Friday, October 31, 2014

Westbrook Unleashed

At RealGM, a post about Russell Westbrook that is no longer particularly relevant. Oh well.

The David Lee Problem

Over at TrueHoop, Ethan Strauss makes the case for the Warriors chances of winning it all.

Long story short, they play really good defense, they play really good offense, Klay Thompson looks ready to take the next step and their depth (and their rotations) should be much improved from last season. There's a lot to like about the Warriors, but I still have one concern about the chances of them winning 3 seven-game series in the West - the individual defense at the PF position i.e. David Lee.

Since the turn of the millenium, the Western Conference has been the land of the great PF's. Tim Duncan is a C, Chris Webber is on TNT and Pau Gasol and Kevin Garnett are in the East, but you can still make the case that PF in the West is the deepest position in the league - Dirk Nowitzki, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Zach Randolph, Anthony Davis. To make it to the NBA Finals, a team might have to go through 2-3 of those guys and I'm not sure David Lee is up to it.

Over the course of the regular season, individual match-ups tend to even out. You play 29 teams over 82 games crammed into 6 months, with many stretches of 4 in 5 nights. As a result, teams can only afford to adjust their game plans so much - for the most part, they have to run the same stuff they run every night and look to involve everyone in the offense. That changes in the playoffs, when you can attack a mismatch to your heart's desire.

The perfect example of that is the first-round series between the Rockets and the Blazers, when LaMarcus Aldridge went for 46 and 43 points in the first two games. Terrence Jones was too short to guard him and too inexperienced to deal with the playoff pressure cooker and LMA spent two games telling him hand down, man down and raining jumpers on his head. Portland could slow the pace of the game and throw into LMA every single time and get a very, very high percentage shot.

Houston eventually made an adjustment, starting Omer Asik and Dwight Howard together, but there's a reason they abandoned their two 7'0 line-up in the regular season, as Asik wasn't nearly the offensive player that Jones was. In theory, they could have slid Howard over to LMA, but that would have taken their rim protector 20+ feet from the basket. If you do something like that, the other three perimeter defenders better be able to lock down their man, which wasn't exactly the situation the Rockets were dealing with.

Who knows who the playoff seedings will work out in the West, but Portland-GSW is definitely a conceivable first-round match-up. In that scenario, how does Lee have even a prayer of guarding LMA? Nor do they have many other options - go small with Draymond Green and Harry Barnes? Can't work against an elite 6'11+ shooter like LMA. Slide Bogut onto him? The 7'0 Australian isn't as comfortable moving his feet so far from the basket and it takes him out of rebounding position and opens up the rim.

To be sure, there are a number of match-up problems that the Warriors present the Blazers and Golden State looks to be a more balanced team than Houston was last year, but defense at the PF position is an Achilles heel for them that could rear its head in the playoffs.

If you look at the success the Warriors have had in the last two post-seasons, it has come from moving Lee off of PF.

- In 2013, Lee got injured in the first game of their opening round series against the Nuggets. Golden State went small with Harry Barnes at the 4, spreading out the floor with only one big man in the paint and beating Denver at their own game. That worked because Kenneth Faried had injured his ankle and he wasn't really capable of beating smaller players in the post.

- In 2014, Bogut was hurt before the playoffs even started. After trying several different line-ups, they eventually hit paydirt in Game 4 when they started Draymond Green at PF and slid Lee down to C. That strategic move coincided with TMZ's Donald Sterling bombshell, so it didn't get a ton of press, but it swung the momentum of the series and almost allowed the Dubs to get *this close* to pulling off the major upset. With Lee no longer on him, Griffin's stats went from astronomical (35 on 13-17 in Game 2, 32 on 15-25 in Game 3) to at least reasonable.

In essence, Golden State found their most success going small and changing the match-ups as opposed to playing a conventional two big man line-up. A lot of people (me included) have said they should think about doing that more often, but the problem with that strategy is that it is an underdog move that concedes a huge size advantage from the jump. My guess is Golden State has decided they have to play two big men together to survive the Western gauntlet.

If you look at the two teams who have dominated the West over the last three seasons - San Antonio and OKC - I don't think it's a coincidence that they both have a stopper at the PF position - Tiago Splitter and Serge Ibaka. Tiago and Serge are both near 7'0 with the strength to hold ground in the post, the quickness to move their feet on the perimeter and the length to contest shots. It's not to say that they shut down the great PF's out West (no one does), but they do make them work for their points and that's a crucial distinction.

Four years ago, San Antonio was famously upset in the first-round by Memphis because they didn't have anyone who could match-up with Z-Bo - they were throwing guys like Dejuan Blair and Matt Bonner on him. That's what people mean when they say you have to throw out regular season records and look at the match-ups - a mismatch that bad can completely tilt the playing field. The Spurs re-emergence since then has coincided with Splitter taking on a bigger role in their defense.

You saw a great example of that in the second round of the playoffs last year, when San Antonio took on Portland. All of a sudden, with Splitter on him instead of Jones and Asik, LMA had only one game above 21 points. The Blazers could no longer count on completely scrambling the other team's defense and they bowed out anti-anticlimactically in a gentleman's sweep.

Take a look at the Spurs playoff opponents out West in the last three years:

2012 - Utah (Millsap), Clips (Blake), OKC
2013 - Lakers (Pau), Golden State, Memphis (Z-Bo)
2014 - Dallas (Dirk), Portland (LMA), OKC

Here's what OKC had to go up against:

2012 - Dallas (Dirk), Lakers (Pau), SA
2013 - Houston, Memphis (Z-Bo)
2014 - Memphis (Z-Bo), Clips (Blake), SA

Long story short, if you are going to win the West, you are going to have go through one All-NBA caliber PF, probably two. Interestingly enough, Golden State matches up with OKC and SA a lot better than they do with many of the teams in the chase pack, since they can go small against Splitter and Serge with relative impunity, though Boris Diaw did start putting in work on them in the second round in 2013.

A path might open up where they don't have to deal with a great PF or they have enough of an advantage at the other positions so that it doesn't matter, but it might not either. Here's one conceivable set of match-ups they could have - Anthony Davis and New Orleans in the first round, Dirk and Dallas in the second, Blake and the Clippers in the WCF. Do I think David Lee can survive that type of gauntlet without taking down his team? No.

Here is a very reductive and far too simple way to look at things, but I think it does have some value as a thought exercise:

Imagine a team as having 10 possible slots in a line-up - offense at PG, SG, SF, PF and C and defense at all five positions. The Warriors, as it stands, can put a + in eight boxes, with the only weaknesses coming from the individual defense of Steph Curry and David Lee. They are a really good team and I think Curry, Thompson, Iguodala and Bogut can all be starters on an NBA champion, but I am dubious about Lee.

If you don't have a transcendent superstar like KD or LeBron, you better be a solid team without any weak links on either side of the ball, i.e. the Spurs - San Antonio could put multiple 10/10 line-ups on the floor. Golden State might be able to get away with 9/10, but 8/10 is pushing it, especially when one of those weak spots is individual defense at PF. That's not an Achilles heel you want to have in the Western Conference.

You saw this line of thinking pop up in many of the discussions surrounding a possible Klay Thompson for Kevin Love trade this summer. Here's Tim Kawakami:
As USA Today's Sam Amick has pointed out, the Warriors are very worried that Love's defense is no better - or might be worse - than Lee's D.
And if the Warriors take Thompson out of their perimeter defense, then they are exposing Curry more than they ever want to ... with no guarantee of ever getting another 2-guard who can shoot like Thompson AND defend the opponents' toughest perimeter players.
A team that could have as many three holes on defense is going to have a lot of trouble getting stops when it really matters. So while everyone was talking about Love, there's another All-Star PF whose quietly been put on the trade market who would solve a lot of Golden State's issues.

