Monthly Archives: May 2013

LeBron James and the False Narrative of Deja Vu

Jack and I tackle the sudden, mistaken narrative of LeBron James and the Miami Heat’s reversion, as well as the Heat’s newfound uncertainty. 

Jack: The already tired trope of today is LeBron reverted back to his days in Cleveland last night, dominating the ball with jumper after jumper as Wade and Bosh played glorified parts of Delonte West and JJ Hickson.  And it’s true to an extent, that a gimpy Wade and out-muscled Bosh have forced James into more of a scorer this series than he’s ever been and likely wanted to be since joining the Heat.  But that general narrative is missing a crucial aspect that’s easy to overlook unless you’re taking LeBron’s game 5 performance in deeper context with respect to his time as a Cavalier: those jumpers are still jumpers, but they’re good ones, the kind he didn’t have the patience to probe for as a younger player in Cleveland.

LeBron jumpers gleaned from a HORNS set or even a simple pick-and-roll with Mario Chalmers or Norris Cole are far departures from his former dribble-dribble-shoot-a-fadeaway mindset, and he deserves credit for it.  This new, heretofore unseen maturity is just another step in James’ constantly-evolving game, and an important reminder of just how much he’s grown mentally over the last several years.  But whether more James jump-shooting is by Miami’s design or mere coincidence due to specific circumstance, we can surely all agree it’s still not the best way for LeBron to play and the Heat to win.  They’ll need more from his all-too-supporting cast to win game 6 in Indiana, let alone take down Popovich, Duncan, Parker and company in the Finals.
Jordan: It’s as if we’re sacrificing reality for a sexier story. The 2010 Cavaliers were great because LeBron was great. And while LeBron’s even further evolved greatness is principal to Miami’s greatness, it is not the only reason. Miami is a terrific team because of Spoelstra’s ingenious stratagems, role players such as Shane Battier and somehow-underrated stars like Chris Bosh. Cleveland succeeded despite Mike Brown’s uninventive offense and the scientific phenomenon that was Antawn Jamison aging 50 years in the span of a few weeks.

One other thing that Cleveland team lacked that this Miami team does not is an aura of inevitability, if not invincibility. Cleveland was arguably the best team in the league and was the prohibitive favorite to win the championship, but it was never a certainty. The Lakers loomed large in the West, while the sneaky Celtics should never have been counted out. Not so with Miami. Usually reserved for the likes of the Spurs and the Lakers, the aura manifested itself, emanating from South Beach during the Heat’s win streak. The streak featured comebacks aplenty, yet none of those comebacks were surprising. It was just assumed, an accepted fact of reality, that the Heat would come back and continue making mincemeat of the rest of the league.
Lately, however, Indiana, and the monstrous shadow of Roy Hibbert have dimmed that once-blinding light. Even though the Heat won last night, it wasn’t an expected victory. No matter how large the lead, it never felt as if the game was out of reach and victory secured. Uncertainty, perviously exhumed from the lexicon of the Heat, returned for the first time since perhaps the 2011 finals. Is it because of Hibbert? Vogel? Paul George? Or is the resurrection of doubt a product of Miami itself?
Jack: That’s the only remaining question of these playoffs that will have lasting effects on the league’s landscape.  The Spurs are brilliant, but the stars aligned for them to win the West this season; they’ll be a major threat for as long as Duncan staves off retirement, of course, but hardly prohibitive favorites to win a championship like Miami or Oklahoma City.  Whether or not Indiana – playing without Danny Granger and facing a couple pertinent financial and personnel decisions this offseason – belongs beside the Heat and Thunder is a matter of not only what you make of Hibbert, George and the rest, but also Wade, Ray Allen, Shane Battier and advantages gleaned from Miami’s style.

Today, watching him frequently lose a suddenly slow dribble and James drive the Heat with him entrenched in the backseat, it’s easy to forget Wade’s brilliance from just a couple months ago.  His raw per game averages from March of 24, 6, 6 and almost 3 combined steals/blocks are vintage Wade, and he was doing all that while shooting more efficiently (53.2% FGs) than ever, too.  It’s crucial to remember that he’s fighting not just general wear, but injuries to both knees, too.  A player so reliant on 45-degree cuts and misdirection for success on both ends will of course struggle to adjust with ailing knees.  Whether or not Wade will ever recover the way Miami needs him to is anyone’s guess at this point, though, and if he doesn’t they’ll need even more from the aging, laboring Allen and Battier.  When a shooter’s legs go, what else does he have? And when a versatile defender is finally too banged up to be stretched to his limit, what does he offer? Those are concerns facing the Heat today, obviously, but also ones just as pertinent to their prospects going forward.
All that said, the most vexing development this series has presented for the present and future is the dominance of Hibbert.  Not only did some malign the Pacers for matching the maximum offer sheet he signed with Portland last summer, but their laughs were validated early this season, too, when he was a complete liability on offense.  Before January 1, he was a 7-footer that shot 39.5% from the field! And even after that absolutely dreadful stretch, there wasn’t a full month when Hibbert hit more than 48% of his shots.  But against downsized Miami, he looks like a perennial MVP candidate.  So who, exactly, is Roy Hibbert? He’s not Joel Anthony but he’s not vintage Dwight Howard, either; the truth is he’s somewhere in between, an All-Star most years whose awesome defensive presence is bigger than his offensive one.  And that’s okay! Indy advanced past Atlanta and New York with Hibbert scoring something like his normal self earlier this postseason.  If he’s only this all-encompassing throwback to the days of alpha-male centers against the Heat, he’s still a good enough player to justify his second or third position in the Pacers hierarchy.  And considering George – despite undue proclamations that he’s a top-10 player overall – has still just scratched the surface of his offensive development, that’s a great sign for Indiana going forward.
Is it one that will propel them to an improbable series win down 3-2 to the defending champions? Probably not, but that creeping Miami doubt you touched on gives them more of a chance than any of us anticipated.  Whether or not it’s due to the Heat’s deficiencies or not is a discussion for seasons coming.
Jordan: You’re right. As much of a revelation as Hibbert has been this series, and really in the playoffs, we still don’t fully know who he is. Will he maintain this form, or even improve upon it, next season? Or will he regress, as he won’t be able to face such a small frontcourt for all 82 games? I’ll agree that he’s likely a perennial All-Star and contender for Defensive Player of the Year, but it will be interesting to see how teams game plan for him in greater detail.
And again, we come back to uncertainty. LeBron needs more from his supporting cast, but we’re not sure if he’ll get it, either in this series or, if they advance in the next. Chris Bosh is facing a less-than-ideal match up against Hibbert/West, and Duncan/Splitter likely won’t be much kinder. Roy Hibbert, darling of the playoffs, certainly deserves the heaps of adulation, but uncertainty rears its head when questions of identity and consistency arise.

