Monthly Archives: August 2010

The New York Knicks and That ABA Ish

Let’s get past the elements in which this revolves around New York, because as a Southern Midwesterner (or Midwestern Southerner, take your pick), I know most of what I know about New York from friends and various films. Though I will say the films, television, books, and radio programs do paint quite the vivid picture of a thriving metropolis! So yes, the fact that this team is primed to finally be relevant, while not dominant, is particularly culturally relevant for the city. And yes, a resurgence there does speak quite plainly to a mythos that has been held in the old barn and echoed throughout the boroughs. But let’s try and move past that to what this team could resemble.

Yes. Indeed.

Pointless. Frantic. Exhilarating ABA ish.

Let’s address some issues.

The Knicks Won’t Be Good.

This is my favorite response when you mention that the Knicks will be fun as hell to watch next season. “Yeah, but they won’t be any good.” Which is bizarre in and of itself. You know who will be good this year? The Lakers, Heat, Celtics, Magic, Bulls, and probably 1-2 Western teams which are yet to be determined. Those teams will be good. Only two, and if we’re lucky, three, will be great. The rest are just fodder for the great maw that is the NBA elite. And yeah, the Knicks, given their market, payroll, and history, should be better. But your franchise is going to have good times, bad times, and a lot of time in between. The Lakers were a first-round-exit machine in the mid-decade, for crying out loud. Yet the story goes that we’re to ignore this whole thing simply because they had cap space and failed to acquire one of three individuals who were actually planning on going to the same place for years, and despite the fact that Chris Bosh may not be considerably better than Amar’e Stoudemire, all things considered.

But all that is circumstance. Let’s get down to what this is about. Defense, and the lack thereof.

I’m not trying to abdicate the value of defense. The Knicks can not be, under any reasonable set of expectations or circumstances, an elite team, and almost all of that has to do with their lack of defense. From personnel, to system, to approach, their team is built to sufficiently ignore defense. The only reason they even acknowledge its existence is to get the ball back. Bear in mind I’m a believer that the D’Antoni Defensive Sieve is a myth. His Suns teams were far from stalwarts but nor were they the Raptors of last season. They were fine. Just not fine enough, especially not for the grotesque, misshapen, UFC-style ball that makes up the NBA playoffs. But even I can recognize that this cohesive roster is going to be abhorrent on defense. Ronny Turiaf puts in great effort. Not a good defensive element. Stoudemire’s defense has been well documented, and while I maintain he’s hyper-criticized beyond his actual shortcomings, he’s not a good defender by any stretch of the imagination. The rest of the roster is the same. Felton was never a standout defensively, even on a defensive squad like LB’s Cats. Galinari was born into D’Antoni’s defenseless womb. Anthony Randolph is described by my esteemed colleague the same way some are spoken of as rocks with mouths. All in all, the Knicks are likely to be dreadful on defense.

Who cares?

To take the sting off of it a little bit, consider the report coming out about a possible starting five of Felton-Gallinari-Randolph-Stoudemire-Turiaf. That’s a lot of size right there. Even with the waif-like wings, you’re still looking at considerable height to provide a rebounding asset, if not advantage. But if we move past defense and accept that this team is only marginally likely to make the playoffs and if they do, they are likely fodder, we have to see how bloody fun this team is apt to be. Forget the whole Warriors-Raptors concepts of the last few years, those teams were built on a system which then went out and got whatever players were affordably priced for what they were attempting (or in the Raptors case, reasonably priced with a few plastic explosive exceptions). And forget even the Suns, who were dependent on one player’s brilliance, and the other players’ ability to siphon off that player (yes, one of them is the same player who is now the lynch pin in our Madison Square Petrie Dish). This is just tall, athletic guys who can throw the round thing in the circular thing repeatedly.

It’s still a D’Antoni team, no doubt. But what’s notable is not what elements are at play in New York, but how they’re arranged. In Phoenix, he played with refinement at point guard, quickness/speed and barrage at shooting guard (Johnson/Bell/Barbosa), versatility at small forward, and some combination of perplexity and violence at power-forward and center (Stoudemire-Diaw/Marion/Thomas). In New York, he’s assembling something with a workhorse at point guard, purity and athleticism at the wings, violence at the power forward, and function at center. The question is if this is what he wants or if this is the base of the soup that he’s hoping will become something else. Hoping, for example, that Raymond Felton becomes a source of refinement at point guard? That’s not going to lead anywhere good for his liver. Hoping Randolph accepts a traditional role? Wasting his breath. Wishing Turiaf to be versatile? Reasonable but ultimately pointless. They are what they are. This isn’t to say they can’t collectively be something else, especially with a bench that’s just as full of misfit toys that can still wind their springs as any. But it does mean that any attempts to force evolution will be as useful as gluing feathers to a brontosaurus. It’ll happen in due time.

The limits of this team are fascinating, though. Not just the Suns driven by the point guard whipping to perimeter spot-ups but constant catch-go-move-throw. But floaters. Trailer threes by the busload. Offensive rebounds by the truckload (seriously, their defensive rebounding will be systemically suspect, but they’re going to get tap-backs). Pull-ups on loop.

A trade is looming, and with good reason. Donnie Walsh’s job is to win a championship, not speak to relics. But if this particular team makes it together, they’ll be something to watch. Nothing moving, or transcendent, but fun, capable, and complex. There’s nothing obvious about New York, other than the fact they won’t be winning a championship this year. They could very well win as many or fewer games as last year. They could make the 7th seed. It’s negligible, as unless they make a significant move towards Chris Paul’s toast, that’s what they are as far as the common fan is concerned. Toast. But that’s what’s great about Knicks fans. They’re not common fans.

Maybe the best way to describe this team is as a heartbreaker. Young, pristine, driving a really cool car and occasionally getting grounded for weeks on end. They won’t be together forever and when they’re blown apart, it’ll never be the same. But those moments in youth are still something to revel in while they’re around.

