Author Archives: Jordan White

Hi! How was your summer? Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets were one of the most entertaining teams last season, and before Danilo Gallinari’s untimely and unfortunate injury, a dark horse contender for the NBA title. Early exit aside, the Nuggets seemed well-positioned for the future, with reigning Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri, reigning Coach of the Year George Karl, and a roster sporting a great blend of talent, youth, utility and veteran savvy.

Then came the offseason.

Exit Ujiri, Karl and Iguodala stage left, enter Tim Connelly, Brian Shaw and a host of role players stage right.

Teams usually enter the rebuilding phase after one too many seasons of mediocrity, or when their core of stars become too old to carry the team to a title. Rarely, if ever, does a team press the big red detonation button after one of the best seasons in franchise history. And while the Nuggets didn’t wholly blow up the team, they may have actually become worse by not doing so.

To replace Karl, the Nuggets hired the highly-sought-after Brian Shaw, formerly a disciple of Phil Jackson. However, despite his upbringing in the coaching world, Shaw claimed he wouldn’t install the triangle offense in Denver. Supposedly, Shaw will maintain the same principles as Karl, emphasizing an aggressive defense and an always moving, always running offense. But can that system be as successful with Iguodala gone and Gallinari absent for the first few months of the season? Ty Lawson was the key to pushing the pace, but the abilities of both Gallinari and Iguodala to successfully play and guard multiple positions were what made the Nuggets such a nightmare in terms of match-ups.

It will also be interesting to see how Shaw uses his younger players, a main point of friction between Karl and the ownership. In his introductory press conference, Shaw said developing young talent was an area of emphasis, which means JaVale McGee, Evan Fournier, Jordan Hamilton and maybe even Quincy Miller will see increased minutes this season.

In an effort to address last season’s achilles heel — shooting — the Nuggets signed Randy Foye, who shot 41% from beyond the arc last season and Nate Robinson, who was so hot in the playoffs he would have made the Human Torch look like Iceman. However, the additions of Robinson and Foye don’t balance the scale, they just weigh them in the opposite direction. Ty Lawson, despite his tremendous season, was exposed on defense in the playoffs when Steph Curry opted to just shoot over the much-smaller Lawson. Robinson obviously doesn’t fix those height issues, and Foye is no staunch defender himself, and certainly worse than Corey Brewer, now with Minnesota.

The worse and most puzzling signing of the Nuggets’ offseason can be found up front. Even though Denver already featured a front court of Darrell Arthur, JaVale McGee and even Danilo Gallinari, who can shift to the four in small ball situations, theyfigured one more wouldn’t hurt and added JJ Hickson. Last season, Hickson played with the Portland Trail Blazers, and while he did average nearly 16 points and 13 rebounds per 36 minutes, the team overall was better on both ends of the floor when he was on the bench.With Hickson on the court, Portland scored 105.2 points per 100 possessions while opponents scored 110.2. With Hickson off the court, Portland’s offensive rating rose to 106.8, and their defensive rating sank to 108.5, per basketball-reference.com. It’s not that Hickson is absolutely horrible — though, he’s not good, either — but a line up featuring him and McGee down low will be a calamity on defense, and an unholy sight on offense.

The signing of Hickson is even more baffling when considered with the Kosta Koufos trade. Koufos was Denver’s best interior defender last year, and was a plus/minus monster. Yet, in a draft night trade, the Nuggets sent Koufos to the Memphis Grizzlies for Darrell Arthur. Though Arthur is more talented offensively than Koufos, he’s worse defensively and injury-prone. Regardless, with Arthur on board, the last thing the Nuggets needed was an undersized forward/center whose expected value as a defensive stopper is as high as Andre Drummond’s as a free-throw shooter.

This brings to light the biggest issue with Denver’s offseason: the complete eradication of their former identity, and their lack of a new one in its place. Iguodala may not have been the team’s best player, but he was their most important player, nearly single-handedly elevating that defense to new heights. Karl, meanwhile, though not without his faults, was the ideal coach for the roster, implementing a system that took advantage of his player’s strengths and weaknesses (In fact, Karl’s ingenious machinations were apparently too successful, as the NBA Board of Governors this summer approved a rule change stating a team will lose possession if its player leaves the floor and doesn’t immediately return. Karl often had players such as McGee and Koufos stand out of bounds on offense, thereby creating more space and stretching out the defense). Ujiri was the architect of this hodge-podge roster, patiently building it in accordance with his vision. Losing Karl and Iguodala meant a loss of identity, while the loss of Ujiri meant a loss of vision and direction.

Connelly, Denver’s new Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, came from the New Orleans Pelicans, and was regarded as a swiftly-rising young executive. While it’s far too early to judge Connelly’s ability to build a team, his first offseason, aside from his coaching hire, didn’t exactly inspire confidence. Hiring Shaw was a good move in a vacuum, but the assets at Shaw’s disposal aren’t enough to make this team more than low playoff seed.  Of course it takes time to find an identity, but a direction should have been set the moment Connelly arrived in Denver. From the moves he’s made so far, it seems as if he’s still trying to read the map.

 Photo by Fried Toast via Flickr

 

 

Swaggy, Swaggy

Swaggy, Swaggy, burning bright
On the hardwoods of the night,
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy swagful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or lands,
Burnt the fire of thine hands?
On what shots dare he aspire?
What the eye coach rolls in ire?

And what coach and what foe
Could twist the sinews of thy fro?
And when thy fro began to weave
What dread look and what dread heave?

“What the hell?” Kobe’s refrain,
“In what furnace was thy brain?”
What the offense? What dread scheme
Dare silence the swag supreme?

When you took that guarded shot
And left fans wholly distraught
Did You smile Your work to see?
Did He who made the swag make thee?

