Monthly Archives: July 2012

On Team USA and the Positional Revolution

via Kevin Dooley on Flickr

Welcome to Team USA, where the plays are made up and the positions don’t matter.

Thanks to Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski, Team USA finds itself at the forefront of the positional revolution. As a result, the narrative about Team USA’s strengths and weakness also shift away from the conventional. The worry about replacing a point guard or center has shifted to worrying about a lack of shooting or shot blocking. That Tyson Chandler is our only true interior defender matters more than the fact that he’s our only center. LeBron James and Andre Igoudala have their fair share of highlight blocks, but more often than not those blocks come from the weak side or on the break. Those who bemoaned DeMarcus Cousins or Greg Monroe being left off the team fail to realize that while those players are immensely talented, they aren’t great defenders, hence the addition of Anthony Davis.

Of course, Team USA makes the positional revolution easy. With elite talent at each roster spot, traditional positions have little meaning to Krzyzewski. The focus, then, turns to lineups  and match-ups. When the final roster was first announced, analysts salivated over the lineup possibilities: a defensive force of Westbrook (or Paul)-Bryant-Igoudala-James-Chandler, an offensive juggernaut of Paul-Williams-Durant-Anthony-James, or a hyper-athletic nightmare featuring Westbrook-Igoudala-Durant-James-Davis. Any given combination of players results in an awe-inspiring and fear-inducing lineup.

The results of Krzyzewski’s creativity have been encouraging for the United States and devastating for the opposition. Team USA has steamrolled their way through their exhibition games, with Brazil being the lone close game. Their swarming defense is suffocating, and their vast offensive arsenal has yet to run out of ammo. And it’s not just the overall team that has benefited from Krzyzewski’s; players like Carmelo Anthony have found new life now that he’s not shoehorned into an ill-fit position.

Anthony isn’t the only player who has moved positions on Team USA wing-heavy roster. But he might be the only one who moves to his natural position as a result. 

 Coach Mike Krzyzewski explains to Marc Stein how Anthony’s game becomes even more deadly as a power forward: “He can play defense on a power forward, but a power forward has a difficult time playing defense on him because he can lose you in transition.”

Instead, you’ll see Anthony setting ball screens and flaring to the wing where he can drive against a scrambling defender. Or, even better, he catches the ball rolling down the middle of the court. With Team USA, Anthony uses advantages created by motion and movement to give him ideal opportunities, and it makes him vastly more efficient.

-Beckley Mason, Memo to Knicks: Melo is a power forward

Krzyzewski can afford to shift Anthony to his more natural role thanks to one of Team USA’s main strengths: depth. Team USA is more athletic and probably more skilled from players 1 through 12 than any other team in the Olympics. LeBron James is just as capable of running the offense as Chris Paul, while Kobe Bryant, Andre Igoudala, and James can all take turns as the designated defensive stopper. All of this happens because what “position” they play isn’t considered important.

Mike Krzyzewski was the perfect choice to coach Team USA not just because of the respect the players have for him, but because of his expertise and creativity in adjusting lineups and strategy. For all of the talk of the positional revolution in the NBA, most recently by Muthu Alagappan at this year’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the same revolution has been happening in college for quite some time. Think back to Jay Wright and his four guard lineup at Villanova or Frank Haith and his similarly unorthodox offense at Missouri; a college coach can’t simply trade to fill a team need, so he adjusts the offense and defense to fit his personnel.

It will still be some time before we see this type of position defying monster in the NBA,  as no team has the luxury of talent and flexibility afforded to Team USA. Moreover, NBA coaches are, for the most part, not as creative as college coaches, mainly because they don’t have to be. Sure, every now and again we’ll get a D’Antoni or a Popovich, celebrated for their innovation or adjustments, they are few and far between. Perhaps this is because the NBA coaching carousel is mainly that of also-rans, or maybe front office executives are scared to take a chance on a less experienced yet innovative candidate for fear of losing their jobs.

Hopefully, the continued success of Team USA assuages those fears. And with players such as Evan Turner, Perry Jones III and especially Royce White, those whose skills and styles defy traditional positions, becoming more common in the league, it can only benefit a coach to do away with the conventional thinking and embrace change.

On Size, Space & Shaking Up The Status Quo

“You can’t teach size.”

It’s a truism that has been used to justify exorbitant contracts handed out to undeserving centers and power forwards in the NBA for years on end. Size—height and bulk—give a player a distinct advantage over others that quite literally cannot be learned. And so it is often cited as valid reason for a relative overpay – a return on value slightly or steeply less than you’d expect at another position. Again and again we’re sold on this by front office executives, coaches and general managers.

“That’s just what you have to pay for size in this league.”

It’s why Roy Hibbert and Brook Lopez stand to make the maximum possible amount of money they can under the new collective bargaining agreement and writers, pundits, fans and others can justify it. It’s why when we learned that JaVale McGee will pull down a nice, cool $10.5 million per year over the next four, no one really blinked even though his teams have consistently performed better with him off the court than on it throughout his career and he’s never shown anything more than occasional flashes—and they’ve been so infrequent that “flashes” is really the only appropriate word, even if the most recent flash did come against the mighty Lakers—of “figuring it out.”

But with the league moving away from traditional positional designations, with the wing positions becoming more and more interchangeable every day, with threes becoming fours, with point guards becoming scorers, and with players getting longer, leaner, and faster than ever before, the need for the traditional big man, whether a center or power forward— a low post offensive threat whose sole defensive responsibility is to protect the rim and the area directly around it—is evaporating.

Space—and the ability to cover large swaths of it on both sides of the court with deftness and ease—is the key, rather than pure size. Speed, quickness, and versatility are the new tallness, bulk, and brawn. Defensive systems have evolved so far beyond the traditional man-to-man concepts of days past that the term man-to-man is nearly obsolete. Even when teams are in “man” defense, the sheer amount of anticipating, trapping, rotating, recovering and helping on any given possession has put a premium on assets that were once undervalued but will soon come to rule the day.

This shift is largely why there’s such a huge gap in the defensive prowess of a Dwight Howard, whose ability to blow up pick-and-rolls from the perimeter all the way to the hoop separates him from the pack, and those of an Andrew Bynum, who is less capable of covering the type of space that Howard can. It’s why the Miami Heat were able to construct an elite, championship-winning defense with LeBron James and Chris Bosh as their primary bigs. It’s how the Chicago Bulls have been able to withstand starting defensive sieve Carlos Boozer and the merely average on defense Derrick Rose and still manage to lead the league in points allowed per possession two years running. It’s how Tyson Chandler almost single-handedly (he had some help from Iman Shumpert and Jared Jeffries, among others) turned a New York Knicks team featuring such defensive atrocities as Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire into one of the five toughest units in the league to score on. It’s how Kevin Garnett remains a Defensive Player of the Year candidate even at age 36.

