Friday, May 30, 2014

Pacers Draft Woes

Like most small market contenders in the modern NBA, the Indiana Pacers were built through the draft. They grabbed Roy Hibbert in 2008, Paul George and Lance Stephenson in 2010 and flipped their first-round pick in 2011 for George Hill. With their core in place, they made one big splash in free agency - signing David West in 2012.

They've managed to be a contender while staying under the luxury tax line because they've had so many quality young players on cost-controlled deals, but that ends this summer. George and Hibbert have max deals, while West is at $12 million and Hill is at $8 million. If they pay Lance, they are going to be way over the cap without many ways to improve their team.

That's where you need to be able to add more cheap pieces through the draft. Unfortunately for the Pacers, they've lost their touch in recent years. There's no young talent in the pipeline and they don't have a pick in this year's draft. They went all-in on this year's team and the bill from that decision is going to come due this off-season.

2012 - Miles Plumlee (part of the Luis Scola trade)

2013 - Solomon Hill

2014 - Pick dealt for Luis Scola

Plumlee was seen as a reach at the time, but he's proven that he's an NBA-caliber C. Unfortunately for the Pacers, that happened in Phoenix, where he was a dynamic pick-and-roll partner for Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. In Indiana, he couldn't get minutes behind Roy Hibbert and struggled in the Pacers half-court system and was a salary throw-in in the deal for Scola.

Hill has decent size for a small forward (6'7 225) but he isn't a great athlete and he doesn't have great length (6'9 wingspan). He's probably never going to be an great defensive player and he's not an explosive scorer. He could stick in the NBA as a three-point shooter who can move the ball and put it on the floor, but he doesn't have a very high ceiling.

What's really going to kill them is giving up two first-round picks (2012 and 2014) for a guy who isn't that good anyway. Scola was not a difference maker in this year's playoffs and they gave up two potential cheap rotation players from 2015-2017 to get him. Those were both late first-round picks, but this is a franchise that found Lance Stephenson at No. 40.

That's what you have to do to contend in the modern NBA - you have to be able to consistently find talent in the draft. The Pacers have had a good run, but if they want to sustain it over the next 3-5 seasons, they need to keep the pipeline of young talent coming in. The only other option is to spend A LOT of money and they've shown no real interest in doing that.

Spurs-Thunder Game 5

The story of Game 5 was the adjustment Gregg Popovich made to his starting line-up, replacing Tiago Splitter with Matt Bonner. Just as important as Bonner's presence on the floor was the way it staggered the minutes of Splitter and Tim Duncan, so that the Spurs would have only one non three-point shooter on the floor for the entire game. Spreading the floor is the easiest way to ignite an offense.

Oklahoma City took control of the series in Games 3 and 4 with their ability to protect the rim and ignite the fast break. Serge Ibaka returned to the line-up and had the luxury of defending a non-shooter and a non-scorer in Splitter, so he could camp out in the lane and clog up the Spurs offense. Keeping either Bonner or Boris Diaw on the floor forced Ibaka out of the paint and out of his comfort zone.

With Ibaka at the 4 and Kendrick Perkins/Steven Adams at the 5, the Thunder guards could press out on defense and jump the passing lanes. However, with only one big in the paint, the Spurs had more breathing room on offense and more driving lanes to the rim. On the pick-and-roll, OKC's second line of defense was a wing instead of a shot-blocker. The game became a lot easier for San Antonio.

You could see the effects up and down the Spurs rotation. Splitter is far more effective backup center than Aron Baynes, so the move made their second unit better on offense and defense. Splitter is a really good individual defender at the 4, but there isn't a LaMarcus Aldridge or Dirk Nowitzki in this series. The same would hold true in a hypothetical matchup with the Heat in the NBA Finals.

There's no great adjustment for Brooks to make in Game 6. You could try to attack Bonner on defense, but neither Ibaka nor Perkins is a natural shot-creator. Where they could have a big advantage is pounding the offensive glass. They also have to hope that Diaw doesn't bring his three-point shot to OKC. If they can shrink the floor on Diaw, like they did in Games 3 and 4, it negates a lot of the Spurs spacing.

They lost control of the game in the second quarter, when Brooks had Caron Butler and Derek Fisher on the wings next to Reggie Jackson. That line-up just doesn't work because they are making Jackson do everything when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are out. Butler and Fisher are very limited players on both sides of the ball - they can't really move their feet and they aren't driving threats.

What's so maddening about that is Jeremy Lamb clearly outplayed both guys in Games 3 and 4 and he still couldn't get minutes over them. These are the kind of coaching moves that drive people bananas when they watch Brooks. Playing Butler over Lamb is questionable but playing Fisher over him is absolutely inexcusable. At a certain point, as a coach, you have to respect the game.

Fisher got in the and promptly turned it over twice and had Ginobili and Patty Mills reign 3's on his head. I wrote this about after Game 3 - I'm not sure you can afford to have a guy like Fisher in the rotation and beat a team as good as San Antonio. The guy is shooting 28% from the field in the playoffs. I'm really not sure what more Brooks has to see. It would be funny if it weren't so sad.

He also needs to take a page out of Erik Spoelstra's book - Miami staggers their rotation so that at least one of Wade or LeBron is in the entire game. Westbrook and Durant are both capable of carrying an offense for stretches, so there's no reason to have big chunks of the game with both in and chunks when they are both out. These are the small rotation adjustments that Brooks is always behind on.

