Category Archives: MISCELLANEA

Hi! How Was Your Summer? Indiana Pacers

2012-2013 W-L: 49-32

New Places: DJ Augustin (Toronto), Gerald Green (Phoenix), Jeff Pendergraph (San Antonio), Miles Plumlee (Phoenix),

New Faces: Chris Copeland, Luis Scola, Donald Sloan, CJ Watson

Draft: Solomon Hill (23)

The Pacers were one win away from the NBA Finals last season.  That’s a fact.  How close – extremely, awfully or very – Indiana actually came to beating the Heat is open to interpretation.

Yes, LeBron James made a game-winning layup as time expired in the first of a series that went the maximum seven games.  But that line of thinking doesn’t paint an accurate picture of the how the Eastern Conference Finals played out in reality.  The Pacers pushed an injured Miami team farther than most anyone anticipated, but the champs responded with aplomb whenever their collective back was truly against the wall: they won games 3, 5 and 7 by 20, 11 and 23 points respectively.

So Indiana came close to dethroning the Heat, but “seven games” doesn’t convey the true state of that series.  Miami controlled the action not at will, but certainly something close to it.  Contrast that to the true ebb and flow of the NBA Finals: though each series went the distance, in which set of games did the Heat face real and consistent doubt?

It’s important going forward to put Indiana’s loss to the Heat in the proper perspective.  Why? The Pacers might be a much better team this season than they were in 2012-2013.

No coach has ridden his starters like Frank Vogel over the last two seasons.  Indiana’s opening quintet played the second-most minutes of any lineup in the league last year, and led the NBA in 2011-2012.  It’s no secret the Pacers have lacked a corps of reserves befitting the team’s status as almost title-contenders, and Vogel made up for it in the most straight forward way possible.

A quick glance at lineup data from last year’s playoffs shows that Vogel’s hand was basically forced. Of eight non-starter groups that played at least 20 postseason minutes, only two had positive net ratings. The remaining six were – only a crass adjective applies – slaughtered; the ‘best’ of those lineups managed a -12.7 rating, and four of them registered red numbers in the mid-20s.

Help was on the way next year even if Indiana mostly stood pat this offseason, but Kevin Pritchard wasn’t satisfied.  The Pacers used cap exceptions to sign Chris Copeland and CJ Watson, each of whom is a major boost off the bench compared to recent Indy reserves.  Copeland is a limited defender and a bit one-dimensional on offense, but gives Vogel an opportunity to experiment with small-ball, floor-stretching lineups.  History’s shown he’s reluctant to abandon the Pacers more traditional power forward/center post identity, but that another option exists is at least a nice ace in the hole.  Still, the on-court impact of Watson’s signing is likely bigger.  He’s no super-sub, but an upgrade on Augustin in most every way imaginable.  Indiana absolutely fell apart without George Hill on the floor last season, and that won’t be the case in 2013-2014.

But the biggest fish here is Scola.  The price Pritchard paid to get him – Gerald Green, 2012 first round pick Miles Plumlee and a future lottery-protected first-rounder – seems high on the surface, but needs proper context.  Green’s reclamation project flamed out by mid-January, optimistic projections for Plumlee suggest a player like Mahinmi, and a Pacers first-rounder – barring a major injury to one of their stars – will be in the 20s the next half-decade.  Scola’s clearly on the downside of his career, but still offers Indy’s second-unit a versatile offensive cog.  He can post-up, pick-and-pop and play effectively from the elbow.  Fulcrums like this can keep the bench afloat.

Pritchard’s summer activity is just icing on the cake, though; the Pacers were going to get better reserve play next season nonetheless.  The rise of Paul George and fun of Lance Stevenson made it easy to forget Indiana played last season without former All-Star Danny Granger, but the potential influence gleaned from his return can’t be understated.  He’s not Indy’s best player anymore and won’t be utilized that way, but that’s a good thing for the Pacers.  Granger was stretched thin as a primary offensive option in his peak years, and should thrive playing a more ancillary role with Hill and George doing the lion’s share of ballhandling.  In fact, there’s no reason he can’t be an ideal ‘3-and-D’ type should he commit to that identity; the Pacers need all the space they can get on offense, and allowing George time away from guarding the opposition’s best wing threat is prudent.  The biggest question now is whether or not Granger assumes his role as a starter.  While a reserve part seems the right one, Vogel’s bench will receive a major boon one way or another.  Stephenson, after all,  is poised for bigger things this season.

The Pacers are another year older.  They made offseason moves that improved on their biggest weakness.  And they have an All-Star returning from injury.  So they’ll be better this season, and considering the way last year ended – on the road at Game 7 – all that could mean Indiana should be favorites in the Eastern Conference.  But that wasn’t a typical seven game series, the Heat aren’t a typical team and LeBron James isn’t a typical MVP.  Context always, always matters, and it renders a prediction for 2013-2014 we’re all accustomed to by now: until proven otherwise, it’s Miami with a bullet in the East.

But there’s room for a real title contender just below the Heat in the conference pecking order, a team considered the favorite should things go awry in South Beach.  Boston, Chicago and the Pacers have been noted challengers the past three seasons, and New York’s teams long to hop in the ring.  If that separation comes this season, Indiana’s the one most likely to have emerged from the fray – this summer’s ensured it.  And until they meet Miami again, that should be enough for the Pacers.

Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hi! How Was Your Summer? Atlanta Hawks

2012-2013 W-L: 44-38

New Faces: Pero Antic, Gustavo Ayon, Elton Brand, DeMarre Carroll, Jared Cunningham, Paul Millsap, Mike Budenholzer (Head Coach, San Antonio Spurs)

New Places: Devin Harris (Dallas),  Zaza Pachulia (Milwaukee), Josh Smith (Detroit), Deshawn Stevenson (unsigned)

Draft: Lucas Nogueira (16), Dennis Schroeder (17), Mike Muscala (44)

Danny Ferry did it again.

Just one year removed from ridding Atlanta of Joe Johnson’s contractual albatross and parting seas for the future, the Hawks were set to rebuild.  Josh Smith was leaving, Dwight Howard never coming and this franchise’s run of five consecutive playoff appearances seemingly over.  But Ferry had other plans, and in a fell swoop of prudent offseason moves improved Atlanta’s present and future trajectory by leaps and bounds.

This is what it’s like to have competent leadership, Hawks fans.  And though it might not pay immediate dividends on the court this season, Ferry’s ideal combination of patience and foresight surely will in ones to come.

It’s only fitting that Smith departs Atlanta the same way he arrived and endured for the past nine seasons – as a divisive lightning rod.  The market fought over Smith’s consensus value this summer before ever agreeing on it, and given his play for the Hawks it made sense.  For all his unique versatility and vastly underrated defensive impact, Smith’s aggregate influence has always been less than his talent suggests it should be.  The Hawks knew that first-hand, and seemed reluctant to retain him even before Smith made it clear he wanted a fresh start elsewhere.