Though these changes might be more noticeable on defense, they’re happening on the other side of the court as well. Because of the hybrid defensive styles that most teams now tend to play—aggressively trapping pick-and-rolls while counting on the rest of the defense to rotate and recover in time to close off any scoring lanes—the ability of bigs to deliver accurate passes off the catch on pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop plays is now hugely important. Tim Duncan has extended the longevity of his elite level impact seemingly beyond what we could have imagined because he’s still such a threat to both score and dish from his favorite spots just inside and outside of the lane. Marc Gasol has turned the quick dump-off pass immediately after catching into an art form. Forwards like Houston’s Royce White and Terence Jones were first round selections just as much for their play-making abilities as their rebounding or post-up game, if not more.

Outside shooting and the ability to space the court has never been a more meaningful trait for a power forward or center to have. One need only look at the impact a Ryan Anderson or an Ersan Ilyasova had last season to recognize that. Or gander at the crowded lanes that Chris Paul and Blake Griffin often had to navigate (though largely successfully) because DeAndre Jordan, Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans were no threat to score outside the area within a few feet of the basket.

Defense is no longer the one-on-one battle it once was, and though shot creation, along with the ability to isolate your man and beat him for a basket is still important, it’s no longer the most desirable offensive skill either. Post defense and back-to-the-basket moves have been replaced by help defense and the ability to fill multiple offensive roles as the prototype traits necessary to be a successful NBA big. As the lines between positions continue to blur, the attributes and abilities that used to be paramount will be no more, and in their place will be new ones, waiting to be replaced themselves as basketball continues to grow and players and coaches continue to adjust.

The United States Men’s Olympic basketball team has seemingly fully embraced these growing trends, a tell tale sign that full-scale change may be coming sooner than we think. Team USA has routinely rolled out a front line of Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, or Durant, James and Kevin Love, or Anthony, James and Andre Iguodala when Tyson Chandler has come out of the game due to rest and/or foul trouble. While some out there wonder how Team USA will manage to defend the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka if and when they meet up with Spain in the Gold Medal game nearly everyone expects to see, others tend to question how those lumbering Gasols will deal with James or Durant in space, or how Ibaka will contain Anthony and Iguodala’s off-the-dribble attack, and assert that the combination of five men on the court will deal with the challenge of slowing the big Spanish trio down on the other side.

The game is changing and evolving every day, and we’ve known it for a while. It’s been years since Free Darko and countless others informed the basketball world that the positional revolution was upon us. The changes have been slowly taking effect as players and coaches alike have tinkered with and subtly altered the status quo, and the final nail in the coffin of the traditional big man is next.

Is it a Waste of Time to Worry?

Image via WarzauWynn on Flickr

Summer league is a players’ showcase, plain and simple. It’s a time for guys to show what they’ve got to offer teams. If they don’t have contracts, they want to show that they deserve them. If they do have contracts, it’s time to prove that they at least have the potential to deserve what they’ve already been promised. The relatively unknown guys are here to make a name for themselves; the known guys are here to live up to the hype. You can stand out for the right reasons—crisp passes, suffocating defense, great footwork around the basket, and smart shot selection are a few of these. Oftentimes, though, guys can also stand out for the wrong reasons: selfishness, conditioning, poor decision-making, lackadaisical defense—the list goes on and on. If an unknown guy shows these traits, the decision for front offices is easy: They don’t have to worry about offering that guy anything. But what happens when a known guy—like high lottery pick rookie—shows these traits? Is it time to worry? Do you just ignore it? Is it a symptom of something bigger coming down the road?

The standard assumption among NBA fans is that high lottery picks should be pretty much ready-to-go in the NBA. These are the guys are supposed to be building blocks of franchises, parts of young cores, or delicious trade bait to nab a seasoned veteran. It’s this assumption that leads to that same debate every season: Can [undefeated NCAA Men's Basketball Team] beat [Worst Team in the NBA]? Some people want to believe that the college team can beat the pro team, but chances are it won’t happen. Here’s why:

Rookies—even ones with well-crafted NBA games—struggle early because of the huge disparity between the players in their physical and mental makeup. College players hit the weights hard in the off-season and try to maintain their strength all season. But it’s the first time many of them have been part of that kind of routine strength training. Almost every veteran NBA player in his prime is significantly stronger, though not always heavier, than he was in school.

-David Thorpe, dropping truth bombs.

The rookie learning curve mentioned above is interesting because it puts into perspective nearly everything you see while watching guys play at Summer League. It’s more than “well, it’s just Summer League, so it doesn’t mean anything.” Fans can think that way, but the players shouldn’t. Summer league actually means a lot: For non-rookies, it’s a time to show that you “get it” and that you’re ready to play consistent minutes in the NBA. For rookies, there are very basic expectations: you are now part of an elite group that has transitioned from the NCAA to the NBA, so you have to keep up with others like you, and you have to want to be there. You can look bad, but try not to look terrible. You can look out of shape, but try not too look like you don’t care about being in shape. I caught up with David Thorpe in Vegas and asked him if there were any red flags to watching during summer league:

There’s not many. The player’s got to be allowed to adjust and grow. In many cases, they’re playing for the coach—and for most teams—for the first time. I have an issue with a low or a slow motor, a low basketball IQ, a lack of understanding the importance of growing game to game. Guys that have been now two or three years to summer league, if they’re the same player, that’s a red flag. They’re about who they are. I wouldn’t ever do that over the course of one summer league, but two or three I would. You’d like to see some growth game to game from some guys. And during this summer league, if you’re not competing, if you think you’re going to compete once the season starts, you’re sadly mistaken. This is your chance to shine. They don’t do it now, they may not play at all in the regular season. That’s a major problem.

And this is where the Cavs fit in. Before he broke his hand, Kyrie Irving was supposed to play in Summer League this year. It’s very normal for a guy to play in Summer League as a second-year NBA player (especially this year, since the lockout canceled last year’s Summer League). But it’s not necessary for a #1 pick to play in Summer League (Anthony Davis was playing with Team USA instead), and it’s especially unnecessary for the reigning Rookie of the Year to want to play in Summer League. But Irving wanted to get in more practice and get a feel for some of his new teammates—Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller. He wanted to be there because he thought it was important to be there. Without Irving, the Cavs Summer League squad was much worse than it would have been, but alas it looked similar to the other squads in Vegas.

Byron Scott watched the Cavs from a bird’s eye view like the rest of the head coaches (soaking in general play quality with a telescope instead of in-game nuance with a microscope). After the second Cavs game, I chatted with him about Waiters and Zeller:

I like what I’ve seen [from them]. I mean, Tyler’s been great. The first two games, he’s been obviously our best player. On both ends of the floor, he’s solid. But, you know, it’s a process. The first game—giving it something to go off of—tonight I thought we improved in a bunch of areas. But we still have a little ways to go. … the biggest thing with [Waiters] is conditioning. You know, once I think he gets in shape, then all the other stuff will start to come. But you know, one thing we talked about—and I talked to him this morning about it—on that defensive end, so used to zone the last couple of seasons, that he stands around a lot on defensive end. We got to get him out of that. But I thought tonight, he was a little bit better than he was last game—which ain’t saying much [ed. note: Zing!]—but you know, he’s got a ways to go in that department.

