The Corner Three
- Toronto DeRozan/Ross
Two games before Terrence Ross set twitter ablaze with one of the most unlikely 51-point performances in NBA history, DeMar DeRozan scored 40 of his own and no one seemed to notice. The disparate public reaction to both Toronto swingmen lighting up the scoreboard says more about each player’s evolving game – one young and intoxicatingly raw, the other older and finally maturing – than anything about their standing in league circles.
Because just as the state of their team on the whole, Ross and DeRozan elicit mystery. And while that unknown is shrouded in guarded optimism, that a pair of early-twentysomethings could combine for 91 points three days apart and remain question marks is an indicator of their potential limitations going forward. Remind you of a certain franchise, by chance?
The Raptors have a slew of big decisions to make (or not make) before the February 20th trade deadline, and more to come after that in advance of this summer’s loaded NBA draft. Whether or not Ross and DeRozan will run the wings together in the future is arguably the most important among them, a choice, ironically, made even more difficult by their recent play.
Aside from Kyle Lowry’s resurgence and a new overall defensive vigor, most instrumental to Toronto’s success since trading Rudy Gay in early December have been improvements made by Ross and DeRozan. That was a deal, remember, made as much for draft-related purposes as basketball and salary cap ones; there’s a certain native Canadian – among other rare prospects – Masai Ujiri longs to get his hands on, and Andrew Wiggins won’t be available past the top two or three picks come June. Moving Gay was to gain the flexibility, perspective, and draft slot necessary to commit to full-fledged rebuilding, but the players haven’t exactly cooperated since, leading to an air of indecision belying Ujiri’s reputation.
The Raptors’s 16-9 record post-Gay is good for eighth in the league and third in the Eastern Conference over that timeframe, and ranked even better before an ongoing 4-4 slide. As a result, mere weeks after justifying the Gay trade by insisting the Raptors would “not be trapped in the middle,” reports on Ujiri’s plans differ by the day. Gutting the roster and starting from relative scratch was a proposition led by “when” not “if” upon the Gay trade, and Lowry, conventional wisdom said, would be the next domino to fall.
This run of unexpected success means Toronto is close to a postseason lock in the downtrodden East, though, a direct corollary of Lowry’s All-Star level play over the last several weeks. But his performance has increased his league-wide value, too, and any fan excitement gleaned from a playoff appearance is narrow in scope – the Raptors have no chance of beating Miami or Indiana, after all, and similar sentiment met from acquiring Wiggins or a player like him would surely supersede it longterm. Leading, inevitably it now seems, to the most recent reports coming from Toronto’s front office: Lowry is back on the trade market.
Interestingly, that doesn’t necessarily reflect on the Ross/DeRozan conundrum. Even if Ujiri elected against blowing up his team’s core, the high-flying pair might not have been long for Canada’s Queen City. As well as Ross and DeRozan have played individually since taking the lion’s share of minutes alongside Lowry, there’s simply not enough evidence to suggest their coexistence is a net positive.
Their individual offensive profiles take courses you’d expect when playing simultaneously: DeRozan’s numbers remain mostly static aside from an increased assist ratio, and Ross’s efficiency soars as his productivity drops. That’s not surprising; though similarly deficient as passers, Ross and DeRozan do their damage from different areas of the floor and benefit from the threat of another perimeter scoring option. While their influence on one another is mostly positive, the same can’t be said for their combined offensive impact on the Raptors. And worse, they present far bigger issues on the other side of the ball.
Now, it would be unfair to ignore the noise behind these team-wide numbers. Toronto’s new starters have played over 250 minutes more than any other unit since the Gay trade, registering a defensive rating of 105.5 in the process. This isn’t just opposing players blowing by Ross and DeRozan off the dribble on possession and possession, basically; as always, there’s nuance behind these stats.
It’s telling that the Raptors’s defense markedly improves when John Salmons takes the place of either player, though. Ross and Salmons have allowed a stellar 97.5 points per 100 possessions in 174 minutes, while DeRozan and Salmons have done even better with a 94.6 rating in nearly double the amount of playing time. Salmons’s impact aligns similarly with the other charted metrics, too, especially with regard to field goal percentage. And why shouldn’t they?
