Tag Archives: NBA

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.

 

 

The Value of Nikola Pekovic

warrior

 

Photo: Flickr/putinas

In news that is related to water being revealed as still wet and the sun once again rising in the east, the Minnesota Timberwolves brought back center Nikola Pekovic after a lengthy restricted free agency. The move fits right in with the rest of a Timberwolves offseason that was not splashy or exciting, but more methodical like the Chase Budinger and Dante Cunningham re-signings preceding this one. For a team like the Timberwolves with playoff aspirations, bringing back Pekovic was of high importance as a top-3 player on the team last season.

Yet, in a world where JaVale McGee makes $11.25 million and Tiago Splitter is set to make $9 million himself, some people have scoffed at the Pekovic contract because of either the years, money, or both. I’m not saying that McGee or Splitter are necessarily bad players, but Pekovic is certainly worth being paid more than each of them.

In fact, few centers around the league produced on the level Pekovic did last season. Last season Pekovic’s averages of 16.3 points per game, 8.8 rebounds per game on .520 percent shooting were not only invaluable to the Timberwolves, but few other centers managed to post similar figures. The two other centers that averaged at least 15 ppg, 8 rpg and .510 percent shooting? Dwight Howard and Al Horford. Pekovic, of course isn’t the defender Horford and Howard are, but he is a better free throw shooter and posted a lower turnover percentage than either player last season while still playing starter’s minutes.

Last season Horford averaged 10.2 rpg while playing 37.2 minutes per game. While Pekovic averaged just 31.6 mpg, he averaged 10 rebounds per game Per 36 Minutes, which is nearly Horford’s total, and the two players will make the same annual salary next season. The Timberwolves weren’t just paying for Pekovic; they were paying for a worthy complement to Kevin Love. As we know, Love has a propensity for shooting the three, which is fine as long as you have another post presence. Next to Pekovic, Love can shoot away since Pekovic led the league in offensive rebounding percentage in both the 2012 and 2013 seasons. Additionally, this works well because Pekovic is an exceptional finisher at the rim, too.

He also provides Ricky Rubio with a legitimate pick ‘n roll partner in addition to Love. In pick ‘n roll scenarios Pekovic posted a 1.26 points per possessions in PnR situations and ranked 16th overall in the league as a whole. With Pekovic, Love, and the added outside shooting, the Timberwolves set themselves up to have a dynamic, inside and outside offense that could make life very difficult for opponents.

Defensively, he isn’t great, mostly because he isn’t very quick. Still, he has the awareness and instincts needed to be a smart defender by cutting off of good angles to the basket, he’s just missing the speed. Pekovic’s brute frame was incredibly useful in post-up situations last season. Per MySynergySports.com, opponents posted a measly 0.72 points per possession and shot just 39.2 percent against him in such situations, good for 50th overall in the league. Opponents chose to post-up Pekovic 32.8 percent of the time last year, the most of any situation, so it’s a legitimate sample size, too.

My point: Nikola Pekovic is a top center that is now being paid like a top center.

The strides that Pekovic has made each year in the league are also encouraging to the team. In each of his three years he has cut down his fouls per game and turnover percentage while simultaneously having his minutes and usage rate increased. And if you watched Pekovic in his rookie year it is truly remarkable that he has progressed to the point that he has. Should he continue to progress further, he will only be more worthy of this contract, which is also what the team is betting on.

Naturally, there is some concern in this area. Pekovic has missed 17, 19, and 20 games in each of his three years in the league and he is just 27 years old. Skipping Eurobasket this summer should spare him some wear and tear for the coming NBA season, but it’s still likely that for all the good he’ll bring, the big man will still be sitting out more than a few contests. You can worry about what shape he’ll be in when he’s 32 and in the last year of his contract, but that’s five years away and injuries can be prevented, so hopefully that’s the case with Pekovic as well.

Besides, what else were they gonna spend this money on? Especially with Gorgui Dieng, Ronny Turiaf and Chris Johnson as the team’s other center-capable players.