But the question remained: was letting Smith walk the right decision for Atlanta? There was never a clear answer either way until both sides finally played their hand.  Smith agreed to a four-year, $54 million contract with Detroit on July 6th.  He won.  The Hawks came to terms with Paul Millsap on a two-year, $19 million deal on July 7th.  They won, too.

That swap in a vacuum is a boon for Atlanta; having to replace a cog like Smith is almost always a negative proposition.  But Millsap is a very good player in his own right, and savvy enough to know the extent of his game’s limitations.  If he’s not at or above Smith’s level, he’s just below it at the very least.  And considering the parameters of their respective contracts, Millsap could even be an overall upgrade  – certainly with respect to the cap and possibly on the floor, too.

The salary ramifications of exchanging Smith for Millsap are important, because Atlanta suddenly has the assets to make a major splash at the trade deadline or through free agency in coming seasons.  The Hawks drafted 19 year-old point guard Dennis Schroeder with the 17th pick in June’s draft.  Two weeks later, the precocious German maestro was everyone’s Summer League darling and had some suggesting Atlanta part ways with Jeff Teague this offseason.  While that talk was premature, Schroeder’s potential and Teague’s new, extremely reasonable contract – four years, $32 million – give the Hawks options at point guard.  Anywhere they go from here – trading Schroeder, trading Teague, playing it out – is a luxury of which teams always take advantage.

Schroeder’s summer play was was aided by his innate chemistry with Nogueira, a seven-foot bundle of arms, hair and energy.  The 21 year-old Brazilian needs weight and far more experience against elite competition, but he’s a very intriguing prospect.  Nogueira will eventually make his mark in the NBA; the question now is the scope of its extent and when it will actually come.  Ferry announced last week that “Bebe” will spend this season in Spain playing for Asefa Estudiantes Madrid.  Regardless, he’s another piece that makes Atlanta feel good about its future.

Even without Nogueira, the Hawks won’t lack for serviceable big men behind Millsap and Al Horford.  Atlanta signed Elton Brand in free agency and claimed Gustavo Ayon off waivers from the Bucks; each has deficiencies, obviously, but no doubt provide the Hawks with adequate post depth.  That both of them have enough size to play center – allowing Horford to play power forward on occasion – should not be overlooked, either.

Atlanta mostly elected to stay put on the wing.  The Hawks traded for seldom-used Jared Cunningham on draft day and signed versatile free agent DeMarre Carroll, but will mostly rely on those already on the roster to flank Teague and Schroeder.  Good thing for them, then, that Lou Williams is set to return after missing the second-half of last season due to a torn ACL.  He’s no star, but certainly offers scoring and playmaking punch from the perimeter that Atlanta sorely missed in his absence.  Sophomore sharpshooter John Jenkins is coming off a strong summer league and is primed for a bigger role, and Kyle Korver re-signed, too.

The Hawks don’t have a true impact player at shooting guard or small forward, but instead have a litany of established players that know their specific role.  That’s hardly ideal, but not every team can have a Kevin Durant, Paul George or even Gordon Hayward.  Atlanta’s counting on its whole to be greater than the sum of its parts on the wing, which is a microcosm for how the Hawks will have to win this season in general.

Horford’s a genuine two-way star, Millsap an underrated offensive crutch and Teague a solid lead guard, but they won’t push Atlanta to the playoffs alone.  Longtime Spurs assistant and new head coach Mike Budenholzer is known for his defensive mindset, but will likely implement San Antonio-esque offensive principles, too.  Basically, it’s safe to assume that what the Hawks lack in top-end talent will be somewhat supplanted by team-wide discipline on both ends of the floor.

There’s a ceiling to Atlanta’s success in 2013-2014.  They won’t win the East and are unlikely to gain home-court playoff advantage, either.  But another season of approximately 45 or so wins and a familiar first round exit won’t mean what it has the past several years.  So though this season might seem status quo on the surface, it’s really anything but; there are steps on the road to real contention, and the Hawks have finally begun to climb them.

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

The Future of Injuries in the NBA

Photo: Flickr/Joey KWOK

Last season injuries played a major role in the NBA. We saw key players like Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo and their respective teams have the courses of their seasons altered in just the blink of an eye. By the end of the season being healthy had as much to do with — if not more — determining a team’s success as things like getting the right matchup and sheer talent. The eventual champion Miami Heat happened to be both healthy and talented, but still struggled to put away the San Antonio Spurs until Tony Parker tweaked his hamstring.

It’s especially no secret that the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 2012-’13 season was undercut by injuries. Kevin Love, Andrei Kirilenko, Ricky Rubio, Brandon Roy– you name a player and they probably missed some time. This was a team that many felt should have contended for a playoff spot, but had their potential limited by injuries and allowed teams like the Lakers and Rockets to sneak in.

As a response to this, new Timberwolves general manager Flip Saunders is taking an initiative towards preventing season altering injuries as much as possible. Speaking at a press conference announcing Nikola Pekovic’s (A player who missed several games himself last season) re-signing Friday, Saunders addressed the issue after Pekovic was pressed about his own durability issues.

“We are working with Greg [Farnam] our trainer and we are going to be very proactive medically,” said Saunders. “I’ve been a firm believer, I believe there have been times we’ve over trained players and there’s been a number of injuries we’ve had over the last five or six years and players continue to trainer harder and harder and harder. And there’s got to be a part where we can come to a meeting of the minds between the two.”

Saunders’ idea isn’t some new fangled, revelatory, abstract idea for preventing injuries — in fact, the idea is quite simple at it’s core — but it’s a very simple step that can get conversation about how team’s can protect their players headed in the right direction. Really, it’s just communication, but in any type of personal or working relationship, it’s an important aspect that cannot be overlook for the organization as a whole to eventually be successful.

Saunders told the media following the presser that, “Coaches work guys, they want to get ‘em working on the floor. They get done, the strength coach wants to show his importance, so he takes ‘em, gets ‘em into the weight room. They get done and all these guys have personal trainers. The personal trainers want to show their purpose, so they take ‘em out and they take them out.”

Essentially, Saunders looks to get everyone on the same page, as opposed to several different people with several different plans for one player to avoid overtraining players before they even play the game.

“So it’s where the players are almost working too much, continued Saunders. “I think there has to be a meeting of the minds of all, and getting all the people. Really getting a good plan or a good format so that the players are doing the right thing and they’re not over-training parts of their body.”

In doing so, the team hopes to get the most out of all of it’s players to ensure success on the court, and on the business end as well. Many may not think about it, I didn’t, but it makes sense that you have several coaches and training professionals who are all pushing their agenda on one player based on what they feel is best without knowing that someone else may have already told them something similar, risking overtraining and later injury. By getting together and putting their recommendations into an open forum, they can design training regimens that are not just safer, but more effective, which benefits everybody involved.