Salmons is no stopper, but he’s smart, stronger than he looks, and has been committed defensively since arriving north of the border. His presence lets the other Raptors wing switch to defend the lesser offensive threat, and he offers similar modification on offense: ball movement and playmaking. Salmons’s usage rate is at an all-time low of 12.7%, and his assist ratio of 23.3 –just better than LeBron James’s, by the way – easily bests those of Ross and DeRozan.
Salmons, essentially, acts as the glorified role player that his younger teammates lack the capability or demeanor to be. There’s still development to be done from Ross and even DeRozan, so they will undoubtedly grow as defenders and passers. But after these recent scoring binges, one gets the feeling neither will ever be comfortable as an ancillary piece. If they had the future capacity of franchise cornerstones, that wouldn’t be an issue; at this point, though, such projections seem blindly optimistic. Given the current price tag of DeRozan and the similar one Ross will probably command in 2016, then, what’s the sense in keeping them both?
For all the high-flying dunks, acrobatic finishes, and high-arching jumpers, it’s safe to say that combining Ross and DeRozan longterm would just limit the Raptors’s financial flexibility more than it would win them playoff games. With Lowry reportedly back on the block and prospects like Wiggins there for the taking this summer, it appears increasingly likely Ujiri will get back to rebuilding the way he knows best. Whether that means moving Ross or DeRozan – the latter is preferable, by the way – it’s high time to start shopping.
In the Paint
Greg Oden’s third attempt at a comeback has already been successful; he’s played five regular season games for Miami including three straight, in the last of which he notched a season-high 13 minutes. And while the Heat continue to preach patience and process with their biggest man, Oden’s play – combined with an ongoing shift in Miami’s style – has made it increasingly difficult to keep expectations in check.
Don’t be fooled: Oden’s impact has been minimal in his 42 minutes of playing time this season. That it’s evident at all thus far, though, is what matters from a perspective more than triumph of the human spirit. The Heat have preached position-less basketball since 2012, when Erik Spoelstra literally shortened his rotation to maximize the unique physical advantages of his best players. Five-man units that featured just one traditional post player became Miami’s staple, even as Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem regularly split time with Shane Battier as the Heat’s fifth starter.
Though Spoelstra used lineups featuring Haslem and Chris Bosh for 970 minutes last season – Miami’s 14th-most used duo – no other pair of big men was a regular fixture of the Heat’s rotation. Joel Anthony played 332 minutes with Norris Cole, for instance, but notched just 74 with Bosh and 21 with Haslem. And once Chris Andersen usurped Anthony as Miami’s third big in the regular season’s final months, nothing changed: Birdman and Bosh appeared simultaneously in just 60 minutes over 12 games.
That specific tandem’s gradual uptick in playing time began in the postseason, when the Heat faced a slate of opponents heavy on outsized lineups. Bosh and Anderson played 47 minutes during last year’s playoffs, including 29 in six appearances against Indiana. The results were mostly middling, and any sample size that small deserves a huge grain of salt, but it became clear nevertheless that Miami could maintain the most important aspects of its unique identity while employing Bosh and another post player.
With Battier slumping (or aging), Mike Miller elsewhere, and Rashard Lewis and Michael Beasley prone to bouts of inconsistency, Spoelstra has experimented with Bosh-Andersen lineups more than ever this season. They’ve taken the floor together for 16 games and 112 minutes so far, blitzing opponents in the process for a team-high het rating of +23.7. The Heat don’t just thrive on one end in these instances, either: Bosh-Andersen has offensive and defensive ratings of 112.5 and 88.8, both marks that would lead the NBA. Even better? Miami grabs 53.1% of rebounds and allows just 9.2 second-chance points when Bosh and Andersen are on the court, huge improvements on two of its biggest weaknesses.
What does this mean for Oden? Basketball isn’t plug and play, obviously; the subtleties of individual players influence everything. But combined with the early returns of Oden’s performance, there’s now sufficient evidence to believe that the Heat can thrive while playing with lineups similar to the ones Indiana – and other teams, but we know the end-game here – frequently uses to batter them. And considering Roy Hibbert’s performance against Andersen last spring, it stands to reason Spoelstra would give Oden every opportunity to bang with Indy’s center should he continue making incremental progress as the season wears on.
That’s a small thing, just one individual matchup in a series full of them. It was Hibbert’s utter dominance of Miami, though, that was most instrumental to the Pacers’s surprising degree of offensive success in the Eastern Conference Finals. If Oden can team with Bosh and Andersen to help limit his effectiveness this time around, it could be the difference between which team moves on to play for a championship.
