Monthly Archives: March 2012

Meet Charles Jenkins

I’m thrilled for Charles Jenkins right now.

Last night, he had 18 points and 12 assists against the Nets. Early on, his jumper was off but he had six assists in the first quarter. The Warriors allowed New Jersey to come back from 19 down and Jenkins had his shot blocked by Gerald Wallace on the game’s last possession, but that’s okay. He said that it’s a learning experience.

Five days earlier, he had a career-high 27 and six assists against Portland, going six-for-six in the first. Jenkins missed a desperation three on the last possession and Golden State lost, but he was, in coach Mark Jackson’s words, phenomenal. Both nights, I noticed people tweeting varations of “who the hell is this guy?”

Charles Jenkins is Hofstra’s all-time leading scorer; he saw his number raised to the rafters before his final home game. He’s from Brooklyn and was roommates with Kemba Walker in Long Island last summer, working out with the fellow rookie point guard during the lockout. Jenkins wears No. 22 as a tribute to his late brother, Kareem Albritton, who was murdered at the age of 22 in Brooklyn when Jenkins was in eighth grade, leaving behind a one-year-old girl named Kemoni. He thanks Springfield Gardens High School for giving him a second chance after his brother’s murder made him “invisible for a year, basically.”

I didn’t know much of that before last year’s draft. I became a fan when I saw this TrueHoop TV video — Jenkins spent draft day with Henry Abbott, taking him to Springfield Gardens and to the cemetary where his brother is buried. He brought a basketball with him.

I’ve no idea if this recent play is sustainable, can’t tell you what these numbers “mean” in a broader context or how he fits into the Warriors’ long-term plans. He had two less spectacular performances against the Lakers and Hornets in between the two mentioned earlier. But he’s getting minutes and he’s shown an ability to shoot off the dribble, spot up, and drive to the basket. He’ll be starting against the Lakers again tomorrow. Happy he’s getting this chance.

Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Paul, And Reminders

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5qrps-mw5g&feature=player_embedded

This isn’t a shot that should exist. It shouldn’t ever be taken, and it shouldn’t ever be made. If a shot like this is possible, regular, commonplace – what do we know about high-percentage basketball? We learn that it doesn’t always apply. The giants of the game, the great ones that are widely remembered beyond last season, aren’t interested in what seems “possible” or easy, for better or for worse. They operate on a different plane of sport, above the outstretched hands of the opponent and the expected outcome of the fans. Dirk is one of these players, perhaps the greatest testament to impossible success and unlikely perseverance.

What sets Dirk apart from this notion of accelerated triumph in the final moments of competition is the sheer normalcy these shots exude when leaving his hand. They aren’t insane, heroic shots for Dirk. They’re just typical. When Dirk steps back with a hand in his face, turns his seven-foot frame, and releases an impossibly high-arcing jumper into the ether, it’s not a surprise when the ball bounces perfectly off the backboard and into the basket for a game-winner. It just is. Hedo Turkoglu can only stare and shrug, perhaps returning to the moment Dirk whispered, “Bank,” seconds before his climactic basket silenced the Amway Center crowd.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yLZCQ5Uw0b0

Chris Paul is also one of the great ones, but this isn’t the final shot we’ve come to expect from him. Usually, we see the waiting and preparing Chris Paul, dribbling hesitantly until the final moments before a quick crossover and fadeaway jumper. But tonight Chris Paul surprised both us and J.J. Hickson, the unfortunate victim of a screen-and-switch by DeAndre Jordan. Maybe it didn’t matter whether Hickson or Raymond Felton covered Paul in this final possession. Paul had already decided to flip the script, and no matter what opponent he faced, they wouldn’t be able to react in time. When Chris Paul does what you expect, he’s dangerous. When he chooses an unexpected path, he’s basketball lethality embodied.

As he dribbles at the top of the key, you can almost feel the identity of the Clippers permeating from the court’s surface. Every Clipper looks on at Paul’s pre-strike movements, unmoving, hoping for one last saving play from Paul. Even as Felton tragically makes an attempt to double Paul and force another Clipper to make a rare final possession appearance, the Clippers stare blankly. Paul, as ever, seizes the initiative and reaches the basket quickly for a score, vindicating the deference of his teammates.

For much of Paul’s career, he’s served as the engine of his team’s machinations, and despite a change of scenery, team swap, and a highly publicized trade, that notion has remained the same. Paul isn’t without help from his Clipper teammates, but he consistently provides a rallying point for a team still searching for its functional center. The Clippers aren’t sure who they are or what they will grow to be, but Paul himself is fully realized as an NBA star. And in these moments of struggle, in which the Clippers are without direction and searching for a win against a team like the weightless Blazers, only a surprising and unstoppable drive from Chris Paul can capture a win and right the team’s proverbial rudder.

Tanking In The Kingdom Of Ends

Over the last couple of days, the NBA blogosphere and Twitterverse (and maybe Farmville and conceivably Google+-opolis, if anyone lives there) have been set ablaze by a debate sparked by TrueHoop under the banner of their HoopIdea campaign: how do we fix the draft lottery so teams don’t tank in an attempt to get a high draft pick?

Let me explain. No: there is too much. Let me sum up: go here if you want to get an overview of the debate and links to endless articles debating it. It’s all interesting, but I’m honestly kind of agnostic about the tanking thing. You want to fix it? Fine, but any system is going to have flaws. What I’m really interested in is why tanking is perceived as such a problem. I’m going to have to call in my main man Immanuel Kant for this one, plus a couple of clichés.

