Tuesday, February 24, 2015

KD to DC

Ever since the James Harden trade, people have been trying to dream up ways to get Kevin Durant out of Oklahoma City. The most common involve him going home to DC in 2016 in much the same way LeBron James returned to Cleveland. He would get to be in a new Big Three with a pair of star young guards and he would be playing in one of the biggest media markets in the NBA - this would be the perfect opportunity for him to take his star to the next level rather than stay in a small market with cheap ownership for the rest of his career.

The idea makes sense on the surface, but once you start to look at it more closely, it's not too hard to poke a lot of holes in it. For starters, most NBA players don't want to play in their home city. There are too many distractions and too many people with their hands out. Chris Bosh and LaMarcus Aldridge both grew up in Dallas and neither has ever expressed much interest in making a return home. What happened with LeBron is more the exception than the rule. KD is a fairly private guy who choose to go to college in Texas rather than stay home. If LeBron had played college, he would have went to Akron or Ohio State.

Wall and Beal are good and there's a sense that this is a young team on the rise, but there's a lot less in DC than meets the eye. They are 33-23 on the season, which is only 1.5 games ahead of OKC despite having most of their players and playing in the much easier conference. They are fifth in the East and they are 1-10 against the other top 4 teams in the conference. If the current standings hold, they would be matched up with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round and they would be beaten like a drum.

If you don't believe me, ask yourself who guards LeBron James on this team? Paul Pierce? This isn't 2008. The modern NBA is a game of wings - you can't really run out a 37-year old Paul Pierce as your biggest wing defender in your starting line-up and expect to win a championship. He should be coming off the bench like Vince Carter at this point in his career. I was surprised the Wizards let Trevor Ariza walk because there was no way they were going to be able to replace his size and athleticism as a perimeter defender. They don't really have much behind Pierce either. They have 35-year old Rasual Butler and 21-year old Otto Porter, a guy whose still finding his way in the league and almost certainly won't be getting much rope in the playoffs.

When you go up and down the roster, that's the first thing that jumps out. The Wizards have a bunch of old dudes on the back end of their careers. Maybe that helps them in the playoffs or maybe it doesn't. The Wizards seems to be under the impression they are playing in the mid 1990's Eastern Conference - they have built a massive team with veteran experience that plays two post men, pounds the ball inside and fires up mid-range jumpers. When they played the Atlanta Hawks a few weeks ago, it was like watching Polish cavalrymen charge into Nazi tanks.

How exactly are Nene and Marcin Gortat supposed to defend Al Horford and Paul Millsap 20+ feet from the basket? The only way they can get stretch big men back is on the other end of the floor, where they can use their size to try and punish them in the box. The problem is that strategy takes the ball out of Wall and Beal's hands and keeps them locked in the half-court rather than using their speed to get the game going up and down. John Wall would kill for the kind of driving lanes that Jeff Teague gets in Atlanta or that his old Kentucky running buddy Eric Bledsoe gets in Phoenix.

It's the same story off the bench, as Washington has grabbed on to every conventional-sized PF who shoots mid-range jumpers like it's the biggest market inefficiency in the game. Kris Humphries, Dejuan Blair, Kevin Seraphin, Drew Gooden - Gooden is the only one of the bunch who can even play the pick-and-pop game out to the three-point line. This is a team constructed by two guys who came up in the mid 90's - Ernie Grunfeld and Randy Wittman - and the only way they are going to be a team like the Hawks is if they take a time machine back to 1995.

Let's not forget that the only reason they are even in this situation is they got lucky as hell in two consecutive lotteries. Were it not for Wall and Beal, they could very easily be Sacramento East. Even with all their draft bounties, there was no recognition of the way the game was changing or discernible plan to build the best core possible. Back in 2012, did anyone even think about pairing Wall with Andre Drummond in a spread pick-and-roll offense? Beal is great, but Wall + Drummond would be the most unstoppable two-man game in the league so all you would have to do is find a few shooters and you could do what Stan Van Gundy is doing in Detroit. That's what a modern front office would try to do. Grunfeld played it safe and made the conventional pick, a decision which ended up backfiring on him in 2013.

The Brain Trust

I will never understand why they took Porter at No. 3 overall, knowing that one of the big selling points was his ability to play in the NBA right away and that Grunfeld would almost certainly bury him on the bench behind Ariza and Martell Webster. If you knew the guy wasn't going to contribute immeditaely, why not go with a more high-upside choice like Giannis Antetokounmpo? Knocking them for Giannis and Drummond may be a little unfair, but this is a team that should have at least thought about getting a guy like Nerlens Noel or Alex Len in one of their many forays through the lottery. Nene and Gortat are both in their 30's and their franchise players are both under 25 so why not secure a young high-upside big man in your last trip to the lottery? What is the point of taking an older swingman with a smaller ceiling if he isn't going to play anyway? Because he's the hot name on the mock drafts and he played at Georgetown?

Their best bet to break out of the box they are in is to sign KD in 2016, move him to the 4, start Otto Porter at the 3 and go with a spread pick-and-roll offense with whichever one of their remaining big men hasn't begun to break down. That could be a really good team, but what's in it for KD? Playing at the 4 is hard work - just take a look at the beating Draymond Green takes on a nightly basis in Golden State. In Oklahoma City, he has Serge Ibaka to do all the heavy lifting for him and he still benefits on offense as if he were playing with a smaller player because of Ibaka's ability to spread the floor.

You can spin it forward like once they have KD they will have all the space in the expanded cap room to bring in more FA's, but that's putting the cart before the horse. Are we even sure that Washington DC is a huge free agent destination? This is a franchise that has never won anything in one of the least appealing cities in the US to live in. All of the media people who live in DC try to sneak it in that group of New York, Los Angeles and Miami, but it's not that. New York has Broadway. LA has Rodeo Drive. Miami has South Beach. DC has ... K Street?

If we are talking lifestyle, I can see the appeal of going to Miami and hanging out on the beach year-round or going to NY and hanging out with Jay-Z and Beyonce or playing in front of the biggest stars in Hollywood on a nightly basis. DC is Hollywood for ugly people. People go to LA to be famous and they go to New York to be rich. People go to DC because they are attracted to power, they watched too many episodes of West Wing as a child and they want to change the world. These are not the kind of people you want to see partying with you when you are up in the club. If they were in any other city of the country, they wouldn't even be let in the club. No one's rooting for you if you are playing for DC's team. Regardless of whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, pretty much everyone in the country hates DC. The only difference between DC and Mordor is there's no golden ring and there's no lake of fire we can throw it into that will end their rule.

This a franchise that is going to have to sell winning not location. As it stands, it's hard to see the Wizards jumping the Cavs or the Hawks in the near future. The Raptors have a franchise-caliber big man (Jonas Valanciunas) whose only getting better as he moves into his mid 20's and the Heat have the most talented starting unit 1-5 if they can get everyone healthy next season. The Bucks have a good young core with three guys who should be able to close out games - MCW, Giannis and Jabari Parker - and the Pistons are looking more and more like Van Gundy's old Orlando Magic teams with each passing game. From there, you still have a Pacers team that is getting Paul George and a lottery pick next season. The days of the East being the dregs of the NBA are coming to a close and the window for Washington might already be closing shut.

That's how fast it goes in the NBA. It won't take very long for Wizards fans to go from dreaming about Kevin Durant to wondering whether John Wall will stay for a 3rd contract.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

First Round Picks

It didn't used to always be about draft picks. It wasn't too long ago that the majority of NBA teams were treating their first-round picks like an extra dollar at the strip club. The odds are that a guy you took in the end of the first round wouldn't have much of a chance to crack your rotation and any guy who lasted past the lottery probably didn't have that much upside to begin with. 

