Monthly Archives: March 2013

Statistical Anomaly: Rockets @ Grizzlies

Statistical Anomaly is a series where we explore all the mathematical nuances you may not have noticed watching the game the first time. Today, Kyle waxes Euclidian on the Grizzlies “not as close as the final score indicates” win over the Rockets.

Quincy Pondexter, statistically speaking, is having his best season as a professional, but his play has had no impact on the final result. In fact, it has held an indirect relationship of late. Over the last 11 days, Pondexter is shooting 47.4% in losses and 18.8% in victories. Furthermore, Memphis was outscored by 12 points during his 16 minutes on the court and outscored Houston by 21 points in the other 32 minutes. That -12 plus/minus ratio is twice as bad as his cumulative ratio in the Grizzlies last four losses. As the playoffs approach, it is clear that Memphis can defend at a championship level (second best scoring defense in the NBA), but can they score enough? Don’t be surprised if they begin to phase out Pondexter in favor of an expanded offensive role for Tony Allen and Jerryd Bayless.

Mike Conley filled his role to perfection, allowing the Grizzlies to play up to their potential. Five of Memphis’ last eight wins have come when the underrated point guard records a double double, with the last three such games coming in wins against playoff bound teams. Conley excels at initiating the offense, and while he can score at a high level, his cerebral style allows the Grizz to maximize their offensive productivity. He isn’t as physically gifted as the highlight reel point guards in today’s game, but the ability to read and react is just as valuable (see Parker, Tony). Memphis isn’t being considered a title contender in the top heavy Western Conference, but there is little doubt in my mind that Conley has the tools to be a PG on a title winner.

Grizzlies

Over the last two months, the Grizzlies have lost one game when Marc Gasol and/or Zach Randolph attempt at least three free throws and shot at least 76% from the line. Both players did so against the Rockets, giving Memphis the rarest of combinations in the NBA: paint protectors with touch and the ability to be effective in late game situations. Both players can control the lane and step out for the mid range jump shot, forcing opponents to alter their typical rotation. The Grizzlies are a team that nobody wants to play, especially if they can get bench production.

Thomas Robinson went 2/10 from the field as his unpolished offensive game tends to appear on a regular basis. That being said, he battles on the glass at a strong level for a 22 year old, giving Rocket fans reason for optimism. The rookie is averaging 16 rebounds per 48 minutes over the last 2+ weeks, a stretch that includes games against the Spurs, Jazz, and Pacers. Robinson is lucky to be a Rocket and Houston is lucky to have a young forward who is physically ready to succeed right now.

This was the sixth consecutive game against a team battling for playoff position in which James Harden shot less than 38% from the field. Against the Grizzlies, Harden (the fifth leading scorer in the NBA) took more shots than just two of his teammates. Not that I doubt Harden’s talent, but we at least have to ask if he is ready for being the “go-to” guy on the big stage. Sure, he played well with the Thunder, but he wasn’t the focal point of opposing defenses for 48 minutes. Defenses are going to throw the kitchen sink at the crafty scorer, and lately, he hasn’t led his team against the upper portion of the league.

This was an interesting match up as it pitted a strong defensive unit against an elite offensive squad. The difference, however, was the Grizzlies versatility on offense and the poor defending of the Rockets. No playoff team wants to see either one of these teams, but for my money, it’s the Grizzlies that fit the postseason format better. They can run if need be, but they prefer to grind in the half court, and with their personal, they are probably the best team in the league at playing their game. The Rockets can run up and down the court, but could they beat any of the elite teams in a series format that way? I’d rather take my chances with the Grizzlies, a team that dictates pace and excels when they control the style of play. Who do you think is better prepared for the playoffs? Do you trust the team with a true star player, or would you rather roll with a balanced scoring attack? Fast paced offense or bloody your nose defense? Who ya got?

RTOE: ProBasketballDraft bridges the NCAA tourney to the NBA lottery (Part 2)

A very special RTOE for you all today. I recruited the help of the guys at ProBasketballDraft.com to help make sense of some of the choices this year’s lottery teams will have to make from the pool of NCAA talent. Joe Kotoch, Jeffrey Paadre, Jonathan Gordon, and Luka Papalko: take it away for part 2! (Note: Part 1 dropped earlier today.)

1. Hello, my name is the Cleveland Cavaliers. My team has a ton of cap space going into the off-season, not a whole lot of depth, and for some reason or another, there’s a giant, gaping hole at Small Forward. Assuming the Lakers make the playoffs and I get their pick, too, what’s my best fit in the first round of the draft?

Joe: The Cavs are a team that still can do in a few directions on draft night. I expect Cleveland to be very aggressive and package picks to move into the back end of the Lottery. In addition to both first round picks the Cavs also own their own 2nd round pick and Orlando’s too. I expect Cavs GM Chris Grant to target a few players on draft night such as Nerlens Noel, Alex Len, Otto Porter, and possibly Victor Oladipo. As for best fits, the hole at SF is gaping but a certain former Cav could return next summer and Cleveland could opt to solve that position in free agency or via trade for next year.

Jeffrey: The Cavaliers have easily the most enviable position of all of the teams in the draft lottery this season. Kyrie Irving is a franchise point guard, Tristan Thompson has been very productive, and Dion Waiters has shown spurts of greatness. Anderson Varejao won’t be around forever and if he’s available, Nerlens Noel can become the franchise’s defensive anchor for many years to come. If Noel gets swiped up before the Cavs pick, Shabazz Muhammad, Victor Oladipo, and Otto Porter all should garner interest from Cleveland. Of the three, Porter should be their top priority due to his great size for the position and amazing defense. He needs to put on a little weight but he can be the small forward of the future for Cleveland. If the Lakers make the playoffs and the Cavs get that pick as well, a player like a Rudy Gobert or an Isaiah Austin, two high potential big men, would be a home run for Cleveland later in the draft. Jeff Withey could also be a good fit later in the first round, with a potential Laker pick. He will come in, grab boards and block shots; that’s all the Cavs can ask for.

Jonathan: The first round is going to require you to break out your best undercover investigation skills. With only one predicted SF (Otto Porter) going in the top 10, it’s imperative you land him. Snoop around and see what teams in front of you are planning to do. If Porter will still be available, take Porter and use your later pick to build some depth (any position will do—you’re short-handed everywhere). If you need to trade up, offer some cash or your other pick. A young backcourt of Irving and Porter will be one of the more dynamic, exciting backcourts in the league for years to come.

Luka: Despite the Cavs having improved their team over the past two years, this still isn’t a time to be picky and pick for need. The Cavs still need to go for the best player available with their first pick and follow up with whatever they didn’t get with their second pick. Nerlens Noel is the best player in the draft and while he’s not an ideal fit with the current core, the Cavs would have to take him should they be in position to.

This is a weird draft for the Cavs with there being no true fit upfront for their needs. The only true all-around center who would fill the need is Alex Len, who teams still are trying to figure out. Otherwise, it’s either all offense and little defense (Zeller, Austin) or all defense and little offense (Cauley-Stein, Adams). So if Len doesn’t pass the test, it’s pick your poison and draft according to your philosophy: do you value interior offense or interior defense more.

On the wing, Otto Porter looks to be a perfect fit should the Cavs first pick be in the 3-7 range. He’s a guy who would fit in well with Dion Waiters and Kyrie Irving in the backcourt, being a player who can function well with or without the ball and also play solid defense on the wing. While Ben McLemore might not be an ideal fit, he still would be a good pick considering he’s a top talent and would play well off the ball in Cleveland.

In an ideal world, the Cavs get a the top pick and take Nerlens Noel and trade back into the lottery with their second pick to grab their small forward.

2. Hi there, Cleveland. Can I call you Cleveland? My name is Minnesota Timberwolves, and I wasn’t supposed to be here this year, but here I am. I know my biggest problem is injuries as opposed to depth, but I have to figure that out anyway. I guess I could probably use a Shooting Guard, but I don’t know. Like I said, I wasn’t supposed to be here. Who’s my best fit in the first round, as long as I draft in the top 13?

Joe: For the Wolves, you have to look at ways to get better along the perimeter and protect Ricky Rubio defensively. In the top 10 the Wolves should target Oladipo or Ben McLemore. However, the Wolves could be in prime position to draft a sleeper that should be a borderline lottery-pick come draft night, San Diego State’s Jamaal Franklin. Franklin does so many things well and would add much needed athleticism to a Wolves team that needs more of it. Franklin is not the best shooter but is effective and productive in many aspects of the game. He’d be an excellent fit alongside Rubio, Love, Pekovic.

Jeffrey: The T-Wolves have been brutal from beyond the arc this season. No team has shot worse than Minnesota and their 29.9 percent clip from three point land. For this season, shooting guards like Shabazz Muhammad, Victor Oladipo, and Ben McLemore should all get attention from David Kahn depending on where their pick falls. McLemore would be ideal, but he may not be around by the time the Wolves pick. Muhammad and Oladipo each would look good on the receiving end of Ricky Rubio passes for the near future. Either of them would be a welcome upgrade over Shved, who’s been wildly inconsistent this season. Another possibility, depending on what happens with Pekovic this offseason, could be Maryland’s Alex Len. Len is a legitimate big man who could compliment Kevin Love very well if the Wolves don’t re-sign Pekovic.

