Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Mamadou N'Diaye

At The Cauldron, a look at the biggest player in college basketball.

Evan Fournier

At RealGM, a look at how Orlando continues to find free money on the ground.

SMU Basketball

For SMU, everything is harder the second time around. They were one of the surprise teams in the country last season, emerging from out of nowhere to finish with a 24-10 record and a trip to the NIT championship game. With most of the team coming back and one of the top recruiting classes in the country coming in, they were expected to be one of the top teams in the country. Their schedule reflected that, as they had nationally televised showdowns with Gonzaga, Indiana and Arkansas in the first few weeks of the season.

It was supposed to be a national coming out party for the program, which was ranked in the pre-season Top 25 for the first time in a very long time. After missing out on an NCAA Tournament bid because of a weak non-conference schedule, SMU had a lot of chances for quality wins in November and December. That, at least, was how it looked in April. Since then, they have seen their top recruit - Emmanuel Mudiay - bolt for China and their second-leading scorer - Markus Kennedy - ruled ineligible right before the start of the season.

This is the kind of stuff you don't have to deal with if you are an NBA coach. A potential Top 5 pick like Mudiay would have increased the program's profile, but Kennedy was the bigger loss for this year's team. He was their security blanket in the half-court, a guy whom they could throw the ball inside too at any time of the game and get a good shot. At 6'9 250, he had the size to establish post position on every team in the country as well as the skill to score with his back to the basket and find the open man out of a double team.

Without Kennedy, SMU had to junk a good portion of their half-court offense and rely on a number of younger players earlier in their careers than the coaching staff had anticipated. There is still plenty of talent on hand, but it has been a huge adjustment process, one made more difficult by the incredibly tough schedule to start the season. Gonzaga and Indiana are two of the toughest places to play in the country while Arkansas, who beat the Mustangs on their home floor on Tuesday, is a deep and experienced team who could surprise folks this year.

SMU looks much different without Kennedy, as they have to play a different style with Ben Moore as their starting PF. "We worked all year on making him a perimeter player and then the situation with Markus changed things," said Larry Brown. "Ben is still a sophomore. It's going to take him awhile, but he's a really good player." At 6'8 185, Moore has a lot of skill and athleticism for a guy with his size. He is a smooth player who can take the ball up the court, get it to the front of the rim and make the right play if the defense collapses.

The sky is the limit for Moore, who is leading the team in points (13.3) and rebounds (5.8) and is second in assists (3.3). The key for him is developing an outside shot that forces defenses to respect him 20+ feet from the basket, which you can see still needs work from his 58% mark from the line. If he can make that shot, he will have a chance to make it in the NBA as a small forward. The problem for now is that he can't really post up or stretch the floor, so he limits the type of sets that SMU can run in the half-court.

There are two youth-related prongs to the problem for Larry Brown - SMU is much better in the open court, but they aren't playing defense at the same level they were last season, when they were 19th in the country in defensive rating. They can't get stops as easily, so they can't get out in the break, which means they have a hard time getting good looks on offense, which allows the other team to run the ball back at them. That was the formula for the early 10-point lead for Arkansas on Tuesday, who made SMU play from behind all night.

SMU is depending on Moore and three other sophomores - Keith Frazier, Sterling Brown and Ben Emelogu - to step into major roles this season. It's a big jump from the year before, when Frazier and Brown were barely playing as freshmen while Emelogu was sitting out a year after transferring from Virginia Tech. Each of those guys is playing over 20 minutes a night and they have to learn how to become consistent contributors, as there aren't as many guys to pick up the slack as last season, when they were one of the deepest teams in the country.

Without Mudiay and Kennedy, SMU went from a 10-deep rotation to an 8-man group with just enough players to survive. The sophomores, Larry Brown's first recruiting class at SMU, have the talent to carry this program back into national prominence, they are just being asked to do it a year in advance. The pieces are there - Frazier, a McDonald's All-American, is an electric scorer, Brown, the younger brother of long-time NBA veteran Shannon Brown, is a great glue guy and Emelogu had a really solid season as a freshman at Virginia Tech.

All that youth has increased the pressure on junior PG Nic Moore, who is also the only true PG on the roster. When he is on the floor, he has to control tempo, get shots for everyone else and look for his own offense. When he is off the floor, SMU is holding on for dear life. He is one of the savviest guards in the country, but at only 5'9 185, he can struggle with ball-pressure from bigger and longer guards. "We wanted to get the ball out of his hands and force other people to make decisions," said Arkansas wing Michael Qualls.

With Kennedy gone and so many younger players stepping into big roles, SMU is still figuring out what they want to do on offense. In that respect, there was only so much you could tell from their game against Arkansas, which spent most of the game pressing full-court and then falling back into a zone, dictating the type of shots that SMU could get. They had success running some offense for Ben Moore in the high post, but for the most part, they weren't really able to get things going until the second half, when they started beating the press.

They are figuring things out, but there is still enough talent on hand that you figure they eventually will. One guy who could see a bigger role is Yanick Moreira, their 6'11 starting center, who is coming off a very strong showing for Angola in the World Championships. He has the ability to score out of the post, but he isn't nearly as reliable a finisher as Kennedy and his teammates are far more leery of giving him the ball. Something that worked well against Arkansas was pairing their two PG's, Moore and Ryan Manuel, together.

The good news for SMU is they don't leave the friendly confines of Moody Coliseum for the next month, until a road date at Michigan on December 20. The bad news is there are some more quality teams coming down the slate, including games against UC-Santa Barbara and Wyoming in the next few weeks that no longer look like gimmes. At this point, SMU's only goal is triage and keeping their heads above water until the start of conference play in January, when Kennedy should be able to return to the team for the spring semester.

In a best-case scenario, their young guys benefit from the increased playing time to become different and more fully-formed players in February and March, when their lives should be made much easier by the presence of Kennedy. The question is how deep of a hole they will be digging themselves out of and whether they will need to win the AAC conference tournament to ensure they make the field of 68. Larry Brown is building something at SMU, but as they are finding out, the only thing harder than being a success is sustaining it.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Chris Paul

At 29, Chris Paul has made six All-NBA teams (four first-team), six All-Defensive teams (four first-team) and seven All-Star Games. "The Point God" is widely considered the best PG in the NBA and is a near lock to be a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection. There's only one blemish on his resume. CP3 has been in the league 10 seasons and has never advanced past the second round, despite playing on three different teams that won more than 56 games.

When you try to evaluate his lack of playoff success, there's one school of thought that says there is nothing to see, no great mystery to unravel. Shit happens in the playoffs and a few bad bounces in Game 5 against the Thunder shouldn't make a huge difference in how we perceive a great player. Paul has been doomed by untimely injuries, bad match-ups and the poor luck to play in an extremely competitive conference.

Winning or losing a playoff series never comes down to any one player, even if they are a superstar. However, the playoffs aren't a complete black box either - there are things you can learn from what happens when a guy has to play multiple seven-game series against the best teams in the world. There is a middle ground between yelling ringz and throwing your hands in the air and saying my shit doesn't work in the post-season.

Let's take a closer look at the Thunder/Clippers series, particularly the match-up at the PG position between Paul and Russell Westbrook.

In Game 1, Paul had 32 points and 10 assists on 14 shots. It was the kind of performance you would expect from an All-NBA PG - if he had played at that level all series, the Clippers would have advanced. Of course, no one can really do that, so Paul wound up averaging 22 points and 12 assists a game on 51% shooting in the series. Pretty hard to complain about those numbers, right?

The only problem was that Westbrook's were even better. He averaged 28 points, 6 rebounds and 9 assists a game on 49% shooting in the series and he had games of 29, 33 and 38 points. Paul didn't have a game over 25 after Game 1. He was putting up a lot of points, but not as many as Westbrook and not in the same types of bunches. As many points as CP3 was scoring, he was giving them up just as fast, if not faster, on the other end.

The numbers are right there, once you start to look for them.


First round: Clippers beat Grizzlies in 7

- CP3: 20, 6 and 7 on 46% shooting
- Mike Conley: 14, 3 and 7 on 42% shooting

The Clippers and Grizzlies split their two first-round series, but CP3 clearly got the better of Conley. It was some of the best work he has done in his time with the Clippers - really nice numbers in the midst of two archetypal Grit N Grind series. Those games certainly felt like late 90's Knicks-Heat, especially in the paint.

Second round: Spurs beat Clippers in 4

- CP3: 13, 4 and 9 on 38% shooting
- Tony Parker: 17, 3 and 8 on 38% shooting

It's hard to do the individual match-up thing against the Spurs since they move the ball so much, but at best you can say that CP3 played Parker to a draw. Tony Parker is really good - he doesn't put up stats like Paul, but he doesn't get to hold the ball like Paul does either. Pop doesn't run a system designed to maximize his PG's statistics.