First off, there’s the thing you heard from your Little League coach when you struck out in the bottom of the sixth with two outs and men on second and third and then you cried in the back seat of your family’s minivan and not even a trip to Dairy Queen and a Dilly Bar could staunch the hot flow of tears (what: was that just me?): “It’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game.” This is about as hallowed as an aphorism gets, the kind of thing drummed into you by teachers and coaches and basically everyone who wants to point out that the key to competition is not the outcome, but rather the effort put forth. Responsible athletes spout lines born of this sentiment after losses all the time: we played hard, but they just wanted it more; I’m proud of my teammates for the way they played, but it wasn’t enough.

But of course the above platitude doesn’t exist without the attitude encapsulated in a quote commonly attributed to UCLA Bruins football coach Red Sanders: “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” It’s the way it feels to any red-blooded competitor (or any Little Leaguer unlucky enough to be cursed with a blazing fastball and a terrible team—thanks, Lions) and the how-you-play-the-game bromide is supposed to ease this endless drive to conquer all comers.

Basically, it comes down to the ends versus the means. If winning is the only thing, how you accomplish it doesn’t matter. But if there’s some kind of moral component to the way you go about playing, then the first aphorism maintains that a positive result is undermined by a flawed execution. Consider, if you will, the end of “The Karate Kid” as exemplifying these two opposing viewpoints.

On the one hand, we have the approach of Mr. Miyagi and his student Daniel LaRusso. He fights honorably and cleanly. On the other, we have the Cobra Kai dojo, who will do whatever it takes to win. Their sensei John Kreese instructs Bobby to “put him out of commission” and when that fails he instructs Johnny to, of course, “sweep the leg.” It being Hollywood, when the cold-blooded, win-at-any-cost ethos runs into the goodness and purity of the righteous man, the righteous man is rewarded with the victory that is also won by playing hurt, by doing things the right way.

But this is where it gets complex for tanking because while in “The Karate Kid” the goal is the same (winning the All Valley Karate Championship) and it’s only the means that make the difference, with tanking, we’re talking about two different ways of conceiving of winning and how to get there.

This is where Kant comes in. The German philosopher is probably best known for the categorical imperative, which is sort of like (but not exactly like), the Golden Rule. His first formulation of it says, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.” Without getting too much into the means, we can see that both sides in “The Karate Kid” want to win—that trying to win is in fact what gives the contest meaning—and so the movie (and sports in general) would seem to only be able to function on the grounds that “Everyone tries their best to win” be treated as a categorical imperative.

Tanking offends this notion, and whatever the mechanism by which it occurs (GMs trading away players to make room under the salary cap; coaches playing bench players more; players taking shots they have no business taking, Mark Madsen) it violates the sanctity of that imperative. But is the imperative as categorical as it looks? Does it mean trying your best to win every game? Or does it mean trying your best to win a championship?

Because whether they do it well or badly, tanking teams are playing at the larger game that encompasses all those little games: the hunt for a championship. They are, in their (sometimes terrible way) trying to hew to that same imperative to try their best to win.

And that right there is the problem with calling the imperative to try your best to win categorical. Hypothetical imperatives are ones that apply to specific people at specific times, but to be categorical, an imperative must apply to everyone all the time because the thing is a moral good in and of itself. But the fact that people who decry tanking decry it on the grounds of the way it’s done indicates that winning isn’t an a priori moral good. And if it’s not a moral good, what’s the problem with any given team approaching the overall goal of winning in their own way, even if that means short term losses?

The debates have been spirited and interesting to watch. There have been crazy ideas about eliminating the draft entirely, reversing the draft lottery order, unweighting the draft, giving bad teams two picks, and many, many more. At times, it’s gotten heated, but that’s good: it’s never a bad time to consider how things might be done better. And if one of the alternatives to the current system ultimately wins out, I hope it stays humble. It is, after all, how you play the game.

 

 

 

 

Mystery Statistics Theater: Power Forward Edition

Welcome to the fourth edition of Mystery Statistics Theater, an ongoing series here at Hardwood Paroxysm. In this space, Conrad Kaczmarek and I will be attempting to do the previously impossible; we’ll be removing all personal bias from our conclusions. Here and in the subsequent editions of this series, this is what you’ll find: a comparison of the per-36 minutes and advanced statistics lines of two different players – one from this season and one from a randomly selected season – with no names attached. Our task was to decide which of the two players was better, or more valuable, or which we’d rather have on our team; whatever you want to call it, we chose between the two players without knowing who they really were. You can see the comparisons, conclusions and corresponding player names below. Enjoy.

(NOTE: We used per-36 minutes rather than per-game stats to marginalize and/or eliminate any differences in playing time. Additionally, we recognize that these comparisons do not account for team context or player roles. Rather, this exercise intends to demonstrate how simply looking at the numbers can lead you to conclusions that may seem counter-intuitive, for better or worse, and that surface opinions and bias can lead to drastically different conclusions than simply analyzing the stats. Also, we whited out the player names so you can play along for fun! All stats current through March 30, 2012.)

Comparison #1 – Created by Jared, Analyzed by Conrad

Player A seems like a pretty obvious call to me. He’s got a better TS% and is just about even in total rebounding rate. What he lacks in blocked shots, he makes up for with steals. I can’t really find anything wrong with Player A when it comes to what I want out of a power forward. Furthermore, he doesn’t take three-pointers while Player B occasionally does. For that alone, I hate Player B.

(Player A – Carlos Boozer 2011-12, Player B – Pau Gasol 2011-12)

Note: Highlight the line above this to reveal player names

Comparison #2 – Created by Jared, Analyzed by Conrad

Not much to dislike about Player B. He’s a wildly efficient scorer, solid rebounder, and a fantastic offensive rebounder. I’m terrified of picking him because I think I know who it is and it might be a result of a small sample size. Regardless, based on these stats, there’s no reason for me to take Player A over Player B. Give me Player B, even though I’m really scared.