The process has already begun. Saunders noted that Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love, two of the most devastating injury cases the team has had recently, had employed more full-body training than they had in the past. Ricky has spent his summer with his trainer by the ocean kayaking, and Love has incorporated a yoga practice into his basketball and weight lifting regimen. On top of that, Saunders sent each of his players — not just Love and Rubio — with homework from the coaches on areas they’d like to see worked on with their trainers during the offseason.

As HP’s own Andrew Lynch and Steve McPherson uncovered last month at summer league, other teams are also addressing the injury bug, albeit in a more advanced way. The Spurs have begun tracking their players’ exertion in practices with their D-League affiliate with biometric vests that measure their effort and intensity so the team can better monitor their players. In other leagues around the world, the technology has decreased injuries while increasing performance. Read the article in the hyperlink; it’s fascinating stuff.

These steps, both big and small, could be huge in changing how future seasons play out. We’re talking everything from swinging championships, to MVP races, to saving jobs of coaches and general managers by being able to keep their best players on the floor. As fans, we’re also a beneficiary of this. Think about it: no more teams playing the regular season through as a high seed, only to have their best player suffer an injury at the worst possible time as their opponent rolls them in five games, robbing us of what was once a promising series.

We’re also talking extending players’ careers. We’ve already seen through out the years how career-ending injuries have become fewer and fewer, but now we could see fewer cases like Tracy McGrady where a players injuries compound to the point that their bodies can no longer support their basketball abilities. You can think of several cases like McGrady, who are unfortunate casualties on our way to understanding why injuries happen and how they can be prevented down the road.

The true key will be prevention at the levels prior to the NBA, but that will take time. Rick Barry told me a few months ago that he felt that a rigorous AAU schedule was a part of the problem because the players’ bodies are too underdeveloped to take the beating, setting them up for potential injury hazards down the road.

Of course, the technology that the Spurs use is likely out of the budget for many college programs, no less an AAU squad, but a simple step like that in which Saunders is taking costs very little and could make a big difference.

“The players that came out to Chicago there were a lot of young players with the beginning of arthritis, you know, tendonitits and that at that young age,” Saunders added later on. “So I believe we gotta change it; we’ve got to be more proactive, find a way to be cutting edge.”

According to himself, the new Timberwolves general manager doesn’t believe he has all of the right answers at. However, it certainly seems like they’re moving towards finding them with even just a small step. After all, half of the battle of arriving at that answer is being aware that you have a problem and what you have been doing isn’t working. For a team like the Timberwolves looking to return to the playoffs after a decade, looking at the injury question differently may eventually bring them the right answer. And the more talented teams in the NBA, the better the viewing is, so everybody wins.

 

 

82 Games.

Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds via Flickr.

Nothing quite compares to following the day-to-day rhythms of a sport, save for following it so closely that the events, musings and ensuing “adjustments” of any given season feel overwhelmingly predictable. For fans and analysts, this process can become tiresome. Often, we watch sports to escape the mundane drudgery of our realistic lives with realistic goals and realistic setbacks but 65 games into an 82-game regular season, much of the once-magical narrative that fused an ebbing and flowing connection between our minds and our television screens turns into just that: mundane drivel.

You’ll often hear people say that sports are a metaphor for life. The NBA; that prodigal, apt product with no regard for the bothersome nature of back-to-back’s and holiday matchups, has mastered this fine truth in-so-far that it anticipates and mimics the boredom that haunts our lives even more effectively than it does our triumphs. For most of us, real-life victories are rarely, if ever, delivered with the same sense of menacing, instantaneous euphoria and jaw-clenching supremacy of a last-second block or a game-winning shot. Ours is a long-awaited, cerebral, calming success — the kind that, since it’s expected, simply soothes our souls and does away with our worries. On the other hand, in the sports world, success and failure are abstractions created for the purpose of being overblown and exacerbated.

Instead, boredom — even under the lights of the Garden — creeps in like a decidedly human beast. It teaches us that even in a subworld dominated by LeBron James, Blake Griffin, Kobe Bryant’s snark and Kevin Durant, anything with a circadian regularity feels menial after a period. We learn that it’s necessary to remind ourselves, really force ourselves, to do what we love. More importantly, we learn that doing so doesn’t undermine our love but that what we love is just another part of life and that life, in spite of what the #inspirational quotes tell you, is supposed to feel meaningless sometimes. Here’s the thing. Sports really are a metaphor for life. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read that sentence and moaned since the first time I saw it but it’s true. 82 games remind us that the key to having a good game is to pick your spots. Let the game come to you. Don’t burn out too early in the season. Keep shooting, JJ. Keep going inside, LeBron. More than anything, it reminds us that the evidence provided by 82 games is really just the summation of one grand lesson: if you have even a fraction of a choice, play the long game.

So, this is a little crazy: it’s midnight in a foreign city and I’m only a few beats away from completely freaking out. Sure, there are triggers, but you don’t really get to choose a convenient time for this kind of thing to happen. Anxiety leaves me vulnerable to even the most weightless fear so it’s not often that anything can keep me calm in moments like these but today, by some means, basketball has that power.

“Regression to the mean. Regression to the mean. Regression to the me…”
“Defense wins championships. Defense wins championships. Defense wins ch…”
“There’s no such thing is an extended miracle. There’s no such thing as…”

Really, what the logical part of my mind is trying to tell the other parts is that no matter what happens, no matter what I think about for the next 20 minutes, “everything is going to be alright.” It’s hard to communicate that sort of a phrase in a way that resonates, however. Bubbling under the graceless, oversaturated use of clichés is an unsought truth: the phrases we’ve run dry through mockery and ill-use remain talismanic thanks to their necessity. Simply put, clichés, because we focus on the fact that they sound lame over how necessary they are, never really have an effect past semi-thoughtful, mostly hazy tweets at 3 AM, if that. It doesn’t matter what your favourite sport is (unless your favourite sport is going through articles and editing my Canadian spelling because that sport sucks and so do you, Jared). Every sport is nothing more than just a game. It’s unimportant. It’s menial. At the core, it’s super-human specimens dedicating their lives to arbitrary rules based on arbitrary boundaries for the sake of our entertainment. Writing about these things is fun. It allows me the means for creativity provided by a news cycle without the pressure of reporting real news, and sometimes it — wrongly, I might add — fuels a sense of worthlessness I feel within myself that compels me to attach that worthlessness to everything I do, including the words I create. That works, right? Sports aren’t mundane, just worthless. Unfortunately, that line of thinking is troublesome as well. Basketball is a metaphor for life and in being such a thing, it forces us to consider and take heed to the adages we so often take for granted. Keep shooting, JJ. Keep going inside, LeBron. Stay true. Try. Try harder. Just keep on keepin’ on. Sports are important, so much so that each inconsequential reaction is worthy of every gut-wrenching, mind-draining emotion or word I’ll ever spend on it.

