Author Archives: Andrew Lynch

Another $80 Million Brick In The Wall

To pay John Wall $80 million for 5 years of his current level of production would be culpable negligence in the assault and battery of a team’s salary cap. To evaluate Wall’s New Deal along said lines, however, is a Kingfish-sized mistake.

The recently signed contracts of Kyle Korver and J.J. Redick underline a shift in player evaluation among front offices. With defenses increasingly intricate and elite offenses ever more reliant on a few, key, efficient spots on the floor, players outside the limits of the Eight Immortals of NBA Taoism find value in the efficacy of their skill sets and the ways in which they dovetail with their teammates. Korver and Redick stand as a priori examples of the 3-and-D wing who provides floor spacing and a systemic, if not cutthroat, defensive presence, with a dash of secondary or tertiary ballhandling tossed into the mix. A healthy Tyson Chandler is the prototype for a monstrously productive pick-and-roll partner on the one end and a behemoth of cordoned movement and corralled bodies on the other.

The Triforce of Courage in this synergy of skill sets is the lightning quick athleticism, Turing-based intelligence, and Hubble Ultra Deep Field 3D-level field of vision combination of an elite point guard. The current ruleset, with its lack of hand-checking, furthers the advantage of a primary ballhandler who can get to the right spots on the floor at the right time, and who can put his teammates in the right situation when they’ve put themselves in the wrong spots at the wrong time. In a neverending cycle that would make Ouroboros blush, the better Wall’s teammates are — particularly on the wing and in the middle — the better and more valuable he will be, and the better and more valuable his teammates will be in turn. Wall, isolated and bereft of context, might not be worth $80 million in the sense that he creates value on his own. Instead, the Wizards are willing to take a gamble on the expected value of the team and Wall rising in lock step. As Bradley Beal and Otto Porter, Jr. come into their own, there’s every chance that the presence of Wall will increase the marginal value they produce over their already undervalued rookie deals, and sooner than they might otherwise have grown. If Jan Vesely can become the big man he has the potential to be, or if Washington looks to acquire a more polished big before the trade deadline, then Wall’s value continues to grow. This is a gamble not just on his growth*, but on the growth of the players around him and the ways in which Wall can influence that maturation.

*Let’s be honest — it’s also about paying someone who is, by all accounts, a good locker room guy to stay somewhere that could really use a facelift when it comes to its image around the league. Paying Wall a premium now, instead of letting him dangle in RFA, sends the right message. The value of such a decision is (currently) impossible to quantify, but it stands to reason that it has at least some value in the eyes of players to whom that kind of thing matters.

And Wall is young, just shy of his 23rd birthday. If he had a jump shot to go with that bevy of basketball ability, he’d be Chris Paul, and this contract would be a no-brainer. But simply because Wall isn’t much of a shooter today doesn’t mean he can’t develop a reasonable jump shot, enough to make defenses think twice on just a few possession per game; those possessions, in turn, give rise to edges that didn’t exist before, and points that were missed in the past. Every increment, every percentage point, is a rise in the value of the player and the franchise. And Wall’s impact as a passer isn’t far off from Paul’s. All the caveats of sample size and lineup data taken into consideration, both players’ teams saw a similar drop (3.9%) in their effective field goal percentage between when their star point guards were off the court. Wall isn’t Chris Paul, but if he can become a reasonable, lesser facsimile of Jason Kidd in his prime, his contract becomes much more palatable, particularly as Washington improves the talent — and system, one would hope — around him.

There might come a day when John Wall is worth much more than he’s being paid, depending on any number of factors within and outside of his and his team’s control. More likely, perhaps, is that Wall will be paid more than his on-court numbers would justify in the eyes of many. And, of course, he might end up as the perfect pot of porridge, with a Goldilocks contract and a home to call his own (minus the bears). It’s a cascade of “what if’s” and unknowables that leads to healthy skepticism and a slight wave of confusion. In the truest sense, Washington has offered this contract based not on the past, but what the future might hold. They know what they expect, and they e put a price on those expectations. It’s a gamble not just on Wall, but on the way they’re building their team. For Wall’s contract to make sense for the team, they’ll need to win a coin flip or two along the way. Fortunately for them, Wall seems capable of stacking the odds in his — and their — favor.