First round: Clippers lose to Grizzles in 6

- CP3: 23, 4 and 6 on 53% shooting
- Conley: 17, 3 and 8 on 41% shooting


First round: Clippers beat Warriors in 7

- CP3: 17, 5 and 9 on 42% shooting
- Steph: 23, 4 and 8 on 44% shooting

The Warriors lost the series, but this still felt like a passing of the torch to me. Paul is 29 and he has been first-team All-NBA for most of the last 5 seasons - there are a lot of hungry, young PG's out there, waiting for their chance. Steph is 26. Russ is 25. Eric Bledsoe is only 24. One day, maybe not anytime soon, but sooner than you might think, CP3 is going to wake up and play the Phoenix Suns and find out this is his life:

Second round: Clippers lose to Thunder in 6

- CP3: 22, 4 and 11 on 51% shooting
- Westbrook: 28, 6 and 9 on 49% shooting

Look at it this way - how could you tell Russell Westbrook with a straight face that Chris Paul is better than him after that series? Oh you mean the guy I just gave 30 a night too? Didn't I just send his team home? If Paul had 28 and Russ had 22, the Clippers would have won easily. He couldn't do it, though.

Take a look at what Westbrook did in the 2014 playoffs:

First round: Thunder beat Grizzlies in 7

- Russ: 26, 10 and 8 on 38% shooting
- Conley: 16, 5 and 8 on 43% shooting

Second round: Thunder beat Clippers in 6

- Russ: 28, 6 and 9 on 49% shooting
- CP3: 22, 4 and 11 on 51% shooting

WCF: Thunder lose to Spurs in 6

- Russ: 27, 7 and 6 on 41% shooting
- Parker: 13, 2 and 5 on 49% shooting

That's what a guy carrying a team in the playoffs looks like. The Thunder win a lot of playoff series for a reason - they have two guys who can just take over games against the best players in the world. When Westbrook is playing the best of the best, he thrives. 

The difference between the playoffs and the regular season is the level of competition. You don't see many bad or average PG's in the post-season. Just about every guy you are going to face is a high-level player, especially out West. In the last three years, Paul has went up against Westbrook, Steph Curry, Tony Parker and Mike Conley. Last season, Westbrook matched-up with Conley, CP3 and Parker. You see a lot of familiar faces in the playoffs and the deeper you go, the more likely you are to face a great player.

And if you compare Paul to his peers, to the other great players in the league instead of the average player, something jumps out at you immediately. Here's a look at the height and weight of every player to make first or second-team All-NBA in the last five years:

See the one at the bottom left? That's Paul. At 6'0 175, he's the outlier among the outliers.

Most great players are really big - the average height and weight is about 6'8 230, right around Carmelo Anthony. As a rule, they are bigger, faster and more skilled than the average player. At that point, there isn't much the defense can do to a guy. They have to give up something, either the shot, the drive or the pass.

Paul's formula for success is a little different. He has maximized every bit of his physical ability to get himself in such august company - there's no one else with his size and speed who is considered among the best players in the NBA. He is the perfect analytic player because he is operating at 100% at all times. He doesn't make mistakes or cut corners - he is always doing the most efficient thing that he can do when he is on the court.

In a sense, CP3 is Moneyball at the individual level. The market undervalues shorter players, particularly around draft time - if CP3 was 6'3+ like John Wall or Derrick Rose, he would not have went No. 4 in 2005. He doesn't have the physical tools of those guys, but he is just as effective because he has studied the game and perfected his craft. He thinks the game at as high a level as anyone in the sport and you can see that in the absurd efficiency numbers he puts up.

The one thing about Moneyball is that analytics isn't alchemy. It can't change what a guy is. Dwight Howard has height privilege. He doesn't need to deal with all that to win games. He's just bigger and faster than everyone else.

Here's a theory.

In the regular season, when CP3 is going up against a bunch of average guards who don't know what they are doing, he can absolutely devastate them. Most of them don't have the speed or athleticism to take advantage of his clutch-and-grab style defense that seems lifted from Bill Belichick's New England Patriots.

That TNT game against a short-handed Miami Heat team the other night? CP3 had 26 points on 13 shots and 12 assists on 1 turnover and the Clippers won by 17.

That shit only goes so far in the playoffs, though. As Charles Barkley likes to say, them other guys, they get paid too. When you are going up against the best of the best, the margins for error become really small and Chris Paul never had a really high margin to begin with.

When you think about it, it was always going to be hard for Paul to be the best player in the NBA at his size. The greatest players can score at will against guys who are smaller and less athletic than them - that's what makes them great. The problem for CP3 is he is smaller and less athletic than every other great player in the NBA, so he's always the underdog when he goes up against those guys, regardless of what his stats are against the rest of the league.

It's not that Chris Paul lacks the will to win and he comes up short in the playoffs because he doesn't have the heart of a champion. The problem is that he's short and his lack of size always rears its head at some point in the playoffs. If there was a bar that said you must be this tall to be the best player on a championship team, you would probably put it around 6'6. While CP3 is a franchise player, he's much, much shorter than most of the franchise players who got ringz.

Here's a look at the height of the best players on championship teams since 1979:

7'1 - Shaq
7'0 - Hakeem, Duncan, KG, Dirk
6'11 - Rasheed Wallace
6'9 - Bird, Magic, LeBron
6'7 - Dr. J
6'6 - MJ, Kobe
6'4 - D. Wade (and he has a 6'11 wingspan which makes him play like he's 6'8)
6'1 - Isiah Thomas

All things being equal in a game of basketball, the bigger and more athletic player is going to win the individual match-up. When Paul is playing most NBA players, things aren't equal. When he is going up against another All-NBA guy, they are. The problem for him is that if he's going to win a title, he's probably going to have to go up against 3-4 All-NBA guys in 4 seven-game series.

The NBA playoffs are like a video game. You get to the end of the level and you have to beat a boss. In a good game, you have or 3 or 4 boss fights against a character with as much power as your own, if not more. You had to figure out a different strategy to beat them - they were too good to beat straight up. It wasn't hard to exploit the weakness on easy or medium, but it was almost impossible to do on hard. On extreme? Forget about it. You had to play the video game almost perfectly to do it and I never had the patience for it. After awhile, I just started using cheat codes.

Chris Paul is playing the game on extreme mode. He has to play essentially perfect basketball to beat guys like Russell Westbrook - it has to be like Game 1 of the second round every single time. Otherwise, the only thing he can do is try to minimize his lack of height and athleticism as much as possible, which means clutching, grabbing and holding the other player.

Do I think it's a coincidence 6'1 Isiah Thomas played on a team that essentially broke the game? No. What puts CP3 on his own level is that he will take some very aggressive fouls on one end and then flop on the other. You can't be Reggie Evans and Manu Ginobili at the same time. It just isn't right.

This is when I knew DeMarcus Cousins was the realest dude in the NBA:
“It’s just, some players I don’t respect,” Cousins said. “Just their playing style of basketball. I don’t respect it. I feel like it’s basically cheating and I don’t respect a cheater. If that’s your tactic to winning, I don’t respect you.”
One of the things that has been lost in our celebration of the way that guys like Jordan and Kobe carried themselves as they won championships is that basketball is a gentleman's game. There are certain things you should not be doing in order to win basketball games and there are certain lines that should not be crossed. There's a right and wrong way to play this game that goes beyond winning and losing.

What CP3 does to poor Julius Hodge in this play is well over that line:

That's all I could think of during the final seconds of Game 5 in OKC. All the things that Paul gets away with on the court, all the ways he tries to tilt the playing board in order to shave the odds his way - they all came rushing back at him at once. He bent the rules of the game as far as they would go before they broke. A guy with CP3's size and athleticism trying to carry a team through four consecutive seven-game series might as well be Sisyphus. He is defying the natural order of things and there's only one way that's going to end.

Paul's teams punch above their weight in the regular season because he doesn't let up and he maximizes everyone's performance over the course of an 82-game season. When he gets to the playoffs, though, all the times that he ran up the margins against the Luke Ridnours of the world don't really matter.

He is still going to put up good numbers, but he isn't going to dominate the guy across from him. If he runs up on a bully like Russell Westbrook in a seven-game series, he's going to be fighting for a draw. The problem with the way the Clippers are set up is that Paul has to do everything for them to advance. He does his best against guys like KD and Russ, but if he's on either of those guys, there's still a mouse in the house. If he's going to get to the NBA Finals, he's probably going to need two wings like Trevor Ariza and Jimmy Butler around him, not JJ Redick and Jamal Crawford. Look at what Golden State is doing with Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala around Steph Curry.

CP3 isn't Kobe or LeBron, no matter what the stats say. Those two guys could take over a series on defense - they could man-up the opposing team's best perimeter scorer and suffocate their offense. That's the kind of thing that can turn a playoff series and it's the kind of thing that CP3 has never been able to do. He lost to Carmelo in the first round in 2010 - if that was LeBron, he would have tried to lock up Melo.

Of course, you can't expect Paul to do something like that. What it does is show you the limitations of his ability to impact the game, in comparison to some of his Olympic teammates.
At this point in his career, CP3 is like Tom Glavine - he's a finesse pitcher who wins on control and out-thinking the other guy. He's not out there throwing 95 MPH high heat. You can be a great player with that style, but when you are going up against the best of the best, talent tends to win out. If CP3 and Westbrook had a Freaky Friday moment, Chris Paul in Westbrook's body would win 10 out of 10 times. Westbrook in Westbrook's body might only win 8 out of 10, but that's more than enough in a seven-game series.