While still letting the zings fly, Scott gave the new #4 pick in the draft the benefit of the doubt: once he gets in shape and figures out how to mentally transition from zone to man defense, he’ll be fine. Waiters was getting noticeably frustrated by the lack of foul calls at the basket, and he let his aggressiveness die off in games one and two. “He’s just got to learn to just forget about that and play,” said Coach Scott. “He’s a rookie; he’s not going to get a whole lot of calls. I told him that the first night we had practice. ‘Just keep your mouth closed and continue to play hard.'”

If Waiters’s biggest problem, according to Scott, is his conditioning, then that might not be so bad. Coach Thorpe doesn’t worry about conditioning as much for rookies:

The young guys don’t have any idea how to get in shape. They don’t know how to push themselves to that point. If he comes here a year from now and looks the same, that’s a problem. I almost never put any red flag on a rookie other than you hope that they know how to play hard. If they’re not going to play hard at this point, then they can learn to play harder, but you at least have some kind of baseline level. They don’t have it then, then they rarely get it. They sometimes do, but it doesn’t happen a lot. But yeah, with most rookies, I give them a pass at almost everything. Next year, you start getting more disciplined—”OK we’re not seeing that jump we thought we’d see”—they might not have it.

There are physical and mental barriers to that rookie learning curve. While getting past both of them is important, the physical barrier seems to be the most easy to overcome just by virtue of being thrust into the professional ranks. When the physical barriers become a manifestation of the mental barriers, that’s when fans and observers start to get nervous. Dion Waiters’s summer league debut featured a lot of that nervousness. A lot of it was seemingly pointed at the fact that he wasn’t in shape (6′ 4″, 221 pounds). But the fact that he wasn’t in shape shouldn’t be nerve-wracking. If he was out of shape because he doesn’t “know how to play hard,” then that’s an entirely different problem. If he didn’t want to be there like Irving did, then that’s another problem altogether. It’s important to remember that the Cavs organization did a lot of research on Waiters and that Coach Scott wanted him on the team. And Waiters’s coach at Syracuse, Jim Boeheim, spoke highly of his guard’s abilitiesBut it’s just Summer League. It seems like Cavs fans weren’t thinking this way, but there’s a fear that Waiters was.

The Lost MVPs: The 1948-49 Season

swh (flickr)

 

The BAA was the subject of a huge shakeup this season. The players so far chronicled as MVP candidates were indeed top flight , but in general the BAA was working with lesser talent than its competitor the NBL. Well, that problem is largely solved since several NBL teams jumped ship to the BAA this season. The rankings this year reflect that as the erstwhile NBLers dominate the BAA MVP candidacies. If you’re the least bit aware of what teams joined, you won’t be the least bit surprised who the MVP is this season.

#5 Bob Davies – Rochester Royals

Bob Davies (uniwatch)

1st Team All-BAA
15.1 ppg, 5.4 apg, 36.4% FG, 77.6% FT, 8.6 win shares

The preeminent point guard of the NBL, the veteran Davies (then 29-years old) quickly established his supremacy in the Rochester Royals’ first BAA season.

His 5.4 assist per game were enough to barely edge out the sterling Andy Phillip for the BAA lead that season and in the process set a new BAA record for APG in a season. Blindingly quick, Davies also routinely blazed his way to the bucket. His penetration placed him 7th that season in FT attempts making him, along with Kenny Sailors, one of two PGs in the top 10 in the category.

As a team, the Royals mustered the best regular season record with 45 wins and just 15 losses.

 

 

 

#4 Joe Fulks – Philadelphia Warriors

1st Team All-BAA
26.0 ppg, 0.6 apg, 31.3% FG, 78.7% FT, 7.7 win shares

Perennial MVP candidate Joe Fulks has a return to form after his disappointing 1948 season. His 26.0 ppg were a career high and would have been enough to set a new BAA record had it not been for our MVP winner from this season.

Fulks’s bounce back season, though, wasn’t enough to lift the Warriors to a winning record as they finished 28-32. This is slightly surprising given that Fulks was joined by the wandering center Ed Sadowski, himself a top 5 MVP candidate from the previous two seasons.

The truth is, the addition of Sadowski and Fulks’ bouncbeack still weren’t enough to compensate for the influx of NBL titans. Still, Fulks set a single-scoring record this season with 63 points. That mark would stand for nearly a decade until Elgin Baylor surpassed it.

 

 

#3 Arnie Risen – Rochester Royals

2nd Team All-BAA
16.6 ppg, 1.7 apg, 42.3% FG, 66.0% FT, 10.6 win shares

Although surrounded by dominating, superb guards like Bob Davies and Bob Wanzer, center Arnie Risen delivered his finest season in 1948-49.

Like teammate Davies, Arnie Risen set a new BAA record. His accomplishment came in the FG% department. His 42.3% was the highest yet and illustrated his fine post play. On the strength of his stellar shooting, Risen also racked up 16.6 points per game which was good enough for 4th place in the BAA.

 

 

 

 

#2 Max Zaslofsky – Chicago Stags

1st Team All-BAA
20.6 ppg, 2.6 apg, 35.0% FG, 84.0% FT, 10.2 win shares

Last season’s MVP actually kept up every bit of his performance from the previous season. There was no drop off for “The Touch”. If anything, he actually improved.

His FG% rose from 32% to 35% and his FT% jumped from 78% to 84%. Expanding his game beyond dangerous scorer, Zaslofsky also quadrupled his assists per game from 0.6 to 2.6. The Chicago Stags working largely with the same roster also saw their record improve from 28-20 in 1948 to 38-22 in 1949.

So, at first glance, Zaslofsky should be the repeat, back-to-back winner of the BAA MVP. But he isn’t.

Because in 1949, along came George…

 

 

 

#1 George Mikan – Minneapolis Lakers

1st Team All-BAA
28.3 ppg, 3.6 apg, 41.6% FG, 77.2% FT, 20.9 win shares

George Mikan, easily, handily, deservedly demolishes the strong competition here for BAA MVP. His 20.9 win shares doubled the nearest competitors in Zaslofsky and Risen.

His 28.3 ppg were a BAA record. As if his offensive devastation weren’t enough from his patented hook shot, Mikan also finished 8th in APG that season with 3.6 and finished 2nd in FG% behind Risen  He was the hub of the Lakers offense.

Minneapolis finished a single game behind Rochester for the league’s best record and would continue a run of domination begun in the NBL that would run through the next 5 seasons of the BAA and NBA. Mikan was the center of it all and you can bet this is just the first of would could prove to be several MVPs.

Player Capsule (Plus): Wade’s World

Hey, all. Aaron McGuire here from Gothic Ginobili. At GG, I’m currently doing a 370 part series profiling almost every player in the NBA. As part of a cross-posting effort, I’ll be posting massively extended capsules once every few weeks — essentially, when a capsule goes extremely long, I’ll post the extended version of the capsule on Hardwood Paroxysm. Sometimes they’ll go long with statistics, sometimes they’ll go long with narrative, and sometimes they’ll go long with philosophy. Today? A narrative post. Let’s discuss Dwyane Wade.