Image by zoomar via Flickr

Deserve’s Got Nothing To Do With It

“Listen, I was always a guy that said for a player to be on a championship team that didn’t contribute, how can he feel like he deserved that ring?” McGrady said. “But look here, man, I’m in that situation and I tell you, my career has been something, especially after my injury. It’s been tough, and I can’t do nothing but appreciate this opportunity.”

via Tracy McGrady’s quest for one championship before the end of his career – Grantland.

“Deserved” is a tricky word. It’s often accompanied by discussions of fairness and equity. Laughable conversations, really, ensconced in a universe that’s chaotically biased toward entropy on the one hand and a foreboding omnipresence on the other, constantly reminding just how much the deck is rigged. Randomness begets destiny begets probability; the fickle fates tear asunder that which is deserved and that which is parceled to the victors. The spoils are won. To argue whether they’re deserved is the gloss of the silver medalist.

Yet that probabilistic fatalism is tricky, too, particularly when applied to team sports. So many things matter, to the point that everything matters. Everything that matters, though, is subject to the same muddying effects of uncertain outcomes played out just once. A jumper only happens once; never again will those exact same circumstances exist. A series may take place over seven games, but every moment is an event that blinks into existence to remind us just how lucky we are, then gives its dying breath to the next fleeting gorgeosity.

Both the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs deserve to be here tonight, because neither of them deserves to be here tonight. Or at least, they simply deserve to be here to the same degree that they were able to control the outcome of their seasons. If the ball bounces but once, and a championship can ride on that bounce, all a team or a player can do is put themselves in the best possible position to win. It’s process — that word that won’t go away, that word that defines these teams, that word that looms over everything as the legacy that threatens to outlast even the majesty of the game. It’s the trust that were one to simulate any of these events 10,000 times, the optimal strategy would win out in the end, knowing full well that only one of those scenarios can ever really come true, chosen seemingly by divine providence (or the universe’s largest bingo hall barker).

Even the favorite, then, has the potential to be the universe’s underdog, an overqualified ring-bearer for championship teams, foil to dynasty and legacy. The upside to the travails of time is opportunity en masse; given enough pressure, that barrier to result has every chance of surrendering to the weathering nature of practiced persistence. But it also has every chance of withstanding all that willful application has to offer. Many players simply never win a title, regardless of their legend; Robert Horry became a Roman deity by hitting a parlay on a series of 65/35 bets at best. Windows in this league close with the fury of a sudden summer’s storm. Dynasties-to-be flame out and unstoppable behemoths meet their David. Matchups conquer talent, and chaos has no rival. To be plain, things happen in the NBA — peripheral, fringe events that make the Wow! signal look sustainable. Were it not for gruesome injuries and shattered dreams, this might be Game 7 of a Thunder/Bulls series, with talk of legacy giving way to glimpses of the future and positional revolutions set to evaporate old notions of what a point guard should be. The Spurs and Heat seem to be the best two teams in the league this year, but there was no guarantee we’d get to see them prove it, just as there’s no guarantee that Kawhi Leonard, for all of his precociousness and preternatural performance will make it back to this stage. Coaches and teammates retire. Bad decisions get rewarded; good deeds are punished.

Regardless of tonight’s outcome, the team and everyone involved will be deserving, undoubtedly — and yes, that includes you, T-Mac. San Antonio and Miami earned every bit of their accolades, and they did as much as they could to weigh the odds in their favor, tenth of a percentage point by tenth of a percentage point. Through incomparable adjustments and sheer force of talent, these teams put the fates to work in their machinations. But they aren’t the only ones who might have deserved to be here. Let us not forget those who fell before the razor’s edge of probability’s sword. Their processes and doomed battles against the tempest of results shouldn’t be lost to the ravages of time. To recognize that Tracy McGrady deserves every bit of this championship is to celebrate those who might otherwise stand fit to be sized for new jewelry.

Image by alshepmcr via Flickr

San Antonio’s Small Ball Adjustment

While the Miami Heat laid enough eggs in Game 3 to make the world’s largest midrange jumper omelette, the San Antonio Spurs deserve all the credit in the world for leading the 2013 NBA Finals. They’ve been better in both schematics and execution, and one adjustment in particular is striking. For much of the series, and in Game 3 specifically, the Spurs have committed to spreading an aggressive, swarming Miami defense to its breaking point by playing as many shooters as defensively palatable.