One of the things that makes basketball different than most team sports is the way individual match-ups are embedded into the game. The same two guys are going at each other on offense and defense - I have to guard you but you have to guard me. Imagine Peyton Manning playing defense against Darrell Revis or Yu Darvish trying to get hits off Miguel Cabrera.

As great as CP3's stats are, that's only 85-90% of the equation in basketball. That last 10%? Throw away the numbers, the TV commercials and the brands and it comes down to lacing up your sneakers, stepping on the court and being better than the guy across from you.

Chris Paul is great, but is he any greater than Steph Curry? Tony Parker? Russell Westbrook? There have been too many times in the last few playoffs that CP3 hasn't been able to say that for me to think he is really a Top 5 player in the NBA. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Cal Scouting Report

All I could think while watching Cal dismantle Syracuse last night was Mike Montgomery must have actually wanted to spend more time with his family. After an unsuccessful stint in the NBA, the former Stanford coach had moved across the Bay and revitalized the Cal program. He was headed into his fifth season in Berkeley and he had everything going in the right direction. As a coach, this is not a team you would have an easy time walking away from - Cal has all the pieces to be a really good team.

The way they beat Syracuse gave proof to the idea that rankings are essentially meaningless this early in the season. They were clearly the more talented team, opening up a 34-22 half-time lead and never looking back from there, winning the game 73-59. It took them awhile to get used to the Syracuse zone, but they eventually figured things out. They are a veteran team with a lot of guys who know how to play the game - they can move without the ball and make plays for each other. This is not a team to be taken lightly.

Cuonzo Martin could not be in a better position to succeed. He inherits a ready-made team with multiple NBA prospects on it, all of whom can play multiple positions. They have more skill than the teams he assembled in Tennessee, which generally preferred to smash you over the head and win 54-50 rock-fights. It wasn't the most aesthetically pleasing style of basketball, but he got a pretty raw deal at Tennessee. He's a good coach who knows what he is doing and he isn't going to do anything to mess up the gifts he has been given.

Cal lost two good seniors - Justin Cobbs and Richard Solomon - but it may have been a case of addition by subtraction, as it has allowed some of their younger players to step into bigger roles. They go 6'5, 6'3 and 6'6 on the perimeter and all of them are NBA-caliber athletes. They have two sure-fire future pros in Jabari Bird and Tyrone Wallace and at least three more guys who will get looks from NBA scouts. You may not have heard much about Cal, but this is a win that would look awfully good on the resume in March.


PG - Tyrone Wallace - Wallace is the guy who stepped up the most, going from complementary wing to full-time starting PG. He doesn't have a ton of experience in the role, but he's a huge guard (6'5 200) with the ball-handling and passing chops to pull it off. He is putting out straight outrageous numbers so far, at 17 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists on 51% shooting. You want to make him an outside shooter - he was 0-3 from deep and one of those shots was an airball. He might cough up the ball if you pressure him, but you don't want to get him in the open court either.

SG - Jordan Matthews - Position labels are a little meaningless for Cal's guards, since they can all handle and score the ball and they are capable of handing off defensive assignments pretty freely. At 6'3 205, Matthews is the smallest of the their perimeter starters, even though he would be one of the bigger guards on the Texas roster. He's the scorer - he can shoot and fill it up really quickly. He had 22 points against Syracuse and his ability to shoot and get to the line was key in blowing the game open.

SF - Jabari Bird - The shooter. If you leave him open from the perimeter, he will kill you. The problem is that he's a big, athletic guard (6'6 200) with a high release point, so it's almost impossible to contest his shot. He destroyed the Syracuse zone, going 4-5 from 3. You better play scouting report defense on Bird - stay glued to him on the perimeter, make him put the ball on the floor and make him be a passer. He will be a first-round pick regardless, how high he goes depends on how much he can expand his game.

PF - Christian Behrens - 6'8 225 junior forward. Behrens is the glue guy - he gives up his body and does a lot of the dirty work inside. He can be effective as a release valve on offense, but he's not going to kill you on that side of the ball. It will be interesting to see if Martin plays Behrens as a 3 to match-up with the bigger Texas front-line.

C - David Kravish - The senior big man had himself a game against Syracuse - 12 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists on 5-9 shooting. He is a prototype high-post player, with the ability to knock down mid-range shots, facilitate offense from the free-throw line and even put the ball on the floor a little. At 6'10 240, he's a better athlete than you would expect and he has turned himself into a legitimate NBA prospect. The way you get at him is on defense because that's not really what he is about. Attack the rim and get him in foul trouble.


C - Kingsley Okoroh - A big-time recruit that Martin brought with him from Tennessee, emphasis on big. At 7'1 245, he is, by my scientific estimation, big as fuck. I'm not really sure what to make of him because he didn't really play like a freshman against Syracuse. It was weird. He can move without the ball, catch and finish at the rim, which doesn't sound like a big deal, but really is for a guy his size. If they can get him going, his ability to protect the rim could take this team to another level. 

PG/SG - Sam Singer - You would think this guy is a shooter just from looking at him, but that is not the case. Singer can't shoot to save his life, as he went 0-3 from 3 against Syracuse, including one particularly egregious air-ball. What he is is a big PG (6'4 200) with a good feel for the game who can take advantage of all the weapons around him. He had 8 assists against the Orange.

SF/PF - Dwight Tarwater - A senior role player who knows his role and stays out of everyone else's way. Tarwater can make open shots and that's about it. This is way more shooting that Cuonzo ever had at Tennessee - it may be something that starts to grow on him.

SF/PF - Roger Moute a Bidias - I don't really remember what he did in this game and his 9 trillion stat-line would indicate that I didn't miss much. He's an athletic body (6'6 200) whose useful as a second front-court defender behind Behrens.

Keys to the Game:

1) The first half of the Iowa game was a worst case scenario for this Texas team and they can't have a repeat of that tonight. If the Texas guards get sped up and get into a track meet with Cal, I don't think they have the personnel to keep up. Wallace, Bird and Matthews have more speed and athleticism than the perimeter guys at Kentucky, so this will be a real challenge for the Longhorns guards. Texas still has an advantage inside, but that won't matter if the guards don't take care of the ball and control tempo.

2) The converse of staying in the half-court on offense is that you don't want Cal getting a lot of easy looks in transition. If they can start running into rhythm 3's, this game could get out of hand. You got to make them score against a set defense and you want to make sure that you are letting the right guys shoot 3's and not the wrong ones.

3) Jonathan Holmes - He is the one guy that Cal doesn't really have a great match-up for. If he can thrive as a SF and force Cal out of their three-guard comfort zone, he can really alter the flow of the game. Get him the ball as much as possible is probably a good rule of thumb for a game like this. 

You can pretty much throw out the rankings in this one. Cal starts a senior, two juniors and two sophomores and four of those guys are NBA prospects. I hope Texas is ready to play because this should be a really serious basketball game.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Alex Len and Patience

At RealGM, a look at why people were too quick to jump on the Suns big man.

Kentucky vs. the 76ers

99% of the time, the Kentucky vs. the 76ers storyline is dumb. The best team in college doesn't have much of a chance of competing with the worst team in the NBA. It's a good rule of thumb because 99% of the time, that's what is going to happen. This is still probably one of those 99 times.

However *Stephen A Smith voice* 

I'm not saying I agree with Eric Bledsoe, but there's a chance he isn't completely crazy. Take a look at the match-ups if Kentucky played the 76ers, if we use Philly's line-up from tonight:

C - Nerlens Noel vs. Willie Cauley-Stein - You have to throw out all the NBA vs. NCAA arguments with this one. Noel and WCS were in the same recruiting class. They are peers, except WCS has been playing continuously for the last 3 seasons while Noel is still extremely rusty after missing the last half of his college season and his entire rookie season in the NBA. WCS even knocked down a mid-range jumper against Kansas and if he's making that shot, watch out.

There isn't all that much separates the two former teammates. If Noel had stayed in school, there's no guarantee he would have held off WCS for the starting job. WCS should be in the NBA right now. He had to have ankle surgery after the season, which I guess is why he stayed in school. Once guys are projected to go in the lottery, they usually don't come back. He's an NBA C who is moonlighting at the college level.

PF - Henry Sims vs. Karl Towns - Sims wasn't drafted, which according to Deadspin means you are a complete bum, but he has a chance of sticking in the league. He has good size for an NBA big man - 6'10 250 - but here's the thing - Karl Towns is an enormous human being. He is 7'0 250 and he is much bigger and faster than his NBA counterpart. Kentucky is bigger and more athletic upfront than Philadelphia. That usually wouldn't happen. 

I remember watching Towns in the 2013 Hoop Summit, which featured Wiggins, Jabari, Randle and all those guys, and thinking this guy is 17 and he could play in the NBA right now. He wouldn't be a star or anything, but he is big, fast and skilled enough that he would be able to survive. That's what happens in Europe - 7'0 like Tiago Splitter and Jonas Valanciunas are competing against grown men as teenagers. Towns plays the game like a pro.

He may be only 19, but he is definitely good enough to give Henry Sims and Nerlens Noel the business! Kentucky has a front-court that would give a lot of NBA teams trouble. It's a weird thing to say, but it's true. They go 7'0, 7'0, 6'9 and they have 7'0, 6'9 and 6'10 behind them. That's way more size than a lot of NBA teams.

