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Open Shots (1/15): On Paul George’s Struggles, James Johnson’s Influence, PJ Tucker’s Payday and More

via flickr | Serge Melki

via flickr | Serge Melki

The Corner Three

  • Curious George

We’ve finally reached the NBA doldrums of January and February, and not a minute too soon. As stars continue succumbing to injury and the league’s established elite grow complacent with the monotony of an 82-game regular season, it’s fitting that play on the court quiets to a hushed intensity. Teams are who they are for the most part now, unable to forge new culture and identity the way they think they can in the season’s first weeks. Yet, it’s still early enough to forgo taking postseason ramifications into account on a day-by-day, game-by-game basis.

It’s the season’s mid-point, basically: a time for players to get healthy, non-contending organizations to enact long-game plans for rebuilding, and championship-worthy teams a last opportunity to hit reset before the fire grows hot again in the spring. If that reality is sobering, don’t fret – this stretch is a necessary evil for the actual basketball to be at its best when it matters most. The NBA’s crescendo is almost here.

In this relative downtime, too, come new narratives and talking points. Carmelo for BlakeRose to travel with Bulls? Cavs holding out for LeBron?Most of it’s meaningless noise; the media only has so much influence on team-building and trade discussions. With respect to postseason awards, though, shifting storylines throughout a season – rooted in fact or otherwise – directly affect the voting process. It was this time of year when Derrick Rose gained so much traction in 2011 MVP talks, and Marc Gasol’s candidacy for Defensive Player of the Year last season was incessantly championed by the blogosphere. And though they’re only postseason honors and have no impact on the actual game, this stuff matters: to players, to fans, to basketball history.

This year’s trope? Kevin Durant for MVP. Merits behind talk of Durant’s surreal production trumping LeBron James’s declining but unmatched all-around impact is discourse for another time. It’s a familiar two-horse race for Most Valuable Player, we all seem to agree, and that’s not a surprise: Durant and James are basketball’s best players. But the opening weeks of 2013-2014 were marked by an ascendant star supposedly joining their exalted rank. Now? There’s nary a mention that such a development ever occurred, let alone whether or not it’s been sustained.

And so we ask: Wherefore art thou, Paul George?

We prematurely made last year’s Eastern Conference Finals as much about LeBron vs. George as Heat vs. Pacers. Indiana’s star swingman was great against Miami in that series, but still paled in comparison to his counterpart on both ends of the floor. That the Pacers took the Heat to a decisive seventh game had more to do with their identity being a perfect foil for the champs’s than George’s individual brilliance. And that’s hardly a slight, obviously, but still crucial to understanding George’s place among the league hierarchy coming into this season. He was on his way to the top; not already there.

But then the games kicked off, and George’s ascent was suddenly complete. His dominance on the defensive end was matched by the efficient shot-making, improved ballhandling, and keen playmaking that his near limitless potential always suggested. George averaged 23 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 2.2 steals per game in November, shooting 47.2% from the field and 40.3% from three-point range while guiding the Pacers to one of the best starts in league history. If Indy was led by its vast collection of talent last season, this one didn’t begin that way; George had cemented himself as a legitimate superstar.

What was mostly ignored is how he managed to do it. George was more comfortable in pick-and-rolls, his handle was tighter, and he was getting to the free throw line far more frequently. Regardless, his elite combination of production and efficiency was owed to a jumper that looked like basketball’s best. George shot a logic-bending 52.4% from mid-range in November, a mark that Dirk Nowitzki’s only bested for one season – 2010-2011, predictably – of his career. Even more impressive? George was assisted on just 23.3% of his makes from mid-range, November makes; he was doing a vast majority of this incredible damage off the dribble.

Given those crazy numbers, some regression to the mean was inevitable was the season wore on. It was irresponsible to believe that George developed into a foolproof Nowitzkian shooter between June and November, and even more so that he could sustain such a pace while exercising Swaggy P-style shot selection. George pull-ups were of higher quality than those typically tried by Nick Young, of course, but you get the point: his jumper was unsustainably awesome the first few weeks of the season. Still, assumptions were that the degree of said imminent backslide would be small; that’s how sound, confident, and comfortable George appeared in the early going.