The Heat, of course, are most associated with lineup flexibility. Their ability to go small with multiple 3-point shooters is celebrated, but this is still a team that plays a fairly traditional starting five. Yet it’s the Spurs who’ve demonstrated a willingness to shift the rotation as necessary, going back to their second round matchup with Golden State. Against the Warriors, San Antonio ditched their usual combination of Duncan and Splitter in the face of a smaller opponent unleashing a barrage of jump shots; the standard Spurs starters played just 14.2% of the total minutes in the series. When their playoff path turned to Memphis, San Antonio doubled down on their bulkier lineups, with the starters playing over 25% of the available minutes.

All of that has given rise to an NBA Finals that’s blended both of San Antonio’s gears when the Spurs have played their best ball. They’re destroying Miami with their starting unit, which is outscoring the Heat by 20.1 points per 100 possessions, and they’re letting that squad run rampant for nearly as many minutes as in the previous round. With Udonis Haslem and Chris Bosh against the Spurs starters, San Antonio has been able to stuff the paint and dare Miami to take lower efficiency midrange jumpers. The Spurs aren’t lighting up the scoreboard with the starters, posting an atrocious 92.7 offensive rating — by comparison, the league-worst Wizards’ offensive rating was 97.8. But their starters are smothering the Heat (and allowing the Heat to smother themselves) to the tune of 72.8 points allowed per 100 possessions.

If San Antonio and Miami went starting unit versus starting unit for 48 minutes, the Spurs would be on their way to the most convincing sweep in Finals history. In Games 1 and 2, though, the Spurs largely gave that edge back when the Heat went small. San Antonio floundered with various combinations of Diaw, Splitter and Duncan on the court against Miami’s shooters. A conservative approach to Miami’s top gameplan simply didn’t cut it; while Diaw is by no means an awful shooter, he’s more proficient operating from the elbows than the perimeter, and his presence on the offensive end enabled the Heat to more readily rotate to cover shooters left open by their aggressive traps.

For the Spurs to capitalize on the lead they continued to garner with Haslem on the floor, they needed to find a way to counter the Heat’s small lineups. The Spurs tried an intermediate step, coupling Matt Bonner with either Duncan or Splitter.* It failed rather thoroughly. Miami too readily took advantage of Bonner’s defense, and the Spurs were unable to score enough to make up for the deficiency on the other end. Given those failings and in trouble of losing Game 1, Gregg Popovich went full bore with small ball, putting Kawhi Leonard and Gary Neal alongside the Ancient Big 3 just over four minutes into the fourth quarter. Down three at that point, San Antonio out Miami’d Miami, playing small better than the Heat did to secure a four point victory and the home court advantage they held in Game 3.

*It’s not really going small, given Bonner’s height — call it Spaceball(s).

Going small brings its own disadvantages and problems, surely, especially on defense. It hasn’t been all gumdrops and giggles for the Spurs when they’ve matched small for small. Two of the five most played San Antonio lineups without two of the Duncan/Diaw/Splitter triumvirate have been torched through the first three games. But this strategy provides the best chance at competing with the Heat when Haslem takes a seat. Many of those defensive shortcomings disappear when your opponent doesn’t have the size to exploit mismatches, as with Miami’s small lineups. And the threat of shooters all over the court for a team willing to make the next pass is a nightmare for a team predicated on leaving players open on the back side to force pressure at the point of attack.

In Game 3, San Antonio took that to heart; after going back to Diaw and Bonner in Game 2, once again to their detriment, the Spurs sat Diaw for the entire game and used Bonner only for spot duty and to mop up things at the end. When Haslem sat for the Heat, replaced by Mike Miller, Splitter sat for the Spurs, replaced by Manu Ginobili. Through a revolving combination of Gary Neal, Danny Green and Leonard, San Antonio coupled a wide open offensive attack that pressed Miami into unusual mistakes and suspect effort with tenacious defense  that thoroughly flummoxed LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and company. Yes, the Heat were awful, to an extent unlike anything we’ve ever seen from this team. Yes, the Spurs shot at a potentially unsustainable rate from deep, volume and efficiency considered. Yes, variance is a wonderful thing, and teams that go small and launch a ton of threes are more susceptible to the fleeting fate of luck.

But at this rate, San Antonio needn’t consistently beat Miami at their own game. They simply need to play that game well. If they can just keep pace, their starters will put them over the hump, and we might not be going back to Miami.