I still think OKC is in decent shape - they should play much better defense at home in Game 6 and the Spurs shooters aren't likely to be as locked in. However, they are still going to have to steal a game on the road and staggering Splitter and Duncan made the Spurs a much tougher match-up. The margin for error is very thin and the Thunder can't afford for Brooks to ignore the numbers and play his friends.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The PJ3 Solution

Their first game without Serge Ibaka did not go well for the Oklahoma City Thunder, as they were run out of the gym by the San Antonio Spurs in Game 1. As many predicted, Ibaka's combination of shot-blocking ability and interior defense on one end and ability to stretch the floor on the other proved impossible to replace. Scott Brooks was never able to find a balance between a line-up which could stop the Spurs and one that could score on them.

He tried a number of different combinations, starting the game with Nick Collison and then going small with Kevin Durant at the 4 and super-small with KD at the 5. Not all of them worked, but it was a refreshing change of pace for a coach who was always been afraid to alter his line-ups and make adjustments over the course of a seven-game series. However, with the Spurs offense clicking on all cylinders, Brooks doesn't have too much time to find the right answers.

We will see whether he will continue to experiment in Game 2 or return to his usual pattern of stubbornly refusing to confront reality. He needs Kendrick Perkins to counter Tim Duncan, but the other three veterans he has stuck with to the very end - Derek Fisher, Caron Butler and Thabo Sefolosha - are once again offering very little and dragging the Thunder down. If there's an answer in OKC besides the obvious (play Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb more), it comes from another young player who has never really earned Brooks trust - Perry Jones 3.

PJ3 is the closest approximation of Ibaka's skill-set on their roster - he's 6'11 235 with a 7'2 wingspan, extremely athletic and he can knock down corner 3's. He fell out of the rotation over the course of the season, but he played 62 games in the regular season and was a huge factor in both their games against the Miami Heat this season. He's the best of both worlds for Brooks line-up dilemma - he spreads the floor on offense and gives them size on defense.

Part of the problems with the small-ball line-ups with KD at the 4 or the 5 is that Brooks is sacrificing any gains in athleticism by putting Caron and/or Fish on the floor. Those guys are older than everyone in the Spurs rotation except Duncan and Ginobili and they are pretty much useless defensively. Fisher was able to make some 3's in Game 1 but that was the definition of a broken clock being right twice a day - he's shooting 27% from 3 in the playoffs, if you hoist enough shots, eventually some have to go in.

PJ3 gives them a ton of line-up flexibility - he can play at the 5, 4 or 3 and he shot 36% from the 3 in the regular season. He's a much bigger body for post defense than KD and he's way more of an offensive threat than Perkins or Collison. He hasn't played much over the course of his first two seasons in the NBA, but that shouldn't stop a coach from going with what he thinks is the best line-up - look at how Popovich used Aaron Baynes in Game 1. It isn't that complicated. If you miss what Ibaka is bringing to the floor, use the player on your roster who most closely replicates his skill-set.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Ideal Kevin Love Trade

Kevin Love for Terrence Jones, Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik

Houston one of the only realistic destinations for Love on the board - the most difficult part about trading a superstar is finding a team he would be willing to sign with that wouldn't have to empty its cupboard to get him. Love would form an absolutely devastating Big Three - Howard at the rim, Love at the three-point line and Harden with the ball in his hands. That group would score all the points, get all the rebounds and have a ton of passing too.

If he goes to Boston or the LA Lakers, there's no real reason for him to sign an extension, given the lack of talent on hand. The other teams in the mix - Chicago, Golden State - don't really have the pieces to compete with what Houston could offer. Phoenix might be the most interesting dark horse possibility, but I still think the Rockets can offer the best package of young pieces with upside who can also win now.

The problem for Minnesota is that even if they trade Love, they still have Pekovic, Martin and Rubio on the roster, so they couldn't commit to a full rebuild. All three of those guys have holes in their games, but they are still good players who can be starters on a good team. They aren't that far off from being a playoff team, as is. This is how they would look if that trade went down:

PG - Rubio
SG - Martin
SF - Parsons
PF - Jones
C - Pekovic, Asik, Dieng

From there, it would be easy enough to move one of their C's to bolster their perimeter depth and you have a team that could compete for the playoffs right away. It sounds crazy to say that they could be a better team without Love, but I'm much higher on Parsons and Jones than most people. I think both of those guys have the potential to be All-Stars.

Parsons is a 6'10 230 small forward who can shoot, handle and pass like a guard. He's got unlimited range on his jumper, he can get his shot almost any time he wants off the dribble and he can create shots for his teammates. 17/5/4 on 47% shooting is really good for a SF, especially for a guy with two-way ability. He's also put up those numbers without ever having the chance to dominate the ball - he had a 19.3 usage rating this season. He could easily get up to 20+ a game in Minnesota.

Jones got tore up by LaMarcus Aldridge in the first round, but he's still a really interesting young player with a ton of upside. He's 6'9 240 with a 7'2 wingspan, he has a near 40' vertical and he can handle the ball like a guard. While he's not a great shooter, he's a very smart player who knows how to move without the ball and impact the game without scoring. Check out his per-36 minute numbers as a 22-year old: 16 points, 9 rebounds and 2 blocks on 54% shooting. That's a 19.9 PER for a guy who should be a senior in college.