These days it's all about gathering assets. There are teams out there hoarding first-round picks and treating them like Scrooge McDuck treats gold bricks. 

If this was the NFL, having eight first-round picks in the next three years would mean a pretty good chance of creating a dynasty. An NFL team has 22 starters and 8-10 crucial reserves and a good portion of their players get seriously injured over the course of a season. NFL teams always need more bodies. 

An NBA team has 5 starters and 3-4 guys off the bench who get minutes and that's it. There's only one basketball and only five guys can play at a time. It doesn't really matter how good your 10th, 11th and 12th men are - they aren't going to play. For that matter, it doesn't really matter how good your 6th, 7th and 8th men are - they aren't going to get many more shots. If a first-round pick comes to a situation where there are established players at his position ahead of him, there isn't all that much he can do. He's not going to beat out guys with more experience than him.

The same thing happens to a lesser extent in college. Is Zach LaVine better than Jordan Adams? Maybe. It didn't matter because Adams was a year ahead of him at UCLA and he had already proven himself as a high-level college player. That's the way the world works. A basketball player can only be as valuable as the role available to them on the team they are on. If you don't draft a guy without having a plan for how to use him, he's probably not going to be very good. There are diminishing returns to the number of young players you can have at any one time.

We saw this play out all over the league in the run-up to the trade deadline. 

Goran Dragic demanded a trade in Phoenix because he kept seeing the Suns bringing in players who take the ball out of his hands and diminish his role on the team. Why sign Isaiah Thomas and draft Tyler Ennis in the first round? How many PG's did Phoenix need? If we leave the IT2 question aside, the reason they drafted Ennis is because they needed to draft someone. They had three first-round picks and a bunch of young players already on their roster so they were going to create a logjam no matter what they did. I suspect they took Bogdan Bogdanovic at No. 27 just because he was going to stay in Europe. They had no real need to stick another guy who was never going to play on the end of their bench.

It didn't really matter how good Ennis was because the odds are he was never going to be able to show it in Phoenix. Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas received contracts worth nearly $100 million this off-season. If you think they were going to take kindly to some rookie coming in and taking away some of their stats, look at what just happened with Goran Dragic. 

A first-round pick is like a car - they lose half their value the second they come off the lot. The same guy whom everyone loved coming into the draft, when the only statistics on him were his sterling NCAA numbers, is now a rookie with a very spotty track record at the NBA level. How much could the Kings have gotten for the No. 8 overall pick in last year's draft at the time? How much could they get for Nik Stauskas now? Once a guy is on the market, everyone else gets suspicious. Why do you want to trade him so fast? More importantly, the team that is trading him loses all of their leverage. I'm not giving you top value if you are trying to trade me a rookie you have fallen out of love with already.

A team with a lot of first-round picks is in a constant rush to turn them into something real - a lottery ticket is going to be more valuable before the lottery than after. Unless it isn't, in which case why would you even consider trying to trade it? 

That's what was going on with the Thunder in last year's draft, when everyone collectively lost their mind about the Josh Huestis thing. Oklahoma City has so many talented young players gathering dust on their bench it's embarrassing. What's the point in adding one more guy that Scott Brooks is never going to play? Why not try to develop Huestis a bit in the D-League and extend out his rookie deal until he's later in his 20's - that's the only way the Thunder are going to be getting any value out of this pick. They couldn't ask a guy who would normally be a first-round pick to take that offer but they could give it to a fringe guy with an interesting skill-set who could see the big picture. With so many young players ahead of him, including another rookie in Mitch McGary, anyone OKC took at No. 29 would have an uphill battle to ever crack the rotation in the near future. 

What the brain trust in OKC has found out is that it doesn't really matter what type of young players you bring in if your coach isn't going to play them. Scott Brooks ain't Greg Popovich - he's got zero time for the big picture. He's trying to win right now which means playing Derek Fisher and Caron Butler as many minutes as their broken down bodies can stand and then more. Whether that actually helps the team win now doesn't really matter because that's what he's going to do. For a young player to grow into a big role, there has to be a big picture perspective about the type of player you bring in to play around him. 

In short, you have to be committed to their success. If you are constantly bringing in young players at the same position every season, some of them are going to look like busts. Not everyone can play at the same time. That's what happened in Sacramento when they took Nik Stauskas the year after they took Ben McLemore. Once that happened, the odds that one of those guys would end up being shopped were astronomical because what coach wants to have two young mistake-prone SG's in his rotation at the same time? Either the coach of the Philadelphia 76ers or a coach who is about to get fired, which is not a knock on the 76ers so much as it as a reality that a coach who plays a lot of young players is going to have a worse win-loss record than a coach who doesn't and that coaches who win more games tend to keep their jobs and get higher salaries.

The ideal scenario for accumulating a bunch of assets is that you will flip them into something else. The problem is that when people make trades, they still look at a player's points per game, rebounds per game and assists per game. There are only so many points, rebounds and assists on a given team at a given time. That's why it's called "a pecking order" - everyone wants their pecks and there aren't enough to go around.

The Suns got the first-round pick they turned into Tyler Ennis in return for Marcin Gortat, a move that was widely praised at the time but seems a little lopsided now. What are the odds that a guy the Wizards took at No. 18 was ever going to see the floor in Washington? Otto Porter can barely get minutes. That isn't to say there weren't a lot of good players taken after the No. 18 pick in last year's draft only that none of them would have gotten much of a chance to show what they could do in Phoenix or Washington.

The good news for the Suns is that it doesn't really matter what they got for Gortat as long as they got him out the door because he was standing in the way of playing time for young C's like Miles Plumlee and Alex Len.

That's how the worm turns in the NBA. Talent is everywhere because as many as 30 first-round picks come into the league each season and there aren't 30 open rotation spots for them to fill. It's kill or be killed in these NBA streets and the vast majority of players know they are one injury or one bad month of play away from losing their jobs and never getting them back. The only guys who aren't keeping track of how many minutes and how many touches they get are old guys who have made a ton of money and just want to win and even then it doesn't happen as often as you would think. Ask Brian Shaw what happens when you try to cut Andre Miller's PT. Was it professional what Miller did to Shaw? I would think not but Dre Miller has been a professional basketball player for 18 years so he would know a lot more about it than me.

Building through the draft is like building a team in general - it's all about how the pieces fit together. The difference is that it's much harder because you are trying to fit together pieces that haven't really even been formed yet. I was a massive nerd as a child so the best analogy I can give for this is how my man J. Michael Straczynski wrote Babylon 5. The reason nerds appreciated Babylon 5 was that it struck to a really strict plot that held together over multiple seasons. This wasn't like Lost where the writers seemed to be making shit up on a week to week basis. You could get into the mythology of Babylon 5 because you knew everything would pay off eventually.

TV for a less cynical age.

How did that work in real life? It got pretty tricky.
"The trouble, of course," wrote Straczynski, "is that unlike writing a novel, where characters exist only on a sheet of paper, actors... can get sick, they can get into contract disputes, they can get hit by meteors... Consequently, in drafting the story for Babylon 5, I made sure... there is a ‘trap door' built into the storyline for every character."
In order to build through the draft, you need to be able to look 2-3 years down the road. The problem is you never really know how a draft pick is going to turn out so you have to plan for things that might not actually happen. The Utah Jazz have to plan for a world where Dante Exum is a really good player but they don't know for sure. They probably planned to be in a world where Trey Burke is a really good player. Things can change pretty fast in the NBA. #FerrisBueller

That's why you really want to get these draft picks right. When the Jazz took Dante Exum, it meant they couldn't really take D'Angelo Russell or Emmanuel Mudiay, even if they wound up in the Top 3. There just wouldn't be enough basketballs to go around for all of those guys. Once they drafted Exum, they were deciding that Burke wasn't going to be that nice and they weren't going to be taking any more combo guards in future drafts. There's an opportunity cost for drafting anyone.