There are many complimentary things you can say about Dwyane Wade. You can say that he’s one of the best players of his era — I have trouble thinking of more than three wings in that frame that were outright better than he was. (To wit: Kobe, LeBron, and (with some caveats) Manu. And yes, most people will disagree about Manu, but perhaps not when you hear the caveats. That’s a subject for another day.) You can say he’s one of the fastest players ever to play the game — few can match Wade’s raw speed. You can say that he’s taken his lumps — it’s not often that stars are forced to languish on teams as dismal as Wade’s post-Shaq teams, the ones that came about while Riley was putting into motion the various machinations that led to the Heat’s current star-studded era. And you can say that, by all accounts, Wade is a good father and a good man. He has style. He has grit. He’s Dwyane Wade.

And yet, in Wade’s story, there’s one thing lacking: the element of surprise.

• • •

Tell me, when was the last time Dwyane Wade truly surprised you, in the broadest sense of the word? The seed of this concept was planted back in 2006, when FreeDarko’s Dr. Lawyer IndianChief wrote perhaps the best Dwyane Wade piece I’ve ever read. In it, the good doctor outlined what Wade had accomplished up to that point. He’d become the second member of the ballyhooed class of 2003 to win an NBA title (behind only Darko Milicic), and the first to win it while playing greater than 20 total minutes in the playoffs (the total number of minutes Darko played in that playoff run — no, not per-game, TOTAL). Wade’s star had gone supernova — his grit and hustle skidded his way across the hardwood and into our hearts. But yet, there was a pang of nostalgia and distrust, at least for me and Dr. IndianChief.

You see, for me at least, nothing about Wade’s magical 2006 run brought the same joy of his 2004 team. The 2004 Heat struck me as the far more interesting unit — replete with his motley Miami-bred crew of Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, and Wade’s youngest developing form, there were absolutely no expectations on Wade’s first Miami team. It was simply a team with three positionless young stars chipping in their varied skillsets and trying to master their craft. They made the second round of the playoffs, and came within a single poor possession away from forcing a winner-take-all game seven against Reggie Miller’s last great Pacer team. That was a team that made no real logistic sense whatsoever. It could’ve been terrible. And yet, it was a ridiculously fun defensive team, and one of the more entertaining cohesive units of the last decade. One of Stan Van Gundy’s greatest coaching accomplishments, and above all, a team that embodied surprise. It was spectacular.

And what then? Well, Pat Riley acquired Shaquille O’Neal, and suddenly, fate just aligned for Wade. He was on a title contender, and suddenly, his team was expected to be good. And don’t mistake this as criticism — Wade delivered. It was simply different. The doctor discusses this better than I could in his piece, but for those first few years with Shaq, Wade simply didn’t shock anymore. He dazzled, certainly, with his crossover and his dunks and his blazing speed. His abilities were great, his skills unparalleled, his style immaculate. But he suffered almost from a surplus of greatness. Dwyane Wade was named Finals MVP before he could legally rent a car, and somehow, no aspect of his run surprised me. Not the effortlessly dominant performances chained one after another on the dismal march to the promised land, not the contention, not the sudden outbreak of zebra flu in the finals. Nothing.

The Wade/Shaq Heat wasn’t a team that shocked and awed, it was simply a good team doing the things a good team does, and most importantly, living up to expectations. And that’s the key. Even a dynasty like the Spurs involved some level of exceeding expectations — the surfiet of titles was never quite expected for a motley crew of Duncan/Parker/Ginobili, especially not in a Western Conference featuring teams like the Nowitzki Mavericks, the Kobe Lakers, or the Nash Suns. There was never any thought that the Spurs had put together two of the greatest players at their positions of their generations, never quite the overwhelming media hype for Duncan and his brood that Wade/Shaq’s pairing attracted. For Wade, he paired a repertoire of next-level Jordan moves with the then-formidable husk that was once Shaquille O’Neal — one of the greatest big men ever. The question was never “can they win a title”, the question was when. And when they fulfilled dismal destiny and seemed to relinquish Dirk of what seemed to be his grandest shot, there was some element of yawn-worthy precognition attached to it. Because like it or not, we saw it coming.

• • •

While the doctor’s piece stopped there, the narrative kept rumbling onward. There was little to surprise about any of Wade’s teams since. The 2007 Heat were flawed, and as Shaq collapsed to injury, they did too. Wade’s injury robbed him of culpability for the shockingly bad 2008 spell, and the 2009 team was about as interesting in the broader sense as that Heat-Hawks yawner (which is, to me, one of the all-time worst-to-watch series that the playoffs have ever produced, and WITHOUT QUESTION the worst seven-game series). The 2010 Heat were as anyone expected from a team as focused on cultivating its cap space as Riley was — a bit loveable, a bit doomed, and a bit drab. And then, of course, a repeat of his early career — all at once, Wade gathered together two all-generation talents and cast his lot again as the presumptive favorite. In the 2011 Finals the Heat lost, but Wade’s play was exquisite and in no way was the loss his fault. And then, in 2012? The Miami Death Machine rolls forward, the Heat win, and there’s no particular joy for Wade alone. Joy for LeBron, at the culmination of his dreams deferred, sure. Joy for Bosh, his Gordito-fueled celebratory finger guns blazing, sure. But Wade? He won a second ring. He wasn’t the best player on the team, nor was he the worst. A team prohibitively favored to win the title before the season won it. Saw it coming. Chalk rules everything around me. Et cetera.

Thus, Dwyane Wade. The unlimited potential seen of him in his early years never quite came to pass — he never really developed a respectable three point shot, nor did he develop a consistently dominant jumpshot. The Wade that dominated next to Shaq is essentially the exact same player that dominated next to LeBron in 2011. The only wrinkle, now? Actual, tangible wrinkles. That is to say, Wade’s getting old. He’s passed the magical barrier separating a player’s 20s from their 30s, and while too much is made about the decline of a player the second they hit 30, there are quite a few warning signs for Wade. His game is defined on athleticism and injury-risking hustle plays, neither of which hold up well with age. His defense — once all-world — has fallen off a tad, and looks to fall off more as his mobility and speed get compromised. At this point, the surprise is simply gone. If Wade falls off, that’s age. If Wade stays good, that’s Wade. He’s in something of a catch-22, as he has been since his magical rookie season. Nothing he does, positive or negative, will really push the needle. And as thus, boredom sets in. The light droning of forecasts met and predictions made truth.

This isn’t to detract from Wade’s accomplishments or his career. As a whole, Wade will be remembered well. Sooner or later the in-moment parade of expectations fulfilled will fade and the facts will remain. Dwyane Wade is one of the 25-something best players ever. He’s a singular talent, and while his game has always had limitations, the things he excels at have always completely overwhelmed the limitations. Wade did not allow his lack of a shot to keep him from becoming one of the best of all time. He didn’t lose sight of what made him whole, nor did he let his fame allow him to degenerate into a poor father or a poor role model. Wade is an upstanding man, an incredible player, and we’re all blessed to have watched him master his craft. And yet, there’s something so intensely expected about the whole thing. Some nagging sense that a little bit of shock and awe would’ve seasoned his legacy nicely. Some surprise. Some hardship overcome, some team that nobody expected that came back to do the incredible. It bugs me, when I think of Wade, and I readily admit that it makes it harder for me to appreciate him.

