Author Archives: Rob Mahoney

Video: 2012 NBA Playoff Preview

The 2011-2012 regular season didn’t exactly go as planned, but was anyone actually naive enough to think it might? The league cobbled together a massive slate with little regard for their overextended teams, and took in another banner year despite the nauseating bickering that dominated lockout discussion.

The NBA turned its regular season — the savory main course that truly satiates a basketball die-hard’s appetite — into a formality. But that alone shouldn’t prevent us from enjoying the dessert to come, no matter how odd the seeding, how unpredictable the matchups, and how unsatisfying the previous dish.

The playoffs are here, and for now, that’s all that really matters.

Have Ball, Will Travel: Gerald Wallace

In this installment of  Have Ball, Will Travel, we’ll take a look at an odd play in which Gerald Wallace — on a cut to the basket — manages to get from the top of the key to the basket without using any of his two allotted steps.

Atlanta Hawks 92, Portland Trail Blazers 89; 4th, 9:45

Wallace was not whistled for a travel. It’s a correct no-call; although viewers often have an instinctive reaction to a player who covers as much ground as Wallace does in this play, you can see from the video replay that he never actually has the ball in his possession until he finally goes up for the layup. Kudos to the baseline official, who has nails Wallace’s bobble and actually signals it in order to explain the no-call.

For reference, here’s the relevant section of the traveling rule:

A player who receives the ball while he is progressing…may take two steps in coming to a stop, passing or shooting the ball.

Basic enough, but with an important clarification (emphasis mine):

The first step occurs when a foot, or both feet, touch the floor after gaining control of the ball.

Interestingly, even if we count Wallace’s step beyond the top of the key as his gather step (which makes sense considering he’s only initially receiving the pass), he still doesn’t travel. Thanks to some long strides and an early launch point (he actually jumps up for his lay-in at the bottom of the free throw circle), Wallace’s slash through the paint is even legal on a hypothetical basis.

Have Ball, Will Travel: Vince Carter

In this installment of Have Ball, Will Travel, we’ll take at a look at a play where Vince Carter went to work against the Milwaukee Bucks, and stepped his way into one of the NBA’s points of officiating emphasis this season.

Dallas Mavericks 102, Milwaukee Bucks 76; 2nd, 5:23

Carter was called for a travel on this play. On first glance, it looks as though Carter might simply be pulling a classic — if too obvious — pivot shift. However, if you watch his steps closely, the violation doesn’t come on a pivot play at all (nor by taking too many steps), but on a pretty unique instance of the same-foot hop rule that warrants an automatic whistle. From the NBA Rulebook:

Upon ending his dribble or gaining control of the ball, a player may not touch the floor consecutively with the same foot (hop).

This rule is one typically enforced on the perimeter, but Carter manages to bring it to the post by keeping one foot just off the ground as he hops to trigger his post move. At full speed, Carter’s move looked unorthodox and possibly illegal, but the officials (David Jones, Olandis Poole, and Mike Callahan) were right on top of this interesting application of one of the points of emphasis in officiating this season.

 

Have Ball, Will Travel: LeBron James (II)

In this installment of Have Ball, Will Travel, we’ll take at a look at LeBron James’ drive to hoop in the final minute of regulation against the Los Angeles Clippers.

Based on the league’s interpretation of the jump stop rule, James would have theoretically been able to pivot — as he does in order to manufacture a shot — following the culmination of his move. However, there are two flaws in James’ execution. The first: he attempt to execute a jump stop but does not land both of his feet on the floor simultaneously, a necessary requirement of the rule. That rule is as follows, per the NBA Rulebook:

A progressing player who jumps off one foot on the first step may land with both feet simultaneously for the second step.

The second: following his jump stop, LeBron reverse pivots using his left foot as his base, but slides his foot over from the white boundary line into the painted area itself. This kind of pivot slide isn’t dealt with in the rulebook explicitly, but I’m interpreting it in a general sense under the clauses addressing the “lifting” of a pivot foot (with the explanation that the pivot is being “lifted” and put back on the ground in one motion).

James’ move is not unlike many of the others that have been documented in this series. It takes place at the end of a game by a player with incredible speed, and the fact that it’s James is, in my eyes, irrelevant. The more important factors are the speed of the play action and how much the footwork itself is obscured by defenders, both of which — athleticism and added defensive attention — happen to correlate with being an awfully good player. That doesn’t excuse the lack of a call, necessarily, but the trend of reluctance to determine games with whistles in the blink of an eye is at least worthy of note.

Hat-tip: James Herbert

Have Ball, Will Travel: Dwyane Wade (IV)

In this season premiere installment of Have Ball, Will Travel, we’ll take a closer look at Dwyane Wade’s game-winning bucket from Wednesday night’s contest between the Heat and Bobcats.

