Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Minnesota: A Dece Team?

The soap opera in Minnesota has finally come to an end, as the Wolves shipped out Kevin Love in a three-team deal on Saturday, getting back Andrew Wiggins, Thad Young and Anthony Bennett. There's no replacing a player of Love's caliber, but that's a more than decent haul, considering the circumstances.

We now know what the Wolves depth chart will look like next season and it really isn't that bad:

PG - Ricky Rubio, Mo Williams, JJ Barea
SG - Kevin Martin, Zach LaVine, Chase Budinger
SF - Corey Brewer, Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad
PF - Thad Young, Anthony Bennett
C - Nik Pekovic, Gorgui Dieng, Ronny Turiaf

Last season, in terms of usage rating, it went Love (28.8), Martin (25.0), Pek (22.9) and Rubio (16.4), which means they are going to want to redistribute a lot of Love's possessions to Pek and Rubio. Martin averaged 19 points a game on 43% shooting last season - he already has a ton of offense on his plate and isn't all that efficient, although his ability to get to the line balances that out somewhat. From a fantasy POV, Pek is the obvious guy who should benefit from Love's departure - he averaged 17/9 on 54% shooting. He'll be the primary option in the half-court and should be at 21/22 a game at least. 

Rubio is the wild-card. They need him to be more aggressive on offense and be a more consistent scorer. He's still really young (23), so he flat out needs to improve because 38% on 8 FGA's a game from your starting PG isn't getting it done. That's Jason Kidd at 40 territory. 

Most people will have Wiggins over Brewer, but I'm not really sure he's a better NBA player than Brewer is right now. Brewer is a defensive ace in the prime of his career who knows how to be effective on the other side of the ball without having a ton of offense run through him. As great an athlete as Wiggins is, rookies don't help you on the defense and his offense has a long way to go. He might benefit from being brought along a little slowly. He's only 19. 

You can't expect Young to fill Love's shoes, but he is a starting caliber PF in the prime of his career who can help you on both sides of the ball. It's easy to fall into a trap of looking at how the new players fill the old players shoes when the reality is that no one player is going to replace a guy like Love - everyone on the team will have to step up. Minnesota is going to be a totally different team next season and the hope is that a guy like Pekovic can be better in a bigger role than he would have had if he were still playing next to Love. That's the ray of hope - since Love only helps you on offense, if you can redistribute his possessions even somewhat efficiently and improve on defense, you can minimize some of the damage.

No matter what the starters do, the bench should be much better. Their top reserves last season were Barea, Dante Cunningham and Turiaf, all of whom are fringe NBA players who are probably better as 3rd string guys. Budinger, who was coming off knee surgery, only played half the season and wasn't very effective, shooting 39% from the floor. They gave a lot of minutes to Luc Mbah A Moute, whose pretty much a complete offensive non-entity as well as Alexey Shved, who hasn't been able to establish himself in the NBA. Dieng was effective, but he didn't start to get serious playing time until the end of the season.

The upgrade from Mo Williams to Barea will be massive as will Dieng taking all of the reserve C minutes that went to Turiaf. It's hard to know what exactly they will get out of LaVine, Wiggins and Bennett, but all three guys were drafted in the lottery and they all have a lot of talent. Minnesota goes 9-10 deep with legitimate NBA players and they will be shedding a ton of guys with substandard PER's - Barea (11.6), Cunningham (12.6), Mbah A Moute (7.5), Budinger (9.7), Shved (10.2), Turiaf (13.9). Going into next season, there's a lot of room in Minnesota to upgrade the back of the rotation.

The other thing to keep in mind about this team is they were much better than their record (40-42) indicated. They had a +2.7 point differential, which is pretty much unheard of for a below-.500 team. 
So when looking at how much worse this team will have than last season, you probably want to start at a baseline of 45 wins, not 40. I'm not saying they will make the playoffs by any means, but I don't think they will be one of the worst teams in the NBA either. Even out West, I have them comfortably above the Lakers and the Kings and probably the Jazz too. This is a team I'll be watching the over/under line on season wins closely - if Vegas put them below 30, the over might be worth considering.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The John Calipari Debate

“The Kentucky Effect is there and it’s real,” Coach Cal said. “Senator Mitch McConnell has said to me, ‘You’re creating more millionaires than a Wall Street firm,’ and I went, wow, we are.”

