Author Archives: Noam Schiller

2013 All-Star Profiles: Zach Randolph

Photo from bestarns via Flickr

Photo from bestarns via Flickr

It’s not even surprising that Zach Randolph is an all-star at this point.

It’s a weird realization to have, but it’s true. This is only Z-Bo’s second all-star appearance (personally, I keep forgetting that he didn’t make it in 2011), and only the fourth year of his Memphis tenure (before which coaches wouldn’t even go near him for the all-star game), and yet, it feels as if Z-Bo just belongs and that’s that.

There was, perhaps, some discomfort that the “token Grizzlies spot”, if such a thing exists, went to him over Marc Gasol this year. However, such discomfort only survived so long before it was washed away by just how natural a part of today’s NBA it is to see Randolph in the all-star game. Just four years removed from the trade that brought him from Los Angeles to Memphis – an outright salary dump for which the Clippers were commended and the Grizzlies ridiculed – Zach Randolph’s transformation from malcontent to all-star is not just complete, it is so ingrained that we almost forget it ever happened.

Instead, the focus with Z-Bo is on that next level. Watching his rainbow jumper splash again and again on the Spurs and Thunder in the 2011 playoffs, it’s almost impossible not to view Randolph through a superstar prism. For that one spring, Randolph was a rare glimpse of brilliance, a surefire bucket in times of need and an offensive centerpiece rivaled only by an eventual Finals MVP in Dirk Nowitzki. It stands out against his career norms, but since Randolph’s entire time in Memphis stands out against his career norms anyway, expecting him to overachieve is almost part of the game. We were treated to the best, and we expect it back. Whether this is even remotely fair is irrelevant.

The Grizzlies depended on that Randolph to distressing degrees in 2011, asking him to carry an offense just high enough for the defense to get the knockout, and they promise to depend on another transcendent Randolph postseason just as much in a post-Rudy Gay world. As balanced and defensively brilliant as this Memphis team may be, the offense was always over-dependent on the individual abilities of either Randolph or Gay to create. This is partially by design – a confusing, deservedly criticized design – but it is a design that has worked for the Grizzlies in the aggregate, one that could, if subjected to any further tweaks, potentially proving disastrous to a delicate locker room situation.

Is Randolph even capable of replicating such heights? It’s a fair question. We’ve only seldom seen 2011 Randolph ever since those playoffs. This contest stands out as the best example, but it came against your Phoenix Suns, hardly the Thunder or  Spurs. That player may no longer exist.

One can easily make the case that even 2010 Randolph is long gone – the past two seasons have seen Z-Bo post career lows in usage rate and points per minute. Randolph’s game is built around phenomenal hands and a low center of gravity, not so much elite athleticism, but Father Time works in mysterious ways, and Father Time dictates that Randolph is 31 years old and had serious knee issues in the past. It’s possible that this is the last year an all-star selection for Randolph is met by a collective nod of approval.

But Randolph was so good in those playoffs, just two years ago, that he has some leeway with us. This, too, would be unimaginable just a few years ago – Zach Randolph! Leeway! Imagine the odds! – but that just goes to show how deep his transformation has gone. For now, we’ll accept him with open arms, an all-star berth that was basically a coin toss between him and his teammate, and hopes that he can be a short-term superstar once again.

2013 All-Star Profiles: David Lee

Rikomatic (Flickr)

Rikomatic (Flickr)

It’s not the first comparison that will pop into your head when you look at him, but David Lee’s career arc is actually very similar to a fellow all-star and former teammate in Zach Randolph.

They’re both lefties with smooth mid-range shots. Both crash the boards like mad men. Like Z-Bo, David Lee started out as a per-minute wonder who didn’t get enough minutes. Like Z-Bo, Lee broke out as his minutes increased. Like Z-Bo, David Lee got an insane contract and toiled in mediocrity, as the way he grabbed his (impressive) numbers wasn’t necessarily conducive to winning a basketball game. Like Z-Bo, he changed his ways for the better and is now leading a team in the Western Conference’s second tier.

And yet, David Lee’s story isn’t one of redemption, or of learning to play the right way. When Z-Bo traded his malcontent ways for Memphis winnings, celebrations were held around the basketball globe, his name aggrandized as a warrior who won in the impossible battle against his own demons. Zach Randolph was proof that yes, you can change your ways at 28 years old, and no, your reputation as a basketball player is not set in stone. David Lee’s story is a fun one, for sure – his improvement this season has been touted continuously on many a medium – but it wasn’t one of redemption, just of improvement.

Admittedly, Lee was never considered a malcontent. Lee was never angrily shown the door – he has played for two teams his whole career, only moving from one to the other when the 2010 Knicks brought in Amar’e Stoudemire on Lee’s spot. Randolph had burned bridges everywhere he went; Lee’s only crime was not winning. In a sense, there was nothing to be redeemed from, except for that pesky aversion to defense.

There is also a darker, more sinister undercurrent to the Lee/Z-Bo narrative. Lee played four years of college, and is white; Randolph played one year, and is black. Lee was the hardest worker on the team during the lost Knick years; Randolph was part of the Jail Blazers and rode the revolving door of failed star billings during the lost Knick years. Randolph, during his bad years, was probably much more of a detriment to his teams’ success than Lee was, but he also fit the profile much better, which will forever change the coverage. And we expected Randolph to be good; for Lee, even “stats grabber on a bad team” was an overachievement. You can’t get mad at an overachiever, right?

Even so, there is redemption to be told when telling of David Lee. Somewhere between Mike D’Antoni and Golden State, Lee stopped playing 50% of basketball. Yes, he played out of position, and yes, his teams were awful, but there was always something disconcerting about Lee, a player who broke out due to effort and didn’t seem to give the slightest damn about defensive play. He gradually found brilliance on the other end – especially during his final Knicks season, when he worked as a de facto point center for a roster that had no business existing, a showing that gave him a semi-controversial first all-star nod as a David Stern named replacement – but the label stuck.