Swaggy, Swaggy, burning bright
On the hardwoods of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy swagful symmetry?

 

Newton by Peter Reed via Flickr

William Blake – Tiger, Tiger

In Hawks We Trust?

In which Jared and I discuss the suddenly exciting Atlanta Hawks

Jared: So we’re going to talk about the Hawks. They should be pretty Hawksy again this year. Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Al Horford are back for anothe — wait a tick, these ain’t your slightly older brother’s Hawks. Budenholzer! Millsap! Carroll! Schroeder! Nogueira! Horford/Teague/Korver! This is an all new thing. Fun, right?

Jordan: Never Trust The Hawks is emblazoned upon the blogissist coat of arms. It is a mantra that has withstood the test of time — never failing, never false. And yet, after the moves the Hawks made this offseason, I can’t help but feel my allegiance to those words slightly wavering. I know I should remain steadfast in my distrust of the Hawks, but, for the first time in…well…ever, I’m cautiously excited about the Hawks.

The Horford/Millsap pairing up front has a few detractors yelling about a lack of size, but has the most of us giddy with the flexibility provided on both ends of the floor. While it may be a slightly odd pairing, it’s also somewhat fitting: both Horford and Millsap are wildly underappreciated on both offense and defense. Even if the pairing proves to be ill-fitting, it’s not that big of a deal, since Millsap’s 2 year/ $19 million deal is a ridiculous bargain.

But who am I kidding. That’s not really the reason I’m excited about the Hawks. No, the Hawks quickly jumped up the Jordan scale of Teams I’m Most Excited To Watch (name still in progress) when they selected Dennis Schroeder in the draft. I loved Schroeder before the draft, and that love only further deepened after watching him live at Summer League.

Have you ever seen a Presa Canario? It’s a member of the mastiff family, first bred in the canary islands to be a herding dog. Like other Mastiff breeds, the Presa is an enormous animal; a full grown adult can weigh upwards of 150 pounds. Where the Presa separates itself from its Mastiff brethren is in its walk. While the Bullmastiff pads, the Presa Canario prowls, its hips swaying from side to side with every step, not unlike a panther.

Dennis Schroeder’s predatory sway mirrors that of the Presa Canario, and like the Presa, it distinguishes him from the other breeds of point guards.

Usually, when we describe the qualities of point guards, we do so in terms of canine attributes: a bulldog mentality, a nose for the ball, the tenacity of a pit bull (however factually incorrect that simile may be), and so forth. And while Schroeder does display some of those canine qualities, there’s also something undeniably feline in the way he plays the game.

Schroeder bounds around the court, side to side, to and from even the smallest of distances. You can see it when he’s locked onto the opposing ball-handler, his hips swiveling in time with every one of his opponent’s ill-fated attempts at shaking him.

Russell Westbrook explodes out of the pick and roll; Dennis Schroeder slinks.

Schroeder’s not going to be the starter this year, which is a good thing. He may very well be ready to run an NBA offense, but I think a year coming off the bench will be terrific for his development and allow him to wreak a Bledsoe-ian style of havoc on the opposition from time to time.

Jared: There were any number of words in that email I did not understand. For example: Presa. Canario. Mastiff.

But I digress. Yes! I’m with you. I’ll actually go even further. I’m not hedging here; I’m excited about the Hawks. These dudes are gonna be fun. I know there are plenty of people who wanted Al Horford to move to power forward, but the dude has been plenty good as a center and a front court partnership with Millsap has all kinds of versatile potential. Both can shoot, both can post, and both can pass. The best word I’d use to describe the combination is “nifty.”

I know next to nothing about Schroeder. We discussed this in our pre-draft email chain with Jack. Everyone at summer league seemed to be in love with him though. I choose instead to captain the Lucas Nogueira bandwagon.

First of all, his nickname is Bebe. That is fucking awesome. Second of all, watch his DraftExpress scouting video and tell me he can’t be Tyson Chandler one day. Third of all, this picture from the draft.

Nogueira

 

Fourth of all, his nickname is Bebe.

Jordan: Jordan’s dream: Someone has switched Bebe’s locker to the one in the corner of the locker room. Bebe, being all of seven feet tall (eight feet when you include the afro) cannot comfortably extend whilst crammed in the corner. Budenholzer enters the locker room. He sees Bebe’s discomfort, gets upset, and yells: Guys! No one puts Bebe in the corner!

It scares me to speak of the Hawks with genuine excitement, but I can’t help it. We haven’t even really touched on Budenholzer, long thought to be the heir apparent to the throne of Popovich. I’m excited to see the sort of offense he installs with this team, and if he’s just as surly as his mentor in interviews.

If there’s one area of the Hawks that concerns me, it’s their wings (there’s a pun in there, somewhere). Who starts at these positions? DeShawn Stevenson? Because, no thank you. Korver’s best suited to come off the bench, in my opinion. I’m not that high on John Jenkins, despite his ability to shoot the absolute shit out of the ball.

Jared: So you went one for two on your puns there. I’ll let you figure out on your own which was a hit and which was a miss, although it should be fairly obvious.

I’m all about the Budenholzer hiring. Whether or not he runs exactly the same system they’ve been running the last few years in San Antonio remains to be seen, but the principles should be relatively similar, which should help both Horford and Jeff Teague immensely. That pick and roll/pop combination should be the center of most action the Hawks run, and then you can have picks or post-ups for Millsap, off-ball screens for Korver, and the spectacular Schroeder-Bebe combination off the bench.

Like you, my only concern is on the wings. Korver’s mostly fine as a positional defender, but he’s not stopper. Stevenson is ostensibly the primary wing defender, but he presents concerns on the offensive end of the court. It will be interesting to see what Jenkins can provide. But how could you forget about LOU WILLIAMS? He’s coming off an injury, yeah, but LOU WILLIAMS, man. He’s got some off the bounce creativity, can split some ball-handling duties with Teague and/or Schroeder while playing secondary or tertiary scoring option. You can’t forget about LOU WILLIAMS.