As the Timberwolves look to end their decade-long playoff drought, the Timberwolves have brought back a key piece to that puzzle with Pekovic. At $12 million per year they also got a great deal for a top player at his position who also complements the team’s two other best players — Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love. Like all things in life, there is risk involved, but there is also a lot of potential reward in it for those who don’t let that hold them back. Considering the other risks the team has taken in recent years, this is also one of the safer, low-risk moves they’ve made anyway.

Hi! How Was Your Summer: Detroit Pistons

Photo Credit: Juliana/Flickr

2012-’13 Record: 29-53

New Faces: Maurice Cheeks (Head Coach), Brandon Jennings, Josh Smith, Chauncey Billups,  Luigi Datome

New Places: Lawrence Frank (Now Brooklyn assistant coach), Jose Calderon (Dallas), Brandon Knight (Milwaukee), Viktor Kravstov (Milwaukee), Khris Middleton (Milwaukee), Jason Maxiell (Orlando)

Draft: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (8), Tony Mitchell (37), Peyton Siva (56)

The Detroit Pistons definitely did something this offseason. No one knows for sure exactly just what they did yet, but depending on how you see the glass, it’s either half-empty or half-full. General manager Joe Dumars told Grantland’s Zach Lowe that he feels as if they’ve added talent, which he isn’t necessarily wrong about, but there are legitimate questions about the fit among the team’s additions and their young players. I mean, there’s definitely a glass here; you just have to turn your head to the side and squint a bit to see if it’s half-full or half-empty.

First, they added forward Josh Smith to a frontcourt that already includes Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. Smith is infamously a poor shooter from distance, but Monroe shot .486 from the field on the season, which is below average for a center. However, the two big men were both above average at the rim, .771 for Smith and .614 for Monroe, but that presents a potential spacing problem. Same goes for Drummond who attempted just 63 shots from further than 10-feet from the basket, in which he made just 15 of those attempts. Dumars, in the same Grantland interview, mentioned that their basketball IQ’s and ability to make plays for others will mitigate some of these negative effects. Which really has to happen if Detroit hopes to return to the playoffs along Smith, Monroe, and Drummond being able to play together.

There other big move was, of course, dealing Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton and Victor Kravstov for the Bucks’ Brandon Jennings. Which, again, doesn’t improve a team that was 18th in three point percentage last season, nor does it help their probable spacing issues. Jennings, like Knight before him, also struggles as a shooter, even finishing below the league average of .608 percent for point guards at the rim having shot .492 percent last season. Sure, Jennings can make plays for others, but who is he passing to? Austin Daye, Jose Calderon and Tayshaun Prince — their top three players in three-point percentage last season — are all gone. The return of Chauncey Billups won’t help this, either, being an average shooter at best last season. Same goes for rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who may go on to be more than an average shooter from distance, but that likely won’t happen this year.

Dumars did succeed in upgrading his roster from a sheer talent perspective but there are legitimate questions about how well these pieces fit together and if you can have success in the NBA today without being able to stretch the floor. Yes, talent and smart players do tend to figure it out, but usually that’s when they’re surround by other pieces that complement their strengths. We’ll find out if these Pistons have that ability or not.

Statistical support provided by Basketball-Reference.com and Hoopdata.com

 

The Tremendous Growth of Demetri McCamey

Photo: Flickr/Matt Heidelberger

Demetri McCamey just wrapped up his fourth summer league game with the Minnesota Timberwolves in a 92-54 throttling of the Sacramento Kings. McCamey has been a bit of a revelation for Minnesota here in Las Vegas, posting incredible efficiencies of .650 percent from the field and .727 percent from deep. Those are incredible numbers for a center, no less a 6’4 guard. On top of that, McCamey has been getting it done on both ends, leading the team in scoring with 11.3 points per game and 1.7 steals to boot.