Parsons and Jones are role players in Houston, but they both have room to expand their offensive games if given more responsibility in Minnesota. Those two + Rubio on the break would be a very exciting team and they would offer way more two-way ability upfront than the current Wolves front-court.

That's the kind of haul I want back for Kevin Love: two under-25 front-court starters with two-way ability who can be the core of a good team for a long time.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Otto Porter's Future

With one of the most successful seasons in franchise history coming to an end on Thursday, the question for the Wizards is whether they take the next step or fall back to the pack in the Eastern Conference. A big part of the answer will depend on re-signing free agents Trevor Ariza and Marcin Gortat, which leads into the other fascinating storyline for them this off-season - what happens to Otto Porter?

Ariza is a great fit in Washington. At 6'8 210 he's the epitome of the 3-and-D player - an elite athlete who can match up with all three perimeter positions and absolutely stroke the ball from three. In the playoffs, he averaged 14 points and 9 rebounds a game and shot 47% from 3 on 5 attempts a game. At 28, he's still in the prime of his career and could be a starter on an elite team until his athleticism starts to decline.

The problem is if you give Ariza a big contract, how will Porter, the No. 3 overall pick in 2013, ever get on the floor? They just signed Martell Webster to a 4-year $21 million contract last off-season and while he had a disappointing playoff run, a team expecting to contend for a top 4 seed isn't going to throw him to the curb to give an untested young player big minutes. 

The unfortunate part about it is that Porter is a really good young player. Don't let his performance in the Summer League or his poor production in extremely spotty minutes as a rookie fool you. He's a very skilled 6'8 210 wing who can put the ball on the floor, knock down mid-range jumpers and play as a point forward. However, he's not an elite athlete or a great three-point shooter, so his ceiling isn't that high.

That's what's really insane about the Porter selection - if you were going to draft a guy at No. 3 who was going to sit for a few years on a playoff contender, why not take a high-upside pick like Giannis? What kind of sense does it make to take a low ceiling, NBA ready player at No. 3 and than glue him to the bench? How is that any way to maximize a Top 3 selection?

Even if Porter did get a lot of minutes early in his career, do you really want him taking the ball out of the hands of John Wall and Bradley Beal? If you take a PG and a SG with Top 3 picks, you want a very low usage SF next to them to maximize their talents. There aren't enough basketballs to go around for three star perimeter players - that's like the Detroit Pistons taking WR's every year in the Top 10.

And where you look at the Wizards going forward, the real concern isn't on the perimeter, where it's easy to find 3-and-D wings like Ariza or Webster, it's upfront, as Nene and Gortat move deeper into their 30's. They've really got nothing behind those two - in terms of roster balance, it would have made a lot more sense to go with Alex Len, Nerlens Noel or Cody Zeller at No. 3. What happens if Nene gets hurt again?

In and of themselves, none of these issues are necessarily a big deal for the Wizards next season. They can re-sign Gortat and Ariza, cobble together some backup big men and make a run at a Top 4 seed. However, the toughest leap in the NBA is to go from good to great and not maximizing a No. 3 pick in either the short or the long-term is an awfully big opportunity the Wizards left on the board.

Otto Porter will have a long and successful NBA career, but he may need to go somewhere else besides Washington to show what he can do. Of course, if they try to trade him after they re-sign Ariza, they will be getting pennies on the dollar. None of this had to happen, but the fact that it did makes me dubious the Wizards front office is really going to put together a championship-caliber roster anytime soon.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Mikhail Prokhorov's Money

At RealGM, a look at what the real plan in Brooklyn is.

Miami's Wild Card

The Miami Heat are now 8-1 in this year's playoffs, but they really haven't played all that impressively. They are in the junior circuit (aka the Eastern Conference) and they have been scraping by some fairly mediocre teams. The real concern is their supporting cast, or what's left of it in Year 4 of the great experiment on South Beach.

Let's take a look at some of the guys who round out the back of their rotation:

Shane Battier - This is going to be his last season in the NBA, which is a good thing because he is pretty much done. He's still an average three point shooter, but he doesn't move well without the ball and he can't attack a close-out. He no longer has much lateral quickness and he's an average at best defender. Anything you get out of him at this point is found money. He has a 6.6 PER in the playoffs.

Rashard Lewis - Age has pretty much reduced him to being a one-trick pony and that's spotting up from the 3-point line and hitting 3's at a pretty average rate (32% in the playoffs). He can't really defend a position anymore - at best, he can stay in front of slower wings and stay behind big men who can't really score. He doesn't have much of an impact when he's in the game, as his 6.8 playoff PER suggests.

James Jones - The definition of a one-trick pony. He can shoot 3's, but he gives you nothing else. The big problem is on defense where he has to be hidden on non-threats. When he was matched up with Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson at points in Game 5, Miami might as well have just conceded the 2 points and went about their business.

Ray Allen (38) and Birdman (35) are still functional players but they are clearly in decline, even from what they gave last year. The cumulative effect is of a very old team that despite its reputation can't actually blow teams off the floor athletically. The only players in their supporting cast on the right side of 30 are Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole.