Jonathan: With strong players in Pekovic, Love, and Rubio, your biggest need is indeed a Shooting Guard. Lucky you! This year’s class features three premier Shooting Guards all within the top 10. Given your choices of McLemore (Kansas), Muhammad (UCLA), and Oladipo (IND), any pick would be a big improvement at the 2-position, both short-term and long-term. If all three are available, your safest bet is Oladipo. A strong rebounding guard (6.4 RPG), consistent scorer (13.6 PPG), and one of the best defenders available, Oladipo can contribute on both ends of the court. A more experienced player, Oladipo has the maturity to step in and play for a contender. Muhammad needs the ball in his hands a lot, robbing Rubio of his duties, and McLemore has struggled recently (5 points on 2-7 shooting in Big 12 Championship and 2 points on 0-9 shooting in NCAA second-round). Muhammad and McLemore have more upside and “star power”, but you don’t need that. You need a quality player able to contribute immediately. If you fall out of the top 10 and all three are gone, one option would be to draft Zeller (IND) and let Pekovic, a free agent at the end of the season, go. Pekovic will likely ask for (and get) an overvalued contract. Drafting Zeller gives you a premier big man to complement Love and opens up some cap size. On second thought, just draft a doctor.

Luka: What the Timberwolves need most is an instant impact player, which might be hard to do with this draft and with where they could be picking. The Timberwolves are a ticking time bomb as a team: David Kahn could soon be gone, Rick Adelman could too (depending on the health of his wife), Kevin Love is far from being a happy camper, they’ll have key free agents this year (Budinger & Pekovic) and not a lot on the cap for years after that. Moral of the story is if the Timberwolves want to win, they’ll need to do it ASAP.

The T’Wolves need to hope they either magically land a high enough spot to draft Ben McLemore or Shabazz Muhammad falls to wherever they end up drafting. Quite frankly, while McLemore is seen as a better prospect I’d venture to say Muhammad is a better fit for the T’Wolves. Yes his age is causing him to fall like a rock but he does the one thing they need most: score at a NBA level. Muhammad can get his shot, something McLemore is still developing right now. While Muhammad doesn’t contribute in a lot of either areas and is a ball dominant guard, the T’Wolves need his scoring and ability to create. It’s a good fit for player and team, in this case.

3. Hey guys. Orlando Magic here. You guys remember me? We were the ones that drafted back to back #1 picks in 1992 and 1993. We drafted #1 again in 2004… yada yada yada, WE’RE BACK! Did you miss us? No? Oh, ok. Well, we’ve got a LOT of young guys on our roster. Who’s part of our core going forward? Is there anyone at the top of this draft that’ll be complimentary to that core?

Joe: Well I have been predicting the Magic as the winner of the Lottery ever since the Dwight Howard saga began. Rookie GM Rob Hennigan has been masterful in acquiring young talent to build around. Obviously Nikola Vucevic has blossomed for Orlando and combined with Moe Harkless and Tobias Harris the Magic look like they have a promising front court. Going forward the Magic need to find more offense and someone who can create their own shot. Ben McLemore and Shabazz Muhammad are names to watch. However, I would not be surprised to see the Magic have Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart a top their board. Smart would be an instant mismatch nightmare at PG and could blossom into a Russell Westbrook or Derrick Rose type of physical marvel at that position. The Magic have some pieces but lack a star to build around right now.

Jeffrey: Orlando has a very nice foundation for the future. Vucevic has been a tremendous surprise and Moe Harkless has really turned it on as of late. They need a point guard at this point. A lot of their young talent is great but many of these guys have trouble creating their own shots. Marcus Smart out of Oklahoma State should be their target. He’s a big point guard with tremendous potential. Jameer Nelson has shown this season that he’s not a point guard to build around, but with Smart, Nelson could develop a little more value as an off-ball shooter.

Jonathan: You must be mistaken. The only team that plays basketball in Florida is perennial powerhouse Florida Gulf Coast University. But, for the sake of this discussion, we’ll pretend you exist. First, let’s take a look at your roster. Starting at the 1 and assuming a healthy roster, you go Nelson, Afflalo, Harris, Davis, and Vucevic. With the exception of Nelson, all five are pretty young. Vucevic has been a pleasant surprise posting double-digit rebounds (11.5 RPG) and leading the team with an 18.0 Player Efficiency Rating (PER). Afflalo has showed the ability to score (16.5 PPG). Harris and Davis have also showed bright spots. While Nelson is an Orlando favorite and has been a tremendous leader, he doesn’t have many years left. Going forward, he’s clearly the odd one out. Draft a point guard, put him under Nelson’s wing, and slowly begin the transition. Smart (Oklahoma State) appears to be the top PG in the draft and the SMARTest pick. Do your best to get him. If not, Burke (Michigan) and Carter-Williams (Syracuse) are also excellent. Then again, you don’t REALLY exist so none of this matters.

Luka: Again, like the Cavs, this is a case where the top of the draft isn’t necessarily conducive to the needs of the Magic. The Magic have a nice developing core but there’s no true dominant player at a position of need for the Magic. There is also no player on the roster that has a long-term hold at their respective starting position (except maybe for Nikola Vucevic), which means no player should be off the table.

What the Magic need most is a cornerstone piece, someone they can build around. While this draft doesn’t really have a true player at the top like that, Marcus Smart is their best bet to do so. I would usually say Nerlens Noel should be the 1st pick, but in this case Smart is rated at a similar level but fills a much larger role for the Magic. Smart would immediately come in and take over as the leader of the team. He would provide them with the ball-handler and shot creator that they need. While there are concerns about his outside shot, he’s got an extremely good work ethic and is a high character prospect. It wouldn’t surprise me at all, if Smart ended up as the best player in this draft 5 years down the road and followed in the footsteps of the new wave of point guards.

4. Yo, Cleveland. Maybe some of us don’t want the Lakers to make the playoffs. Ever thought of that? Jeez. Selfish. Oh, hi. I’m Phoenix Suns. I’m new around these parts. It’s weird to be here. Can anyone help me out? What exactly do I do here?

Joe: The last few seasons the Suns have confused many of us with their moves but they appear to be set on a complete rebuild. So Phoenix’s main issue right now is that Marcin Gortat, Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley, and Luis Scola are all at least 27 by the start of next season and considerably older in Scola’s case. The Suns have acquired the Morris twins and Kendall Marshall but have no superstars to build around and lack the youthful talent that brings optimistic energy. Perhaps no team that is lottery-bound is in more need of two top picks than the Suns. Nerlens Noel, Marcus Smart, Ben McLemore, Victor Oladipo, Shabazz Muhammad, Anthony Bennett, Alex Len, and Trey Burke are just a few examples of the type of prospects the Suns need to acquire to help their fan base cope with the beginning of the post-Nash era.

Jeffrey: Phoenix should be going in position-blind at this point. They have very few quality ballplayers and talent should certainly take precedence. It’s probably too early to admit defeat on the Kendall Marshall pick from last year, so Smart from Oklahoma State may be the one non-possibility at this point. Marshall has tremendous court vision, so why not surround him with a wing player who can score? McLemore would be ideal if he’s around but if not, Otto Porter could be a good fit here. Another guy to look at would be UNLV’s Anthony Bennett. Bennett is a hyper-athletic forward who needs to develop his wing game a little bit but has limitless potential. As an added bonus, another wing would likely mean less playing time for Michael Beasley, which can’t hurt the Suns. If they get the Lakers pick, a proven winner like CJ McCollum could be another good fit late in the lottery. He can create his own shot and is a deadly shooter.

Jonathan:

Step 1: Begin (continue?) tanking to ensure a higher draft pick.
Step 2: Justify your tanking by playing “young, unproven rookies who need experience.”
Step 3: Acknowledge that your top three scorers (Dragic, Scola, and Gortat) are all international players.
Step 4: Continue international presence by drafting other international players.
Step 5: Draft Rudy Gobert, a 7-1 French center with a 7-9 wingspan.
Step 6: Draft Dario Saric, a 6-10 Croation small forward with Toni Kukoc comparisons.
Step 7: Rename yourself the “European Suns” and relocate overseas.

Luka: Well, it would be best if Robert Sarver sold the team but we all know the likelihood of that happening any time soon is slim. After forcing him out doesn’t happen, management needs to figure out a direction of the team. Does it want to win now or does it want to build for the future? The moves last off-season (signing Scola, trading for Beasley, and still having terrible contracts on the books) seem to make one believe the Suns thought they could compete this year and we all see how that’s going.

So what they need to do is cut bait, start over and build for the future. There are some decent pieces there but they don’t have any true cornerstone players, just a bunch of okay young guys. They need to be hoping for a top-3 pick and grab a cornerstone offensive player or else they’ll likely be adding to the limited, but decent group of talented young players. A guy like McLemore, Oladipo or Porter could help but doesn’t give them the offense they need.

Anthony Bennett is the guy they really need to be hoping for, Yes they have the Morris twins but neither of them can do what Bennett can do. Bennett will remind Suns fans of Amar’e Stoudemire, for both good and bad. He’s arguably the best, most versatile offensive player and quite the athlete for his size. Going out to Phoenix, he would hope to form a new era duo for Steve Nash and Amare’ with Dragic.

5. Will you guys keep it down in here? Some of us regulars are trying to THINK. Sometimes, guys like us don’t get respect from any of these up-and-comers, know what I mean, Charlotte?

I sure do, Sacramento. Say… what are you guys looking for this year?

… I was about to ask you the same thing.