Statistical support provided by stats.nba.com. Image by digitpedia via Flickr

Inside Tim Duncan’s Halftime Buzzer Beater

A brief peek into the mind of Tim Duncan with .8 seconds remaining in the first half of Game 1:

“…seriously, though, it’s ridiculous how badly druids were nerfed in the last patch. Blizzard is out of their minds. Boris, are you even listening to me? Blizzard is a French owned company. This matters to you, too. … S’that, Pop? …with less than a second remaining? Sure. What’s the play? Must be like a lob or a pindown or something, right?”

Trust the process.

Create space. Give Tony room to get you the ball. Laugh at Joel Anthony. Seriously, Joel Anthony? Is Erik Spoelstra trying to play a joke on me?

Okay, focus. Wade’s here, too. He’s pesky. Probably won’t affect the shot too much, but he stands to have a bigger impact than Joel F—ing Anth — I said focus, Tim!

Why am I even thinking about these guys, anyway? Trust the process. Set your feet. Square your shoulders. Bend your knees. Get at least 6 inches of lift on the “jumper,” or Tony’s going to give you so much s— about being 50 or some other s— after the game. Trust the process. It’s just math. .8 seconds is plenty of time to make the catch and shoot, as long as you trust the process. No hesitation. No fear.

Heh, remember No Fear? Man, I think I still have a dozen of their shirts in the closet at Pop’s super secret lake house. Love fishing there. Pop’s got the biggest cache of C4 from his military days and man, it’s hilarious watching Patty Mills swim around after the detonation, gathering nature’s flash-charred bounty in his mouth. He loves it.

Oh, neat. We scored. Someone must have trusted the process. Wonder if Pop will let me run a 5-man dungeon at halftime.

Maybe I’ll invite Joel Anthony. Dude probably plays a hunter.

Image by ceoln via Flickr

NBA Finals Game 1 Sets New Playoff Low For Personal Fouls

If Thursday night’s Game 1 of the NBA Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat was the cleanest game you can remember in a long time, well, you’re not wrong. The Spurs and Heat combined for 24 personal fouls, a new record for fewest total personal fouls in a playoff game. The old record of 25 just turned 20 years old last month, though it came in a game that featured roughly half a dozen more possessions than Game 1. In fact, that particular game between the Cavs and Nets saw only .09 made free throws per field goal attempt, whereas the Spurs and Heat drew an astronomical (by comparison) .17 free throws per field goal attempt. The record for combined personal fouls in a regular season game is still safe at 21.

It’s little wonder the Spurs would be involved in setting this record; they had the third lowest defensive FT/FGA ratio during the regular season. Miami, on the other hand, was just about league average. Yet for all those generalities and trends, the specifics of Game 1 made for fertile ground for free-flowing basketball. These two teams pride themselves on crisp rotation and movement on both ends of the floor; when they execute the process as well as both teams did Thursday night, fouling almost becomes impossible. After all, there’s no need to foul if one is already in position. And when either of these offenses performs at their peak, there’s no time or room for the defense to grasp at straws. The ball stays in place for half a second before moving on to the open man, swung about like a game of hot potato played by heavily caffeinated jugglers. It’s rather difficult to foul a ghost, especially when you bit on his pump fake.

There’s little predictive value to this performance; Game 2 could just as easily be a statistical outlier in the other direction, a boggy mess through which we all must trudge. For at least one night, though, the Spurs and Heat showed just how beautiful this game can be when it’s left to its own devices. So the next time someone tells you that the playoffs are their best when there are no easy baskets and everyone is the ultimate tough guy, politely smile and nod. Let them have their rugged, manly playoff basketball. Give me the rhythm and the boogie that only a fast and loose high-stakes contest like this can provide.

Image by nosha via Flickr

My Finals Memory: Michael Jordan’s Team Wins His Third Ring

I think we all knew it was coming. I know no one thought it’d come like that.

Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals was my second live professional basketball game, a ridiculously generous birthday gift from both a family friend and my Phoenix Suns, who were kind enough to make their way to the championship round the same year that my sports fanaticism was ripe for the picking. In retrospect, it’s a miracle that I didn’t end up a bandwagon Bulls fan. My first game was also against Michael Jordan and company; Basketball Reference says Jordan scored 40 on that November night, but all I can remember is being so alarmed by the ease with which he did, well, everything, that I lost my handcrafted sign that I’d smuggled into the third-to-last row of seats in America West Arena on my way out after the game. The idea that my poster board and markers could counteract that seemed silly, even at seven.