They have gotten away with in the first two rounds but the level of competition is going to ratchet up pretty quickly. Indiana has always matched up pretty well with them, but even if they implode and Miami has a cakewalk to the NBA Finals, they will eventually have to play a Western Conference team that will be both battle-tested and deep.

The one wild card Erik Spoelstra has in his back pocket is Micheal Beasley. We might not see him early in a series, but if the Heat have to come back to a deficit, Spo has shown no hesitation to go deep into his bench and try unorthodox things as a series progresses. Miami needs athleticism, scoring punch and shooting to complement the Big Three and those are three things Beasley can bring to the floor.

It's not like he played badly in his time in the rotation early in the season. Beasley averaged 8 points and 3 rebounds a game on 50% shooting in 15 minutes a game and had a 16.7 PER. He fell out of favor because of his defensive lapses and overall inconsistency, but it's not like Miami is getting much from the combination of Jones, Lewis and Battier on that side of the ball.

Beasley is a head case but he is still a very talented basketball player. At 6'8 240, he can put the ball on the floor, shoot the 3 and play above the rim. He's 25 years old and he's at the peak of his athletic ability - if you put him on a frontcourt with Bosh and LeBron, you suddenly have a very athletic group that can stretch the floor, attack you from every position in the frontcourt and put up points in a hurry.

The Heat clearly don't want to use him, but they may not have a choice. Charlotte had no chance of competing once Al Jefferson went down and Brooklyn gave them a much tougher series than the final (4-1) would indicate. Indiana, San Antonio, OKC and the Clippers can all test the Heat in ways their first two opponents haven't. I doubt they'll be able to count on Battier, Lewis or Jones when the chips are down.

This is not the team from 2-3 years ago - they are an old team that relies on LeBron James to do just about everything. I think playing with LeBron can make Beasley an effective player on both sides of the floor, which is good, because they might end up needing him if they are going to three-peat.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The CJ McCollum Problem

At RealGM, a look at why the Blazers lottery pick doesn't fit with their roster.

Will Barton Makes a Splash

After getting solid play from Barton in spot minutes in Games 2 and 3 against the Spurs, Terry Stotts gave him his first extended run of the playoffs in Game 4. He responded with the kind of game that puts a young player on the map in the NBA - 17 points, 6 rebounds and 2 assists on 7-13 shooting in 29 minutes.

Barton has always had the talent; he's just had a hard time cracking a Portland rotation stuffed with veterans in his first two seasons in the league. He declared for the draft after only two seasons at Memphis and after a two-year internship on the bench, he's now a 23 year old ready for a bigger role in the NBA.

At 6'6 175 with a 6'10 wingspan, Barton is an electric athlete with a solid all-around game who can impact the game in a number of ways. In his sophomore season at Memphis, he was the best player on a 30-win team, averaging 18 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists and 1.5 steals on 51% shooting.

In the draft process, I'm always a fan of guys who can stuff a stat sheet. Barton's length and athleticism allows him to impact the game as a defensive player and a rebounder and makes him almost impossible to stay in front of off the dribble. He has the skill to beat a defense from the perimeter (shooting 35% from 3 on 3 attempts a game as a sophomore) as well as create shots for his teammates if he is doubled.

He slipped in the draft for a number of reasons - his thin frame, his occasional bursts of wildness in college, doubt about Memphis program and their lackluster regular season schedule - but the biggest was circumstance. Barton had the misfortune of declaring for the draft in a year stacked with SG's - Bradley Beal, Terrence Ross, Jeremy Lamb, Austin Rivers and Evan Fournier were all taken ahead of him.

* Also - John Jenkins, Jared Cunningham, Orlando Johnson and Tomas Satoransky.

If he had stayed in school for his junior season, he would have been one of the best players in the country. Keep this in mind - he was in the same high school class as Victor Oladipo and he was a much, much better player in their first two seasons in college. Oladipo didn't explode on the scene until his junior season (when Barton was already in the NBA). He averaged 11 points and 5 rebounds on 47% shooting as a sophomore.

As the No. 41 pick in the draft, the odds were against Barton in the NBA, particularly in his rookie season, when there was little chance he was going to crack the rotation. This season, the signing of Mo Williams and the drafting of CJ McCollum pushed him further down the pecking order - the NBA is a business and an untested second-round pick has little chance of unseating a former All-Star or a lottery pick.

However, with their backs against the wall against San Antonio, Stotts had no reason not to roll out Barton and see what he could do. His athleticism and ability to attack the rim gives them another dimension on offense and improves their team speed on defense. His shooting percentages will come back to Earth if given more minutes, but he has a 22.7 PER in the playoffs for a reason - the guy can play.

Barton has little chance of unseating Wesley Matthews next season, but he could become a deadly 6th man for the Blazers. You want to bring guys off the bench who give your line-up a different look and change the complexion of the game and Barton has those qualities in spades. If Portland can't find a spot for him in the rotation, someone else will.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Clippers Achilles Heel

In a game as competitive and as well-played as Game 3 of Clippers/Thunder, every possession is important and every part of the game is crunch time. You can lose a game like that at almost any stretch of the 48 minutes. For the Clippers, one weakness jumped off the screen on Friday- when DeAndre Jordan was on the bench and Glen "Big Baby" Davis was operating as the backup 5.