Also, LOU WILLIAMS is the kind of guy who always has to be called by his full name. Have you ever heard anyone call him anything other than LOU WILLIAMS?

Jordan: Wow. I really, truly did forget about Lou Williams. How in the hell does that happen? Still, that only solves the problem with one of their wings; the other is still somewhat clipped.

What’s really fascinating about this Hawks…resurgence? Revival? I’m not even sure what to call this phenomenon, but it’s remarkable that this all happened without the Hawks blowing it up. They may match last year’s record, but unlike last year, or any of the other past seasons in which the Hawks made the playoffs, that won’t reflect the maximized potential of this roster. This is a team that is going to get better, and has the pieces to do so. They completely skipped the rebuilding phase, but are still well-poised for the future; it’s incredible.

Jared: I would argue that Atlanta did “blow it up” over the last two seasons. The entirety of the recognizable Hawks core from the last 5-6 years is gone now (including both coaches and the general manager), with Horford being the lone exception. The blow-up phase just didn’t include bottoming out. It’s an Indiana style rebuild rather than an Oklahoma City style rebuild. They’ve reshaped the team from a capped out, tapped out group into a cap-lean, upside-heavy squad that is still of a similar stature as the previous version. Danny Ferry done good.

Jordan: Fair point, I didn’t think of it that way. Their style of tearing it down was such a gradual process, compared to the fire sales we usually see. So where do you see this Hawks team going this year? I’m thinking the fifth seed, just behind Miami, Indianapolis, Chicago and Brooklyn. I’m sure that you, as a Knicks fan, disagree with me, but I’m uncomfortably high on the Hawks.

Jared: I said sixth on the HP email thread yesterday. I think Miami’s got separation from the crowd, and then Indiana, Brooklyn, New York and Chicago are in a pack, then Atlanta’s got the 6, and then Washington, Cleveland, Detroit, and maybe Milwaukee are in the mix for the last two spots. That’s my hit on it.

Jordan: Either way, they’re a lock for the playoffs. And, for the first time in a long time, a lock for an entertaining season. We think.

Jared: We think. Never trust the Hawks.

 

Photo by JD Hancock via Flickr

Profile Paroxysm: Dwight Buycks and the Remaking of a Point Guard

Reputations are hard to shake, and even harder to change. Coming out of Marquette, Dwight Buycks had a reputation of a scoring point guard, a euphemism for a guard that can’t reliably run an offense.

Fast forward two years later, and Buycks — now having played in the NBA D-League and overseas — was playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Summer League team in Orlando. Buycks said his goals in Orlando was “to come here and let the world know what I’ve been working on: picking and choosing when I can get my shots and shots for others.”

Perhaps this sounds like the beginning of a story you’ve heard thousands of times before: A player comes to Summer League, promising to have completely retooled his game, only to show that his prior weaknesses still remain. This is not that story.

The 24-year old Buycks spent last season playing for BVM Gravelines  in France, where he was named MVP of LNB Pro A, averaging 18 points, 3.2 rebounds and nearly three assists per game while leading his team to a number one seed in the playoffs. Such honors and accomplishments might sway a player to stay in Europe and forget his NBA dreams, but the NBA had always been Buycks’ goal, and no amount of overseas success would change that.

There was no jolt of inspiration, no prophetic visions demanding Buycks change his scoring ways. Those are fit for fairy tales, not real life. The need for reformation was a gradual realization, one that came after a good deal of reflection.

“After reevaluating myself, I wanted and needed to become a complete point guard,” said Buycks. “Overseas, I scored a lot, but that was my job. At this level, [my job] isn’t going to be scoring, it’s going to be running the offense and getting guys shots.”

In the Thunder’s first Summer League game, Buycks the scorer was nowhere to be found. In his place was a player that always thought pass first, penetrating the lane not with the intent to score, but to suck in defenders and sling the ball out to a perimeter shooter. His eyes were constantly, incessantly scanning the floor, searching for an open teammate.

Buycks dished 13 assists in that first game, each one trumpeting the arrival of a point guard transformed. And while he never matched that number again in Orlando or Las Vegas, he played every game with the same, steady, unselfish demeanor.

An oft-heard skepticism concerning scoring guards attempting to remold their game as a passer is whether they have the necessary court vision to do so. Luckily, to hear Buycks tell it, he always had the vision, it was just a matter of properly harnessing it. To do so, he studied the bread and butter play of most NBA offenses, the pick and roll, as well as those who’ve mastered it — among them, Tony Parker, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook. “I watched a lot of film, both mine and of other players, (I wanted) to take pieces of other NBA players’ games and put it into my own,” said Buycks. The most important lesson Buycks gleaned from studying those prolific pick and roll operators was that of patience.

“(I have to) wait for that big to set a good screen,” Buycks said. “Because that’s what frees me up, which means the opponent has to help, and if they fight to get back to me, that means (the big and I) can have a pick and pop. Or, if their big runs back, I get to attack, and someone that’s not my man has to come over, meaning someone else is open.”

Buycks became more than just a capable passer, however;  in both Orlando and Vegas he was at times downright creative with his distribution. He’d whip no-look, over-the-shoulder passes to his big in in the pick and pop, or get deep into the lane, nearly under the basket, and rise only to wrap the ball around the back of the leaping defender to give his man an easy dunk.

His passing was in fact the first thing Rex Kalamian, an assistant coach of the the Oklahoma City Thunder and the head coach of the Thunder’s Summer League team commented on when asked about Buycks.