What we do know is this: this Miami Heat team hasn’t somehow mystically transformed into the 2010 Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron’s masterful performance wasn’t a completely vintage affair, more, as you said, a blend of the old and the new. For one night, he had to do it by himself (and even that’s a mostly false narrative, if Udonis Haslem has anything to say about it), but that was more a demand of the game’s circumstances, not of his entire team.

LION FACE/LEMON FACE 5/31/13: WELCOME TO MIAMI BIENVENIDO A GAME 5

With the conclusion of last night’s game, there are officially single digit games left in the 2012-13 NBA season. That’s bad. There is still at least one more game left in this Eastern Conference Finals though. That’s good. Let’s hit the Lion Faces and Lemon Faces from last night.

Lion Face: LeBron Raymone James

What else is there to say? At some point, we’re going to need to start picking random letters out of a Scrabble box and making up new words to describe what LeBron can do out on the basketball court because the current list of superlatives is running thin. Does anyone even bat an eyelash anymore at 30 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists in 45 minutes of action anymore? His third quarter performance in particular was everything you could possibly want out of James. Not only did he single handedly outscore the entire Pacers team 16-13, but at one point either scored or assisted on 20 straight points for Miami. During this stretch, the Heat turned a 46-41 deficit into a 61-55 lead, a lead that they would not relinquish the rest of the way. After making the Finals just once in his first seven years in the league, James finds himself on the cusp of a third straight trip to the championship series.

Lemon Face: Chris Bosh

Bosh turned in another performance where it was hard to remember him doing anything of note while on the floor. Bosh pulled down a series high 5 rebounds tonight giving him a grand total of 18 boards in 5 games. Eighteen. One eight. There were 124 instances of a player recording 18 rebounds in a single game this year, regular season and playoffs. For the $17,545,000 that Bosh is making this season, one would hope that the near seven-footer would be able to stuff the stat sheet more than he has recently. Instead, Bosh turned in his second consecutive game of 7 points and 5 rebounds or fewer. LeBron left Cleveland to avoid having to carry the load night in and night out. Somehow, I don’t think that this is what he was envisioning.

Lion Face: Udonis Haslem

Surely I’m not the only one who would play Goldeneye 007 on the N64, set the multiplayer weapon as Remote Mines, find a random corner in the level, and throw 50 mines on top of one another to see how high or long I could stack them, right? I only ask this because I am 87% sure that Udonis Haslem was trying to replicate that strategy with his shots tonight. Haslem made his living both at the rim and along the left baseline converting 8 of his 9 shots on the night and pouring in 16 points. It was a near mirror image of Game 3 when he also went 8-9 from the field in a 17 point effort. Haslem has emerged as somewhat of a barometer for the Heat in this series. When playing like he did last night and in Game 3, the Heat have a pair of double digit victories. However, in the Heat’s two losses in the series, Haslem has just 7 points combined. As long as Bosh and Dwyane Wade continue to be virtual no shows in the series, someone on the Heat is going to need to step up in one of the next two games if Miami wants to put Indiana away for good.

Lion Face: Roy Hibbert, Paul George, David West

If you had said before the series that the Pacers would have three of the best four players in the Eastern Conference Finals, it’s not so much that you would have been laughed out of the room, but surely not even you could foresee the trio of Hibbert, George, and West providing this strong of a case proving you correct. Hibbert and George opened up tonight by scoring the Pacers first 29 points of the game. Eventually, the duo would go on to finish with 49 points between them. With West chipping in 17 points of his own, the Pacers generated 83.5% of their offense from just those three players. It’s no secret that the Pacers heavily rely on their starting five man unit more than practically any team in the league. When they are clicking on all cylinders, that lineup provides a balanced scoring attack which we saw in Games 2 and 4 when all five starters scored in double figures. Without that balance, Indiana is dead to rights as they were tonight.

Lemon Face: Lance Stephenson and George Hill

It was extremely tempting to just make this “literally everyone else on the Pacers,” but Stephenson and Hill were particularly brutal as a starting backcourt combination tonight. Their numbers are only barely suitable for work: 5 points, 3 rebounds, 6 assists, 6 turnovers, 10 fouls, all on a combined 2-11 shooting from the floor. The Pacers can survive a subpar performance from one of their guards provided its Big 3 of Hibbert, George, and West are sharing the load, but Indiana doesn’t stand a chance if both of them are going to play this poorly.

Lemon Face: Pacers fans convinced there is a conspiracy against them

Look, I live in Indianapolis. I am a Cavs fans still mildly bitter over LeBron James leaving Cleveland. There are few things that would make me happier than seeing the Pacers pull off the unthinkable upset and move on to The Finals. Unfortunately, a certain contingent of Pacers fans are making it extremely, frustratingly difficult to cheer for Indiana when seemingly every single whistle that goes against Indiana is part of a grand conspiracy to get Miami into the Finals. Should Chris Andersen have been ejected for this performance in the second quarter?