If we're being honest, his real nickname should be something like Fatty McGoo. He's listed at 6'9 290, but he's easily pushing 300 pounds and he just cannot move his feet at an acceptable level on the defensive end of the floor. He doesn't have much length either, which means it's open season at the front of the rim when he's in. In the 11 minutes he played, LA was -12, a huge number in a game this close.

Reggie Jackson went bananas in the second quarter, scoring 6 points on 3-4 shooting. He just put his head down and went right to the front of the rim, knowing that Davis could do nothing as the second line of defense. His only resort is to take a lot of fouls - he had 4 personal fouls in his time on the floor, which went a long way towards putting OKC in the penalty in the second quarter.

Compounding the problem is the Clippers lack of perimeter defenders on the second unit - there isn't a stopper among Darren Collison, Jamal Crawford and Jared Dudley. As a result, even with the Thunder giving away possessions by playing Caron Butler and Derek Fisher, the Clippers second unit was still bleeding points. They gave away the 4 point lead they had at the end of the 3Q in 4 minutes in the 4rth.

Davis doesn't offer much on the offensive end of the floor either. He's a decent mid-range shooter, but he can't shoot 3's and he has trouble finishing around the rim, given the lack of lift in his legs. He's a good passer and he's prety skilled, but he's just being exposed at this level of the game. He was the 4rth big man on the Celtics 2008 championship team for a reason - PJ Brown just brought a lot more to the table.

At the very highest levels of the game, the difference between winning and losing is razor thin. Going back to 2010, I thought Kendrick Perkins tearing his ACL helped swing the NBA Finals to the Lakers because it exposed Davis lack of defense in Game 7. If you take a possession-by-possession look at that game, you see him killing the Celtics in the fourth quarter because of his lack of defense.

Davis' ineffectiveness means Jordan doesn't get nearly the rest he needs and Griffin basically can't come off the floor in the second half. Considering how hard those two are playing and the level of physicality in the paint, that could really wear them down as this series goes on. Every championship team needs at least three big men and right now, it looks like the Clippers are one short.

It may not end up costing them in this series, since OKC has its own problems on their second unit. However, whether it's in the second round or the Conference Finals or even the NBA Finals, at some point having Glen Davis as their third big man is going to cost LA. Every minute matters in the playoffs and every minute he is on the floor, he is a weakness waiting to be exploited.

Friday, May 9, 2014

What the NFL Can Teach the NBA

At RealGM, a look at why Jadaveon Clowney went No. 1 despite his stats trending in the wrong direction.

Tiago Splitter's Value

Tiago Splitter is not the type of guy whose game jumps off the screen or appeals to the casual fan. He was run off the floor by the Miami Heat in last year's NBA Finals, who went 4-out and forced the Spurs to go small. So when he got a 4-year $36 million contract from San Antonio in the off-season, a lot of eyebrows were raised. In their fist two games against Portland, he has showed why he's such an important piece for them.

At 6'11 245, Splitter has exceptional size for a PF, which allows him to match up with guys like LaMarcus Aldridge and make them work for points. In contrast to the first-round series against the Rockets, where he could shoot over the top of Terrence Jones like he was a chair and go around like Omer Asik like he was playing in molasses, Aldridge has struggled against Splitter, whose just long, fast and strong enough to play straight up D on him.

Splitter's not a shut down defender by any means, but he's an excellent weapon for the Spurs in the West, where they have to go up against top-tier PF's in almost every series. He did a great job on Dirk Nowitzki in round 1 and he was absolutely vital for them in last year's Western Conference Finals, where he matched up with Zach Randolph. With Splitter as the primary defender on him, Aldridge went 12-25 and 6-23 in Games 1 and 2.

Aldridge is going to have better games as the series goes on, because he's one of the best scorers in the league and not even Splitter can really contest his turn-around J. What Splitter can do is hold him to 23-27 points on 45% shooting while allowing the rest of the San Antonio defenders to stay at home on the Portland shooters. That's a lot of points but it's not the 28-30 points on 55% shooting he was getting against Houston.

Just as important, Splitter is skilled enough to not destroy the Spurs spacing on the offensive end of the floor. Houston was very reluctant to go with Dwight Howard-Omer Asik in the frontcourt because neither guy can step out and hit jumpers or make any plays from the high post. Splitter isn't an All-Star or a primary option, but he's a skilled big man with a good feel for the game who can play high/low with Tim Duncan.

He's not a guy who can command a double team in the low post and he's not really a guy who can punish teams for going small against them, but almost all the top teams in the West have high-level PF's who force you to play two-post for most of the game. Without Splitter, San Antonio doesn't have the personnel to match up them. Memphis doesn't beat them in 2011 if Splitter is playing big minutes.

So while Splitter wouldn't be that useful in a rematch with Miami in the Finals, San Antonio is going to need him if they are going to make it that far. He's not great at any one facet of the game, but when you are at 7'0, you don't really need to be. Splitter is decent at offense and decent at defense - he doesn't have any huge holes in his game, which makes him more than worth what the Spurs are paying him.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

KG: Is This It?

Kevin Garnett didn't give the Nets much during the regular season, which is what you would expect for a guy in his 19th season in the NBA. However, even in the post-season, Garnett has been pretty much running on empty. He is averaging only 20 minutes a game and not making much of an impact when he is in there. In Game 1, he had 0 points and 4 rebounds on 0-2 shooting in only 16 minutes.