• • •

Sitting in my study, I recline back in my chair and open one of my favorite Youtube videos. “Oh, hi Dwyane.” It’s Wade’s wonderful Chicago game winner. You know the one. I follow it closely, on repeat, and begin to imagine small niches to the moment — the sound of the ball cracking on the hardwood as it’s stolen, the whip of John Salmons’ neck as he turns backwards and realizes what’s happening, the echoing roar of the crowd as they realize the same. Dribble, fake, shoot, swish. The crowd falls to disrepair and the game is won. Wade’s unbridled emotion carries it for me — the scream, the protestations, the arrogance. In any other setting, it’s droll and overdone. In this? It’s perfect. Simply perfect. And then I ponder, and consider. I re-learn an important lesson.

Yes, in a broad sense, the moment is nothing — it’s a meaningless winner in a retrospectively dismal season for the Heat. But it’s also everything. It rises above concepts like surprise, glory, and the binary cruelty of a win and a loss. And in those moments, whether the broader narrative disappoints you or not, nothing can take from you the pain and joy of the singular moment — the surprise that a simple Springfield peach-basket has evolved into such gripping drama overrides any broader concerns about a legacy or a narrative. And Wade screams, and pounds, and breaks his way into your heart. No, his career won’t shock you. But he can give you that singular moment of beauty, if you let him.

And that, right there? That’s Wade’s gift. That’s the surprise.

• • •

For more player capsules, check out more of the project on Gothic Ginobili. We’re past 50, now, and today’s slate is a good one. I’ll be back at Hardwood Paroxysm sometime in the next few weeks, most likely. Perhaps even next week! See you then.

The Provisional Blessing Of Amnesty

Photo by PianoWow via Flickr

“Amnesty is a one-time opportunity for teams to release one player via the waiver process and remove him from their team salary and luxury tax computations. For a player to be eligible for the Amnesty provision he must be on his team’s roster continuously from July 1, 2011 to the date he is amnestied, without any new contract, extension, renegotiation or other amendment to his contract in the meantime. Players who were waived prior to July 1, 2011 and are still receiving guaranteed salary are also eligible. Teams cannot amnesty players they sign, receive in trade, extend, renegotiate, or otherwise amend after July 1, 2011.” – Larry Coon‘s CBA FAQ

Sometimes, we need to be reminded to count our blessings, no matter how small they may be. It was one year ago right now that we as a basketball community were in the true dog days of summer. While this past month alone has been a whirlwind from the coronation of the Miami Heat as champions to the NBA Draft merely a week later to the beginning of free agency only days after that, not to mention summer league games and Olympic competition heating up, we had absolutely nothing at this point last year. Questions from fans shifted from the usual “Who will we be able to sign in free agency?” and “Do you think we can pull off this trade?” variety to pondering “Are we even going to have a 2011-12 season?” and “What the heck is Basketball Related Income anyway?” As the lockout dragged on and the dispute was framed classically as Millionaires v. Billionaires, those in the negotiating room were tasked with saving the future of the league.  Ultimately, one of the core themes which quickly emerged and remained throughout the process was that the owners needed to be saved from themselves.

For years, front offices had been handing out outrageous salaries to players only come up well short of getting their money’s worth out of the contract. It went far beyond the usual trend of having to overpay a little extra for a rare commodity like a true seven foot center or for the chance to lure someone away from their hometown; no, there were more than few salaries that drew “Is that a typo? Are you sure that extra zero is supposed to be there?” reactions from around the league. Luckily for owners, the grueling 161 day lockout managed to produce the amnesty clause, a life preserver of sorts for front offices that had signed off on bad at best, egregious at worst contracts in the past. After two rounds of the amnesty clause being in place, there is still an ongoing debate as to whether or not the provision has been a blessing or a curse for the league.

To recap, the list of the 15 teams to have taken advantage of the amnesty clause and players involved is as follows:

2011 Amnesty Cuts
Cleveland Cavaliers
– Baron Davis
Golden State Warriors – Charlie Bell
Indiana Pacers – James Posey
Brooklyn Nets – Travis Outlaw
New York Knicks – Chauncey Billups
Orlando Magic – Gilbert Arenas
Phoenix Suns – Josh Childress
Portland Trail Blazers – Brandon Roy

2012 Amnesty Cuts
Dallas Mavericks
– Brendan Haywood
Denver Nuggets – Chris Andersen
Houston Rockets – Luis Scola
Los Angeles Clippers – Ryan Gomes
Minnesota Timberwolves – Darko Milicic
Philadelphia 76ers – Elton Brand
Washington Wizards – Andray Blatche

All said and done, it calculates to a grand total of $342,534,339 worth of guaranteed money that has been sliced off of team payrolls counting toward the salary cap ever since Gilbert Arenas became the first amnesty casualty on December 9, 2011. This has provided a varying degree of additional cap flexibility for those that have used it so far enabling them to, theoretically, chase a free agent or swing a trade that they otherwise would not be able to complete prior to the establishment of the amnesty provision.

Upon examining the above list, there is something particular that jumps off the page. Of the 15 teams to have utilized the amnesty clause, only the Mavericks, Pacers, Clippers, and 76ers have won a playoff series in the past two seasons. Taking it one step further, the Pacers are the only ones who utilized their amnesty and won a playoff series since using it. This is far from a coincidence. A cursory look at the list practically reveals a number of teams that would make up a “who’s who” of questionable front offices over the past few years. Billy King had earned the reputation of one of the worst general managers in the league prior to this offseason in Brooklyn, the Knicks propensity to overpay for players with little results has been well documented, and the Clippers are, well, the Clippers. Teams conspicuously absent from this list include the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls, Oklahoma City Thunder, and San Antonio Spurs; of course, one may recognize those teams as having accounted for seven of the eight spots in the conference championship series in the past two years. There is a reason that they found themselves playing for a spot in the Finals; they are, for the most part, well run franchises that did not need to use the amnesty because they put themselves in a position to succeed through smart free agent signings, trading for favorable contracts, and drafting well. In the mindset of these types of teams, the ability for competitors to amnesty players is perceived simply as a get out of jail free card. After all, if the amnesty provision was a life preserver for drowning teams, how does that benefit teams perfectly capable of swimming on their own? In the context of today, it doesn’t; however, the amnesty provision is not necessarily a short-term oriented clause.