Watching him ditch those habits for this year’s Warriors team has been a treat. Lee still wouldn’t be your choice defender, but he’s also no longer a liability. His rebounding isn’t back where it was during his New York days, but it’s the best we’ve seen since his move to The Bay and is a huge part in the Warriors’ improvement on the boards. His Synergy numbers on the pick and roll are staggering – he’s ranked 6th in the league (on defense!).

And without the horrible defense to distract him? We can appreciate all of the good again. The backbone he provides for the offense, both as a high post creator and as a pick and roll partner for Stephen Curry, is almost unparalleled among current big men. He’s virtually ambidextrous. He’s an excellent passer.

He’s just really, really good. No more caveats. Good for him.

Trade Season Madness: Bargs-For-Booze Junk Swap?

Photo from stinkenroboter via Flickr

Photo from stinkenroboter via Flickr

The Toronto Raptors, fresh off a splashy yet expensive move for a recognizable name in Rudy Gay, are still 8.5 games out of the playoffs. Embattled GM, Bryan Colangelo, notorious for aiming to win press conferences, is on the record saying that he’s not done dealing; specifically, he is ready to bid a tearful farewell to former number one pick/face of the franchise/defensive sieve/scapegoat/disappointment Andrea Bargnani.

The Chicago Bulls? They don’t like paying the luxury tax.

Put the two together and reports such as these from Marc Stein make sense.

The Chicago Bulls and Toronto Raptors have engaged in exploratory trade discussions on a deal that would swap the Bulls’ Carlos Boozer for the Raptors’ Andrea Bargnani, according to sources familiar with the discussions.

Other players with smaller contracts would have to be added to the deal to make the salary-cap math work should talks indeed progress to a more serious level. But sources told ESPN.com on Thursday that both teams have considered the move.

via Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors talking Carlos Boozer-Andrea Bargnani swap, sources say – ESPN.

It is important to note the oft-ignored “exploratory talks” caveat before we go berserk. Such discussions take place on the regular, with actual trades seldom materializing. For all we know, the extent of these “talks” could have been a Gchat discussion between Colangelo and Chicago GM Gar Forman that went something like:

GarGarBinks: “Hey, Bryan. Saw you just acquired Rudy Gay’s max contract. How ‘bout a little Booze?”

Brolangelo: “Ha ha, Gar. Very funny. Speaking of bad decisions – Marco Belinelli’s working out nicely, care to double down on Pastaland with some Bargs?”

That said, we can’t help but wonder if there is some substance here. Stein is a trusty voice, and the idea behind a my-junk-for-your-junk swap is very much in character with what we’ve come to expect from both sides.

Let us start with the Raptors, where as always, this reeks of Bryan Colangelo talking himself into quick fixes. If detractors of the Gay acquisition were baffled by Toronto’s willingness to commit to high-payroll mediocrity, a trade for Boozer would all but cement the team’s core. The Raptors could avoid tax payments in upcoming years by amnestying Linas Kleiza and/or other minor maneuvers, but they would be dangerously close for a team that has no clear cut all-star caliber player and still has to re-sign Kyle Lowry.

While Boozer might actually do well to fit with a transition-oriented core of Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan-Terrence Ross-Gay – he’s a great defensive rebounder, which such a foursome would need alongside them, and has scored well in transition since coming to Chicago, via mySynergySports.com – the full benefits are dubious at best.  His presence would severely limit the Raptors’ ability to play Rudy Gay at power forward, the kind of new-age, athleticism-first basketball that could be the redeeming quality of the Gay trade, and would come at the expense of Jonas Valanciunas’s development and Amir Johnson’s energy. All this for the tantalizing prospect of a hopeful first round series exit in 2014.

This Raptors squad, financial mess and everything, can go places. The pieces are intriguing, the athleticism oozes out of the depth chart, and even the horrible DeRozan extension can be salvaged, either by him improving or by convincing another team that, really, we swear, he’s improving. And the logic behind this rumor – that any future needs to be Bargsless – is sound. But Carlos Boozer is not the answer. The way to raise this franchise’s profile is through patience and development, not bringing in high-profile veterans and hoping their play echoes as loudly as their names. If Colangelo is too concerned for his job to exhibit such a trait, he should be relieved of it. He probably should be regardless.

Chicago’s side of this rumor is also a familiar sight – an all-encompassing concern for the bottom line. Boozer’s game was wrought with antagonizing traits even in his prime, what with the screaming and the (non-)rotations on defense and the tripping over gym bags. As natural erosion has taken to his game, and with a cheaper, defensive stalwart in Taj Gibson waiting behind him in the depth chart, Boozer has become a lightning rod to Bulls’ fans hate.

Even so, and despite a regression in the mid-range shooting that is a decent chunk of Boozer’s offense, Bargnani would be a massive downgrade. For all his faults, Boozer was mercifully passed on by the evil demon that made Bargnani think he can shoot threes, spending much more of his time near the rim than the trigger happy Italian. He’s a very good finisher, shooting 69% at the rim this season (his 4th consecutive year in the high 60s), and takes 5.4 shots a game from that area to Bargnani’s 2.5. He’s also a good passer for a big and forms a fun interior sharing tandem with Joakim Noah – plop Bargnani in there instead, and watch the movement die.

No, this is all about the cash for Chicago. Boozer is on the books for a whopping $47 million this year and the next two (phew, there was a bit too much pro-Booze in that last paragraph) to Bargnani’s $32.25M. Swap the two for each other while adding Nate Robinson and John Lucas from each sides to make the money work, and that’s enough to get the Bulls to go from about $3 million over the luxury tax threshold to the promised land.

That might be just enough for the penny-pinching Jerry Reinsdorf to send Forman out to the balcony to address the masses, trying to explain how the Bulls prefered to space the floor with Bargnani’s career 36% three point shooting. The Bulls defense will survive regardless – they will do so as long as Tom Thibodeau roams the sidelines – but it would be a losing proposition overall, in the name of maximizing profits for a franchise that is guaranteed one regardless.

This deal seems bad for both teams, as one would expect from a swap of overpaid, underpreforming players. Which means it will probably happen. Ah, trade season. Never change.