Growing up is painful, inevitable, and rote. Let the kids have their fun.

Part-Time Lover

theprostitute

Somewhere along the way, the Oklahoma City Thunder became every NBA fan’s mistress. We have and hold our respective teams in injury and in health, in good times and bad, until death do us part, but even the truest of die-hards have been known to flirt with League Pass now and again. It’s nothing major. Just to see what else is out there. Just to pass the time when our teams are away on business. It doesn’t mean anything, we tell ourselves.

But it means everything. NBA fans have wandering eyes, and the Thunder ooze sex appeal. We can try our best to explain away the Thunder’s allure, but there is genuine meaning in it.

Kevin Durant is the obvious draw. Not only is he a phenomenal All-World scorer with a rapidly improving all-around game, but his on-court demeanor and obsessive hunger for all things basketball blend together beautifully. His feet are planted firmly on the ground, even as he reaches higher and higher with his trademarked, absurdly long arms. The man simply loves what he does and works hard to improve himself, and that’s endearing. That he happens to already be an incredible player while maintaining that hunger is what elevates him to cult favorite and Wheaties box role model.

Of course, Durant is but one reason why the Thunder have captivated NBA audiences. They’re young and new, and like it or not, hip. They’re athletic and dynamic, from Russell Westbrook’s jams to Serge Ibaka’s swats. Their success is somehow bizarre, improbable, and yet all part of the plan. They’re 50-win underdogs, tightly knit with an old-school, one-goal fabric, but envisioned with modern basketball sensibilities. There is, really and truly, nothing quite like the Thunder.

There’s also nothing quite like Kevin Durant’s other team. The one that won’t make your steadfast commitment as an NBA fan the least bit confusing. The one that’s playing right now, in the stretch of the off-season that’s most barren.

They’re young. They’re athletic. They’re hungry and humble. They’re incredibly talented even if they’re in a bit over their heads. They are wholly committed to playing great defense, and above all, they have Durant to lead them. There is, really and truly, nothing quite like Team USA either, and if one were forced to conjure the most natural team comparison? It just might be Oklahoma City.

But even though the national squad may bear the country’s name on their unis, the Thunder are America’s Team. For some reason, Team USA has yet to really grab hold of the basketball nation’s attention, despite the oddly fascinating collection of players and the highly competitive field at the FIBA World Championships.

What is it that basketball fans want, exactly? What makes the Thunder so special when Team USA, despite taking two of OKC’s players and so many of its components, can’t find widespread appeal with a nearly identical formula? Are we really to believe that Derrick Rose and Andre Iguodala are less riveting as basketball talents than Jeff Green and James Harden? Is it simply the nature of the World Championships to have a team like this one fly under the radar?

Regardless, this year’s Team USA has been given a rather ho-hum treatment thus far, despite carrying with them the same underdog appeal that people value in the Thunder. Smart writers the NBA world over have told you that while the Americans have the most talent on their roster, Spain should be considered the tournament favorite. They are the likely champions. Yet while the Thunder’s relative standing is a substantial part of their charm, Team USA gets no benefit from a similar underdog aura.

I think ultimately, what separates OKC from USA is an issue of ownership, and what that ownership signifies. There’s no question that Oklahoma City owns the Thunder. They proved that at every home game last season, as Durant and company benefited from one of the most insanely supportive home arenas in the league:

At least a part of the Thunder’s widespread appeal is the understandable desire to be a part of that. That, ladies and gents, is a truly special fan base, going absolutely bonkers for an interesting team playing meaningful games.

That hearth of basketball fandom in Oklahoma City is an affirmation: an affirmation of the dedication of the players and the Thunder organization. Team USA, for whatever reason, isn’t perceived to have that same level of dedication. Nevermind that Mike Krzyzewski and Jerry Colangelo have worked hard to make the USA Basketball program as consistent as possible. Nevermind that stars like Kevin Durant have said how badly they want to win, and how much that means coming straight from the Durantula’s mouth. Nevermind that this year’s team came to work, put in the time, and prepared for the challenges ahead.

Apparently none of that matters. As a result, not only does Team USA face questions over the team’s intrigue and the games’ meaning, but they lack that dedicated fan base. They lack ownership. There’s nothing to want to be a part of, because the national team has no dedicated following. They technically belong to all Americans — or even anyone who chooses to actively root for this collection of NBA players, if you’d like to take it that far — but the diffusion of that ownership over such a huge number of supposed “fans,” combined with disappointment over the lack of top-tier NBA talent, and a misunderstanding of the value of the World Championships makes Team USA more of a passing thought for the average NBA fan than anything significant.

Team USA has failed to intrigue basketball fans because of an assumed lack of effort and interest. Events like the World Championships, which don’t have the benefit of the Olympic marketing machine, then become uninteresting by association. So begins the vicious cycle, whereby international competition is uninteresting because Team USA is disinterested, and Team USA is disinterested because the competition itself must somehow be uninteresting. But before things get too out of control, consider the following: If Team USA is no longer disinterested, the team is as charismatic and likable as ever in spite of its limitations, and the World Championship field is saturated with top-notch international talent, where does that leave us?

It leaves us on Friday, August 27, 2010 — the eve of the FIBA World Championships. Cling to your contradictory love of the Thunder and indifference toward Team USA if you will, but starting tomorrow, an invested and engaged USA squad will begin to hold court against some of the top national teams in the world. Team USA won’t be around forever, and they’re not looking for much. Just a little love. Just a little attention. Just to be your summer fling on the side, until you go back home in October.

It doesn’t have to mean anything to you, but it could mean everything for them.

Kevin Love, Acropolized

NBA players do an insane amount of traveling on the regular, but playing for Team USA has given a select group of NBAers the opportunity to travel the world. See the sights. Visit a Cheesecake Factory on each continent.

And because professional basketball players are just like you and I, only bigger, far richer, professional, and basketball players, sometimes they take photos like this one:

Screen shot 2010-08-27 at 12.48.52 AM
Photo via @NBA.