(Player A – Tim Duncan 1997-98, Player B – Kenneth Faried 2011-12)

Note: Highlight the line above this to reveal player names

Comparison #3 – Created by Jared, Analyzed by Conrad

These guys are virtually identical in a number of statistics, except for one of the most important: true shooting percentage. In that area, Player B can’t come close to Player A’s efficiency. Similarly, while ORtg and DRtg aren’t the most accurate ways to determine a player’s value, the 107-99 gap in ORtg is somewhat significant. Because I’m a huge nerd, I know who Player B is and I absolutely love him. I also know that these stats don’t come close to explaining what he does on the court. The assist % of 20.6% is wildly impressive, but Player A is right there behind him. Going off of these numbers, I’m forced to take Player A and I’m okay with that, because he’s an incredible player as well.

(Player A – Kevin Garnett 2011-12, Player B – Josh Smith 2011-12)

Note: Highlight the line above this to reveal player names

Comparison #4 – Created by Conrad, Analyzed by Jared

Let’s see here. Player B seems like the kind of player you can build your offense around. He’s got a 29+ usage, gets to the line a good amount and has solid percentages from everywhere. Player A is a long-range sniper – 8.0 of his 14.0 FGA per-36 come from behind the 3-point line and he hits at a 41.5% clip. Player A is the better offensive rebounder and turns it over less (though the TOs might have something to do with their usage). Player B, though, is a much better passer, defensive rebounder and is better at shooting inside the arc and getting to the line. This is insanely close, but I’ll take Player B, the more well-rounded player, as the foundation of the offense.

(Player A – Ryan Anderson 2011-12, Player B – Dirk Nowitzki 2011-12)

Note: Highlight the line above this to reveal player names

Comparison #5 – Created by Cornad, Analyzed by Jared

I hate bad free throw shooters. Player A’s 54.3% mark from the line is hella-concerning. That said, he does get to the line an awful lot, which is a plus. And he’s shooting over 8.0% better from the field than Player B. Then again, Player B is a better rebounder and free throw shooter. But since Player A has the advantage in everything else (passing, TOs, blocks, usage, D-Rtg) and he isn’t deluded into taking two 3’s a game at just 33.0%, I’ll take him despite the awful FT%.

(Player A – Blake Griffin 2011-12, Player B – Kevin Love 2009-10)

Note: Highlight the line above this to reveal player names

Comparison #6 – Created by Conrad, Analyzed by Jared

HOLY BLOCKS, PLAYER A!!!! You seem like more of a complementary piece than a foundational player, but what you do, you do ridiculously well. Offensive rebounding, blocking shots and making your own FGs. Player B doesn’t have the defensive counting stats but does have a similar D-Rtg, gets to the line more, makes his own fair share of shots and seems like he’s a better passer and point producer. He’s got a higher usage, by a lot, gets to the line more and makes a higher percentage of his FTs. Player B is probably the better player, but I’m going with Player A because of the blocks and rebounds. Hopefully I have other scorers on my squad.

(Player A – Serge Ibaka 2011-12, Player B – Amar’e Stoudemire 2011-12)

Note: Highlight the line above this to reveal player names

Comparison #7 – Created by Conrad, Analyzed by Jared

This is really tough, but I’m going with Player B because of his ability to simultaneously crash the offensive boards and kill it from the 3-point line. The two players seem to be about equal in the defensive counting stats, and I’m willing to guess Player A just plays on a better team and that’s why his D-Rtg is better. Player A is a lot better passer, but that’s really his only big time advantage. So Player B it is.

(Player A – Kevin Garnett 2011-12, Player B – Ersan Ilyasova 2011-12)

Note: Highlight the line above this to reveal player names

Mis-Understanding Advanced Stats: The “What Not to Do” Edition

image via MikeyAngels on Flickr

Warning: Do not try this at home (or work)

So I was playing around on Hoopdata today, and I got to thinking: Is there anyway quantify just how much a player does when he’s on the floor? Offensively and defensively. I’m sure there’s an actual metric out there for this, but I decided to make one up because if it’s one thing I’ve learned in my Clark Kent job as a statistician, it’s that you can pretty much conform stats to make them say what you want (however, professional responsibility and integrity usually prevent you from misleading people).

Hoopdata has many great advanced stats on its site. Here are some, with brief explanations (go to Hoopdata for better definitions and formulas):

USG Usage Rate Percentage of offensive possessions used by a player during his time on the floor
TS% True Shooting % Weighted efficiency, adjusting for three-pointers and FTs
%Ast % Assisted FGs Assisted FG made/FG made
AR Assist Rate Rate of assists against possessions used
TOR Turnover Rate % of possessions ending in a turnover
ORR Off Reb Rate % of offensive rebounds grabbed by a player during his time on the court
DRR Def Reb Rate % of defensive rebounds grabbed by a player during his time on the court
TRR Tot Reb Rate % of total rebounds grabbed by a player during his time on the court
EFF NBA Efficiency Rating Pts + Rebs + Asts+ Blks – FG missed – FT missed – TO’s (A very simple metric based on box score statistics. Not held in very high esteem by the statistical community)
WS Win Score One way of determining how many wins a player brings to the team
AWS Adjusted Win Score Another way of determining how many wins a player brings to the team
PER PER Advanced metric of player efficiency based on how the use the ball when on the court
APER Adjusted PER Adjusted version of PER

 

In my case, I want to figure out: Just what the hell is [Player X] doing while he’s on the floor? How’s he using his time to harass the other team?

And that’s when I saw it.