Zach Lowe had a note earlier in the pre-season about Al Horford being shopped, especially if the Hawks make an ownership change and decide to begin a full rebuild. When executive around the league saw that, I imagine a thought bubble popping up in a lot of heads - Horford is a guy who can potentially swing the balance of power for the right team.

Horford plays as a 5 in Atlanta, but he's a prototype 4 in the modern NBA. He can do it all - on offense, he can score with his back to the basket, he can space the floor and he can facilitate offense out of the high post. On defense, he can protect the rim, defend the pick-and-roll and match-up with the best PF's in the post. In 27 games with Atlanta last season, he averaged 18.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.5 blocks on 57% (!!) shooting. He can seamlessly step into Lee's role on offense and dramatically improve the defense. This goes back into my thing about two-way players from a few weeks ago - Horford has 80% of Love's offense and 200% of his defense.

I don't really know if the Warriors have the pieces to make a deal for Horford and I'm not sure how he would affect their finances, but that's the type of go for broke move that could push them over the top in the West.

You don't see as many mid-season trades in basketball as you do in baseball, but every once in awhile, you see a team in Golden State's position roll the dice and make a run for it - I'm thinking of Detroit in 2004, when they acquired Rasheed Wallace. Without Sheed, they don't win it all. They needed a 4 man who could play defense and stretch the floor and I don't think it's a coincidence that there are players with that skill-set on a lot of championship teams. Golden State might could win it all with David Lee, but I would feel a lot more comfortable picking them if they had Al Horford in his place.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Knicks and Lakers

While you don't want to take too much away from the first two nights of the NBA season - small sample size and what not - there are two take-aways I feel fairly comfortable making: the Knicks and the Lakers are really bad basketball teams. There weren't too many expectations surrounding either team, but there was a general presumption of competence that I'm not sure was warranted given the players they had on their rosters.

Here's what I mean by that - the Lakers were +12.5 underdogs to the Suns last night and they lost by 30. The Knicks were +4.5 underdogs to the Bulls and they lost by 24. The over/under for season wins was 31.5 for LA and 40.5 for NY. They wouldn't be all over national TV this season if they weren't in big markets, but I don't think the networks would have scheduled them that much if they thought they would be two of the worst teams in the league.

My guess is they were looking at it like the Lakers still have Kobe and the Knicks still have Melo, so even if they aren't elite teams, they should be able to scratch out enough wins to where they can put a presentable product on TV. The problem with that type of thinking is that it has the game exactly backwards - having one of the best scorers in the NBA doesn't mean anything if you don't have two-way big men to support him.

It goes back into what I was saying about Marc Gasol and Joakim Noah last week. The big men are like the offensive and defensive line and the scorers are the QB's - everybody wants to focus on the guy who with the ball in his hands when he's totally dependent on the guys in front of him to succeed. As great as Melo and Kobe are, and they are great, a good team doesn't necessarily need a guy who can hoist up a bunch of shots efficiently.

Let's start with the Knicks, since they should at least be somewhat competitive this season. They started Amare Stoudemire and Sam Dalembert upfront last night, which is pretty much a cry for help. The Bulls big men did whatever they wanted - Noah is still a little hobbled, but Pau went for 21 points on 7-11 shooting and Taj went for 22 points on 10-12 shooting. They bullied the Knicks, out-rebounding them 47-38.

If you can't stop other teams from scoring around the rim, it's essentially impossible to play defense. What makes it worse is they were starting three sieves - Melo, Amare and Suga Shane Larkin - who aren't known for keeping their man in front of them. It's the same story coming off the bench, where JR Smith, Tim Hardaway Jr and Pablo Prigioni get major minutes. And they still have to add Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargani to the mix!

If the Knicks are going to win games this season, it's going to come on the offensive side of the floor. The problem with that is they are trying to set up a very complicated offense that is not intuitive for most NBA players, so there will be a huge learning curve even in a best-case scenario. Even worse, the Triangle is designed to feature big men who can score, a problem when you have Sammy D and Cole Aldrich as your top two C's.

You know what New York could really use? A two-way C who could anchor their defense and not take anything away from them on offense because a guy like that would make them a much better team on both sides of the ball. In other words, they need Tyson Chandler. The Knicks focused too much on what he couldn't do and not enough on what he could and gave up one of the most valuable players in the NBA for peanuts.

Did we learn nothing from Linsanity? It's easy as fuck for an NBA team to find some asshole to dominate the ball - you can literally find guys like that under a couch cushion. Lin wasn't as good as Melo, but he could function as the hub of the offense if he could play with a P/R partner like Chandler who had his back on D. Without Chandler, Melo is jacking up a bunch of shots and wondering what just happened.

I can see the argument for why you don't want to commit $15 million a season for a declining 32-year old C with a long history of injuries, but make no mistake about it, when you give up an asset as valuable as a two-way C for nothing*, you are committing to a long and painful rebuilding process. The Knicks made the same mistake the Mavs made three years ago - the difference is they are digging out of a much deeper hole.

* Nothing is a little strong, but man the Mavs fleeced the hell out of the Knicks in that trade. I wrote up a scouting report on the pieces they gave away - all those guys are worse than their reps. Sammy D doesn't even have a rep anymore which tells you how bad he is, Larkin is a sub-6'0 guard (who isn't Isaiah Thomas) which is the definition of a fungible asset and Calderon doesn't play D and can't take his man off the dribble anymore. They just better hope Cleanthony Early can play.

When Dallas let Chandler walk in 2011, they did it under the idea that they would open up cap space to lure a premier free agent. The problem with that strategy is that premier FA's don't like signing with teams who aren't contenders and it's really hard to remain a contender when you give away a guy like Chandler. Dirk Nowitzki and Rick Carlisle had to conjure up miracles just keep them afloat and they aren't walking through that door in NY.

The Knicks were operating from a much lower base-line, so when they gave away Chandler they went from low playoff seed to the lottery. Here's the problem - once you start losing a bunch of games, the mood around the team gets really bad and it's hard to lure big-time FA's. Marc Gasol would fix a lot of their problems, but would he really want to sign with a 25-30 win team? Ask the Lakers how that pitch goes.

To be sure, the problems in LA go much deeper than in NY. They are playing in the Western Conference, their franchise player is 36 and coming off major surgery and they have given away a lot of their future draft picks. There is a common theme running through both teams though - they thought they had to build around a superstar wing rather than focusing on the players that actually win and lose basketball games.

The funniest thing about the Kobe/Dwight dynamic is Kobe acting like Dwight needed him when it was really the reverse. As soon as Dwight left the Lakers, they were done. A two-way C who can get 20/10 and anchor a D can go anywhere and be relevant. When you lose a guy like that for nothing, turn off the lights because the party is over. The stuff Kobe and Byron Scott were saying was essentially "I didn't want her anyway".

If they still had Dwight, they would still be a respectable outfit. Without him, they have no interior presence and no one who can protect the rim. When you start guys like Kobe and Lin, that's a big problem. The Suns must have had 3-4 dunks in the first few minutes of the game last night - there was nothing the Lakers could do to stop them beyond praying. It was hard to watch that not think these guys are going to win 15 games.

Kobe had a really good game - 31 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists on 11-25 shooting - and it didn't matter because there's nothing a one-way wing player can do to make his teammates better. It's the same with Melo, these guys can put up huge stats on a winning team or huge stats on a losing team, it doesn't matter. Whether or not their teams are going to be good depends on the type of players around them - they don't raise people's games.
Kobe is going to spend two years in purgatory before his time in the NBA is done. The basketball gods must humble him and show him the errors of his ways before they allow him to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame! It's like the old saying about how everyone gets the face they deserve at 40. There's some justice in a world where Tim Duncan eases into retirement while Kobe has to face the NBA all alone with no help from anyone. It's what he wanted.