The everlasting rhythmic qualities of a season are as such: to begin, a sense of hope prospered by the enchanting glow of two zero’s and with a dash in between them; in the middle, obscurity in the face of unanswered narratives, tiresome dialogues and diminished consequences and lastly, the end; that insatiably immortalizing answer to all prior questions, dangerously simplifying the frenzy and gleeful confusion of eight months past. That’s where sports and life differ the most. We never really get to see the end. Rather, we see the end of certain phases. And even then, we mock the seemingly trivial concerns of the past; adults disparaging adolescence, seniors offering their sage advice to those same 40-something’s. Still, there’s something to be learned here, like maybe we should take a step back in order to avoid overreacting to every waking moment. “In the grand scheme of things, does this really change anything?” “It makes no sense to worry about things you have no control over.” Again, it’s impossible to drill quotes from the internet into your head, useful and wise as they may be. Especially when you’re 19 and every mistake feels like it’s the end of the world. It’s a funny age to be, 19. We’re relaxed but at the same time, we’re constantly rushing for no reason. We want to feel a sense of achievement, often before we’ve felt the sweat and blood of real, damning work. We’re lost; consuming information more often than we’re actually learning anything and we’re overwhelmed. Luckily, over the course of countless two-and-half-hour intervals and hundreds of meaningless final scores, the clichés become easier to fundamentally understand. 82 games reminds me that one doesn’t matter and that no matter what I think about for the next 20 minutes, the sun will still rise the next day. We all pine for a deeper, omniscient kind of success — immortality in some form or another — 82 games reminds me that even in the world of sports, where literal immortality is an achievable end, the journey, despite what people tell you, holds the highest esteem in our memories.

My problem is I’m always sifting through things, compiling lists and looking forward to finishing them — trying to induce myself to reach the end. My mind races; I become very caught up in this stuff and it sucks because a to-do list is never really finished in that it never runs out of ways to discombobulate and speed up your thoughts. 82 games reminds me the journey is the part worth remembering and the end is just a conceptualized vision I have for a final, conclusive intersection between satisfaction and joy (or something to that effect) that’s never existed and never will. And it’s probably a good thing. The twists and toils of real life, while maddening, deafening and ultimately, tiresome will always be accompanied by greater rewards.

Slowly, you begin to realize that these games reinforce every cliché you’ve quenched with the same irony to which you eagerly retreat every time you’ve had to feel the brunt of being tested, although sincere deliberation could have saved your life. Because sports are a metaphor for everything. If you allow it to, a sporting match can put life’s most burdensome topics — death, war, love and struggle — into simplified, more finalized and answerable terms. As long as you remember these things aren’t exactly the same; that sports are still primarily entertainment and real life will always be accompanied by complications while bereft of endings, there’s a lot to take away when you’re paying attention for 82 games.

You learn what you like and what you believe in so you develop a certain value system. Some of these philosophies stay with you throughout your life, always stubbornly, while others make a quicker exit than the Nietzche-driven existential crisis you picked up during your first semester at the liberal arts institution of your choosing. You’ve learned that you have to make a few tough adjustments along the way — maybe trading a fan favorite — or else you’ll perish.

You learn that sometimes you have to shut your mind off and do what feels right; throw caution to the wind, consequences be damned. Just shut up and play. You learn that you have to let some things go because while games have final scores, life doesn’t. You learn that it’s okay, because some things are meant to be open-ended and some stories are better left unanswered. More importantly, you learn that life doesn’t provide you with a clear game plan for winning because life has no clear winners and no clear losers.

You learn that it’s important to be innovative and fearless in the eye of a challenge but that recklessness rarely leads to overblown triumph like the climaxes of movies would have you believe. Most of the time, the shot that starts the engine for Tracy McGrady’s 13-points-33-second’s marvel clangs off the rim and seals a victory for the other team. You learn that sometimes the climax becomes a crippling aftermath, all for the sake of decisions you never really wanted to make. You learn that history’s conquering acts of heroism often involve allowing someone else to take the role of the hero. You learn that Kobe usually won’t hit that shot. You learn that progress requires a fine balance between creativity, carelessness and predictability  that no one ever really masters.

You learn that the whole of life is just a gigantic struggle between deciding when to be selfish and when to be unselfish. When to shoot and when to pass. When to drive the lane with reckless abandon and when to set the offense. You learn that these things are as simple as they are impossible. It takes experience, it takes a cerebral, Chris Paul-esque sense of everything that’s happening around you. It takes the skillful ability and willingness to do both at the blink of an eye.

You learn that it takes a lot more than what 99 percent of us are given. You learn that you’re supposed to fail. Statistics suggest that on a yearly basis, 29 out of every 30 people fail.  If you’re not failing, you’re probably not even playing the game. You learn that sometimes the things you love force you to think about the final score, so you have to learn how to push back and force yourself to continue doing the things you love despite the unlikeliness of your dreams. Again, you learn that this doesn’t diminish your love but that this is simply the nature of things and that in life, even when it comes to matters of love, you create your own silver linings.

All in all, you learn.

What We’ve Been Up To

Being that so many of our writers are writing at so many different places outside of HP these days, from time to time we’re going to update y’all on what we’ve been up to lately.

Here’s Steve McPherson writing about Johnny Flynn, trying to do what you love for a living, and his experiences as a musician:

Most of us are never going to make a living doing what we love, and of those that do, a vanishingly small number will be paid very, very well (as the sixth pick in the 2009 draft, Flynn made just under $3 million his rookie year and just over $9 million for the life of his contract) to do something we not only love but are among the very best in the world at. I certainly don’t belong in the latter category, but judging from Flynn’s story, it seems like it can only be more fraught with distress than what I attempted, which was to be a professional musician.

For the five or so years after I finished college, I tried to make music my life and livelihood. For a generation of children raised by successful, middle- to upper-class baby boomers, making a creative endeavor into your career has supplanted the traditional reliable job, two-car garage and nuclear family of the American Dream. Since industrial jobs have moved overseas, we’ve heard about the rise of the “creative class” in America, and that’s what I wanted to be a part of.

When it was good, it was great. I played a lot of shows in a lot of places, opened for some terrific bands, got to know some warm, generous fellow musicians, recorded and released some albums I was very proud of and sometimes even made some money.

Read more at A Wolf Among Wolves.

Gordon Hayward’s Turn to Star

It’s always been easy to overlook Gordon Hayward.

He almost gave up on basketball in middle school.  He was an unranked high school recruit and received just three division-one scholarship offers.  He was Utah’s second-most heralded rookie by the end of his debut season.  And he hasn’t fallen short of or exceeded expectations throughout his three-year career.

Or so the story goes.

Screen Shot 2013-08-08 at 5.01.01 PM

Table courtesy of Basketball Reference.