GIF via @SBNationGIF

Yes, and I’m willing to bet 99% of unbiased observers of the game plus a majority of even the most hardcore Heat fans would agree that Andersen should have been tossed. For some inexplicable reason, Andersen was assess a Flagrant 1 and allowed to stay in the game where he put Miami on his back and went on to dominate the rest of the game. Actually, in reality he scored 2 points, pulled down 4 rebounds, and was largely quiet for the duration of the contest. Most likely, the call will be reviewed by the league office tomorrow and Andersen will be suspended for Game 6 on Saturday in Indiana. Since Andersen wasn’t exactly a difference maker tonight and the game ended up being a double digit win, the Pacers, in the end, may actually prefer this scenario to the alternative of Andersen being ejected last night.

On a larger scale, the most controversial calls of the season have come down to a “Technically It Was A Foul But If We’re Going To Start Calling That Then NBA Games Are Going To Be 6 Hours Long” moving screen to foul out LeBron in Game 4, a traveling call on Dwyane Wade (which wasn’t actually a travel) shortly thereafter, and a blown 24 second call violation against the Pacers, also in Game 4 – a game in which Indiana won. Not that there is an easy sport to referee out there, but basketball in particular is an extremely difficult sport due to the constant nature of instantaneous calls that need to be made. Referees are going to miss calls at times; sometimes they go against your team, sometimes they are in favor of your team. As fun as a conspiracy theory is to discuss, occasionally the wrong calls are made and that’s it. Too often, fans confuse conspiracy with either incompetence or simply a mistake. And besides, when you turn the ball over 17 times, have your entire team outside of your three best players combine for a grand total of 13 points, miss 18 shots around the rim, and get outscored in the third quarter 30-13 without the refs having much of an influence, you pretty much forfeit all rights to complain about the officiating.

Those Problematic Pacers

It’s always fun to watch a player develop through the years, and Roy Hibbert is no exception. Players with Hibbert’s physical tools and size will always be tantalizing to teams on the off-chance they actually wind up becoming the player they envision. It’s why teams will draft a “raw” player or overpay for a free agent big man in hopes that he lives up to his pay grade by the end of the contract. Roy Hibbert went from being a bit of a prospect, to starting center, to overpaid. But now he is giving the defending champions just about all they can handle in the Eastern Conference Finals. Now, it seems that there is finally a team that can give the Heat a true fight since the Heat will have to work to overcome their disadvantages, which is something we haven’t said about the LeBron-era Heat.  And if you’re a basketball fan, possibly having the rise of a true foil for the league’s best team for the next few years is a dream come true.

Going into the Pacers series against the Heat, the big question was how Miami would deal with Hibbert in the paint on both ends and be able to rebound against Indiana’s frontcourt in general. In an attempt to minimize Hibbert’s impact on the Heat, they’ve drawn Bosh further from the rim to limit Hibbert’s shot blocking ability and keep him off of the boards. However, the results have so far been mixed as the Heat have managed a 2-2 split through four games, but the Pacers have been playing the Heat tougher than just about any team we can remember and could very well be up 3-1.

Miami is comfortable playing Bosh further from the rim where he can still pose a threat with his midrange game, and we saw the Pacers respect this on LeBron’s Game 1 winning layup in which Sam Young chose not to step up on a driving LeBron James at the risk of giving Bosh an open jumper. However, other than that particular moment, Bosh’s placement away from the basket has done little to enable Miami to offset their mismatches in this series.

Bosh alone is being forced to take more shots from distance in this series than he was in the Heat’s first nine games. Against Milwaukee and Chicago, Bosh attempted 15 threes total, but versus the Pacers he’s been forced to take 12. While he’s still shooting 41.7% on them in the first four games of this series, that number is down from 46.7% in the first nine, and has been forced to take nearly twice as many per game. With Bosh taking 6.75 shots per game from outside of the paint compared to 3.5 inside, this has put more pressure on the other Heat to step up and rebound since Bosh, their best rebounder (besides LeBron), is out of position. Additionally, Hibbert has able to use his long stride, athleticism and length to chase down the rebound by soaring over the Heat frontline.

Hibbert’s presence, coupled with Frank Vogel’s defensive strategy, has forced the Heat into taking 23.25 midrange shots per game on 31.2% shooting this series after they took just 19.5 per game on 42% shooting in their first nine playoff games. The Heat are also shooting a cool 55.5% from in the paint since Hibbert’s shot-blocking presence alters even the simplest of layups into a circus shot. If you’re keeping track at home, the Heat are taking and missing more midrange shots and are still below average finishing on what should be high percentage shots in the paint.

As a whole, the Pacers appear to be rebounding less — 47.3 rpg against the Hawks and Knicks, 44.0 against the Heat — but the Pacers are also leaving fewer rebounds shooting 45.9% from the floor and 37% from three, which are all improvements over their first three games. Not only do the total rebounds enable them to control the tempo of the game and force Miami into playing their game, but it also allows them to get set defensivelly and affect Miami’s ball movement. This is problematic for the Heat since strong ball movement is one of their defining traits and one that allows them to keep the defense from getting set and enables them to swing the ball to the player with the best shot. The Heat were so good at getting assisted field goals in their first nine games (64.8%) that the fact that they’re only getting 50.3% of them assisted is a little startling.

On his own, Hibbert has been a one-man wrecking crew in the paint offensively, shooting 69% and 45.8% from the restricted area this series, up from 60.7% and 40.5% in the previous two. The Heat are going to have to toy with strategies like double-teams and possibly switching LeBron and Bosh to see if they can find a better match. For Miami, it would be wise to first deny Hibbert position, then box him out of open lanes so he can’t crash the glass so easily.