When he's in the game, he's pretty much just a placeholder. While he still starts, Jason Kidd takes him out after only 4-5 minutes and he usually doesn't put him back in until the very end of the second quarter. It's not like the Nets desperately need KG out there either - Andray Blatche is more of an offensive threat while Mason Plumlee gives them more energy and athleticism on the glass and the defensive end.

At this stage in his career, KG can't really establish deep post position against bigger 5's and he no longer has the quickness to take them off the dribble. He doesn't have much lift in his legs to finish around the basket - he's pretty much only effective as a spot-up shooter from 15-20 feet, which can be taken away by a defensive player who presses up on him and forces him to put it on the floor.

On the defensive side of the ball, KG can no longer move his feet and guard players on the perimeter. The Heat were able to put him in pick-and-rolls with Chris Bosh and dictate the action - either zipping the ball to Bosh when KG shows or letting the guard attack the basket or get an easy shot when he goes under. At this point in his career, he's basically a backup center or a starter in name only.

For a guy with his pedigree and pride, the real question is how much longer he wants to keep playing. He has one year left on his contract but he's made well over $300 million dollars in his career so it's not like he needs the money. Jason Kidd has shown that he has no problem playing the hot hand and going with the best players in his rotation - there's a greater than zero chance KG falls out of it next year.

At this stage in his career, KG is strictly a 5. So when Brook Lopez comes back next season, there won't be all that many minutes for him in Brooklyn. With Lopez, Plumlee and Blatche in the fold, KG's biggest contribution could come as a veteran leader and a mentor in the locker room. That's pretty thin gruel for one of the greatest players of all-time - he could be asking himself whether he even wants to get himself ready for the grind of the next season.

If the Nets are going to have any chance in this series, they are going to need more from KG than what they've gotten from him in the playoffs or the regular season. If he has anything left in the tank, it's now or never for him. With everything else that has been going on around their team this season, there hasn't been too much talk about it, but I wouldn't be surprised if this is the last we see of KG in an NBA uniform.

Top 5 PF's of 2015

At RealGM, our position-by-position series look at the top prospects coming back to school continues with the PF position.

Monday, May 5, 2014

OKC's Weak Spots Get Exposed

Sometimes a blow-out early in a series can be the best thing to happen to a team. When you get drummed as badly as the Thunder did in Game 1, you can't have any illusions about what's going on with your roster. I'd hate to sound like a broken record, but Scott Brooks has been carrying a lot of liabilities in his rotation for a very long time. On Monday night, all those chickens came home to roost.

Thabo Sefolosha - Sefolosha is a guard who can't shoot 3's, can't put the ball on the floor and attack the rim and can't create shots for anyone else. He's one of the worst offensive SG's in the NBA. Even if he was Tony Allen on defense, which he isn't, there's no KD/Kobe Bryant type wing player on the Clippers that forces him to stay on the floor. Reggie Jackson can guard JJ Redick.

Kendrick Perkins - Perkins is the familiar punching bag for the Thunder. He does have some value in match-ups against low post scorers like Z-Bo and Gasol, but the Clippers don't have anyone he needs to guard and his offensive game speaks for itself. There was one play in the second half where he was 8 feet off Blake on a "rotation" and Blake still threw the ball right over his head for a lob to DeAndre.

Caron Butler - I've written about my man Tough Juice before. He doesn't offer much value besides spot-up shooting and he was 1-7 in Game 1. He had 5 personal fouls in 27 minutes, which tells you he's having trouble staying with the Clippers perimeter players on defense. Scott Brooks might want to ask himself why Butler is on his 4th team in 5 seasons.

Derek Fisher - I was tempted to call this post "No country for Derek Fisher" and I still might save that one for later in the series, so don't steal it. Whose he guarding on the Clippers - Paul, Reddick, Darren Collison or Jamal Crawford? Go to his basketball-reference page and take a look at how his stats started cratering at age 34-35 ... and he's 39 now. This is embarrassing for everyone involved.

I feel pretty confident that Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones 3 are better than those 4 players because most NBA players are - Sefolosha, Perkins, Butler and Fisher are all below average players and that's being generous. It's going to be hard to win an NBA championship with so many weak spots in your rotation. We'll see if Brooks will make any adjustments.

Here's my theory about why he sticks with veteran role players far beyond the point of reason. As a former journeyman himself, Brooks had to convince himself that the intangibles and basketball IQ he brought to the floor meant something to a team. So when he sees guys like Butler and Fish, he's really reliving his own career and getting back at all the coaches who benched him for the more talented younger players.

As Game 1 proved, there's no more time in OKC for their coach's self deception. He needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask himself whether he needs to be divvying out playing time based off of merit or off tenure and seniority. The beauty of the NBA playoffs is that if you are going to BS yourself, someone is eventually going to call you on it.

The Luis Scola Problem

In the modern NBA, you want your power forward to do 2 of 3 things: shoot 3's, post up and play defense/rebound. They usually exist on a continuum: guys who shoot 3's tend to struggle with interior play (posting up and playing defense) while big men who operate near the basket can't offer the type of floor spacing that stretch 4's provide.

