing down the other team over the course of the game and allowing them to mount a comeback. Two stats ended up playing a crucial role: Kentucky's free-throw shooting (13-24) and their assist to turnover ratio (11 to 13). If they had made their free throws and taken care of the ball, they would have won the game. Those are classic young team mistakes, so there's your narrative right there. 

Kentucky went 5-16 from the three-point line and most of their makes were off the pass. Their guards didn't have the skill of UConn's guards - if the Harrisons are taking off the dribble 3's, I like my chances as the other team. They still weren't totally committed to making each other better and that ended up costing them the game.

On the whole, though, it's hard to say either team blew the game. They both did things right and they both did things wrong and UConn just made a few more plays in the last few minutes to seal it. It was one of the most even and well-played championship games I can remember.

That's why I find this whole talk that Kentucky being bad for the NCAA so ridiculous. Compare how compelling this game was to UConn's victory over Butler in 2011 - it's not even a comparison. That was a fantastic ending to a fantastic NCAA Tournament and that's due in large part to the classic series of games that Kentucky was a part of.

Here's the best part - I think Calipari's recruiting class for next year is even better. I saw all of those guys at the McDonald's Game this year and came away impressed. Karl Towns has a chance to be the No. 1 overall pick, Trey Lyles is more comfortable on the perimeter than Randle and Ulis and Bookert are faster and better shooters than the Harrisons. 

Kentucky isn't going anywhere and it's the best thing that could have happened for NCAA basketball. 

The Draft Deadline Discussion

At RealGM, a look at why whether or not a player maximizes his draft position isn't all that important.

Scouting Myles Turner

At Barking Carnival, a look at how the top unsigned prospect in the class of 2014 would fit at Texas.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Why Didn't Florida Go Small?

When UConn got down 16-4 in the first half, Kevin Ollie made what coaches call an adjustment. With his normal lineup unable to score against Florida's aggressive defense, he went small, putting three guards on the floor and playing DeAndre Daniels, a 6'8 195 SF, at center.

That's what NBA coaches do when their offense is struggling - they get more shooting and ball-handling on the floor and try to speed up the game. They don't just sit there and do nothing. They pro-actively search for the unit that best matches up with their opponent on a given night.

Over the next 20 minutes, UConn totally swung the momentum of the game, going on a 33-11 run. During that time, Billy Donovan really didn't do anything different - he stuck with his normal rotations and kept his normal game-plan even though it was clearly not working.

Eventually, Donovan got his team back in the game by going to a bigger line-up and playing a 1-3-1 zone, trapping UConn and forcing a few TO's. They got some points going from defense to offense and pounded the ball inside to Patric Young, but other than that, their offense fell apart.

Ollie was clearly willing to live with Young's offense - the guy is built like an Adonis, but he's not a very skilled player. If he has to beat you with 1-on-1 moves, Florida is in trouble. Even though his big men are really limited offensively, Donovan never tried to downsize with Ollie.

I can see the argument about sticking to your identity when you are a 30-2 team, but when you are shooting 39% from the field with 3 assists on 11 turnovers, why not try something different? What's the harm in going Dorian Finney-Smith at the 5, Casey Prather at the 4 and three guards?

Donovan stuck with Will Yeguete, even though this was not a game he was going to do well in. He was useless on offense and he couldn't stick Daniels, so he wasn't adding much value to the floor. As accomplished a coach as he is, he didn't make adjustments very fast on Saturday.

That was the big difference in the first Final Four game - Ollie wasn't going down without using bullet in his holster. If he was coaching Florida, he would have went small at some point because why not. That's what you do in the NBA when you aren't scoring.

If the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, asking Scottie Wilbekin and Kasey Hill to generate 1-on-1 offense against Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright was an insane strategy.

That's what people mean when they say Kevin Ollie brings NBA experience to the college game. He plays the match-up game, he alters his rotation patterns and he adjusts what he is doing based on the strengths and weaknesses of his opponent. That's why his team is still alive and Billy Donovan's team is going home.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Difference Between Jerami Grant and Jakarr Sampson

Jerami Grant and Jakarr Sampson were both 4-star recruits coming out of high school. They were both big-time recruits, but neither was the kind of can't miss guy that Kentucky or UNC go after. Grant picked Syracuse over Maryland, NC State and Notre Dame. Sampson picked St. John's over Baylor, Louisville and Tennessee.

Grant, an athletic 6'8 210 combo forward, averaged 12 points and 7 rebounds a game on 50% shooting as a sophomore. Sampson, an athletic 6'9 215 wing, averaged 13 points and 6 rebounds a game on 49% shooting as a sophomore.

When you start to break down their games, they are remarkably similar prospects. Both are long, athletic forwards who can put the ball on the floor and defend multiple positions. Both struggle to hit perimeter jumpers - neither attempted a 3-pointer this season, while Grant shot 67% from the free-throw line and Sampson checked in at 56%.

Sampson is a year older than Grant, but that can't explain how differently they are viewed by NBA draft folks. If Grant declares for the draft, he is seen as a fringe lottery pick and lock to be taken in the first-round. Sampson, who declared for the draft on Thursday, will have to work his way into the second round during the workout season.

The biggest difference between Sampson and Grant? Grant gets better promotion.

While Sampson has played in obscurity the last two years at St. John's, a rebuilding program in the Big East that was still a year away from contending for the NCAA Tournament, Grant has been an integral part of a Syracuse team that is perennially contending for a national title.