If you’re guessing that expectation proved wildly optimistic given the current  state of the MVP race, you’d be right. George’s unparalleled mid-range proficiency has been tumbling since the holiday season, and shown no signs of slowing down. Unsurprisingly, his overall play has dipped as a result. Take a look at the chart below.

Paul George Mid-Range

The silver lining here is that the descending nature of the gold columns match that of those on the left. Indeed, George’s accuracy from mid-range fell from 52.4% in November to 37.3% in December, and currently sits at 32.1% for the month of January. He’s adjusted his approach somewhat by altering his shot-chart, though, so that a majority of his attempts only came from that area of the floor in the initial – and his most successful – month of the season.

That compensation saved George from a noticeable offensive decline in December, when he shot 39.3% from beyond the arc on an outsized number of attempts. But it hasn’t mattered recently as his three-point jumper fails him, too. George is shooting just 21.9% from deep in January, barely half of the sterling percentages he compiled in the two months prior. Combined with an 18-footer that’s effectively no better than Al Jefferson’s in its current, broken state, the all-encompassing failure of George’s jumper have finally done him in. His numbers since the New Year are ghastly: 16.5 points on 16.5 shots per game, good for an effective field goal percentage of 37.9%.

The good news: this extreme isn’t the type of regression that will last for a player of this caliber. George will bounce back eventually, and while that likely won’t mean the jump-shot efficiency he enjoyed during that scintillating start, it should still be enough to get Indy’s offense back to respectability. The Pacers have posted an offensive rating of 93.0 since January 1st, a mark 2.7 points below Milwaukee’s league-worst number. They’ve gone a solid 4-2 over that same timeframe due to otherworldly defense, so Indy’s problems haven’t received much fanfare. Simple wins and losses don’t properly portray their overwhelming struggle to score of late; that putrid 2014 offensive rating hasn’t exactly been compiled against a murderer’s row of defenses.

Which again begs the question that’s always plagued these Pacers: can they score at an acceptable clip against the league’s elite come May and June? It might not matter; Indy’s defense is that historically good. But if Ray Allen, Shane Battier, and Mario Chalmers get hot, where will the Pacers go to stem the tide? Roy Hibbert’s size and Lance Stephenson’s emergence lessen that concern, but it will linger nonetheless should George have an off-night. At the beginning of the season, it seemed like such games would rarely, if ever, occur; now, that possibility is another shortcoming that Miami – or Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Golden State, et al – will look to exploit.

Not to mention one that’s already doomed his fate – rightly or wrongly – as an MVP candidate.

*Note: The Pacers beat Sacramento 116-92 last night behind 31 points (10-18 FGs, 4-7 3PTs) from George. Go figure. He was just 1-5 from mid-range, however.

In The Paint

  • Gritting and Grinding Again

Did the West really need another contender? That distinction is probably overboard to describe the Grizzlies, but speaks to just how far they’ve come in the past few weeks. After last night’s 90-87 win over Oklahoma City, Memphis improved to 7-4 since a five-game, mid-December losing streak pushed its record to 10-15. The Grizzlies remain three games back of Phoenix for eighth in the conference standings, but appear better positioned than ever to make a late-season run to the playoffs. With Marc Gasol finally healthy and a new addition offering new wrinkles this team has lacked since its inception, the Grizzlies, if nothing else, will be ultra-competitive for the season’s remainder.

Gasol’s return, though vital and necessary for Memphis to reach its peak, wouldn’t have turned things around by itself. The Grizzlies were merely average before he suffered a sprained MCL on November 22nd against San Antonio; even their 7-6 record, in fact, belied a -2.8 net rating. If Big Spain came back to the same team he left, then, Memphis would have been left out of the playoff picture altogether.

It seems absurd that James Johnson – first round bust, three-team flameout, recent D-League call-up – could change the course of a team’s season, but that ignores crucial context. Basketball is the ultimate team sport, and glaring personnel deficiencies are even more difficult to gloss over at its highest level. In signing Johnson off the proverbial scrapheap, the Grizzlies added a player that boasts an ideal combination of traits they’ve never had on the wing: size, athleticism, and playmaking. Tony Allen, Mike Miller, and Tayshaun Prince, bless them, all fill important roles for the Grizz, but none are capable of playing more than their own. Defense? The Grindfather. Shooting? Miller. Tiny bits of both? Prince. But Johnson does that and more – he’s a gifted passer and near-elite rebounder for his position – all while offering Dave Joerger lineup flexibility that Memphis has always lacked.