Nobody does the Acropolis up like Kevin Love.

Except for Kevin Love and his dear friend, Sad Keanu:

lovesadkeanu2

Or Kevin Love and his beloved Triscuits:

lovetriscuit2

Or Kevin Love and chill bro Trey Kerby:

lovetreypoint

Or Kevin Love WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE:

lovesadkeanuandtrey

Love it, point it, meme it, Triscuit. Technologic.

Credit to Matt Moore for the Photoshop assist, Trey for pointing at things, and the internet for debating crackers.

NBA HD: How To Get Your Free Agents Half-Off

Lost in the whole Free Agentpalooza of 2010 was the fact that the party could have been bigger. Outrageously bigger.

With the cap-slashing climate over the past few years, the writing was on the wall well before the calendar reached July 1, 2010: this class of free agents were due for an enormous payday.  Seeing the formation of the storm on the horizon, organizations wisely arranged meetings with their imminent 2010 free agents and their representation in effort to prevent their prized players from hitting the market at all.  The plan? Sign them to a contract extension.

Contract extensions can be mutually beneficial; the player receives job security  from the team and the team gets the player at a discount.  The latter part of the deal isn’t guaranteed by any means but the team doesn’t have to compete with other bidders to sign their player long-term.  And that exclusivity is a huge advantage for teams.  But how can we quantify that advantage?

Let’s compare some contracts.  Of course, every free agent’s situation is different but to responsibly compare apples to apples, let’s examine the 2006 draft class whose rookie scale contracts were generally due to expire after the 2009-10 season, allowing them to become free agents this past summer.

First, the guys who cashed in early.  Can you imagine if Brandon Roy, Rajon Rondo, and LaMarcus Aldridge joined the free agent sweepstakes? Believe it or not, each of these players could have waited to test the free agent waters but elected to sign long-term with their respective clubs in the fall of 2009.  But they weren’t alone; Andrea Bargnani and Thabo Sefolosha also agreed to contract extensions before hitting free agency.  How much did they sign for? Let’s take a look.

For each player, the first two columns after their name tell us the contract length and dollar amount, with the third column calculating the average salary over that contract. For example Rajon Rondo inked a contract extension with the Boston Celtics in early September 2009 for 5-years, $55 million for an AAV (average annual value) of $11 million.

Then, for each player, I included their 2008-09 Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP09) with the “09” signifying the year.  I chose 2008-09 to reflect their output before they signed their contract extension.  The WARP numbers are courtesy of BasketballProspectus.com and the brilliant work of BBP author and Indiana Pacers consultant Kevin Pelton.  To be clear, this version of WARP is not his newest version, WARP2, which incorporates an added bonus for players who space the floor with 3-point shooting.  Why? The Basketball Prospectus site has not updated their databases with WARP2 yet so for continuity purposes I opted for the older version.

So, this chart tells us that Rajon Rondo received a $11M AAV contract extension after a 13.2-win season in Boston, meaning he was being paid $0.8 million for each win that he accrued that season.  To be sure, teams pay for future projected performance not past performance, but this provides a quick dollar-value conversion that I’ve outlined in previous articles.

Through some research, I found that teams roughly paid $2.25 million for each win in this past free agency period.  Using that standard, the contracts handed to Rondo, Roy, and Aldridge were incredible bargains for their respective organizations.  Sefolosha received a contract fairly in-line with the going rate and Bargnani’s salary hasn’t quite reflected his production in the eyes of the WARP model (although WARP’s opinion is not unique in the statistical nor the scouting world).

All in all, the players who received contract extensions were paid about $1.4 million per win which is far below the free agent price observed this season.  Rondo undoubtedly would have received a max contract had he tested free agency and a case can be made that Aldridge would have pulled one down as well, given his age and productivity.  They left money on the table for job security, ensuring that they’d be set long-term should a career-altering injury occur in 2009-10 (which happened to Roy to some extent).

But how much money did they leave on the table? To find out, I looked at the going rate for their fellow 2006 draftees who received at least three-year deals in free agency: Rudy Gay, Tyrus Thomas, J.J. Redick, Jordan Farmar, Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Lowry. (The three-year qualifier captures players in the same stratosphere as those worthy of an extension and excludes players like Shannon Brown.)

While these free agent deals aren’t all completely egregious, the free agent premium bears out in this small group with the average price for a win costing $3 million compared to the previous group’s $1.4.  In fact, according to this method, inking an extension gave the parent organization about a 50% discount on the commodity of wins.

The biggest difference? In free agency, it’s nearly impossible to sign a talent like Rondo at a clearance markdown price.  Rondo has nearly four times as much impact on the standings as Rudy Gay but the latter will earn about $25 million more over the next half-decade.

So how are teams able to convince players to sign extensions that are probably below their market value?  Well, it’s not easy.  It’s paramount for an organization to produce a winning attitude from the top on down.  That means not just winning in practice but also in style (right, Dan Gilbert?).  It’s the responsibility of the owner, front office staff, and the coaching staff to make the players feel like there’s no sense to risk losing the professionalism, commitment, and comforts they can enjoy at home.  In other words, make your lawn as green as green gets.

Fantasy Hardwoodyms: Snatching the Chain

Now you know I don’t like to pitch myself as an expert, analyst, or anything of the like. Nope, I’m just a dude playing fantasy sports for the love of the game. The only difference between us is that I set aside a little extra time each week to weave the stories of the magical leagues that only exist in our minds and browsers.

Today, though, well, let’s just say today is a little difference. Perhaps my swagger is set to ten hundred, thousand trillion. Maybe my hubris is out of control for a minute. Whatever the reason, today we’re going to discuss trades of the most incredible order.

Here’s where my ego comes into play, it’ll potentially be useful to open with a list I like to call “My Top 5 Little Louisiana Purchases:”

First, a disclaimer, just like you, I don’t play with fools. Trades like these happen in every league because everyone makes foolish moves from time to time, capitalizing on that tendency is the hard part.