While McCamey has been a big reason for the Timberwolves’ two-game winning streak after dropping their first two, he doesn’t take all of the credit for it. “We’ve got a great group of guys here,” said McCamey. “It’s easier to play when you have a group of guys like this willing to share the basketball and play hard on every possession. That’s what it’s all about when you get a great group of guys like that—it’s a great team and anything can happen. And fortunately I’m playing well.”

Strangely enough, it’s very unlikely that he will be joining the Timberwolves for the 2013-’14 season. After drafting Shabazz Muhammad and Lorenzo Brown and signing Kevin Martin to add to their backcourt, the Timberwolves likely won’t have room for McCamey despite his strong showing. However, with scouts from all over the NBA, D-League and overseas, McCamey knows that his performance will not be for naught.

“You’re playing for everybody,” said the guard. “I’m a free agent right now and I’m playing for everybody in the building. You’re playing for a job, you’re playing to survive and you’re playing for your family. After this, I’ll give it a week and talk to my agent, but you’re playing for everybody.”

And he certainly knows what he is talking about. Following a decorated career at the University of Illinois where McCamey earned All-Big Ten honors in three of his seasons and led the conference in assists in 2009-’10, he bounced around the professional basketball ranks a bit. First it was off to Turkey and Jerusalem the next season. Following his time overseas, McCamey earned a summer league invite with the Houston Rockets last season, and turned that opportunity into a stint with the Rockets’ D-League affiliate, the Rio Grande Vipers. Finally, he finished the 2013 season with the Erie Bayhawks and the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.

McCamey talked about the variance in playing overseas and in the D-League. He noted that once you get past that first month abroad, and get accustomed to the language barrier and adjust to the culture, it’s an enjoyable experience. However, McCamey also enjoys the familiarity of his surroundings in the D-League and being able to have his family watch his games.

Despite all of this movement, Demetri remains determined to earn an NBA roster spot. After all, McCamey went undrafted in 2011 and signed a one-year deal to play in Turkey only after the lockout went into effect. McCamey has also kept a positive attitude, viewing each opportunity as a chance to improve his skill set. The former Illini star noted that he’s grown tremendously since leaving school and the differing styles of play between the American and International game have brought the best out of him.

“Just knowing the game, playing the different games—playing the Europe games — that helps you with your shooting because they get a lot of shots over there,” said McCamey. “ In the NBA game, for point guards you’re learning reads and picking people apart with pick ‘n rolls and the spacing on the floor. The different areas made my game grow so much to that next level.”

As a point guard McCamey says he’s always looking to find his teammates first, but now he’s able to apply even more pressure on the defense because has evolved into a better scorer, being able to penetrate in the lane and keep opponents honest with his outside shooting. McCamey showcased his able to do these things during summer league, but he also displayed a thorough understanding of the game.

While he’s listed as a point guard, McCamey doesn’t subscribe to set positions saying, “It’s playing basketball and when you’re a basketball player there’s no such thing as positions.” He added, “You might get designed that [way] but in the game you gotta be able to play multiple positions. And that’s why I’ve been able to be successful so far in summer league playing off the ball and on the ball and just try to do my best at that position at that time.”

Basketball I.Q. is a trait that you can’t teach, and neither is the ability to seamlessly adapt to playing as the off-guard in a small ball lineup with teammates Kee Kee Clark and Lorenzo Brown to running the offense with bigger lineups as McCamey has during summer league. While playing as a 6’3 wing player may seem disadvantageous, smart players know how to use the tools that they have, as McCamey has by forcing turnovers and getting the Timberwolves quick fastbreak points.  McCamey’s point is evident here: put smart basketball players together in a sensible order and they will acclimate.

With a determination to be great, an elevated basketball IQ and a number of valuable NBA tools, Demetri McCamey’s NBA debut could come sooner rather than later. McCamey’s performance this past week is what Chicago Tribune voters imagined when they voted him first team all-state alongside Evan Turner and Derrick Rose years ago. Considering how well McCamey has thrived in front of hundreds scouts on this stage, he may just be ready for the big stage.