Numbers support his on-paper significance. The Grizzlies have been humming offensively (without Gasol, remember) since Johnson’s addition, scoring 106.8 points per 100 possessions compared to just 100.4 before his signing. They’re playing a faster pace, making more three-pointers, offensive rebounding like crazy, and scoring more points in the paint, too. And though that can’t all be attributed to Johnson, all of the same can be said for his on-court, off-court metrics, as well.

Need more proof? Watch last night’s fourth quarter. Joerger matched the Thunder by going small with Johnson at nominal power forward to guard Kevin Durant, then left him in when Gasol and Zach Randolph manned the paint. No matter his position, Johnson was a bundle of energy and athleticism in last night’s final stanza, challenging shots, tipping passes, and finishing at the rim. His statistics – 4 points (2-2 FGs), 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals, and 1 block in just under 10 minutes of play – were gaudy, but still don’t do his fourth quarter impact justice. The ripple effect of his presence looms ever-large against a team like Oklahoma City; imagine if Joerger was forced to play Kosta Koufos or Jon Leuer when the Thunder played small-ball, or Courtney Lee had to check Durant when Prince needed a rest.

That’s Johnson’s influence in a nutshell. Memphis has never been the place for versatile, skilled athletes to make hay, but Johnson’s proving that sentiment is owed to circumstance opposed to stylistic fit. He won’t lead the Grizzlies to wins or even compile consistently stuffed individual box scores, but Johnson will nevertheless be one of his team’s most important players going forward. And if Memphis has righted the ship in time for a mid-season run to the playoffs, they’ll have him to thank as much as anyone else.

  • Never Tuckered Out

This entire column could be devoted to all the good happening in Phoenix this season: reclamation projects like Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee; perhaps the league’s most aesthetically pleasing offense; a rehabbed and thriving Channing Frye; everything about Jeff Horacek’s seamless transition to head coach. In a year that was supposed to be phase one of arduous reconstruction from the ground up, the Suns are in the thick of playoff contention, and still boast the longterm flexibility that Ryan McDonough worked so hard to achieve leading up to last fall.

Mostly overlooked amid all the surprise so far, though? PJ Tucker’s offseason makeover. His place in the league always tenuous due to an incongruous combination of size and skill, Tucker has suddenly emerged as one of basketball’s most unique ’3 and D’ role players. After attempting .9 three-pointers per game and connecting on just 31.4% of them last season,those numbers have spiked to 2.4 and 43.5% in 2013-2014. It bears mentioning that some of Tucker’s drastic improvement is owed to Hornacek’s offense: 75 of his 85 tries from deep – 88.2 percent! – have come from the corners.

Regardless, Tucker’s wholesale transformation from floor-spacing liability to asset has been instrumental to the Suns success and stands to garner the restricted free agent a hefty pay raise this summer. Players of his basic DNA – versatile defender that stretches the floor – are of utmost importance in today’s NBA, and that’s before factoring in his influence on the glass: Tucker ranks a merely solid 20th among small forwards in overall rebound rate, but tops them all by grabbing 8.0% of offensive boards. What team couldn’t use a player like that? Let’s just say that Tucker will be making more than the minimum come next season, and deservedly so.

Long Twos

  • Fun Suns

There are an infinite number of reasons why bloggers and analysis wouldn’t make good NBA coaches. This awesome, awesome sideline out-of-bounds play from Hornacek and the Suns last Wednesday against Minnesota is a nice encapsulation of a lot of them. How many false actions and legitimate options does Phoenix cycle through before getting to its end-game? Let’s count in screen-shots.

(1) Goran Dragic Curl

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 9.10.19 PM

(2) Marcus Morris Curl

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 9.11.06 PM

(3) Markieff Morris Pop/Channing Frye Pin-Down for Mc. Morris

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 9.11.19 PM

(4) Dragic/Mc. Morris Hand-Off

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 9.11.33 PM

(5) Dragic/Frye Pick-and-Roll

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 9.11.50 PM

Of course, the sheer minutiae and genius of this set’s composition is such that there’s a good chance I miscounted or misunderstood the aims of each action. Either way – bravo, Coach.