It would help if they were both more willing passers, but it still wouldn't make a huge difference. At this stage in their careers, they just don't bring as much value to the court as guys like Dwight and Chander, who make their teammates better on both sides of the ball. It's not that they aren't superstars, it's that the media has been lying to you for a long time - superstars without big men are QB's without offensive linemen.

The Lakers start Carlos Boozer and Jordan Hill, which might be the only frontcourt in the NBA more depressing than the Knicks. I'm not sure how long it's going to take Byron Scott to figure out that he needs to be playing Ed Davis 35+ minutes a night, but that's a move that needed to happen yesterday. With Julius Randle gone, Davis is pretty much the only bright spot on the Lakers roster, though I do like Jordan Clarkson's potential.

I'm looking at this roster right now and thinking that every team in the NBA should feel pretty confident against them, even the 76ers! How exactly do the Lakers plan on guarding MCW and Tony Wroten? Philly can at least push the tempo and use their youth to their advantage to catch a team sleeping on the second night of a back-to-back. LA has a bunch of old guys who don't play D hoisting a bunch of inefficient shots.

 photo george-bush-miss-me-yet_zpsb642017c.jpg

Someone needs to photoshop Mike D'Antoni's face onto this picture.

MDA was at least smart enough to realize that last year's team was so sorry that the only way to win was a high variance strategy of spreading the floor and bombing away from 3. The way he got railroaded out of town by the Lakers was downright shameful - you could make the case that getting to 27 wins with last year's squad was one of the best coaching jobs of his career. He must be laughing his ass off right now.

Everyone was talking about how Byron Scott would "emphasize defense" more but what's the difference when you are starting Boozer, Kobe and Lin? Is there a good defensive player on the Lakers roster? Maybe Wesley Johnson and Xavier Henry, maybe. LA can get lit up from every position on the floor - whoever the best scorer on the other team is, he's going to have a big night against the Lakers.

Just go up and down the Western Conference. Forget the playoff teams b/c that's a given they are going to stomp out the Lakers. The Kings? DMC is going to drop 30/15 on them like it's nothing. The Wolves? Martin, Pek and Young can take turn getting buckets. The Jazz? Hayward, Burke, Burks, their young big men - they will be fighting to get FGA's against the Lakers. Let's pencil them in for an over/under of 5 conference wins.

For the time being, when I see LA and NY play the vast majority of teams in the NBA, they better have a spread in the double digits. Otherwise, as Jet Terry used to say in Dallas, it's winning time.* My guess is it won't last too long - the Lakers next three games are vs. Clippers, at Warriors (b2b) and vs. Suns. By the middle of next week, they should be looking at +15 to +20 point spreads on a nightly basis. They are BAD.

* I need to write something about the Jet because he is one of the funniest players in the recent history of the NBA. He has the game of Jeff Hornacek and the swag of Russell Westbrook. 

The question I have for both the Knicks and the Lakers is how they are going to attract free agents? There are going to be plenty of teams with cap space who can offer a better chance of winning. Maybe the market is enough, but doesn't that dynamic change a bit when you are in your 30's? If you got kids and a family, it don't matter where you sign because you aren't going to be hitting the clubs like when you were in your 20's.

Let's put it this way - do I think it's a coincidence the Heatles were all in their mid 20's when they signed in Miami? No. Four years later, things had changed for LeBron. Read the thing he wrote in SI - he wanted his kids to grow up where he grew up. That's the kind of thing you are thinking about when you are in your 30's and LA and NYC aren't great places to raise a family. Melo is different b/c his wife is in show business. We'll see.

To be sure, it's not the end of the world if they can't lure the best of the best - there are a lot of different ways to leverage cap space, as the Mavs have shown over the last 3 seasons. However, that requires very creative management and that isn't something either the Lakers or Knicks have shown they have. It could be a long slog for both these teams - they might need to start from ground zero and start building through the draft.

Here's the key - when they are in the top of the lottery, they better not be thinking oh I need to find the next Kobe or the next Melo. They better be trying to find some two-way big men to build around. They better be thinking Karl Towns and Jahlil Okafor. I got nothing but love for a Dallas kid like Emmanuel Mudiay (I see you out in China getting money, can't be mad at that), but you win games in the NBA by having a good frontcourt. The Knicks and Lakers are proof of that.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

It's All About Playing Time

Writing about Taj Gibson and Kendrick Perkins in the last few days has made me think a lot of about career paths in the NBA. The two are 29-year olds in the same place - reserve big men on one of the top teams in the NBA - but they took dramatically different ways to get there. Perkins is a guy whose been a starter for a long time and has to adjust to coming off the bench while Gibson is a bench guy whose been pushing for a starting job for years.

My guess is neither is totally content with their current status. When you are a basketball player, the goal is to play as many minutes as you can. That's a point a lot of people miss when they talk about what guys should do. It would be nice to do that on an elite team, but you would rather be somewhere where you have a chance to play 30+ minutes a night. Older players will take fewer minutes to save their legs, but guys in their prime want to play.

In that sense, it's no different than a guy in his late 20's who plays rec-league basketball. You got this finely-tuned body, you want to let it loose. You want to get up and down the floor, run around as much as you can, fly around the court and break a sweat. You want to get a good work-out and only come out of the game because you are too tired not to. This can't be emphasized enough - it's a lot more fun to play basketball than to watch from the bench.

Perkins gets a lot of flack for the death grip he had on the starting C job in OKC, but you can't expect him to go to his coach and say someone else should take his spot. That's on the coach - a player is going to play regardless. Even if you aren't very good relative to your NBA peers, a guy whose made it to the league has an ego and he's going to believe that he is helping his team, even if what he does "doesn't show up in the box score". 

With a guy like Gibson, people will say that it's better to close games than to start them. That's a bit of a false choice, though - in an ideal world, you would be a starter who also closes most games. A guy like that is going to play a ton of minutes. And if a team trusts him to play a lot of minutes, he's going to get a lot of stats. And if he puts up enough stats and his team wins enough games, he will get a long-term deal that sets him up for life.

You don't want to go to a situation like the 76ers, but other than that, you want to be on a team that's going to let you stay on the floor. A starter on a good team has more job security than a starter on a bad one, but a starter on a bad one (column A) still gets a lot more opportunities than a reserve on a good team (column B). If a guy does poorly in column A, he goes to column B. If a guy does well in column B, he goes to column A. 

This sounds obvious, but it's worth pointing out - if you don't get a lot of minutes, you aren't going to stay in the league for a very long time and you aren't going to make a lot of money. An NBA team can sign anyone to sit on the end of their bench and they shuffle through those guys pretty quickly. If you can't ever get into the rotation, you aren't going to stick around for very long. The average NBA career is only 4.5 seasons long.

Once you prove that you belong in the NBA, the next step is finding a place where you can really showcase your game. You don't want to stay in a place that can't give you the opportunity to play a lot of minutes. That's what happened with Omer Asik in Houston - he was like, no, I'm way too good to be playing 15 minutes a night. I can start for most of the teams in the NBA, so let me go somewhere where I can help.

When you are evaluating players, those are really the levels you need to look at. Can this guy be an NBA starter and can he be a starter on a good team? If you put enough of the latter on a team, you are going to have a really good team. There just aren't many guys who can hack it at that level. Houston's assembly-line style of assembling teams isn't that big an exception - if you aren't helping a team, you will eventually lose your spot.

Once you find that niche as a starter on a good team, there's not a ton of reasons to go anywhere. Kyle Lowry is a good example of that - he established himself as a foundation piece on a good young Toronto team, so it's no surprise he signed with them rather than chase rings for less money in Miami. He's 28, he's trying to make it or not on his own, not play off of other guys and sacrifice his stats for a few more playoff games.

The key is that starting role. Even if you aren't getting a ton of touches, as long as you play enough minutes, you will run into some stats. When you are coming off the bench, though, the grass is always greener somewhere else. That's what happened to Eric Bledsoe and that's what I think will happen to Reggie Jackson. A young guy wants to prove what he can do - not get put in a box because of the role you have on the team that drafted you.