“He’s a willing and able passer and a very good pick and roll player,” said Kalamian. “Not only does he have the ability to get into the paint, he has the ability to find guys on the perimeter. When he drives, three or four defenders collapse on him, and he’s gotten a lot or our guys open shots because of his penetration and ability to get to the rim.”

The Thunder wasn’t the only team to take note of Buycks’ remarkable reformation. Buycks was supposed to play for the Miami Heat’s Summer League team in Las Vegas, but his performance in Orlando promptly changed those plans. Suitors both foreign and domestic pursued Buycks, and before the Orlando Summer League even ended, Buycks agreed to a multiyear deal with the Toronto Raptors.

That Toronto had interest in Buycks was no coincidence. Jeff Weltman, Toronto’s Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, used to be the Assistant General Manager of the Milwaukee Bucks, who worked out Buycks after he left Marquette. At the time, Weltman thought Buycks could eventually be a very good player, but needed to time to develop and address his issues. Following his exploits in Orlando, Weltman felt he had done just that.

When asked if he was surprised at the drastic changes in Buycks’ ability as a passer, Weltman beamed and softly shook his head. “Knowing the kind of guy he is, it doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Weltman. “He’s an incredibly hard worker. If [running the offense] was his weakness, he was going to find a way to attack it, and it was only a matter of time before he found his way into the league.”

While playing with his new team in Las Vegas, Buycks showed that his still very much existent scoring abilities could work in concert with his improved passing. He averaged 23 points per game on 15 shots (a stark contrast with his numbers in Orlando, where he averaged just 9.5 points on nearly seven shots per game), while still handing out seven assists per game.  Very few of his shots were those of a gunner. They came within the offense, when the timing and situation made sense for Buycks to channel his scoring mentality.

Inflexibility can be a death sentence to NBA hopefuls. If a player refuses to adapt or adjust, to change his game in a way that results in a lesser but more stable role, their time in the league will be counted in quarters, not seasons. We’ve seen this countless times with players that have been nothing else but “the man” everywhere they go, only to find themselves hopelessly out of their depths once they arrive in the NBA. Unable or unwilling to find other ways to contribute to the team, the player slowly drifts out of relevance.

But not every NBA aspirator must follow this unfortunate path. For those who realize their future in the NBA depends on their ability to aid a team in areas besides scoring, and who work tirelessly to cultivate their skills in those other areas, a spot on an NBA roster remains a possibility. Dwight Buycks proved as much this summer.

“Hard work pays off. I worked hard down in Orlando and gave myself a chance. The Raptors saw me, and now I have a home; it’s a blessing,” said Buycks. “I’ve had a long journey of working, and the journey’s just started.”

Profile Paroxysm: Darnell Jackson and the Value of Age

Age is our savior and our demise. It weakens the body, robs us of our speed, our vigor, our endurance. The decline is gradual, but noticeable. Just a year’s difference is enough to make us slower to rise and quicker to fall.

Yet with those years also comes wisdom and knowledge heretofore ignored or unknown. The lessons of our fathers, mothers, mentors and those who ever deemed us worthy of their insight are savored — experiences teach us what our elders told us.

Darnell Jackson isn’t old, but he is older. Do not, however, mistake that to mean he is a lesser player because of his age. If anything he is better because of it.

Jackson is five years removed from his senior year at the University of Kansas, and since that time has played in the NBA (with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Sacramento Kings and Milwaukee Bucks), overseas (with BC Donetsk of Ukraine and the Xinjiang Flying Tigers in China), and the NBA D-League (with the Erie Bayhawks and the Reno Bighorns). His journey is not of those bouncing from team to team, league to league, trying to find a home, but rather of learning, acquiring and honing skills that will allow for a lengthy NBA career, whatever his given role.

In Cleveland, he studied the importance of the “little things” as displayed by the likes Shaq, LeBron James and Anderson Varejao. He attributes his time overseas as the genesis for the development of his passing acumen, and values the D-League as a place to display his talents as a player and a teammate.

“When you’re on an NBA team, and you’re not in the rotation, you can’t get out there to show what you can do.” Jackson says the D-League gave him the opportunity to just play and work on every aspect of his game, from his shot, to his face-up play, even moving his feet faster. He extolls the virtues of the D-League for teaching him how to play a role, and play it correctly. “It’s not about scoring all the points. There are plenty of guys in the NBA that can do that. Whatever your role is, whatever you do well, do it consistently. Do it every game, every practice.”

Over the summer, Jackson, who plays with the NBA D-League Select Team in the Las Vegas Summer League, worked out with strength coach Chris Johnson, who counts players such as Mike James and Glen Davis among his clientele. It was during a sit down with coach Johnson that Jackson learned what he must do to last in the NBA: he must become a pig.

“(Coach Johnson) told me ‘I need you to be a pig. You need to play with Passion, Intensity, and I need you to have Guts. Pigs are in the mud, eating the nasty stuff. You need to be that guy that’s on the court setting hard screens, crashing the glass and running the floor as hard as you can.’”

It’s a mantra that’s since driven Jackson, pushing him through coach Johnson’s grueling workouts he describes as a cross between military and NBA training. The rigors of Johnson’s two and three-a-day workouts have clearly benefited Jackson, who now sports a stronger, yet slimmer physique.

On the court, Jackson plays with same swine mindset that inspirited him during the summer. He may not always secure the rebound, but he always battles for it. Be it diving for loose balls, running the floor — perhaps not the fastest, but certainly the hardest — or stonewalling opponents with screens, he is always in the mud.

Just as notable as Jackson’s newfound physique is his improved passing. Whereas before Jackson’s main contribution on offense would be in the form of a mid-range jumper or offensive rebound, he is now an able facilitator, making crisp passes from the post or in high-low situations.