- Looks Like a Superstar, Walks Like a Superstar, Talks Like a Superstar…
Paul George had just scored 14 of his game-high 36 points (12-22 FGs) in the final five minutes of regulation and overtime. He made the clear game-saving and game-winning plays – a four-point bucket that tied the game with 15 seconds left in regulation, and steal of Isaiah Thomas in the extra period’s penultimate possession – on either side of the floor, not to mention a handful of others over the course of crunch time that gave his team a chance to steal a win on the road.
But George still wasn’t done leaving his imprint on Indiana’s 116-111 win over the Kings. After eschewing individual praise for his performance and bestowing it on teammates and coaches, George echoed Indiana’s sweeping company line. “We need to get back to playing nasty ball on the defensive end,” he told Brooke Ozlendam of Fox Sports Indiana.
That George offered such a sentiment wasn’t surprising; all players are better versed than ever in public relations, increasingly taking cue from modern day stars that incessantly exalt team-wide process over results. But there was something refreshing about George’s comment nonetheless, especially taken with his two-way dominance in the game’s waning moments.
George is a superstar; we know that by now. Players don’t guide their team to 34-9 records, garner MVP consideration in the heyday of LeBron James and Kevin Durant, and earn a starting spot in the All-Star game by accident. But George’s ascent to basketball’s peak – or the point just below it – seems extra significant, and much of that has to do with what it says about the game itself.
Apart from James, no one impacts both sides of the court like George, a development we tried hard to realize six months too soon during last season’s Eastern Conference Finals. He wasn’t quite there back then, but undoubtedly is now; film of his shining overall impact down the stretch against Sacramento is the latest indicator. And that George had the perspective to bemoan his team’s recent, uncharacteristic defensive slide afterward is just further confirmation of a simple fact: he already has the necessary amalgam of talent and disposition to lead Indiana to a championship. At a ripe 23 years-old, that’s a frightening reality for the rest of the league.
- Back for the Last Time
This game’s best moments aren’t always its greatest. There are limits to emotions elicited by actual basketball plays, and they’re mostly rooted in fundamental variations of joy, excitement, sorrow, or concern. Those feelings are real and certainly matter; we wouldn’t be here if the truth were otherwise.
But at its rare, absolute pinnacle, sport fandom transcends itself to mean more than anyone feels comfortable admitting. Sometimes, though, that bubbling realization wears us down and our reluctance to embrace it overwhelms. Goosebumps emerge and tears flow as we’re helplessly transported back to an experience we thought we’d left forever.
Or maybe that’s all all hopeful projection. I certainly prefer to believe I’ve seen it before, because it happened me on Monday evening.
I’ve written about Kevin Garnett before, and vowed I’d never do it again. My favorite writers relate what and how they’ve learned in the past to what they know and continue learning to construct voice and perspective; they let the person within support their style instead of dominating it. I only find that undertaking one at all when discussing KG, so simply avoid doing so. Damn if my “work” wouldn’t suffer as a result of naive favoritism.
But certain moments and feelings supersede convention, leaving us shells of the people we try to be for who we really are at our simplest form. That was Garnett and Paul Pierce’s return to Boston for me – a personal trip down my basketball memory lane. And it was awesome.
- Tyson Being Tyson
An asily overlooked aspect of performances like Carmelo Anthony’s 62-point opus is the wholesale involvement of his teammates. Basketball is the ultimate team game, and watching other Knicks enthusiastically sell-out to feed Melo’s moment is a particularly gratifying manifestation of that reality. The best example from Friday’s game comes courtesy of Tyson Chandler, naturally.
That’s not an uncommon set for New York, obviously, and Chandler has always relished setting effective screens. But the visible excitement and jubilation of Chandler – “I got him open, JR! Pass it! Hurry!” – once he senses an opportunity to free Anthony for an open jumper is something close to heartwarming. A great play by a great teammate.
- Jogo Bonito
When we remember LeBron James 20 years from now, it’s the thunderous dunks, pinpoint passes, and acrobatic finishes that will come to mind first. In a way that’s a shame, for what makes James such a devastating force are the simple, smart plays as much as the flashy ones. Take this seemingly routine Ray Allen three-pointer early in the Heat’s win over San Antonio on Sunday, for example.