Since the amnesty can be used through the 2015-16 season, it is crucial to keep in mind how long of a timeframe three years can be in the NBA. To wit, in the 2009-10 campaign, the Knicks, 76ers, Pacers, and Clippers, all playoff teams from this past postseason, were a combined 94 games below .500. On the flip side, the 2010 playoffs featured teams like the Charlotte Bobcats (7 seed then, worst team in the league last year) and Phoenix Suns (3 seed then, lottery team this year). While it is easy to look at the cream of the crop now, there is no telling what the future holds. Tony Parker’s eye injury as a result of being caught in the crossfire of a Drake and Chris Brown fight could cause long term issues thereby making him an amnesty candidate next year. Derrick Rose may never recover from his knee injury in the 2012 playoffs sending the Bulls into full rebuilding mode which would include amnestying Carlos Boozer. As unfathomable as it is to picture for Kobe Bryant not to wear purple and gold forever, his $30.4 million contract in 2013-14 may be too much for even the Lakers to bear. The point is, while some teams may be opposed to the amnesty provision on July 25, 2012, the outcomes over the course of the next three years may change their perspectives. If we have learned anything over the years, it is that nothing is guaranteed. There is an old golf saying that you can’t win a tournament on Thursday, but you can absolutely lose one. The same principle applies with regards to the amnesty provision. Teams aren’t going to win titles solely by exercising it, but they absolutely could lose out on one if their past decisions have prevented them from making a move to put them over the top. At the end of the day, every team in the league would rather have the provision in their back pocket and not use it as opposed to needing it and not having it at their disposal.

In the past, the collision of agents’ shark-like tendencies to secure the best deals for their clients with various front offices’ inability to see the big picture helped drive the league to a lockout and, in turn, created a number of sunk costs throughout the association. The amnesty clause didn’t solve all of the issues, but it at least is a step in the right direction toward getting a number of teams back on course. And let’s face it, the more teams that are able to hold their respective heads above water, the better it is for everyone involved.

Indelible Infirmity

My Old Basketball

In the fourteen days since the gong was rung on official free agency, player movement has been considerable and constant. Among the new multi-year contracts inked in the past two weeks, nine have gone to players who will be over the age of 35 by the time next season begins. This includes Jason Terry, Grant Hill, Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, Steve Nash, Ray Allen and Tim Duncan. Two others, Antawn Jamison and Chauncey Billups have agreed to one year contracts. Nazr Mohammed is also reportedly close to signing with the Bulls, and a handful of others in that age bracket, like Raja Bell, are still available and could feasibly receive multi-year deals as well.

Those players I’ve mentioned above have, for the most part, been very productive for an extended period of time. In the context of professional basketball, they’re also all eligible for the senior citizen’s discount. I’ll admit, I find it somewhat confusing to hear the Celtics have signed Terry to a three-year deal, given that it was 16 years ago that I watched him win a National Championship with the Arizona Wildcats.  Focusing just on career production, the contracts Terry and his cohorts have received this summer seem perfectly reasonable. But when you consider their age and injury histories, some of the logic and reason seems to leak out of those multi-year deals.

However, there is a commonly held idea which is bringing comfort to fans in many NBA cities. That idea, a favorite talking point of Bill Simmons, is that advancements in nutrition and physical training are allowing players to extend the productive segments of their careers in a way they never have before. Three of the players Simmons mentions most often – Duncan, Nash, Garnett – are all in that group that received multi-year extensions this summer.

That group of over-35 players has obviously continued to produce and win games, or they simply wouldn’t have had multi-year offers available to them. But is this phenomenon of older stars extending their careers and maintaining productivity truly something new? Are older players really more productive than they have been in the past?

On an individual basis, it turns out that new ground is not being broken. I used Win Shares as a measure of productivity and looked at the best individual seasons from the last 30 years, for players over the age of 35. Just 10 of the top 40 individual seasons occurred during the last decade. The only individual season from the last decade to makes the top 10 was Karl Malone’s 11.1 Win Shares in 2002-2003, at age 39.

This is also not a case where the heroic efforts of a few have skewed the sample in favor of the past.  Malone, David Robinson, John Stockton, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Artis Gilmore, Detlef Schrempf, Reggie Miller, Robert Parish, Dikembe Mutombo, Moses Malone, Dennis Rodman, Sam Perkins, Arvydas Sabonis, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Alex English, Bob Lanier, Horace Grant, Jeff Hornacek, Hakeem Olajuwon, Anthony Mason, Dale Ellis and Dan Issel all had seasons over the age of 35 where they produced at least 6.0 Win Shares. All of those seasons occurred in the first two-thirds of our 30 year sample. To put that level of production in context, in 2010-2011, 6.0 Win Shares would have placed a player into, roughly, the top 15% of NBA players in terms of productivity.

Although many over-35 players have had incredibly productive seasons in the past, how has that age bracket fared as a group, historically and over the past few seasons? Sticking with Win Shares as a measure of productivity, I calculated the total Win Shares produced by players over the age of 35, in each of the last 30 NBA seasons. The totals for both strike-shortened seasons are 82 game projections based on the games that were actually played.

While things have certainly been trending upward over the past few seasons, the over-35s are haven’t even approached the total productivity of the six year stretch they had from 1997 to 2003. That era saw the career twilights of Malone, Stockton, Robinson, Miller, Drexler, Barkley and Olajuwon; all Hall of Famers who remained incredibly productive as they aged. 

Adding another layer of information we can to look at how many over-35 players it took to produce those incredible Win Share totals.

The spike in Win Shares, both recently and during the 97-03 stretch, was also accompanied by an increase in the number over-35 players in the league. The number of over-35 players has been trending upward in each of the last three seasons but still rests below the apex of that previous stretch. The height of success for older players in the NBA, both in the number of roster spots they held and the number of wins they produced occurred almost 15 years ago. It’s also interesting that the number of older players steadily declined, along with overall productivity, for an eight year span from 2001 to 2009. This would seem to be the time period that most of those new advances in the science of athletic performance would have been making their way into the world of professional basketball.

The next step is to look at the average Win Shares produced by those players. This average is now graphed on the second vertical axis.

The average line is somewhat misleading. The peak of this graph came in the early 80s when there were just a handful of players over-35, one of whom was the single-handed average-skewer, Kareem Abdul-Jabar. The average Win Shares per season of players over-35 had a resurgence in the late 2000s roughly equal to the 97-03 time period, but it has actually fallen each of the last two seasons.

One more measure to look at for further clarification is Variance. This is a measures of the variation in Win Shares, each season, from the least productive player to the most productive player. The higher the variance, the bigger the difference was between best and worst. This is also graphed on the secondary axis.

There is one curiosity I’d like to point out. In no way do I mean this as an accusation, but I found it incredibly interesting that the height of productivity among older players in the NBA, matches up almost precisely with the height of steroid use in Major League Baseball. As I mentioned above that time span also saw the simultaneous aging of numerous Hall of Famers. Nevertheless, there is something eerie about the symmetry. Unfortunately, we may never know how that piece fits into this puzzle.

Although the over-35 players of the last few seasons have not been nearly as productive overall as previous groups, there is definitely an interesting pattern at work which may reveal some of the impacts those advances in nutrition and physical training have had.   The number of over-35 players has been increasing over the four seasons, although their average productivity has remained somewhat flat. The variance has also, essentially, been flat or declining the past four seasons. The pattern then is a move to the middle. A mostly flat trend in the average, coupled with a decline in variance means the average is being carried by players in the middle range of productivity. There are fewer terrific players, but fewer awful ones as well. The fact that there are increasingly more players in that age bracket means we are seeing more and more moderately productive players extending their careers.