“(Johnson) told me I need to be a point forward,” says Jackson. “I need to play with a base and see the floor. Back in the past, I wasn’t certain about making the right pass. One of my biggest fears was, and is, turning it over.” To help Jackson with his precision and vision, Johnson would give him a twenty pound medicine ball and have him do “frog jumps,” while also twisting and turning with the ball.

But to acclaim Jackson’s growth as a passer as simply a result of increased strength and conditioning is to ignore the maturation of his mind. “I’m 27, I’m getting old,” Jackson jokes. “The more I play, the more I work out, the older I’m getting, the easer the game comes to me. It’s slowing down.”

The speed at which Jackson is able to process the game and then make a play is the prefect synthesis of mind and body — the age of both now a boon.

We cannot hope to stop age, and thereby his elder sister, death. But we can stave them off, if we so choose, through exercise, diet, continuously challenging ourselves both mentally and physically.

Basketball is a microcosm of this. The longevity of a player’s career depends not on skill alone, but also on a commitment to fitness, to maximizing, then maintaining, one’s physical and mental gifts. Eddy Curry was blessed with myriad skills, yet cursed with the inability to control his appetite. Steve Nash, meanwhile, has sustained such a high level of play well past his supposed expiration date due to his maniacal dedication to health. Players who learn to think the game, to anticipate the action rather than solely react, often last longer than those who lean only on their athleticism.

If Jackson were stubborn, refusing to grow as a player and a person, unwilling to accept any role given to him, his advanced age would seal the already swiftly shutting window into the NBA. And while that window still continues close, Jackson’s maturity is an asset, as is his progression both mentally and physically. Combined, they’re a crow bar allowing him to keep the window from shutting, or perhaps even pry it wide open.

 

Image by Kevin_Morris via Flickr

Jerel McNeal’s Next Step

The Utah Jazz aren’t looking for the point guard of the future; they believe they’ve found him in Trey Burke. But a starter is only one piece of the puzzle. Complementary pieces — the back-ups, the spot-up shooters, the screeners and rebounders — are often what teams look for in the Summer League just as much as pure scorers.

While playing for the Bakersfield Jam of the NBA D-League, Jerel McNeal was able to reshape his game to become one of those desired pieces. Though he did average 18.1 points per game, more important to his chances of earning a call-up was his improved play as a point guard, evidenced by his 5.5 assists per game. McNeal may never be a team’s full-time starter, but he needed to show that, if called upon, he can be trusted to ably run a team’s offense.

For McNeal, playing in the D-League was the best way to mold himself into an NBA point guard, to learn to play the position the way the league demands. “(The D-League) is real similar to the NBA style of play,” says McNeal. “In my opinion, it’s just a step down from the NBA (in terms of) talent and athleticism.”

McNeal’s effort and refined game did not go unnoticed last season, as on March 27th, the Utah Jazz first signed him to a 10-day contract, and on April 6th, a contract for the rest of the season. It’s a sudden shift for any player to go from playing 30 minutes per game, being the team’s primary focus on offense and defense, to being the 12th man on the bench, fortunate to receive even five minutes of playing time. Yet, as McNeal says, one of the purposes of the D-League is to prepare oneself for such a dramatic change.

“When a player gets called up, he’s not going to go to the NBA team and put up 15-18 shots a game; they already have guys for that.” The key, according to McNeal, is “adjusting your mindset, doing the little things defensively and developing the intangibles that can help you stick around the NBA locker room.”

Last week, at the Orlando Summer League, McNeal played for the Jazz, displaying his versatility by playing both guard positions, starting in place of or right beside Trey Burke.

His numbers weren’t spectacular, with averages of just 8 points, 2.5 assists and three steals per game, but they didn’t need to be. McNeal ran the offense admirably, not forcing the issue, directing teammates to correct spots, and finding a great balance between looking for his own shot and that of his teammates. His defense was just as steady, if not more impressive, than his offense, displaying a tenacity, toughness and strength that allowed him to hound ball handlers and fight through screens. As Sidney Lowe, assistant coach for the Jazz and one of the coaches of Utah’s Summer League team explains, what they saw from McNeal on the court was more important than his numbers in the box score.

“We know Jerel can score, but the key for us is him running our offense and getting us into our stuff, defending people and making shots when he’s open. He knows he’s not coming here to be the leading scorer, and he’s done himself a great justice by thinking that way.”

The D-League allowed McNeal to adjust his game from both a mental and physical standpoint. It was those adjustments that earned him a call-up, a rest-of-the-season contract and an invitation to the Orlando Summer League. Those same adjustments will be crucial in his attempts to reach the next step of that progression: a guaranteed contract.

 