It always comes back to opportunity cost. Drafting Joel Embiid makes Nerlens Noel less valuable. Playing Rudy Gobert makes Enes Kanter less valuable. Trading for Dion Waiters makes Reggie Jackson less valuable. Signing Isaiah Thomas makes Goran Dragic less valuable.

Building a team isn't about drafting the best player available and it's not even really about collecting the most assets. It's about having good players AND putting them in the best position to succeed. Having too many talented young players on your roster is a good problem to have, but it's still a problem.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Draymond Green

Coming into the season, few expected the Golden State Warriors to be the runaway favorites for the NBA title, but that's the position they appear to be in as we put the All-Star break behind us. The Warriors have the best record and point differential in the league despite playing in one of the toughest conferences in recent memory. People are writing articles about Steph Curry being the face of the league and the guy to succeed LeBron and whether the Warriors can put together a dynasty over the next few years.

While there's no denying how well they have played over the first half of the season, I'm still in the camp that they have a lot to prove, mainly because they have very little playoff experience together. You don't often see a team go from winning one playoff series to winning four in a row in one jump. I'm not saying there's some intangible ubuntu stuff that goes in the playoffs and that the only way to win is to be there before. What I'm saying is that the post-season crucible tests your team in ways that the regular season cannot. The Thunder, the Clippers, the Spurs and the Grizzlies - we have a pretty good idea of what all these teams are about because they have played in a bunch of series against each other. 

Maybe the Warriors are the 2008 Celtics. Maybe they aren't. In and of itself, one great regular season doesn't mean anything. Just ask the 2007 Mavericks.

The difference between the playoffs and the regular season is the importance of match-ups. Over the course of an 82-game season, when you play 29 different teams spread out across the North American continent, individual match-ups tend to even out. Even if you have an edge on a guy, maybe you are playing on a back-to-back or your 4rth game in 5 nights or maybe you are going through a shooting slump or maybe someone else on your team is rolling so they are running all the offense through him for the moment. It all comes out in the wash. 

In the playoffs, everyone knows everyone and everything gets exposed. A team falls behind in a series and they are trying to find whatever edge, real or imaginary, they can find on the opponent. By the 3rd or 4rth time you play against a guy, you have a real good feel for his moves and for what he can and cannot do on both sides of the floor. On a team level, a good coach will re-arrange their entire line-up around exploiting a weakness on the other team. They are going to try unconventional things they would never do in the regular season, when it's more important to maintain consistent roles and avoid radically changing everyone's responsibilities on a nightly basis.

There are a lot of different questions you can ask about the Warriors - how will Steph's improved D hold up? If they face the Spurs, does he guard Manu or Parker? Do they have enough shooting on the perimeter outside of the Splash Bros? Can Bogut be a threat to score? What happens if teams go small against him and dare him to post up? Who takes Harry Barnes spot in the 4Q? - but the one that really fascinates me and the one I think will ultimately determine their season is this: Is Draymond Green big enough?

The stats would tell you it doesn't matter since Draymond is such a great defensive player and the Warriors have one of the best defenses in the NBA. That said, he is really short for his position and that's the type of thing that tends to matter more in the playoffs than in the regular season. 

Everyone wants to talk about PG's, but I've always felt that PF was the most important position in the modern NBA. That's the swing position that determines whether you are a 4-out or a 2-in team, so the guy at that spot determines your identity on both sides of the ball. You can see that this year with Golden State - the biggest change they made was switching out David Lee for Draymond. Now they are a super-fast team that can spread the floor, switch and trap pick-and-rolls and overwhelm teams with their length and athleticism. These are not things you can say about a team playing Lee major minutes at PF. 

Draymond made his rep in last year's playoffs, when the Warriors got back in the series by starting him in Game 4. Blake Griffin absolutely tore up Lee through the first 3 games and then Green helped bring him back to Earth, giving an undermanned team without Andrew Bogut the chance to pull off a major upset. Check Blake's game log from that series and notice when the massive drop in his stats occur.  

Draymond is a great defensive player in terms of his ability to hold up in the post, his quick hands and his tenacity, but he also follows the typical strategy that a lot of undersized guys have on D. When Draymond is on you, you are going to see a lot of cheap shots, physical play and macho posturing. The thing about that is you can hit Blake Griffin all you want and he's never going to hit you back. You can be the tough guy with Blake and try to get in his head. If you try that shit against Zach Randolph, he might murder you. Not metaphorically either. 

1) Grizzlies

We already know about the Grit N Grind Grizzlies, who already have series wins against the Spurs, Thunder and the Clippers on their playoff resume. They are going to slow the game down, ugly it up and pound the ball in the paint. In 2011, they overpowered a 60+ win Spurs team that started Dejuan Blair upfront. When you go up against Z-Bo and Marc Gasol in the playoffs, you better be ready for war.

You think it's all fun and games until Z-Bo has his hands around your neck and is trying to squeeze the life out of you on national TV. The camera ain't on you for 48 minutes. He's going to get you at some point. And when you are in the Grindhouse don't expect the refs to bail you out either. They are going to chalk it up to physical play and let you guys sort it out when neither of you has the ball. I'm not saying Draymond is going to back down. I'm just not sure it's going to matter. If a 6'5 guy is in the way of Z-Bo getting a championship, Z-Bo is licking his chops. He's going to take that little dude on the block then he's grabbing a 2x4 and beating him over the head with it. 

Who is drinking whose milkshake? That is the question.

2) Blazers

LaMarcus Aldridge is one of the toughest match-ups in the league because he is so tall and he's such a good shooter that he can practically score at will. People use that expression too much but that's the only way to describe what he did to the Rockets in the first two games of the first-round - 46 points in Game 1 and 43 points in Game 2. Terrence Jones, who is a lot taller and longer than Draymond Green, was much too short to bother LMA's release point. He needed a broomstick to block it essentially.

There are very, very few guys in the league with the ability to cover LMA. His problem is that he has run into them in each of his last two playoff series - Tyson Chandler in 2011 and Tiago Splitter in 2014. Interestingly enough, both those teams went on to win the NBA championship. The Blazers were actually the toughest challenge the Mavs had that season. The lowest point of their playoff run was coming back to Dallas 2-2 in the first round following Brandon Roy's heroics in Game 4. They just had a really tough time dealing with LMA and it forced them to do all sorts of wacky things to get past the Blazers. 

3) Spurs

The Spurs don't win a championship without Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw on their roster. That, along with the emergence of Kawhi Leonard, is what has allowed them to get back to the top of the NBA. 

You can see the importance of PF's in the way that they won the 2014 NBA Finals. They bust open the series in Game 3, when they moved Diaw into the starting line-up and went 4-out around Tim Duncan. I think that's the strategy they would try with the Warriors. Diaw is kind of like a bigger version of Draymond in that he can take bigger guys out on the perimeter and defend them on the block without giving up anything. The interesting thing about a match-up between those two is that Diaw could also theoretically take Draymond on the block. He can beat you in a lot of different ways - just ask LeBron James and Marc Gasol, two guys whom he has held his own against in 1-on-1 match-ups over the last nine months. I don't really care about Diaw's regular season stats because he's the next iteration of Robert Horry and Lamar Odom. I call those guys The Tax Men because they don't really get to work until April 15. 

What makes all three of those guys special is they were great two-way players who could outplay bigger stars at their position even though they weren't a featured player on offense. And maybe Draymond can be the next in those line of guys. He's just a lot shorter is all.