5) Kobe Bryant and fodder for Chris Paul, Al Jefferson, and Kevin Martin (07-08)

I once strongly disliked Kobe, but that year I was the 3rd overall pick and he was totally chalked into that spot. Fortunately many, many people strongly like, one might even call it a man-crush, Kobe, and so I was able to nab these three breakout gems just a couple weeks after draft day. Side fact: that year I had Ron Artest, Brad Miller, and Martin. My team’s unofficial nickname was The Three Kings, which is also one of my favorite movies and Bible stories. Good things happen when you play to your strengths.

4) Joe Johnson and Michael Beasley for Josh Smith and Rudy Gay (09-10)

I get that double-upgrades happen all the time, but I keep it on the list for a few reasons. First, the opposing player had mistakenly, but correctly based on the player rater, drafted Josh Smith in the mid-second round. Second, said opposition had specifically reached 10 picks on both Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo to prevent me – a diehard Grizzlies fan – from scoring my favorite players. Third, Beasley fell off the cliff for the rest of the season, putting up waiver wire numbers once Spoelstra’s confidence shifted to Udonis Haslem and even Dorrell Wright, which is a sad thing indeed.

3) Derrick Rose, Emeka Okafor, and LaMarcus Aldridge for Dwight Howard and Gerald Wallace (08-09)

A particularly nefarious “trade rape,” for two weeks I periodically pimped Rose’s sickest plays on a friend’s Facebook. At the same time I also continually updated him on the jump-shot project, wherein I was teaching myself how to shoot with the high, elbowy release like LaMarcus Aldridge. Yes, tricks are fun to play, and if you play them often enough, people will fall for them.

2) Luke Ridinour for Corey Maggette (08-09)

Wait for it. Wait for it…

1) Corey Maggette for Rashard Lewis (08-09)

Oh, yeah, there’s the rub. If you remember, Rashard Lewis’s hand was so hot in 08-09 that he almost seemed to be worth his contract that year. Lewis shot the lights out, Maggette was mediocre, I had picked up Ridinour off free agency just two days before, and then grabbed Ramon Session once he eventually won the Bucks point guard spot and went nuts. Watch Tracy McGrady scoring 13 in 33 seconds, the rest of the league felt like the Spurs after this sequence.

Also, two nights after I had a mad vivid dream that Shard ran a crime ring and I did him dirty, so he threw me in the trunk of his ‘50s Cadillac. He was wearing a purple, crushed velvet, four-piece suit with a purple magic baseball cap. I’m convinced now that my peers were incepting me for revenge.

Now, to be completely fair, I’ve accepted some piss poor offers as well. I bought on Gilbert Arenas last year about three days before the whole “Finger Gunz!” charade. Right before the deadline and during his last year of fantasy dominance, and the only year since 1978 that he started in all 82 games, I traded Baron Davis away for scraps because I was so terrified of injury. And I even made a Godfather offer for Jamaal Crawford when he was traded to the Warriors – a match made in heaven, what could possibly go wrong? Everything, and Don Nelson, of course.

But these five trades represent more than just fleecings I’ve been lucky enough to pull, they have categorical significance as well. In fact, each is a specific type of trade that, typically, is going to benefit your team:

5) The hedger: Deal one or two players of a given value for multiple players with the potential for similar value.

Potential is a dangerous concept in fantasy. While potential is something ephemeral in the world of real sports, only manifesting itself in flashes, in fantasy it tends to be injected into each player during draft day.

A couple weeks into the season, when trading, most players kind of forget about that and look at either year to date or career performance. That’s why it’s often easy to deal your top 10 pick for a top 20, high upside guy, and two more shots in the dark.

Any deal that involves “shots in the dark” sounds risky, however, this type of move really isn’t; it’s a high-value move because, in general, you’ve only got to hit on 1 of 3 of your bets. If the top 20 guy plays like a top 10, the rest is gravy. If one of the shots in the dark is top 30, it doesn’t matter that you dropped off from the 6th pick to the 16th. If all three hit, then have fun bathing in ticker tape.

On offense: Target young studs from the year before. It works best if you’re offering a true stud – Kobe can make it happen, Vince Carter won’t.

On defense: Are you giving up all the sleepers on your team? Is your team’s average age about to bounce above 30? If you answered yes to these questions, decline.

4) The double-down: Swap two for two where you appear to be giving up the best player in the trade for an upgrade, even though you’re not giving up the best player.

“Value is value, is perceived value,” my moms always used to say. Lots of stars are piss poor fantasy options to keep on your team, but excellent as trade bait. I find jack-of-all trades without defensive numbers to be the most useful for this sort of pursuit, like JJ or Brandon “Purple Kush” Roy, as players known for 22-5-5 tend to actually put up 20-4-4, which is far less useful.

Offense: Steals are the most undervalued stat in fantasy basketball, so target the thieves with this type of offer. Threes also work well, as does free throw percentage as a function of free throws attempted. Most people are pretty attentive to points, field goal percentage, rebounds, and assists, though.

Defense: Looking at the player rater once a month, or, like, right before you’re about to make a blockbuster is a start.

3) The “Welcome to the league”: Any unbalanced, especially 3 for 2 or 3 for 1, deal that nets you a stud.

New fantasy basketball players tend to forget that the free agent pool has lots and lots of really great value at almost every point in the season. Unbalanced trades free up your roster to make more prospective adds, which means more breakout guys and less breakout guys you drop too early searching for talent.

Offense: One way to execute this deal is to add up the stats of the three guys you’re dealing and show them how you’re overpaying. Except you’re not, because Stephen Curry went undrafted in most league last year.

Defense: Unless you’re entire team is at a Yao Ming-level injury risk, there is really no reason to ever be on the butt end of an unbalanced trade. A wider talent pool is not a deeper talent pool.

2) The now and later: Swapping a sleeper or hot-pickup all over the front pages for an established, but forgettable, superior player.

Everybody’s excitable and everybody loves Matthew Berry, use that to your advantage.