Joe: It seems like every year you can count on taxes and the Kings and Bobcats to be in the lottery. Starting with MJ’s crew the Bobcats are a league-worst right now but the Bobcat never seem to be fortunate enough to win the lottery. In a year where it is this wide-open the Bobcats can sit back and let McLemore, Smart, Muhammad, Noel, and Bennett all try to impress enough them. Unfortunately the Bobcats really need the one-and-done rule abolished so they can draft Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, or Julius Randle. None of the top prospects in this draft cycle will give the Bobcats the star they desperately seek.

The Kings have been a mess this year and the ownership is a joke. While Kevin Johnson continues to do an admirable job to save the Kings the issues start at the top and run into the front office, which has become stale. The Kings stockpile the best players every year but have no sense on how to build a team. Having given up on Thomas Robinson in his rookie year I would not feel comfortable with any member of the current front office returning or drafting, if I were a Kings fan. Will Tyreke Evans return? Has DeMarcus Cousins played himself out of Sacramento? What is going on with this roster? So many questions need to be answered. Objectively speaking if Evans is not re-signed than the Kings need to find perimeter scoring and McLemore would be the best fit but Muhammad would bring more baggage, which seems like a must for any potential King under this regime. Marcus Smart would be a great addition here as well.

Jeffrey: First to Sacramento, other than keeping Thomas Robinson for more than half a season? Maybe it’s time to finally grab a point guard. The Kings have relied for far too long with small, shoot first guards like Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Thornton, Jimmer Fredette, etc. If Marcus Smart is available, grab him and don’t think twice. He’ll help change some of the culture around the team. If he’s not, Michael Carter-Williams would be a great fit. He’s a pass first point guard, with super potential due to his size and court vision, two things that the Kings’ guards have lacked recently.

For Charlotte, Kemba Walker looks like he’s got the potential to help the team going forward, and Gerald Henderson just said he wanted to be a Bobcat next year, so that’s a plus. Nerlens Noel is a great fit for every team, but with Bismack Biyombo, two athletic, defensive big men who are raw offensively may be a bit too redundant. That or it could be the foundation for an up-and-coming defense, but since they’re committed to Biyombo and MKG, a scoring wing to play the two is a must. McLemore should be priority 1, but if they don’t luck out with the one pick, Shabazz Muhammad should be where they look.

Jonathan: Welcome back guys, you two have set a great example on how to consistently get top picks. Two franchises looking for an identity (and, in one case, a new home), you guys have to go big here. Get some top talent, get fans in seats, and get people to remember you exist. While some of these players may be riskier than other first-round talent, they have the biggest upside and could be a franchise-changer. Players to consider: Noel (Kentucky), McLemore (Kansas), Smart (OK State), Porter (Georgetown), Bennett (UNLV), and Muhammad (UCLA). If either of you draw the lucky #1 pick, take Noel. “But he’s hurt!” Yes. But he will be better. Noel provides a stable centerpiece for a rebuilding franchise. Putting Noel in the middle makes everyone else’s job a lot easier. The other five are all premier scorers. Take your pick and hope he goes off for 30+ a night. If not, I’ll see you again next year.

Luka: Sacramento is looking to stay in Sacramento, first and foremost. If they can’t stay in Sacramento, which I think we all hope happens, then this draft won’t matter. But in hoping they do stay in Sacramento, they need to draft for fit more than any other team. Year after year Petrie has thrown together a bunch of square pegs in round holes and hoped it’s worked. So far his plan, which has been doomed from the start, has worked at keeping the Kings in the cellar. In addition to drafting for need, the Kings need to draft a high character, high intangible player. With DeMarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans as the leaders of the team, it’s not hard to figure out why this team has long been a very immature one. Really any one of Marcus Smart, Otto Porter or Victor Oladipo would fit what the Kings should be looking for. But I would be quite curious to see what Trey Burke could do in trying to change the culture out West.

Luckily for the Bobcats, Kemba Walker looks to be developing and worth the 9th overall selection back in 2011. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Bismack Biyombo look like quite the defensive foundation but the offensive side has seen mixed results for them. What the Bobcats need most is what Michael Jordan never had problem himself finding: scoring. They need an offensive option worth a damn and someone who can get his own shot. Anthony Bennett or Shabazz Muhammad would both fill this hole and give them someone who they can rely on scoring wise. Both have their flaws but they’re flaws you can live with as the Bobcats when you need someone to score a basket, considering they’re near the bottom the league in scoring.

In The Paint – With Michael Cho

In The Paint is an ongoing HP series where we  will learn about the different basketball artists on the Interwebs and break down the inspiration for some of their work.

This week, we are “In The Paint” with Michael Cho an illustrator and cartoonist from designer based in Toronto, Canada.

How long have you been into basketball and how long have you been making basketball art?

Fan wise, I’ve been into the NBA since the Bulls championship era. My favourite early NBA memory is MJ’s flu game.

I started drawing pictures of ballers for fun when I was in my 20’s, because I was looking to subjects to draw while experimenting with new techniques or mediums outside of my regular freelance work.  Drawing NBA players seemed like a good way to merge two of my major interests.  I rarely get sports or basketball related assignments so I still draw ballers mainly for fun, and still try to use it as an opportunity to stretch artistically and try out different ways of making a picture.

What is your art background?

I went to art college here in Toronto to learn to paint. I graduated with a diploma in “experimental arts”, which basically meant that I was broke. Soon after, I started taking on illustration assignments and teaching myself that aspect of artistic practice. I’ve been a freelance illustrator for 10+ years now.

What other artists have inspired you?

Like most artists, I’m blessed to have had a life-long affinity for any kind of visual work.  And I get the same pleasure from looking at a good painting or drawing that I get from watching a game.  A few of the artists whose work I admire are:  Jack Kirby, Orson Lowell, Michaelangelo, Edward Hopper, Alex Colville and Noel Sickles.  Sometimes the influence is obvious in my work, at other times it’s invisible to anyone but myself.

How do you decide who to draw? Do you just tend to draw players you like?

Mostly it’s players I like.  I’ve probably done 3 or 4 pieces on Ray Allen, for example.  Sometimes it’s because a player has an interesting face, or one that lends itself nicely to a certain kind of artistic treatment, even if I don’t like them or their game.

Tell me a little bit more about your overall process and concept.

Since I draw players for fun and to experiment, I don’t really have a set process.  Sometimes, it’s just a matter of googling them, and looking at photos of them while I doodle them in my sketchbook, and sometimes I’ll have a concept in mind and try to fit players around that.  I’ve played around with a lot of different materials and mediums while working on these, including pen and ink, gouache, watercolours, markers, cut paper, collage, etc.  And I’ve drawn them in a lot of different styles from extremely graphic approaches to very painterly ones.  I follow the muse.

Patrick Ewing

Let’s break down your Patrick Ewing illustration – give me some insight into the inspiration and concept. He looks sad, kind of haunting.

Well, that Patrick Ewing one was part of a bunch of drawings I did of players who wore #33.  I also drew Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen and Kareem as well.  They were done because I was jonesing for some hoops last summer and couldn’t wait until the season started.  I mean, I was catching old games on YouTube, you know what I mean?   The Ewing one was drawn digitally and it was kind of an experiment to see if I could reproduce my traditional pen and ink style using software.  I’d already drawn Amare, Chris Paul and a few others in paper using a similar style and was trying to do it digitally.   Ewing does kind of look sad in it, but it’s not deliberate on my part.  Although, my second favourite team of all time is that 99 Knicks squad that went to the finals without him.

Jason Williams

Let’s do the same thing with your recent Jason Williams illustration.

That piece was done in an hour or two, in gouache and ink on paper.  Again, I was just fooling around trying to find an interesting graphic approach contrasting thin line art with heavy blocks of colour.  I picked Jason Williams because he was dope on those Kings teams with Vlade and CWebb.  I’ve always liked flashy point guards with crazy handles.

Follow Michael on Twitter and check out his site for more great basketball art.

RTOE: ProBasketballDraft bridges the NCAA tourney to the NBA lottery (Part 1)

A very special RTOE for you all today. I recruited the help of the guys at ProBasketballDraft.com to help make sense of some of the choices this year’s lottery teams will have to make from the pool of NCAA talent. Eric PalutsisIan Levy, Fred Katz, and Ryan Glassman: take it away for part 1! (Note: Part 2 dropped later today.)

1. Hello, my name is the Cleveland Cavaliers. My team has a ton of cap space going into the off-season, not a whole lot of depth, and for some reason or another, there’s a giant, gaping hole at Small Forward. Assuming the Lakers make the playoffs and I get their pick, too, what’s my best fit in the first round of the draft?

Eric: As tough as it is to believe right now, with the Cavs blowing huge second half leads to Miami and Boston in recent games, it was not too long ago that Cleveland was actually lighting up scoreboards with an offensive rating over 110 during the month of February. Obviously the lack of depth has reared its ugly head with injuries to Kyrie Irving and now Dion Waiters but the larger issue has been terrible defense, specifically an atrocious interior defense. Tyler Zeller just is just not cutting it inside right now. Best case scenario for the Cavs? Win the lottery and draft Nerlens Noel, his shot-blocking and interior defensive presence is something that Cleveland has sorely been missing. If Noel is gone by the time the Cavs are picking in June, I don’t know that there is another big man worth taking that high; I would lean towards someone like Victor Oladipo who can become the lock-down perimeter defender that Cleveland has been lacking since a certain someone took his talents to South Beach. Arguments could be made for a small forward like Otto Porter to take some of the scoring load off of Irving but a scorer like Kentucky’s Alex Poythress or even Michigan’s Glenn Robinson III (assuming they throw their names in the draft) could be had later in the first round with the Lakers pick.