The problem with the Heat’s strategy is that it’s not as effective when deployed as a part of an imbalanced strategy. Miami has been automatically adapting to Hibbert and the Pacers without really making the Pacers adapt to them, and that’s why they haven’t been able to pull away from them like they have just about every other team in the NBA this season. You have to respect Hibbert’s ability, but you also have to be able to assert yourself physically and make him work for everything he gets–just as the Pacers have done with the Heat. Truth be told, having Bosh continuously take so many shots from distance and having his rebounding ability so far from the basket is a dream come true for the Pacers. The Heat need to be able to balance their strategy and find a way to get their rebounders involved again or they will be watching Indiana play the Spurs in the Finals instead of them.

Statistical support for this piece provided by NBA Stats and Basketball-Reference. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Photo Jar

15 Footer, 5/30/13: Let Them Play

If you’re here looking for complaints about the officials, congratulations! You fell for my illusion. TO THE AZTEC TOMB!

Indiana Pacers at Miami Heat (8:30 PM, TNT)

The Pacers and Heat are playing one of the most evenly matched, competitive series of the postseason, and I’m not entirely sure it’s been noticed. While these two teams scheme, adjust and execute their way to offensive production unexpected against such stellar defenses, the focus since Game 1′s postgame strategy gab session lies elsewhere. Between poor officiating and plenty of flopping, there’s been every excuse to talk about everything but the game. If you’re upset about the way things have gone so far, I don’t blame you. No one likes to see a free throw contest. No one likes to see a 50/50 call called improperly. No one wants to think they’re being deprived of a better product.

I urge you, however, to consider a different perspective. You have every ability to choose what things are important to you. On any given play between the Heat and Pacers, one might see a half-dozen feats of athletic marvel and mental processing rivaled by few, if any, competitors. Choose to celebrate those moments and let the bad calls and flailing bodies roll off your back, not the other way around.

Yes, there will be bad calls and felonious flops. The act of two evenly matched teams playing at such an elite level, vying for every inch of real estate and every window of opportunity, practically begs for missed whistles and gale force near-elbows. Every advantage must be seized — or created. Any edge must be exploited — or maintained. If there’s a way to conquer one more neuron’s worth of sympathy in the minds of the officials, then damn the means and justify the end. It is the job of the referees to suss out what’s real and what’s not, and sometimes they’re going to blow it. They’re human. It’s not right; it’s inevitable. It’s reality.

The rest of reality is the splendor that awaits us tonight. With so much on the line, each play will make your heart race and your blood boil, let alone what it will do to the teams. Bad calls and unfairly rewarded flops will happen. Question them. Analyze them. Learn from them. Make jokes about them. Laugh about them. But let them live in the moment and wither as the ball changes hands. Trust that things will even out in the end (and no, I don’t mean root for a makeup call). Appreciate the game as it happens, rather than dwelling. You can’t control the way the whistles will go, but you can control whether they affect you. Just like David West and Dwyane Wade!

Image by ctsnow via Flickr

What is Tiago Splitter

There are few other teams, if any, that affect our view of a player when they’re acquired by a team than the San Antonio Spurs. For over a decade we’ve seen the Spurs pluck valuable role players out of the bottom of the first round of the draft and salvage reclamation projects other teams didn’t know what to do with. We assume that these players are quote-unquote fundamentally sound and do all the little things while playing within the team concept. They may not all be great, but the rest of us non-Spurs fans wish our team operated similarly. We’ve seen it with Luis Scola, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, George Hill, and even Tiago Splitter.

But what do we really know about Splitter? It feels like he’s widely presumed to be a good player because he’s a Spur and that our perception of him has more to do with how much we revere his team than Splitter himself. And with Splitter set to become a restricted free agent, someone in need of a center is likely going to make a serious run at him this summer. Because of this, let’s take a look at two ways to view Splitter.

What is Tiago Splitter? Tiago Splitter is an Unsung Hero, Damn’t! 

Tiago Splitter is next in a long line of savvy moves by the Spurs. First off, he’s a valuable cog in the Spurs’ offense, exhibiting a nice two-man game with Manu Ginobili and works with Tony Parker to form a formidable pick ‘n’ roll duo. In fact, Splitter posted a 1.27 mark in points per possession (PPP) in pick ‘n’ roll man situations according to MySynergySports.com, good for 11th overall in the entire NBA. Furthermore, Splitter posted an impressive 60% True Shooting Percentage this season with average usage and turnover rates. And even though he plays frequently next to Tim Duncan, he’s managed to average a 15.3% Rebounding Rate for his career, helping the Spurs get second chance points and control the tempo of the game.

Defensively, Splitter is a terrific low post defender. Last season he was posted up 35.7% of the time and still managed to post a 0.64 PPP, good for 15th in the league. Seriously, why aren’t we talking more about Tiago and how the Spurs need to retain him since he clearly makes Duncan’s life on the block much easier. His 3.5 Defensive Win Shares and a Defensive Rating that has gone down every year he’s been in the league really don’t lie, either.

Tiago Splitter is a big reason the Spurs have been able to finally return to the NBA Finals following a six year absence where they have typically run out of gas in the conference finals. He’s been the secret ingredient that makes everything go for the Spurs and a big question this offseason will be if they will be able to keep him around to continue making these runs. The Spurs have done it again, I tell ya.

What is Tiago Splitter? Tiago Splitter a Menace! 

A hero? Don’t fool yourself– Tiago Splitter  is a menace and he must be stopped. This blind reverence towards the Spurs needs to stop because not everything they have done has been as perfect as people make it out to be, Splitter included.