 

USG Usage Rate Percentage of offensive possessions used by a player during his time on the floor
EFF NBA Efficiency Rating Pts + Rebs + Asts+ Blks – FG missed – FT missed – TO’s (A very simple metric based on box score statistics. Not held in very high esteem by the statistical community)

 

Not only do these two metrics stick out, but that caveat of  “THIS METRIC SUCKS. DO NOT USE!” was really intriguing to me.

So if we divide EFF/USG (heretofore known as EFF/U Rating), you get all the box score goodies (aka “what’s he doing out there?”) controlled for how in control of the offense the player is (aka “is he moving without the ball when he needs to, but still doing a lot? awesome!”) rolled into the perfect statistic of “EFF/U, other team!”

Based on players that have played 30+ games this season, and average 25+ minutes per game, here are the top 20 EFF/U players in the league:

 

Player Name Team Pos Games Min USG EFF EFF/U
Tyson Chandler NYK C 47 33 12.86 19.43 1.51
DeAndre Jordan LAC C 48 27 11.77 15.04 1.28
Joakim Noah CHI C 48 31 15.45 18.44 1.19
Andrew Bynum LAL C 44 36 22.36 24.95 1.12
Marc Gasol MEM C 46 38 19.49 21.74 1.12
Pau Gasol LAL PF 48 37 21.67 22.69 1.05
Serge Ibaka OKC PF 48 28 15.22 15.58 1.02
Dwight Howard ORL C 49 38 26.37 26.96 1.02
Andre Iguodala PHI SF 48 36 17.70 17.81 1.01
Kris Humphries NJN PF 47 35 19.12 19.23 1.01
Steve Nash PHO PG 44 33 19.80 19.91 1.01
Kevin Love MIN PF 45 40 28.38 28.42 1.00
Chris Paul LAC PG 43 36 23.60 23.63 1.00
Marcin Gortat PHO C 48 33 20.99 20.94 1.00
LeBron James MIA SF 45 38 31.43 30.98 0.99
Jose Calderon TOR PG 44 34 16.56 15.73 0.95
Gerald Wallace POR SF 42 36 17.79 16.40 0.92
Jason Kidd DAL PG 39 28 12.67 11.62 0.92
Paul Millsap UTH PF 47 32 22.96 20.81 0.91

 

And that, my friends and readers, is how you can effectively prove that Tyson Chandler is the best player in the league. It also proves that that Knicks are the #1 EFF/U team in the league.

/bows

/exits stage left

*Note: For actual, well-articulated, and useful explorations into advanced basketball statistics, check out the great series we have going on Hardwood Paroxysm called Understanding Advanced Statistics.

The Utah Jazz And Their Tank-Tastic Dilemma

Photo from peterImorris via Flickr

Let’s get this out of the way: the Utah Jazz and their mad dash towards an unexpected playoff birth are awesome.

Al Jefferson finally leading a winning team? Awesome. Paul Millsap’s emergence as a legitimate all-star caliber guy and a crunch time pillar? Awesome. Gordon Hayward? Awesome. Derrick Favors? Awesome. Alec Burks? So, so awesome. Even Enes Kanter, who may or may not be awesome yet, is constantly showing us why he will, some day, if everything goes right, be really awesome.

The Jazz are flush with young talent, and Tyrone Corbin has the bits and pieces humming together at an impressive pace. This season, all but tossed aside as a rebuilding effort, has been dually salvaged, in the form of both playoff revenue and valuable experience.

Making the playoffs is always better than not making the playoffs, and developing young, promising players is the type of thing that NBA franchises are built on. So it’s pretty absurd to think that this could actually be detrimental to the franchise.

And yet, as you look at the roster that is inexplicably making this push for the Jazz, it’s hard to argue that this is a complete creation. Devin Harris probably isn’t the long term answer at point guard, Hayward and C.J. Miles leaves you with at least one wing too little no matter how optimistic you may be, and there’s still a very good chance Kanter and/or Favors don’t work out in the manner that Jazz fans may be hoping for.

There are still issues to be addressed, holes to be filled. And by making the playoffs, the Jazz are losing a prime way to do so. Their 2012 draft pick goes to Minnesota if it doesn’t land in the lottery – remember, this was the small footnote that made the Al Jefferson-for-nothing trade into the Al Jefferson-for-almost nothing trade. In a draft that is supposedly as deep as we’ve had in years, this means that making the playoffs could directly diminish Utah’s potential roster from 2012-13 onwards; conversely, the Minnesota Timberwolves, who are directly competing with Utah for that playoff spot, could be better off getting the 17th pick from Utah right now than the 15th pick in a worse draft next year.

Combine this with the Golden State Warriors working hard to lose games en route to keeping their own pick away from Salt Lake City, and we’re faced with a situation in which one of the most blatant overachiever in recent memory will, as a reward for their efforts, be denied the opportunity to improve their roster without giving up on an existing piece that they like.

Now, the last paragraph was definitely a demagogic manner of presentation. If the Jazz lose their pick by making the playoffs, they will just be finalizing the price for their Jefferson acquisition, which definitely seems to have worked out; if the Warriors pick ends in the top 7, Utah will still get a pick from them in the future, and history tells us it’s more likely to be a high pick than a low one; and it’s hard to say the Jazz don’t have any non-draft means to improve their team when there is so much internal development to be done and with a salary situation that leaves Utah well under the cap next summer and with a robust $0 committed into 2013-2014.

Even so, the Jazz definitely present a prime example in a tanking debate that is all the rage right now. Over time, the Jazz will eventually give a pick to the Wolves, get one from the Warriors, and have a very bright future; but the idea that making the playoffs could potentially harm that vision is a disturbing one.