Ian: The continued development of Dion Waiters, paired with the continued brilliance of Kyrie Irving means the Cavaliers have some stout cinderblocks laid in the foundation of their backcourt. There are a couple of intriguing options from them at the top of the draft. Indiana University wing, Victor Oladipo could be a solid fit alongside Irving and Waiters.

Oladipo is an elite perimeter defender with the ability to make an instant impact at that end of the floor. On offense he’s a terrific finisher and has grown into a respectable outside shooter. His ceiling at that end of the floor is probably as a very efficient complementary player, but that’s exactly the ingredient Cleveland is missing. Oladipo is probably a hair shorter than the 6’5″ he’s listed at, but with a wingspan stretchy enough to help defend small forwards in a pinch. Although he probably isn’t the starting small forward answer, his elite defense and complimentary offensive game mean he could be a nice third-guard, playing alongside either Waiters or Irving and stretching into the small forward role when matchups allow.

Another option is 6’8″ wing, Otto Porter, from Georgetown. A defensive prospect equally as intriguing as Oladipo, Porter has the size to fully inhabit the Alonzo Gee shaped hole at small forward. Offensively Porter has the potential to develop a much more well-rounded game than Oladipo and is already a more polished ball-handler and shot creator.

Fred: Well, Cleveland, that all depends on how much you luck out (or unluck out) in the lottery. If you end up with the first or second overall pick, you kind of have to take Nerlens Noel, don’t you? I know Anderson Varejao is a quality player. I know he was having a great season until he went down for the year only 25 games in. I know your fans love him. But is he the guy that’s going to take you to the promise land with Kyrie?

Realistically, next year is still a building year for you. You won’t be “there” yet. Meanwhile, Andy is going to be on an expiring $9.1 million deal with a team option for the next year at $9.8 million. That’s pretty team friendly. A lot of contenders that are one big short would love to take a team-oriented guy, who was averaging 14.1 points and 14.4 rebounds before he got hurt this year, on a contract like that. You can get legitimate value back for him. So trade Andy and move on with a core of Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, and Noel. That’s pretty strong.

If you fall lower, which you probably will, the small forward route is the way to go. You need rebounding – especially to compensate for Waiters, who is weak in that area. Shabazz Muhammad and Otto Porter would both fit that mold, but since Kyrie is already a natural scorer and Dion goes for more aimless Runaround Sues than anyone else in the league, Porter may serve as a better Cav complement than Shabazz.

Ryan: Cleveland, I love what you’re doing in the backcourt with the scoring tandem of Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters. Up front, Tristan Thompson looks like he can be a solid forward for a long time, and hopefully you can continue to get some good production from Andy Varejao next season. But before you guys get serious about taking the leap to playoff contender in the Eastern Conference, you need a player to fill in at SF for Alonzo Gee. Gee is probably better suited to play off of the bench than start alongside a pair of scorers in the backcourt, where his shots are limited.

What the Cavs need in that starting spot is a versatile player that can guard wings, rebound, and get his points without having to dominate the ball, a guy like Georgetown’s Otto Porter. In a weak draft class, there may not be more of a sure thing than Porter, a stat sheet stuffer that will contribute consistently on both ends of the ball. Porter has the frame and athleticism to guard elite wings at the NBA level, and also already has a refined midrange game that fits well alongside the perimeter-oriented games of Irving and Waiters. Porter may not have the superstar ceiling of some other prospects, but with one of the league’s best young talents already on your roster, all you need is a player that can contribute from Day 1, and add talent and depth to the team. The Porter pick allows you to look to a scorer in the frontcourt with the Lakers’ pick, where a skilled big like Kelly Olynyk makes a lot of sense.

2. Hi there, Cleveland. Can I call you Cleveland? My name is Minnesota Timberwolves, and I wasn’t supposed to be here this year, but here I am. I know my biggest problem is injuries as opposed to depth, but I have to figure that out anyway. I guess I could probably use a Shooting Guard, but I don’t know. Like I said, I wasn’t supposed to be here. Who’s my best fit in the first round, as long as I draft in the top 13?

Eric: The Timberwolves situation is perplexing, to say the least. Injuries have obviously ruined this season but that means the pieces should still be in place for a dramatic improvement next season, especially with how much better Ricky Rubio has been playing as of late. That being said, Minnesota could certainly use an improvement at small forward and they would love to have a shot at Otto Porter if they were drafting in the top five. However, it is highly unlikely that the Timberwolves will be drafting that high a perimeter scorer like Shabazz Muhammad could be in play. Muhammad’s ability to play the 2 or the 3 would also allow Minnesota more lineup flexibility, shifting him to shooting guard in order to put a Derrick Williams-Kevin Love-Nikola Pekovic frontcourt on the floor.

Ian: The Timberwolves shooting guard rotation has definitely been a steaming pile of Shved this season, ranking near the league’s basement in both offensive and defensive competency. A player like Oladipo could be a nice fit, as could one of the more-scoring focused guards like Ben McLemore, Shabazz Muhammad or Gary Harris. However, looking into the not-too-distant future, the challenges of keeping Kevin Love happy and Nikola Pekovic affordable mean that shoring up depth in the front-court may be more important.

A healthy Nerlens Noel would be a dream. Actual Nerlens Noel, with an unsettled medical chart, would be exciting but certainly not settle any stomachs at the Target Center. Either of those scenarios would probably require moving up significantly in the lottery. If the Timberwolves stay in their slot and decide to chase size, a project like Alex Len or Rudy Gobert could make sense. Gobert brings a sloppy swirl of tightly wound energy and athleticism, with a significant amount of polish standing between his present-day self and an extended NBA career. Len has a broader foundation of skill to fall back on than Gobert, but needs just as much development to reach his true potential.

Fred: Your best bet might be taking someone out of med school. Or maybe you should trade for Pau Gasol. I know you’ve always liked him and he really wants to be a doctor. You have to promise you won’t tell the other lottery teams what I’m about to tell you: you should’ve made the playoffs. You have a better roster than any of these other teams. You just got really unlucky. But seriously, Minnesota, don’t tell any of those other guys I just said that. I don’t want to get in trouble.

That said, you really need shooting. What happened to you guys? You know you’re under 30 percent from three right now, right? So who can shoot? Shabazz Muhammad can. Ben McLemore can make his long-range shots when he’s hot. Otto Porter seems to have pretty good range. Any of those guys would work and any of those guys would be able to stay with you on a cheap deal after Andrei Kirilenko’s contract runs up.

Ryan: Injuries aside, Minnesota, you need to add some guys to the roster that can score from the perimeter. An offensive rating rank of 24 has got to improve to match the team’s average to above-average defensive output if you want to push for the playoffs with a hopefully healthy roster next season. There’s a guy out west whose stock has gone down recently, but whose game I still like, and I think would fit your roster pretty well. I can’t tell you with certainty how old he is, but I can tell you that there may not be a scorer in this draft as naturally gifted as UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad.

The Bruins freshman has a knack for scoring the ball, and can play at the next level from the 2 or at times the 3. He plays extremely hard, finishes well at the rim, and is a great shooter from the midrange and beyond once he is able to get his feet set. Muhammad is a guy that may not challenge for any scoring titles, but should be able to average 15-18 PPG for a long time with his offensive skill set. Playing in the backcourt with a guy like Ricky Rubio that loves to get up the floor and hit open shooters, Muhammad has the opportunity to thrive with the Timberwolves as a scorer that can get his points from all over the floor, in both transition and in half court sets.

3. Hey guys. Orlando Magic here. You guys remember me? We were the ones that drafted back to back #1 picks in 1992 and 1993. We drafted #1 again in 2004… yada yada yada, WE’RE BACK! Did you miss us? No? Oh, ok. Well, we’ve got a LOT of young guys on our roster. Who’s part of our core going forward? Is there anyone at the top of this draft that’ll be complimentary to that core?

Eric: The Magic currently have five rookies on their roster as they try to rebuild and put the saga of the Dwight Howard years behind them. Andrew Nicholson and Mo Harkless have shown glimpses and have the potential to be effective NBA players but no one is going to confuse them with future superstars. Wait and see is the best case scenario for the rest but that means Orlando has plenty of options of where to go with the likely No. 2 overall pick. A shooting guard is likely the most pressing need, so a high-ceiling player like Kansas’ Ben McLemore, considered by many to be the second best player in the entire draft, could certainly fit the bill. A number of mock drafts also have point guard Marcus Smart rising up draft boards thanks to his superior size and athleticism. Either guard would be nice complements to the rest of the Magic’s young squad and have the raw, high-ceiling potential to develop into the star Orlando desperately needs.

Ian: This pick, likely at the top of the lottery, offers the Magic a golden opportunity to move past the Jameer Nelson era. Oklahoma State point guard, Marcus Smart, seems like the most obvious choice. He has all the tools to be an elite point guard and just needs some time to refine and align them. Most intriguing is the way his physical style complements his bulldog personality. This combination could be the perfect elixir to pull together all the talented young pieces the Magic have assembled and start driving them in the same direction.