You may be tempted to fawn over Splitter’s 18.7 PER this season, but you have to remember that Anthony Randolph once posted a 17.6 PER not that long ago and you don’t see anyone praising his brilliance. You know why he’s so efficient on offense? He took 417 shots at the rim, made 68.3% and was assisted on 81.7% of those makes. And do you know what he shot from three-feet-and-out? .285 on 189 attempts. As a player who is just under 7-feet tall, you would hope that he would be able to score at the rim, but his inability to do much else anywhere else makes him rather one-dimensional on offense. If he can’t shoot, you think he’d be able to post up, but he posted a 0.86 PPP on Post-Ups this season, which is below-average.

See, his offensive production comes in part  from being big and underneath the basket, and if it weren’t for Parker’s ability to draw defenders while driving in the lane or Duncan’s excellent offensive spacing, you could remove the “almost” caveat at the beginning of this sentence. Playing with Hall of Famers really makes your life easy, huh?

I can’t argue with his PPP in defensive post-ups this season, but I can argue with just about every other part of his game defensively. You can’t mention his Defensive Rating without pointing out that he often shares the court with Duncan and Leonard– two good defenders who positively affect his defensive rating as well. It’s not that he’s a bad defender; he’s just closer to being average than elite. This would be an entirely different story if opposing teams ran post-ups on him every possession, but that’s never going to happen.

So, which one of the above is Splitter? Likely somewhere in between. He’s a center with limited range that works well in the pick “n” roll and finishes very well at the rim, but will likely never be a featured center in an offense since he’s 28 and therefore the room for further development is shrinking. Defensively, he can defend an opponent’s best attempts to post up quite well, but is perfectly average just about everywhere else, which is still more than you can say for a lot of players. With Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, and Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter works as their complementary center in the starting lineup. As Aaron McGuire of Gothic Ginobili told me, Splitter is opportunistic in that he can catch his man off guard and was intelligent enough to develop a synchronicity with the Spurs’ best players from the get-go. Who knows how he would fare outside of the Spurs’ system where he might be asked to do more than he’s capable of, but those limitations are well-hidden in San Antonio. In fact, the Spurs’ ability to hide those weaknesses and accentuate his strengths where other teams might not is a very Spurs thing to do.

Thanks to Aaron McGuire  of Gothic Ginobili for his input on this piece. Clearly Aaron knows more than the average person should know about Tiago Splitter, but I’m grateful for that. Be sure to check out his site and follow him on Twitter: @docrostov. 

In The Paint – With Eli Neugeboren

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 the illustrious Eli Neugeboren.

What are some of your earliest basketball fan memories? Have any of them translated to your basketball drawings?

I can remember being carried into the Curry Hicks Cage on the UMass campus by my pops when I was little. All of my early hoops memories center around UMass hoops during the bleak Ron Gurlefson era (they won 3 or 4 games total a few seasons), that then segued into the John Calipari era when I was in Junior High School. I also have a lot of memories of watching the big three winning games on a small TV set up on a kitchen stool. Probably a 12″ crt, maybe black and white, maybe color. All of my hoops memories in intrinsically linked to my Pop; he introduced me to the game, took me to countless UMass games, taught me about it and taught me to appreciate the nuances of the game.

harpereli

He also taught me to appreciate more than just the flashy dunks but blocked shots and solid D. Players like Harper Williams (featured in a drawing I made for In the Paint Boston) and Dana Dingle, who played bigger than their stature, who contributed in ways that would never end up on the stat sheet.

What is your art background and what inspired you to make basketball art?

Since I have also always loved hoops, and though I’m a sports fan I am first and foremost a hoops fan, I like drawing ballplayers. I’ve made basketball art in the past, but the recent flurry of work has been inspired by the work on DoubleScribble, particularly artists like JO Applegate, Aaron Dana, Pat Truby, Chelsea Boehnke. I also have to give a nod to The Classical, for featuring my “Rondo as Ganesh” drawing, which led me into the DoubleScribble fold.

What other artists have inspired you?

I mentioned a few above, but if I can cast a wider net I would have to mention Gerhard Richter, Bill Sienkiewicz, Chris Ware, Katsuhiro Otomo, Paul Pope, John Singer Sargent, Murakami, John Byrne, Arthur Adams, Becky Cloonan, Caravaggio, Jasper Johns, Tom Friedman, Kevin Eastman, and way too many more to keep listing them here. A huge formative experience for me was bringing my work down to Mirage Studios when I was in Jr High. Their offices were in Northampton, MA where I grew up. I was illegally working at a local comic store called Moondance Comics so I had met them when they would come in every week to buy comic books. I invited myself down or they invited me down and I remember them passing my work, my drawings, around the bullpen and very seriously assessing them and giving me feedback on them. It was the most generous thing they could have done and there was no reason in the world for them to humor me like that, but they did.  It made me believe I could do this for the rest of my life.

How do you decide who to draw? Do you just tend to draw players you like or that are in the news?

I think it’s a mix of all of that. I’m a Celts/UMass fan, but I have a bit of the FreeDarko liberated fandom in me and am just drawn to certain players, like Javale McGee or Ben Gordon. Sometimes its something like the amazing reaction to the even more amazing dunk by DeAndre Jordan this past season, or MJ turning 50. I’ve got my series “Drawing the News” which sports sometimes creep into, and that will be very topical and pencil on paper.

javaleeli

Other times, like with the Rondo illustration, I’ll plan it out around a concept and work in a mix of traditional media and digital. For the Dr J piece I did, I wanted it to be reminiscent of an illuminated manuscript or a mandala behind the images of him in motion. All the years of working as a retoucher have allowed me to be as comfortable working digitally as I am in traditional materials. There are positives and negatives with each method, but what really matters is the end result. Working digitally allows for a lot more flexibility.