Schiller Filler: I Have No Idea What I’m Doing

Photo from DoodleDeMoon via Flickr

Photo from DoodleDeMoon via Flickr

As the NBA continues to ease into the bulk of its regular season, I allowed myself a leave of absence, missing the past week or so of NBA games. In a desperate attempt to familiarize myself with latest developments, I’ve asked over Amin to help me out and tell me how bad my hastily formed opinions on a few major subplots truly are.

Noam: So, it looks like the Lakers are finally… IMPLODING IN A HUGE BALL OF FIRE AND BRIMSTONE. The would-be title contenders are now 5 games out of the Western playoffs with the halfway mark coming up, and they can’t seem to get healthy. Dwight’s torn labrum may or may not heal, but it sure won’t heal his back; Pau Gasol’s concussion joins an ever growing list of concerns regarding the Spaniard’s mind; and there is absolutely no depth to speak of on the roster, even as Ron Artest plays the best basketball he has in years.

All of these concerns have done an interesting little number on the narrative machine. Coming into the season, when the Lakers were expected to destroy us all, the common sticking point was “well, if Kobe doesn’t buy in, he can ruin it”. Instead, Kobe’s played some of the most inspired offensive basketball of his career as the walls came tumbling down around him.

And yet, as I look at Los Angeles’ unraveling, I see disturbing trends. Kobe’s TS% has been declining throughout the year, going from 63.8% the first 10 games to 59% the next 10, then 56.7% the next 10, and now 53.7% during the latest 5 game losing streak. Meanwhile, his shot attempts have gone up, his usage rate has stayed pretty consistent (down early and late, up through the middle), and in the team’s last 15 games, they’re break even with him on the floor. There are so many bad things with the Lakers right now that it’s hard to pin this all on Kobe, but has he gone from “MVP season in terrible situation” to another part of the problem?

Amin: NOAM YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE DOING. I mean, Kobe’s basketball style is always something to criticize. His “inspired” basketball, as you say, has been trending downwards, but I feel 100% comfortable saying the Lakers’ woes are related to only 2 things: Dwight Howard and the roster’s age. Dwight Howard’s injuries aren’t helping, for sure, but he’s not gelling with the offense or defense. Van Gundy designed an entire playbook around him, and now he’s just part of a team in Los Angeles. As for the age component, a D’Antoni SSOL offense with Nash and Howard is a great idea, but SSOL worked a lot better when everyone on the team wasn’t 40 with 6 billion minutes corroding their joints.

Noam: Not only is Eric Gordon back, ERIC GORDON IS BACK. The Hornets have swept the Texas triad and are now 4-1 with what is presumably their full cadre of players available. Gordon has been miserable shooting the ball, but some rust should be expected; meanwhile, he’s getting to the line a ton, which is great to see from a guy who would have been accepted for being tentative. The Hornets have been 5.7 points per 100 possessions better than their opposition when he’s been on the court, and though the sample size is miniscule, that feels right. Gordon’s had his issues, but he features in an opponent’s scouting report and can create both shots and general havoc. As such, his numbers are almost irrelevant to my eyes as long as he’s healthy enough to be on the court. Am I seeing the Bayou through rose-colored glasses?

Amin: NOAM YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE DOING. No, I think that’s a good assessment of NOLA. I didn’t think Gordon would have this much of an impact, but I think with him back, you’re starting to see all of the Hornets’ offseason moves make a lot more sense on the whole (aside from the Okafor-Ariza trade, because that was a no-brainer; “wait, Ernie, you want these guys? and you want to give me Rashard’s half-guaranteed contract to buy out? OKNOBACKSIES!). I’m looking forward to this roster playing together more. I don’t think they’ll make the playoffs this year by any stretch, but they’ll get a good lottery pick next year, and they’re on the road to recovery a lot faster than other teams. Great moves by the New Orleans front office, and welcome back Eric Gordon (let’s just forget that begging-for-Phoenix thing happened, shall we?).

Noam: Speaking of comebacks – the Celtics have won 4 straight because Avery Bradley is back, he was the savior just like we thought, and everybody should chill out with questioning his greatness, the end. Or should we? In the 5 games Bradley’s played so far, the Celtics have played 113 minutes with Bradley and 127 without; they’re outscoring opponents by 3 points with him, and by 28 without. The Rondo-Bradley-Pierce-Bass-Garnett unit that broke out last season has only managed 34 mintues so far, but it’s been destroyed on a per-possession basis, to the point of a -24.4 net rating.

Bradley’s hardly played, so most of these numbers should be downright ignored. But if we’re doing that, shouldn’t we also acknowledge that the win streak upon his return is just one of those NBA coincidences that just happen? Or have they been legitimately better with him back in the mix and I just can’t see it because I missed it live?

Amin: I think they’re legitimately better with him back, because the Celtics (this is actually surprising to me) misfired on the Courtney Lee signing. Bradley coming back into the rotation will result in using Lee less, which will help the Celtics a ton. I don’t think he’s the “savior” like some have contended, but he’s definitely part of the Celtics defensive core. The Celtics have a formula: lots of defense to try to disrupt the opponent’s rhythm + Paul Pierce isolation plays + Rondo feeding the bigs + someone on the second unit who can score a damn basket once in a while. It’s not a championship formula this year, but it’s a good formula nonetheless. Bradley helps solidify the first component; Lee wasn’t helping with any of the rest of it.

Noam: I’ve been intrigued by the recent Rudy Gay trade talk. On the one hand, I’ve been a big backer of these Memphis Grizzlies, and am dying to see what a fully healthy Conley-Allen-Gay-Randolph-Gasol lineup can do come playoff time. Then again, the Clippers and Thunder (and feel free to throw in the Spurs if you wish) seem to be distancing themselves from the pack as the Grizz offense has bogged down, and the tax concerns are very real.

The only way a Rudy deal makes sense is if Memphis gets back a combination of an acceptable starting 3, an actual long range shooter, and some backcourt scoring off the bench. Off the top of my head, the teams that best fit that description are the Suns (Jared Dudley as the first two, Shannon Brown as the latter, with the added potential of moving Marcin Gortat to a third team if needed) and the Bucks (Mike Dunleavy is absolutely perfect for this team’s shooting woes, and I have this weird feeling that Lionel Hollins can make Monta Ellis work). What do you think? Rudy? No Rudy?