UPDATE: By way of a rule clarification from the league office and further review of the play, it’s been determined and illustrated that Wade’s move was — contrary to my first analysis — completely legal. Observe:

 

The crucial determinations here are that of the “gather” and the “first step.” Because Wade gathers the ball while his right foot is on the ground — his “gather” step — he hasn’t officially begun using the two steps he is allotted by NBA rules. Thus, the jump stop he uses to get to the left block is technically the first step of his sequence, allowing him to still utilize a pivot.

Here is the specific wording in the NBA Rulebook that allows for such a play:

A player who comes to a stop on step one when both feet are on the floor or touch the floor simultaneously may pivot using either foot as his pivot. If he jumps with both feet he must release the ball before either foot touches the floor.

If Wade’s right foot had been counted as his first step, the play would indeed have been illegal, and would have resulted in a traveling violation. That wasn’t the case here, though, and though my retraction alone doesn’t mean much, the officials deserve credit for making the right determination on Wade’s gather (which in this case isn’t much of a debatable issue; his foot is clearly planted when Wade collects his dribble) and rightfully allowing the bucket to stand.

ORIGINAL POST:

You can see the original, erroneous video here.

Post-jump stop pivot moves are about as easy as travel calls get; while drives through traffic or quick spin moves often require slow motion to fully assess without a reasonable doubt, the jump stop is a clear and distinct action easily differentiated from any illegal steps that follow. Even at full speed, we’re able to see Wade execute a nice jump stop, but negate his move with what should have been a turnover.

It wasn’t. The officiating crew flat-out missed this game-changing call, which should come as little surprise to those who regularly eye the footwork of ball handlers in the waning moments of any close game. Most officials do their best to avoid interventionism at such a crucial juncture, and thus whistles of virtually any kind become a bit harder to come by. Such was the case here, and Wade capitalized by completing the possession with a bucket.

It happens. This isn’t the first time a call was missed, and it won’t be the last. But it’s worth pointing out the violation on Wade’s move toward the rim, if only to shine a spotlight on this commonly used bastardization of the jump stop.

For reference, here is the relevant section of the traveling rule, as described in the 2010-2011 Official NBA Rulebook*

A progressing player who jumps off one foot on the first step may land with both feet simultaneously for the second step. In this situation, the player may not pivot with either foot and if one or both feet leave the floor the ball must be released before either returns to the floor.

*The 2011-2012 version is not publicly available, but modifications to the traveling rule were not included among the announced rule changes or even in the points of officiating emphasis.

Video: Welcome Home.

We’re all just one more sleep away from an all-you-can-eat buffet of NBA games and story lines, of highlights and soundbites, of stratagems and evolutions. It’s all there, neatly wrapped, just waiting for tomorrow’s noon (EST) tipoff.

Welcome back, NBA. And NBA fans? Welcome home.

Have Ball, Will Travel: Serge Ibaka

In this installment of Have Ball, Will Travel, we’ll take at a Serge Ibaka jumper during Game 4 between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks.

Several Mavs on the floor immediately called for a walk on Ibaka’s play, and they appear to be right. While Ibaka’s violation isn’t all that glaring, he clearly lifts his left foot — after establishing it as his pivot — in order to execute a more emphatic fake to his right. He then lifts his right foot in launching to his left, all of which occurs before Ibaka releases the ball for a dribble. It’s a textbook walk, as both feet are moved before the ball ever leaves Ibaka’s hand.

For reference, here is the exact wording of the relevant (and most well-known) portion of the traveling rule:

“In starting a dribble after (1) receiving the ball while standing still, or (2) coming to a legal stop, the ball must be out of the player’s hand before the pivot foot is raised off the floor.”

While officiating the spin move of Dwyane Wade or Blake Griffin presents its own unique challenges (the speed and movement make a proper call incredibly difficult), the veil lifted over the referees’ eyes in this instance is subtlety. Ibaka doesn’t exploit an extra step at the end of his dribble, and thus his travel doesn’t pop out as much against the backdrop of legal basketball play. He makes what could have been a legal move (had it been better executed), but simply slips up on the footwork and commits a traveling violation. Regardless, the violation on this play is cut and dry; the officials may not have seen Ibaka’s slight pivot lift, but it’s certainly there, and allows him to create enough space to fire up an open jumper.

Have Ball, Will Travel: LeBron James

In this installment of Have Ball, Will Travel, we’ll take a LeBron James’ go-ahead drive with 48 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of Game 4 between the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics. (Side note: Coincidentally, the play that spawned this very series occurred a little over a year ago, and involved both LeBron and the Celtics.)