4) Thunder

When I look at a potential series between these teams, what jumps out at me is the Thunder moving Serge Ibaka to the 5 and KD to the 4, which puts the Warriors in a really tough spot since Bogut doesn't want to defend out to the three-point line. They may not ever use that as their starting line-up but you can bet they will go to it to close out games if they don't need to keep a 5 on the floor who can defend the post.

Does Draymond guard KD if he's at the 4? I'm not sure. They might move Draymond to the 3 and put a longer defender more used to guarding 25+ feet like Iguodala on KD. No matter how the Warriors match up with, the Thunder going small takes away a lot of their advantages in terms of being the faster and more athletic team. Golden State wants to run bigger teams off the floor. The $64,000 question is whether OKC can beat them at their own game.

I don't want to sound like a hater because I really like his game but I don't think Draymond can guard KD. I don't think anyone can really. There's a reason the Thunder have won 8x as many playoff series as this group of Warriors even though all of their core players are around the same age.

At the moment, these match-ups questions are unanswerable. The Warriors haven't played enough 7-game series against the top teams in the West for us to really know. The only thing we can do is speculate. For whatever its worth, here are the numbers that all those guys have put up against the Warriors this season:

In a lot of ways, the Warriors are a spiritual descendant of the 7 Seconds or Less Suns, with Steve Nash as the closest thing to Steph Curry. What made both those teams so incredible is they ignored a lot of the conventional wisdom when it comes to building a roster. You don't think the Thunder would rather start KD at the 4 and score 8 trillion points? They don't because they think it's important to have big men with the size of Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka in order to match-up with the big front-lines in the West.

What happened to the Suns? They never really had an answer for Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki. 

This was a low-key Hakeem vs. Robinson moment.

Bogut could maybe guard Duncan but it's not like he could guard prime Dirk. The way the league has been going over the last generation, you need a guy who can match-up with guys like prime Dirk on your team. If the Warriors can win a title with a 6'5-6'6 guy at PF, it's going to challenge a lot of assumptions about how you can build an elite team ... they just have to do it first.

Here's the thing. Even if Draymond Green survives the gauntlet in the Western Conference, which might mean going toe-to-toe with KD, LMA and Z-Bo in consecutive rounds, he might have to go up against LeBron James playing as a small-ball 4 in the NBA Finals. If he can hold up against those guys, he's going to have earned every penny of the money he will make in the off-season.


At RealGM, a look at why Larry Brown's depleted roster still has a chance to make a run in March.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Jarrell Martin

Everyone wants to talk about all the talent on Kentucky but the reason they have a chance to go 40-0 really comes down to two guys - Willie-Cauley Stein and Karl Towns. They are a two-headed 7'0 monster with elite athleticism who can play off each other on offense and defense. Very few teams have the big men to even run with Kentucky so they play a quasi-zone all game and pray that the Kentucky guards miss their shots. The Harrison Twins, the nominal starters, aren't very good so everyone waits for Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker to get in the game, but that doesn't mean they are the reason Kentucky is winning. They are living off their big men because why wouldn't they? Life is easy when you got two monsters like Cauley-Stein and Towns upfront.

They have basically been pulling guys cards all season. If you are a big man, you can't go into a game against Kentucky bull-shitting. You had better be able to play basketball if you are going to be able to do anything against Cauley-Stein and Towns. A lot of these big men in college, their game is based around being bigger than the other guy and bullying them around the rim. That's all well and good until they face a team with Kentucky's size and they find out there's always a bigger man in a prison. 

1) Kansas

- Jamari Traylor: 2 points on 6 shots
- Cliff Alexander: 8 points on 7 shots

2) Texas

- Cam Ridley: 1 point on 2 shots
- Myles Turner: 5 points on 6 shots

3) UNC

- Kennedy Meeks: 10 points on 8 shots
- Brice Johnson: 15 points on 12 shots


- Tony Parker: 2 points on 10 shots
- Kevon Looney: 9 points on 14 shots

5) Louisville

- Montrezl Harrell: 9 points on 9 shots

When you look at those guys, the one thing they all have in common is they have games based around being bigger and more athletic than the guys guarding them. That's why only Cliff Alexander and the UNC guys were able to average more than 1 point a shot and even then just barely. You can't bully Kentucky. You have to be able to play basketball. When you are a big man, that's the real difference between the NCAA and the NBA. There are ways to score against guys who are bigger and faster than you, but they all entail the player being really good at basketball. Guys who can do that can generally play in the NBA.

When you are watching Kentucky, you are basically walking an exhibition where the NBA has loaned out a pair of young 7'0 and told them to roam the country in search of worthy foes. Which brings us to Tuesday night in Baton Rouge.

When you look at Jarrell Martin's recruiting pedigree, it's a little strange he is so widely unknown in his sophomore season of college. For one thing, guys like Martin aren't necessarily guaranteed to even stay in school for a 2nd season. Martin was the No. 11 recruit in the class of 2013, a five-star guy rated two spots ahead of Noah Vonleh. 

However, instead of going to a basketball powerhouse like Indiana desperately in need of a freshman who could carry a huge load on offense, Martin wound up staying close to home at LSU, playing for an on the rise program lead by Johnny Jones. Last season, Martin joined a front-court which featured two other NBA prospects in Johnny O'Bryant III (now with the Milwaukee Bucks) and Jordan Mickey. As a result, he was forced to play out of position as as SF without ever getting the chance to dominate the ball on a team with a lot of driving lanes like Jabari Parker at Duke. When he got injured in their first game of the season, it kind of knocked him down the pecking order of the team and eliminated his name from national discussion. He returned to have a very solid season as a 3rd option - 10 points and 4.5 boards on 47% shooting - but that obviously didn't move the needle much.

As a sophomore, Martin has moved to a more natural position as a small-ball PF and thrived, averaging 16 points, 9 boards, 2 assists, 1 steal and 1 block a game on 49% shooting. Martin and Mickey are one of the best frontcourt tandems in the country but they aren't surrounded by great guard play, so LSU has gone under the radar for most of the season. While they are currently projected as an NCAA Tournament team, the program is still seen as a year away until a monster recruiting class headlined by Ben Simmons comes in. A win against Kentucky on Tuesday would have put them on the map.

Put yourself in Martin's shoes. He's looking at Kentucky's players like I'm just as good as you guys, I was just as publicized coming out of high school, everyone thought I would be a superstar too. I just haven't been in a situation where I could show people what I could do. Now you are coming into my building on national TV. This was a Lose Yourself moment - a chance for Jarrell Martin to make a name for himself, to put himself on the map for a spot in this year's NBA draft. This was a chance to make himself a whole bunch of money. 

There's a running joke among the guys I play basketball with about a guy we call "Angry Tre". Even though we are just playing pick-up, he takes it so seriously so that every game is a matter of life and death. If you beat him, he takes it personally. One time, in the midst of one particularly intense game, he began every possession by saying "Check Ball. You Scared. Let's Go." I'm not sure if he was just trying to psych out his opponent or get himself going or some combination of both, but either way the point stands. Dick Vitale was in the building in Baton Rouge. There were dozens of NBA scouts scattered throughout the arena. DraftExpress was watching this game. Check Ball. You Scared. Let's Go!!!

On the second basket of the game, Martin let the Kentucky guys know it was serious. LSU ran a pick-and-roll, the second 7'0 didn't rotate quickly enough on help-side and Martin slammed the ball through the net. I can jump with you. You better be ready to play basketball tonight.

A few minutes later, with Kentucky picking up full-court, Martin took the ball to the front of the rim and threw a lob to his running buddy Mickey. The camera panned around to the crowd and their teammates who all had this face like OK. You don't throw down two lobs on Kentucky's head in the first five minutes if you aren't here to play some basketball. That was when everyone in the arena knew this was going to be a game.