The Millsap Family Business

Photo: Hockadilly/Flickr
You may be familiar with Paul Millsap, the veteran forward who just signed a two-year, $19 million dollar deal with the Atlanta Hawks. You may not be aware of the fact that he has three brothers – John, Elijah and Abraham – who have either played basketball professionally or currently playing at the collegiate level. The Millsap’s close family ties brought the entire clan, including Paul, to support John with the Hawks’ summer league team and Elijah with the D-League Select team.

Although basketball was the first love for the eldest Millsap brother ,John, Elijah and his younger brothers discovered basketball later on.

“At first football was really the family game,” said Elijah. “We were in Denver, Colorado and it’s predominately a football state so that’s what we were doing at first. We moved to Louisiana and that’s when we picked up basketball and got serious about it.”

Interestingly enough, the four brothers would take their own unique path into professional basketball. Paul was selected with the 17th pick of the 2006 NBA Draft. John and Elijah each went undrafted but have been able to latch on with various teams overseas, in the D-League and even a couple NBA teams during preseason. And as for Abraham, his journey is just beginning after wrapping up his freshman year at Tennessee State University.

Yet, even though Paul was able to stick with the Utah Jazz from the beginning, opportunities with the D-League have given John and Elijah the chance to keep their NBA dreams alive while also being able to still provide for their families.

“It’s provided me with a little bit of financial stability and some extra cushion,” commented Elijah. “It’s given me a start and an opportunity, but you try to do everything you can to make it to the NBA. But you can’t lose sight of your family and being able to take care of them, so I had to go over there to get a paycheck.”

John added,” I’m just trying to figure out where I can get in. I’ve been in-and-out so I’m just trying to find somewhere that I can stick.”

Considering that the Millsaps brought their entire family with them to Las Vegas to cheer on John and Elijah, the ability to provide for their families and being as close to each other as possible is important. That’s where things like the D-League and Las Vegas Summer League benefit  players like the Millsaps who want to play professional basketball and would prefer to do it as close to home as possible.

Another bonus to playing closer to home is that it’s more cost effective to send scouts to D-League games than international games and therefore increasing the likelihood of getting that call-up. On top of that, Elijah enjoys the comfort of not having to fret over playing time, saying that, “Being on a team to be able to showcase my game has meant a lot. Whereas overseas where you worry about whether you’re going to play or not.  It’s a good place to showcase my ability.”

As for John, he’s a firm believer in the D-League as a proving ground, later adding, “It’s good exposure for guys who are trying to get to where they need to be. It’s one step under the NBA, it’s a great stepping stone for getting to where you need to be.”

John and Elijah also know the importance of summer league for an aspiring NBAer. This is because the scouts are not just from the NBA, but also from overseas which can open more doors for players as well. Elijah has come to recognize scouts from Russia and China, further proving that you never know just who is watching and who is ready to give you an opportunity to get to the next level. After all, roster spots nationally are finite in volume, meaning that if you want to be seen and take care of your family, impressing the overseas scouts is crucial.

Everything the elder Millsap brothers do also paves the way for their youngest brother, Abraham, who one day will likely make the leap to professional basketball on some level.  Elijah commented that although Abraham didn’t play as much, he’s working hard to earn the opportunity to showcase his game. And if he’s anything like his brothers, we already know that he will be more than willing to put in the time required to improve. Like the rest of his brothers, he knows that he will have those closest to him supporting him throughout his own journey, no matter where it takes him. After all, family comes first with the Millsaps.