Unless you are a guy like LeBron or KD, going after championships is icing on the cake stuff. It would be great to win a ring, but the NBA is a business and basketball is a career with a really short shelf-life. You have to max out what you can earn in the short amount of time you have to earn it. Even if you play 18 seasons like Steve Nash, you are still retiring at 40 with a lot of life ahead of you and no more NBA checks coming.

As long as a guy can stay as a starter on a good team, they might as well stick around in the league. It's only when you have to start coming off the bench and scrap for playing time than it's like, maybe I've had enough. Just look at Kidd and Nash - even though they weren't stars towards the end of their careers, they were still playing big roles on decent teams. That's a pretty great life for a guy in his late 30's, so why not keep making money?

In theory, the money they make in the NBA should be enough to that it doesn't really matter when they are making career decisions. The numbers tell a different story, though - 60% of NBA players are broke within five years of retirement, so you better make as much money as you can. You never know what can happen. Talking about that championship you won isn't going to put a roof over your kids heads when you are 50, much less if you have a bunch of baby moms.

Because we talk so much about the Hall of Fame, it kind of skews the perception of what constitutes a successful NBA career. It's not about your legacy, it's about how many years you played in the league, how many seasons you were a starter and how much money you made. If you are in the league long enough, you develop relationships with a lot of people in different areas of the basketball industry. Those relationships are what count.

What I mean by that is - how much validation should retired players look for from people they will never know? Once you got to know someone personally, you would judge them like anyone else, not on the minutiae of what they did and didn't do in a previous career long before you met them.  Jalen Rose is an example of a guy who never won a title and won't be in the HOF, but why would he be disappointed about his career?

When you look at guys who slip out of the league in a given season and try to evaluate their careers, that's the stuff that really matters. Whether or not they made a huge impression on the national audience isn't a huge deal. Playing 15+ seasons in the NBA says it all about how good a basketball player a guy was. Everything else is stuff you hang in a spare bedroom that your kids won't really be all that impressed by.

With all that in mind, here's a look at a few long-time vets who aren't in the NBA at the start of the season and who may end up retiring. Those 3 categories don't tell you everything, but they do tell you a lot about what these guys were about:

Years Played
Years Started
Money Earned
Antawn Jamison
$142 million
Jermaine O’Neal
$169 million
Rashard Lewis
$155 million
Metta World Peace
$74 million
Stephen Jackson
$68 million
Al Harrington
$87 million

Side note - those Pacers teams in the mid 00's were absolutely stacked. They were the most talented team in the league for at least 1-2 seasons. You know that because they had a bunch of guys who played in the NBA for 10+ seasons. You can't really front like any of the guys on that list weren't really nice basketball players. They proved that in their NBA careers. A guy who made that much money playing professional basketball? He must have been pretty good.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

LeBron at 30

At RealGM, a look at the best player in the world as he begins the next stage of his career.

Kendrick Perkins and Sacrifice

“When I was in Boston, I played with a few Hall of Famers, but they was toward the end of they career. And so they didn’t have a problem with sacrificing. Well, now you got guys like KD and Russ who are in their primes. You got Serge who’s trying to make a name for himself as far as trying to make an All-Star game. So it’s kind of hard to ask them to sacrifice, especially before the All-Star break. But the thing is is that if we want to get to where we’re trying to go, and you watched San Antonio who won it all this year, they sacrificed from the beginning to the end.” - Kendrick Perkins

When OKC traded for Kendrick Perkins a few years ago, one of the big selling points was his veteran leadership, championship experience and the way he could help out in the locker room. Of course, one of the other ones was that Perkins could anchor the defense and give them solid two-way play at the center position. That ship has long since sailed, but Perkins is still around to tell everyone they need to sacrifice to win a ring.

Perkins model of sacrifice closely resembles what he saw in Boston - guys taking fewer shots, moving the ball and playing without an ego. However, that's not the only type of sacrifice a guy can make. The ironic thing about the last few seasons in OKC is that the two guys who preached sacrifice the most - Perkins and Derek Fisher - are also the two guys who were never asked to sacrifice anything for the good of the team.

Just because Perk doesn't have any plays run for him on offense and doesn't take a lot of shots doesn't mean he is actually making a sacrifice. When a C is averaging 3 points a game on 45% shooting, there's not much reason to get him the ball more often. It's not a sacrifice when you aren't allowed to do something that you aren't good at. Perk has been a historically bad offensive player for years, yet his spot has never been in jeopardy before this season.

While Scott Brooks has yet to announce who will be their starting C, all signs point to Perk finally losing his iron grip on a starting job. Kevin Durant's injury means the Thunder desperately need more offense from their starting unit and Steven Adams has really stepped up in the pre-season with Perk sitting out, looking right at home with the other starters. There really isn't a debate as to who is the better offensive player of the two.

Adams may not be the low-post defender that Perkins is, but asides from a few match-ups with Houston and Memphis, that isn't a huge deal in the modern NBA. When a team is spreading the floor and playing small-ball, i.e. Miami in the 2012 Finals, Perk is pretty much useless. If he sacrificed some playing time, it would do OKC a lot of good. There are a lot of games on the schedule where Perk would be most valuable as a DNP-CD.

Even when KD returns, there still won't be many situations where they need to use Perk. When Adams isn't in the game, OKC would probably be better off going small. I would love to see more of a Ibaka-KD-PJ3 front-court - that's three elite 6'11+ athletes with long arms who spread the floor. The biggest complaint about Brooks is his lack of line-up creativity and a lot of that has to do with the 280 pound anchor in the middle of them.

The problem is that everyone in OKC seems to walk on eggshells around Perk in terms of his role with the team. Over the last few seasons, Brooks has acted like Perk is a delicate wall-flower whose confidence will be crushed if he is removed from the starting line-up, doing a lot of juggling to make sure that he feels like a vital part of the team. It's understandable that he wants to play as much as possible, but let's not pretend that it's for the good of the team.

It can wear a little thin for guys like James Harden and Reggie Jackson to hear Perk and Fish talk about sacrifice. Practice what you preach! If you aren't being productive, tell the coach you would be willing to take a smaller role. And let's be real, there were a lot of situations over the last few seasons when those two were not productive. If you look at the last few postseasons, it appears there was literally nothing they could do to lose minutes.

I've been talking about Fish shooting 32% from the floor in last year's playoffs for awhile, but that was still better than the mark Perk set two years ago. OKC's starting C shot 28% from the field in the 2013 playoffs and everyone acted like it was all good cuz that's not Perk's role on the team! If you are that bad on offense, you had better be playing Dwight Howard/Dikembe Mutombo level D to make up for it and even then, it would be close.

I'm not sure I've ever seen a center shoot that low from the field. It's not like the guy is throwing up a bunch of difficult shots. He's literally standing next to the basket most of the game. If you took a guy off the street and threw him in an NBA game, that's what his percentage would look like. That's probably an overstatement, but I'm pretty confident that every C in the D-League would comfortably shoot a much higher percentage if they were in OKC's line-up.

In a situation like that, a guy could swallow his pride and admit to the coach and himself that he isn't helping the team. That's not an easy thing to do, obviously, but making ACTUAL sacrifices never are. That's why it's called a "sacrifice" - if it was easy, everyone would do it. If you are telling guys they need to take fewer shots for the good of the team while you refuse to play fewer minutes, there's a word for that and it isn't "leadership". Remove the log out of your own eye before you worry about the speck in your brothers.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Taj Gibson

“I have two guys that are deserving of being starters. I’m asking Taj to sacrifice not starting, and in some cases Carlos has to sacrifice not finishing. Sometimes you have to sacrifice what might be best for yourself for what’s best for the team. That’s what I love about Taj. Taj could be upset he’s not starting. He never complains. Whatever you ask him to do he just goes out there and does it. To me, what he does speaks volumes. He’s not talking about it. He’s going out there and doing it.’’ - Tom Thibodeau

Carlos Boozer was the concession prize for the Chicago Bulls in the summer of 2010, the only major free agent they could get to accept their money. He signed a five-year $80 million max contract with the idea that he would be the third member of their Big Three, providing a front-court scoring punch to complement Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. The only problem was the Bulls already had a young PF already on roster who was at least as good as Boozer.