Most college big men don't know what to do against a guy with Marcus Lee's combination of length and athleticism - 6'10 220 with a 7'3 wingspan and a 38.5 max vertical. You can't just power through this guy and dunk on him like he was a 6'6 power forward from Texas Tech or Boston College. Martin put him on his back, got to the front of the rim and then threw a few pump fakes at him. Get him in the air, draw the contact and go to the line.

If you are playing against Kentucky, you can't be scared to go to the rim, but you have to know what you are doing. You have to be able to catch and finish in one motion and get a shot up before the shot-blockers can respond. When you get to the NBA, that's how it's going to be. You aren't going to have a very big window to get your shots off. You better be ready to score and score quickly.

John Calipari went to his ultimate trump card towards the end of the first half, putting Cauley-Stein on Martin. Most college big men shrink in terror at this possibility, as there isn't a player in the country with the size to finish over the top of Cauley-Stein or the quickness to get around him. What did Martin do? He didn't waste any time with fruitless attempts at shot-creation. He ran the 7'0 off screens and got himself an open shot.

By the second half, Martin was just playing with his opponents. It don't matter who you are or what you can do on defense. When a 6'9 240 guy can put the ball between his legs and dribble into a step-back jumper, there isn't much you can do. Don't think I'm just confined to attacking you guys at the rim. I can take you out to the three-point line and do work as well.

For Martin, the final piece on the offensive side of the ball is creating shots for his teammates. As a big man, he primarily relies on his guards to create offense for him. At the next level, big men have to be able to create shots for their guards. When the defense collapses on you, which they will, you have to be able to read the extra floor, make the extra pass and trust in your teammates.

Martin finished the game with 21 points, 11 rebounds and 2 assists on 11 shots, but LSU wouldn't have had a chance if he hadn't been willing to battle against Towns and Cauley-Stein on defense and on the glass. When an NBA team goes small against a team like Kentucky, they aren't expecting to win the match-up around the rim, they are just trying to survive. Take a look at this sequence and tell me this doesn't look like Draymond Green trying to guard Zach Randolph.

The difference between Karl Towns and the rest of the great PF's in this year's draft is that Towns literally towers over them. He can shoot from distance and play on the perimeter, but when the game is on the line, he can play mouse in the house and take them to the block. Everyone else better have a Plan B because they aren't going to be able to post up guys like Towns, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tiago Splitter and Nene.

Where Martin comes up short in comparison to guys like Montrezl and Cliff Alexander is that he has more of a finesse game, which is better suited to scoring against guys who are bigger than you. He doesn't have the type of brutish post game you can use to devastate smaller guys. That's why he had more points against Kentucky than against the rest of his opponents while Montrezl and Cliff had fewer. From an NBA draft perspective, the real question isn't who is the better NCAA player but whose game will have a better chance of transitioning to the next level.

None of this is to say that he's a perfect prospect. His three-point shooting has gone down from last season and he needs to improve as a defensive player if he's going to have any chance of surviving in the paint in the NBA. Some teams will likely try to move him back to the SF position, as he has the quickness, ball-handling and shooting touch to possibly survive. Either way, guys with Martin's size, athletic ability and skill-set don't usually last until the middle of the second round.

LSU doesn't play Kentucky again in the regular season, but they could end up facing them on a "neutral" floor in the SEC Tournament in Atlanta. If Jarrell Martin and Jordan Mickey face off against Karl Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein circle that on your calendar because that's 4 NBA big men who are going to be lacing up their shoes and going at each other. The bottom line is that if you can drop 21 points and 11 rebounds on Towns and Cauley-Stein, you can do that against anyone.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Eye Test Debate

And like I say, the Rockets for a long time. So they went out and paid James Harden a lot of money — they got better. Then they went out and got Dwight Howard — they got better. They had Chandler Parsons, and now this year, they went out and got Ariza. The NBA is about talent.

Charles Barkley made a big splash last night when he called analytics people nerds who didn't get a lot of girls in high school, but he did have a point tucked away under all the name-calling and vitriol. He was really only saying something we can all agree on - the teams with the best talent and the best coaching staffs are going to win the most games. That is the case now, that has always been the case and it will always be the case. If there's a debate, it's about the methods by which teams can acquire talent.

After all, you don't need analytics to tell you Dwight Howard and James Harden are good. You can look at a box score and figure that out. Sir Charles discounts all the work the Rockets had to do to get those players but he's right in that you can give most of the credit for Houston's success to Dwight and Harden. Once you get foundation guys in place, all a front office can do is work around the margins and try to put them in a position to succeed.

Where the Rockets have been ahead of a lot of teams is in how they have used analytics to identify guys who aren't Top 3 picks. The only eye test you needed to figure out that Dwight Howard and James Harden were going to be good was do my eyes work? Where the rubber meets the road for "eye test" vs "analytics" debate is guys like Beverley and T. Jones.

Personally, I don't really need any statistics to tell you that Patrick Beverley and Terrence Jones are good players. I can watch them play the game for awhile and figure that out.

Jones has got good size and length for a PF and he's a freak athlete who can play above the rim and get down in a stance and slide his feet on the perimeter. He's a really good ball-handler for a guy with his size and he can even push the ball himself after a break and create a shot for one of his teammates. If you give him a lane to the rim, he can put the ball on the floor and then finish over the top of your center. His jumper isn't great but it's getting better every season and it puts defenses in an impossible bind. He's more of a face-up guy than a post-up guy, so the better his shot is, the higher his ceiling as as player. On top of all that, he can fight on the boards, protect the rim and get his hands into passing lanes. He's still a really young player so I don't hold his defensive lapses against him too much, but it is something he will need to improve to be a 30-35 minute player on a good team.

I look at Terrence Jones and I see a guy who should be a high-level two-way starter at his position. I'm really not sure how many people on Basketball Twitter would agree with me and I don't particularly care. The point is there is a right answer and it really doesn't matter how you get to it. If you need per-minute stats, on-court/off-court numbers and PER to convince you that Jones is a good player, more power to you.

Here's the thing - it's easy to say I'm an eye test guy but if all those NBA front offices are such great eye test guys, how come Terrence Jones fell all the way to No. 17 in the 2012 draft? How come the Rockets needed analytics to tell them what should have been obvious to everyone?

The eye test guys spent most of Jones sophomore season at Kentucky quietly bad-mouthing him and insinuating that he had attitude and confidence problems? Why? Because his per-game stats were down across the board from his freshman season. Apparently none of them were able to put together the connection that adding Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to your college front-line (in place of Josh "Jorts" Harrellson and Darius Miller) was going to decrease the number of opportunities you would have to rack up points, rebounds and assists.

Jones was just as big, just as skilled and just as athletic as he is now, but most of the "eye test guys" were really just scouting the stat line. Their eyes saw that his points, rebounds and assists were down so they made up some risible just so stories about his game.

This is the 2012 NCAA championship game between Kansas and Kentucky, where Jones was matched up with Thomas Robinson. Knowing what we know now, I defy you to watch this game and think Robinson was a better player. He scored 18 points - but he needed 17 shots to do it! Jones, because he had a smaller role on his team, had only 9 points, but he only needed 7 shots to get it.

Yet if it was obvious then how come Thomas Robinson went 12 picks ahead of Jones in the draft and no one said anything? That's because when most people say eye test they are really just saying I saw this guy take a lot of shots and then I looked at the box score so I guess he must have had a really good game. Thomas Robinson passed a lot of people's eye-test but the problems he had in NBA were evident when he was in NCAA if you knew what to look for. Instead of feeding himself a bunch of self-serving lies about his own intelligence, Morey ran the numbers and found a diamond in the rough.