Fred: You’re full of weirdos. You have some nice veteran guys. You have some good, young players. I like Andrew Nicholson, Moe Harkless, Nikola Vucevic, and Tobias Harris. You have a good coach in Jacque Vaughn. How the heck are you only a half a game better than the Bobcats?

You guys seriously need some shooters. We’ve learned that Arron Afflalo makes his jumpers when he’s open, but doesn’t make him create threes for himself. That means you should probably go with Marcus Smart, who can’t shoot from long range just yet, but probably will be able to in the future. More importantly, Smart can create open looks for other guys. I know you don’t want to hear this right now, Orlando, but Jameer Nelson is no longer an All-Star point guard. He’s Janearing the end so remember that next year should just be your next step to improvement. It’s not a sprint. It’s a Jameerathon.

Ryan: Orlando! First and foremost, let me credit you in trying to make the best of that messy Dwight Howard situation last year. Looking around at a few of your trade partners, I think you guys actually made off okay in that one. I love the games of Tobias Harris and Maurice Harkless, two very young and athletic wings that have improved with more minutes this season. They are definitely an important part of your core going forward. Nikola Vucevic was the steal of that entire draft, an elite rebounder that adds youth and athleticism to the front line, while Andrew Nicholson is an appealing prospect that can score both inside and out. I think each of those four guys, with Arron Afflalo adding some scoring and defense on the wing, each ought to be a part of the blueprint going forward. What your team needs now is a sense of identity. You have these four young guys that each fill a role, but now you need a floor general to set the tone on both ends, especially with the pending team option for Jameer Nelson’s contract after the ’13-’14 season.

There is not a better fit for the Magic in this draft than Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart, a point guard that brings elite leadership and toughness to every team he plays for. Smart if a strong, physical guard, a great athlete that loves to get into the lane and can finish at the rim against length and size. He has good court vision and can lead the break, and can also rebound extremely well for his position. Smart fits the best on a young roster like yours, where he can come in and breed a mentality of toughness and competitiveness from Day 1. I love Marcus Smart’s leadership skills and overall motor, and think they would be an outstanding fit with your talented but young roster.

4. Yo, Cleveland. Maybe some of us don’t want the Lakers to make the playoffs. Ever thought of that? Jeez. Selfish. Oh, hi. I’m Phoenix Suns. I’m new around these parts. It’s weird to be here. Can anyone help me out? What exactly do I do here?

Eric: The Suns could really use a scorer to add to their roster–no player on the current roster is averaging more than 15 points per game. With Phoenix likely to pick in or around the top five, the Suns should be praying that Otto Porter drops to wherever they are drafting. A dynamic scorer, Porter should be able to be plugged into the Suns’ lineup right away and has the intangibles that scouts drool over. He would certainly give Phoenix a consistent scoring option with a high motor, night in and night out. If Porter is not available, Muhammad is another player who projects as a consistent NBA scorer, although he is considered to be more one-dimensional than Porter and does not bring nearly as much to the table.

Ian: The Phoenix Suns draft board should be wide open. Priorities number 1-5 are adding talented basketball players. Priority number 6 is figuring out where they fit. The Suns don’t really appear to be tied to anyone other than Goran Dragic, but even that could go out the window if someone like Marcus Smart fell into their lap. They don’t have to hit a home run, but they can’t afford any wild swings and misses.

Players with refined, if limited games, like Victor Oladipo, Cody Zeller or C.J. McCollum may be interesting to them. I’m guessing the Shabazz Muhammad – Michael Beasley vibe hits a little too close to home, but they could also chase a player like Otto Porter, Anthony Bennett or James McAdoo, who may not hit their considerable ceilings but have a talent versatile enough to all but ensure they become regular NBA contributors.

Fred: Phoenix, I don’t know what you’re doing with your life right now. I think this is the point where your parents need to give you a stern talk. It feels like the only asset you have at this point is your training staff. Knowing you, you’ll probably make some pick that makes absolutely no sense and it’ll be backed by the logic of, “How do we make this work with Michael Beasley?” People are laughing at you, Phoenix. They’re all laughing at you!

Can you at least get someone to help with your three-point defense? Did you know that opponents are shooting 39.5 percent against you, worst in the NBA? Judging from the way you play, I’m guessing that’s a no. Well, Victor Oladipo could help with that. Have you seen him on the perimeter? I don’t care that his offense may turn him into a one-dimensional, catch-and-shoot player. Tony Allen with catch-and-shoot ability or Thabo Sefolosha with potentially better defense is pretty darn valuable. So make that pick not because he works well with Goran Dragic and Beasley, but because it makes sense.

Ryan: Phoenix, sad to see you down here, but I guess things have to get worse before they can get better. The roster looks to be in a state of flux right now, but the biggest need to me appears to be scoring, from just about every position on the roster. Without a guy averaging 15 points a game this season, I think the move in the draft is to look at some athletes that can score and get up and down the floor. A lot of this depends on where this pick ends up, but a guy I like for your team is Kansas freshman Ben McLemore.

In a draft class where draft boards are more of a flavor-of-the-month posting than a concrete standing of the top prospects, McLemore is a guy currently on the downswing because of a lackluster NCAA Tournament thus far. But, although he is criticized for being a bit passive at time, the guard is still an elite shooting prospect with NBA range and athleticism. At his best, McLemore is a dynamic scorer that can beat you from outside or get to the rim and finish with his explosive leaping ability. McLemore is a good rebounder for his position, and has the physical tools to improve into a very god defender. But his upside as a potential top-5 pick is as a deep range shooter with great athleticism and a quick release on his jump shot. Playing alongside Goran Dragic, a guard who loves to get up and down the floor and create looks for others, McLemore has the chance to contribute early on as a shooter and improve as he becomes better at creating offense off the dribble.

5. Will you guys keep it down in here? Some of us regulars are trying to THINK. Sometimes, guys like us don’t get respect from any of these up-and-comers, know what I mean, Charlotte?

I sure do, Sacramento. Say… what are you guys looking for this year?

… I was about to ask you the same thing.

Eric: For Charlotte and Sacramento, the general consensus has to be that anything is better than what is currently in place. With only a few pieces to build around for each team they could go any number of directions and likely (hopefully) be better off. For Charlotte, actually winning the lottery for once would be huge, especially because it would mean earning the right to draft Noel. While he does not project to be the same franchise player that Anthony Davis did a year ago, Noel’s defensive abilities and raw athleticism would still be a huge upgrade over Bismack Biyombo. Charlotte may also have Portland’s first round pick (top 12 protected) and could draft a shooter like C.J. McCollum to space the floor between Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

As for the Kings, after trading last year’s first round pick Thomas Robinson, Sacramento could go after a power forward once again and UNLV’s Anthony Bennett would be great fit, potentially becoming a great complement to DeMarcus Cousins. However, unless the Kings land in the top five, Bennett will likely be gone, so an electric point guard like Trey Burke could make sense as a steady hand to lead the Kings’ offense.

Ian: The short answer is that I have no idea. Sacramento appears to be taking the Jackson Pollock approach to team building, just throwing paint at the wall, hoping something beautiful emerges. Charlotte apparently has some sort of plan, but I’m not sure they can read it. Shabazz Muhammad’s elite scoring and questionable decision-making seem like a perfect fit for the maelstrom in Sacramento. Charlotte likely ends up with the top pick which gives them the opportunity to take Nerlens Noel and experiment with a Noel, Biyombo, Kidd-Gilchrist two-on-five offensive attack.

Fred: I’ll address my two most troubled students separately for this one. Sacramento, I don’t know what you’re doing defensively, but the good news is I don’t think you do either. So get someone who can at least give you some defense. Oladipo would work if he is still on the board when you pick. So would Porter. The knock on Anthony Bennett is that he’s a 6-foot-7 power forward, but height being important is one of the biggest myths in all of basketball. Let’s see how Bennett’s wingspan measures up before the NBA Draft. I’m betting he’s more than qualified to guard NBA forwards. And if you decide not to draft Bennett because you’ve already got Patrick Patterson and Jason Thompson, then shame on you.

And you, Charlotte. At least you have Kemba Walker. I guess the only way the season could go worse for you is if you don’t get the first overall pick, which would be both hilarious and depressing if that scenario played out two years in a row. If you end up picking first, don’t think about the injury and take Nerlens Noel. Do you see how well everyone is recovering from ACLs nowadays? Well, I’m betting that a 19-year-old kid recovering from injury is less of a risk than Ben McLemore (who goes more silent than Charlie Chaplin for oddly long stretches), Marcus Smart (who is athletic and looks like he could definitely improve, but who struggles with shot selection and shot 40.4 percent from the field and 29.0 percent from three this year), Cody Zeller (who had about every single one of his flaws exposed against Syracuse), and Shabazz Muhammad (who might not have the athleticism to guard bigger and faster NBA wings on the perimeter). Go with Noel, let his offensive game develop, let him dominate on the defensive end, and give yourself a defensive anchor for the first time in your franchise’s history. It’s the right thing to do.

Ryan: Alright guys, lets try to actually get this right this year. Sacramento, let’s start with you. There are a lot of pieces on this roster with talent that can score, but the pieces just don’t seem to fit together. A guy like Victor Oladipo makes a lot of sense for this team, considering the work ethic and intensity that he brings from the wing position. But I’m afraid his meteoric rise has taken him higher in the draft than where you will be picking. A nice option for you guys, and a guy that just knocked Oladipo out of the tournament, is Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams. Tyreke Evans and Isaiah Thomas are both talented players, but are not true pass-first point guards dedicated to getting looks for others. Carter-Williams, with his great size, length, and court vision, is an elite passer that can create offense for others both in transition and in the half court. Carter-Williams would bring the Kings a true passer to distribute the looks for everybody else, a talent that your team desperately needs.