In his first five years at Kentucky, John Calipari has won a national title, lost in the national championship game, lost in the Final Four and lost in the Elite Eight. He is 18-3 in the NCAA Tournament and two of those losses (2011 UConn, 2014 UConn) came against teams who went on to win the whole thing. To be sure, the players are the primary reason for his success, but that makes him no different than any other coach. A coach can only be as good as his players.

There's a perception out there that Calipari is nothing more than a glorified bus driver, a pretty face for the cameras who sweet talks recruits, rolls the ball out on the court and lets all his future NBA stars carry him to victories. Given the number of future pros that have rolled through Lexington (19 draft picks) and the fact that Kentucky has a Top 3 recruiting class every year, it's easy to think every season is like 2010, when he had DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall and Eric Bledsoe, or 2012, when he had Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones. 

If you want to know how good of a coach he is, you have to look at a year like 2011. Here was their starting line-up:

Brandon Knight
Doron Lamb
Darius Miller
Terrence Jones
Josh Harrellson

After they went to the Final Four, it was easy to be like there goes another team full of future pros dominating over-matched competition. All five of their starters ended up being drafted, which pretty much never happens in college basketball. However, when you look back it three years later, it's not clear how talented that team really was.

Knight was a five-star PG, a Top 5 recruit whom everyone expected to be a one-and-done guy. After one season at Kentucky, he declared for the draft and was widely seen as a Top 3-5 pick, someone who was right behind Kyrie Irving in the pecking order. He ended up falling to Detroit at No. 8, where he was expected to be a franchise PG. Instead, he only held on to the job for two seasons before being shipped out to Milwaukee. At this point, it's unclear whether he will even remain a starter long-term or whether he would be better off coming off the bench as a Jason Terry/Lou Williams type.

Lamb was ranked right outside the Top 20, a four-star guard who was seen as a good, but not a great recruit. Other guys in his range - Joe Jackson, Ryan Harrow, Vander Blue, Tyler Lamb. After two seasons at Kentucky, he was drafted in the second round by the Orlando Magic. Despite being on one of the worst teams in the NBA, he couldn't crack the rotation and he's going to have to earn a spot with the Dallas Mavericks in training camp. As a 6'4 shooting guard who isn't an elite athlete and can't run point, there's no guarantee he ends up sticking in the league long-term.

Miller was a four-star recruit in the class of 2008, ranked in the 40-60 range by the recruiting services. For every guy like Markieff Morris who makes the league from that spot, there are a dozen guys like Tony Mitchell, Drew Gordon and Renaldo Woolridge. After four seasons at Kentucky, he was drafted in the second round by New Orleans in 2012. He averaged 3 points a game in his first two seasons, so this is a make or break year for him. If he can't crack the Pellies rotation in 2014-2015, he could easily wind up heading overseas.

Jones was really the only blue-chip NBA guy on that year's team. If he had declared after his freshman season, he would have been a Top 5 pick in 2011. Instead, after taking a smaller role on the 2012 team and winning a national title, he fell to Houston at No. 17. At 22, he's already established himself as a starter on a 50+ win team.

Harrellson wasn't in the Top 150 coming out of high school. He was a juco guy recruited by the previous coaching staff who turned himself into a fringe NBA player under Calipari. I was surprised he was drafted, but he ended up being taken in the middle of the second round in 2011. He's been on three teams in three seasons and played in only 75 games at the next level. I'm dubious he's going to stick, even though he's a big guy who can shoot, as he's not really capable of playing NBA-level defense at either interior position.

You can look at this 2011 team and see five future NBA players including two lottery talents or you can look at it and see one blue-chip guy, one guy who should stick in the league and three fringe guys who can go either way. The reality is there are a lot of teams at the college level with that kind of talent among their top 5 players. The difference is they don't get rated as high in the recruiting rankings because Cal isn't pursuing them, they don't win games like Cal's teams win them and they aren't in the spotlight in the same way that Cal's players are.