It's the same thing with Patrick Beverley. After the fact, it seems pretty obvious that a guy with his size, athleticism and defensive intensity and his ability to knock down spot up 3's would be able to find a spot in the NBA. Just about every team in the NBA needs someone who can ball-hawk Russell Westbrook and then stand in a corner on offense. Then how come it was the Rockets who found Beverley out of Europe? The same month Houston signed him, the Mavs signed Mike James to shore up the PG position.

I don't watch enough European basketball to know for sure, but I kind of doubt Patrick Beverley was the only guy to slip through the cracks. Look at what just happened with Hassan Whiteside! The world is full of tall, athletic guys who have played enough professional basketball to where they could handle the transition to the NBA. The problem is that most of these eye test guys in the NBA don't watch a ton of Euro ball either so they never know who to sign. I'm guessing the Rockets ran Beverley's numbers in the computer, liked what came out and then went out and scouted him.

People want to say Houston is this super genius analytic team but they are really just taking advantage of basic inefficiencies in how other teams evaluate talent. Remember when everyone was freaking out about their bench? Daryl Morey and Co. knew there was plenty of talent floating around the NBA and they were confident they could find it. Why? Because they have some analytic models they trust which can spit out answers.

I'm a person with very little interest in math (I have a college degree yet can do nothing more complex than long division) yet I like most of the personnel decisions the Rockets make. That's because there are different ways of getting at the right answer, just as there are in every other walk of life. All either of the eye-test vs. analytics debate is yelling at each other about the best way to re-invent the wheel.

The irritating part to me about so much of the analytic discussion is the seeming obsession everyone has with using formulas to rank things. If we have 400 wheels, can't we assume that wheel #345 and wheel #367 are fairly identical? What exactly is the difference at that point?

Every article you read these days seems to about whether Player X is Top 5 at his position or Top 10 or whether he should get X amount of money if Player Y got Z amount. It's a bunch of accountants arguing about actuarial tables who have convinced themselves they can find the meaning of life if they can crunch the numbers hard enough.

If we can all agree that Terrence Jones and Patrick Beverley are good players, let's try to come to some interesting conclusions. How much should another team value Jones, given the smaller role he has had in Houston? Is a young guy better off growing into a small role on a good team or being thrust into a big role on a bad one? Is having a guy with Beverley's defense at the 1 and running more offense through the 2 and 3 a more efficient way to build a team? How many guards in the European leagues can play defense like him? How can we find out?

The only problem with letting "stats nerds" write about basketball is that they tend to be very well-educated so they bring a lot of the problems with academic writing with them - the needlessly pedantic debates about issues of no practical relevance to anyone in the real world. That's what John Roberts said about most law school writing these days.

Instead of sitting around all day and arguing about the best way to find the optimum wheel, let's string a bunch of wheels together and try to go somewhere.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Hall of Fame

When Malcolm Butler stepped in front of Russell Wilson's pass a week ago, more was at stake than just whether or not the New England Patriots or the Seattle Seahawks would win the Super Bowl. As we had breathlessly been informed in the run-up to the game, this was really about Tom Brady's quest to win his fourth Super Bowl title and establish a legacy as the greatest QB of all-time. Beating the Seahawks was the only way he could surpass Joe Montana.

I think we all recognize the fundamental unreality at some level. Brady and Montana are individual players in a team sport yet we insist on judging them by the same standards as Federer and Sampras. If there are 53 different players on an NFL roster, how valuable could any one player be, at least in comparison to a sport like tennis? A billion different factors go into the outcome of a game that a QB has absolutely no control of. What if the Seahawks coaching staff had decided to hand the ball off to Marshawn Lynch one more time? What if they hadn't been blessed by a miraculous catch to give them the ball at the 1-yard line a few second before?

No matter how you spin it, though, Brady has been the QB for the dominant team of his era, winning 4 Super Bowl titles, playing in the game 6 times and appearing in the playoffs in every season but one of his 13-year career as a starter.

When Alexander the Great saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds left to conquer.

Now, with Brady near the end of his journey, the only question is who will be next? What young QB of the next generation will one day join him atop Mount Olympus? Who will lead his team to the most championships? Who will bestow the most glory on all lucky enough to share a stage with him? In the history of the Patriots franchise, these years shall be called the Brady/Belichick era and they will be long remembered for the bountiful harvests of playoff victories they showered upon their devoted followers.

As someone who covers the NBA draft, I watch players at the other end of the process, raw lumps of clay not yet molded into the icons they will become. At last season's McDonald's All-American Game, I spent most of my time watching Karl Towns, Jahlil Okafor and Myles Turner going at each other. At this point, I think it's a pretty safe assumption to say that all three are going to make ungodly sums of money playing professional basketball over the next 10-15 years. The only thing they need to worry about is developing their games, staying healthy and not getting into too much trouble off the court. In the grand scheme of things, life is pretty good for guys who have been blessed with that type of size, coordination and athleticism.

In the world of the NBA draft, though, they are kept in a constant state of insecurity, as their value as basketball players - and ultimately their self-worth - is in a state of limbo depending on their most recent performance. Are they worthy of being taken at No. 1? No. 5? In the lottery? Where is their draft stock at this exact moment? What can they do to make it go up or down?

We treat the whole thing as if they are political candidates running for office. In order for Jahlil to go No. 1 overall, he will need to put up big numbers on a Duke team that makes the Final Four. If Towns is going to have a chance, Kentucky will likely need to go 40-0 while outplaying Jahlil in an NCAA Tournament game. Turner never had much of a chance given the team around him and the flaws of his campaign manager (Rick Barnes). What does it matter how good a candidate is if he doesn't have the team around him that can put him in a position to succeed?

Even once they have achieved stardom in the NBA, are they allowed to be content or be satisfied for even a moment? No. Being content, we are told, is the enemy. You have to constantly manufacture slights against yourself in order to reach ever greater heights of self-actualization. The greatest players must live in constant fear of whether or not they are respected by their peers, the fans and the basketball industry in general. What exactly does Damian Lillard have to do to get everyone's respect!? Nevermind that he was just in the All-Star Game last season. For him to be recognized as one of the greatest players in the NBA, he requires ever constant validation lest doubts and whispers start to emerge.

The result is a world where the greatest athletes can never humbly accept all they have been given and can never really be happy for the accomplishments of their peers. The world of awards is a zero-sum game - there can only be one No. 1 overall pick, one MVP and one GOAT.

No matter how many All-Star appearances you make, it is never enough. Kobe Bryant has been to 15 All-Star Games yet the biggest story surrounding him coming into the season is where he was voted on in the Big Board of Life aka NBA Rank. Instead of wondering how he would be able to stay healthy all season after seeing his last two seasons ended by injury, people were obsessing about whether Kobe would be able to prove his doubters wrong. Don't they understand that Kobe isn't human?

As it turns out, he was. Basketball players are just human beings like everyone else and they have the same types of issues that everyone else has except they have more money and people are constantly sticking cameras and microphones in their face in order to ask impossibly mundane questions about the most basic aspects of their job. The disconnect comes when we are confronted by the difference between the image of them we have built up in our minds and the reality of who they actually are. This is what most of Jay-Z's (aka Jay Hova aka The God MC) songs are about. This is what happens with every man who becomes President. First they love you then they hate you then they love you again. It's the gift and the curse.

How will you remembered when your career is over? For the guys at the highest levels of the game, everything is building towards one final judgment, when their fans weigh it all, good and bad, in order to determine whether or not they are worthy of the ultimate honor. Who will be on Mount Rushmore?