Amin: I honestly have no idea. It boggles my mind that in less than a year we’ve gone from “OJ Mayo is the odd man out” to “Oh no, Rudy Gay’s injured! We’re doomed!” to “Mayo is stepping up in a big way in Gay’s absence! These playoffs are great!” to “Bye Bye, OJ!” to “Wow, I guess Mayo was the odd man out because look how well they’re playing with just Gay!” to “Oh God, trade Gay because this team needs more outside shooting.” I mean, yeah, sure. They should figure out a package to get a starting 3, some shooting, and some bench offense. That means they’re doubling down on their frontcourt being their best asset (it is). But if one of ZBo or baby Gasol gets into a slump or gets injured, what then? They’re toast. Maybe they can move Tony Allen to the 3 and get a scoring SG for Gay instead. That’d be my preferred route.

But honestly, can’t we just blame the Grizzlies getting worse on Matt interviewing and jinxing Mike Conley?

Avery Johnson Fired From The Nets, Who Should Have Seen This Coming

Photo from quinn.anya via Flickr

[blackbirdpie url="http://twitter.com/WojYahooNBA/status/284357218147651585"]

Avery Johnson was relieved of his coaching duties Thursday afternoon, and it’s hard to say nobody saw this one coming. The Nets are spiraling out of control in every way possible: the offense is stagnant, the defense (save for one Gerald Wallace) is disinterested, their max star has publicly spoken out against the system, they’re paying Kris Humphries $12 million a year to attract animosity on the bench, their mascot is named after an adult actress – it’s all bad, and even worse, it’s a very mainstream sort of bad, which just doesn’t work in Brooklyn.

Johnson never really had a chance in Brooklyn. His transformation from brilliant incoming defensive mind in his first Mavericks coaching seasons to a gray, uninspiring type aside, this roster was always built towards something it could not achieve. Aspirations of championships and control over New York City are grand dreams to dream, but the depth chart shows a different story. It worked early on, with an overmatched bench unit inexplicably crushing teams instead of struggling, to stay within reach, but you can only count on Reggie Evans’s defense and Jerry Stackhouse’s shooting for so long before it all falls apart.

And it was always going to fall apart. This roster is top-heavy, and that top is flawed. Joe Johnson has now dragged a third straight coach down isolation hell, as his two last coaches are suddenly running flourishing offensive systems atop the Eastern Conference rankings. Meanwhile, Deron Williams is either not willing or not capable of being the type of player who was consistently compared to Chris Paul atop the world’s point guard rankings. For all the talent around him, this was a roster desperately in need of him efficiently bullying his matchup to the point of easy shots for him and his teammates.

You’ll excuse me for this offensive focus, even as the Nets rank 11th on offense and 21st on defense. But this squad was always going to win, if it could, by virtue of the offensive end. The grind-it-out style that Avery Johnson seems to be most comfortable with is a horrible fit for an athletic frontcourt that often struggles with positioning and pick and roll defense. And while you can’t fire your $100 million dollar star point guard for shooting 29% from three, or your prized shooting guard acquisition for posting a PER in the lower teens, you most certainly can fire your coach for taking an offensive squad and playing at the league’s second slowest pace.

The focus today will be on Deron Williams, and rightfully so; a former consensus, we are now three years into Williams acting as a somewhat petulant overhyped focus. We’re running out of evidence that Deron is even close to elite, his motivation seems more absent than wavering, and he’s now been heavily involved (if not directly responsible – I’ll allow the reader to fill in on the speculation) in the firing of two coaches in less than 24 months.

But I can’t get away from the Joe suspicions here. Public opinion on Joe Johnson has swayed wildly over the years, as he’s gone from underrated to overrated perhaps more than any player in the league since his breakout year in Phoenix; going in to this year with the Nets, in a situation where he could be Joe Johnson and not Joe Johnson’s contract, I was cautiously optimistic. Word out of Brooklyn was that ISOJoe would be gone forever, but if anything, it’s become more prominent and more depressing. Deron worked well as an off-ball point guard next to the likes of Jordan Farmar, Brook Lopez is at his best when he’s cutting through the lane and catching at the mid-post, Gerald Wallace is a terror cutting towards the rim, and yet when Joe has the ball in his hands, everything boggles down.

It’s unfair and somewhat lazy to point at Joe and say his absence is why Mike Woodson is succeeding with entirely different personnel in New York; and Larry Drew’s Hawks look better to the eye than in the Joe days, but they rank below these Nets in offensive efficiency. But the visual of 4 uninvolved players as Joe dribbles has been running on League Pass for too long. Whoever comes in will need to find a balance that keeps Joe involved but includes others, helps Deron recover but doesn’t frustrate Joe, all while maintaining what has truly been an excellent year from Lopez and a resurgence from Andray Blatche – who all “leaving the Wizards!” jokes aside, clearly benefited greatly from Avery’s presence and has already grieved his departure on Twitter.

Oh, and fix the defense, without players who can play any. Lest we forget.

I don’t see available coaches who I trust with all these tasks; I’m not sure there are many unavailable coaches who I trust with all these tasks. These Nets, sitting at .500, are only slight percentage points lower than where they probably should have been. Of course, with expectations through the roof and an owner who may or may not be crazy, may or may not be paying attention, and most certainly has an unlimited budget – this is not enough. Anything is in play with this team going forward (sign Phil Jackson as coach! Trade for Pau Gasol! Close down the Barclays Center, move to the moon!), just don’t expect the results to be as good as Brooklyn expects.

Schiller Filler: All Paul George Everything, And Sad Sad Kings

Photo from Damon Green via Flickr

• The Indiana Pacers are slowly recovering from their horrendous start to the season, now standing one game out of the Central Division lead at 14-12 after going 4-7 in their first 11 games. If you’ve so much as momentarily stumbled upon my Twitter account, you know that this is because Paul George is balling his brains out. The third year messiah has been marvelous across the board: in 10 December games, he has upped his usage, cut his turnovers, and is posting a 58.9 true shooting percentage to go with the defensive rebound rate of an above average power forward. Throw it all together, and the Pacers are outscoring teams by 11.6 points per 100 possessions with George on the floor in December.