These are the per-36 minute statistics of the league’s best young swingmen during the regular season.  Many would laugh at Hayward’s inclusion among the esteemed quartet of Barnes, Butler, George and Leonard, and the numbers would shake their head in response; Hayward’s not only belong, but mostly outpace those of his peers.

That’s surprising on a macro level.  Our perception of Hayward’s merit differs wildly compared to his counterparts': George is the bonafide superstar, Leonard following Tim Duncan’s footsteps, Butler a fearless two-way force, and Barnes the hyper-athletic marksman.  These are the game’s prototype ‘three-and-D’ guys, players that not only impact both ends of the floor, but do so at multiple positions while filling multiple roles, too.

But circumstance matters here as it does anywhere else.  Barnes, Butler, Leonard and George were afforded the opportunity to shine in front of a national audience during the postseason.  That each of them took advantage and drastically outperformed their regular season selves is certainly commendable.  They wouldn’t be where they are now had they played any differently.

Instead, they’d accompany Hayward on the list of youngsters that face promising but indeterminate futures.  But this group’s playoff chance was had and fulfilled, cementing their spots among the league’s young hierarchy in the process.  Hayward didn’t get his last season and likely won’t this coming one, either.  So we’ll have another opportunity to forget him again, unless he takes that salient leap from supporting to stardom during the regular season.

Let’s just say you’d be wise to pay attention.

Comparisons aside now, the 23 year-old Hayward enjoyed easily his best season in 2012-2013.  In addition to a career-high of 14.1 points per game, he posted personal benchmarks in PER (16.81) and win shares (5.4), and shot 41.5% from three-point range on 3.4 tries a night.  Perhaps more impressive, Hayward increased his usage rate from 17.8 to 22.1 while lowering his turnover rate from 13.7 to 11.7.  All that while guarding the opponent’s best wing, too, and thriving while doing so; Hayward held shooting guards to a PER of 13.6 and small forwards to the paltry number of 12.4.

So it’s safe to say Hayward got much better last season.  We just weren’t watching.

None of that means he’s due for more improvement, of course.  Perhaps Hayward’s reached his ceiling as a floor-spacing wing with underrated passing flair that doubles as a plus defender, and that’d be fine.  Every team in the league would be far better off with a player made from that basic fabric.

But Utah, finally in real transition, needs more.  And fortunately for the Jazz, there’s evidence to support the optimistic theory that Hayward has ample room to grow in the fourth and most important season – he’s due for a contract extension next summer – of his burgeoning career.

Utah fully embraced the youth movement in the offseason.  By letting longtime offensive stalwarts Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap leave without any compensation whatsoever, the Jazz are counting on internal improvement to remain competitive in the Western Conference.  How competitive Utah actually wants to be this season is a discussion for another time, but the point remains that the Jazz will finally be relying on its young talent with no veteran strings attached.

Though Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter are the most direct beneficiaries behind the departure of Jefferson and Millsap, the biggest onus will fall on Hayward.  Utah’s flex-heavy offensive system relied almost untenably on its two-headed post-up monster the last couple years, leaving little wiggle room for Hayward and the team’s other perimeter players to even play basic principles of pick-and-roll basketball.  How Ty Corbin will adjust his system to life without Jefferson in particular is anyone’s guess, but what isn’t is that the biggest burden now rests on Hayward’s ever-broadening shoulders.

He’s this team’s most experienced if not best offensive player now, what with Derrick Favors’ established limitations, Enes Kanter developing, and Alec Burks and Trey Burke ill prepared for such a role.  The ball is headed Hayward’s way, and to forecast how he’ll perform with such added responsibility, we need to look back.

Screen Shot 2013-08-08 at 9.58.04 PM

All totals per 36 minutes of play.

Above are Hayward’s splits with and without Jefferson on the floor.   The biggest and broadest takeaway from all that data? Hayward is going to make a jump in 2013-2014; the question now is just how big it’s going to be.

Most everything you’d want and expect from Hayward without Jefferson playing beside him is here.  He’s a more productive scorer, a better creator, a more frequent penetrator and clearly exhibits the type of added aggression befitting a primary wing scoring option.  Hayward’s field goal percentage takes the predictable dip as a result, but that’s nearly offset by his remarkable consistency from beyond the arc and increased opportunities at the free throw line.  A 54.1% true shooting mark is hardly elite, but is sandwiched by those of established scorers like George and Carmelo Anthony.  The Jazz can deal as long as that decrease comes with the necessary uptick in production, basically.  Like everything in basketball, it’s a balancing act.

And remember, the numbers Hayward compiled without Jefferson were garnered through means of Utah’s old offensive system, and at least partially with Millsap on the floor, too.  Those aren’t circumstances in which Hayward will find himself this season; the Jazz offense should be catered to his abilities more than that of any other player on the roster.  With that change comes more defensive attention, of course, but his high-assist/low-turnover yield bodes well for that coming adjustment.

None of this is to say Hayward will ever be good enough to lead Utah to a championship.  In most every case, those types of franchise-changing players will have shown that hand by the time they’ve reached Hayward’s current stage.  But he can absolutely be a foundational piece for the Jazz in their quest to quickly rebuild; versatile defenders that can occasionally function as something close to a lead ballhandler and legitimately stretch the defense from every spot on the floor are rare. Not coincidentally, so, too, are great players in general.

Gordon Hayward is finally getting a chance this season.  It’s not ideal and doesn’t come under the best of circumstances.  But for a player so often unintentionally discounted, that such an opportunity has come at all might be enough.  And considering the quiet but sizable strides he took last season, with Hayward it likely will be.

Analytical support for this piece provided by NBA.com/stats, basketball-reference.com and 82games.com.

What’s Wrong With Dwight Howard’s Free Throw Stroke?

There isn’t one particular way to shoot free throws. Ray Allen, Kevin Durant, and Steph Curry, three of the league’s best from the line, have three distinct motions. There are ways to control shot accuracy and techniques to minimize issues of balance, but you either have a feel for how the ball should travel into the hoop, or you don’t.

Despite averaging 9.5 free throw attempts per game last season, which was a function of both his physicality near the rim and his propensity to miss free throws, Dwight Howard just isn’t a natural free throw shooter. Some teams fouled him to prevent dunks; others intentionally and away from the ball. He shot 39 free throws in a game against Golden State, tying his own NBA record for attempts in a single regular season game.

Mark Price, Ed Palubinskas and Chuck Person have all tried to mend Dwight Howard’s broken free throw mechanics, yet Howard has watched his percentage dip from a 59 percent career average to just under 50 percent in each of the last two seasons. Though each of the coaches have tinkered with his stroke in some way, fundamental flaws in his technique persist. So the question, as it has always been, is what’s wrong with his shot?

The Slingshot Release

To properly appreciate the current state of Dwight Howard’s shooting mechanics, it’s important to understand their evolution over the past few seasons – particularly during the rapid state of decline from 2010-present. In 2010-2011, when Dwight was on the Orlando Magic and a consistently below average 59 percent shooter, he relied on a stunted, slingshot release – which is to say that his shooting elbow was bent back well beyond a 90 degree angle, leading to two separate hitches in his shot.