Where this question falls apart is the back-court, where the Harrisons are giving up a ton of speed and athleticism to MCW and Tony Wroten. They do have the size to at least match-up with them on defense, but if the 76ers started pressing them, I'm not sure what type of shots they could get off. Any game between these two teams would probably swing on Tyler Ulis and whether Calipari could find a place to hide him on defense.

I'm not totally sold on Kentucky's guards, so I wouldn't be stunned if they ended up losing a couple game this season. Even the Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones and MKG team lost 2 games. Either way, Kentucky has the big men upfront to where they could at least give the 76ers a game. If I had Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl Towns and Trey Lyles (who could be crazy nice in his own right) on my NBA team, I would be feeling really good about my future. 

That's the thing, though. It doesn't actually matter whether Kentucky could play with the 76ers. It's far more likely than someone on Kentucky ends up playing for the 76ers. 

And if Philly gets Karl Towns and Joel Embiid together ... well, let's just say that people are going to be awfully upset. The amount of whining you would hear from Basketball Twitter, it almost makes you root for it to happen.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Karl Towns Passing (Video)

Kentucky was everything we were promised and more on Tuesday night, when they ran No. 5 Kansas out of the gym in a 72-40 game that wasn't as close as the final score indicated. They were bigger, longer and more athletic at just about every position on the floor - Kansas is plenty big for a college team, but Kentucky made them look like a bunch of little kids. That's what happens when you start 6'6, 6'6, 6'9, 7'0, 7'0.

There are more than enough accolades to go around, but the guy I want to focus on today is Karl-Anthony Towns. While he only played 19 minutes, he still managed to rack up 9 points, 8 rebounds, 4 blocks and 3 assists and it seemed like he was in the middle of every Kentucky run. The guy is a 7'0 250 with a 7'3 wingspan and he has the speed, skill and athleticism to play as a PF full-time. There are few things he can't do on a basketball court.

What really jumped out to me on Tuesday was his passing ability. Towns is a guy you can run offense through out of the high post or the low post - he's so big that he demands a double team and he has a great feel for where everyone else is on the court. Watch how he doesn't rush things in this play, even when he is facing a triple team. He is patient, he plays under control and he waits until Andrew Harrison is wide open to pass the ball.

Just as important, he is so much taller than the defenders that he can pass over them with absolute ease. When Towns is moving the ball around the court, Kentucky is operating on a different plane than any college team (and most NBA teams). That's why it is so nice to be able to run offense through a 7'0 - no matter what else is going on in the game, you can always slow the ball down, throw it inside and get a good shot.

Kentucky really went to another level in last year's NCAA Tournament when Julius Randle started to look to pass, instead of hunting for his own shot. That's how they beat Wichita State - Randle had 6 assists, most of them to three-point shooters. When your best player is looking to pass, it opens up the game for everyone else and puts the defense in an impossible bind. You blow out teams by giving shooters rhythm 3's.

Towns is the glue that holds the rest of the team together. A big guy who can defend, shoot and pass makes everyone better, so no matter what type of line-up Calipari uses, as long as he has Towns out there, Kentucky will be able to defend and score against anyone. They can go super-size upfront with Towns creating offense out of the high post at the 4 and they can go "small ball" with Towns playing as the 5 in a 4-out set.

There really is no ceiling for how good he can become. Towns may not put up a bunch of stats this season because of the platoon system, but he is why Kentucky has a chance to do something really historic this season. If 2014 is like 2012, it's because Karl Towns is Anthony Davis. Here's what should really worry every other team in the country - he's already bigger than Davis and AD didn't do stuff like this in college:

Sir, I am kindly going to ask you to get the fuck out of here with that. That's just silly. Jay Bilas said it best: "[Towns] is a guy who makes it really easy to play with him and really difficult to play against him."

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Utah Rebuilding Plan

The Utah Jazz are only 4-7 this season, but they have one of the most talented young teams in the NBA. They have had a pretty stacked schedule - four home games (all against good teams) and seven road ones. They just finished a five game in seven day swing through the East Coast, with 2 of the 3 losses coming on the second night of a road back-to-back. The record will come around and the future is bright in Utah.

Getting to this point, though, took a whole lot of work and patience. Let's take a look at how the Jazz built this team:


1) After losing to the LA Lakers in the playoffs for the third consecutive season, the Jazz lost Carlos Boozer to the Chicago Bulls in FA and began a re-loading process, trading Kosta Koufos and a first-round pick in 2010 and 2012 for Al Jefferson.

2) One of the reasons they made that trade was because they had the Knicks lottery pick in 2010, a pick which had changed hands numerous times over the years. It was originally conveyed to Phoenix as the final part of the Stephon Marbury trade. The Jazz used it on Gordon Hayward.

3) Half-way through the season, Utah realized they had taken a step back in the Western Conference. Rather than try to put a new elite team around Deron Williams before he hit free agency in 2012, they sold high, shipping their franchise PG to New Jersey for Derrick Favors, Devin Harris and first-round picks in 2011 and 2013.

* It's important here to realize how far into the future Utah was looking when they made this trade. This was made in Year 1 of the LeBron era in Miami. We are now in Year 1 of LeBron's return to Cleveland and we still can't totally decide on some of the pieces that the Jazz got in this deal.


1) They use the lottery pick they acquired from the Nets to draft Enes Kanter at No. 3.

2) They use their own lottery pick, No. 12 overall, to draft Alec Burks.

A veteran team lead by Jefferson, Harris and Paul Millsap sneaks into the bottom of the playoff picture in the lockout season, before eventually being swept by the Spurs. Hayward starts and Favors is the 3rd big man while Kanter and Burke play small roles off the bench in their rookie seasons.


The only year they don't have a pick, as they have to send it to Minnesota as part of the Jefferson trade. They shuffle a few veterans around and remain an above .500 team, but with the bottom of the West continuing to improve, they fall out of the playoff picture with 43 wins.


1) They bundle their first-round pick (14) and the final Nets pick from the Deron Williams trade (21) to move up to No. 9 and draft Trey Burke.

2) They buy the No. 27 pick (Rudy Gobert) from Denver for a second-round pick and cash.

With Jefferson and Millsap hitting FA at the same time, the Jazz decide it's time to turn over the team to the young core they have been developing. They definitely aren't trying to win right away - instead of using their cap space to acquire helpful veterans, they let the Warriors dump Brandon Rush and Andris Biedrins into it for the price of two future first-round picks. Burke's injury to start the season and the lack of any real veteran depth sends them plummeting to the bottom of the Western Conference.


1) The #subtletank (keeping Ty Corbin as coach, starting Richard Jefferson most of the season) pays off, as Utah winds up with the No. 5 pick in one of the most stacked drafts in recent memory and grabs Dante Exum. In essence, the Jazz got the franchise player at the end of the rebuilding process, rather than the beginning.

2) One of the picks from the Iguodala trade (No. 23) becomes Rodney Hood.

They aren't going to make the playoffs this season, but they are headed in the right direction. If the Jazz can finish above .500 at home and near .500 on the road, the season should be a success. Their first real shot at the playoffs may not be until 2015-2016, but they have spent the last five seasons diligently building to reach that point.

Here's a look at their future depth chart, their age and when they were acquired:

PG - Dante Exum (19 - 2014), Trey Burke (22 - 2013)
SG - Alec Burks (23 - 2011)
SF - Gordon Hayward (24 - 2010), Rodney Hood (22 - 2014)
PF - Enes Kanter (22 - 2011), Trevor Booker (27 - 2014)
C- Derrick Favors (24 - 2010), Rudy Gobert (22 - 2013)

The Jazz have length and athleticism at every position on the floor but PF and they have all home-grown guys - this is not a coincidence. The only one in their top 9 whom they didn't draft themselves is Trevor Booker.

What you are looking at is the Oklahoma City model in action. A small-market franchise that 1) builds through the draft by looking for key physical characteristics and 2) develops their young players in an internal culture isolated from the rest of the NBA on 3) a very long time-table without any quick fix solutions in free agency.

And when I look at this team, I see a group that can one day give the Thunder a serious run for their money in the West. They need to figure out what happens with Kanter, but my guess is they keep him around at a reasonable price since he is still only 22. What happens if he figures it out in his mid 20's and him and Favors learn to co-exist in terms of spacing and interior defense? The Jazz are going to be unstoppable.

Exum, Burks, Hayward and Favors are all two-way players. The amount of length and athleticism they can throw at you is mind-boggling - 6'6, 6'6, 6'8 and 6'11 - and all those guys are really good at offense too! And while Burke, Hood and Gobert all have holes in their game, they should still be able to develop into quality bench pieces.

This is a textbook model for how you rebuild through the draft. If you take the OKC formula, you aren't always going to wind up with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden in consecutive years, even if you are really good at drafting. However, if you stay patient and you keep drafting young guys with two-way potential who play different positions, you should end up looking pretty good.

The key is to remain patient. The decisions Utah made in 2010 aren't really going to pay off until the second part of the decade. Compare their rebuilding process with what happened in Denver in the post Carmelo Anthony era. In the NBA, slow and steady wins the race.