Image by LifeInMegapixels via Flickr

Dispatch from Orlando: 2 and 3

Day 2

  • Jeremy Lamb shows emotion! This is a new thing. Lamb’s never reacted to much on the court. His expression if he misses an easy shot is usually the same when he makes an extremely difficult one — that is, there is no expression. On Day Two, though, Lamb hollered in excitement after making a jumper over the outstretched arms of a defender. It caught me more than a little off guard.
  • Harkless is improved, both from a body standpoint and skill-wise. His body, though still wiry, is noticeably much more muscular and defined. It’s a testament to the benefits of having no limitations on the amount of time a player can spend in the weight room during the season and offseason. It also shows just how advanced professional strength training is compared to college. His body aside, Harkless also looks much better handling the ball. He ran the pick and roll, drove to the rim, even pulled off a few crossovers. If he can become just above reliable in that area, he’ll be a greater force on offense than what we’ve currently seen.
  • I had the…misfortune of sitting in front of a few “Orlando sports personalities” during a few of today’s games; I may have bruises on my forehead from the countless times I smacked it with my hand following some of their comments. When one amongst their company dared to disagree with them about a certain player, they ribbed him for joining the ranks of those “nerdy internet stat bloggers,” and generally poo-poo-ed the place of even the most basic analytics in basketball. I found this to be extremely odd, given that Orlando’s General Manager, Rob Hennigan, is a heavy user of analytics.
  • Andrew Nicholson’s post moves make my heart sing. That is all.
  • Plumlee the Elder looks good, and will likely be a rotation guy this year. Many were puzzled by this pick last year, but I don’t see why a combination of Plumlee and Chris Copeland can’t at least replace the production of Tyler Hansbrough for the Pacers this year.
  • The Tony Mitchell pick was supposedly a steal for the Pistons. However, through the first two days, I’ve yet to see anything that makes me think he’s a rotation player. He’s built like an ox, for sure, but it’s almost as if he has no idea how to use his body to play basketball. He’s constantly out of position on offense and defense, calls for the ball despite the fact that he is in no place to do anything with it, and just shows a low overall basketball IQ.

 

Day 3

  • Darius Johnson-Odom could maybe stick in the league as undersized two. He’d have a better chance of doing so if he was better at running the pick and roll, but more often than not, DJO is looking for his own offense. That’s not entirely a bad thing. He’s shown the ability to use his terrific athleticism so burst into the lane on his way to a thunderous dunk or contorting lay up. Whether or not he stays around will largely be dependent on his shooting. On day two, he had a nice showing from deep. Today, his stroke seems to have abandoned him (though he kept shooting regardless).
  • I like the way Donald Sloan has been playing for the Pacers. His numbers don’t jump out of the box score, so he’s not all that appealing to the casual fan. I’m sure, however, that team — both NBA and otherwise — talent evaluators have noticed the way he’s managed the offense and looked to get others involved. Maybe he doesn’t stick in the NBA, but he should be able to find success outside of the D-League.
  • Tony Mitchell still looks completely lost. I wrote in my first dispatch how Victor Oladipo knows how to use his athleticism to augment his game. Mitchell, possessed of great physical attributes, nonetheless shows very little idea of how to use it on the hardwood. If the Pistons keep him, I’m betting he’ll be spending a lot of time in the D-League this season.
  • Kevin McHale and Larry Bird still love to talk shit. Bird, upon hearing Danny Ainge complain to a ref that a Celtic who had just been whistled for a foul played perfect defense, shouted to Ainge: “What do you know about defense?” McHale, meanwhile, hasn’t been as loud as Larry Legend, but whomever he shakes hands with or sits next to, he always seems to find a way to give them a hard time.
  • Andre Roberson hasn’t done much for the Thunder. He jumps around a lot, which is all well and good, except that it hasn’t helped his team at all. He’s not a shooter, and he hasn’t shown much on the defensive end either. This could be by design, as the Thunder may want to emphasize other players at other positions, but Roberson so far just hasn’t stood out in any noticeable way.

Photo by Kordite via Flickr

Dispatch from Orlando: 1

Thoughts and musings on day one of the Orlando Summer League

Houston – Philadelphia

  • Houston’s energy was tremendous, and I don’t just mean the players on the court. To a man, from the head coach to the assistants in the back, the players with guaranteed contracts to the ones trying to show any team that they have what it takes to stick in the league, the Rockets’ bench was engaged, active, and even rambunctious. They cheered after every make, be it a thunderous dunk or a routine mid-range jumper, clapped and hollered at even the most banal defensive player, and were just generally excited to see their teammates do well. Their pre-existing chemistry, born no doubt this past season, was evident. Even if all of those players were there to prove something — their deserving of more playing time, or just a camp invite — they didn’t forget to have fun. 
  • In stark contrast to Houston’s bench was the morose Philadelphia 76ers. Not only were they lacking in energy, they hardly communicated on the floor. Perhaps it has to do with a non-existent system due to a non-existent coach, or maybe it’s because unlike the Rockets, this team hardly knows one another. Either way, they hardly displayed any energy or cohesion during their first game.
  • Tyler Honeycutt is like Matt Barnes, if Barnes was a better passer but worse at everything else.
  • Houston, especially Patrick Beverley, made life a living hell for Michael Carter-Williams. Beverley hounded MCW, frustrating the rookie to no end. Of course, the absence of personal foul limits allowed Beverley to be extra-aggressive.
  • Terrence Jones looks terrific. Aggressive, but not as out of control as before.

Orlando – Boston

  • I’ll admit, I wasn’t all that excited about Oladipo. OH MY GOD I’M SO SORRY I WAS SO WRONG. Athleticism is one thing, but knowing how to use it is quite another. Oladipo knows how to harness his athleticism in every facet of his game, from his terrifying defense to his explosive offense. He also displays a polish to his game that’s extremely rare for such a young rookie.
  • Between Oladipo and Harkless, the Magic have two players that make defense genuinely exciting to watch.
  • Kelly Olynyk has range, and looks extremely comfortable shooting the ball from any spot on the floor. Boston got Olynyk the ball in a myriad of situations, from spot-up to curling off screens, and in every one Olynyk was willing and able to shoot it. He’ll help Boston this year just with his threat of the shot alone.  On defense, Olynyk’s lack of strength was his biggest detriment, and will be going forward. Andrew Nicholson, though possessed of a polished post game, isn’t exactly Nikola Pekovic in terms of build, but was nonetheless able to wreck Olynyk down low.
  • Orlando, like Houston, was extremely enthusiastic and lively. They play for one another, even in this environment, which is crucial to the development of their chemistry.
  • Courtney Fells can jump. He’s listed as 6’6, but he blocked or challenged a few shots that would be tough for a person even four inches taller.
  • I’ll have more on this later, but Romero Osby looks to be a steal and a perfect fit in Orlando.