Playing at Syracuse next to Michael Carter-Williams and Tyler Ennis, Grant has had the benefit of an NBA PG setting him up for easy shots the last two years. Sampson, meanwhile, has had to play with combo guards like D'Angelo Harrison at St. John's, who are more worried about getting their own buckets.

If either player develops a perimeter jumper, they will have a long career at the next level. Their length and athleticism will make them excellent perimeter defenders, while their ability to put the ball on the floor, when combined with a 20-foot jumper, will allow them to draw fouls and get to the rim on offense.

However, just like James McAdoo, if they don't develop a jumper, opposing teams will just sag off them. Neither is a great distributor, so they can't have a lot of offense run through them either, which means they will have a hard time finding minutes at the next level without one.

Everyone wants to give Jim Boeheim shit about his players not succeeding at the next level, but their lack of success should really be a calling card for him in recruiting. All things being equal, a guy who plays for Boeheim will be drafted a lot higher than one who doesn't because Boeheim's player will be on an elite team that is on ESPN every week.

When it comes to the NBA draft, the pool of available players is a lot bigger than the 20-25 who get talked about by ESPN all season. Once you get outside the Top 10 prospects in the country, the difference between the rest isn't as clear cut as it may seem. Think about that whenever you see every mock draft which has the same 30-35 players being taken in the first round.

Jerami Grant is in that pool and Jakarr Sampson isn't because Grant played for one of the best coaches in the country and Sampson didn't. Syracuse players, like dead rappers, just get better promotion.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

No Patience at St. John's

St. John's was one season away. They went 20-13 this season and lost in the first round of the NIT. They weren't that far away from being an NCAA Tournament team - they ran with Wisconsin and Syracuse in non-conference and they beat Creighton in Big East play.

They were a young team with only one senior in their rotation - in their fourth season under Steve Lavin, the program was beginning to turn a corner. If everyone had come back, they would have been in the running to be in the preseason Top 25 and would have been a serious contender for the Big East crown.

Instead, Chris Obekpa transferred and Jakarr Sampson declared for the NBA draft. While the average college basketball fan hasn't heard of these guys, they have serious talent. They are both ELITE athletes with NBA size - Obekpa is 6'9 240 with a monstrous wingspan and Sampson is a 6'9 215 small forward.

Obekpa averaged 4 points, 5 rebounds and 3 blocks a game while Sampson averaged 13 points and 6 rebounds a game on 50% shooting. Those aren't terrible numbers for a pair of sophomores, but they should have shown each of them how much more they still need to work on their game.

They should be spending this summer locked in a gym, not making a dramatic transition that could cost them one of the most important developmental periods in their basketball careers. If those two guys could consistently knock down perimeter jumpers, they would be millionaires. 

With Obekpa anchoring the defense in the low post and Sampson providing two-way play on the wings, St. John's would have been a serious team next season. Now Lavin goes into a must-win season having to replace two key players he should have had no expectation he would need to replace. 

Obekpa would help almost any team in the country as a shot-blocker, but his limited offensive game might keep him on a reserve role on a bigger team. And while Sampson has the athleticism to play in the NBA, his offensive skill-set is way too limited to play a role at the next level right now.

There really isn't a better place for their long-term development than being key upperclassmen on a top team in the Big East. If they had gotten St. John's into the NCAA Tournament next season, they would have been one step closer to the NBA than they are now. 

The path for both of those guys to play at the next level was there - all they had to do was trust the process and take the next step forward. It might still work out for both of them, but the problem with skipping steps is you may end up falling off the path completely. 

My Kingdom for a Jumper: The James McAdoo Story

James McAdoo ended his college career on Thursday, declaring for the NBA draft after three seasons at UNC. One of the most highly-touted prospects in the class of 2011, McAdoo averaged 14 points and 7 rebounds a game on 47% shooting as a junior - good numbers, but hardly eye-popping.

McAdoo would likely have been a first-round pick if he had come out after his freshman season, when he averaged only 16 minutes a game behind John Henson and Tyler Zeller. After two inconsistent seasons as The Man at UNC, he's currently projected as a late second-round pick by DraftExpress.

You can see where the recruiting hype came from. At 6'9 225 with a 7'1 wingspan, McAdoo is an elite athlete who can literally jump out the gym. He passes the eye test by any conceivable measure - McAdoo is a lay-up line All-American who should test off the charts at the combine.

The only thing separating McAdoo from stardom is a 20-foot jumper. He's far too quick for the majority of big men - if they have to defend him on the perimeter, he can get to the rim in 2 steps. The problem is, without a jumper, defenses can just sag off him and dare him to beat them from the perimeter.

With a jumper, McAdoo could be the next Kenyon Martin. Without one, though, his place in the NBA is far from guaranteed. He's a small ball 4 who can't shoot, pass or post-up - he's very robotic playing with his back to the basket and he doesn't have the size to establish deep post position at the next level.

McAdoo would be best as a backup 4 in an uptempo system, but his lack of a jumper means he would have to be paired with a stretch 5 who could open up the floor for him to dive at the rim. At UNC, he was best as a small-ball 5, but he would be pretty undersized for that role in the NBA, even on a second unit.

So while has the athletic ability to get a shot at the next level, McAdoo can't add much value to an NBA rotation right now. Even if he does end up making an NBA roster, there's a very good chance he ends up playing in the D-League next season.

To stick in the league, he will need to be able to shoot from the perimeter. For James McAdoo, a 20-foot jumper could literally mean tens of millions of dollars.

The Rich Get Richer

At RealGM, a look at the schools that get multiple McDonald's All-Americans every year.