The problem starts at the point of gather. See here, for instance, as Stephen Curry and Dwight Howard prepare their free throw strokes:

Howard-Curry Gather

Notice the difference in the degrees to which each player’s shooting elbow is already bent: Curry’s is close to 90 degrees, while Dwight Howard is nearly at 45. Therefore, as Curry transfers from preparation to release, his shoulder continues moving fluidly until it’s time thrust forward and shoot the ball. Howard, however, has a hitch: once his upper arm is parallel to the floor, the ball is at his ear. Should he raise his shoulder any farther, the ball would be in an awkward position behind his head. This forces him to freeze his shoulder and only bend forward at the elbow.

Curry-Howard 2

Curry’s unlocked shoulder allows him to angle his upper arm upwards, while Howard’s points straight towards the rim. It’s not difficult to guess, then, which player’s shot will have more arc.

With this in mind, here’s Howard and Curry from gather to the point of release:

Howard is shooting in two mechanical steps: raise the shoulder, unbend the elbow. His entire body moves, comes to a complete stop, and restarts only from the elbow through fingertips on both hands. Curry is smooth all the way through.

It should be mentioned that a severe elbow bend isn’t necessarily an issue: Steve Nash rocks his elbow back nearly as far as Howard, but shoots at a 90% clip. So what is he doing differently?

It’s all about the point of gather: Nash (and Curry) begins his shot sequence with the ball closer to the floor due to less initial elbow bend, and subsequently moves from low to high.

Nash

And now video:

Because Howard’s early elbow bend naturally brings the ball higher at its starting point, his shooting motion is more backwards to forwards and leads to a line drive shot.

Howard Backwards

In slow motion:

But a line drive shot on its own isn’t the worst thing; it’s the other consequences of Howard’s frozen shoulder that prove problematic. Because it has been neutralized, it’s the responsibility of his elbow and wrist to create shot arc, adding further stress to his right arm joints and taking away from shot accuracy. The lack of shoulder height also requires a release point while the elbow is still bent backwards, in order to ensure that the ball has at least a little arc.

Curry, meanwhile, can continue to use his shoulder to create height for his elbow and wrist, therefore limiting the arc and distance burden on those joints. This also leaves little opportunity for either his wrist or elbow to deviate and throw the shot wide left or right because they’re following the path of the shoulder. Notice how Curry’s arm finishes high and straight, whereas Howard’s is both low and bent:

But where Howard’s arm finishes isn’t the true end point of his shot: there’s actually a hitch halfway through his follow-through, as he consciously extends his arm and flicks his wrist after he’s done following through. Curry, however, is smooth from start to finish. It becomes more apparent if we slow the video down:

These two freeze frames, therefore, are the true follow-throughs of Dwight Howard and Stephen Curry:

Howard-Curry Follow-Through

While the hitch is undoubtedly a funny Howard quirk he developed to appease his shooting coaches, what does that mean for his shot as a whole? Howard’s outward arm extension, as opposed to upwards, decreases shot arc, and therefore the ball’s chances of falling into the hoop. But the bent elbow on the follow-through is actually symptomatic of the same problem: by releasing forward instead of high, he’s creating a lot of momentum towards the rim. For a man the size of Dwight Howard, 15 feet isn’t a long shot and doesn’t require much power. The under-extended elbow, then, is a counter. He’s essentially stopping his own momentum in its own tracks in order not to overshoot the ball, and this is why it appears he’s shot-putting/slingshotting the basketball. It also causes extra stress in the shooting arm, particularly in the elbow and wrist, giving them a greater chance of wobbling and throwing off accuracy. Not to mention of course, the inherent shot distance problem created by having to stop your elbow at a specific point, counter to all momentum. If Howard’s release were higher, he could stretch his elbow out fully without worrying about countering his own strength.

Knicks shooting coach and longtime shot-making wizard Dave Hopla specifically advocates the elbow above the eyebrow technique, emphasizing the same high release concept. In the photo above, you can see exactly that with Curry’s elbow. Same here with Steve Nash:

Nash Follow Through

But, again: it all starts before the shot is taken: the height of the gather and due to initial elbow bend.

The Guide Hand

The slingshot release isn’t the only obstacle standing between Dwight Howard and made free throws. Right before the ball leaves his fingertips, take a look at where his guide hand is on two different shots:

Howard Guide Hands

It’s actually blocking the ball’s path from Dwight’s right hand to the rim. Howard, of course, doesn’t shoot it through his own hand. Upon release, he moves the guide hand away to provide a proper path for the ball to travel through. Except in a mechanically proper shot, the guide hand doesn’t move; it keeps everything steady up to and through release. In Howard’s case, it propels sideaways to get out of the way, but in the process stops doing its job. Howard, therefore, is momentarily balancing the ball with one hand in the most crucial moment of shot – which lends itself to extra wrist strain and possible imbalance, possibly leading to poor shot accuracy.

Notice where the guide hands finishes relative to the right hand: they’re well separated, as if Howard has intentionally detached the guide hand from the ball.

Howard Guide Hand Final Position

It’s also properly angled sideways, even though it doesn’t function in the manner its positioning suggests.

Knee Bend

Do free throws require bend at the knee? That’s difficult to say. Nash and Curry, as we saw above, generate power from their lower bodies by transferring weight from low to high. Ray Allen doesn’t bend his knees at all.

The arguments go like this: by bending the knees the shooter creates shot power, which limits the upper body’s burden and allows it to focus on shot accuracy. Or you’ll hear that that a 15-foot shot, particularly for NBA players, doesn’t require much power to begin with. By involving the legs, you’re forcing the upper body to overcompensate for extra shot distance and therefore adversely affecting shot accuracy. Ultimately it’s a matter of comfort and preference – what works for Ray Allen or or Steve Nash or whoever doesn’t work for everyone else.

For most of his career, Dwight Howard has been a knee bender – in all of the Howard free throws above, he bends slightly at the knee, straightens out, brings the ball back, and shoots while straight up and down. He’s really not using his legs whatsoever, because the momentum generated from his lower body is halted before he actually starts guiding the ball forwards.

But in the summer of 2011, Howard hired shooting coach Ed Palubinskas to fix his free throw stroke. As for the particular solutions Palubinskas tried to implement with Howard, we can only rely on observation. But what became readily apparent at the start of the 2011-2012 season was that Howard moved away from the backwards/forwards motion, and instead began his gather at his waist. Finally, he was moving low to high. (We can sort of see this type of instruction in this video interviewk Howard and Palubinskas did.) But there’s more: Howard also scrapped the knee bend and mimicked Allen’s top-heavy approach.