Miami – Utah

  • Trey Burke’s handles *drool*
  • Yesterday was not a good day for the top two point guards in the draft. Burke struggled much like Carter-Williams, shooting very poorly and generally struggling against longer players. However, towards the end of the game, he looked better in other areas of the game, specifically his passing. Twice in a row he was able to penetrate the lane off a pick and roll and make the dump off pass as soon as the defense collapsed.
  • Dionte Christmas made several nice passes, and his development in that area will be key to his chances of sticking on at team.
  • I really want to see more from Myck Kabongo. His first game was impressive from an intangibles standpoint, but numbers-wise, it wasn’t anything special. It didn’t help that this game lasted approximately 50 hours.
  • Jarvis Varnado is the Summer League LARRY SANDERS!

Oklahoma City – Indiana Pacers

  • From James Herbert: Grant Jerrett looks like Brian Cook. 
  • Jeremy Lamb’s shoot and game looks effortless, which isn’t always a good thing. He also showed a concerning penchant for going through stretches in which he takes several bad shots in a row.
  • Daniel Orton, for most of the game, looked very good. He showed off great mobility on defense, stepping out to guard the perimeter and blocking a few shots there as well. The level of competition obviously isn’t great, but any chance Orton can get to get more comfortable and just play basketball is great for him.
  • Steven Adams was a mixed game. I liked how he moved on defense, showing great agility and the ability to move with smaller, quicker players. On offense, however, even though he finished a few nice alley-oops, the game seemed to be too fast for him, as if he were stuck a second in the past.
  • Reggie Jackson loves himself some bench celebrations. Every three pointer was met with a different salutation. I’ve never seen him so animated.
  • Indiana’s roster reads like an NBA version of “Where Are They Now?” – Johnny Flynn, Rasual Butler, Micah Downs.

Detroit – Brooklyn

  • Andre Drummond wasn’t a man among boys. No, that doesn’t do justice to Drummond’s gargantuan stature compared to everyone else on either Brooklyn or Detroit. He was a golem. He was Godzilla. He was Apache Chief after having spoken Eh-Neeek-Chock several times over. 
  • Plumlee was PUMPED. He was clapping in opponents’ faces, yelling in excitement at his teammates, and flying up and down the court. When he stays within himself, he looks like he can be a solid contributor. When he tries to do too much, it gets ugly, fast. Plumlee had one of the highlights of the day, launching from a spin move in the post up to the rim for a sweet jam.
  • Kim English could have a really nice season for Detroit. Given the recent addition of Josh Smith, the Pistons are going to need as much spacing as possible, which English can certainly provide. Further helping his cause is his strong and still developing defensive game. If he can flourish in a 3 and D role, he’ll get major minutes for Detroit.
  • Summer League is the perfect setting for Damion James.
  • The Nets have quite a few intriguing players, such as Thornike Shengelia and Chris Wright, who showed an improved ability to run an offense.
  • Peyton Siva is slowly winning me over. I wasn’t a big fan of his originally, but he ran Detroit’s offense quite well and stayed within himself.

Players to watch moving forward

  • Jack Cooley – Houston Rockets
  • Romero Osby
  • Chris Wright – The Brooklyn one
  • Tony Mitchell – Both of them
  • Korie Lucious – Detroit Pistons
  • Myck Kabongo
  • Dwight Buycks – Oklahoma City Thunder

 

Photo by Kordite via Flickr

Two Step Forward, One Steps Back

Yesterday, in one fell swoop (trade), one team inched that much closer to title contention, a second added a key piece to their new youth movement, while the third…continued to baffle, if not infuriate.

The trade in question is of course the three-way exchange between the Los Angeles Clippers, Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks, in which the Clippers receive J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, the Suns receive Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler, and the Bucks get two second round picks.

For the Clippers, this was a no-brainer. Willie Green was serviceable as the Clippers’ starting shooting guard last season. His PER was a less than respectful 11.8, but he shot nearly 43% from beyond the arc and scored 13.6 points per 36 minutes. Redick, however, is much more of a weapon than Green could hope to be. Not merely a standstill shooter, Redick is very adept at getting open looks via screens. Per MySynergySports, with both the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic last season, 30% of Redick’s offense came from off-screen situations. With Orlando, approximately half of Redick’s shot attempts coming off screens were three pointers (93 of his 187 total attempts), while with Milwaukee, that number dipped slightly (48 of 102 total attempts). Interestingly enough, Redick’s offense suffered the more he was forced into a spot-up role. Spot-up plays accounted for 18% of his offense in Orlando, scoring 1.27 points per play and shooting 47.1% from the field. As his percent of spot-up plays rose in Milwaukee, to the tune of 24%, both his points per play – 1.02 – and his field goal percentage – 39.8% – dropped. Further, to classify Redick as just a shooter is disservice to his all-around game. He’s a valuable defender from both an individual and system standpoint, and while he may not have the handles of Jamal Crawford, he is more than capable of running the pick and roll or being the initiator on offense.