There is certainly a bubble of Hall of Fame quality players continuing to produce at terrific levels. However, this has happened before. Fifteen years ago it happened because a cluster of supremely talented players were moving through the chronology of their careers at the same time. The incredible longevity of Duncan, Nash and Garnett may have as much to do with their individual greatness as it does with technological advancements that allow them to take better care of their bodies. However, the moderately successful longevity of players like Jason Terry, Nazr Mohammed, Vince Carter, Antonio McDyess, Brad Miller and Marcus Camby may be where we are seeing the true effects of modern science.

The advancements in nutrition and physical training are all about preventing the erosion of skills. Players like Nash, Duncan and Garnett, who are supremely talented in multiple aspects of the game and play with a deep understanding of the nuances of basketball, will be able to survive and thrive even as some of their skills degrade. However, stopping that skill erosion for a player like Terry who really only does on or two things on the court, may be the difference between being in the league or sitting on their couch at home. The players who have less to lose seem to be benefiting more from holding on to what they have.

Reflections Upon Leaving The Desert

On the court, Jeremy Lamb has three (and only three) expressions: when a fellow Rocket fails to make the correct defensive rotation, Lamb flashes a look of disgust, same when the whistle blows against him; when he flashes down the lane hoping for a pass, his eyes, normally glazed over, bulge like an owl’s; then there’s every other moment where Lamb has the look of the Buddha – complete and utter nothingness.

It would be artful to make observations about how Lamb’s demeanor on the court belies the intensity he plays the game with. I’d imagine it to be true. For all of Lamb’s lack of definition in interviews, his game is full of nuance, language. After the game, he’ll plainly tell you what he did. During the game, it’s all metaphors and Bible verses and dream interpretations. Basketball is the profession, the joy, the expressive force. Because when you spend your entire life in the basketball circuit, it’s probably a lot easier to express yourself with the familiar rhythms of a bouncing ball than it is with words and awkward pauses.

It’s scary how subtle the realization that basketball may never be the same can be.

I stood there waiting. More than half the time you’re just waiting. This was my first Summer League, and the first time I’d covered the NBA as part of the media. I’d seen NBA players up close before, but prior to this experience I’d never had access to them. I had never talked to an NBA player. Then suddenly I did. Suddenly is a good word for what happened soon after. I’ve spent so much of my life mythologizing these players in my head, heaping words upon words to make sense of something that from afar seems so grand. And it is grand. But when I tracked down my first NBA interview – with Donatas Motiejunas, a Lithuanian 7-footer with the mouth of a sailor – there was no time for shock or awe. He was just an incredibly tall human being sharing a story with me. The fourth wall that isolates imagination and reality, it doesn’t get a chance to fall or crumble. It simply vanishes. And then you’re on the other side without the option of turning back.

So out of everything: Damian Lillard’s NBA-ready body and conditioning along with his advanced understanding of speed and how to use it; John Shurna’s absolutely hilarious way of running up and down the court and his equally hilarious shooting form; the fact that people are ultimately kind and want you to succeed, I think the most important thing I took from summer league is that we’re all so very similar. We watch, dissect, and discuss these players like they are more than what they are. Indeed, they have been blessed with an incredible ability, and an ability that is extremely marketable and profitable, but they aren’t machines (even if it does seem as though they come out of conveyer belts sometimes). There were a few stars at summer league, but mainly there were men who have lives that are every bit as uncertain as ours; players who have put everything into the opportunity to make an NBA training camp with no sure guarantee. When you think about it, it’s almost amazing how many are able to speak well to the media at all. Behind those words, they could be thinking about a week from now, a month from now, a year from now. Where they’ll be if their dreams have to wait. Some people are better at hiding their anxiety than others. It helps when the game you play is a language more expressive than your native tongue.

I was in Vegas for five days. What started as a fun, mini vacation became one of the better educational experiences I’ve had in a long time. My own anxieties about my future were put on the backburner as I immersed myself in basketball, in the future of the NBA. Though I was so close to the action, I was still using the sport as a form of escapism. Of course, for the players out on the court, they have nowhere to run to. Their dread lingers with them on every possession and during every practice. And it’s revived with every interview we give them. A lot of them don’t know where they’ll be now that it’s over. That sounds like something a lot of folks can relate to.

Empathy. Empathy is the most important thing I left Las Vegas with.

The Youngest Wizards

It’s no secret the Wizards have had a tumultuous past few seasons. As a result of completely overhauling the roster in about 20 months, the team is exceedingly young. In terms of upside and looking towards the future, having a young team is great. There are multiple downsides in watching a young team evolve, though. The growing pains can be fleeting, or they can sometimes be signs that changes need to be made to the team composition. The organization has made a few alterations over the past year—they drafted college standout Bradley Beal and traded for veterans Nene Hilario, Emeka Okafor, and Trevor Ariza—but there still may be a ways to go to ensure the team is in the best position to morph into a playoff-cusp team to a playoff team to a contender.

One of the changes the Wizards feel they need to make is in the backcourt rotation. The team has made it abundantly clear this offseason that they’re in the market for a veteran point guard to come off the bench in place of second-year player Shelvin Mack. To my untrained eye, I felt as though Mack did a decent job running both the summer league squad and the second team off the bench during the regular season. Assistant coach Sam Cassell believes Mack’s best development is more playing time: “[Last season] was the first time he was the primary ballhandler in his career, so he’ll get better in due time,” but according to ESPN.com and Scouts Inc. analyst David Thorpe, the Wizards  need more from that position than Mack is capable of giving:

There are a hundred guys who can run your offense at the NBA level. They need an upgrade from Mack. They don’t have anyone off the bench that’s dynamic, and so your point guard has to do more than just pass to an open guy if your open guy is not so special. Mack is a liability defensively: he’s very small, not very long. And [the Wizards are] so young that I think they’re looking a veteran point guard as someone who can a) do more than what Mack does, b) mentor the team as a veteran presence, c) specifically [mentor] John Wall, and d) play with John. So as teams go with two guards, they’d like to have that as well with a player better than what Shelvin Mack has been showing. Because John can guard a lot of [shooting guards]. And then you kind of relieve John of some point guard duties, let him play off the ball, let him score some. And let that other point guard—if they can find one—do that…. That’s what an older, veteran guard would be able to do. And it’s good for John to be able to play off the ball some.  It’s good for his development. It gives them a really good look offensively. If you have two guys that can pass that allows John to explore more of a scoring thing. Unlike Derrick Rose, John’s not a natural scorer. But also unlike Derrick Rose, he’s a better natural passer. And so, for him to be the best player he can be, you want to be able to do both. Guys like Chris Paul and Steve Nash, they love to pass, but they’ve got to score too. And for John’s development to continue, he’s got to do both—not just be a passer.

While the Wizards added Ariza and Nene to strengthen their forward spots, the team may eventually look to bolster them further if the two other second year players Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton don’t pan out as planned. Coach Cassell seemed high on small forward Chris Singleton, but he believes his jump shot has a bit of a mechanical hitch to it (he’s “fading away a little too much right now”). Singleton, who played well as an impromptu power forward after Vesely left Game 5 with a sprained ankle, was very active around the basket, but because of a logjam of bigs, he is unlikely to see any action at the that spot this season. Singleton has been hard at work in the offseason, spending time working on his “post moves,… off-the-dribble skills, getting to the lane, [and] getting to the free throw line. It’s one thing I was lacking last year,” says Singleton. “I still got a ways to go.”