Howard 11-12

And now video:

Except he only hit 28 out of 67 free throws to start the season, and 12 days later on January 6th (the season began on Christmas in the lockout year) he reverted back to his old knee-bending ways.

Why? At least in part due to Mark Price, a career 90.4 percent free throw shooter in 12 NBA seasons and the man hired by the Orlando Magic before the season began to fix Howard’s free throw woes.

Here’s how he planned on attacking the Howard free throw problem:

“For example, Price now has Howard starting his shooting form higher rather than lower, reducing the margin of error when he brings the ball to its release point. He wants Howard to use the same stroke repeatedly. He wants Howard using his legs more.”

While Price’s fix was conceptually sound, it didn’t address the severe Howard elbow bend that he naturally recedes towards – whether that’s on Price or Howard, we’ll never know. But just a day after he brought back the knee bend, Howard brought back his backwards/forwards release.

Howard 2011

And that, as you might have guessed, looked eerily similar to his 2010-2011 free throw technique – post-release hitch included.

(2010-2011 on the left, 2011-2012 on the right)

Save for one clear difference: in 2011-2012, Price helped Howard ditch the two-step process of his free throw. The transition from gather to release point is one smooth motion, and his knees bend in tandem with the upper body process. Though the release is still too low and hitched, the entire mechanism is, at the very least, smooth.

From that January 6th, 2012, until February 8th, 2012, against Miami, Howard used the Price method and made 112 of 225 free throws – good for just a shade under 50 percent. But then came another switch, this time back to the technique he used to start the season: no knee bend, low gather point, low and stunted release (Palubinskas, I presume). Still, no improvement: 135-270 on his free throws for the rest of the season for another 50 percent mark.

2012-2013

New team, new shooting coach, new technique. This time Chuck Person, Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach. Via the Los Angeles Times:

“Person has already changed two things.

Howard used to set up at the line with the ball at his waist. Now he starts a bit below his chin. Person also worked to change Howard’s unorthodox release.

‘He would start low and come up and stop the ball in front of his eyes. He only had one eye on the ball so he would move his head to the left, which would make his right elbow come out,’ Person said. “He was basically shooting sideways. He would put his thumb on the ball so his rotation was improper every time.”

Sounds like a problem.

‘We lifted the ball straight up, his elbow just below his eye level, so now he clearly has both eyes on the rim,’ Person said. ‘It relaxes his upper body.'”

TV camera angles make it difficult to see Howard’s head lean, but here’s one screenshot that illuminates the problem he’s discussing.

Howard Ball Placement

It’s difficult to see, but Howard’s release point does sneak above his forehead, freeing up his right eye. Still, some shooting coaches actually advocate the one-eyed shot. The argument is this: the elbow naturally slides inwards because shooting the ball lined up straight is awkward. (Think Matt Bonner’s release.) This is why JJ Redick, among others, actually lines up his right foot six inches to the right of the center of the free throw line – he’s properly lining up his shoulder and accounting for the natural elbow flare.

Anyway: here’s the new and Chuck Person-improved Howard:

Howard Lakers

What Person’s two changes accomplished was creating a viable technique to manufacture shot arc, something Howard had previously lacked throughout his entire free throw shooting career.

But as the photo on the right shows, two fundamental problem persist: Howard’s release is still low and hitched because his elbow starts in that severely bent position, and his guide hand still blocks the ball. And, by bringing the ball closer to Howard’s chin, Person re-created the same problem that plagued Howard in Orlando: the backwards/forwards motion as opposed to up and down. Though it’s slightly better here because Howard’s arms are above his head, it’s not ideal.

That first game of the season against the Mavericks, Howard shot 3-14 from the line. As the season wore on and the Lakers found themselves in turmoil, Howard’s free throw issues became a national story. And with that intensified focus came Howard slowly devolving his form. Ethan Sherwood Strauss sniffed out this release problem in a piece written early last season, but it’s important to realize that this is a recurring Howard problem that has its roots in Howard’s most intrinsic free throw instinct: the over-bent elbow.

There are lots of portions of the free throw that are immune to TV analysis: foot placement, finger technique on release, (Palubinsksas prefers to center the ball on the index finger), and ball placement on the hand. Was the ball flat in Howard’s palm all the time instead of on his fingertips?

SafariScreenSnapz012

But the notion that Howard hasn’t worked on free throws is false. The real problem is that he hasn’t normalized the techniques, or at least hasn’t stuck with them long enough for them to truly sink in. You don’t re-learn how to shoot a basketball in a few months. By the end of this past season, Howard was once again slowly cutting out the knee bend and lowering his release point. But if he really wants to fix this problem, he can’t keep relying on tweaks and minor changes: he has to throw out everything he’s ever been taught about shooting a basketball and start from scratch.

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

Tipping the Scale: John Wall’s Extension and Bradley Beal’s Rookie Season

NBA contracts aren’t considered, awarded or agreed upon in a vacuum.  Every possible context matters to salary negotiations in today’s league, one increasingly intelligent, accountable and prudent on the court as well as off of it.

Like the ripple effect of a deadly shooter stationed in the weak-side corner or back-line help responsibilities of varied pick-and-roll coverage, the specific terms of a new contract offered by a franchise are examined through every lens imaginable.  What is this player’s market value? What is he worth now? What will he be worth in the future? What’s he worth to us – as a piece of the basketball puzzle, as an ambassador for the team, as a portion of the salary cap?

The questions an organization must ask in determining a player’s value in dollars are immeasurable.  Extremely rare are cases akin to those of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and, in all likelihood, Kyrie Irving: surefire superstars whose overall value and influence can’t be measured financially despite their huge slice of the cap.  Those select few will always get their maximum money, and questions concerning their free agencies or looming ones are limited exclusively to where they’ll sign their next mega contract.

John Wall, he of a just-signed and much discussed five-year, $80 million contract extension, isn’t among that handful of transcendent players.  His new deal with Washington deserves at least study and perhaps scrutiny, like all those that came before him this summer.  Wall’s extension generated so much interest because he’s at the very least close to deserving the distinction that comes with the designated player contract.  That often harsh spotlight combined with his injury history, middling efficiency and awesome finish to last season is the nature of stardom or potential stardom; remember, there are still those skeptical of Houston for awarding Dwight Howard – the league’s second best player as recently as 2011 – a contract worth the maximum.

Unless you’re LeBron or the next best thing, a max-level deal will always generate apprehension.  Some players live up to it, and others don’t.  So the Wizards are certainly gambling a bit with a player as unproven and uneven as Wall.  The extent of that bet depends on their projection for him going forward, which is almost as much about Wall’s teammates as it is his play individually.  In this case there’s certainly no vacuum, with Washington’s above .500 second half, Wall’s public attitude adjustment and a concerted effort to make the playoffs in 2014 all factoring into the 22 year-old’s mammoth extension.