Taj Gibson was an older rookie (24) on an average Pac-12 team (USC) who was drafted in the latter stages of the first round, so there weren't many expectations surrounding him when he came into the NBA. He started 70 games and only put up decent numbers - 9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks on 49% shooting - so it's not a real surprise the Bulls signed someone over him. But while Boozer had already peaked, Gibson was only getting better.

It's unclear exactly when Gibson passed Boozer as an all-around player, but since Gibson was a much, much better defensive player, it couldn't have taken too long, especially as Boozer's offense began to slip as he moved into his 30's. However, because Boozer was an established veteran who put up big numbers and had a huge pay-check, there was never much chance he was going to lose his starting job to a younger player with a much smaller contract.

Politics are politics, but a coach like Thibs is still going to play the best players. So while Boozer's minutes slowly declined over the last four seasons, Gibson's continued to creep upwards. Last season, Boozer was essentially the starter in name only, as Taj ended up playing more minutes then the guy he backed up - 28.7 to 28.2. As people always say in these types of discussions, it doesn't matter who starts the game but who finishes it.

That's obviously true, but it's a little more complicated than that. Check out what Taj had to say in May, when it became clear that Boozer was going to be amnestied later in the summer:
With about a week left of rehabbing his left ankle, which he injured in the Game 5 playoff loss to the Wizards last month, Gibson confirmed that he has been told “to get my body and mind right to be a starter.’’ “I mean, this will be exciting,’’ Gibson said in a phone interview. “This is what I’ve always thought about. When I started [six games] for Boozer when he was hurt during the season, I just know how excited I was, how good it felt to come to the arena.’’
As a player, you want to be in the game in the fourth quarter, but you also want to start too! Any NBA player worth his salt wants to play as many minutes as he possibly can, if no other reason than it's much more fun to play than to sit on the bench. As a rule, starters get more minutes, they get more touches and they get much bigger contracts. It's hard to be seen as one of the best players in the league at your position if you come off the bench.

Make no mistake about it - Taj Gibson is a really good basketball player. With Derrick Rose once again missing most of the year, there was room for Gibson to take on a much bigger role in the offense and he responded, averaging 13 points, 8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks a game on 48% shooting. Average it out over 36 minutes of playing time and Gibson would be in the All-Star discussion at 16.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks a game.

He's one of the best two-way PF's in the NBA and he's a perfect fit for the Bulls system. At 6'9 225 with a 7'4 wingspan, he has the size to defend the post, the quickness to move laterally and defend the pick-and-roll and the length to protect to rim. On offense, he can step out to 20 feet and knock down the mid-range J and he can score with his back to the basket and finish at the rim. He's definitely a good enough player to be a starter on an elite team.

He had a really compelling case for 6th Man of the Year last season, although score-first guards like Jamal Crawford usually end up winning the award. It's just hard for a reserve big man, no matter how important they are to their team, to have too big of a national profile. Gibson has been a good soldier for a long time, swallowing his pride for the good of the team and saying nothing while Boozer got more shots and more touches.

Over the last seasons, he put in the work and he paid his dues, patiently waiting for his chance to be the starter. Then, all of a sudden, the Bulls brought in a higher profile free agent at his position, an older player with a bigger reputation and a higher career scoring average (Pau Gasol) who expects to be starting and closing games. And since Gibson had apparently accepted being a backup, no one gave much thought to how he would feel about it.

From his POV, he has to look at the Pau signing and wonder whether he is ever going to get a fair shake in Chicago. To be sure, he's making good bank ($38 million over 4 seasons) and he has a big role on a team expected to contend for a championship, so it's hard too feel to bad for him. It's easy to say that guys have to sacrifice in order to win it all, but it's a much harder thing to accept when you are the one doing the sacrificing.

Taj isn't a spring chicken - he's turned 29 this summer. This is supposed to be the prime of his career. Some part of him has to wonder what type of numbers would he put up if he averaged 35+ minutes a game. It's not even about being selfish. Any good NBA player has an ego, so he has to think that he can help his team when he's on the floor. So in his mind, if he's playing fewer minutes, not only is it bad for him, it's bad for the team too.

After going up against Boozer everday in practice for the last four seasons, Taj has to look at him and be like I could be that guy, if I was given the same opportunities. Boozer has made two All-Star teams, he has won an Olympic Gold medal and he has made over $130 million in his NBA career. If Taj backs up Pau for the next few years, he's not even going to make half of that and he'll be fondly remembered as a solid player on a good team.

Whose to say that he's not a better player than Pau right now? He's much better on the defensive end and he's a better perimeter shooter at this point his career. If they play the Bulls in a seven-game series, neither Pau nor Noah has any chance of sticking Kevin Love around the three-point line. Taj will have to be the guy at PF, if only by default. He'll probably still finish games for Chicago - the question is whether that will still be enough.

As a player, there are few things more infuriating than backing up a guy you think you are better than. From a personal perspective, I was in and out of the starting line-up as a senior in HS and I sure didn't appreciate the guys who were ahead of me. I was sabotaging practices and going out of my way to attack them 1-on-1 and prove a point to the coach and when I was in the game, I was trying to get my numbers and I didn't really care.

Eventually, I had to have a talk with the coach and he explained that the role that made sense for me was coming off the bench, even though I was convinced I was better than the starter. It was very hard thing to accept. Gibson has had to accept that reality for the last four seasons and now they are bringing in some new guy to take his spot once again and they aren't even going to let him compete for the job? That's tough to swallow.

My guess is that he will, because he's a solid professional whose going to do his job and not make waves in the locker room. At the same time, it's a storyline to watch as the season progresses, especially for Pau. It could be hard for him to get fully comfortable in Chicago if Gibson carries his demotion the wrong way. And if Pau starts making noises about wanting to close games, you can damn sure bet Gibson will say something.

That doesn't even get into what happens if his minutes get cut so the Bulls can stretch out the floor with Nikola Mirotic at the 4. Here's the reality - when it comes time to talk contract, you think Chicago is going to reward him for sacrificing his stats? They are going to be like you are a reserve on the back half of your career - take a pay-cut. You can talk about how much you appreciate a guy but talk is cheap and money talks a lot louder than words.

As long as the Bulls are winning, it shouldn't be too much of a problem. However, if they struggle with integrating Pau and Rose into the mix, Gibson would have every right to point out that he's the one who should be starting and that if he were playing 35+ minutes a night, they would be a much better team. He has been a good soldier for a really long time, but at a certain point, all that means is you are letting other people walk all over for you.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Southeast Division

At RealGM, my series on internal improvement candidates on every NBA team concludes with the Southeast Division.

Joakim Noah and Marc Gasol: Top 10 Players?

I hate even writing about this thing because it's pretty pointless. Calling someone a "Top 10" or a "Top 25" player is a pretty arbitrary distinction, especially when you are comparing guys across positions. For the most part, media sites tend to run these player rank features as a way to kill time in the off-season and stir up some content. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see what these lists reveal about the way we view certain types of players.