When every path offers least resistance, your opponents — and their fans — get very few moments of excitement. Clinging to that two point lead with 14 seconds left was one of those precious fleeting instances, in the way that playing with a downed live wire will make you feel alive for half a second. Once again perched in the crow’s nest high above the action, it was impossible not to feel the sparks flying from the generator clad in red and black, adorned with his 23 Theses on the reformation of your heart into a palpitating mess of terror.

I mean, he’d already done it on the previous possession. With 43 seconds left, Michael Jordan grabbed a rebound off of a Kevin Johnson miss; 5 seconds later, he was at the other rim, trimming a four point Phoenix lead in half. When Chicago got the subsequent stop and prepared to inbound for that fateful John Paxson 3, it seemed inevitable that Jordan would do something. And he did — he took the inbound pass, and he dribbled to halfcourt.

Then, he passed. And he faded to above the three point line, not really part of one the most crucial play in my seven-month old passion. Scottie Pippen drove into the lane, dished to Horace Grant, who found Paxson … and Jordan’s contribution was simply the most emphatic celebration.* The greatest player on the planet in my new favorite thing had, with the game on the line, trusted in his teammates to take him to the promised land.

*Check out the almost proto-modern movement of the ball from the Bulls on the play. Today, the player in Grant’s position would be spaced out further along the baseline, or even in the corner, depending on the set and the personnel. But the path of the ball is almost exactly the same: dribble penetration (by a small forward with guard-like quickness and handles, no less) leads to a collapsed defense and a pass to a sort of basketball pivot table. Grant has the opportunity to take a shot if it’s open or swing it to the next open shooter. Truly, all that’s different is the defense’s inability to station a defender in the lane prior to the drive (given current zone defense rules) and Grant’s spacing.

And it worked, twice! Because even after that Paxson three, the game wasn’t over; Phoenix had the ball with 3.9 seconds remaining. Kevin Johnson inbounded the ball to Oliver Miller, who flipped it back to KJ and set a clearly illegal screen on Jordan as he trailed behind Johnson. That left Horace Grant to contain the dynamic point guard, but Grant overcommitted and, for another electric second, it seemed the Suns might force Game 7, which would be at home again, and they’d shown they could take these Bulls to their limit, take the best that Jordan had to offer and …

But Grant recovered. KJ’s shot ended up going backwards; the man in the goggles had swatted that flicker of hope into the offseason. Jordan once again celebrated more jubilantly than anyone; given all the personal turmoil, it seems clear why he was so happy to get that third ring. Yet all I can remember is imagining that he was just that happy that his teammates had won the game.

It was a perfect first love, replete with loss and lessons. The Suns — my team — had lost on the brightest stage, but not to the best player in the world. They lost to the best team in the world. And that made all the difference.

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Why The Heat Waited To Attack Roy Hibbert

In the afterglow of seven exhilarating games in the Eastern Conference Finals, one question stood out: What took so long for the Miami Heat to attack Roy Hibbert in the post?

The offensive gameplan for Miami on Monday night seemed simple. Gone was the reliance on perimeter jumpers, replaced by manic drives to the rim in an attempt to loft floaters over the vertically outstretched arms of Hibbert or smash the ball past his 86-inch frame and into the poor, abused rim. More over, the frantic leaps into the lane threatened to draw Hibbert past the event horizon of foul trouble, revealing the grand black hole in the middle of Indiana’s defense that his presence covers up. And in Game 7, it worked. Exactly 50% of the Heat’s field goal attempts came in the paint, their largest share since Game 1 of this series. The more proximate attempts at the rim, coupled with the presence of more Miami players stationed around the basket, correlated with an increase in offensive rebounding and second-chance opportunities.