Note, however, that this can backfire if you don’t ensure that said waiver wire fodder is actually a pretty middling basketball player. Check out some real basketball stat sites, read up on them a bit, maybe even watch a game. If they look really good, it might be smart to hold. If they look like Luke Ridinour, sell, sell, sell!

Offense: Works best to use against bottom-feeders who are grasping for straws in their dying breaths. I know it sounds cruel, but sometimes you’ve got to just finish the job. Imagine yourself as a Highlander – I tend to find that image useful.

Defense: Check the note. Remember the whole identities is identities thing last week? In time, crap tends to stay crap, so spot the crap early.

1) The Silky Johnston: Ridiculously unbalanced, unforgivable, likely to infuriate the entire league.

I don’t know what’s more difficult after the Silky Johnston: convincing the league manager that you’re not presenting your trade partner with sexual favors, somehow convincing your friend to trust you again. Put simply, if you were once on the fast track to best man, now your invitation got “lost in the mail.”

Assuming you can pull it off, get in bed with the commish, and don’t mind never trading or talking with someone again, you’ve just turned the league’s power balance upside down. Start writing your acceptance speech now.

Offense: Literally always have a Silky Johnston out to someone. You’re not offending anyone, at best you’re getting a free victory give-away, and at worst you’re subconsciously boosting your players’ value by comparing them to superior players. To that end, always send out trade requests with carefully worded descriptions. Offering an explanation is always a best practice, but mastering this skill is practically a necessity if you’re going to seal this deal.

Defense: No matter how hot a player is, how much you need a given stat, how out for the year your center just became, never, ever trade down several multiples of 10 on the player rater. A top 20 player is worth so much more than a top 70 one that the gap in value will almost never be filled.

A final piece of advice, to err is human, but to trade is divine. Look back at standings in your past leagues, chances are the most active players are at the top. The draft, by nature, is meant to be an equal process. Trading, by nature, is unequal, because if it was equal, why even bother? Both players trade because they think they’re winning the deal.

And when, more often then not, you know that you’re winning yours, it’s alright to get cocky. Just not too cocky, or you might end up with Luke Ridinour.

Shoving into Overdrive

Explosion Photo

There are a million bits to watch as Team USA resumes its pre-Worlds exhibition schedule this weekend, but keep the Americans’ use and execution of the zone defense front and center. There are a lot of things Team USA has absolutely no control over at this stage (the limitations of the roster being the most obvious), but Mike Krzyzewski’s choice to employ more and more zone is a philosophical error that could up costing the Americans immensely.

Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated featured Krzyzewski’s love affair with the zone in a piece last week, in particular highlighting the influence and importance of Team USA assistant and zone defense guru Jim Boeheim:

When Team USA broke camp in Las Vegas last month, before reuniting this week in New York for more workouts, implementing a zone defense wasn’t even on its radar. Pressure was the word of the week, with U.S. coaches convinced that the team’s length and athleticism would make it a dangerous pressing unit in the upcoming FIBA World Championships.

However, recent circumstances — specifically the withdrawal of most of the team’s top big men — has led to a shift in that thinking. With Amar’e Stoudemire, David Lee and Brook Lopez bowing out of the tournament, which begins Aug. 28, rebounding has become a major point of concern. Tyson Chandler and JaVale McGee are the only natural centers on the roster, while Kevin Love and Lamar Odom are the only true power forwards.

Playing zone, coaches say, will position more bodies near the backboards. To that end, the U.S. has tapped assistant coach Jim Boeheim, who has employed the zone at Syracuse for more than three decades, to teach the principles of the defense to the U.S. team.

In principle, the zone offers a nice counter to Team USA’s more aggressive man-to-man sets, and could briefly confuse their opponents as the defense makes a stylistic shift. However, the zone approach really is getting away what this group does best, and making some fairly odd concessions in the process.

The zone defense is, by nature, reactive. It shifts and adjusts to what the opponent tries to do, in an attempt to deny them from reaching the court’s prime real estate. A well-executed zone is quick to react and meticulous in its rotations, which is often a product of extended preparation, trial, and adjustment. Just by understanding the fundamental nature of the zone we already begin to see some of the problems with Team USA implementing it. Team USA’s specific strengths (speed, anticipation, athleticism) and weaknesses (lack of size, shot-blocking, defensive rebounding) pretty much require a pressure-heavy approach. It’s the best strategy to help the Americans disguise just how cold they’re capable of going on offense, while also hiding the defensive inadequacies on the back line.

The zone would likely help the Americans to defend the post, particularly when Tyson Chandler is resting, but at what cost? The biggest concessions of the zone are rebounding and three-pointers, one of which is already problematic given the makeup of this roster, and the other has been noted repeatedly by Team USA players and coaches as a point of defensive emphasis. “Don’t give up threes to these guys,” they say. “Every opponent on the floor can shoot,” they say. “We have to respect their range,” they say. So naturally, Team USA moves to feature the zone defense more prominently, as a way to exacerbate their own rebounding concerns while also surrendering more open three-point attempts than ever. And that’s if the zone is at least fairly competent, which seems like a long-shot due to to Team USA’s limited practice time.

The zone isn’t some catch-all for when man-to-man coverage fails. Like any defensive system, it takes the proper personnel, but even more importantly, a certain amount of time for absorption and implementation. A group of NBAers accustomed to playing man/help defense year-round won’t run a proper zone after a weekend seminar.

Also, playing a true zone in the FIBA World Championships isn’t the same as throwing in a look against UConn, or an NBA team experimenting against bewildered opponents in mid-January. Other national teams are filled with professional players who encounter a ton of zone defense on a regular basis. They won’t be baffled when Russell Westbrook doesn’t go with them through a screen. They’ll just set up the offense, hit the high post, and milk the hell out of backdoor cuts.