Don Nelson is Finally a Hall of Famer

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5WasYK2kDLU w=600 h=400]

At long last, Don Nelson has been inducted as a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, it’s been a ridiculously long time coming for a man that first stepped into the NBA as a player in 1963 for the Chicago Zephyrs. His finest playing days came with the Celtics and his time spent playing alongside centers Bill Russell (6’9″) and Dave Cowens (6’9″) probably influenced his later decisions to employ small ball, to varying but mostly great success.

Following his playing days for the Boston Celtics, Nelson immediately joined the Milwaukee Bucks as an assistant in 1977 and took over as head coach following Larry Costello’s departure after a mere 18 games. Nelson’s run in Milwaukee was his most successful. In 11 seasons he totaled 480 wins, the most in Bucks history. Those teams of Sidney Moncrief, Marques Johnson, Bob Lanier, Ricky Pierce, Terry Cummings and Paul Pressey ultimately produced 6-straight 50 win seasons.

(Read a fuller account of Nelson’s 1980s Bucks)

Moving on to Golden State in the 1988-89 season, Nelson quickly revamped the squad and Run-TMC was all the rage in the Bay Area. The trio culminated in 1991 when they toppled the 55-win Spurs in a huge upset, 3 games to 1.  The triumvirate was prematurely broken up as Richmond was traded for Billy Owens , but by 1994 Nelson had the Warriors humming again with rookie Chris Webber and the Latrell Sprewell flanking Chris Mullin. They hit 50 wins but were ousted by Phoenix in the 1st round. Thereafter, Webber and Nelson fell out and both were gone from Golden State the next season.

Never out of work too long, Nelson was manning the sidelines for the New York Knicks for the 1995-96 season. Don on Broadway lasted 59 games before skedaddling. Highly forgettable sequence for everyone involved…

In perhaps his most inspired move, Nelson headed to Dallas in 1998 and on draft night traded for Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash. After a lost decade of losing and humiliation in the 1990s, Nelson created a perennial playoff powerhouse behind Dirk, Nash and Michael Finley that ultimately set the stage for their 2006 Finals appearance under Avery Johnson.

Leaving Dallas in 2005, Nelson, as usual, was quick in his return to coaching. Other teams of his were certainly better, but the 2007 Golden State Warriors might be his most memorable accomplishment. The 42-win 8th seed toppled his erstwhile Mavericks in a thrilling 6-game upset in the 1st round. The next season the Warriors rose to 48 wins but missed the playoffs in the highly competitive West and Nelson took a siesta for his final two seasons, seemingly playing out the string to catch Lenny Wilkens for the all-time lead in coaching wins.

The string was well played and Nelson did surpass Wilkens.

Despite those final, embarrassing two seasons, Nelson’s resume is one of the most impressive ever seen for a coach. Not only is he the all-time wins leader, but he has a sterling .557 win percentage. Despite never making an NBA Finals, Nelson did get to 4 Conference Finals (3x Bucks, once Mavericks) and put together 13 50-win seasons.

Three times he was named Coach of the Year:  1983 and 1985 with the Bucks and 1992 with the Warriors.

And in perhaps the highest honor, in 1997 he was named one of the NBA’s 10 greatest coaches. And yet here we are in 2012, finally seeing him getting the call to the Hall of Fame:

“It’s a great honor to cap my career,” Nelson told ESPN. “I’ve had a great time and a great life coaching basketball. I don’t actually need to be rewarded for anything, but I am very proud and my family is very proud of this award.”

This award was needed not for just for Nelson but for all of the great, talented teams and players he coached whose due has been denied too long just like him. From the Bucks of Moncrief and Marques being overshadowed by the Sixers and Celtics all the way through Dirk Nowitzki being slyly ridiculed until his Finals MVP last season. The 1,335 wins Nelson racked up are a testament to him, his uptempo brand of basketball that was a beacon of light particularly in the dark days of the late 90s and early 2000s, and the players who made it happen.

Congrats, Nellie.

Two Minutes And Forty-Five Seconds

Donte Greene made a 3-point jumper to cut the San Antonio Spurs’ lead over the Sacramento Kings to 99-96 with 5:11 left in the game last night. After trading empty possessions with the Kings, San Antonio would score on five of their next six possessions in 2:45 of game time to seal the victory. Below, I’ll show you exactly how it went down.

Possession 1 (Stephen Jackson fast break lay-up, 1-1)

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMYkF-ZdWGY&feature=youtu.be]

The first basket was the easiest of the bunch. Tim Duncan grabs the rebound and makes an outlet pass to get Tony Parker out in transition. Parker pushes the ball up the court and finds a streaking Stephen Jackson on the wing, who lays it in. The Spurs stretch their lead from three back to five.

Possession 2 (Kawhi Leonard baseline jumper, 2-2)

On the next possession, Jackson grabs the rebound and quickly gets the ball to Parker to start the break with the Spurs still up by five. Parker sees he has no numbers so he swings the ball to Manu Ginobili on the opposite wing. Ginobili hits Kawhi Leonard underneath the hoop to see if they can get a quick-hitting lay-up. Leonard doesn’t have enough room to get off a shot, so he kicks it back out to Ginobili. Now, the Spurs run the first of four pick-and-rolls that result in easy baskets.

The play calls for a side pick-and-roll with Ginobili as the ball-handler and Duncan as the roll man. Parker has cleared out the top of the key and moved toward the opposite corner, while Jackson spaces the floor at the elbow extended and Kawhi Leonard occupies the strong side corner. Ginobili is an incredible dangerous scorer off the pick-and-roll – his 0.92 Points Per Possession (PPP) ranks 19th in the NBA according to mySynergySports – so both his man and Duncan’s follow him off the screen. This causes Leonard’s man to have to rotate off and cover the rolling Duncan, leaving Leonard open in the corner.