Yet not all was gumdrops and ponies for the Heat on their forays to the hoop.  By now, we’re all familiar with the rule of verticality; if a defensive player establishes a guarding position, he is entitled to the vertical space around him, regardless of whether or not he is in the restricted circle. It’s a fantastic rule that allows defensive players to make defensive plays at the rim so long as they’re already in position to do so. To my eyes, there’s no one better than Hibbert, a monolithic Grim Reaper set to shuffle loose your shot attempts from this mortal coil, at pushing the boundaries of that plane. Beyond his skill at and dedication to the craft, he’s established a reputation both as a player who’s very good at maintaining his verticality and as a player who’s making every attempt to use his verticality instead of trying to draw charges. As a result, attempts to drive at Hibbert, even for the very greatest players in the league, are often a 50/50 shot at the very best. Early in the game, Hibbert set the tone for such play, leaping slightly forward into the oncoming LeBron James, creating the contact and drawing no whistle. While Hibbert likely should have been called for a foul, his reputation and the borderline nature of the situation crystallized one of the largest problems in attacking the paint for the Heat. Yes, one might draw a foul on Hibbert, tacking on another star toward his final arrest at the hands of the Liberty City bench police. But one is just as likely to be ran over by a tank and have a helicopter come crashing down on top of the remains, with no whistle blown. And it’s (mostly) legal!

Like a seasoned poker pro in a heads-up tournament, then, the Heat looked to exploit any other advantages they could find, saving the higher volatility for a showdown they preferred would never come. With seven games to play and never trailing in the series, Miami had plenty of opportunities to find other ways to exploit Indiana’s defense and revert to their Flying Death Machine form. It wasn’t fear so much as it was caution, the overwhelming desire to avoid putting the game in the hands of others if at all possible. And it’s not as if the Heat completely abandoned going at Hibbert in the paint. They picked their spots and attacked when they felt appropriate, but it was apparent that challenging Hibbert was not a priority for the Miami offense. They would work to find other high efficiency chances, so long as time was on their side. They moved the ball at breakneck pace, swinging it from side to side in an effort to draw open even the slightest bit of space. They “settled” for open midrange jumpers, the kind of shots that Udonis Haslem and Chris Bosh can thrive off of — if they’re falling. Ray Allen, Shane Battier and the rest of albatross company saw their fair share of open threes, threes, everywhere, nor any shot did drink. Through a combination of age, injury, proper defense from the Pacers and a healthy dash of variance, Dwyane Wade was unable to provide the necessary lift to get the Heat over a hump they couldn’t quite summit.

For all of their failings, though, Miami, had taken the chip lead over the course of the tournament. If a few cards had fallen their way, they very well might have eliminated Indiana without ever having to attack Hibbert. This wasn’t a failed gameplan, in the ultimate sense; it was rather close to working. It makes sense to go away from the strengths of your opponent, after all. Yet the Pacers were game, ready to re-raise any fancy check-raises by the Heat and able to fold a second-best hand when Miami had a monster. They’d lost ground relative to the even footing of the opening shuffle, but they were by no means in over their heads. Indiana had trusted in its process and its execution, and it shipped them right to the shore of Game 7.

When the blinds are high compared to the chip stacks in a poker tournament, the game changes. The strategies and tactics that made little sense earlier in the night become one’s best friend. Moving time, that special phase where the ever-increasing antes puts significant strain on those with few chips remaining, is a time of whirlwind aggression for those who wish to win the championship, not simply survive and move on for one more hand. These are the moments of terror that punctuate the monotony, where all one can do is make the best play possible and trust that the universe isn’t completely tilted toward the other. Skill disparities still matter, but they’re often left to the devices of probability. What seemed a last resort ages ago is now all you have left.

In Game 7, the Heat internalized that magmatic, flowing landscape and changed their approach. With just one game left, there was no longer time to pick at weaknesses, to try to seize a fortified feudal city with pitchforks and broomsticks. Instead, Miami chose to bring forth the hammer, shoving all their chips to the middle as the aggressor and letting the Pacers decide when they wanted to call the possible bluff. It was a strategy that put them at risk of elimination; if just one or two more calls against Hibbert goes the other way, perhaps Indiana is preparing to begin their match with San Antonio on Thursday. But the Heat trusted their process, even if it meant putting faith in a 60/40 proposition. They played the numbers, both on Monday and all series long. When their attempts to avoid the altercation in the middle were trumped, they showed that they can still dominate the most volatile of games. The final meeting between these two teams rewarded that aggression with plentiful free throw attempts for LeBron James and foul trouble for Paul George and Hibbert. There was no guarantee that would be the case, though. Given the sheer challenge in front of them, one can hardly blame the Heat for taking their allotted time to fully dissect the Pacers.

Photo by Earthwatcher via Flickr

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

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.