This is nothing against Boeheim. He’s a vital member of the Team USA staff, but I’d argue that he’s most useful as an offensive coach; who better to teach the players the best way to attack the zones they’re sure to encounter in the World Championships than a man intimately familiar with the scheme’s weaknesses? But defensively, Team USA desperately needs to take control. They need to dictate, not react. Team USA’s guards and wings should be flying about at all times: jumping passes, pressing full-court, trapping at every opportunity. Deviating from that level of pressure exposes Team USA in potentially damning ways, and handcuffs a roster teeming with athleticism.

NBA HD: Biggest Losses of 2010

In my previous post here at Hardwood, I shed some light on the biggest bargains in the game last season. Superstars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Dwight Howard found themselves in the top tier but also some young studs who were still paid on the rookie scale such as Kevin Durant, Rajon Rondo, and Brook Lopez.

To reiterate from that post, I found that teams spent approximately $2.25 million per WARP2 produced in 2010.  So, I converted each player’s WARP2 into a dollar amount by multiplying their production (WARP2) by the price for that production ($2.25M) to calculate a dollar value for their production.  Then, I simply subtracted their salary (source: Patricia Bender’s database) from their dollar value of production to find their net value.  Some players, like Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum, were paid a salary that matched their production value. But other players, well, didn’t live up to their pricetag, for various reasons.

Which contracts lead to the biggest loss last season? Last take a look.

Injuries. Injuries. Injuries.

It’s incredibly difficult to project how players will perform six years into the future.  But it’s even harder to foresee how injuries will plague their career down the line.

The cases of Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, and Michael Redd illustrate the devastating effects that a serious injury can have on a team’s books.  The Rockets were set to receive nearly nothing for their $40 million investments in Yao and McGrady but a midseason deal with the Knicks handed McGrady’s albatross over to Jim Dolan in exchange for long-term cap relief. In general, $40 million equates to about 18 wins above replacement so the Rockets 42-win season becomes even more remarkable considering what they lost due to injury.

Boston’s signings of the O’Neals haven’t received a standing ovation from some fans and analysts largely due to the stigma of the $43.2 million they were owed last season.  At those prices, the O’Neal’s were undoubtedly poor investments by their respective teams but they still contributed about $14 million in on-court value.  Despite the 6-win production from Shaq and Jermaine, the contracts sank $30 million worth of deficit on the books, according to this method.  The Celtics will pay just $6.5 million for their services next year, which amounts to about one seventh their pricetag last season.

McGrady and the O’Neals aren’t the only ones who may go from albatross to asset overnight.  Brad Miller and Zydrunas Ilgauskas will see huge paycuts next season and their salary will more closely mirror their on-court production.

Again, I owe a huge thanks to Kevin Pelton for the WARP2 numbers.  Be sure to get your hands on the invaluable 2010-11 Pro Basketball Prospectus when it comes out in the early fall.

Brandon Roy In “Despicable Me”

Once upon a time, music videos were things people actually looked forward to. For those of you under the age of 25, this probably sounds like a “When I was your age, movies were only a nickel and they put music on compact discs that you’d play in your Walkman. They held no more than 18 songs!” kind of talk. But there was seriously a time in which MTV, VH1 and BET were showing music videos that people wanted to see.

They enjoyed the music and the spectacle of how it was being presented. Directors of music videos were almost as well-known as the artists themselves and you could often find a certain level of cinematic flair in each one. Now, we’re relegated to the latest subtle masquerade of our own Josie and the Pussycats moment as we get bombarded with questionable music, celebrity cameos to distract us from the questionable music and a lot of good looking people to make us think this wasn’t a complete waste of three minutes. Everything has moved to VH1 and MTV showing crappy reality show after crappy reality show and whatever the hell BET does (when Bruce Bruce stopped appearing on BET, I hit the eject button).

In today’s world of music videos, celebrity cameos might be the most interesting part of the whole extravaganza. Primarily in the Hip Hop community, we often see professional athletes filling these appearances. Sometimes, it’s as simple as the bewilderment of seeing Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. getting ready to race luxury vehicles in the middle of a Jay-Z video. Other times, we get to see DeJuan Blair auto-tuning his way through a tribute to a friend of his that has passed away like the following video (H/T – Project Spurs):

I think we can all agree that these cameos are nothing negative in any way.

But when Brandon Roy ends up in a music video made by old friends of his and that music video is seemingly promoting the non-medicinal usage of marijuana, that seems like something that would probably raise some eyebrows. Check out the video first and foremost:

What’s weird about this is you literally see Brandon Roy for no more than 10-12 seconds in the video and that’s if you count all of the times in which he’s barely viewable in the background. I noticed Jamal Crawford in this video a lot more than I did Roy. I couldn’t even tell you what the lyrics said in the video because when I watched it, I was trying to find where Brandon Roy was so prominently involved and I kept thinking either Cali or Cavalli (I don’t know which one is which, although I’m sure there is a bitchin’ MySpace page that could sort it out for me) was actually O.J. Mayo. I didn’t even notice there was weed in the video because I kept wondering if Mike Conley was going to stroll on into the shot.

Nevertheless, Brandon felt the need to get out ahead of the story – or at worst, take a leisurely jog with it side-by-side – to make sure he stayed with his history of being a stand-up type of role model for his fans and kids everywhere. Brandon admits that he didn’t go about this experience the proper way and does so without making excuses. He takes full responsibility for not finding out what he was becoming a part of during this process of helping out some old friends. And even though it seems completely unnecessary for him to do so because he’s not really ALL THAT big in the video, he still made sure to disassociate himself from the video.

Isn’t this why we love guys like Brandon Roy? He’s just a good guy. He screwed up (sort-of but not really) in getting involved with this video and instead of doing the typical pro athlete thing of making excuses and trying to save face, he came out on his own to make sure he owned up to what he did and explain why it was wrong. This is what we want from the stars of the NBA. In a time in which the headliners are out just trying to make headlines no matter what it does to their image (Let’s face it, LeBron — you’ve basically become the Paris Hilton of the NBA), seeing a guy act in this respect because it’s just the right thing to do is pretty damn refreshing.