Texas Basketball: Key Non-Conference Games

At Barking Carnival, a look at the four most important games for the Longhorns over the next two months.

Minnesota's Road Trip from Hell

At RealGM, a look at the road trip that strangled the Wolves season in the cradle.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Sam Dalembert Is A Damn Fool (Video)

My man Sammy D was so concerned with hitting Ty Lawson with the double flex that he leaves the play in order to stand over him, giving Kenneth Faried the easiest two points of his life:

Better finish that possession before you start celebrating, chief!

As you would expect from a Nuggets-Knicks game, there were a lot of funny things going on this one.

Here's Javale McGee doing a Javale McGee thing:

And here's two Knicks having trouble making an open lay-up:

It's going to be a long season in NYC.

The Rookie Class

There's been a lot of talk about how disappointing the rookie class has been so far, at least in comparison to the way the 2014 draft class was being hyped at this time last year. No one is putting up really big statistics, but that doesn't mean there isn't a lot to be excited about. Here's a look at how the Top 5 picks from that draft are faring (with the exception of the injured Joel Embiid), listed in order of least to most impressive.

4) Jabari Parker

There's a clear dividing line between Jabari and his peers in terms of athleticism. Guys like Wiggins, Exum and Aaron Gordon might as well be super-soldiers - they are taller, longer and faster than 99% of the players at their position. Jabari is a lot of things, but he isn't that. A football coach would make the other three guys skill position players on the perimeter, but he would put Jabari's big ass on the offensive and defensive lines.

Jabari is listed at 6'8 240, but just from the eye test, he seems a lot thicker and wider than guys like Tobias Harris and Luol Deng. He is a prototype 3/4 forward - he has the skill to play out on the perimeter as a 3, but he's really best suited to being a small-ball 4. He's better as an outside/in player than an inside/out. You would much rather have him trying to take bigger guys off the dribble than trying to post up smaller guys in the box.

The Bucks seem to have realized this, as Jason Kidd tweaked his starting line-up on Sunday, taking Ersan Ilyasova out, sliding Jabari to the 4 and starting Giannis at the 3. Basically, the idea should be to get Jabari in a situation as much like Carmelo in New York a few years ago as possible - playing next to a shot-blocking/pick-and-roll guy at the 5, with a ton of athletes who can play defense and shoot the ball at 1-3.

Jabari hasn't been great, but he has been holding his own while playing out of position on one of the most surprising teams of the early NBA season. Playing next to Larry Sanders and Giannis is probably the best-case scenario in terms of hiding him on defense - that could be a front-court that works for the forseeable future. From there, all the Bucks really need to do is find a few more guards and their rebuilding plan is almost over.

In terms of his individual statistics, you want to see Jabari stop forcing the issue and making the right play more often. Just because he can make a shot doesn't mean he has to take it. Going forward, he is also going to have to become a better jump-shooter, as you don't want a guy with his limited athleticism to be forced to make a living around the rim. Like with many rookies, offensive efficiency is one of the biggest holes in his game right now.

3) Andrew Wiggins

I have a longer thing in RealGM coming up about the brutal road trip the Wolves just finished, which kind of skews a lot of the statistics of their younger players. They went from Brooklyn to Orlando to Miami to Mexico City to New Orleans to Dallas in a little over the week and by the time the trip was over, their season was basically finished. It was not an ideal situation by any means and Wiggins, like most of his teammates, struggled a lot.

Wiggins hasn't been terribly productive as a rookie, but he is holding his own as a starter, as his combination of length and athleticism means he isn't killing his team when he is out there, no matter who is he playing against. He made some really nice plays on James Harden on both ends of the floor - he can make an impact without putting up a ton of stats and there's little doubt he will one day be one of the best two-way wing players in the game.

He's the rare young player where the offense is more of a work in progress as the defense. Wiggins is just not all that skilled - he's not a great ball-handler, he's an inconsistent shooter and he can't really create shots for other players. Without Ricky Rubio controlling tempo and creating shots for him, he can have a really hard time getting good looks at the basket. He is all about that spin move and eventually defenders are going to start sitting on it.

Flip Saunders has taken the 3-point shot out of his repertoire, as he has also done with Zach LaVine and Anthony Bennett, which might not be a bad idea for a young player who needs to focus on a few things early in his career, but let's hope this doesn't turn into a Doug Collins situation in Philly. When Rubio gets back, you are going to want those three guys running up and down the floor as much as possible with Gorgui Dieng at the 5.

Two years from now, that might be a really serious starting 5. This should be a great core for Wiggins to grow up with, as he won't be asked to bite off more than he can chew on the offensive end, at least early in his career. He can focus on playing D, running the lanes, hitting the offensive glass and cutting to the basket, with a few doses of posting up smaller guards and spotting up off penetration from Rubio and LaVine.

2) Aaron Gordon

*The Magic announced on Sunday that Gordon fractured his foot and is out indefinitely

Gordon was considered a reach at No. 4, but I thought that was about where he should have gone, from a talent perspective. There isn't all that much that separates Gordon from Wiggins - he's just as big and just as athletic and he has way more of a feel for the game at this point in his career. And while his shooting profile at Arizona was a major concern, it's not like Wiggins was the next version of Kyle Korver either.

Gordon wasn't starting in Orlando, but he had carved out an important niche for himself already and he was far more productive than Jabari and Wiggins on a per-minute basis. He had a 15.5 PER and per-36 minute averages of 14.5 points, 7 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1 steal and 1.5 blocks a game on 58% shooting. He's a really smart basketball player who does a little bit of everything on offense and can defend four positions on defense.

The biggest room for encouragement is his early-season shooting numbers - 50% from 3 (on only 8 attempts) and 67% from the free-throw line. He doesn't have to be an elite shooter, so if he can just convert his attempts at a reasonable rate and force defenses to respect him away from the basket, it's a huge win. That might be the blessing in disguise of his foot injury, as he can just work on his shooting form a lot while he's out.

Orlando had been using him as their primary front-court reserve, playing as a small-ball 4 next to either Nik Vucevic or Channing Frye at the 5. I thought the Frye/Gordon combo, in particular, had a ton of promise - Frye is more than big enough to guard Eastern 5's, which opens up the floor for Gordon and the rest of Orlando's perimeter crew to attack the rim. A Vucci Mane - Frye - AG front-court rotation could have kept the Magic in the playoff hunt.

With the way Tobias Harris and Evan Fournier have looked early, Orlando seems to be further along in their rebuilding plan than I had thought coming into the season. They still need to figure out how the Victor Oladipo/Elfrid Payton situation is going to resolve in the back-court, but they have a good combination of size, athleticism, shooting and scoring ability from their front-court, which is more than half the battle right there.

1) Dante Exum

Oh my goodness. Exum's statistics don't jump off the page at you, but he has been incredibly impressive in his first few weeks in the NBA. He has the whole package - the athleticism of Wiggins, Gordon's feel for the game and Jabari's scoring instincts. The talent was never the issue, but there were a lot of concerns about whether he would be able to play in the NBA as a 19-year old coming out of Australian high school ball.

No more. Exum has more than held his own in his time on the floor and he's going to start pressing Trey Burke for minutes at PG, sooner rather than later. Some of the plays he makes - a 19-year old should not be making them. He gets to the rim at ease, he knows how to manipulate the defense in order to create shots for others and he has even shown off the running floater in the lane. He does 1-2 things a game that make you hit the replay button.

Utah has been one of the most exciting teams in the league through the first part of the season and they are quickly becoming one of my League Pass favorites. I particularly love when Exum and Rudy Gobert come off the bench because you don't know what's going to happen. Their combination of length and athleticism is practically unfair - when you have a 6'6 PG and a C who might as well be 7'5*, it does weird things to the other team.

* I called Gobert the French Shawn Bradley before the draft and I am pretty happy with that comp. He's going to be one of the best back-up 5's in the NBA for a long time behind D. Favors - another guy who is becoming a monster this season.

Already this season, I have seen Exum matched up against guys like JJ Barea, Isaiah Thomas and Shane Larkin and it's flat-out unfair. If a 6'6 guy can run point for stretches, which Exum can, it opens up so many possibilities with the rest of the line-up. There's just nowhere to hide a small guard when he is in the game. That's a big deal now, but it's going to be an even bigger deal in a few years, when Utah is in the playoffs.

You can see all the pieces coming into place now. By this time next year, my guess is they will be starting Exum (6'6), Alec Burks (6'6) and Gordon Hayward (6'8) on the perimeter. Where are you going to hide your favorite PG on defense? There are a lot of little PG's who have come into the league with a lot more hype than Exum, but there ain't a damn thing they are going to be able to do against him - he's too big and too fast.

I like all four guys - Jabari, Wiggins, Gordon and Exum all have a chance to be All-Stars. However, if I'm talking franchise players, the guy I have my money on in this draft (outside of a healthy Joel Embiid) is Dante Exum.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Differences Between NBA and NCAA

Many, many versions of this blog ago, I started writing about basketball because I was betting on the NBA in college and wanted to keep track of my thought processes and what I was doing in one spot. Over the years, though, I've gradually bet less and less on the NBA and more on CBB, for a variety of reasons:

1) The talent gaps between teams are much wider

Pretty much anything can happen in an NBA game. Even the worst teams in the league have players who can take over the game on the offensive end of the floor. As a result, there's just a lot more factors that you have to keep track of when you are looking at the outcome of one regular-season game. Everyone who is out there is a professional who is one of the best players in the world. In contrast, even at the highest levels of CBB, there are a lot of guys who will be going pro in something other than sports. You know what you are going to get out of certain guys and you know what you aren't going to get out of them. 