It's the same with Alabama in football - whenever Kentucky goes after a basketball player, he instantly becomes a bigger name. The brand is so strong that it validates the player, even though it doesn't necessarily mean they are up to the standard that Cal has set for his teams. If you look at Lamb, Miller and Harrellson's physical profiles and college stats, there's nothing that screams they had to be drafted. If they were playing on an average NCAA team, they might never have gotten a chance at the next level. You can just look at how much publicity Miller and Harrellson were getting when they were playing for Billy Gillespie - basically nothing.

My guess is a lot of the same thing happened in 2014 - if the Harrison twins and James Young weren't playing for Kentucky, I'm not sure they would be all that highly regarded. They didn't do anything that impressive last season. If you don't believe me, check their stats. When you look at that 2014 team in 2017-2018, I would not be surprised if it ends up being Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein and a bunch of guys. Because Cal was coaching them, though, everyone was acting like they were the Fab Five re-incarnated.

That's the Catch-22 that he has set up for himself in terms of public perception. He gets a ton of stars through Lexington, but not every guy drafted out of Kentucky ends up like Wall, Cousins or Davis. People look at it like he's riding off the success of all these future NBA players when the reality is he's creating a lot of NBA careers for fringe prospects. It's not that Cal won all these games because he had 19 future NBA players - Cal had 19 future NBA players on his roster in large part because he won all those games and did such a great job of selling his program.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Tristan Thompson

The Kevin Love for Andrew Wiggins deal was about as win-win as such a major trade could be, although I have reservations about the deal for both teams - Can Love and Kyrie play enough D to allow the Cavs to compete with the Spurs and the Thunder? Can Wiggins reach his potential in Minnesota or would he have been better of being LeBron's Padawan? Nevertheless, you can see the rationale for why both pulled the trigger. If there's a clear loser in the whole proceedings, it's one of the players left behind in Cleveland - Tristan Thompson.

After three years as a starter for one of the worst teams in the NBA, Thompson looked like one of the players who would benefit from the prodigal son's return home, even getting a shout-out in LeBron's open letter in Sports Illustrated. Before the Love trade, he had a pretty secure hold on the starting PF position in Cleveland and as a lottery pick entering his fourth season in the league, he looked headed for a big extension prior to the October 31 deadline. He is represented by the same agent as LeBron and that type of quid-pro-quo happens all the time in the NBA.

With Love in town, though, all of that is thrown into question. Thompson could see his playing time from last season cut in half. Love will get 35-40 minutes a night at the PF position and his complete inability to protect the rim means he is unlikely to get much run at C, especially during the playoffs. And while Thompson could survive as a small-ball C on offense with Love stretching the floor, those two won't exactly form the most intimidating defensive front-court in the NBA. Once David Blatt figures out his rotation, it's not hard to envision a scenario where Thompson gets 15-20 minutes a night as a second unit 4/5.

He's still a 22-year old with a decent track record, but his career 15 PER doesn't exactly scream future star either. In that respect, Thompson is a bit of a jack of all trades master of none - he's not great on either side of the ball and his best skill (rebounding) is one that a lot of other PF's share. He's a bit of an anachronism - a traditional PF in a stretch 4 league - and it's still unclear whether he can hold down a starting job on a good team. It's hard to build an elite team around a PF who can't stretch the floor, command a double team in the post or play great interior defense.

If he becomes trade bait, take a look around the rest of the league and ask yourself how many teams does Thompson really improve as a starting PF? People talk a lot about the depth of PG's in the modern NBA, but PF is a pretty stacked position. Once you take out teams whose scheme requires a three-point shooter at the position, the list of suitors for Thompson becomes pretty thin. Is he an upgrade on Jared Sullinger in Boston? Cody Zeller/Noah Vonleh in Charlotte? John Henson/Ersan Ilyasova in Milwaukee? Jason Thompson in Sacramento? Enes Kanter in Utah? And those last 3 teams are still trying to figure out if they will run a 4-out offense. 