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

Jared Coaches the Knicks, Lives the Dream

It’s a dream come true! I get to coach the New York Knicks… in a fake playoff series between the Knicks and Nets on NBA 2K13 simulated by a dude who runs the YES-branded Nets official web site, but whatever. I’m living the dream, y’all!

In case you missed it, The Brooklyn Game‘s head honcho Devin Kharpertian and I will, over the course of the next several days, engage in a virtual battle of coaching wills, with a possible arm wrestling match at the end.

Here’s the pitch, courtesy of Devin himself.

The New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets never really had a shot at playing each other in the playoffs this year once the seeding was set — neither team had much of a shot at getting past the Miami Heat, and both fell one round short of facing them.

But in the spirit of New York rivalries, we wanted a Nets-Knicks series, so: screw it, we’re going to make it happen.

Welcome to the Cross Bridge Battle, an imaginary seven-game series between the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets, played exclusively on NBA 2K13 — but with a twist.

The series will play out on NBA 2K13 with the most up-to-date rosters, and both teams are coached, meaning that the team’s rotation and tendencies will be set prior to each game.

Coaching the Knicks is Jared Dubin (Ed. Note: this is me), co-editor-in-chief of Hardwood Paroxysm (Ed. Note: this is the site you are currently reading), founder of TrueHoop Network blog HoopChalk, dedicated and loyal Knicks fan, and one of the smartest basketball minds I know (Ed. Note: Devin must not know many people).

He also co-wrote a book that I own, and you should too (Ed. Note: If you buy this, I get approximately 13 cents).

For the Nets? It’ll be yours truly (Ed. Note: Devin is referring to himself. Yours truly is an expression, not a person’s name).

My request: as we enter into this fantasy world, we’ll offer video highlights, game wrap-ups, images from the game, and box scores. Please join our make-believe world. Comment on the articles and videos. Take the polls. Post fan art commemorating the Fantasy Cross Bridge Series (hashtag #Nets on Instagram). And advise the coaches (that’s me and Jared on what we should do in the next game.

We’ve already engaged in a back-and-forth previewing our virtual series, and as Devin said, he will be updating TBG with highlights, box scores and game recaps as the week goes on. As the posts roll out, I’ll add additional links here to make things easy on you. Follow along, talk trash, suggest coaching moves (don’t worry Knicks fans, I am giving Pablo and Cope a lot more minutes than Woody did), do whatever your precious little heart desires. I swear, it will be fun. At least for me.

UPDATES

I lost Game 1. I will win Game 2.

Devin and I held Twitter press conferences after the game, because of course we did.

VICTORY. Series tied at 1.

Mike Budenholzer’s Great Expectations

The Atlanta Hawks hired Mike Budenholzer as their next head coach Tuesday, agreeing to a multiyear contract with the longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant.

Budenholzer, 43, has been an assistant with the Spurs for the past 17 years and been with the organization under coach Gregg Popovich for 19 years overall. He has a long-term relationship with Hawks general manager Danny Ferry, who played for Budenholzer and worked with him as an executive with the Spurs.

via Mike Budenholzer hired as Atlanta Hawks’ new head coach – ESPN.

Let it never be said the NBA is a league lacking in trends. In hiring San Antonio Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer, the Atlanta Hawks join the Phoenix Suns and Charlotte Bobcats in a group of analytically inclined front offices that made the decision to field first time head coaches. Yet if one were to go full Sesame Street on the addition of Budenholzer, Jeff Hornacek and Steve Clifford to the bench for their respective franchises, it’s the most recent hire that most definitely not belong. Where Atlanta’s new head honcho is not like the others boils down to expectations.

That’s not to imply that Phoenix and Charlotte are bereft of expectations for Hornacek and Clifford, but simply an acknowledgement of how limited those expectations will be. We know so little about either as a coach, and their new employers have so little with which to work. That unfamiliarity, coupled with well-earned pessimism, lends itself to a kind of detached hope. It’s not the coach, so much, as the idea of another chance to break a cycle that has no apparent end in this or any other world. Neither franchise has much going for it other than blinding ineptitude, failure ostentatiously adorning their uniforms more garishly than any future advertising patch ever could. It is that superhuman ability to be awful that offers an awkward spark of hope, like an abandoned hiker’s bated breath as the air catches her last bit of lit tinder beneath a bed of kindling. The overhead branches of the draft and lottery will provide shelter from the storm and a ready supply of young, skilled players on undervalued contracts, ready to toss themselves on the flame of a fledgling franchise if it means a chance to join the stars. What comes of those wisps of potential energy, though, is in the hands of the one who crafts the flame.

For Hornacek and Clifford, then, the goal will be simple. Develop the young players that the inevitability of gravity brings your way. Get them to play hard and to play “the right way.” Make the product on the floor as entertaining as possible to distract the consumer from just how bad the product might be. If the fire that gets you through the night starts to burn down your lean-to, put it out before it engulfs the entire forest. Other than that, nothing is expected, not even your enduring survival. Eventually, the heat will fade; every moment it lasts is a bonus.

We know, Budenholzer, though, at least as well as anyone within the clandestine fortress of Castle Spurs can be known. More precisely, we know what we expect him to be capable of, regardless of the pieces with which he’ll be able to work. He is a product of a system so focused on the process that it can’t help but produce results. Budenholzer’s 19-year tenure in various faculties inside the Spurs organization makes him almost disgustingly familiar with that system, and combining forces with fellow former-Spur Danny Ferry, Atlanta’s GM, seems destined to bring a new era of prosperity to the Hawks. And Atlanta is ready for that elevation in stature — not immediately, but sooner certainly than either Charlotte or Phoenix. They have a cornerstone in Al Horford, admirable financial flexibility once Josh Smith exercises his constitutional right to annoy another fanbase with his shot selection, and now a spectacular one-two combo in the front office and on the bench.