Ginobili drawing two defenders and thus forcing Leonard’s man to rotate onto Duncan opens up the baseline for Leonard once he receives the pass. All he has to do is throw a pump fake at the recovering defender, and he gets right into the teeth of the defense.

As it is, Leonard gets right to the basket for a lay-up and a seven point lead. As you can see, however, he also has open passing lanes to Ginobili at the top of the key and Parker in the corner for wide open 3-pointers.

Here’s the play in real time.

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kOvoqj8vmes&feature=youtu.be]

Possession 3 (2-3)

Kawhi Leonard traveled.

Possession 4 (Stephen Jackson elbow extended jumper, 3-4)

After the Kings cut the lead back to five, the next possession has the Spurs running a high pick-and-roll with Parker and Duncan. Parker, like Ginobili, is a big time threat to score out of the pick-and-roll. His 0.87 PPP ranks 28th in the NBA according to mySynergySports. This time, Ginobili spaces the floor in the weak side corner, with Leonard on the strong side and Jackson underneath the hoop.

Because Parker is such a threat to score, like on the previous play both his defender and Duncan’s chase him after he uses the pick. Both Leonard’s man in the corner and Jackson’s man in the lane get pre-occupied with protecting the paint from either a driving Parker or a rolling Duncan. Duncan, with 1.06 PPP as a P&R roll man, is obviously a big threat to score as well.

Knowing how much attention Parker and Duncan attract, the Spurs bring Stephen Jackson from his spot on the low block up toward the top of the key, where he’ll receive a screen from Duncan as well. The initial pick-and-roll action distracts the defense from the target of the play, and Jackson has plenty of space with which to work once he receives the pass.

Jackson winds up with a wide open jumper due to Duncan’s good screen, and the Spurs’ lead is once again seven points. With how fast the defenders are closing on him, however, he could have easily thrown up a pump-fake and gotten himself right into the teeth of the defense as well.

Now, in real time.

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G63Jve_5ma0&feature=youtu.be]

Possession 5 (Tony Parker corner three, 4-5)

Still up by seven, the Spurs run another high pick-and-roll here, and this time they go back to Ginobili and Duncan. Leonard is again in the weak side corner, Parker in the strong side corner and Jackson coming up from the block to space the floor at the strong side elbow extended. Again, both defenders initially chase Ginobili off the screen.

This time, rather than popping out off the screen, Duncan rolls directly to the free throw line. Once he receives the pass from Ginobili, the entire Kings defense collapses around him.

As you can see, there are four Kings defenders in the lane surrounding Duncan. He has Jackson wide open for a three at the elbow extended, Leonard in the weak side corner and Parker in the strong side corner. He chooses to hit Parker.

Parker’s not that great of a 3-point shooter, but he has just about all the time in the world to line this one up, and he wound up making it to push San Antonio’s lead to 10 points.

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6eoDn_eBQL0&list=UUrH0cFTogF5bW0j6MdThQcA&index=2&feature=plcp]

Possession 6 (Manu Ginobili driving lay-up, 5-6)

DeMarcus Cousins cut the Spurs’ lead down to eight points with exactly 2:00 to go in the game. The Spurs’ next possession, another high pick-and-roll between Ginobili and Duncan, looks almost exactly like the others at the start. Leonard occupies one corner, Parker the other, and Jackson spaces the elbow extended.

Duncan sets this screen for Ginobili much further out than the previous few. Right here, the Kings are already beat on this possession. Instead of showing hard off the screen and re-directing Ginobili, DeMarcus Cousins does a soft show and gives too big of a lane to drive through.

Cousins gets caught flat-footed and not in the right position, and Ginobili takes advantage by streaking through the wide open lane toward the basket.

Having gotten into the teeth of the defense yet again, Ginobili has options. He can hit Jackson at the elbow extended or Parker in the corner, or he can just go right up for the lay-up. He chooses the latter option and extends San Antonio’s lead to ten points, effectively ending the game.

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UDByKFwMEAo&list=UUrH0cFTogF5bW0j6MdThQcA&index=1&feature=plcp]

In 2:45, by executing one easy fast break and then running the same basic action four times (albeit with a slight twist once), the Spurs were able to turn a dwindling lead into a commanding victory. When people refer to the Spurs as the most well-coached team in the league, it’s because Gregg Popovich gives his players a distinct plan to work with and nearly always gets them to execute it to perfection. That was certainly the case down the stretch against Sacramento.

At The Edge Of Expectation

Photo by Carsten Peter

I miss Andrei Kirilenko.

Somehow, he slipped away without us being able to give him a proper farewell for the decade he spent in the NBA. With the lockout and our scrambling to adjust our rituals, schedules, and expectations once the season was green-lighted, Kirilenko slipped through the cracks—like he did so often on both ends of the floor.

He’s in Russia now, a place he had pined for in the last four years of his NBA career. He’s with his once-former team, CSKA Moscow, leading them to a successful season in Euroleague. In Russia, he is free to be the player he’s always been, but was only able to show a glimmer NBA: a creative force on offense and defense. While never the most fluid or graceful player, Kirilenko’s most devastating talent was his impeccable timing in every facet of his game. At 6’9”, he saw the floor better than most point guards, and made bullet passes in stationary positions and in motion that slipped through traffic. But his most notable brilliance was on defense, and not just in shot-blocking. In a 2008 Sports Illustrated article, Chris Mannix articulates the impossibility of Kirilenko’s defense:

With Utah clinging to a late four-point lead against Milwaukee, Kirilenko poked the ball away from Bucks point guard Ramon Sessions and took it the length of the court for a game-sealing dunk. What was special about that steal—his fifth of the night—was that it came during a dribble handoff. As Sessions gave the ball to Richard Jefferson, Kirilenko slid his arm between the two and knocked the ball free. “Did he just do that?” marveled a scout watching the game. “He’s Rope Man. He can get those arms in the smallest of spaces.”

via The Dream Life of Andrei Kirilenko | Chris Mannix, Sports Illustrated (12/1/08)

In Utah, we watched as Kirilenko’s potential blossomed into surefire stardom, which was swiftly killed by injuries and the offensive hierarchy created by the rise of Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. Kirilenko spent the second half of his NBA career adrift, simultaneously regressing and stagnating on the only team he’d know. The sheer inconsistency of his place on the team drove him to question his identity as a player. Though it was understandably tough to see the Jazz stifle Kirilenko’s individual genius in hopes of working him in as a glue guy, much of Kirilenko’s intrigue resided in his ability to adapt to his diminished role.