There are essentially two ways to interpret LeBron James’ drive to the rim, and both of them should result in a violation; LeBron either took a gather step and then three subsequent steps on his drive, or he took a horrible jump stop (that would have been an automatic travel in itself) before pivoting out of that jump stop to create another potential violation. I’ll give LeBron the benefit of the doubt and assume that he only traveled once in this case.

It’s hard to say why the officials swallowed their whistles on this play, other than the fact that it was a late-game possession. These situations generally seem to come with traveling immunity, even when the violation is as blatant as it is on this particular play. Otherwise, I’m honestly not sure what possible interpretation of the rule would make this sequence legal; James is entitled a “free” step as he gathers his dribble, but he takes three full steps (the last of which is crystallized when he turns it into his pivot foot to maneuver for a better shot) afterward when he’s only entitled two.

For reference, here is the exact wording of the relevant (and most well-known) portion of the traveling rule:

“A player who receives the ball…upon completion of a dribble, may take two steps in coming to a stop, passing or shooting the ball.”

Considering the attention paid to every score and non-score at the tail end of a close game, a call like this won’t reflect too well on the officiating staff. It’s one missed call, sure, but also a fairly obvious one that couldn’t have come at a worse possible time; the public attention to detail is at its peak in such moments, and accurate officiating is never in higher demand.

In Defense of Russell Westbrook

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“As for me being a gunslinger, I’ve just got this one granddaddy Paterson Colt and a borrowed belt to stick it in. But I also got an appetite for greater things. I hoped by joining up with you, it’d put me that much closer to getting them.”
-Robert Ford, The Assassination of Jesse James

It’s official: the basketball world has turned against Russell Westbrook.

Honestly, it’s been a long time coming. Westbrook wears his flaws on his sleeve, and his tendency to freeze out the offense while forcing bad shots is understandably alienating. It’s hard to watch Westbrook when he shifts into “hero mode,” as he did in the Thunder’s Game 4 loss — a performance that catalyzed the criticism of his game and his ability to function alongside Kevin Durant over the long term. Among that critical chorus was our own Zach Harper, who laid out his stat-supported case for Westbrook’s negative impact on Durant’s play:

[Westbrook] can win you basketball games. But it comes with a price and that price is the production of Kevin Durant.

Kevin Durant is the best player on the Thunder. Nobody should quibble with this fact. It’s unquibbable (made it up). And yet, you have people wondering if Westbrook might be the Thunder’s best player. The reason people are thinking this is because they fail to see how Westbrook negatively impacts what Kevin Durant does on the court….The reason Durant is less efficient [this season] seems to be that Russell Westbrook might be the most erratic star point guard since the fabled Stephon Marbury-Steve Francis era. You never know what he’s going to do on the court. Is he going to run the offense or is he going to awkwardly pull up on his jumper and show you what it would look like if Andre Miller actually elevated while shooting?

This is where Durant suffers. Yes, KD has issues with getting separation from his defenders, but the bigger problem is that the way he gets the ball is so inconsistent…The reason Durant gets the ball so inconsistently is because Westbrook is still trying to toe the line between point guard and “holy shnikes, I think I can get by everyone and get my own shot.”

That line that Harper describes is very real. We’ve seen Westbrook attempt to run some semblance of a cooperative offense, and we’ve also witnessed his mental shift into a realm where he is a lone gunman. Those two states are blatantly evident in Westbrook’s play, and I wouldn’t dare argue against the fact that he can act as a detriment to his team when at his shot-hunting worst (Game 4 serves as the most recent example, but is only one of many relevant ones).

Still, before we condemn Westbrook too much for his indiscretions against his teammate and the game of basketball, we should all take a deep breath. Westbrook and Durant are both stars, and played as such this season. Both ranked in the top 10 in PER, so being highly critical of their synergy is, to some degree, making a mountain out of the pile of dust that remains after OKC demolishes their opponents. This is the highly successful core of a highly successful team, and while there’s nothing wrong with pondering the influence of one star on another, I think the case against Westbrook isn’t quite as well-supported as one may think.

In Harper’s piece, for example, he cites Durant’s regular season performance when Westbrook was on the court in comparison to when Westbrook was on the bench (courtesy of the invaluable NBA.com StatsCube):

Screen shot 2011-04-28 at 11.29.28 AM

We can see that Durant has significant gains in points, field goal attempts, three-point attempts, free throw attempts, rebounds, assists, and +/- on a per-minute basis with Westbrook on the bench, while maintaining essentially the same shooting percentages.