The only roadblock, of course, is everything. Atlanta will still need to put actual basketball-playing pieces around Horford, and they’ll have to compete against a priori juggernauts like the Heat and Thunder as well as any other meteoric franchises vying for rank and privilege. Even the most sound process is subject to the deafening winds of change and chance, as a San Antonio Spurs team lucky enough to secure Tim Duncan’s services would gladly attest. Forces beyond the control of Budenholzer and Ferry will conspire to cut short the golden threads their basketball lives have woven. They are of sound mind and spirit to take on such a task, but sometimes the universe punishes even the most pure of intentions. It takes time to install a culture, especially in a society without a Tim Duncan, or a David Robinson to show the way and bridge the gap from old to new. If the weight of expectations becomes too great, though, then the new chieftains of The Way may not have the opportunity to pave new roads.

Whether or not Budenholzer is successful in Atlanta, the expectation is that he will be. He might be a first time head coach, but his reputation is loftier than a large swath of his more tenured brethren. He’ll bring with him every opportunity for the Hawks to contend for titles, and nothing less will suffice. For Bobcats and Suns fans, we’re reduced to hoping the new guy can move us a half-step closer toward that championship melody. Either way, all any of these teams can do is trust in the process and expect it work out for the best.

Though it might be best not to expect at all.

Photo by daveoratox via Flickr

Video Game Villainy And The San Antonio Spurs

In 1985, the North American video game industry was in peril. While the Atari company had seen great success in the years leading up to 1983, when worldwide video game revenues reached a staggering $3.2 billion, it offered up Ginobili- and Wade-sized flops with its port of the arcade hit, Pac-Man, and the awful, awful adaptation of the classic candy and flying bicycle advertisement, E.T. Those failures, coupled with a glut of knockoff console competitors with exclusive licensing deals, led to a collapse in revenue to $100 million by 1985. It seemed that video games, particularly at home, were a fad.

That sounds ridiculous today, when video games are as ubiquitous as cell phones and iPads. That omnipresence of role playing heroism has the 1985 North American release of the Nintendo Entertainment System to thank for its existence*; were it not for the introduction of a niche product from a small Japanese toy and playing card manufacturer, Angry Pigs and Dwarf Fortress might instead be bestselling novels. With a design more readily integrated into a mid-80s entertainment center than prior garish, top-loading consoles, a firmer grasp on the distribution of software and innovative hardware on both the system (the directional pad on the controller, the various light gun and trick-you-into-exercising peripherals) and game (cartridges with battery backup capable of saving progress) sides of the equation, the NES relaunched a revolution, to the anguished cries of the Parker Brothers.

*Though if the video games have gained sentience and thank the NES for anything, we must destroy them with fire.

Part of establishing a new pecking order is laying ground rules. The hardware limitations of the NES with regard to image rendering and AI made for a similarity in the design process of its various games, which in turn gave rise to formulas that still provide the alchemical touch to turn “boy meets girl, girl gets kidnapped by evil sorcerer, boy discovers untold power within and slays evil sorcerer” into cold, hard cash. All of the classics – Mega Man, Castlevania, the various games in the TMNT franchise, Metroid, The Legend of Zelda — were built on a similar foundation. The player progresses through a level, defeating various lesser minions and avoiding pitfalls and Joakim Noah-loaded traps. At the end of the stage, a boss battle presents itself. When the hero is victorious, often the vanquished boss leaves behind a new weapon of some sort, which will likely be the weakness of the next big bad meanie. Lather, rinse and repeat until the world is saved.

I always kind of sympathized with the bosses, especially those whose defeat meant the rolling of credits. What must it be like, I wondered, to live such a lonely existence? Your station in life couldn’t be more literal, chained by some unknown force to the only area you can safely call home. Outside your door lie your bastions and battalions, sworn to fealty yet doomed to futility. That infamous hero marches toward your door, laying waste to everything. No puzzle is challenging enough, no subordinate sufficiently skilled to forestall the coming demise.

Yet for all the thunder and fury pointed in your direction, there is tranquility, too. You are, after all, the Big Bad. Everything the hero had to overcome to this point is your doing. Give it another minute or two, and your incantation/new super robot/transformation into an evolved alien being will be complete, and then who’s going to stop you? No one, that’s who, and definitely not this twerp who thinks you’ll lie down and let your quest for world domination end so easily. You don’t care that they took down the first boss, clad in purple and gold, without having to use anything but the wooden sword with which they started their long journey. And you watched how mightily they struggled with the new breed of super-sniper they ran into on the second level, and you laughed your mighty villain laugh. Hell, if anything, you should be the favorite! You’re the one with the upperhand, not to mention the triple fire missile burst. If this interloper brings the Cut Man weapons, you’ll throw up your shield. Frankly, nothing can stop you. From this point on, it’s smooth sailing for you and that giant red crystal in the middle of your chest that’s definitely not your weak spot.

…oh, goodness, your weak spot. It’s sticking out again, isn’t it? This is the problem with being the villain in one of these things and not the hero — you’re always going to have a weak spot. If you’re lucky, it’s a tiny window. If you’re unlucky, the last upgrade that antagonizing protagonist grabbed will finish you off in about four shots. Either way, you know that you’re doomed if a concerted effort is made to whale away on that one little flaw you couldn’t quite cover up. All the smoke and mirrors and offensive maneuvering in the Dark World won’t amount to a petrified princess and a portal to another dimension against the wiles of a focused foe.