Alas, he’s gone and the Jazz have moved on. But his spirit still looms. And if anyone has assumed Kirilenko’s former role on the team, it’s Gordon Hayward.

It’s not a perfect comparison. While Hayward is quite tall for his position at 6’8”, he isn’t built like a gangly android. His arms are short, and he isn’t a fraction of the defensive force that Kirilenko is. But he tries. Timing was a blessing for Kirilenko, whose 7’4” wingspan could have easily made up for any missteps. For Hayward, it’s a necessity. On blocks, he synchronizes his jumps with the opponent, reaching the ball immediately before it reaches its apex.

But where they align most closely is their ability to make plays for others. Hayward doesn’t have Kirilenko’s repertoire of no-look, behind-the-back, or between-the-legs passes, but he makes simple, quick reads in motion, leading to easy points when defenses collapse on him. Hayward has one of the highest assist rates (27.87) among shooting guards—higher than similarly versatile (albeit more heralded) players in James Harden and Evan Turner.  It’s easy to come away watching Hayward a bit underwhelmed. There isn’t much to his game that commands attention. But there is an understated elegance to his game that is still in development. Being raised in Indiana means learning how to play “the right way”, but there is still quite a bit of talent needed to execute a perfect bounce pass in traffic to a cutting big man.

Hayward is spectacularly unspectacular, hiding at the edge of expectation—an extension and exemplar of this new Jazz iteration. The team doesn’t have any captains. Ty Corbin said earlier in the season that there are “13 Captains”, something of a motto for the Jazz’s fundamentally team-oriented play. This is a team in flux, as recognizable faces and individuals have made way for a younger, more athletic, more amorphous gelling of talent. Yet, despite their facelessness as individuals, this Jazz team has more potential as a darling than most teams of the Deron Williams era.

(Video courtesy of  shandondan40 / @shandonfan)

The team is at an interesting intersection; a juncture where past and future coalesces into something coherent, not corrosive. The team has gone 8-2 in its last 10 games with Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Devin Harris and a litany of extremely young players. They play unselfishly, a brand of basketball even Jefferson, a notorious black hole on offense, has adopted and embraced. Jefferson, Millsap, and Harris aren’t the future of this franchise; a fact they are surely aware of, but there are few signs of bitterness or resentment as they look forward. Team interviews show a warmth of camaraderie that’s impossible to fake. If anything, how the Jazz have been playing recently asserts the romantic notion that teams play for one another as an affirmation of their bond.

There is something religious about the franchise player model that most teams subscribe to, placing all hope and faith on one man to lead a team to victory. Not to say that a nightly collective effort is altogether agnostic, but the factors that contribute to success are more complex. There is little room for error. But that isn’t why this season’s Utah Jazz are important. They exist at the fringe of popular discourse—just outside of the clutch debate, the closer arguments, and thoughts of MVP and Finals candidates. The Jazz offer some semblance of purity, however fleeting. They are a collection of good, not great, talents playing stellar basketball as of late. Their play displaces some of the noise, some of the clutter.

We thought we found utopia last season in Denver. Perhaps utopia exists further west.

No Reprieve For Keon Clark

This piece was originally written and published in December 2010. I received a pleasant email a few days ago from a reader who thought about Keon Clark during the Raptors-Magic game earlier this week. Somehow, Keon Clark still has a place in our memory. Blame it on nostalgia and unresolved questions. That said, I thought this would be as good a time as ever to republish this piece. Enjoy. -DC

Keon Clark is 36 years old now. He’ll be 37 next month. He’s in prison. He’ll be in prison until 2013.

It’s an unfortunate situation for a man blessed with so many natural gifts. Little did we know then how much his vices would consume his fledgling career. Actually, that’s a lie. We did know; we just collectively chose to ignore. The NBA is at the mercy of talent, and Clark was very little if not talented.

Clark has spent much of the past decade and a half in a dizzying haze, learning nothing from the consequences that have plagued his collegiate and professional career. For as long as he played basketball, he was impervious. His nonchalance and ripe innocence always shielded him from too much harm. For all of the suspensions and negative press he garnered in college, he still managed to be a lottery pick in 1998. He was 6’11 with a 7’5″ wingspan and a 40-inch vertical leap. He was a shot blocking extraordinaire with good enough touch and form on his jumpshot. You just don’t find that every year. He was the unlabeled elixir. You didn’t know what would happen with him on your team, but it was always worth the risk.

It was worth all of the fact checking reports citing his attendance at four different colleges due to academic trouble (among other things), worth all of the drug-related suspensions in college, worth all of the confounding questions.

Are his legs too skinny? Will his afflictions resurface? Can he maintain focus once basketball becomes more than just fun and games?