2) There's a much wider gap between perception and reality in CBB

Everything in the NBA is rigorously analyzed and dissected by fans, media and coaching staff. The spotlight is just much, much brighter. Just to give an example from close to home, Mavs Moneyball has written thousands upon thousands upon thousands of words on Jae "The Beast" Crowder, a fringe rotation player who might get 10-15 minutes a night. There's nowhere to hide in the NBA and everyone is watching, at all times.

In college, though, even good teams can go under the national radar all season. There are way more teams and they are spread out across the entire country in much smaller markets and most of them are never on national TV. I've found the sweet spot to be high-major teams on the NCAA Tourney bubble - most people just don't know shit about teams like Utah or Kansas State or Georgia. As a result, it's easier to make money on them.

The flip side is also true - it's much easier for a high-profile college team to carry around a fatal flaw for months without people really noticing. The best example of that is the Kentucky team that missed the NCAA Tourney two seasons ago. They started out the year ranked in the Top 10 and even when they struggled, people assumed they would get better. If you were watching them closely, though, you started to realize that they flat out weren't very good and planned accordingly.

3) The importance of home court is magnified

This isn't the pros - college kids have a much easier time playing at home than on the road, especially in conference season. Stadiums are smaller, more intimate and they are full of belligerently drunk fans who are loud enough to make it difficult to think, much less play. The effect isn't limited to the road players - home players are buoyed by all the energy while refs find it very difficult to consistently make calls against the home team.

It almost doesn't matter how good the opposing team is - there are a number of high-major teams who are going to be very difficult to beat at home regardless. You also have to remember that very few teams are going to go 16-0 or 18-0 in conference play. That's a 2012 Kentucky mark and there aren't many college teams who are going to have Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones and MKG in the same front-court. If a Top 5-10 team is going to lose, it's probably going to be on the road in conference play, so just go through their schedule and start looking for potential land-mines. Home underdogs are your friends.

4) Every game counts

That might be the biggest difference between CBB and the NBA. College teams don't cram 82 games into 6 months - they play 30-35 games over 4.5 months and they all matter. If you are betting a game that isn't against Directional State in non-conference, you are betting a game that the team absolutely wants to win. They only play 2-3x a week - there are no back-to-backs and there aren't situations where they are playing 4 games in 5 nights. There are no schedule losses.

From a national level, the only games that matter are in March, so most people assume that the college regular season isn't important. It's true that no one remembers what happens in January and February at the end of the season, but at the time those games are happening, people care a lot. Everyone is constantly freaking out about their standing in the polls and their seeding in March, so any type of losing streak becomes a huge story around the team.

5) Teams change a lot over the course of the season

In the NBA, once you get into January, you have a pretty good idea of how all 30 NBA teams shake out. At that point, the biggest hurdle is keeping everyone healthy and maintaining your pace over a marathon of a season. In college, things are always changing, so there's always new angles to bet on. Injuries are a much bigger deal, since there is less depth, teams get figured out and exposed as their schedules get tougher and young guys grow into bigger roles over the course of a season. A team with a number of freshman and sophomores, which is almost all of them these days, is going to look much different in March than they did in November.

On the whole, college basketball is interesting in a way that the NBA is not. The level of play isn't as high, obviously, but there are still plenty of talented players you can watch. There's a lot more going on and there's a lot more variety - you can see something new and different every night. It's really not as bad as a lot of NBA fans make it out to be.

On another note, I know at least some percentage of the readers of this blog are aspiring writers and I would really recommend that young guys, especially those in college, should be writing about CBB. If you join the student paper, you will get a ton of experience covering high-level basketball and you can quickly establish yourself as one of the leading voices about a particular team, particularly if you aren't at a Top 10-15 program.

Covering CBB will also give you a different perspective on the game, which is so important if you want to get on these days. I have done a lot of stuff in terms of editing younger writers at RealGM and SB Nation over the last few years and it's amazing the level of uniformity you see out there. Everyone watches League Pass and follows Basketball Twitter and cites SportsVU and has roughly the same opinion as everyone else.

If you want people to read your writing, you have to tell them something interesting that they haven't heard other places. And if you are watching the same games as everyone else and taking in all the same information, that's probably not going to happen.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Top 10 NCAA Games

At The Cauldron, a look at the Top 10 non-conference games to watch NBA prospects this season.

Viewing Young Players

While I am no longer as into baseball as when I was younger, I still follow the Texas Rangers fairly closely, if for nothing else than a sense of obligation after watching them for 20+ years. MLB fandom is a very different beast than NBA fandom and one of the biggest differences is the way in which young players are viewed - for baseball folks, there is nothing more exciting than having a stocked farm system full of high-upside prospects.

As a Rangers fan, I've been hearing about Joey Gallo and Jorge Alfaro for years and they are still years away from being on the big-league club. Jurickson Profar is 22 and he already feels like yesterday's news because I've been hearing about him since he was 16. Last off-season, the Rangers traded a respected veteran at 2B (Ian Kinsler) in order to clear out playing time for Profar ... and all the fans were totally on board with it.

It didn't end up working out, as Profar ended up missing the entire season due to a lingering arm injury. Nevertheless, the logic was still sound - if you have a prospect who is ready for the MLB, you want to get him on the field because few things help a team more than a young guy getting regular at-bats. When you have a young, cost-controlled player at a premium position, it frees up assets to pursue opportunities on other parts of the diamond. 

All things being equal, a MLB team will cut ties with a veteran in order to allow a prospect to play, even if the veteran is still a really good player with a much longer track record of success. There isn't this pathological fear about trusting a younger player that seems to infect so much of the discourse around the NBA. In essence, MLB fans are like "let's see what this young guy can do", while NBA fans are like "prove to us you are not a bum." 

It's not just fans either. If there's one thing a lot of coaches and front offices in the NBA don't want to do, it's trust a young player in a big role in the rotation, even if it's a young guy they specifically brought in to fill that role. Maybe they aren't playing well enough in practice to justify PT, but how often are teams practicing when they are playing 4 games in 5 nights in 3 different cities? Some guys are better in games than practices, anyway. 

What's Doc Rivers solution to the Clippers perimeter D woes? Start Jamal Crawford at SF. Now, I love JCrossover's game and there are few players I enjoy watching get buckets more than him, but let's be real for like two seconds. You can't watch him play for any stretch of time and think this is the guy to fix the structural issues on your defense. He just isn't. That's not his game. He has been in the league a long time and it never has been.

If you look on their bench, the one guy who could theoretically help is Reggie Bullock, their first-round pick in 2013. I say theoretically because we have no real idea how he will fare at the NBA level, since Doc has buried him on the bench since drafting him. What I do know is this - Reggie might be an answer as a 3-and-D player, if not now than by year 3 or year 4, but Jamal Crawford will never be the answer. 

Even the advanced statistics aren't going to tell us much about Reggie because he simply hasn't played enough for the Clippers to get much real data. However, there are other ways to discern if he could be of some value. The pedigree is there - he's a very big guard (6'7 200 with a 6'9 wingspan), who moves his feet very well and who was a proven three-point shooter at the college level (44% from 3 as a junior on 5 3PA's a game).

We can all agree that the Clippers could use Danny Green? Well, if you looked at what they did at UNC, you would say Bullock projects as a better 3-and-D defender. Maybe he won't be as good as Green in the NBA, but what was Green before the Spurs gave him a shot? He was smaller and less athletic than Bullock and he wasn't drafted as high. The Spurs had to look past the numbers and give him a shot because his skill-set could help their team.

I'm sure Bullock has had some difficulties dealing with Redick and Crawford in practice, but who wouldn't? He's a 21-year old whose just been called up to the majors. That's where you can see the difference between baseball and basketball - fans don't expect a young guy from AA ball (which is about where the NCAA is) to instantly dominate the best of the best. If he can just hang onto a roster spot at that age, it's a pretty good sign of his abilities.

In and of itself, the fact that a young player struggles in his rookie season in the NBA should not be a surprise. They are usually thrust into one of two roles - either playing on a bad team going nowhere fast, where none of the vets are really committed to the system on either side of the ball, or trying to find a role on a good team that has no time to bring along a young player, so they aren't given much of an opportunity to play through their mistakes.

Despite all this, we are still quick to wring our hands and write off young guys who don't perform to our statistical standards. Ben McLemore is a perfect example of this - people were flat-out calling the guy a bust after his rookie year and there was zero excitement around him coming into this season. Even his team hedged their bets, drafting another guy who plays his position (Nik Stauskas) in the lottery a year after taking McLemore.

Yet I'm watching him last night in Dallas and thinking - this guy looks like an NBA player. He's big for a guard, he's really fast and his jumper looks pretty good. It's probably worth running him out there for awhile, seeing what he has. It's still early, but his numbers are much better this season - 9 points, 3.5 rebounds, 45% from the field, 42% from 3. If you watched him at Kansas, none of this comes as a huge surprise.