 

Quincy Miller Looks to Prove Himself Again

Photo: AdamBowie/Flickr

In 2010, the Denver Nuggets’ Quincy Miller was seen in a very different light. Coming out of high school he was ranked among other top prospects in his class, such as Anthony Davis, and had begun to receive Kevin Durant comparisons before he received his high school diploma. Despite tearing his ACL during his senior year, Miller was heavily recruited by many top schools but ultimately chose to join Perry Jones III at Baylor University. With Miller in the fold the Bears drew national attention as a team to watch and expectations were raised for everyone. Then, after just one season at Baylor, Miller elected to turn pro by entering the 2012 NBA Draft.

Once expected to be a top-10 pick, Miller fell into the second round. There were concerns over his injury history being just one year removed and over his size. Evidently Miller’s productive season at Baylor post-injury was not enough to convince NBA teams that he was still capable of becoming the player he once was and he was now going to have to prove himself yet again.

“The D-League helped me a lot. I went down there and showed a lot of people what I could do. It was going well with my team even though we were losing, and I think I played pretty consistent,” said Miller following the Nuggets’ 93-81 summer league loss to the Chicago Bulls on Monday night.

Playing for the Iowa Energy gave Miller the chance to earn those crucial developmental minutes that a young player like himself needs. For a team like last year’s Nuggets that was full of playoff aspirations it would have been very unlikely they could have given Miller the 24 minutes per game he saw with the Energy. Sure enough, Miller played well enough to earn a call up in December after putting up 11.3 points per game and 6.8 rebounds to go with 1.4 blocks per game, although his efficiency never reached that of his Baylor days.

According to Miller the biggest benefit he saw from his time with the Energy was that it helped ease the transition from college to the pros by allowing him to adjust to the speed and physicality of the professional game at a steady pace. Although Miller still struggled during his first six games with the Nuggets, his seventh and final game before returning to Iowa was encouraging. In that final NBA appearance he shot 2-3 from the field with a rebound and no fouls or turnovers in four minutes. While that statline may still have been unspectacular, Miller returned to the Energy on a high note.

While Miller would love to remain with Denver next season, he views the D-League as an excellent proving ground for his abilities and only looks to continue improving. “As long as I’m getting minutes and getting better,” Miller added before admitting, “I want to spend more time with the Nuggets next year, though.”

Like the other top prospects in his class Miller understands the amount of hard work that goes into being a successful NBA player. Some enter the league and shine right away, while others have to cut their teeth on other levels to reach that point. As we’ve seen from Miller before, having rehabbed from a torn ACL as a 17-year old to becoming a productive college player, he’s not afraid to do what it takes to get there. Miller noted the widening fan interest across the league but also an improved ability to develop promising young talents like himself. While being an everyday player in the NBA remains his ultimate goal, Miller is willing to do whatever it takes and go wherever he has to go reach it.

Jerel McNeal’s Next Step

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Image by LifeInMegapixels via Flickr

All The Small Things

Photograph by Bryan Jones via Flickr

Over the past few years, I’ve seen over 1000 basketball games. Not a single one of them was without the filter of a television screen, two play-by-play announcers and the comfort of my sofa. Before Friday afternoon, I had never seen live NBA action. Evidently, the screen filtered out more than just the metronomic beat of a basketball thumping incessantly on the hardwood.

The television provides a calming sensation that has no business being in the realm of an arena.  Everything is more pronounced in real life. The players are exceptionally bigger and faster, somehow more daunting and inexplicably human at the same time. The stakes, despite the almost non-existent stage of summer league, feel unexplainably higher.

Open shots are never really open shots — there’s never more than a second of time before the ball leaves the hands of a shooter and he’s smothered by a defender. Fred Katz, sitting beside me, said it made him appreciate the Matt Barnes’ and Rip Hamilton’s of the world for the way they manage to find and create space for themselves on a consistent basis.

We constantly chastise guards that seemingly turn basketball into a dribbling performance exhibition match but it’s hard not to recognize the importance of every stutter step that Marquis Teague makes, and the ripple effect that it causes — in this case, a sliver of extra time for Andrew Goudelock to connect on a floater — when you’re just ten feet away from the basket.