If Thompson ends up as a third big man instead of a starter, that's a pretty dramatic pay decrease. Just two examples - Amir Johnson is on a 5-year $34 million deal while Trevor Booker just signed a 2-year, $10 million deal with the Utah Jazz. You would think Cleveland will take care of him, if only to keep Rich Paul happy, but they will need to manage their cap pretty carefully given how much money they have committed to their new Big Three, especially if they end up needing a rim protector. What might make sense is a deal similar to the 2-year $24 million deal Kris Humphries got with the Brooklyn Nets, which would create a salary slot the Cavs could use in a potential trade without committing them to another big long-term deal.

That's probably the biggest thing Thompson has going for him at this point. The Cavs don't have a lot of other ways to add talent to their roster given how close they will be to the cap over the next few years, so they need another salary slot they can send back in a trade. Either way, though, it's hard to see a scenario where Thompson becomes a coveted piece after his playing time and opportunities are dramatically decreased in Cleveland. Instead of riding a full season with LeBron to pad his statistics, he's going to have to scratch and claw for everything. Let's hope his much publicized decision to switch shooting hands pays off because he's going to need it.

Minnesota's New Direction

At RealGM, a look at why the post Kevin Love shouldn't be as bad as the post KG one.

Friday, August 8, 2014

LaVine and Wiggins

The Minnesota Timberwolves got about as much for Kevin Love as a team could reasonably expect in the situation - the No. 1 overall pick in the draft (Andrew Wiggins), a two-way starter at Love's position (Thad Young) and a future No. 1. However, with no guarantee that Young sticks around in Minnesota or that a late first round pick becomes anything useful, it looks like their return on Love will depend in large part on what becomes of Wiggins.

But while Wiggins becomes the franchise player in waiting in Minnesota, he's probably not going to be a starter from Day 1, as they have a solid pair of vets - Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer - entrenched at the wings. And while he's a very exciting prospect, I'm not sure he has that much more potential than their original first-round pick in this year's draft - Zach LaVine.

Going into the draft, I had LaVine rated higher than Wiggins because, of the two, he's a better ball-handler, passer and shooter and he's just as good an athlete. That may seem crazy when you look at their production in college, where LaVine was a 7th man at UCLA while Wiggins was an All Big 12 performer at Kansas, but so much of what a freshman can do depends on the role they have on their team.

UCLA didn't get a ton of publicity this season, but they had a preposterous amount of talent. They returned two first-round picks on the perimeter - Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson - and another upperclassman (Norman Powell) who has a chance to be drafted next season. Kansas, on the other hand, was replacing their entire starting line-up from the year before, giving Wiggins plenty of opportunities to dominate the ball and show what he could do.

My judgment on how the two compared with each other was based mainly off the eye test, and the few games where LaVine was given the chance to dominate the ball at UCLA, but there were a few nuggets in the statistics that hint at what I'm talking about. They had the exact same FG% (44%), while LaVine was the better three-point shooter (37% to 34%) and had the better assist-to-turnover ratio (1.8-1.1 as opposed to 1.5-2.3). Assist-to-turnover ratio is the gold standard to me - that tells you what type of decisions a guy makes with the ball in his hands and LaVine had more assists than Wiggins despite far fewer opportunities.

When they were placed in roughly similar situations in Vegas, given the chance to dominate the ball on haphazard summer league teams, LaVine put up slightly better numbers. He averaged more points (15.7 to 15.5), more rebounds (4.2 to 3.8) and more assists (2.8 to 0.3) on almost identical FG% (39.7 to 40.5). The assists are the telling numbers to me - LaVine is just much more comfortable making plays with the ball and he has a better feel for the game at this stage in their careers. Wiggins had the edge in blocks and steals, which you would expect given his advantage in size and length, but the difference between the two players isn't as big as you would expect given their reputations.

Of course, now that they are on the same team, it doesn't really matter whose the better of the two in a vacuum. If anything, they should complement each other extremely well on the second team. At the start of their careers, I expect Saunders will use them a lot in tandem, coming in together and changing up the dynamic of the game with their otherworldly athletic ability. The Wolves bench will be trying to go up and down as much as possible, especially with Nik Pekovic out of the game.