All of these are very encouraging developments for a player who seemed mostly overwhelmed the first month of the season. Like the entire Indiana offense, George struggled to adjust to his new role without Danny Granger, losing the ball at a distressing rate and forcing bad shots. Now he looks much more comfortable creating for himself and for others, either in pick and rolls with David West or coming off pin down screens at the right elbow. He’s showing much better ball handling skills – he can be seen splitting defenders off the pick and roll quite often – and he’s still magnificent cutting off the ball, especially when Roy Hibbert has it in the mid-post and George rubs off him and bursts to the rim as Hibbert hits him with a perfectly placed pass (the Pacers also do this a lot with George Hill as the cutter). Many of these are situations where George used to be quite shaky, and his improvements are a huge part of Indiana’s offensive rebounding act.

It remains to be seen how much of December Paul George is for real and how much is just regression to the mean after that terrible start. Judging solely by his December numbers, he’s an all-star caliber player; while I wouldn’t go as far as predicting this sustains, these are wonderful signs for a Pacer team that needs George to add another dimension to their offense in the present, and to emerge as a cornerstone in the future.

• With the Raptors winning four straight games behind some masterful Jose Calderon play (and friendly schedule-making), there are rumblings that Calderon might remain the starter even after Kyle Lowry returns to the court. Somehow, Lowry continues to find himself in these spots: he started out in Memphis, when he and Mike Conley were young point guard prospects who both needed playing time; moved onto Houston, when he was backing up Aaron Brooks; finally overtook Brooks for the starting job, only to lose it a mysterious injury and Goran Dragic’s career year; and came to Toronto a savior, soon to become demoted-savior. This isn’t so much analysis (Lowry is much better than Calderon and starting Jose would be the wrong choice, natch) as an observation: Kyle Lowry keeps finding himself in dual PG controversies, and it’s really weird.

• OK, so just a tiny bit of analysis. Alan Anderson has been really good for Toronto during this winning streak, but they’re still very shallow on the wings. Landy Fields is out, Terrence Ross is showing occasional glimpses but generally struggling, Linas Kleiza is pointless, and only DeMar DeRozan keeps getting minutes and shots up. All of these make me wonder about the Lowry-Caldy dual point guard lineup. The combination has been fairly terrible so far – they’ve played 104 minutes and have a net efficiency rating of -10.7, according to NBA.com – but the entire team has been awful before these past four games, so I’m not sure how much weight that should carry. Multiple ball handlers are becoming more and more of a necessity in the NBA, and while Lowry is a bit small against opposing shooting guards, the offensive prospects of Lowry off the ball and Calderon working his magical chemistry with Ed Davis and Amir Johnson is intriguing.

• Robin Lopez has been stunningly competent this season. He’s posting a career high in minutes played, a career low in fouls per minute, and his TS% is back to acceptable levels for the first time since 2009-10 (when he was a key piece for a good Suns team, instead of just a depressing piece for a depressing Suns team). He also seems to have a positive impact on the team – the Hornets are 1.2 points better defensively without Lopez, but they’re horrible defensively regardless of who’s on the court, and the offense is 2.5 points better with him on the court. If nothing else, it’s a nice reminder that Robin Lopez isn’t the worst, despite the past two years of Suns data.

• Over the past week or so, yet another flaw of the Philadelphia 76ers offseason, non-Bynum division has been exposed: they have no backup point guard. With Jrue Holiday out with a foot thingamajig, the Sixers have alternated between Maalik Wayns (who I inexplicably love, but is hardly an NBA third stringer at this point), Royal Ivey (nuff said), and Nick Young (!!!!!!) at point guard. Their best minutes have come with Evan Turner handling the ball, but despite his offensive improvements this season, counting on him to carry the entire load is a stretch, to put it mildly. Holiday’s ascension has been very enjoyable, but he has absolutely no replacement anywhere on the roster – something to ponder as you watch guys like C.J. Watson and Nate Robinson perform well on minimum deals while Kwame Brown gets $3 million to miserably wallop around.

• Speaking of miserably walloping around, how ‘bout dem Kings! In the latest miserable episode of Sacramento basketball, Isaiah Thomas (AKA the only bright spot of the Kings’ 2011-12 campaign) and Jimmer Fredette (youngster looking for minutes who may or may not actually be good but why not find out?) are losing minutes to an inefficient veteran in Aaron Brooks. Rob Mahoney and Tom Ziller have the gorey details of this specific episode, but while I love little Isaiah dearly, the problem here isn’t about this player or that player; it’s about an organization that has consistently declined every opportunity it has had to breed home grown talent.

Here is a complete list of players aged 23 or younger that have graced the Kings’ roster since 2006-07, the first year of the post-Adelman era: Kevin Martin, Ronnie Price, Justin Williams, Quincy Douby, Darryl Watkins, Spencer Hawes, Cedric Simmons, Donté Greene, Sergio Rodriguez, Garrett Temple, Jon Brockman, Omri Casspi, Tyreke Evans, Marcus Thornton, Hassan Whiteside, DeMarcus Cousins, J.J. Hickson, Isaiah Thomas, Jimmer Fredette, Tyler Honeycutt, and Thomas Robinson. How many players are conclusively better now than when they joined the Kings’ organization? Martin, who did most of his maturing when Adelman still had the reins… and? Cousins, by virtue of slight maturation? Maybe Hawes, who can still infuriate with his play for the Sixers? Maybe Hickson, who seems to have put it together, but only after leaving the Kings? Is there anybody else that can conceivably be listed here?

Yes, several of these players (Watkins, Simmons, Temple) were short-term stopgaps, and others still (like Price, Williams, Douby and Whiteside) may never have been salvageable NBA talents. But the track record here is jarringly poor, and it’s hard to argue it’s a coincidence. Paul Westphal seemed to ravish potential careers just for the hell of it, Keith Smart is barely doing better, and the organization is now well into its 7th season of eating its own young with no end in sight. Blame Cousins’ immaturity, Evans’ ball-hoggy ways or Fredette’s lack of athleticism for their individual stagnation if you must, but lottery picks that “just don’t get it” will continue to come down the pipeline until the entire franchise adopts a new developmental mindset, if not new owners.