Gerry Callahan’s article on Clark before the 1998 NBA Draft previewing the hope and skepticism that defined Clark’s career at that point brought to light some key concerns. A few things that we should have taken a bit more seriously:

Clark says that as a kid he never thought about playing in the NBA, and it’s not hard to believe him. The NBA is tomorrow; the carefree Clark doesn’t like to think beyond today. “It sounds funny, but I really don’t think he’s followed the NBA much,” says John Spezia, the coach at Danville Area Community College, where Clark took classes briefly but never played. “He likes to do lots of things, sing, tell jokes. He’s a nice, fun-loving kid, but sometimes he can be in his own world.”

Retrieved from SI Vault: Prince or Frog?: Keon Clark from UNLV is the great unknown of this year’s draft

We aren’t kids forever. Whatever it is that keeps us away from harm in our developmental stages disappears. Some of us are aware of it early. Some of us never realize when that time has long past. At that point, being a kid is not so much a gate of passage, but an identity. Identity doesn’t break easily. And when you’ve spent your whole life seeing basketball as a playground game, you can lose track of time. And when you begin to get really, really good at it — and when the media begins to shower you with expectations on something you never took seriously — you can start to wonder whether it’s basketball you’re good at, or the art of evading adulthood.

Keon Clark was traded to the Toronto Raptors from the Denver Nuggets in 2001. He was 25. Then-Nuggets coach Dan Issel’s intemperate rage was enough to bring a man to tears, let alone a man-child like Clark. While his third year with the Nuggets was promising, his production would magnify in the 46 games he played with the Raptors after the trade. His point production had gone up by 2.5 points a game from Denver to Toronto (from 6.5 to 9.0), along with his efficiency. In the similar minutes, he blocked one more shot a game for the Raptors than he did for the Nuggets.

Clark’s favorite ability was the tip dunk, a rare maneuver that took full advantage of his superior length and athleticism. But beyond the put back, he was simply an outstanding offensive rebounder. In limited minutes, he posted offensive rebounding percentages hovering around 9.2 his entire career, which would fit right in with current NBA big men like Pau Gasol, Kevin Garnett, and Tim Duncan. Granted, Clark never topped 27 minutes a game for any team he played on — and his career only lasted five seasons; his two games in Utah and cameo in Phoenix don’t count — but for that finite window of time, Clark produced admirably.

Clark’s eye-opening 2002 season would prove to be an even narrower pinhole. Clark’s overall success  grew along with his playing time due to a severely limited Toronto Raptors team. Vince Carter had gone through numerous injuries, displacing him from the All-Star Game and the 2002 Playoffs, leaving Antonio Davis, and second year swingman Morris Peterson to step in as de-facto scoring options. Clark contributed 11.3 points a game, grabbing 7.4 rebounds a game mostly from the bench, both career highs.

But if there was any notion that Clark was destined for stardom, it unveiled itself on April 29, 2002. A Carter-less Raptors team faced first round elimination against the Detroit Pistons. Down in the series 2-1, the Raptors rallied behind a 19 point, 16 rebound (seven of which were offensive) spectacular from Clark. In a time where most would fold under improbable circumstances, Clark demonstrated fortitude and surprisingly heightened skills. Clark shot 93.8 percent from the free throw line in the Pistons series, which is notable considering he was a 64 percent career free throw shooter. After missing one free throw in Game 1, Clark would go on to make 14-14 of his free throws for the rest of the series.

The performance was enough to award him a raise the following season, as he was signed with Sacramento for a one-year, $4.5 million deal. That of course, would be the last notable destination of Clark’s professional career. His years after his year in Sacramento are hazy; a litany of convictions and court cases, and admissions that perhaps should’ve been kept to himself.

Clark served as an overture to Eddie Griffin, who held a far more disturbing/depressing narrative;  and, perhaps now, Sean Williams, Clark’s equal in talent, ability, and delusion. But those two never had the media skills that Clark had. Griffin was a recluse, and Williams managed to do all of the wrong things before we were able to see more than a glimmer of his talent.

Clark always said the right things. He sold us on him.

Clark often leaves them smiling. Unlike another troubled but talented former UNLV star, Portland Trail Blazers guard Isaiah Rider, Clark disarms his critics with a playful demeanor. “J.R. was J.R.,” he says. “I’m a different person.” Gregarious and upbeat, Clark does not squirm or scowl when confronted with his mistakes. He explains them without a hint of remorse. “I never regret anything,” he says. “I just try to learn from everything I do.”

Retrieved from SI Vault: Prince or Frog?: Keon Clark from UNLV is the great unknown of this year’s draft

He had the charisma that made us believe that he was everything we wanted of him. He did it with jokes and a puppy dog exuberance that we all ate up. He said the right things until he stopped saying the right things. Until he admitted to drinking alcohol during halftimes, and claiming to have never played a game sober. Basketball was just a game to him; a drunken carousel that fed his neuroses. Basketball was a way to run through life unscathed. Now that basketball is gone, he’s left to pick up the pieces of his fragmented identity. And he’ll have plenty of time for that behind bars.

Keon Clark left as soon as he arrived. The NBA was Clark’s five-year escape to Neverland. He’s since come crashing into a dreadful reality. The majority have moved on, but for those who have been left wondering what happened and where it all went and how it left so soon, maybe it’s time to follow suit. Sean Williams may have a chance to pick up the mantle of Clark’s redemption, but Williams has his own hurdles to overcome before stepping into someone else’s legacy. And besides, what is left of Keon Clark to redeem?

We are all slaves to talent and the lure of excellence. It frees us from mundanity, but it blinds us from reality. Clark hasn’t played a game in seven years, and I’ve spent countless hours wondering why I still care. And it scares me that I still don’t know the answer to that question. My memories of Clark are vivid. Maybe that’s what keeps his image alive. But really, the show has long been over. There is nothing left to see here.