Since LaVine is weaker on the defensive end and Wiggins is weaker on the offensive end, they can both look out for each other. LaVine can spread the floor and create easy shots for Wiggins while Wiggins can take the tougher of the two defensive assignments on the wings. In a few years time, they should eventually move into the starting line-up together where they will form the most exciting wing combination in the NBA. Wiggins should be a great player in the NBA, but I wouldn't be surprised if he becomes part of LaVine's supporting cast down the road.

Friday, August 1, 2014

DeMarcus Cousins and Team USA

On one level, you can see the argument for taking Mason Plumlee over Demarcus Cousins for the US team. Coach K has always preferred to play super small in international tournaments - Lamar Odom got most of the minutes at C in 2010 and LeBron James was the biggest player on the floor for big chunks in 2012. With Anthony Davis entrenched at the starting 5 position, K is going to play a lot of small-ball behind him and he's probably never going to play two big men together, even against Spain.

For the most part, the backup C on Team USA is going to be a spare part, enclosed in a glass case and broken only in case of emergency. Plumlee is hardly ever going to see the floor in Madrid while his ability to move his feet in space and roll to the basket in the two-man game is a better fit for the style of play that Coach K wants.

On another level, though, c'mon. Plumlee and Cousins play the same position and there is no argument as to who is the better player. Cousins is a fourth-year player who averaged 23 points, 12 rebounds and 3 assists on 52% shooting last season - Plumlee is a rookie who averaged 7 points and 4 rebounds a game. If you were sitting in Cousins shoes, it would be hard not to take the decision as a slap in the face.

It's certainly not like Cousins couldn't fit with the rest of Team USA. At the very least, he deserves a chance - if they end up playing Spain in the gold medal game, he's much more capable of matching up with the Gasol brothers. He's a really good basketball player and he's easily one of the 12 best players in Las Vegas. Isn't that what it should ultimately be about?

That's been the theme throughout his career. He's always been the biggest player on the court and he's always attracted an outsized share of the attention and blame for everything that's going on, often for things that are not his fault.

John Wall got all the publicity, but DMC was the best player at Kentucky. He was much more efficient (56% to 46%) on offense - he was the guy other teams came into the game worrying about stopping. Everyone wanted to talk about the blow-ups between him and Coach Cal, but that wasn't why they lost in the Elite Eight. West Virginia sat in a 1-3-1 zone to neutralize Cousins and dare Wall, Bledsoe and the rest to beat them from the 3-point line and they couldn't do it. But guess who got the blame and fell all the way to No. 5 in the draft.

He's been one of the most productive big men in the league since he came to Sacramento, but somehow it's his fault they've been stuck in the lottery for the last four seasons. Yes, Cousins needs to improve on defense, but not many big-time scorers come into the NBA with defensive chops. Not even LeBron did. It's a lot to ask of a young player to be a team's best offensive and defensive player and single-handedly carry a franchise like the Kings.

They didn't even really have an owner in his first three seasons in the league. Take a look at the rosters they've put around him - it's laughable. The best player he played with in that span was Tyreke Evans and he's now a sixth man on an average New Orleans team. The best player he played with last season was Isaiah Thomas and he's now a sixth man in Phoenix. Guys aren't leaving Sacramento and snatching up starting spots on good teams - they are moving to the bench. Rudy Gay is their second best player now and the list of NBA teams wiling to pay him $18 million a season to dominate the ball goes about one deep.

With all the incompetence around him, it's a minor miracle that Cousins has been able to put up All-Star caliber numbers in Sacramento. Should he have made the All-Star team last year? You can make the argument either way, but when Anthony Davis ends up making the team in his second season, after paying less dues than Cousins on a team that wasn't much closer to making the playoffs, you can see why he would be a little upset.

From his POV, he's getting robbed of draft positions, All-Star berths and spots on Team USA not because of anything he's done on the court, but because of some petty personal BS. It's open season on DMC in the NBA world and everyone and their mama feels free to take as many shots at him as they want, even though he's performed about as well as could reasonably be expected at this point in his career. Of course he has a chip on his shoulders - if you were in his shoes, how could you not?

It's hard to call a guy paranoid when people really are out to get him.