Two good examples of that are Joakim Noah and Marc Gasol, who are pretty widely acknowledged as two of the best C's in the game. They are both in the prime of their careers and they are both centerpieces of high-level teams with a chance to go far in the playoffs. No one is going to argue that these guys are not really, really good basketball players. Here is where the various off-season lists have these two ranked:

- SI: #17
- CBS: #11
- Slam: #14
- NBA Rank: #12

- SI: #16
- CBS: #16
- Slam: #23
- NBA Rank: #14

While there's nothing necessarily wrong with where those guys are ranked, it's worth unpacking a bit. Just because they don't score a lot of points doesn't mean they don't have a tremendous effect on the game - if anything, scoring is a bit overrated since almost every guy in the NBA can do that. Marc and Noah bring so much else to the table that they help a team win more than most guys who dominate the ball and pour in 20+ points a night.

You can start on the defensive end of the floor, where having a big man who can control the paint is still the foundation of almost every elite defense in the league. A C who can slide his feet, cut off driving lanes and protect the rim serves as a second-line of defense for everyone else on the team, allowing them to be more aggressive. They have to protect the defensive glass and they have to prevent the other team's C from scoring at the front of the rim, the easiest shot in the game.

The Bulls and the Grizzlies are two of the best defenses in the league and that is in large part because they are built around the unique skill-sets of their C's. Marc and Noah are just as important on the other end of the floor, where they are facilitators out of the high post who move the ball and create easy shots for everyone else. And while they aren't great individual scorers, they still function as highly effective release valves around the basket.

Everyone understands this, but they don't quite make the connection when it comes to translating impact on the game to value to a team. When Marc went down last season, the Grizzlies plummeted in the standings, barely holding onto a playoff spot. When he came back in, they pushed the Thunder to the absolute limit in the first round, looking more like a 3/4/5 seed than a 7/8 seed. He makes everyone on the team better on both sides of the ball.

Conversely, everyone thought that Derrick Rose was MVP of the Bulls four seasons ago. Yet, even with Rose out of the line-up, Chicago was still competing for home-court advantage in the first round in each of the last few seasons. My guess is if Noah had missed the last three seasons, they would have been fighting just to get in the playoffs and Rose would have been like Carmelo last season, jacking up a bunch of shots and wondering what the fuck just happened.

Always, always keep this in mind: Basketball is played on two ends of the floor. Basketball is played on two ends of the floor. Noah and Gasol aren't great scorers, but if you are going to make a fair comparison, compare their O with the D of most PG's. Their ability on O is just something extra they bring to the table! A good number of elite PG's, in contrast, are moved off their position on D and hidden on that side of the ball as much as possible.

Big men are like the offensive linemen of basketball - you don't really appreciate what they do until they aren't there. If they are doing their job, the average fan doesn't notice them. Everyone wants to worry about the guy with the ball in his hands who puts up all the stats but that guy can only be as effective as the guys in front of him let him be. Here's another way to look at it - are QB's more important than the O-line?

The NFL is a QB-driven sport for the same reason that the NBA is a PG's league - those guys, like dead rappers, get better promotion. We are told that you have to have a great QB to win a Super Bowl just like you have to have a big-time scorer to win an NBA title. Who is going to be the guy who leads his team on a 2-minute drill? Who is going to take the last shot of the game? What people miss is a lot has to go right just to get that far.

What's a QB without a good offensive line? Pretty much nothing. What can an offensive line without a QB do? A lot. They can open up holes in the running game and force the defense to play 8 men in the box. Any QB is going to look better behind a good offensive line because they make their jobs easier. The same goes for all skill-position players. A good O-line is like a ghost in the box score, silently raising everyone else's stats.

We are seeing that this season with the Dallas Cowboys, who have one of the best offensive line's in the league. They are opening up holes for DeMarco Murray, they are giving Tony Romo more time and letting him use the play-action pass as a weapon and they are keeping the defense off the field. They make every guy on the team better in a lot of subtle and non-obvious ways. It's the same thing with big men.

A good example is how playing through the post affects the tempo of the game. If you can throw the ball into Marc Gasol every time down the floor, he holds it for 5-10 seconds, everyone takes a deep breath and then he creates a shot, it really limits the number of possessions when you face a team like the Thunder. Check the scores for that series - even with the OT games, they were lower than the ones against the Clippers and Spurs.

The Grizzlies don't really have the perimeter talent that the elite teams in the West do, but they punch above their weight all the time in the playoffs. They beat the Spurs and lost a Game 7 to the Thunder in 2011, they lost a Game 7 to the Clippers in 2012, they beat the Clippers and the Thunder (w/o Westbrook) in 2013 and they lost a Game 7 to the Thunder in 2014. No one wants to see Gasol and Z-Bo in a seven-game series.

People always say guys like Noah or Gasol "do the little things" that help a team win but there's nothing all that little about playing defense, rebounding and scoring around the basket. If you look around the league, I don't think it's a coincidence that there are not many good C's on bad teams. It's funny that good C's are A) extremely valuable and B) extremely rare, yet you can find so few ranked among the best players in the NBA.

Everyone wants to stick PG's on Top 10 lists because they have the best stats, but that's just because they have the ball in their hands the most. What people don't realize is those stats all come with an opportunity cost. Plenty of guys can put up good stats playing next to good big men - there are more good PG's in the NBA than ever before. If it's really easy to find a good PG, than by definition, good PG play can't be that big a deal.

A good rule of thumb in basketball is the farther you play away from the basket, the more replaceable you are. PG's are the smallest guys on the floor and you can always find small guys somewhere. The ones you can't find anywhere are the 7'0 monsters who occupy the prime real estate on both sides of the floor. If you tried to trade any PG in the NBA for either Noah or Gasol, their teams would hang up on you really quickly.

Russell Westbrook is one of my favorite players in the league, but what would happen if you traded him for Marc Gasol? OKC would slide Reggie Jackson into the starting line-up and then they would have a front-court of KD, Ibaka and Gasol. The floor spacing that KD would have with those two + Gasol's ability to score and pass out of the post + the absurd D they would have + Jackson is a really good PG? FOH with that team.

* Another way to think of it: Would you rather have Jackson and Gasol or Westbrook and Kendrick Perkins? 

The reality is that if you put Joakim Noah or Marc Gasol on just about any team in the league, that team is going to get a lot better, really quickly. Those guys flat out aren't going to be on too many bad teams because their ability to raise the games of everyone around them means that, all of a sudden, that bad team isn't so bad anymore. I don't know about you guys, but that sure sounds like two of the 10 best players in the game to me.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The 76ers Have Already Won

A year after they began their much discussed rebuilding process, the Philadelphia 76ers are essentially an expansion team. They only have two NBA vets on their roster - Luc Mbah A Moute and Jason Richardson - and Richardson will probably never play for them. Their highest paid player is a rookie (Joel Embiid) who may not play all season. Everyone else is an under-25 player looking to make a name for themselves.

They have taken the slash-and-burn process of rebuilding a team to its logical conclusion, thumbing their noses at many of the conventions of building an NBA roster. They haven't made many friends in the process - if they aren't violating the letter of the law, they are certainly violating the spirit of it. The decision to change the mechanics of the lottery is widely believed to be a direct response to the 76ers attempt to game it.

Instead of just the first 3 picks, the new lottery would determine the top 6 picks, meaning the worst team in the NBA could slide all the way down to No. 7 overall. The idea is to give teams with as little incentive to tank as possible - a team that slashes and burns its roster only to get picks 7-10 for three straight years would be in a lot of trouble. For the most part, outside of the Top 3 picks, it's hard to find a game-changing prospect.

That's the biggest problem with what the 76ers are attempting - you can't expect most young players, no matter where they are picked, to be able to step in right away and carry a franchise. The Oklahoma City Thunder are supposed to be the model for this type of rebuild, but what would have happened if Kevin Durant had went No. 1 in 2007 and they had wound up with Greg Oden? It's the definition of a high-risk, high-reward plan.

Even having multiple picks in the Top 5 is no guarantee that you can build a contender. Where would the Cleveland Cavaliers be right now if they hadn't won this year's lottery? Would the quartet of Kyrie Irving (No. 1), Tristan Thompson (No. 4), Dion Waiters (No. 4) and Anthony Bennett (No. 1) been enough to bring LeBron James back or would they have spent many more years wandering in the wilderness?