Personally, when I watched the video for the first time I didn’t think much of it. I definitely didn’t think Roy was committing career suicide or letting down the fans of the Blazers. I was more concerned with trying to figure what this guy was all about:

However, it’s good to know we can trust Brandon Roy to be a positive influence despite extremely minor hiccups here and there.

Don’t beat yourself up about this, Brandon.

With So Many Light-Years to Go

palms-clock

An underlying theme from my previous post on the workings of NBA leadership was this: The Miami Heat have the potential to re-write the book of basketball convention. Not only is the team talented enough to be tremendously successful according to conventional standards, but their makeup and synthesis are so tremendously unique that they could radically change the unwritten rules of the sport. Everything from the importance and function of the point guard to the means of acquiring talent to the superstar mentality is now up for debate, and those conversations could and should rage on well beyond the day when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh’s time together in Miami comes to an end.

Among Miami’s more interesting potential contributions to the basketball discussion is an organizational change to one of the game’s most storied and emblematic plays: the last-second shot. Henry Abbott has explored the dynamics of the last-second shot on a number of occasions (with others such as Roland Beech and Kevin Pelton as integral parts of those discussions) on TrueHoop, with play-calling as a particular point of emphasis. Abbott explains:

In the big picture, maybe teams should re-think how they handle key possessions, because what’s happening now is less effective than how teams score at other times. A big part of that is that teams are very predictable. Almost every coach goes to their superstar in this situation, and knowing what’s going to happen gives the defense an advantage they don’t normally have.

…I am fascinated to know why defenses are so much more effective with the game on the line than at other times in the game. Half-court heaves are part of it, certainly. And rushed shots. And highly focused defense. And maybe referees tend to be cautious in those parts of the game, which could favor the defense.

But it also seems to me that with the game on the line the play-calling is extremely safe and formulaic. The normal notion of finding the open man is very constrained, and takes a back seat to the idea that stars are supposed to shoot at these times. (Remember the uproar a couple of years ago when LeBron James simply hit the open man?) Analysis would prove, I’m certain, that with the game on the line, teams use far less movement of players and the ball, and there is a lot more star vs. one or even two elite defenders (like Ray Allen last night).

Surely that’s part of it too, right? It’s like there’s some kind ethical code that under no circumstances can you dump it down to Kendrick Perkins with the game on the line. But if he’s wide open, maybe you should.

It’s a point that was well-worth a moment’s consideration before the stars aligned, but it’s an absolutely fascinating idea now that Miami’s roster is in place. If any team is really in a position to deviate from the late-game play-calling norm, wouldn’t it be Miami? They don’t just have a go-to guy. The Heat now have two of the best clutch performers in the game, one versatile power forward who has been a solid late-game option for his own team in the past, a gunner who hit 40% of his clutch (“4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points,” as defined by 82games.com) threes last season, a deceptively clutch forward with a reliable spot-up game, a shoot-first guard with a penchant for hitting big shots, and even a PG just two years removed from hitting one of the biggest shots in the history of the NCAA title game. The Heat aren’t just loaded with options. They have a veritable arsenal when it comes to endgame scoring.

Statistically speaking, James is not only Miami’s best player, but also their top performer in the clutch. LeBron averaged more points per minute in clutch situations than any other player last season, thanks to shooting 48.8% from the field while leading the league in free throw attempts per clutch minute. Wade’s ’09-’10 clutch numbers weren’t great, but the man essentially won the 2006 championship with his ability to score, create, and get to the line late in the game (plus, for what it’s worth, he was a much better clutch performer in ’08-’09).

With two remarkable clutch options, who do the Heat go to when they need a last-second bucket? The beauty of that question may be in the fact that there is no consistently correct answer. Opponents will no doubt be aware that James and Wade are the preferred options, but Erik Spoelstra has an opportunity to really push opposing defenses to their limits with the collection of talent laid before him. All it takes is an actual play. Not screening for LeBron so he can catch the ball 25 feet from the basket and go to work. Not just running a counter to get Wade open. I’m talking about a real NBA set, complete with off-ball action, staggered screens, three-point shooters who don’t have their feet nailed to the ground in the corner, and maybe even a slash to the basket. Feel free to gasp. Miami is set for incredible success this season not just because James, Wade, and Bosh are all immensely talented, but because of the way that talent will allow them to play off one another. Giving the ball to LeBron or Wade alone to isolate betrays the team’s most obvious strength, whereas operating in a more structured endgame offense would allow the Heat to be brutally effective down the stretch in close games.

It can work because Spoelstra has a ton of options. It’s not just LeBron and Wade, after all. The rest of the roster is perfectly capable of taking and making the big one.

Chris Bosh, though being a step removed from James and Wade in terms of sheer clutch scoring, is a key to unlocking the Heat’s late-game offensive potential. If Bosh slides over to center, opposing teams have to account for him but will likely be put at a disadvantage when they do. Bosh’s combination of size and shooting is what makes him such an interesting endgame option, as his ability to hit from mid-range and beyond forces opposing bigs to step out of the paint. Not only does that give James or Wade an excellent kick-out candidate, but it reduces the resistance that any penetrator with the ball will encounter at the rim from shot-blockers. Defending James or Wade on an isolation set is difficult enough, but throw in some additional player/ball movement and take away the possibility of help-side shot blocking from the 5, and that task grows exponentially more difficult.

Pan to Udonis Haslem, who is ready and waiting at the free throw line extended. Haslem may not be the most heralded late-game scorer, but last season his per minute clutch scoring (22.7 points per 48 clutch minutes) was right in line with that of Deron Williams and Paul Pierce. He was a top-15 clutch rebounder (15.0 per 48), ranking ahead of Pau Gasol, Chris Bosh, Andrew Bogut, Carlos Boozer, Nene, Marc Gasol, Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson, Brook Lopez, and so many others. And just to sweeten the pot, Haslem shot 52.9% from the field and 83% from the line during such situations while playing for the bundle of offensive misery known as the ’09-’10 Miami Heat. He’ll knock down the open shot — and trust me, with this team he’ll be open — hit the boards when there’s a few seconds to spare, and will give James and Wade all the room they need to run the offense on the strong side.