In a lot of ways, Hall of Fame voting resembles the process of sanctification in the Catholic Church. Which of these historic figures should be elevated to Godhood? It's the ultimate merit badge, the shiniest gold sticker. The mark on the resume of their life that elevates them above mere mortals in order so that we may have an inspiration to strive towards. The difference is the Church is elevating people who renounced their worldly possessions, changed the lives of thousands of people and died for their faith instead of guys who use a lot of performance enhancing drugs to hit a lot of baseballs really far for a long time.

History has judged Pete Rose as it will soon judge Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez. All the money they made, all the records they broke and all the games they won - what would any of it mean if they didn't have a plaque in an office building in a small town in upstate New York? We can be sad for the legacies they have thrown away but we can never forget their own hubris is what prevented them from ascending to Olympus. The Gods of Baseball have cast them aside, forcing them to spend the rest of their wretched lives wandering the Earth while performing acts of penance and atonement in the hope that one day mercy will be shown on their souls.

When someone makes the Hall of Fame, we always want to ask them - what does it feel like? A former athlete is a former athlete, no matter what they did in their playing career. I went to school with a few brothers whose dad played for the Dallas Cowboys for three seasons, The Dallas Cowboys! All of the kids were in awe of him. Just by making it that far, he had already won the game of life. How does it feel to have your ego validated on the ultimate level? I imagine it feels pretty good for awhile and then you kind of get used to it.

For guys like Kobe and LeBron, the biggest carrot of them all is dangled in front of them. Forget the Hall of Fame. They could be better than Jordan. They could transcend mortality and achieve Godhood in the flesh as the Greatest Of All Time, the best there ever was and the best there ever will be. We must consult the ancient myths and legends - everything they do, everything they say, everything they are - it must all be compared to the Jordan standard. Is it something Jordan would do? Jordan would never team up with his greatest rivals. Jordan would never pass the ball in the final moments. Jordan would never subtweet his teammates. Well, he probably would have done that.

In this telling of the story, the city of Cleveland has been wandering through the desert for more than 40 years in search of the Promised Land. In their hearts, they were starting to wander if they would ever get there or if they were forever destined to fall short, the victims of some tragic curse. They couldn't go back and they couldn't go forward. Had they been lied too all this time? Did they live in a world where God kept his promises? Did they live in a world where God even existed?

LeBron leaving Cleveland was Moses abandoning Israel, deciding the only way he could overcome the enemies who were guarding the way to the land of milk and honey was by leading a different people, a people with more money and more cosmopolitan tastes. Or maybe LeBron was just a 26-year old who wanted to live in Miami with his friends for a few years. Then, when he got older and started thinking about where he wanted to raise his kids, he decided to move back home. It's all how you want to look at it.

The ultimate standard for any player is he a guy I will tell my grandkids about? Is he a guy with a timeless game, a game good enough to transcend his era and be passed down as folk tales to people who had never seen him play? MJ, Kobe, LeBron - maybe our grandkids will care about those guys and maybe they won't. We care about Babe Ruth. We don't really care about Jack Johnson. Will their grandkids care? And their grandkids? Soon enough, the basketball players of the NBA become the gladiators of Rome. Who was the best chariot racer in the Byzantine Empire?

What would I ask to the greatest athlete during the reign of Justinian The Great? I don't think I would ask him about his greatest chariot race. I'd probably ask him about how life back then was. Kanye West asked Paul McCartney if pussy tasted different in the 1960's. What is there to ask really? At a certain level, it's all the same. Nothing ever really changes.

The actions of 2015 matter a ton from the perspective of 2050, a good amount from the perspective of 2150 and a small amount from the perspective of 2650. We are a society constantly worried about the judgment of History - we sit in judgment of History and we do not wish to be judged so ourselves. The key fact to remember isn't the fact that History is written from the perspective of the winners. It's that it isn't really written at all. From the perspective of 4150, the actions of the year 2015 might as well not exist. From the perspective of 8000, they won't. Ancient Egypt has a history that stretches back thousands of years. The Jews were slaves in Egypt longer than the United States has been a country.

Maybe global warming or nuclear winter or The Singularity will change everything. People have always looked for signs of the apocalypse. For a society of narcissists, the only thing worse than thinking the world is going to end is knowing that it will keep right on spinning without us. All the world is a stage, everyone is a player and they all have their entrances and their exits. The music cuts, the light comes off, you get gently ushered off the stage and someone else takes your spot. Your entire career becomes a one-minute TV ad.

"Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!" 
What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go but the Earth remains forever. No one remembers the former generations and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them. 
I denied myself nothing my eyes desired, I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil. Yet when I surveyed all my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind. Nothing was gained under the sun. 
The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise? This too is meaningless. For the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered. The days have already come when both have been forgotten. Like the fool, the wise too must die!
That was written over 2,000 years ago yet it remains as true now as it will be 2,000 years from now. We are only this Earth a short amount of time and nothing we do here really matters. It's all going away one day. Make whatever peace you can with that fact but don't pretend there's some tragic nobility in striving towards an impossible goal. There is no such thing as immortality. Not for athletes. Not for kings. Not for any of us. From dust we came and from dust we shall return.

My name is Oyzmandias, King of Kings: Look upon my works, ye mighty, and Despair!

Friday, February 6, 2015

Kansas State Preview

At Barking Carnival, a look at the struggles Bruce Weber's program is going through.

The Next Danny Green

One of the most intriguing free agents in this year's summer class is Danny Green. He's a huge part of what the Spurs do, but since they will almost certainly have to max out Kawhi Leonard, a huge money offer to Green could put San Antonio in a tough situation financially. He would be a perfect fit on a team like the Mavs, who desperately need three-point shooting and perimeter defense, two things Green provides in spades. He is the quintessential 3-and-D role player, an archetype increasingly in vogue league wide. An elite team almost has to have a few players like Green because of the force multiplier effect they add.

The funny part is that it wasn't too long ago that Green was fighting his way into the league. This is not a lottery pick destined for stardom. Green was the No. 46 pick in the 2009 draft - he spent one season in Cleveland and he bounced around the minor leagues before landing in San Antonio, where he was cut multiple times before slowly earning his way into the organization. This is a guy whom anyone in the NBA could have had. The question becomes is that if he is really that valuable now, are there more guys out like a young Danny Green, waiting for another chance? Why pay full freight for Danny Green when I can get a Danny Green starter kit for 95% off?

When you look at the conventional tools - Green's size (6'6 210 with a 6'10 wingspan), athleticism (he's not Gerald Green) and offensive game (he's never going to be an elite shot-creator, ball-handler or passer) - there's nothing all that extraordinary about him. He's not Kawhi Leonard. You don't find guys like Kawhi floating around the D-League too often. So if there are more Danny Green's out there, where are they? The key is to find guys in a similar situation as Green - guys who didn't get much of a chance to crack a rotation in their first stop in the NBA.

A lot of people will look at Danny Green's story and think that he must have changed his game or re-dedicated his life to Jesus or something to make it back to the NBA. The reality is that he just needed an opportunity. He played 115 minutes in 20 games as a rookie in Cleveland - this was enough for them to tell he wasn't an NBA-caliber player? Of course not. They were just trying to win a title and they had a full roster and they didn't really have time to bring along a younger player, especially one who wasn't projected for stardom. That's something I've been trying to stress a lot in my writing about the draft lately - it is very, very hard to get a "fair shot" in the NBA.

If a team doesn't need you they aren't going to play you and if they don't play you, how will anyone else know how good you are? You think these analysts are trying to go back and through your college days and find out how good a player you are? No. They are going to look at whatever meager statistical outputs you were able to generate in your limited amount of time in the NBA and sit on you in judgment like Commodus in The Gladiator. They have consulted with the formulas. The projections have spoken. The rest is just math.

The Gods of this world have found you wanting.