Schiller Filler: No Clever Tie-In, Everything Is Random

Photo from Paul Robinson via Flickr

• The Boston Celtics are the Boston Celtics. Beyond the tautology, that statement means the Celtics have earned a certain amount of leeway with regular season struggles. Even as they stand at 10-8, outscoring opponents by just 0.1 points per game. The offense is still overly dependent on the whims of Rajon Rondo and the long two point jumper? Eh. Pierce will recover by playoff time. Jason Terry will slowly integrate better. The defense is 14th best in the league after ranking in the top 5 throughout the Kevin Garnett era (in fact, 2009-10 was the only year they finished out of the top two)? Eh. It’s Boston. It’ll pick up.

Well, not to go in the face of all Celtic pride, but I’m not so sure the recovery will be that easily. The Celts are in the midst of a worrying trend that sees them depend on Garnett more and more as he continues to age (quite gracefully, it should be said). Whenever Garnett is on the court, the Celtics have remained stingy, posting a defensive rating of 93.5 points per 100 possessions, which would easily blow away Chicago and Memphis’ 96.4 to lead the league. This truth remains for the Rondo-Terry-Pierce-Bass-Garnett starting lineup, employing two, ahem, problematic defenders in Terry and Bass, which stands at 93.8, according to NBA.com. Heck, he’s even making Jared Sullinger look OK – in the 143 minutes those two have shared, the Celts are way down at 88.1.

The problem is that when KG sits, the whole operation goes to flames. Boston’s KG-less defensive rating is a whopping 112.9, over five points below your league-worst Hornets. And at this point in his career, minutes without KG are nearly as common as minutes with him – his 28.7 minutes per game match his rookie season for lowest of his career.

Last season, the Celtics stumbled upon Greg Stiemsma, who, for all his warts, managed to hold the defense’s head above water. In the playoffs, when Stiemsma was battling foot issues and the competition was higher, Doc Rivers couldn’t afford to sit Garnett anymore. This year’s roster has no Stiemsma-esque solution in sight; as such, even the haahts of champions may not solve the Celtics’ defensive woes.

• There hasn’t been much to celebrate about the Indiana Pacers’ offense, still clocking in at 29th in the league after they’ve won 7 of their last 10 games to return to respectability. George Hill and Paul George are both posting career high usage rates and sub-52% true shooting percentages, Roy Hibbert has fallen off the map, and despite an unforeseen breakout year from Lance Stephenson, none of the Danny Granger replacement wing brigade has provided enough spacing for the entire operation to get back on track.

I’ll tell you who is back on track, though: David West. Any effects that 2010 torn ACL, a two-year injury two years in the rearview mirror, had on the ripped power forward have long disappeared, and at 32 years old, the Xavier product is providing the same 20 and 10 per 40 minutes that he has throughout his prime. He’s been demolishing all competition in the post, ranking 6th in the league per mySynergySports.com with 1.03 points per possession, and he’s been deploying it at every turn – a whopping 40% of his plays have been post ups, so far. And he’s doing all this despite shooting just 41% on long twos, his worst figure since Hoopdata started tracking shot locations. It’s looking more and more like a third all-star appearance and a major payday are in the books for the free agent to be.

• Advanced stats of the wrap-the-box-score-into-one-number variety tend to look too fondly on low usage, high percentage, rebounding big men. So we should take Greg Smith, his 25.8 PER, and his .323 Win Shares per 48 minutes with gigantic, 6’10” 250 lbs. grains of salt.

That said… Greg Smith has a 25.8 PER and .323 Win Shares per 48 minutes. He’s shooting 63% from the field, rebounding one of every 6 misses on both offense and defense, and almost never turns the ball over because the ball is so rarely in his hands for more than the time it takes to dunk. It remains to be seen how big his NBA impact can truly be, but as an undrafted garbage man big, he’s been a huge steal for Houston.

• Much has been made of the Great Utah Frontcourt Logjam Of 2012, but just as Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter have been struggling for minutes, so has Alec Burks. And in a way, he is just as much a victim of the frontcourt as the actual big men. Yes, Burks has been objectively terrible in the few minutes he’s seen so far, but in so few minutes, that could just be a fluke. What isn’t a fluke is his lack of a shooting ability. Burks’ slashing game could eventually translate to a meaningful career, but playing him above Randy Foye (Utah’s only acceptable floor spacer to date) or Gordon Hayward (probably the team’s best perimeter playmaker) is simply not viable for a squad that already shrinks the floor to the size of a pin head. It has become my secret hope that Burks is involved in the eventual Millsap and/or Jefferson trade – nobody is at fault, here, but the sophomore just doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the roster.

• Call it flukey shooting, blame those god-forsaken Pistons, or just credit the guy if you want – choose what you may, there is a Ben Gordon Renaissance going on in Charlotte and everybody is invited. Gordon was thrilling in his Chicago days in a way that only an undersized chucker can thrill, but in Detroit, the effectiveness disappeared together with the flair. On a Mike Dunlap squad that won the hearts of the entire NBA blogosphere fast than Kemba Walker can do a suicide, Gordon is shooting 49.4% from three, hitting inexplicable pull-ups, and is just a boatload of fun. More Kitties, please.

• Jason Thompson really needs to get out of Sacramento (or, you know, get a stable organization, a coaching staff that prioritizes player development, a front office that has been awake post-2009 and an acceptable roster into Sacramento. But we’re going for the easy fix). Thompson is hardly spectacular, but after what seemed to be a contract year jump, he has maintained his right-around-average play across the board. If the Notorious Andray Blatche can work wonders as a third big man in Brooklyn, Thompson can do the same, and do it well, for virtually every team in the league. Instead, he’s stuck in a terrible situation. Sigh. Get better, Kings.

• Alexey Shved. That is all.