And as for you, Charlotte, another year at the bottom of the league brings a new set of needs when looking at the draft. I like what you have out on the perimeter with Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but its time to look inside and try and improve upon that league-worst defense. In spite of his ACL injury, I think taking Nerlens Noel makes a lot of sense for you guys. As good a shot-blocking prospect as there has been in years, including Anthony Davis, Noel has the potential to immediately anchor a defense as a rim-protector along the front line. But where Noel has a lot of upside, and where I don’t think he gets enough credit already, is on the offensive end. Noel’s post game got better in his year at Kentucky, and he has the coordination and athleticism to blossom into a very solid back-to-the-basket player down the line. But Noel is one of the league’s best shot blockers from the moment he makes his debut, a rare trait that NBA teams such as the Bobcats should hold in high regard.

The Thing Is…The Eastern Conference Totally Sucks

The Miami Heat are pretty great.

Just look at the standings. Look at the 27-game winning streak that was finally snapped against the Chicago Bulls. Look at what LeBron James is doing in what may be his best season yet. If you look at the Eastern Conference, you’ll see the Heat sitting comfortably at the top. And you’ll see everybody else so far below them that they need a telescope to catch a glimpse of Erik Spoelstra’s finely tuned juggernaut. Taking all of this into consideration, it seems like a foregone conclusion that the Heat will be waiting for the winner of the Western Conference champion when the NBA Finals roll around.

The Heat should roll through the Eastern Conference playoffs, brushing aside the elderly Knicks, the offensively challenged Pacers, or whatever other pretenders may cross their path. But does that say more about the greatness of the Heat or the pathetic state of the Eastern Conference? As I said before, there’s no questioning that Miami is among the elite teams in the NBA this year. If they cruise to the Finals with just one or two losses along the way, people might be tempted to throw Miami in the conversation of all-time great teams. But let’s put into perspective just how easy their road to the Finals should be.

The Heat currently have the 2nd best net rating (point differential per 100 possessions for those of you who aren’t stat-heads) in the NBA at +9.9. Although Miami just lost their first game in nearly two months, they somehow still trail the Oklahoma City Thunder in this category (OKC has a net rating of +11.1). The 3rd and 4th ranked teams in net rating are in the Western Conference with the Thunder, so Miami doesn’t really need to worry about them. The Indiana Pacers round out the top 5 with a net rating of +5.9. If you’ve been paying attention, that’s a difference of four whole points per 100 possessions between the East’s number one seed and number two seed. That’s a damn big drop-off. That’s not something we see very often. Typically, the top teams in either conference are pretty close in net rating. There are usually a few teams that could reasonably reach the Finals from either conference and it adds a good deal of drama to the playoffs.

Going back to 2000-01, there has only been one other year when the top team in a conference had that large of a gap between themselves and the 2nd best team. The 2000-01 San Antonio Spurs posted a net rating of +9.8 while the 2nd ranked Sacramento Kings were right at +5.8.  Of course, the Lakers eventually took down the Kings and the Spurs on their way to an NBA championship that year. To find a similarly large gap, you have to go back to the 2004-05 Miami Heat. That team, led by Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs, only to lose in 7 games to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Pistons ended the regular season with a net rating of just +4.8 while the Heat posted a lofty +8.4, a difference of +3.6. Both the 2000-01 Spurs and the 2004-05 Heat appeared to have exceedingly easy paths to the Finals and yet neither team managed to make it there.

If you want to find the team with the easiest path to the Finals in the past 12 years that actually took advantage of this path, take a look at the 2007-08 Boston Celtics. That Celtics team had a +3.5 advantage over their biggest obstacle in the Eastern Conference and, as you know, was able to beat the Lakers in the Finals to win the NBA championship. But even those eventual NBA champs didn’t coast through the first 12 wins of the playoffs. The Hawks and Cavaliers pushed Kevin Garnett and friends to seven games in the first two rounds before Boston beat the 2nd ranked Pistons in six games to earn a trip to the Finals.

Let’s take a look at LeBron’s best team when he was a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Obviously, he never won an NBA championship with the Cavs, but that doesn’t mean that those teams were crap. On the contrary, they were quite good. The 2008-09 Cavaliers won 66 games and posted a net rating of +10.3. That’s actually a better regular season than LeBron’s record setting squad this year. But the competition in the East was much better than it is this year. The Celtics and Magic were both close behind with net ratings of +8.7 and +8.3, respectively. It’s not hard to see how much better either of those teams were than this year’s Pacers (a net rating of +5.9, if you recall).

So what does this mean? Nothing, really. I just find it interesting. It may be jumping the gun to anticipate any of this, but it certainly looks like the Heat are destined to meet the best of the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. And the rest of the Eastern Conference are just placeholders so we can kill some time and watch LeBron and D-Wade toss insane alley-oops to each other. Meanwhile, Kevin Durant, Tim Duncan, and Chris Paul will be duking it out on the other side of the NBA bracket. Do you think we’d view Miami’s berth in the Finals so inevitable if they had to go through the Clippers and Spurs first? Probably not.

None of this is intended to tear down the Heat or diminish their accomplishments. I swear, it’s not – I just want to provide some context and perspective. And as we’ve seen, having an easy road to the Finals is hardly a guarantee. The Heat still need to take care of business and we’ve certainly witnessed some big playoff upsets in the past. Nobody will deny that this Heat team is incredibly good – not even me. But it’s possible for the team to be fantastic and for their competition to be pretty damn terrible at the same time.

The Missing Interior Narrative of Tim Duncan

Here’s a guest post by Spencer Lund. It’s really good, so you should read it. Here’s a little bit about the author: Spencer enjoys smoking Camel Lights and mainlining greasy cheeseburgers and burritos. He’s a big fan of Emily Dickinson’s slant rhyme, and is currently choosing which William Blake relief etch to tattoo on his back.  You can find him around the web elsewhere, or just making basketball gifs.

In my younger days, I only read male authors. I am male (as are the majority of the readers of this site, I’d guess), and like all kids who start reading early, I sought to understand my own sense of self in the words of others like me. After a while, this inadvertent misogyny of POV was called out by a mother, who has no shame in telling strangers she burned some bras back in the day. So, much later in life than I’d have liked, I started to incorporate female authors into my personal syllabus. I do not enjoy the anachronistic gossip of Jane Austen, though George Eliot can be immersive; I dug the polemics of Mary Wollstonecraft, but they were still unrelated to contemporary society. Frankenstein might be the greatest novella ever conceived, but again, I was left looking for something more modern. I read some Joan Didion essays too, but then came Alice Munro and I had discovered what I was looking for: Her protagonists were female of course, but their interior thoughts and inferences were educational when combined with their actions, which is all I’d ever experienced of women. Her imagery too is placed in the murky-skied Canadian hinterland of Munro’s home in Ontario, and it’s similar to my youth as a Rust Belter from Western New York. But the best parts were the hidden snapshots of lives I’d never known. Lifetimes I could picture matching up with real women whose internal orbit I’d remained cut off from. Seeking to understand people different from you is a good thing, but when my curiosity about a person’s thoughts transfers to a specific athlete, that can be a problem.

Munro’s short stories also made me think a lot about Tim Duncan. He’s as internalized an NBA Hall of Famer as we’re ever likely to see again in this day of social media interaction; where knowing so much–too much–information about the individuals who comprise a basketball team, sometimes makes the games themselves feel like an afterthought. The games aren’t trivial to Timmy or the rest of the Spurs crew, they’re the focal point of their existence as basketball players. So maybe that’s why for every Duncan anecdote relayed in the pages of the Express News or a rare Chris Ballard profile, it feels like a passage from a Munro short story. Duncan is a private man, and so are the women Munro writes about and inhabits to tell her stories. Her stories are windows into her character’s souls, and in the case of Duncan, these rarely published vignettes about his personal life are a reminder that there’s a complex set of neurons firing behind the placid expression of Duncan’s game face.

The Spurs are at the top of the Western Conference yet again this year. They seem to have been at the top of the Western Conference since before I could fathom life outside my own corporeal existence. Despite the delirious affect the Miami Heat’s consecutive wins streak has catalyzed among the NBA basketball Illuminati we follow on Twitter, the Spurs have continued to play and win despite an aging Duncan, an injured Manu and Tony, and a cast of imports, both foreign and domestic, that comprise the well-oiled basketball Borg that is the Spurs. The Heat won 27 games in-a-row, but the Spurs have just two more losses and two less wins on the season as of this writing. It’s because before Miami decided to give a crap about defense during regular season games, the Spurs were plugging away, running over their opponents with crisp passing and the vocal defensive communication that’s been their hallmark since Timmy and Popovich took that magical swim in the Hippocrene waters off St. Croix all those years ago.