Coach Thorpe blames some of Singleton’s struggles on the occupational hazard of being a Washington Wizard. He believes this year will be critical in Singleton’s maturation as a player, and it’s up to the determination of both Singleton and the coaching staff in Washington to ensure he takes the leap:

I think the issue with coaching last year—and let’s see what happens this year—has stunted his progress. He looks to me like someone who has no idea what he’s supposed to do. He doesn’t play with any identity. He doesn’t play like someone who should be a defensive guy. I think he’s still trying “to get his.” Trying to get his buckets. I don’t think he’s got a lot of talent at [doing] that. If he played like James Posey did for much of his career—three point shooter, played great defense, made simple plays. He’s a really long guy—I think he’d have value. I think he can play some [power forward]. I know he can play some [power forward]. But he’s got to buy into that. And the coach has really got to guide him to that. And I haven’t seen that happen yet. But sometimes it takes players a couple years to figure that out. As they slip through the cracks into obscurity—where all of a sudden you’re playing in summer league not as a former pick who’s still on a contract but a former pick who’s looking for a new contract—and you kind of recognize they’ve got to get a better foothold on the things they have. He doesn’t have that yet, in my opinion.

As for the newest Wizard Bradley Beal, coach Cassell enjoys what he’s seen, but he can tell by Beal’s lack of lift in his legs that he’s not used to the rigorous summer league schedule where the Wizards played 5 games in 6 nights. Aside from the pace, the college game is completely different and Beal needs to learn what Cassell calls “a whole new process for him.” Beal, himself, thinks that the pace is fine, but that he needs to get in a little better shape. He knows that the team wants him to have a tight midrange game, as evidenced by the plethora of plays drawn up for him to hit a jumper from the elbow. While Wizards fans hopes with a Wall-Beal backcourt rest firmly in the postseason, Cassell is more generous in his expectations:

We’re not asking [Beal] to take us to the playoffs. We want him to come in, make some jump shots, [and] play some defense.

Cassell also believes Beal will be a great fit next to John Wall—don’t we all?—and he doesn’t worry about Beal’s ball-handling abilities next to his skilled backcourt mate. Different coaches have different philosophies about whether both guards should have ball-handling duties, but for the Wizards likely starting backcourt, this arrangement should work out nicely.

Thorpe calls Beal “polished” and a “great teammate”—two attributes the Wizards need desperately in a new player. While Thorpe also believes he plays at a “great pace,” he has some reservations about Beal’s physical stature and shot mechanics:

[I am a] little concerned that he’s short.  They ran a pindown for him today and he barely got it off against the defender who was 6′ 2″ Josh Selby.  There are almost no [shooting] guards in the league that are that small. And he’s going to have to work on that. His release is very methodical, and that’s going to have to change. But I think it will…. I worry about him getting shots on offense, on pitchouts, which he should be great at, because he’s so slow at getting it off and he’s so little it’s going to take some work, but I think he’ll be OK.

With Cassell and Thorpe’s high praise of Wall and Beal, it seems the Wizards have a bright future ahead with their young backcourt. The same can’t be said right now for second-year players Mack and Singleton. While the coaching volatility certainly did these players no favors, they’re going to need to show vast improvement to ensure their places in the team’s future.

Damian Lillard and the Science of Summer

I spent the past week in Las Vegas, where I was witness to Damian Lillard’s basketball clinic at Summer League. The Portland Trail Blazers’ sixth-overall selection in the draft ended the week having locked up not only Summer League MVP honors, but also the 2012-13 Rookie of the Year award, the next several regular-season and Finals MVP awards, captaincy of the 2016 U.S. Olympic team, and an all-but-guaranteed enshrinement in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in a couple of decades.

Or at least, that’s how the online buzz surrounding his Summer League performance made it appear. Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook comparisons were sprayed around like the high-pressure sprinklers needed to take the Vegas heat. Over the course of the four games in which Lillard played (and a fifth, meaningless one—which is saying something since Summer League games are in and of themselves as meaningless as it gets, but I digress), Blazers faithful turned up in brand-new #0 jerseys, proving him the most celebrated Portland draft pick since Greg Oden. In those four games, he did about all anyone could expect of a rookie point guard, averaging 26.5 points, 5.3 assists, and 4.0 rebounds. His monster dunk over Atlanta’s Keith Benson made SportsCenter’s Top 10. They didn’t always fall, but he proved himself plenty adept at finding teammates open looks, shedding somewhat the label he had pre-draft as a score-first point guard. Judging from the display Lillard put on, Blazers fans had every right to believe they had finally found their Point Guard Of The Future.

Except, you know, for the part where this was Summer League and these games were little more than glorified scrimmages. Previous Summer League MVPs include Marcus Banks, Qyntel Woods, and Marco Bellinelli—all either run out of the league or nothing more than marginal contributors. Lillard isn’t even the first Blazers point guard of the past five years to take those honors. Jerryd Bayless dazzled with his scoring prowess in 2008, but was eventually jettisoned by the Blazers for never truly mastering the “passing” part of being a point guard. Mining this rookie showcase for real, valuable insight into these players’ abilities is an inexact science to put it mildly.

When watching Summer League games to evaluate players, things like “statistics” and “results” take a back seat to the process. I am not exaggerating when I say that I glanced at the scoreboard twice over the course of the 30-some games I saw during the week. The Blazers went 4-1 over their five games, but I couldn’t have told you that without looking it up. Reading a box score without watching a game isn’t the greatest way to follow basketball under normal circumstances, but in Summer League, it’s beyond useless. Watching the games to see how inexperienced players respond to certain situations is the only practical value Summer League provides. These contests are the one time proponents of using the eye test at the expense of stats score a knockout. Each Summer League squad probably has somewhere around five players with a real chance of seeing their name on an NBA roster in November, and with the exception of an Adam Morrison here or a Leon Powe there, even the NBA-caliber players are overwhelmingly rookies and second-year players. Lillard’s assist numbers tell us nothing because the players he will be playing with in the regular season are more likely to make the shots he finds for them. But they also tell us nothing because the defenses even the most inept NBA teams put together won’t let as many of those open looks be there.

For what it’s worth, though, Lillard passed the eye test. After a few initial first-half jitters, he exuded calm and confidence bringing the ball up the floor. Even when his scoring was inefficient, his shot selection was hard to fault. After his third game, which featured that dunk and an overall virtuosic scoring performance, he told reporters he could have done a better job making plays for others, and in the following game, he visibly looked to pass more. He ran the pick-and-roll well with Meyers Leonard and showed all the signs of a floor general who will mesh well with LaMarcus Aldridge. In my several postgame-media-availability interactions with him, he came across as thoughtful and quick to identify weaknesses in his own game. Until further notice, there is every reason to believe Lillard is the real deal. Unless he isn’t, in which case it will be only the latest reminder that Summer League performances are to be taken with several entire salt shakers.