Passing lanes and driving lanes are as equally congested as they are impossible to maneuver through, despite what Brandon Davies, an undrafted senior out of BYU told me about adjusting to defense at the next level: that the increased spacing “makes it harder” and, in pure interview autopilot form, “a lot of fun.”

Fouls, both hard and “soft”, are more excruciating and physical than imaginable. Imagine watching two steam engines (if I’ve learned anything this weekend, it’s that, by human standards, all professional athletes are steam engines) crash into each other. Okay, now imagine that collision happening just a few metres away from you.

Of course, this description is more of a memoir for my personal memory box than it is for anyone reading this… I’d say probably 90 percent of you guys have seen an NBA game before. Still, the sheer immensity of the difference between watching from home and watching live warrants recognition.

For the most part, individual plays don’t carry any inordinate appeal when they’re channeled out by a TV screen. The feeling is that you’re watching what may be a highly entertaining but at the same time, ordinary, game. Each and every step contributes to either a win or a loss, but we only give pause to the plays that are followed by immediate and obvious consequences.

In reality, it’s really so much more than that. The dunks, the shots, the missed shots, the close-outs, and the late close-outs, too. And the blocks. Oh, man, the blocked dunk attempts.The proximity, the theatrics and somehow, the sounds, of live action introduce a new form of basketball watching that allows you to develop a deeper appreciation for the nuances of the game that otherwise go unnoticed.

A Conversation with Rick Barry (Part Two)

Photo: Bread City/flickr

You are currently reading part two of my interview with NBA legend Rick Barry. In case you missed it, here’s part one. In this section Rick and I discuss the evolution of LeBron James, why we’re seeing the injuries to key players, Nerlens Noel, and his work with Ektio, a shoe shown to prevent debilitating ankle injuries. Enjoy!

HP: You absolutely need that support and you can’t just put it all on the superstar. And I think too with LeBron that his ability to make everyone better is a part of that.

Barry: Well that was the strategy. It was very obvious they [The Spurs] were not going to let LeBron be the guy to beat them. Okay, what they was they constructed their defense to prevent him from doing the things he’s able to do against most other teams and LeBron immediately made the adjustments, got the ball to people and the guys came through. They made the shots, and had they not made those shots they would be down two-nothing and that’s kinda the way it works.

And it’s one of those situations as a player, as a star player, where you have to take what the defense is giving you. You can’t force things, and to LeBron’s credit, he never forced anything. He didn’t try to force and go through double and triple teams and all; he drew the people to him and as soon as that happened — boom — the ball was off to someone else, giving a chance to someone else to knock a shot and guys did it.

HP: Do you think that LeBron would have done the same thing three or four years ago in Cleveland? Or has he matured so much as a player and a leader that he now knows not to force it and work it around?

Barry: I think he tried to do it in Cleveland but nobody was getting it done. So, if nobody’s getting it done you gotta say, “I guess I gotta try to do by myself,” so he’s forced into that situation. LeBron’s not a selfish player. If anything, at times, he’s a little bit too unselfish. He gives it up sometimes and you know, you give a ball up. And it’s like I tell my boys, everybody’s like “Oh, the extra pass! God, they made the extra pass, what a great play!” Yeah, bullshit! If you made the extra pass to a guy open at 18 [feet] and you were open at 20, and you could shoot better at 20 than he could at 18 or 15, that’s not a good pass.

HP: That makes sense to me.

Barry: It’s stupid! You give the ball up to a chance to someone who has less of a chance of making it than you do, even if he’s wide open. Bullshit, if you were open and you could shoot the ball, and unless the guy’s under the basket with an easy scoring opportunity, you only throw it to someone who has every good of a chance of making it as you do because he’s going to have an easier shot. Well, great, that’s fine. Like LeBron throwing it off to, uh, Ray Allen. That makes sense; Ray Allen is one of the greatest shooters in the history of the game from outside, so, hell, that makes sense. But should he be throwing it to Haslem if he’s out there and he’s open? Hell no!