James correctly anticipates the carom of Marco Belinelli’s miss and catches the long defensive rebound on the run. LeBron with a head of steam is always a losing proposition, but the Spurs have three players between he and the rim by the time he starts his dribble. He sees a streaking Mario Chalmers down the left sideline, but instead of risking a tough pass continues pushing until Tony Parker finally stops the ball just inside the arc. Immediately recognizing the mismatch, LeBron turns around and begins backing down Parker from the elbow. He takes an extra dribble to draw more the attention of Belinelli and Tim Duncan, then goes to his left shoulder and fires a pass to Chalmers in the far corner. Chalmers swings the ball to Bosh above center arc, who the makes the extra pass to Allen as Corey Joseph struggles to recover. Buckets.
Despite mostly heady transition defense, the Spurs lost this battle long before Allen’s jumper splashed through the net. By refusing to force the issue and exploiting every advantage of his mismatch on Parker, James made San Antonio pay the highest price for allowing him to catch a rebound uninhibited.
Speed, power, intellect, vision – this is LeBron James evolved, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.
- Blairing Impact
It’s easy to root for DeJuan Blair: undersized players always glean sympathy from us have-nots, and such a unique injury history – multiple surgeries on both knees have left him without ACLs – makes his a quintessential case of overcoming obstacles. That his career got off to such a promising start in San Antonio, though, was a mirage. Blair was never going to develop into a surefire starter let alone relative star the way his first two professional seasons suggested; he’s simply too limited from physical and skill perspectives to ever make that kind of long-lasting impact.
But Blair been an absolute steal for the Mavericks this season on a one-year minimum salary, and has recaptured the on-court passion and energy that endeared him to Gregg Popovich years ago. Most indicative of that renaissance? His performance on the offensive glass. Blair is exceptionally strong with long arms and quick hands, allowing him to frequently gain rebounding position that makes it easy for Chandler-style tap-outs to teammates. Blair ranks 12th in the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage at 12.7%, and Dallas corrals nearly 25% of its own misses when he’s on the floor.
Finding a niche and playing to it is of utmost importance to players of Blair’s caliber, and it seems he’s done so with the Mavericks. It won’t mean a starting spot or even major minutes going forward, but Blair will certainly earn a hefty pay raise this summer. At his current level of play, he’d be a valuable bench contributor for any team in the NBA.
It’s a testament to Damian Lillard’s supreme shot-making ability that he’s so effective despite such a glaring failures around the basket. It’s more debilitating than you think, too: Lillard takes almost 32% of his shots from the restricted area, almost double that of fellow high-usage sharpshooter Steph Curry. Fortunately, the film reveals a deficiency rooted in nurture as opposed to nature. Lillard has the necessary body control and sense of secondary defenders to be a good finisher, but is too often betrayed by an exceedingly weak left hand. That’s a flaw that will certainly be improved in time, making Lillard an even bigger nightmare for opposing defenses.
- Show and Go, Go, Go
The sweeping struggles of Harrison Barnes have left the Warriors with one of basketball’s worst benches. One of the few redeeming aspects of his play this season has been three-point shooting: Barnes is connecting on 40.4% of his tries from deep. The rippling influence of an accurate three-point shooter are endless, but all too often Barnes fails to take advantage of the one most easily and directly achieved.
Pump-fake at aggressive close-outs! Show-and-go to the rim! Upon seeing the defender coming, Barnes instead gets in triple threat position to initiate a simple isolation or post-up. Considering his total lack of comfort when forced to put more than two dribbles on the floor, it’s a confounding strategy, and one that makes him far easier to guard than he should be.
There may not be a more fundamentally sound catch-and-shoot player in the league than Mirza Teletovic. His hands are always ready, his feet are always square, and he’s always on balance, but it’s his beautifully mechanical shooting motion that’s most textbook. Kevin Garnett, Joe Johnson, even Shaun Livingston have received the lion’s share of credit for Brooklyn’s 2014 turnaround, but the influence of Teletovic – as floor-spacer and general physical nuisance – looms nearly as large.
- Hide and Seek
Not advisable: switching a dribble hand-off that leaves Isaiah Thomas guarding Paul George in the post. Less advisable: completely losing track of (tricky) Lance Stephenson on the baseline, freeing him for an easy layup in the waning moments of a close game.
*Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats.
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