Chalmers seems to get by on a reputation more than anything, but luckily Eddie House has been a upper-tier clutch option in the past. In House’s last full year with a quality team (’08-’09 with Boston), his clutch scoring put him on par with Kevin Durant, Steve Nash, and Chauncey Billups. House also bested designated Celtic shooter Ray Allen in almost every relevant regard: clutch scoring output, clutch field goal percentage, clutch three-point percentage (57.1% to 37.5%), and even clutch assists. Mike Miller was also very effective from beyond the arc in the Wizards’ close games in ’09-’10, shooting an impressive 40.0% from three. Never is floor balance more essential than when a team needs but a single bucket to win, and the combination of House and Miller (with a dose of Chalmers now and again, if you’d like), along with Bosh and Haslem holding steady from mid-range, should give Miami’s clutch offense all the room it needs to breathe.

In almost every regard, the Miami Heat will not be like other basketball teams. So why should they be when it comes to their play-calling with the game on the line? Erik Spoelstra has all of these incredible scoring options laid out for him. No coach in recent memory has been more empowered to go away from the “Get X the ball and get out of the way,” endgame mantra. If there’s really a place where Spoelstra’s talents can stand out amidst the incredible star power on Miami’s roster, it’s there. If they win 73, it’ll be credited to James, Wade, and Bosh. If they win the title, the significance of free agency and Pat Riley’s savvy will be noted repeatedly, with Spoelstra as a footnote. Spoelstra and his staff will have a number of difficult tasks ahead of them from finding out ways to stay competitive at the 5 to keeping all of Miami’s mouths fed, but this is one arena where Miami’s head coach has the ability to be a bit of a revolutionary.

Team USA Beats France

I had the chance to go catch Team USA’s final exhibition on American soil before they head off to Turkey for the 2010 FIBA World Championship starting on August 28. As expected, the US boys rolled over the French in Madison Square Garden, winning 86-55, although they didn’t look particularly good on offense or defense early and were deadlocked with France at 16-16 after one quarter.

It was just an exhibition, but it still offered a little insight into what we might be might see from Team USA in Turkey. Here’s a few thoughts from Madison Square Garden.

  • The team started off sloppy early in the first quarter, at one point turning the ball over on two consecutive possessions, mishandling easy passes in semi-transition. Unforced errors like that shouldn’t be happening with Rajon Rondo and Chauncey Billups on the floor (although it was more KD and Iggy’s fault, respectively, in these two specific instances). As for the starters, I think what we saw today will likely be the same group we see starting the first game in Turkey: Rajon, Chauncey, Iggy, Durant and Tyson Chandler. Chauncey’s vet savvy and shooting make him a good fit at the two, Durant and Tyson are locks, and Iggy/Gay seems like essentially a coin-flip as both bring some much-need athleticism/slashing to the wing, but Iggy does play a little more D, so I would take him. Rajon/Rose could go either way, too, I suppose, but Rajon has the experience, and that seems like the go-to tiebreaker for USA coaches.
  • Speaking of Rondo … On Saturday, Rajon mentioned that he had not yet gotten the chance to return a phone call to chat with his new teammate Shaq, but when asked if he’s looking forward to running the break with the big fella, he said “hopefully he can keep up with me … I’ll wait for him.” He also expressed that playing for Team USA was a change since, compared to guys like Steph Curry, Eric Gordon and Jeff Green, he’s “like a veteran,” he said. “On my team, I’m the young guy so it’s a different look.”
  • The play of the day went to one of those young’ns. Steph Curry forced a nice steal around half court by playing pesky D then was able to tip toe the sideline to keep it inbounds, immediately whipping a behind-the-back dribble to get by two defenders and pushing it up the floor. He was far from done, however, freezing a defender in transition around the elbow with a sharp crossover and getting all the way to the cup. Rather than take a contested layup, he dumped it off to Rudy Gay for a power dunk. The sequence was MSG-approved and marked one of the many dunks that sent the near-capacity-eventually (started about half full and then filled up most of the way) crowd into a frenzy.
  • Rondo had a pretty nice play of his own, however, Rondo-ing his way by a France defender for a sweeping, easy lay-in. It was impressive, sure, but at this point I almost expect one of those per game. Unconfirmed reports lead me to believe that the French kids watching at home are calling the play “Le Rondo’d.”
  • Rudy Gay wasn’t gonna let the little guys have all the fun and added to the highlight reel with back-to-back breakaway dunks early in the fourth. The first, a Harold Miner-esque, leaning reverse two-hander, gets a 9 out of 10 from me, while the second, more of a 270-degree, spinning one handed reverse, deserves a solid 8 out of 10 on the in-game dunk-o-meter. Iggy added a nice power windmill dunk of his own on a first-half breakaway. I was well aware of MSG’s affinity for dunks, but it seems that patriotic dunks are that much sweeter.
  • Eric Gordon barely saw the floor early (93 seconds in the first half ), but got some run in the second (about 12 minutes) as, presumably, Coach K and company wanted one final look at the kid. He hit two treys and added one other bucket, but my gut tells me he’ll be the last man cut from Team USA. Steph Curry just seemed to be a little more ingrained in the rotation from the two games I saw this weekend, bringing the ball up on occasion and spacing the floor with his shooting. And if it’s just shooting they care about keeping, Danny Granger also did this yesterday — although I never actually thought Granger had a chance of getting cut anyway unless his finger was actually injured. (It’s not. He’s fine.)
  • Nando De Colo of France (a player who the Spurs own the rights to and RC Buford, according to Jeff Garcia of Project Spurs, has called the best point guard currently playing in France) hit a nice trey right in front of the press box during the first half. He easily has the best name of anyone who was in Madison Square on Sunday.

Le Fin.