The problem with Luis Scola is that, at this stage of his career, he doesn't give you any of those things. At 6'9 245, he doesn't have a huge size advantage over the 4's who defend him and at 34, he no longer has the quickness and foot speed to create space for himself as a face-up player. He can't create shots for himself against quality competition, his shooting range is strictly at 20 feet and he's not much of a defensive player.

Line-ups with Scola in them are the worst of both worlds. They can't bully smaller line-ups by scoring around the rim, they don't space the floor enough to allow the guards to slash at the basket and they don't play much defense either. If Indiana is getting bullied on the glass and can't protect the paint when Scola is in, they might as well play Chris Copeland and open up the floor on offense.

Take a look at Scola's stat-line tonight. He played 27 minutes and had only 5 rebounds, which is a problem when the Pacers were -17 in rebounding margin. He had 5 personal fouls, which tells you that he couldn't move his feet quick enough to protect the rim and cut off dribble penetration. And while he had 12 points, he was 5-11 from the floor, mostly on open shots that the Wizards were prepared to give up.

Scola was getting wide-open mid-range jumpers all night off the pick-and-pop - if he could take 2-3 steps further back and hit 3's, Washington would have to switch up its defensive strategy. That, in turn, would open up more room for Paul George and Lance Stephenson to get into the lane. Basically, Scola has all of Copeland's negatives on defense and the boards without his positives at the three-point line.

All of this was obvious in his last season with the Phoenix Suns, where he put up average numbers - 13 points and 6 boards on 47% shooting - and played zero defense on an awful team. This wasn't a guy whose profile screamed that he needed to be on a contending team. I'll never understand why the Pacers thought they needed to give up a ransom (a future 1, Miles Plumlee and Gerald Green) for a poor man's David West.

That's the other thing - when you are a contending team, you don't want your backups to replicate the strengths and weaknesses of your starters. You want be able to go to your bench and play a different style, which allows you more flexibility to match up with different types of teams over multiple seven-game series. With Scola and West, Indiana is a slow two-post offense for all 48 minutes.

Going forward, you would expect Vogel to give Copeland more minutes at Scola's expense, which is exactly what he did in their first-round series against the Hawks. It's amazing to watch the Pacers make the same mistakes over and over without ever seeming to learn from them, but what would really worry me if I was an Indiana fan was the thought process that brought Scola on board in the first place.

Top 5 SF's in 2015

At RealGM, our position-by-position series continues with a look at the best SF's coming back to school.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

A Learning Experience

Perception can be a funny thing. Because Dwight Howard and James Harden have been in the public eye for so long as integral parts of good teams, the Houston Rockets don’t feel nearly as fresh as the Portland Trail Blazers, who emerged this season to become one of the surprise teams of the NBA. 

Yet take a look at this:

Damian Lillard - 23
Wesley Matthews - 27
Nic Batum - 25
LaMarcus Aldridge - 28
Robin Lopez - 25

Patrick Beverley - 25
James Harden - 24
Chandler Parsons - 25
Terrence Jones - 22
Dwight Howard - 28

The average age of the Houston and Portland starters is almost exactly identical. They are two of the youngest teams in the playoffs. Dwight is a 10-year veteran, but Harden is the only other one of the Rockets starters who isn’t on a rookie contract.

When you look at Houston closely, they have all the hallmarks of a young team. They are cocky, they have a tendency to rely on their talent over their execution and they cut a ton of corners on the defensive side of the ball. Harden, Parsons and Jones should all be much better defensive players than they are. Harden may never be a stopper, but it’s not like he’s Steve Nash. There’s no reason for him to be a defensive sieve.

The Rockets are as talented as any team in the NBA, but they are still really young. A few years ago, when I first started covering the NBA, I wouldn’t have thought their age was that big a deal. Either they can play or they can’t - all this talk about “NBA experience” was just narrative, as the kids like to say.

But now that I’m a little bit older, I’m starting to see that it’s not the NBA experience that matters as much as life experience. I was 22 when I first started this job and now I’m 26 and you view the world a lot differently at 26 than you do at 22. I wouldn’t say that I view the sport of basketball all that differently, but my worldview trickles into my coverage of the sport in a million different ways.

The Rockets loss to the Blazers for a million different reasons - that’s what happens in a series as closely contested as this one was. Going into next season, they aren’t going to want to be in the position they were this year. That means becoming better defensively, valuing possessions more and taking every game in the regular season seriously - you don’t want to play a 5 in the first round when you could have been playing a 7 or a 8.

That’s part of the maturation process of a young team and it’s a step that can’t really be skipped. There’s a reason that young teams don’t win a championship in their first year together, no matter how much talent they have, and it’s not “narrative”. Portland, which had the 16th rated defense in the NBA in the regular season, will experience those lessons out soon enough.

That’s what the NBA playoffs are all about - every flaw in a team will eventually be exposed. For the Houston Rockets, you can chalk this loss up as a learning experience. What they learn from it will ultimately depend on them, but if this team does end up winning a championship, they will be able to point back to this series as the first step in that journey.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Top 5 SG's in 2015

At RealGM, the next in a position-by-position look at the best NBA prospects coming back to school in 2015.

Scott Brooks Made An Adjustment

After four straight playoff runs with the same starting line-up no matter what the situation, Scott Brooks finally made an adjustment before Game 6, moving Caron Butler in for Thabo Sefolosha. Kendrick Perkins has been the lightning rod for most of the criticism, but in his own way, Sefolosha has been just as big a drag on the Oklahoma City Thunder offense. On Thursday, we saw what it looked like without him.