The real worry is that all that losing would permanently damage those young players, strangling their careers while they are still in the crib. Bennett looked like the prime example of that as a rookie, as he was woefully unprepared for the NBA and he seemed to regress amidst a very unsettled and chaotic situation in Cleveland. Tanking only works if you can hit a HR in the draft every season and that is a very difficult thing to do. 

In the first two drafts of the Hinkie era, the 76ers have been swinging for the fences, taking the highest upside pick regardless of their NBA readiness - there were huge concerns about Michael Carter-Williams' jumper, Nerlens Noel and Embiid were both projected to miss their entire rookie seasons and Dario Saric may not come over until 2016. That type of decision-making only fueled the negative buzz surrounding the team. 

If those guys don't live up to expectations, the 76ers are going to be a very bad team for a very long time, especially if they don't get any more chances to take players at the top of the draft. Being a solid 10-year starter in the NBA isn't enough - Philadelphia needs a franchise player. They need a guy who can be the best player at his position and a Top 5 player in the league because those are the only types of players that would really justify losing on that level.

If the goal is to get a few guys who could make an All-Star team, you don't need to initiate the full tank. A good drafting team can find those guys anywhere in the Top 10. The Indiana Pacers are the most prominent example of that, as they found the core of an elite team (Paul George, Lance Stephenson and Roy Hibbert) from the middle of the first round. When you are bottoming out, you are thinking LeBron James or Kevin Durant. 

You need a guy who can carry you on both ends of the floor, who can be the centerpiece of an elite defense AND an elite offense. That's what a franchise player is and you aren't going to find guys like that in many drafts, no matter how high you are picking. There really wasn't a guy like that in 2010, 2011 or 2013. 2012 had Anthony Davis and Andre Drummond, although many would still argue about Drummond. 

Davis is the exception to the rule - 99 times out of 100, you can always find flaws in young players. 2014 was hyped as much as any draft in recent memory you can play this game with almost everyone at the top of it. Can Andrew Wiggins shoot and pass well enough to be a primary option on offense? Can Jabari Parker be a good defensive player? Will Dante Exum be able to shoot? Will Aaron Gordon be able to shoot ... like at all? 

The only guy without any obvious holes in his game is Joel Embiid and he's really the key to the whole plan in Philadelphia. Embiid is as exciting a prospect as has come into the NBA in a very, very long time. If he had been healthy, he would have been the No. 1 pick, no questions asked. Instead, because he already has a back and a foot injury in his file, he slipped to Philadelphia, who has to hope he's not the next Oden or Andrew Bynum.

There is nothing Joel Embiid can't do on a basketball court. He's 7'0 250 with a 7'4 wingspan and he's an elite athlete who can get down in a stance, play way above the rim and control the defensive glass. On offense, he is a very fluid player who can play with his back to the basket, step out and knock down a mid-range jumper and find the open man out of a double team. This is after starting to play basketball only 3-4 years ago.

Embiid is the rare 7'0 who projects as an elite offensive player and an elite defensive player. In my mind, he's the best big man prospect since Tim Duncan. He's way more athletic than Yao Ming and Andrew Bynum and he's more polished than Dwight Howard and Greg Oden. Most young big men have to adjust to the NBA - the NBA is going to have to adjust to him.* This is a guy who could be the best C in the NBA by the time he's 22-23.

* It's kind of like this line from Jay-Z - My new name is just the facts / While the rest of y'all just adjust the facts / Put words together, just to match / I say what I feel, y'all adjust to that. 

Put another way, it goes something like this - We're an empire now and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too and that's how things will sort out. 

Once he gets used to the speed of the NBA game, a 7'0 with Embiid's type of two-way ability isn't going to be on a bad team for very long. Everyone wants to talk about the culture that the San Antonio Spurs have developed, but it really isn't hard to build an elite team around a guy like Tim Duncan. It almost didn't matter who was on Duncan's team from ages 23-30, his presence alone meant they were relevant.

Unless you are going to get a player like Duncan, it doesn't really make sense to slash and burn your roster. The Charlotte Hornets are a good example of that, as it's not the high picks that are getting them back to contention, it's taking a chance on FA's like Al Jefferson and Lance Stephenson. That's how good Embiid has the chance to be - he's one of the only players who is actually worth all that the 76ers had to do to get him.

Everyone else in their core has a chance to be a really good NBA player, but there's no guarantee they will be able to carry a franchise. MCW's jumper is forever a question, Nerlens didn't showcase a very advanced offensive game at Kentucky and Saric could be a 3/4 tweener. I like all three of those guys, but I wouldn't be shocked if they didn't become All-Stars. If Embiid can stay healthy, there's almost no chance he isn't one.

Embiid has no ceiling to how good he can be. That's a lot of pressure to put on the shoulders of a very young man, but it's the reality. Some guys need the right context early in their careers to develop into good players - Embiid is not one of them. He is the context. He would have cracked the rotation of every team in the NBA last season and he would have started for most of them. This is a guy you clear out your roster for.

At this point, the biggest thing the 76ers have to worry about is him staying healthy. As long as he can stay on the floor, they have already won. If Embiid is entrenched at the 5, they can fit their other young players around him and they can draft almost any type of player and know that he can play off Embiid on both sides of the ball. If injury concerns were out of the question and you put a gun to my head, I'd take him over Davis.

I don't want to sound like I'm over-hyping the guy, but all the coverage of Wiggins overshadowed how absurdly dominant Embiid was at Kansas. His per game numbers weren't huge, but you have to look at per-minute stats with young players and his were off the charts - 19 points, 14 rebounds, 2 assists, 1.5 steals, 4.5 blocks on 63% shooting. He was basically Anthony Davis with 30 pounds of muscle and the tie goes to the bigger player.

What I mean by that is while Davis can dominate more areas of the floor than Embiid, Embiid can dominate the only area of the floor that really matters. It's essentially the Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett debate all over again. Everyone talks about spacing the floor, but the whole point of that is to make attacking the 5 foot area around the rim easier. That's where games are won and lost at every level of basketball, always.

A 7'0 who can control the paint on both sides of the ball is the most valuable type of player there is in the game of basketball. That's why almost every dynasty in NBA history had a Hall of Fame 7'0 in the middle of it. From Russell, Wilt and Kareem to Shaq, Hakeem and Duncan, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Embiid is good enough to be the guy who takes the baton, which I admit is an almost blasphemous thing to say.

Once you get a guy like that, everything else will sort itself out in time. Regardless of what you think about the new lottery rules, they are essentially closing the barn doors after the horses have ran away, at least when it comes to the 76ers. They don't necessarily need to add another Top 3-5 pick to their roster anymore. The hard part is over - they already have the pieces to be an elite team in a few years. As long as Joel Embiid can stay healthy, they are going to look like geniuses.

This might be the most important 0:23 seconds of basketball you watch for a very long time. The only thing it's missing is Kenny "The Jet" Smith yelling "It's over! It's over!" Check out Embiid's facial expression at 0:10 - like, damn, even I can't believe how nasty I am sometimes.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Kobe and NBA Rank

On the surface, Kobe's NBA Rank shouldn’t be all that controversial. After all, Kobe is 36, he only played in 6 games last season and he didn’t look very good when he was on the court. If you put out a list of every NBA player’s statistical projections for this season, Kobe wouldn’t be very high on it and no one would really care. People would understand why the numbers were so low and they would feel free to accept or reject the assumptions behind them.

The problem with NBA Rank is there are no metrics to evaluate - it’s a popularity contest where every player is graded subjectively. The only thing to argue is the validity of the opinions of the people doing the grading. I’m reminded of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry’s dad argues with the Mandelbaum family about whether being “No. 1 Dad” trumps being “The World’s Greatest Dad.” As Jerry says, I don’t know how official any of these rankings really are.