  • So Far, So Good, So Young

Anthony Davis’s numbers speak for themselves. The list of players that have averaged at least 19 points, 10 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 1 steal per game since the merger is as impressive as it is exclusive. David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon? That’s not exactly bad company for Davis, and it’s even more noteworthy when his age is compared to that of the luminaries that came before him. Davis has reached those statistical thresholds this season at 20 years-old! Dream and The Admiral weren’t far behind him at 23 and 24, respectively, and statistical milestones like these are always accompanied by a sense of the arbitrary. Regardless, though, that The Brow already stacks up so favorably to two all-timers is indicative of just how great he’s bound to become.

Even more encouraging? Sequences like this one against Dallas. How many players in the league can so effectively contest a Nowitzki fadeaway? Few. How many need just one dribble from 30-feet to complete a dunk? Fewer. How many can do both in the same sequence? Just Davis.

  • Bringing Up Beal

Bradley Beal’s sophomore season has been somewhere between triumph and disappointment. There’s a wide, messy swath of positives and negatives separating those adjectives, obviously, and Beal has found a way to justify them all. Consider this: he’s shooting a scorching 44.1% from three, but taking just 13.7% of his shots from the restricted area. Beal is a shooter first and foremost, of course, but the Wizards surely expected more development from him as a penetrator this year. At least he knows where his bread is buttered; film of Beal’s tries at the rim reveals an uncomfortable, tentative finisher that frequently jumps from too far away from the basket. To wit: Beal missed each shot in the stills below.

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 4.44.56 PM

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 4.46.37 PM

Beal should get better here in time – he’s still just 20 years-old – but appears destined to remain a limited finisher. He seems to lack the ‘feel’ necessary to be anything better.

  • “Da Kid”

A younger but sizable portion of the Twitterverse seemed surprised that Kevin Garnett’s nickname jersey on Friday against Miami read “Big Ticket,” driving home the fact that his career is on its last embers.  Was it so long ago that KG was: winning a title? arguably the league’s best player? dragging Minnesota to first round exits? signing a contract that spurred a lockout? It really was, actually, a fact that gleans further confirmation that “Da Kid” would have been a superior uniform appellation. I’m too old, self-conscious, or both – definitely both – to wear jerseys these days, but would waste an embarrassing amount of money on that one nonetheless. You’ll always be a kid to me, KG; just wish Father Time felt the same way.

  • Fake You Very Much

Somehow, Chris Bosh still doesn’t get the credit he deserves for Miami’s success. His supreme impact on defense – What big man covers more ground? Or can check Joe Johnson in crunch time? – goes far beyond box score numbers, obviously, but Bosh’s influence on the other end is just as important. His pie chart is still trending farther and farther from the basket, and exceedingly rare are occasions he gets a chance to post-up. It’s ever-crucial, then, that Bosh continues to hone his already deadly jumper and its many corollaries. Chief among them? An improving show-and-go. This one against Brooklyn is emblematic of how fundamentally efficient Bosh has become in his role as full-time third wheel. Beautiful.

  • Losing Their Minds in Detroit Rock City

There are in flux organizations like Phoenix and Toronto, or even Utah and Philadelphia, that have eyes on the future and the present. That foster a roster’s development and an individual player’s all while responsibly managing the salary cap. Then there are those like Detroit.

Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith haven’t exactly enjoyed smooth transition to the Motor City, but the Pistons overarching problems – reminder: at 16-22, they’re currently seventh in the Eastern Conference – are bigger than even those divisive players. Accountability? Understanding? Savvy? Detroit seems to lack all of it on the whole, and that was never more evident than in its harrowing 110-108 win over the Suns on Saturday.

The Pistons were rescued from squandering a double-digit fourth quarter lead by Smith’s game-winning runner with just under two seconds left. They were put in that unenviable position by a series of typically confounding late-game happenings, no two worse than the following: consecutive three-point tries on one possession by Jennings and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with Detroit leading by five and just over a minute remaining; Smith fouling Gerald Green on the latter’s own three-point attempt – the Pistons were up three! – just before his game-saving layup.

The worst aspect of those awful blunders? They weren’t at all surprising.

*Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats.

Jack Winter