There's a reason people were real excited about McLemore before the 2013 draft - he's an elite athlete with all the physical tools to be a high-level NBA SG and he had a very productive freshman season, averaging 16 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists on 50/42/87 shooting. We were supposed to throw all of that away because he struggled as a rookie on a 28-win team with a first-year head coach who was trying to install a new system on both sides of the ball?

The underlying problem stems from where analytics is taking most of the discussion about basketball - since there is more data out there than ever before, how can we analyze, collate and dissect it to find patterns? The result is a never-ending competition to see who can glean the most accurate info from the thinnest slices of data. Everyone is sitting around waiting for data that they can plug into their algorithm to tell us what is REALLY going on out there.

I can look at the traditional stats and tell you Ben McLemore sucked last season or we can dig deep into the bowels of SportsVU to find out exactly how much he sucked. Or maybe we can create a chart and graph his production in comparison to the rest of the league's SG's and see just how far he fell short last season. Or maybe we can diagram 10 plays and watch him get lost on defense, muck up the spacing on offense and do a whole lot of nothing out there.

That's the problem with any system of collecting data - garbage in, garbage out. If we aren't the coaching staff of the Kings, it isn't all that important to know the 58 different ways McLemore hurt his team as a rookie. Quantifying his production doesn't tell us anything we don't already know. If we are evaluating him as a player, what's far more important is projecting what he could be in a few years. The Kings weren't winning last year, regardless.

When it comes to young players, everyone is focusing on the outputs when they should be looking at the inputs. Or, to paraphrase Nick Saban, they are worrying too much about the results and not enough about the process. If you want to know what I mean, read Keith Law over at ESPN. He covers young baseball players and he talks about their numbers, but he is mostly worrying about scouting stuff - their approach at the plate, their ability to field a position, the type of stuff pitchers throw and whether their arm can hold up over a long time.

It's the same thing in basketball or any other sport. If you crunch the numbers about every rookie who has ever played, you can find some patterns that would indicate long-term potential and then you can compare those patterns with the numbers that a particular rookie put up. However, not only is that a very, very roundabout way of doing things, every player is different and every career path is different and you have to make room for things that break the pattern.

When the Rangers traded Mike Olt last season, I wanted to know what he projected to be as an MLB player so I could have an idea of whether the risk of dealing him was worth the reward of adding Matt Garza to the rotation. What's his deal? Does he project as an elite defender at 3B? Is he a power hitter or a contact guy? Most important of all - what kind of player is he likely to be in five years? Is that worth losing for 12 starts of Garza?

It's the same with any organization in baseball. When they are analyzing trades, you have to look at the farm systems to understand the motivations of the teams. When the Rangers traded for Prince Fielder, it was as much about Profar as anything - the same way that Alex Castellanos was an important factor for the Tigers in giving up Fielder. If a team has a blue-chip prospect at a position, it opens up a lot of different possibilities for roster construction.

NBA teams don't have farm systems, but most teams do have young players they are trying to bring along. The weird part is that they cease to exist for most people until they start putting up big per-game statistics. If you are a first-round pick who didn't produce in your first season in the league, people are ready to give up on you instantly. Even if you did, if you didn't have a big enough role on your team, no one cares.

I've been following Terrence Jones since he was a freshman at Kentucky, five years ago. He has been slowly moving up the ranks - he was The Man on a Final Four team as a freshman, a supporting player on a national championship team as a sophomore, a bit player on a 48-win as a rookie and a starter on a 54-win team as a second-year player. His numbers aren't really changing, only the role he has on the particular team he is on.

So when the Rockets lost Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin, my first thought was, this opens up a lot of opportunities for Terrence Jones. If he can play up to his potential, they could be better than they were last season. That might not be right, but there's definitely a chance it could be and it wasn't on most people's radar screens. That's all I could think this summer, when I was reading all these think pieces about Daryl Morey and free agency.

Was the Rockets window closing? Is Dwight Howard done as an elite player? Is James Harden overrated? It was the same stuff you would hear 25 years ago as you would hear today, just the statistics being used have changed.* Maybe losing Parsons and Bosh did expose a flaw in the way Morey assembled teams, but if Jones lived up to his potential, none of that stuff really would have mattered. Houston had a blue-chip PF.

* The game the same, it just got more fierce.

Here's the numbers he has put up in 4 games - 14 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.8 blocks on 52% shooting in 29 minutes. Translate that over 36 minutes and it comes out to 17 points, 9 bounds and 2 blocks. He's a 23-year old PF who can play on both sides of the ball and he has a PER of 19.4. If he can just maintain this production, much less improve as he moves into his mid-20's, this changes a lot of things for the Rockets outlook.

Or maybe he won't, maybe the numbers will regress with more playing time and maybe he never becomes anything more than a starter on a good team. There's a range of outcomes with any young player, yet most people seem to be surprised when any of them develop into something better than they already are. If you know that some players years 2-5 in their careers will break out, you have to always be looking for guys who could.

Here's the thing, though - I'm not sure there's even a way to discern Jones ceiling as an NBA player from examining what he did in his first two seasons in the league. He was a young guy playing a role on a contender. Not only was he still years away from reaching his prime, he wasn't in a position to where he could showcase his game and rack up a bunch of stats. The only way to form an opinion was to look at his inputs, not his outputs. 

If you read any "advanced stats" coverage in basketball, you can see the strain of triumphalism leaking through a lot of the writing. We are this close to unlocking the secrets of the sport, to cracking the code of what's out there. With all this new data we have available to us, we can develop new ways to think about the game. Old ways of thinking are being swept aside. Progress is on the march and you can either be on the right side or the wrong side of history.

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.
- Ecclesiastes 1:9-11

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


At RealGM, a look at why I think Arizona is the best CBB team in the country.

Sacramento Kings

Through the first two weeks of the season, the Sacramento Kings have been one of the biggest stories in the NBA. They came into Dallas with a 5-2 record and they certainly looked the part early, getting out to a 20-point first quarter lead and squeezing the life out of the Mavs offense. Dallas was able to claw back into the game and pull out the win, thanks in large part to foul trouble for DeMarcus Cousins, but the Kings certainly made an impression.

"They hit you with physical force. They have skilled guys and they can make shots," said Rick Carlisle after the game. "We knew it would be a grind of a game, whistle-by-whistle, possession-by-possession." 

Sacramento doesn't really look like a modern NBA team. That may be why they zigged when everyone else zagged this summer - no team's off-season got more puzzled reactions around the league than the Kings, who gave up on Isaiah Thomas to bring in Darren Collison, on his fifth team in six seasons. So far at least, their unconventional approach has worked like gangbusters, although their schedule the rest of November is brutal. 

The Kings don't run a lot of pick-and-rolls, they don't spread the floor and they don't shoot a lot of 3's. They play really simple basketball - they hold the ball, they run a lot of isolations and they pound the ball into Cousins and Rudy Gay. Instead of a stretch 4, they start two conventional big men in DMC and Jason Thompson. They play like a big team - they hit the offensive glass, they foul a lot and they get fouled a lot. In short, they are bringing the 1990's back. 

You can see it in the numbers. They are 27th in the league in 3PA and 30th in the league in 3P%. They take 37.3 FTA's a game, 1rst in the league, and they give up 26.9 FTA's a game, 26th in the league. They don't get a lot of assists (23rd in the league), but they also don't get a lot of turnovers either (21rst). They wear you down over the course of game and make you play at their pace - running offense through DMC allows them to control tempo.

The way to beat them is the way you beat any 90's team - you try to pack the paint and force them to beat you over the top and you try to stretch out their defense and get their big men in a lot of screen/rolls on the perimeter. You can also make up a lot of ground when they go to their bench, as they play Gay and DMC together a lot and there isn't much scoring punch on their second unit. This is not a team that can afford many injuries.

One of the keys to their early start has been the play of Ben McLemore, whose rebounded from a tough rookie season and started to establish himself in the NBA. The Kings have really simplified his role - just spot up, launch 3's and stay out of the way on offense. He's their best three-point shooter and he's really the only guy in their starting line-up who can space the floor for DMC and Gay. The key numbers for him: 43% shooting, 40% from 3, 1.4 turnovers a game.

Starting McLemore instead of Nik Stauskas also makes them a much better defensive team. They have an elite athlete at 1, 2 and 3 in-front of two physical big men. They are currently rated 11th in the NBA in defense, which is a tribute to Mike Malone's defensive schemes and the growth of DMC. He's never going to be a great shot-blocker, but he's become much, much better at reading the game and getting himself in the right position on defense.

Going forward, the obvious place to upgrade the starting line-up is at the PF position. Even if they don't want a stretch 4, they might as well get someone who can provide a little more scoring punch than Thompson, who doesn't appear to have much, if any, of a role in the offense. Looking at their cap situation this summer, the guy that jumps out at me is Greg Monroe*, who would really fit their mid 90's Heat vs. Knicks motif. 