 

Schiller Filler: Fake Trade Madness

Photo from pumpkincat210 via Flickr

• At this point, you’re basically not allowed to talk about the Lakers without offering up your favorite hypothetical Pau Gasol trade. It’s no longer a matter of whether Pau is good or not (he is, insanely so) or whether he’s being used correctly in Los Angeles (he’s not, but he could probably put more effort into accepting other systems, because dammit, Pau, 2010 is gone, deal with it) as much as it is classic Laker rhetoric – this is a franchise that either wins championships or brings in better players, and there is no option C.

Here’s the thing, though: you’re not getting a better player than Pau. There are somewhere between 10 and 25 of those in the entire league, 2 of them are already on the Lakers’ roster, and the others are not going to be available via trade for Pau’s declining play and hefty contract. No, not even if you throw in Darius Morris. So even if you accept the notion that Los Angeles has to improve its roster (personally, I’d do nothing until the Nash-D’Antoni combo gets at least as many games as the Nash-Mike Brown combo), it’ll be in the form of depth and fit, not talent.

And it’s this point where the Pau talk boggles down, for me, because the candidates are slim. Ideally, L.A. would want knockdown shooters who don’t need the ball (hear that, Josh Smith rumors?), specifically at the 4 spot, but those aren’t too readily available. The Hornets should want no business with moving Ryan Anderson, a 24 year old efficiency-maven, for the aging Gasol, and Andrea Bargnani is such a downgrade in talent that I’m not sure it’s worth the hassle. If only Ersan Ilyasova were still alive.

• Speaking of fake trades, I think it’s time we got together as a society and thought about trading Tiago Splitter. It’d be something of the Houston-Omer-Asik mold – take a guy stuck on the bench with great per-minute numbers and very little playing time, gave him as many minutes as he can possibly handle, and profit. Splitter is hovering around 19 and 10 per 40 minutes and a TS% of 64% for the second straight season: he could be a major asset for a team desparate for some scoring in the frontcourt, like Charlotte, Cleveland or Milwaukee.

Of course, the problems with Splitter are defensively, which is why the Spurs aren’t giving him those major minutes in the first place. I’ve never been able to pinpoint why it is exactly that San Antonio’s D goes to the tank when Splitter is on the court – he’s big, he’s strong, and while he’s not exactly a Noah/Garnett/Horford brand of omnipresent, he’s fairly mobile. You see flashes – he really stood out to me cutting off multiple Leandro Barbosa drive against the Celtics, for instance – but despite the strong system and Pop’s guiding hand, it never truly materialized in San Antonio.

I could see both Splitter and the Spurs benefiting from a trade in which he gets a bigger role and they get a defender. A deal involving compatriot Anderson Varejao would be a Spurs fan’s dream (and frankly, Kyrie-Dion-Tiago would create one of the league’s funnest offense-only squads), but I would classify it as wildly unrealistic. Instead, I’d look at defensive stalwarts with low asking prices, such as Gustavo Ayon or Chuck Hayes. Regardless, with Splitter on the last year of a sub-MLE deal, this could be an interesting situation to monitor.

• I thought Jason Kidd was done last season and hated his signing, going so far as choosing him for worst newcomer in ESPN’s preseason polling, so you better believe I’m shocked by this development, but the Felton-Kidd two point guard lineup has been phenomenal so far. I’d still argue this has more to do with spacing and limiting turnovers than VETERAN LEADERSHIP, but hey, I’m already down in this fight.

Anyway, Kidd is now shelved for the forseeable future with back issues, and as deftly noted by Kevin Pelton, the Knicks really missed him against Brooklyn. Against Milwaukee, though, New York managed just fine, by going with – you guessed it – a two point guard lineup! Pablo Prigioni isn’t the shooter Kidd is, both in accuracy and willingness to shoot, and he’s turned the ball over on almost a fifth of his possessions so far. That number will have to go down if he continues to get major minutes. But he’s looked great running the pick and roll (which bodes well if Amar’e eventually joins him on the second unit), and the presence of another ball-handler does wonders for both Felton’s play and the team’s ball movement. More Prigs, please.

• Anthony Davis is injured and it sucks. Luckily for the Hornets, while they’ve been missing their star rookie big, they’ve getting some instant offense from their rookie guard. Brian Roberts is scoring just over a point every two minutes, is a scorching 40.9% from three, and is just a really enjoyable watch. Why, did you think I was talking about a different instant offense Hornets guard?

• George Karl is still hesitant to play JaVale McGee major minutes. I get it – he still has issues everywhere on the court, he’s impossible to pair defensively with Kenneth Faried (who Karl clearly prefers), and he gets winded very quickly. But it should be noted that this season, JaVale is finally having a positive impact on the Nuggets’ defensive rebounding.

Last season, the Nuggets had a 70.6% defensive rebound rate with McGee on the floor, and 74% without him. This is counterintuitive for an athletic freak of McGee’s stature, but it shows you how deep his issues truly are, and how often he chases highlight blocks at the expense of a proper box out. This year, though, the Nuggets are boarding 73.5% of opponent missed shots with McGee on the court and just 72.1% without. While it’s too soon to say if this is all McGee or if lineups with Faried at center and a smallish power forward are skewing the results, it’s another positive sign that McGee is salvageable. #TEAMPIERRE

• Tobias Harris is playing fairly well for the Bucks. He’s shooting 55.3% from the floor and 35.3% from three and is rebounding very well for a small forward. He’s been losing a lot of minutes to Mike Dunleavy, which is hard to complain about since Mike has started the season really well, but I’m definitely very encouraged about both his future and his present.

One thing, though: more post ups, less spot ups, please. Harris is much bigger than most of the wing guys that are covering him, and had very good numbers in the post last year – mySynergySports.com had him at 84th in the league. This year, though, he’s only posted up 8 times through 12 games, with almost a third of his shots coming as a spot up shooter. He’s actually exceeded expectations in this regard, shooting 43% on spot up threes, but this isn’t his forte and it’s iffy at best as a long term strategy. Post up Tobias!