Unless you are a franchise player type, you are not going to necessarily put in a position to succeed. No team is going to build around you. They are going to throw you in the fire and hope for the best. Even worse, they may just never throw you in at all. If you don't work out, there are 10 more behind you who might.

This is an interesting quote from Paul Flannery's profile on Ryan McDonough, a former Celtics executive who is now GM of the Suns:
"If a guy is talented enough to be in the NBA, you have to constantly monitor him until he retires," says McDonough. "I’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t want that guy, or he’s not my kind of guy.’ Well, it’s difficult to dismiss somebody with NBA-caliber ability."
That quote jumps out even more in the context of the Suns latest move, swooping in on a three-team deal between the Clippers and the Pelicans in order to grab Reggie Bullock, a former UNC SG who had struggled to find minutes on a title contender in his first two seasons in the NBA. Does that sound familiar to anyone?

Bullock played a little more than Green - 668 minutes in 69 games with LA, most of them in garbage time. There just weren't many opportunities for him to get on the floor, as Doc Rivers continually brought in wave after wave of 30-something veterans to soak up any additional minutes around his stars. Doc, like a lot of player turned coaches, is a firm believer in the power of veteran experience. Ask yourself this - how many teams does Doc Rivers the coach think Doc Rivers the player could have helped? So why wouldn't Doc Rivers the GM look for guys that remind him of Doc Rivers the player? Which player fits most closely to his perception of himself? The wily old veteran with friends throughout the league who Doc knows he can trust? Or the young guy who makes a ton of mental mistakes and hasn't paid his dues? Doc paid his dues. These young guys can too.

Most people focus on minutes per game, points per game and wins and losses, but here are the numbers with Bullock that interest me:

1) He is 37 for 113 from 3 (32.7%) in the NBA.
2) He shot 38% from 3 in his sophomore season at UNC and 43% from 3 as a junior.
3) He is 6'7 200 with a 6'9 wingspan and he has a max vertical of 36.5 inches.

This is a guy who needs a chance, but it's not going to be any easier for him to get one in Phoenix. The Suns are just racking up talent, in large part because McDonough is finding free money on the ground all around him. He keeps picking it up because why not. The only thing he had to give up to get Bullock is Shavlik Randolph. All he had to do to get Eric Bledsoe was move along Caron Butler and Jared Dudley.

If Bullock is going to get minutes, he will have to find his way through this logjam on the perimeter:

PG - Eric Bledsoe, Isaiah Thomas, Tyler Ennis
SG - Goran Dragic, Gerald Green, Archie Goodwin
SF - PJ Tucker, Marcus Morris, TJ Warren

Where I would differ from most people is that if Bullock doesn't get much of a chance in Phoenix, I still wouldn't be ready to write him off. Why? Because I'm looking at his tools and wondering whether they will translate to his stats. Most people are looking at his stats and coming to conclusions about his tools.

It's really a matter of Bayesian probability. What that means is that by the time guys come into the NBA, I already have a long list of things I believe to be true about them. I have watched them in college and I have covered them in the draft process, where I'm really focusing on what their tools are. How big is this guy? How fast is this guy? Is he a good shooter? Is he a good passer? Can he create his own shot? Can he defend an NBA position? Etc. etc. That's where the disconnect exists between those who "watch the game" and those who rely on stats. If you aren't watching for the right things, it doesn't really matter. If you are watching for the wrong things, it would be better (from an analytical POV) if you didn't watch the game at all and just relied on the stats.

As a result, I'm going to take the first few years of their data in the NBA with a huge grain of salt, whereas most people who only watch the NBA are going to look at that data as the only data worth having about a player. That's why I can look at the same data about a young player and come to a radically different conclusion than a lot of the conventional wisdom.

Which brings us to another young player who I have been tracking for well over 5 years, who I think just needs to go play for a coach who believes in him - Jeremy Lamb. My man has been pretty unfairly villified since the second he came into the NBA because of his involvement in the James Harden trade, which many observers found to be personally offensive on some level. How dare the Thunder trade away one of the best players in the NBA for a bunch of unproven young players!? These young guys better be good because if they are not we are going to roast Sam Presti & Co. Lamb, since he has not been able to carve out a consistent spot in the rotation is OKC, is ipso facto a bust and a failure. The guy just can't get it done. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Let's play a game. Here are the per-36 minute statistics of a few players this season. You tell me who is playing better.

Player A: 16.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists on 1.5 turnovers and 1.3 steals on 41.6% shooting, 36% from 3

Player B: 14.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists on 1.9 turnovers and 1.9 steals on 38.7% shooting, 27.7% from 3

Player C: 6.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists on 1.3 turnovers, 1.4 steals and 0.9 blocks on 45% shooting, 21.6% from 3

Player A is Jeremy Lamb. Player B is Dion Waiters. Player C is Andre Roberson.

Now you can spin those numbers any way you want, but those are the only numbers the players have any actual control over. They don't control minutes per game or points per game - that's entirely on the whims of the coach. When a team is winning games, it's hard to criticize the coach for his rotation decisions. When the team isn't winning games, you would think the coach would try to look at what's happening on the floor and see if there are any adjustments on the bench. I don't see Scott Brooks doing that.

Whenever I watch OKC, I see a team that looks stuck in the mud in offense and has to work really hard to score points when KD and Russ aren't isolating and scoring at will. Maybe Waiters (doubtful) and Roberson (probable) are that much better on D that Brooks has no choice but to play them, but when your team is rated No. 18 on O and No. 9 on D, maybe he's looking for answers on the wrong side of the ball? What he doesn't seem to understand is that a bad offense can have consequences on your defense. If the other team doesn't have to guard Andre Roberson and they have an easier time getting stops, that allows them to get out in transition, where they will always have an easier time scoring than against a set defense in the half-court. It's hard to push the ball when you are inbounding it from under your own basket.

Most people will look at Lamb's lack of playing time and OKC's struggle to score and ask what the hell is wrong with him. I look at Lamb's lack of playing time, OKC's struggle to score and his consistent per-minute production and wonder what the hell is wrong with his coach.

Here's the important thing to remember about Lamb - he can't make Scott Brooks play him. When he's on the floor, the only thing he can control is how he plays. The big knock on him with a lot of OKC fans is that he's not consistent ... but he has been consistently better than Dion Waiters whenever he has played so what exactly is he supposed to do?

Scott Brooks reminds me a lot of Avery Johnson in that he seems to be constantly searching for ways to justify his own playing career in the way he handles his rotation. Scott Brooks the basketball player didn't have a ton of natural talent and didn't put up huge statistics, but he played REALLY hard and he REALLY wanted to win and etc. etc. etc. So when he sees a player like Lamb with a ton of natural talent who seems to "float" through the game it naturally makes him more upset than when he sees a guy like Roberson with a broken jumper who still plays really hard. How many times did a young Scott Brooks have to swallow his pride and watch a "more talented" younger player who was taken higher in the draft play ahead of him even though he didn't work nearly as hard? When he in charge, things will be different.

When I look at Jeremy Lamb, I see a 22-year old with good athleticism and plus length for his position (6'11 wingspan), whose always been a consistent three-point shooter and whose shown the ability to handle and pass the ball. Whenever he's on the court, he seems to find his way into points, rebounds, assists and steals. I'm fairly confident he's a good basketball player and I don't really hold his inability to convince Scott Brooks of his worth against him. In short, he reminds me a lot of Danny Green in Cleveland.

After all, who was Danny Green before the Spurs gave him a shot? A lot of NBA teams want Danny Green at 27 but they don't want to go through the trouble of developing Danny Green at 23. They want someone else to do it for them and to give them the statistical certainty they so desperately crave. Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Bullock are both younger than Green when he came to San Antonio. If you are looking for a market inefficiency, there it is.