For comparison’s sake, let’s look at a few other examples. First, on how Kobe Bryant plays with Pau Gasol on and off the court:

kobe-pau

Or Paul Pierce, with Kevin Garnett either in the game or on the bench:

pierce-garnett

Or perhaps the most famous pair of stars around, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade:

lebron-wade

We see the same general production trends across the board even on those teams like the Lakers, Celtics, and Heat. Shooting percentages either go up or maintain their previous levels once one star goes to the bench, while shot attempts, points, and other production increase. These are the natural dynamics of star players sharing the court: there are only so many shots, assists, and boards to go around, and playing with another highly productive player naturally curbs some box score stat accumulation. Removing one star from the equation opens the door for more opportunity to produce.

However, there is one substantial difference between those other star duos and the Durant-Westbrook pairing: the Thunder’s plus-minus is a disappointing +2.2 (per 48 minutes) when Westbrook and KD are on the court together, but a tremendous +9.4 (per 48 minutes) when Durant plays while Westbrook sits. On face value, this does seem to support the notion that the two aren’t so compatible after all.

But before we go any further with that thought, we should look at how Westbrook and Durant have performed in the postseason thus far. After Westbrook’s Game 4 meltdown, the plus-minus numbers should be consistent with the eyebrow-raising regular season marks, right?

KD-russ post-game5

It’s a small sample size, but the trend appears to have completely reversed while strengthening in magnitude. In this year’s playoffs, the Thunder are 16.8 points better per 48 minutes with both Westbrook and Durant on the court than they are with Durant playing sans Westbrook. But why are the numbers so radically different between the regular season and the postseason?

Unfortunately, as is usually the case when quantifying what held back the Thunder, the problem seems to be Jeff Green. It’s almost cruel to pick on Green at this point, but his +/- acts as a sufficient sandbag for the otherwise successful performance of Westbrook and Durant as an on-court duo.

The Thunder’s regular season on/off data is greatly affected by the fact that the core of Westbrook, Durant, and Green played a ton of minutes together, while Durant and Eric Maynor (Westbrook’s backup) only played limited minutes with Green in the lineup. If we look at every single Thunder lineup that saw more than 25 minutes* of action this season (via BasketballValue, natch), five of them featured the full trio of Westbrook, Durant and Green, and those lineups played a grand total of 1,116.7 regular season minutes. During that substantial sample, those lineups were collectively 1.6 points worse than their opponents per 100 possessions. Green isn’t a horrible player, but he was a horrible fit. OKC’s former starting lineup was a substantial part of the problem, as the Westbrook – Thabo Sefolosha – Durant – Green – Nenad Krstic combination was 0.9 points worse per 100 possessions than their opponents over a huge, 542-minute sample.

However, if we look at all of the lineups that played more than 25 minutes this season featuring Westbrook and Durant without Green, we see a completely different result. 10 different lineup combinations that fit that criteria totaled 921.6 minutes of playing time over the course of the regular season, and with Green out of the mix, those lineups were collectively 7.8 points better per 100 possessions than their opponents. In contrast to the old starters, the new starting lineup is doing quite well; the Westbrook – Sefolosha – Durant – Serge Ibaka – Kendrick Perkins lineup was 5.8 points better than their opponents per 100 possessions in 271.4 regular season minutes.

The Green Effect holds true even if we replace Westbrook with Maynor; qualified lineups featuring Maynor and Durant without Green were 12.7 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents in a small, 93.5-minute sample, while the one qualified lineup featuring Maynor, Durant and Green was 12 points worse than their opponents over 100 possessions. The only difference is that Westbrook played more minutes with Green and Durant both (1,116.7) than he did with just Durant (921.6)**, while Maynor played far more minutes with Durant alone (93.5) than he did with Durant and Green at the same time (28).

Westbrook is far from perfect, but he’s also no monster. His positive impact far outweighs his detriment, and if we filter through some of the noise in the lineup data available, we find that he and Durant actually work quite well together, so long as Jeff Green isn’t around. Westbrook doesn’t set up Durant as well as he should and sometimes takes shots even when he shouldn’t, but the Thunder are still performing at an elite level in spite of those hiccups. There are no omens in Westbrook’s errors, only lessons; he’s figuring out the best ways to be effective with every step he takes along the way — even the ones in the wrong direction. He’s learning. He’s adapting. He won’t develop Chris Paul’s court vision, but frankly he doesn’t have to; Westbrook is Westbrook, and while he may not fit neatly into the point guard mold, he and Durant can remain the core that ushers the Thunder to greatness.

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*25 minutes may admittedly be a somewhat arbitrary endpoint, but it’s close enough to BasketballValue’s own 33.4 minute qualifier while also allowing some of the lesser used Maynor lineups to come into play.

**These minute totals reflect only the sum of all lineups that qualified under the 25-minute criteria.