Craig Smith’s Helping Hand

Researchers Matthew Goldman and Justin Rao discovered that, contrary to what may be the popular belief, players at home tend to struggle more in clutch moments on “concentration tasks” like free throw shooting, while visiting players are rarely affected by such moments. Goldman and Rao hypothesized that because of the increased “self-focus” involved in shooting free throws in close and late situations and the lack of distractions like crowd noise, NBA players playing at home concentrate too much on making their free throws and fail more often than they normally would.

via Everything you know about basketball is wrong – TrueHoop Blog – ESPN.

Craig Smith has been playing for Hapoel Jerusalem this season after 6 years in the NBA, and it has been nothing short of glorious. Though the team has struggled to the tune of a 3-4 record in Israeli league play and 1-2 in the Eurocup, Smith has been completely unstoppable against the smaller bodies overseas. He’s stronger than any big man who dares challenge him, and yet is somehow quicker, and even such presumed weaknesses such as dealing with double teams and pick and roll defense have looked much better against weaker competition and in a slower game setting. As a Hapoel Jerusalem fan, I have no idea how we lured the Rhino into captivity – he’s an NBA player amongst those who don’t exist on an NBA radar, and it shows.

One area where Smith has struggled, however, has been from the line. Smith is so strong that opponents are pretty much resigned to fouling him as soon as he gets position, but he’s been struggling to make opponents pay, with the nadir being a 5 of 13 performance against Bnei Herzelia on November 11th. That night dropped him to 59% on the season.

And then, in Hapoel’s next game, at home against Czech squad Nymburk, something funny happened. Whenever Smith went to the line, the entire crowd started clapping throughout his entire pre-shot routine. When Smith made his shot, the ovation only grew louder, and when he missed, the crowd moved onto the next freebie.

We are now four games into the new strategy. In that first game, Smith went 7 of 10. Next came an away game, with only a small contingent of Hapoel fans in the stands; Smith went 3 of 5. Then 2 of 4 in a home game, and this Sunday, in a loss to Elizur Ashkelon – an amazing 14 of 14. (He was also 7 of 7 from the field, giving him 28 points with no missed shots. As I said, glorious. And yet, Hapoel lost, because we have no outside shooting or point guard play).

Now, this “evidence” is anecdotal at best. It’s possible that the applause is helping Craig because it’s easier to concentrate with white noise, or that it’s boosting his confidence at the line. It’s just as possible that he’s a 66% career free throw shooter who started the season at 59% and has regressed to the mean with a single perfect night. This hardly proves anything.

But it’s pretty darn cool. Just like Craig Smith.

Schiller Filler: Andrew Bynum Hair Week

Photo from zimpenfish via Flickr

First things first.

• The Minnesota Timberwolves, an offensive team who is now missing… *counts players using fingers*… all of their good offensive players, are 5 and 3. How, you ask? With the league’s best defense. It’s a shocking development, considering how much the Wolves slipped on that end once Ricky Rubio went out last year, and it bodes well for a team that is expected to get the best offensive power forward in the game back in a few weeks. We’re hesitant to salute a single player for such team wide developments, so let’s just say we’re not not putting Andrei Kirilenko on our disgustingly early MVP ballots.

• Omer Asik has been pretty damn good so far. Sure, his offensive game is… how do I put this nicely… no, but he’s 5th in the league in defensive rebound rate while supplying his usual rim protection. He’s definitely looking like a steal at 3 years, $25 million, and if he can get those turnovers down (25% turnover ratio; Egads) or that shooting percentage up (44.8%; Egads), things will look even better.

But the best thing about Asik so far is how much he’s been able to stay on the court. He posted some of the best defensive numbers in the league for Chicago, but he fouled so much that his minutes were limited to the lower teens. On a team that can’t afford to keep him on the bench, Asik has stepped up, fouling only 2.8 times per 36 minutes (down from 4.5 last year and 5.6 the year before), allowing him to play 32 minutes a game. The Rockets are maximizing Asik not just by plucking him out of a crowded frontcourt, but through Omer himself improving on his weaknesses.

• I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with it, so I’m just going to leave it here and slowly walk away: E’Twaun Moore is leading the Magic in minutes per game.

• In a slightly less disturbing Orlando Magic quirk, you’ve probably already seen this fantastic defensive sequence from “How Could You Be” Moe Harkless:

The Orlando rook is looking like a monster stat stuffer on the defensive end, averaging a steal and two blocks per game in the 4 matches he’s played so far. But the most impressive thing is that Harkless has done so while only playing 18.5 minutes a night. Of the 108 players in history to maintain such averages over a full season, Oliver Miller is the low mark for minutes per game at a relatively hefty 25.9.

• You know what other rook has crazy numbers after 4 games? Anthony Davis. Herr Brau is throwing up a nightly 15-7-0.8-1.5-2.8, and his 28.9 PER would be the highest rookie figure ever. #SmallSampleSizeTheater

• It’s the HP Weekly Jrue Holiday Shot Selection Watch!

• This year’s frontrunner for the Nate McMillan Pace Matters Award: your Brooklyn Nets! The NBA’s “newest” franchise runs an average of 91.6 possessions per game, the lowest in the league. It is this figure that takes the 21st ranked defense and places them just 8th in points allowed per game. It also watching them quite a chore.

• The Washington Wizards have brought back Shaun Livingston, and this is to be celebrated. One reason why this is the case? “Starting” “point guard” A.J. Price is a ghastly 14 of 45 from beyond the arc through 7 games; Jannero Pargo, who was waived to make room for Livingston, has been even worse, at 3 of 20. At the very least, Livingston, who has attempted only 39 treys in 324 NBA games, will add some much needed restraint, if not marksmanship.

• The Pistons have won a game! Which means we can say some positive things about them. Like how Andre Drummond is beasting upon the mere mortals who dare challenge him, or how spry Jason Maxiell looks (why yes, it is a contract year, why do you ask?), or how potent a scorer Kyle Singler is (of course, he literally does NOTHING else, but we’re on the positive side here, yes?), with a TS% in the low 60s so far. Of course, Corey Maggette got 22 minutes in his first game back, and Jonas Jerebko is stuck at 19.4 a game… so, yeah. Optimism over.