After their sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs came to a close on Monday night, I think the Memphis Grizzlies can relate to Dr. Wily, Ganon, Shredder et al. The Grizzlies were an astoundingly formidable foe, wreaking havoc with a tightly rotating defense centered on the impish use of space by Marc Gasol and augmented by the madcap mania of Tony Allen. Many, myself included, considered Memphis the favorites in this series. They were a force of their own reckoning, offering the twin cannons of Zeebo and Wendigo and the electric whip of Mike Conley. Against any other foe, they’d likely have seen their plans to seize the Triforce come to fruition, or at least live on until the next “ultimate” showdown in the Finals.

Predictably, though, Gregg Popovich and the Spurs had the player’s guide. The book on Memphis was simple. The Grizzlies had zero outside shooting in their starting lineup other than Mike Conley, whose career 37.5% rate from deep is solid but not spectacular. And much of the load in initiating the offense, obviously, falls to Conley, so his ability to get off a decent look from downtown was in question against San Antonio. Their best option off the bench were Jerryd Bayless and Quincy Pondexter, sub-40% three point shooters in their own right (though Pondexter was just below that threshold this year, and his 152 attempts in 2012-13 account for the majority of his career threes). In the second round, the Spurs were constantly worried about the threat of elite outside shooting. In the Western Conference Finals, they couldn’t have been less concerned with what happened outside 10 feet from the rim when Memphis had the ball.

That weakness allowed San Antonio to pack the paint with extreme prejudice, gumming up everything the Grizzlies tried on offense. Few possessions saw fewer than four black-and-silver clad defenders swarming the post, both before and after the ball made its way closer to the rim; more often than not, a drive by Conley or an entry pass to Randolph (when said passes were there) was met with the crashing wave of five Spurs defenders in full tidal fury, ready to wash any and all efficient Memphis attempts away in a cascade of vertical challenges and moving, churning feet. Those Grizzlies stationed around the perimeter were too often rendered helpless, watching another offensive set swallowed up from their higher ground. Even when they broke through for a short kick toward the shoreline and a couple consecutive threes, San Antonio doubled down on the gameplan. No matter what the boss had to throw at the Spurs, they knew where the weak spot was, and they would not be deterred. As a result, a Memphis team that shot 50.4% from the paint in the regular season managed only 40.9% shooting from the same area in the Conference Finals. And the outside shooters were unable to make the Spurs pay; Memphis shot 34.9% from three in the series, versus 34.5% on the season.

The Spurs’ strategy, in turn, worked twofold. First, it forced Memphis into shots it’s not comfortable taking. During the regular season, over half (52.7%) of the Grizzlies’ attempts came in the paint. Against the Spurs, that number dropped to 49.7%. Unable to convert from the midrange and from outside, the Memphis offense largely stalled; Marc Gasol was unable to do his customary damage as a passer from the elbows, and Zach Randolph was given no quarter among the outstretched limbs of Duncan, Splitter, Bonner and Diaw.

Second, the missed long jumpers on the one end led to easy transition opportunities for the Spurs. The enduring image of Game 4 is of a Memphis miss rebounded by a Spurs wing near the free throw line, who turned up court and fired a pass to a streaking Parker or Duncan for an easy basket. By zeroing in on the offensive weakness of the Grizzlies to the detriment of all other stimuli, San Antonio both smothered Memphis’s scoring opportunities and sparked their own.

For the Spurs, only one more challenger awaits before they claim their prize and restore cosmic order to the universe — at least, as they see it. Perhaps that next matchup will leave those at the controls grasping at straws; after all, the best boss battles are always those that force you to draw deep down into your bag of tricks and find a weakness where there seems to be none.

The Grizzlies were not that challenge. It wasn’t in their programming. They were certainly a deceptively tough fight for those who sail onward, however. And as the victory music plays and the weakness shines on, so too do the strengths. This was a fight in the mud, no matter how clean the black and silver tunic might appear on the other side.

Photo by coming_soon via Flickr. Statistical support from NBA.com/stats.

15 FOOTER, 5/27/13: LET’S DO THE TIME WARP

Arrested Development has just hit televisions all across America, the Cleveland Cavaliers hold the #1 pick in the NBA Draft after winning the Lottery, and the San Antonio Spurs are one game away from the NBA Finals. Is that a sentence from 2003 or an entire decade later? The answer is yes.

Speaking of turning back the clock, Tim Duncan keyed the Spurs Game 3 victory on Saturday night with a vintage 24 points and 10 rebounds in the Spurs 11 point overtime win. I know there is going to come a point and time in the near future where Tim Duncan is not in our lives. I just don’t know if I am fully prepared for it. For the love of Shammgod, to even approach your career averages in your 16th season in the league is an accomplishment in and of itself. For Duncan, his per 36 minute numbers for rebounding, assists, steals, blocks, turnovers, and fouls are better, albeit slightly, in his 16th season than his career numbers. This is not normal:

DuncanStats

For Memphis, all they have to do is pull off something than 107 teams in the history of the NBA have failed to do: win four straight games after falling behind in a playoff series 3-0. If the Grizzlies can take solace in anything, it’s that in the past eight regulation quarters, they have played the Spurs to a complete and utter draw with each team tallying 171 points. However, overtime has proven to be a Sisyphean task for Memphis. While doing everything in their power to push the boulder up the hill, they cannot seem to nudge it over the top despite being at the precipice. Although it is not impossible for the Grizz to run off four straight games, it certainly seems that the Spurs are headed on a collision course with Miami in the NBA Finals.

The Spurs have proven that they can win games in multiple ways this series. In Game 1, it was jumping out to a 17 point lead after the first quarter and going on, despite a small second half scare, to cruise to a 105-83 victory. In Game 3, the tables were turned as they found themselves down 16 points after one period, and yet they still found a way to win. Tonight, with their backs firmly against the wall, the Grizzlies will keep the game close for 44 minutes before the Spurs pull away and earn their fifth trip to the Finals since 1999.

Prediction: Spurs 102-93