Butler is hardly a world-beater, but he is a perimeter player who can shoot 3’s and put the ball on the floor, two things Sefolosha has never been great at. When you have him, Perkins and Serge Ibaka in the line-up, that’s two guys who can’t threaten you off the ball and three guys who can’t create their own shot. That, in turn, puts a tremendous amount of pressure on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Westbrook gets criticized for some of the shots he takes, but a lot of times there’s no other option on the floor. The Thunder starters play in no space and there aren’t many options when the shot clock starts going down. Combine that with Brooks’ rather unimaginative play-calling and you have a situation where Durant and Westbrook have to force up shots, even when they don’t have anything.

That one switch in the line-up opened up everything for OKC. For the first time in the series, they got out to the early lead, opening up on a 14-8 run and never looking back from there. With Butler and Ibaka spotting up and Perkins hanging around the basket, there was enough space for Westbrook and Durant to create offense without having 2-3 Memphis defenders draped all over them.

Sefolosha is a very good perimeter defender, but it’s not like Westbrook and Durant can’t handle tough assignments. Westbrook did just as good a job on Conley as Sefolosha - you don’t need to hide him on defense, that’s part of what makes him a great player. Westbrook is 6’3 with a 6’8 wingspan and Durant is 6’11 with a 7’4 wingspan and they are both elite athletes - the SG next to them doesn’t need to be a great defender.

With Sefolosha a free agent this summer, expect to see Jeremy Lamb in the starting line-up for OKC next season. While Lamb is a much better player than Caron Butler, there’s only so much you can expect from Scott Brooks at once. He’s a great athlete in his own right, he’s an elite shooter and he’s capable of attacking a close-out - Westbrook/Lamb/KD with Reggie Jackson off the bench is going to absolutely destroy people.

The Thunder brought in Sefolosha to match-up with Kobe Bryant, but the days of a Western Conference contender building their team around matching up with the LA Lakers have come and gone. Sefolosha is a pair of training wheels OKC no longer needs. The only real question is how much better they could have been if Brooks had taken them off 2-3 years ago.

The Pacers New Identity

After once again getting out to a slow start against the Atlanta Hawks with their normal line-up, the Indiana Pacers went small halfway through the first quarter, putting Chris Copeland in for Roy Hibbert. In a matter of minutes, they made up a 15-5 deficit, taking control of the game and the series. The Hawks didn’t have an answer for Lance Stephenson and they didn’t have an answer for Paul George.

Stephenson finished with 21 points, 9 rebounds and 1 assist on 7-13 shooting while George chipped in 24 points, 8 rebounds and 3 assists on 7-18 shooting. The Pacers have built their identity around their big men, but when they go small, there are very few teams in the NBA who can match-up with their two young wing players and the Hawks are not one of those teams.

Frank Vogel was trying to put as much shooting and athleticism around Stephenson and George as possible, which meant a few drastic changes to his normal rotation. There was very little Roy Hibbert and there was no Luis Scola and no Evan Turner. All three will still be needed at various points in the playoffs if Indiana can slip past Atlanta, but there’s not much use for them in Game 7.

There isn’t a true center for Hibbert to match up with on the Hawks roster, while Scola and Turner are subpar athletes who can’t shoot 3’s. When those two are in the game, the ball naturally winds up in their hands, since the defense doesn’t have to guard them out to the three-point line. On the other side of the floor, neither one can get out and guard the Hawks shooters 25+ feet from the basket.

That’s the way forward for Indiana, no matter what happens in these playoffs. Hibbert is who he is and David West is starting to slow down - George and Stephenson should be the future of this franchise. That’s two elite athletes who can create their own shot, run point, shoot from deep, crash the glass and defend multiple position on the perimeter. They are two of the most complete guards in the NBA and they are only 23.

George is already locked up to a max contract, but because Stephenson was a second round pick in 2010, he will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. You don’t see an under-25 starter who can contribute on both sides of the ball enter free agency that often, which will make Stephenson one of the most interesting players on the market. If I was Indiana, I would do whatever it takes to keep him.

As long as you have Stephenson and George together, you can move everyone also around them. Let those two guys dominate the ball and play in space and they will create a good offense. I would use them like Wade and LeBron - always have one of the two on the floor to run offense through. And just like Wade and LeBron, they can be the cornerstones on offense and defense.

That’s what has to happen in Game 7 - the Hawks don’t have the horses to run with those two. If Kyle Korver is on either one of them, give them the ball and let them create in space. If they have to move him on George Hill, not only have you opened up Hill’s offense, that also means Jeff Teague has to cross-switch on either George or Stephenson. Get him in early foul trouble and the game is over.

Spin it forward and it’s the same thing in the next round. John Wall and Bradley Beal are used to being the two most athletic players on the floor - all of a sudden, they are playing against guys who are much bigger than them and just as athletic. And while Washington had to win the lottery twice to get their star guards, Indiana got two potential All-NBA players with the No. 10 and No. 40 picks in 2010.

Keep Stephenson and George together and Indiana will have an elite team for many years to come. But if they let Lance walk and give Turner some of his money instead, the slide that began in the middle of this season might be a sign of things to come.