Aside from the slapdash antics of the “trill”-iest Spur of the last decade, Stephen Jackson, the Spurs remain an enigma of soft shadows on the hardwood and impersonal machinery off. There is a reason they are the Borg. Sure, Tony Paker was married to a network television star, and he was hit in the face with a bottle in the middle of a juvenile (but not Juvenile) rap beef at a Chelsea nightclub during the off-season, but for the most part the Spurs don’t make headlines for their personal lives. Or even really for their professional ones as their dynastic rule continues unabated by time or circumstance. Casual basketball fans probably don’t care, but for those of us who think about the game an unhealthy amount, we’re left to wonder about the secrets of R.C. Buford and Popovich (unless Jonathan Abrams is around). They seem to know something everyone else doesn’t, and we want in. Like a “simple” wife (a misnomer if I’ve ever written one) in a nondescript Canadian household in the 1970’s, which Munro writes about with such clarity and insight, the Spurs–and by extension Duncan–are so much more than meets the eye. The mechanisms behind their seemingly mundane existence are a chimera; I could be talking about Duncan or a Munro protagonist when I write that. Both possess multiple layers of texture, which appear at once smooth, but with soft ripples of nuance and meaning our tactile minds miss.

In a lot of ways, Tim Duncan best represents this void that permeates the Spurs franchise. His countenance itself is basically an extension of Larry Bird after Reggie’s game-winner, and we grapple with the mystery of what he’s thinking while hoping he’ll write a book when he retires to pull back the curtain a bit. Maybe there’s nothing there, but like a Munro character, that’s just a mask because all of us have meanings larger than what we show externally. Whether we hide the truth through a sturdy resolve to keep our marriage, like Meriel in “What is Remembered.” Or it’s left unsaid because the exigency of an imagined future requires us to give up something we’d have rather kept in the present. Like Lorna’s pleading deal with God to save her children the site of Polly’s corpse in an imagined suicide that Lionel’s presence negates, thus fulfilling Lorna’s unsaid arrangement at the end of “Post and Beam.” I have no idea why Duncan isn’t more giving of himself in a time when NBA players are all too happy to share their personal thoughts on Twitter or elsewhere. But the more I watch him on the court, and fail to see anything of substance from him in my RSS feed, I become more curious about why. The regal way he stays above the fray is so odd in this day and age.

Wishing for more Duncan insight just perpetuates the over-sharing that’s become commonplace for every AAU star that rises through the ranks of the American basketball hierarchy in the public eye. Maybe we should just enjoy him on the court and leave the rest to the beat reporters who can no longer afford to JFK-it to themselves. Maybe Tim Duncan realized long ago that what he does in his spare time was none of our business, and so he kept a wall of clichés up. Maybe that’s the secret hand the Spurs and Duncan have kept face down during all these years of winning. Maybe he’s just a dad, a husband and sometimes the best power forward who ever walked the earth. Maybe I don’t need to learn who he is outside of basketball like I did with the women in Alice Munro’s short stories.

Those stories make me a better, more well-rounded man (if you’re like me and think fiction can teach you things about real life), but maybe Tim Duncan’s basketball brilliance isn’t endogenous, and I should stop hoping for some overt sign of who he is off the court. He’s a real person, not a fictional character, and he’s made it pretty clear that part of his life isn’t for mass consumption. I need to respect that and simply marvel at that which he does show the world: the methodical 15-foot bank shot, that old drop-step when the defender overcommits to the middle, when he contests an opponent’s jumper in the lane after a switch on a pick and roll. These moments are no less interesting simply because I can’t find some foundational element to rest them on. Seeking to understand women through the short stories of Alice Munro is important (to me at least), but striving to comprehend a real individual simply because they’ve played a game at an unusually high level for more than a decade is voyeuristic and superficial. So I’ll stop hoping for more and just watch what Tim Duncan does on the court without the slightest understanding as to why he is the way he is.

But if he ever wants to share, I’ll certainly listen.

The Aging Appreciation of the Miami Heat

Last night, as the Miami Heat’s historic run came to what felt like a premature ending, Tom Sunnergren of Hoop76 asked me, “Where does this streak rank on the ‘coolest NBA events of Jordan White’s lifetime?’” After a moment of reflection, I responded, “Probably in the top-20.” It sounds ludicrous, I know. This was the second-longest winning streak in the NBA, featuring the game’s greatest player performing at unfathomable heights. It should rank in the top two, if not the very top.

But much as it’s difficult to appreciate a Van Gogh by only looking at a portion of the painting, I have yet to fully appreciate Miami’s dominance, as I only have a glimpse of the entire picture. We as witnesses to this display of basketball mastery looked at the streak as it was building. Every time the streak reached a new milestone, from five, to fifteen, to twenty-two wins, we gradually considered it in more of a historical context, yet couldn’t fully do so until the streak itself had become history. We have yet to look at it in its entirety because it has only recently reached the point of finality.

While there have been terrific pieces composed by writers such as Zach Lowe and Zach Harper about the streak, dissecting it from multiple angles, there are still so many numbers and stories and facts that we have yet to examine or contextualize. We’ll need oral histories, long-form articles in Sports Illustrated and a 30 for 30 from ESPN to do that. And, we’ll need time.

Consider this streak as a bottle of fine Belgian beer, perhaps Chimay or Pannepot:  We can enjoy it right away, or we can let it age, letting the flavor and character blossom, change and develop fully over time.

There are a multitude of factors that can affect the way a beer ages: the type of beer, exposure to light, temperature, location, movement, the position of the beer when its left to age, and so forth.

Likewise, there will be numerous factors that will affect our appreciation of this streak as it ages, such as the rules during this era, the types of players, and the schedule.

Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated wrote as much in his contextualizing of the 1972 Los Angeles Lakers and their 33-game win streak:

…any comparison between the two longest winning streaks in NBA history is obstructed by the differences in league dynamics between 1972 and 2013. Most of those differences are fairly intuitive (the three-point line, the size of the league, travel arrangements, etc.), but consider, too, the evolution of the NBA schedule. An 82-game slate is exhausting even with modern accommodations and relatively favorable scheduling, but the 1972 season pit the Lakers in six back-to-back-to-back situations (including four over the course of their streak) and, as noted by John Schuhmann of NBA.com, saw L.A. begin its run with a stretch of eight games in just 10 days.

 Further potentially impacting our appreciation of this streak years later will be the accomplishments of the teams before, during and after. If Miami wins the championship this year, we may regard their 27-game run in a different light than if they fall short.

Following Miami’s loss, Erik Spoelstra said: “I had everyone come in and put a hand on each other. It was a heck of an experience to have together. Its significance will mean much more to us later in our careers.” Just as the streak will mean more to the players later in their careers, so too will it mean more to us later in our lives.

Obviously, Miami’s streak is an accomplishment worthy of acclaim, but there’s something more substantial and stationery contained within; it’s a beacon and focal point of an era. For this younger generation of NBA writers and fans, grainy film and decades-old articles are all we have of the Lakers’ streak. They may help us understand it from a basketball standpoint, but we’ll never be able to fully “live” that streak. Now, years down the line, when a team wins 24 games in a row, and all the networks are ablaze with highlights of the Miami Heat’s now-in-peril streak, we’ll be able to call that streak “ours.”

 

Kevin’s Summer Project, Part 11: Power Forward Defense

Josh Smith's nearly 40" vertical sends alot of opponent shots into the stands.

Josh Smith’s nearly 40″ vertical sends alot of opponent shots in the opposite direction

In Part 5 about Power Forwards, lack of strong correlations between offensive performance and pre-draft measurements was discussed.  To a large extent, that rings true again here.  Of 240 correlations from:

  • Two age groups
  • Four seasons plus “Peak”
  • Eight measurements
  • Three player classifications (All; First-round picks; 2004 & after)

Ninety-nine produced negative results, while only five exceeded 0.40.  Four of those belong to the same subset: underclassmen vertical leap.  As reflected in the table below, this measurement provided exclusively positive results.  But while it functions as the sole reliably indicative number, it also never exceeded 0.50, which early on I set as the threshold for things getting interesting.

Table 1

As this series nears a conclusion, leaping manages to separate from the pack as the most reliably indicative trait for NBA success.  Scrolling through previous articles, those measurements served as a foundation for the discussion of:  underclassmen point guard offense, underclassmen shooting guard offense & defense, center offense, and now, underclassmen power forward defense.  Combined with a propensity for speed to rear-it’s-head as prevalently strong, “explosiveness”, particularly for underclassmen, proves most likely to result in NBA success on offense and defense.  The combination of elite athleticism and young-age merging towards high-marks does not surprise.  Presumably, the nineteen & twenty year olds that warrant drafting are skilled for their age, and when combined with world-class jets & hops, it presents a monstrous combination.

So that is not a shock, but the results of their brethren size-based measurements are.  First, when considering height, this is a player trait typically held in high regard.  Certainly, how tall a player is gains pub from media and fans alike; Player X doesn’t have ideal size, he won’t be able to defend the opposition, etc.  Viewing actual draft-day decision making, a similar preference emerges; correlating draft position with height provides positive values for all positions and age groups, peaking at 0.37 for underclassmen centers.  This is ironic if you recall Part 6, featuring graphical representation of the  strong negative correlation between underclassmen center height and offensive performance.  Excluding small forwards, only 47 of 115 OWS-to-height correlations finished positive, with 0.38 as the apex.  Regarding defense, the results were initially more promising; for guards, 38 of 50 positive correlations with peak of 0.50.  Unfortunately though, these positions prove least likely to make significant defensive impacts.  Moving into today’s focus, the power forwards, barefoot height offered no inclination of future defensive aptitude.  This is reflected in the table below:

Table 2

The results are overwhelmingly negative, with underclassmen exhibiting particularly notable numbers.  In this case, Josh Smith, the overwhelmingly dominant player of the group, stood 6′ – 7″ at draft time.  Other “short” power forwards with decent defensive results include Paul Millsap, Thad Young and Ty Thomas; “tall” player with lesser outcomes are Jason Smith, Troy Murphy and Charlie Villanueva.  Similar to Centers, an over-valuing of height is at-play; for power forwards, correlations between draft position and height proved highest, at 0.30 for underclassmen and 0.26 for the elder group.