Speaking of Crawford, it will be interesting to see how Doc Rivers manages the minutes of both Redick and the master of the four-point play. Green may have been the starter by name, but he only played 16.5 minutes per game, while Crawford played 29. With Redick (and Rivers) now in tow, however, one would expect this discrepancy to disappear. It’s possible we’ll see a three guard line-up of Paul, Redick and Crawford, which could be lethal

The Clippers also gained another valuable asset in Jared Dudley. Three-and-D wing players are very much en vogue, and Dudley is one of the too-often forgotten founding members of this club. The addition of Bledsoe to the Suns signifies several items. First, new General Manager Ryan McDonough showed his commitment to an actual rebuilding process, not one in name alone. Bledose was an extremely hot commodity during the regular season, due to his havoc-wreaking nature on both sides of the floor. Bledsoe averaged 14.9 points, 5.4 assists, 5.2 rebounds and 2.5 steals per 36 minutes, with a PER of 17.5. It wasn’t all roses, however, as Bledsoe also turned the ball over 3 times per 36 minutes, and saw his production taper off severely as the season wore on. Despite these flaws, Bledsoe’s production was apparently enough to convince McDonough that he was ready to be at the helm of his own team. This is a genuinely exciting acquisition. It’s not overpaying or giving up too much for a washed-up veteran or a player that will never live up to his potential no matter how many chances he gets. It’s still a risk, as Bledsoe is unproven in his ability to run a team full-time, but it’s a calculated one, and needed if the Suns are ever going to rise from the dregs of the NBA.

Second, goodbye Goran Dragic: point guard, hello Goran Dragic: shooting guard. The Suns didn’t bring in Bledsoe to back up Dragic, but the 27 year-old Serbian is too good, and too highly paid, to go back to the bench. There isn’t a tremendous amount of data to help gauge how successful Dragic will be in this role. According to 82games.com, the only time Dragic has played more than 10% of his minutes at the two was with Phoenix in 2009-10 (17%) and Houston in 2011-12 (13%). He saw some success in Phoenix, posting a PER of 18 and an effective field goal percentage of 57.2%. Those numbers weren’t as great in Houston, as his PER was 12.9 and his eFG% was .492. Then again, we can likely explain at least a portion of this discrepancy with the Steve Nash effect. Defensively, in Phoenix, Dragic held opposing shooting guards to an eFG of 49.4%, while in Houston, that number rose to 51.5%. Again, the small sample size caveat is an important one here, and we can’t yet make a definitive statement as to Dragic’s ability to play the two full time. The Suns can also use Dragic as trade bait to dangle in front of a fringe-contender in need of a quality point guard.

As for the Bucks…well…maybe we should rename them the “Milwaukee Meh.” Essentially, the Bucks turned a half season of JJ Redick, acquired to help them make a run in the playoffs which ultimately amounted to nothing, into two second round picks. It’s hard to see what, if any, strategy under which Milwaukee is operating. While second round picks are becoming increasingly more valuable, they are a paltry compensation in a trade that saw the other two teams acquire essential pieces. As Zach Lowe points out, it puts the Bucks in solid tanking position, but will Milwaukee actually succeed in this endeavor? Tanking is hard in the Eastern Conference, with so many awful teams in the bottom that one or two inevitably falls into the 7th and 8th seeds. Given how excited the Bucks were to make the playoffs last season, they may even forsake the tank in favor of another ill-fated run.

Two teams got exactly what they needed in this trade: the Clippers received two elite shooters, while the Suns received a young, promising point guard to lead them out of the desert (metaphorically speaking, since they’ll still be in Phoenix) and into the promised land. The Bucks? The Bucks aren’t even Charlie Brown on halloween, getting a rock while everyone else got candy–Charlie never expected the rock. The Bucks knew exactly what they were getting with this trade, but it’s unclear if they’ve planned a next step.

 

Finding Purpose

For most teams, the NBA draft represents a chance to add a key building block to their already solid foundation. For a few teams, though, the draft is a chance to wipe the slate clean, to start anew in hopes of escaping the dreaded purgatory of decent. Last night, the Philadelphia 76ers took such a chance, trading away their best player in Jrue Holiday for Nerlens Noel and highly coveted 2014 first round pick and later drafting Michael Carter-Williams. In the second round, the 76ers made a flurry of dizzying deals that eventually landed them Arsalan Kazemi, the first Iranian ever drafted to the NBA.

“When I came here, I said, ‘the exact status quo wouldn’t get it done,’” said 76ers President and General Manager Sam Hinkie at the team’s post-draft press conference. The status quo has, for the past several years, been the very definition of the 76ers. It never seemed as if they were building towards something, even when they upset the Bulls in the first round of the 2012 playoffs. The Andrew Bynum trade was gutsy, and a refreshing risk by a franchise that had usually been nearly allergic to them, but it backfired, and the team was left with no young talent, no plan to recover. Worse, they weren’t even back to square one, but square three or four, with no square five in front.

What these moves did, more than anything, was give the 76ers a clear and defined direction. Yes, it made them worse. And yes, it cost them their best player. Trading a young point guard fresh off of an All-Star season for a first round pick and an unproven player is the very definition of risk. But it was one that had to be made if the Sixers were ever going to be anything other than decent.

It should also be said that Hinkie’s trading of Holiday likely isn’t a referendum on Holiday’s talent, just the opposite: Holiday was too good to keep around. He would have kept the Sixers afloat, continuing to tread water in the vast sea of mediocrity.

We bemoaned the lack of superstars in this year’s draft, but the reality is that very few drafts produce immediate stars. Last year’s supposedly stacked class produced a top-5 of Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bradley Beal, Dion Waiters and Thomas Robinson. Harrison Barnes and Damian Lillard, picked sixth and seventh, also had very good rookie campaigns. But none of those players have yet to be stars, and while Davis may reach that level, his ascension is no certain thing. Franchise saviors–the LeBron’s and Durant’s–are few and far between. Maybe Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker or Julius Randle are one of those players who can single-handedly drag a team up from redundancy into relevancy. The 76ers are banking on the hopes that they are.

Nerlens Noel–whenever he actually takes the court–and Michael Carter Williams are not the endgame for the Sixers, but the beginning of something much bigger than just the two of them. The Sixers will lose this year. They will lose a lot. The difference, however, between last year and this year is that the losses will actually have meaning, paving a path to a better future. They’ll lose on purpose, and lose with a purpose.

Photo by Bonito Club via Flickr