The broader point is why exactly does it matter if Kobe Bryant is the 40th best player in the NBA this season? He is one of the biggest stars in the league and one of its only players who draws casual fans and brings them to the arena - the exact “value” of what Kobe does for the Lakers on the court isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. To put it another way, where would Derek Jeter have been in MLB Rank and why should anyone care?

Jeter’s final season with the New York Yankees was one of the biggest stories of the season, even though he was no longer near the player he once was. The Yankees weren’t paying him to put up All-Star numbers - they were paying him because their team wasn’t very good and he was one of the only reasons for fans to go to the ballpark and watch them on TV. Like Jeter, Kobe is an iconic figure who makes money for his team every time he plays.

The argument about whether Kobe is the No. 40 player in the NBA completely misses the point for the same reason that it doesn’t matter whether he is still the player he once was or whether he is “worth” his $25 million salary. If Kobe was making the minimum and taking 8 shots a game, the Lakers would still be terrible. The only difference in that scenario is their fans would have no reason to come to their games or watch them on TV.

Even if Kobe had taken less money, the Lakers would not have been able to sign any of the best free agents on the market. Only a year ago, Dwight Howard took less money in order to leave LA. Why? Because the only thing the Lakers could sell him on was playing next to a 35-year old shooting guard in the final stages of his career. Free agents aren’t coming to a losing situation - LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony weren’t walking through that door.

Kobe’s salary with the Lakers was partly a goodwill gesture, recognizing that he was underpaid relative to his production in his prime, partly a nod to his drawing power in the box office and partly a way to put lipstick on a pig. L.A. had nothing to gain out of nickle and diming Kobe and everything to lose - if he was going to take less money this season, he could take less money on a team that could contend for a title and how would they ever sell tickets?

A lot more goes into the decision-making process behind the Lakers payroll besides expected value for the 2014-2015 season. In that respect, they are no different than any other corporation in the United States. Are we going to pretend that there aren’t people at ESPN who are getting paid to be the guy they were 5-10 years ago? For all its ruthlessness, ESPN isn’t trying to squeeze every ounce of productivity out of its employees like blood from a stone.

That, unfortunately, is the mindset in which fans have been trained to view the modern player, as a result of a series of lop-sided CBA agreements which tilted things the owners way. In a league which just agreed to a TV deal worth $2.4 billion a season, the owners pleaded poverty and enacted a strict series of luxury tax penalties to reign in spending on player salaries. It’s a contradiction that Kobe himself pointed out on Twitter last month.

In the brave new world of the modern NBA, a player’s contract is as important as his skill-set. The most valued players are guys whose value exceeds their contract - young players on cost-controlled rookie deals and elite players on a max salaries. Being “overpaid” has become the worst sin in the NBA. Joe Johnson is still a very good player who won a lot of games for the Nets last season, but the only thing people can talk about is his contract.

Take a look at how the story is framed. The Hawks trade Joe Johnson, their best player, for a bunch of nobodies on expiring contracts and a future draft pick. (Also, keeping MarShon Brooks was a key objective for the Nets in the trade - these are the same people who told you Anthony Davis, MKG and Thomas Robinson were the only instant impact players in the 2012 draft) This, we are told, could help them acquire Dwight Howard and Chris Paul. Never mind the fact that no big-name free agent is going to sign with the Hawks, precisely because they do things like give away their best player for nothing!

Look what happened to the first pick they acquired for Johnson. They drafted an interesting prospect, who may or may not turn out to be a good NBA player in a few years, and traded him to the Toronto Raptors for John Salmons (whom they promptly released)*. Go ahead and guess what the spin on that was. The move helped them open up a lot of cap room, which they used to give Thabo Sefolosha $4 million and not give Luol Deng $10 million because he had a little bit of African in him.** As for the pick swap? There's no guarantee they finish with a better record than the Nets this season, especially if they end up trading more players to increase their financial flexibility.

* If I really wanted to be cynical, I would point out they traded Lucas Nogueira before they ever had to pay his salary. On another note - is he really going to be better than Rudy Gobert aka the French Shawn Bradley?

** Take a look at the transcript of Ferry's conference call about Deng. Does it sound anything like this

 photo bobs_zps8d113200.jpg

In your own words, what would you say your win shares per 48 minutes were last season? 

It's almost Orwellian the way NBA teams have convinced fans and the media to internalize their corporate spin - the Bobs in Office Space were all about increasing IniTech's financial flexibility, I guarantee you that. So when a team decides to make a move that looks beyond quarterly profit reports, it defies explanation. The outrage about Kobe's contract was palpable - no longer worth the money! Never mind that Kobe is the public face of a company that made hundreds of millions of dollars last year and the goodwill he generates among their massive fan-base is worth at least $25 million. Not only is breaking off a tiny percentage of the profits to Kobe right thing to do, it's also the obvious business move.

The salary cap has turned fans into the unpaid accountants of unimaginably rich people who are making unimaginably large amounts of money and we become indignant when paying the employees eats into even a small percentage of the profits. Do not be distracted by the man behind the curtain. Donald Sterling made $2 billion for running the Los Angeles Clippers into the ground for 30 years, but the real story is whether DeAndre Jordan is worth a contract starting at $15 million a season. Kobe knows the deal - the players are overpaid, but the owners are too.

This season, Kobe is being paid like he is one of the top 5 players in the NBA, even though he probably isn't. Only at ESPN could making a few fairly mundane observations about an older player be turned into a bold exercise in telling truth to power. There's nothing new under the sun - while we may have more advanced statistics at our disposal these days, fans in the 1980's wouldn't have been shocked to find out that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wasn't the same player at 36 that he was at 26. The only difference now is we are much more concerned with precisely monitoring the efficiency output of every player.

These days, a huge part of the conversation around basketball revolves around obsessively ranking the value of its players. Synergy stats? Let's use them to rank players. SportsVU cameras? Rank players. It's a twist on this famous internet cartoon about sports writing. The problem is that when we commodify human beings and judge them based on their output alone, we end up missing the big picture. At the very least, you should hope your boss thinks that way when he decides what he wants to pay you this year.

That's what Moneyball was all about and that's what this whole story comes down too. The same people who financialized every other industry in this country want to do to the same thing to sports and they want you to cheer along when they talk about how to Moneyball your office. That's why owners are constantly bringing Wall Street people into the front office - if you can figure out a few new ways to crunch the numbers, there is always more money that can be wrung from the players. We are going to streamline the operation, we are going to make it more efficient, we are not going to be wedded to the old ways of doing things.

Did you ever ask yourself why so many companies wanted Michael Lewis to speak to them about Moneyball? Michael Lewis is a lot like Malcolm Gladwell - they are smart guys who know how to follow the money and they know how to write the types of stories that the people in power (who have all the money) want to hear. They write modern-day morality tales with modern-day morals. Blink. The Blind Side. The Tipping Point. Liar's Poker. Outliers. Moneyball. Who is the big hero of Moneyball? The middle manager who assembled a competent workforce from a shoestring budget.

The Oakland A's may have been making a lot of money and they were planning on making a lot more money in the future, but that didn't mean they had any intention of spending any of that money on their players. What did Billy Beane find out? The best way to save money is to let go of all your older employees and hope that you could find a few younger guys who would do their job for a fraction of the cost. If this isn't the story of just about every company in the Fortune 500 over the last generation, I will eat my hat.

That's the way the world is going. Companies aren't trying to reward their employees and spread the wealth around a bit. Every bit of profit must go back to the owners - it is an iron law of business that must be adhered too at all times. Kobe Bryant must not be allowed to steal money from the Lakers, and if he does, the Lakers should be punished for that type of short-sighted management. There is only so much amount of money that a company can be permitted to pay its employees! Once we agree to that, all that's left is figuring out which ones are earning their keep.