My guess is their depth and lack of shooting eventually catches up with them in terms of making the playoffs, but that's not what will determine whether this season is a success. The key for them is that they have found an identity - they know who they are and they know the type of players they should be looking for. This is a team that should be trying to play like the Memphis Grizzlies and the Indiana Pacers, grinding out possessions in the half-court.

* Monroe, basically, would be the Z-Bo to DMC's Gasol.

That's what DMC is built for. He's one of those guys you really want to see in person - the camera doesn't do justice to just how big and physical he is around the basket. Even though he only played 30 minutes on Tuesday, he still had 16/11/5 on 7-13 shooting. The craziest part is he still has so much room to grow, on and off the court. He's still only 24 years old. Check out what he said after the game:

A few years ago, that's a pretty good indication that he racked up 2 T's. Instead, he kept his cool all night, even when he was drawing a lot of whistles. Also - the Mavs were absolutely mugging him all night. At one point, Chandler picked up a foul for close lining him on a post-up. They just had no real way to deal with him. "Cousins is as difficult a match-up as there is in this league," said Carlisle. "In terms of brute strength but also basketball skill."

DMC is a 1990's player in a 2010 league. He ain't trying to be everyone's friend and he's not afraid to let you know he's there in the paint. When you think about it, it makes all the sense in the world to build a 1990's team around him. The Kings look like they have something.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Younger Brothers in the NBA

One of the more interesting things we studied in my psychology classes in college was birth order and the role being the oldest or the youngest in the family has on a child's life. Most presidents, for example, are first-born children. The oldest in the family is the natural leader, looking after and helping to take care of their younger siblings. They have much more experience being leaders than most kids their age.

The youngest child, conversely, tends to be more creative and artistic, as they try to create their own identity in the family. Google "comedians" and "younger brothers" and take a look at how many articles have those phrases in them. Younger children also tend to be better athletes, as they have the opportunity to practice against their older siblings all their lives. They test themselves every day against a bigger and faster player.

Once you start looking for the pattern, you can find it everywhere. Derrick Rose and Stephon Marbury were the youngest of four brothers. Peyton Manning was obsessed with being better at football than his older brother and they usually dragged youngest brother Eli along. Michael Jordan grew up playing in the shadow of his two older brothers. This SI article about Yadier Molina does a great job illustrating the point:

That meant that when the Cubs drafted Jose and the Angels signed Bengie as an amateur free agent in the late spring of '93, Yadi was suddenly alone. He had to make do with brief pay-phone calls from his brothers—six quarters would buy four minutes—and winter visits. He covered the room that was now his with newspaper clippings about Bengie and Jose. Over the next seven years Yadi's drive to do whatever it took to rejoin them only increased.

* There's also an interesting quote from Miguel Cabrera which touches on a lot of the things I talk about when it comes to valuing players: "On my list, he's at the top," says Miguel Cabrera, winner of the last two American League MVP awards. Above Cabrera himself? "The very top," the Tigers slugger confirms. "He can control everything—his pitchers, the games. I play first. I don't have any control, most of the time."

Younger brothers, as a rule, are "old for their age", which is really important in basketball. It's easy for the best young basketball players to get lazy, since they are so much taller than most of their peers. They don't need to push themselves to be the best player on the floor. A younger brother, though, is always pushing himself. No matter how good they are, they are always driven to supplant their older brother.

A guy who enters the league at the age of 19 has a chance to be really good. A guy who enters the league at the age of 19 AND he has an older brother who plays in the league? He has a chance to be a star. None of these guys are Blake Griffin, but he is the perfect example of this phenomenon - his older brother Taylor had a cup of coffee with the Phoenix Suns and now plays overseas.

Jrue Holiday (24)

Older brother - Justin (25), rookie for the Golden State Warriors

Even though Jrue is only a year younger than Justin, he is in his 6th season in the NBA and his brother is a rookie. After three years bouncing around the D-League, Justin just made the Golden State Warriors roster. At 6'6, he has the length to match-up with multiple positions on defense. As long as he can consistently knock down 3's, he has a chance to stick. He's 25, so he can still carve out a long career in the NBA.

They are both good athletes - the difference is Jrue is a PG and Justin is a SG. A 6'4 PG is incredibly valuable, so Jrue was accelerated his entire life. He graduated from high school at 17 and he was drafted at 19. He made the NBA at a really early age and played a small role on a good team. There were guys his age putting up much bigger stats at the college level, but that's not more impressive than what Jrue was doing.

Damian Lillard, who has played three seasons in the NBA, is the same exact age as Jrue, who has played six. Michael Carter-Williams, in his second season, is only a year younger! He doesn't get a chance to put up a bunch of stats - the Pellies slow the tempo and he shares a back-court with two ball-stoppers in Evan Gordon and Tyreke Evans - but he is really nice. Jrue is one of the most complete PG's in the league.

When the Pellies start making the playoffs, Jrue is going to be a real problem for a smaller PG in a seven-game series. He is a better two-way player than almost all of them and his ability to defend, score, shoot and pass at 6'4 200 will be tough to handle. I just like the way he plays the game - he's a very smooth player who is always under control. He is really taking care of the ball this season, with 7.2 assists on 1.8 turnovers.

Jrue Holiday is still so young that so much of his NBA future is unwritten. You don't say that very often for a six-year veteran, but not many six-year vets enter the NBA at 19. The number of seasons played in the NBA is a pretty good proxy for a guy's talent - Jrue will be a 10-year veteran at 28 and a 15-year veteran at 33. There's a reason for that and that's because he's doing a lot of things not captured by many statistics.

Cody Zeller (22)

Older brothers: Luke (27) had a few cups of coffee in the NBA. Tyler (24) is a third-year player for the Boston Celtics.

Between the Zellers and the Plumlees, two Indiana families of 7'0 produced five NBA players in recent years. At the college level, the Zellers (Luke, Tyler and Cody) were more skilled and the Plumlees (Miles, Mason and Marshall) were more athletic. Cody progressed much faster than his older brothers, who both needed four seasons in school. The youngest Zeller would have been a lottery pick after only one.

One of the reasons I think Cody is a little underrated is that it's really hard to put him in a box and compare him to another NBA player. Guys with his skill-set don't typically enter the league as young as he did. At 7'0 240, he is still physically underdeveloped in comparison to Tyler, who is closer to 250-255. As Cody adds more weight to his frame as he moves into his mid 20's, he should be a really difficult match-up for a lot of guys.

It's still early, but his numbers as a second-year player have improved across the board from his rookie season. With Josh McRoberts gone, there are a lot of minutes to be had in Charlotte and Cody is grabbing a lot of them. He's a power forward with the size of a center and the speed of a perimeter player. He has great ball-handling and passing ability for a 7'0 - you have to remember that most guys his size can barely catch a ball.

Like with most perimeter-oriented big men, Cody's ceiling will depend on his outside shot. I don't think he even needs to be a three-point shooter - as long as he can consistently knock down the 15-20 footer and force defenses to respect his shot, it will open up the rest of his game. He has the skill to play in the half-court with Al Jefferson and the speed to play in the open court with the rest of the Hornets young players.

Aaron Gordon (19)

Older brother: Drew (24) is a rookie on the Philadelphia 76ers.

Drew Gordon is a lot like Justin Holiday, in that he has bounced in and out of the NBA since graduating from college without ever finding a home. At 24, he still has time to make a name for himself in the league, but it is running out. If he doesn't make it soon, he will probably be better off making some money overseas. He is a decent athlete with a good amount of skill, but he's nowhere near as skilled or athletic as his younger brother.

Drew is a 6'9 240 PF while Aaron is a 6'9 215 SF who can swing between a number of positions on defense. He is an elite athlete with the ball-handling and passing ability of a PG who can defend every position but center. Maybe the best college game I saw all season was the Pac-12 CG between Arizona and UCLA, where AG had 11-8-8 and Kyle Anderson had 21-15-5. Those two guys were out there playing basketball.

People don't realize this because Arizona had a couple of quality guards, but you could have put Gordon in the Kyle Anderson role and UCLA wouldn't have missed much of a beat - he has the feel and unselfishness of a true PG. Unfortunately, you probably won't see too much of that in Orlando, as they have two ball-dominant guards - Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton - who are going to force AG to spend a lot of time off-the-ball.

When AG is 25 (which won't be until 2020!), he has the chance to be a 6'9 Andre Iguodala and I say that as someone who thinks AI has been one of the most underrated players in the league for awhile.* For now, though, you are only going to get rare flashes of that, as he will need to improve his outside shot to force defenses to guard him off the ball. If the D doesn't have to close-out on AG, it's going to be hard for him.

* Andre is also a younger brother - he had an older brother who played D1 ball at Dayton.

He's the perfect example of what I mean by a guy being young for his age. He just turned 19, so he should really be a freshman in college right now. However, he was already so good there was no point in holding him back. Either way, he should probably still be working on his scoring and shooting in college, but he's still good enough to be an NBA role player already, despite the holes in his game. The same general thing happened to MKG.

Here's a name to put in your back pocket - Utah PG Delon Wright, the younger brother of Dorrell. He's a 6'5 PG and he averages 17 points, 7.5 rebounds, 6 assists, 2.5 steals and 1.5 blocks a game on 56% shooting. You will be hearing a lot more about him this season.