Using Offensive WS and Defensive RAPM as the measuring-sticks, the only position where height warrants special attention is that tall wings appear more prone to thrive.  In guards and big men, height receives too much popular credit; i.e. as long as a player is within a reasonable range for their position (no 6′ – 3″ power forwards), this trait can be lightly regarded.

Focusing solely on power forwards again, all non-leaping correlations rarely produced strong values.  Aside from vertical jump, no measurement provided a correlation above 0.30 in season three, four, or peak; including rookie and second years, nothing cleared 0.40. The diversity of roles at this position, and the success of players like Young and Millsap, keep many traits from resembling importance for either offensive or defensive success.

To summarize:

  • Underclassmen power forwards that jump high were most likely to excel at defense.  With 90% of this project published, No-Step and Max-Vert appear to be the “winning” measurements; not that any of this is fool-proof.
  • Height proves overvalued by media, fans, and NBA front offices.  This becomes apparent through both the offensive and defensive data.

Statistical Anomaly: Celtics @ Cavaliers

Robert S. Donovan via Flickr

Robert S. Donovan via Flickr

Statistical Anomaly is a series where we explore all the mathematical nuances you may not have noticed watching the game the first time. Today, Kyle waxes Euclidian on the Celtics last second win over the Cavaliers.

Since Rajon Rondo went down with a torn ACL, Paul Pierce has assumed the distributing role while continuing to be a viable scoring option. He recorded eight dimes and seven made baskets against Cleveland, increasing his percentage of games with at least as many AST as FGM to 59.3% since the Rondo injury. While he has made a strong effort to get his teammates involved, he has still managed to average over 15 points in those games. His ability to score opens up driving lanes for Jeff Green and mid range jump shots for Brandon Bass, two players who have emerged since Boston lost their floor general. In fact, they have scored at least 99 points in a winning effort more time (12) in less games (33) played without Rondo than they did with him (11 in 38). The Celtics are much more talented with Rondo in the lineup, but the playmaking ability combined with the scoring capabilities of Pierce has made them a more efficient team since January 25th.

Brandon Bass missed only his second free throw of the month and his first misfire in 12 games (335 minutes played). Oddly enough, the Celtics are 6-2 since January 17th when Bass misses at least one free throw but have lost three games in the past eight days when he makes all of his attempts (minimum one attempt). With Kevin Garnett’s health issues, the emergence of Bass has come at the most opportune of times. In March, Bass has been remarkably efficient, averaging 1.37 points per FGA (Garnett is averaging 1.18 points per FGA this season). The Celtics are a team no one wants to play this year, but I contend that the end of the KG/Pierce era will not signify the end of the Celtics competitive teams. Rondo (27 years old) and Avery Bradley (22) can hold their own against any backcourt and Jordan Crawford (24) provides a strong scoring punch. In the front court, Jeff Green (26) and Bass (27) have versatile styles that are tough to matchup against. They aren’t an old basketball team, it is simply the household names that are aging. The names won’t be the same, but the win totals aren’t going to change much as the Celtics roster turns over.

Celtics

Each quarter in this game was decided by at least five points. The Celtics won the first and fourth quarter by a total of 13 points (they are outscored by an average of 0.2 points in those two quarters) while the Cavs won the second and third quart by a total of 12 points (they are outscored by an average of 2.2 points in those two quarters). The strong late game performance by Boston is a welcomed site, as they are currently set up for a date with the Knicks in the postseason (the NBA’s second best fourth quarter team in terms of point differential). The subtraction of Rondo helps a bit in this category as well, taking a FT liability out of the game in favor of a player like Jason Terry (86%), Courtney Lee (85%), or Jordan Crawford (79%).

For his career, Daniel Gibson averages 4.2 points per assist, but against the Celtics since December of 2010, Gibson has the exact same number of assists as points. Gibson’s career trajectory has been trending downward ever since LeBron James left town. His percentage of games started, three point percentage, free throw percentage, points, and assists have decreased every single season since The Decision. Don’t be surprised if Gibson, as a unrestricted free agent, isn’t a Cavalier next season, as they’ve got five guards that are his age or younger (Kyrie Irving, Wayne Ellington, Dion Waiters, CJ Miles, and Shaun Livingston) that they seem to like more.

Tristan Thompson, however, is a player that is in the future plans of Cleveland. The 22 year old undersized forward grabbed nine rebounds, his 19th straight game with at least seven rebounds. He has produced seven double doubles over that stretch. The numbers are nice, but the fact that three of his double doubles this month have come against strong teams in the paint (Pacers, Grizzlies, and Jazz) is encouraging. He isn’t the ideal size for a NBA PF (227 pounds), but he is good around the basket and has a nose for the basketball. His statistics are up across the board from his rookie campaign, a trend that should continue as the young Cavs continue to improve.

The Changing Definitions of True and Pure

Jack Winter and I discuss what it means to be a “true” point guard in today’s increasingly position-less NBA. 

Jordan: A common critique regarding this new generation of point guards is that they are not “true” point guards, and that this will inevitably hurt the team somewhere down the road. Is that still true, though? With all of this positional revolution, the en-vogue stretch fours, small fives, LeBron playing any position he damn well pleases, what is the position most resistant to the revolution? Do teams still need a “true” point guard if, say, their small forward or two guard is, in fact, a better passer or initiator?

Jack: With respect to just the point guard thing and whether or not a team really needs a ‘true’ one, I just think so much of not having that guy and thriving is dependent on the merits of your primary creator.  If it’s LBJ, Harden, KD, Wade, Kobe (now), etcetera, it’s great; those guys know the benefits of moving the ball, getting others involved and mining for better shots.  And the first two, in particular, can make every pass – whip, pocket, skip, dump, whatever – a guy like Chris Paul can make.  Those other four are great, obviously, and have shown they can initiate offense at a very high level, but sometimes even they get tunnel vision; not sure they necessarily have the poise or feel of LBJ/Harden, which says something because I’m a longtime fan of Wade.  I just think you really need to have one of those guys or someone like them to completely eschew a primary handler.  Therein lies the problem for me – about six of them exist.

Jordan: That makes a lot of sense. It just seems odd that despite the wealth of advancements in both metrics and play, we still say “true” or “pure” point guard as if being otherwise, such as a scoring point, is somehow vile to the senses. Like, Lillard is caught between a scoring point and a pure point, trending towards the former, but that doesn’t make him “less” of a point guard or playmaker, I don’t think.

But you’re right, there just aren’t a lot of players that aren’t point guards that you can consistently count on not just to initiate your offense, but be the primary playmaker as well. I wonder if that’s a product of coaching and forcing a player into a position.

Jack: I think what ‘point guard’ really means to analysts/bloggers is changing. In the past that nomenclature always inferred a guy like Paul, Nash, Rondo or Calderon, players whose foremost goal was to set up teammates and initiate sets. I’m not sure that’s what it means now, though.  Players like Lillard, Kyrie and Holiday we’d all agree are point guards, even though their roles drastically veer from the traditional path that comes with that distinction. They’re mostly scorers first for now because that’s what their respective teams need, but they clearly have the ability and knack to play more of a Paul-like style. ‘Pure’ and ‘true’ now means what just ‘point guard’ used to mean.

And the other thing is that pure PGs tend to be limited. Calderon can’t flip the switch to dominant creator in the fourth quarter like Paul can and Nash used to be able to. While I think that hero-ball mentality is overrated (obviously), there’s certainly something to be said for running a simple high PNR late in a close game and letting the handler get his team a shot, whether it’s his, the roll/pop man’s or someone else’s. That’s just one of the many reasons why “true PGs” are few and far between at all, and even more so when it comes to players with larger roles.

So unless you have one of those handful of wing guys who are truly position-less, a balance is needed. That’s why we’re seeing more and more guys like Holiday and Lillard; they can’t be their team’s sole creator on the perimeter if a team wants to be great, but they can be a vital cog in a system that merits extra dribblers. Denver, actually, is the perfect example there. Lawson isn’t a true PG by any stretch and hardly a dominant creator in the mold of someone like Tony Parker, so the Nuggets use Gallo and Iggy to take some pressure off of him and put more on the defense.

Jordan: I really liked that point you made about “pure” and “true.” What infuriates me about the Kyrie, Holiday, even Lawson detractors is their dogmatic adherence to assists as the gauge of a point guard’s worth. Put Calderon on the Cavs instead of Kyrie, and you may get more assists, but you’ll have a team that’s lucky to win 5 games in an entire season. And, it’s not as if those players don’t have vision or ability, they clearly do, it’s just exactly what you said: they need to be scorers more than passers for their team to succeed. And a high PnR is preferable to hero ball almost any day of the week.

Names, obviously, play a great deal in this, like you pointed out. Holiday may not be a true point guard, but he’s a very good, and improving passer, a great defender, and a decent shooter. But he’s also not quite a shooting guard, and he plays point exclusively, so we can’t call him a combo. So we just slap point guard on to him, even though the name-signifier is now outdated.

Follow Jack on Twitter: @ArmstrongWinter