But aside from Wall’s personal improvements, there may not be a bigger contributing factor to his new contract than the changeabout play of backcourt mate Bradley Beal.  Wall won’t ever be able to win by himself, and Beal’s Hyde and Jekyll of a rookie season ensures he won’t have to.  Whether or not reality – well, advanced statistics, game logs and shot-charts – supports the popular narrative that Wall’s return to the court from injury was the direct means behind Beal’s rapid improvement is something else entirely.

The raw numbers support that half-full theory, of course.  Beal began his rookie season in the worst way possible, shooting a combined 35.7% from the field and 28.7% from three-point range through November and December.  For a player whose greatest strength supposedly lied in rare marksmanship, such consistent struggles provided cause for major concern.  Worst, there were even few fleeting bright spots; after making at least half of his shots and scoring at least 17 points in the fourth and fifth games of his career, Beal couldn’t manage those feats again before the calendar flipped to the new year.

Wall was sidelined the first ten weeks of the season due to a September knee injury, of course, leaving Beal stretched too far as a ballhandler and creator.  That much was assumed once news of Wall’s sustained absence surfaced, but Beal’s early rookie year performance came up well short of even those revised expectations nonetheless.

Then Wall made his 2013 debut and everything changed.  Below are Beal’s numbers from before and after Wall returned to the Washington lineup.  The differences, obviously, are stark.

Screen Shot 2013-08-04 at 1.18.10 PM

By most every statistical measure available, Beal was a new player once Wall was healthy enough to play on January 12th.  The uncomfortable, often indecisive rookie of 2012 was replaced by one that played with a sense of role and purpose in 2013, and the numbers bear that out.  Beal was a far more efficient and productive scorer with Wall available, a fact best exemplified by a more than 10 point rise in his true shooting percentage once Wall made his debut.

But there’s more to the idea that Beal’s turnaround hinged mostly on Wall’s health, and it centers around metrics that indicate the former’s satisfaction playing off the ball alongside a point guard that garners so much attention from the defense.  Beal’s usage rate declined with Wall in tow as did his percentage of baskets made that came without an assist, but only slightly so.  Evidence supporting that belief lies mostly in Beal’s three-point shooting performance pre and post Wall’s return.

The percentages speak for themselves: Beal hit on 10.9% more of his corner attempts from deep and 15% more than his above-break tries after January 12th.  But just as important is the frequency and quality of those shots, too.  Though Beal actually averaged fewer three-point attempts – 4.3 per game versus 4.1 – after Wall’s debut, they were distributed across the floor in a far more efficient manner.  A corner three-pointer might be the most valuable shot in basketball; there’s a reason Beal performed well from there pre-Wall even as he struggled to make shots from anywhere else.  Good thing for the Wizards, then, that 41% of Beal’s three-point attempts with Wall in the lineup came from the corner.  When he was injured, only 37% of Beal’s tries from deep came from that hallowed ground.

Yes, the metrics agree that Beal’s game changed once Wall was finally healthy, and not just for the sheer statistical better, either.  He was suddenly a more selective shooter, a more effective cutter and something much closer to the player archetype he was billed as coming into the draft – a skilled marksman that doesn’t need the ball to succeed.

But there’s another layer to Beal’s 2013 play, and to best understand his major improvements and project his career’s altered trajectory, it’s one that needs to be peeled.  How did he perform with Wall on and off the court from January 12th and so forth? The numbers tell an interesting story, and one that shines new light – if not lighter or darker – on Wall’s extension.

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The general takeaway of the above: Beal’s second half turnaround had less to do with Wall’s return than it did him hitting and clearing the proverbial rookie wall (no pun intended) – that development just happened to coincide with the assumed health of Washington’s star point guard and, now, franchise player.

Beal’s numbers with Wall on the floor are indeed slightly superior to those he compiled while Wall rode the bench.  But that difference is negligible, and his progress in those instances compared to the pre-Wall period is the best indicator of his whirlwind rookie season as well as his future success.  And while Beal’s play alongside Wall is an obvious harbinger of success, too, the degree of his coming ascendance appears steeper when he’s on the floor alone as the Wizards clear top offensive option.

So Beal’s rookie season was more than one of halves; it was actually one of thirds.  Pre-Wall, with Wall and without Wall, he was a different player.  How much certain strategic changes and the overall health of the roster played into his rapid rise is a consideration for those most familiar with Washington’s season.  But these numbers tell a story just as encouraging for Beal and the Wizards going forward as does the one with Wall as his knight in shining armor.

But given Wall’s recent re-up, Washington has a problem.  It’s a good one, an issue which they’d rather put up with than not have at all, but still something that bears watching as this roster ripens over the next two or three seasons.

Wall is the Wizards’ surefire ‘guy’ now, and not just because his is the face of the organization’s reclamation efforts.  Under the parameters of the new CBA, teams are allowed one designated player for a five-year extension on a rookie deal that’s already on the roster.  Wall is that player for Washington, even though the last 25 games of Beal’s ever-encouraging rookie season indicate he’ll likely be just as if not more worthy than his teammate of that distinction when the time comes at the end of the 2015-2016 season.

Unless David Stern and the league’s Board of Governors grant Washington the same confounding exception they did Oklahoma City with respect to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (not happening, obviously), the Wizards are running the risk of antagonizing Beal.  That was mostly beyond their control what with the language of the CBA, and electing to save the designated player tag for Beal – the inferior player, for now at least – with Wall eligible for it risked alienating the latter at a time this franchise finally had an opportunity for stability.  Just ask Minnesota how that very decision worked out with Kevin Love.

A bird in the bush is worth two in the gander, the saying goes, and Washington was almost forced to play things out that way as a simple result of timing.  Wall has two years on Beal in development as a player and salary cap entity; this bet was the safest one, and it was probably the smartest, too.  The possible negative trickle down of saving the tag for Beal was simply too much, what with likely disenchanting Wall and the possibility that his evolution stalls.  The Wizards’ bet is insured by the fact that Beal – at just 20 years-old – is a noted professional that understands the business side of basketball, and whose relationship with Wall is constantly championed by both sides.

But more important than salary cap ramifications of Beal’s rise are those that occur on the floor.  It’s clear now that he can thrive with or without Wall by his side, as evidenced by the numbers laid out above.  Should his talents and overall influence eventually eclipse those of Wall, how will each player react? Washington’s case is a rare one, with two players that could conceivably emerge as the team’s best player on different timelines.  The complications gleaned from that possibility are numerous and varied, but it’s another good problem to have nonetheless.

For now, at least, Washington is sitting pretty.  Wall’s extension was necessary for the short and long term goals of this organization, and the justification behind it – be it his individual merits, how pieces like Beal fit around him or factors contributing to public perception – is obvious regardless on which side of the fence you sit.

But Beal’s rookie evolution isn’t what it seems on the surface, and positions the Wizards for additional possibilities going forward that most don’t assume.  For the future sake of both backcourt stars and the franchise as a whole, let’s hope they realize it.

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