HP: I know exactly what you mean as far as tending to defer too much instead of just attack-attack or being able to get the best shot, whether it’s for him or a teammate.

Barry: If LeBron, and he’s not here yet, but if LeBron were a better free throw shooter —  he’s gotten better with his shooting and I made a big deal out of his shooting a few years ago, and thank God he’s got his elbow in and that’s made a difference in his game — he needs to get to the point where he’s shooting 80-something percent from the free throw line and wants to get fouled when he drives. I wanted to get hit when I drove. He has to get to that point. He’s so big and powerful he’ll make a bunch of his shots anyway, so now gets a chance to make another point. If he does get fouled, he’s not going to worry because he can knock two shots down and get two points anyway. But the thing is, he has this mentality where if he kicks and pick to somebody, where if he had that mentality, he could kick it and with his strength and power he’s going to get fouled, so why not do that? But he’s not at the point he can do that. He’s not at that point. That will take his game to a whole other level, which is frightening when you think about it.

HP: Oh, I agree. If he ever gets there he could be a 50-40-90 guy, too.

Barry:It’d be stupid how good he could be. I mean, that’s the scary thing about him. He’s an anomaly. I’ve never– there’s no one player that’s just like him.

HP: Getting into injuries a little more, there have been a lot of crucial guys in the last couple years in the last couple years like Derrick Rose and Iman Shumpert last year tearing their ACLs and now Kobe and others this season. Why are we seeing these injuries to these players happening at this time– is it the length of the season, the speed of the game or a genetic predisposition to injuries?

Barry: It’s a combination of years of beating their bodies up. Especially with the AAU basketball that I’m not a big fan of where they play too many games, and these guys are breaking down, I think. I think more and more players will breakdown that play AAU basketball. The body of a kid that’s, you know, a teenager doing stuff, going to AAU tournaments on a weekend and playing eight or nine games in less than 36 hours or so is insane.

And that’s what they do. They will go into a city and they’ll play two games on Friday night, three or four on Saturday, and two or three on Sunday. That’s ridiculous.

HP: That is a lot of wear.

Barry: The body can’t take that kind of wear and I think that some of these guys doing that are just beating their bodies up and breaking their bodies down. There have been no studies done on it, but it would be interesting to see. And I told people when that young man from Kentucky went down, um…

HP: Nerlens…Noel

Barry: Yeah, I mean, what did he do? Nothing. He just landed and his leg shattered, right?

HP: Yeah, I believe so.

Barry: Yeah, right. Nobody hit him and he came down, and his leg shattered.

HP: And he’s only 19 years old, too.

Barry: I don’t know for sure, but I would bet anything that he played AAU basketball.

HP: It wouldn’t surprise me if he did. It seems like a lot of guys who get to this level, especially if you’re going to play at a Kentucky would have.

Barry: They play AAU basketball. and these programs. And they’re playing and they play and they play and they play…Again, I’m not a medical professional, but it’s just my opinion — which people can take it or leave it — but I think these kids are getting broken down because they play too much ball. I mean, you can overdo anything.

HP: If you were the Cavs, would you have reservations about picking him after having a knee injury at such a young age?

Barry: Uh…

HP: I mean, you seem to have gotten into the injury prevention and technology side–

Barry: I would certainly be concerned. If somebody’s had a major injury, to invest that much money in him in the hopes that he’s going to stay together physically, then yes, I would have concerns. Without question, and justifiably so. Look what’s happened in the past with some of the guys. Look at the Sam Bowie situation years ago. Look at the [Greg] Oden situation, I mean, he had a history. I’m telling you, I would have serious reservations about a guy, to take a guy that high, and to commit that much money to him that’s coming off a major knee surgery or major surgery, in that regard. Because he’s going to be playing so many games and it’s a grueling schedule, and again, the constant pounding is going to happen and I would have concerns.

HP: Especially being a big man where your lower body is so important to running the floor, boxing out, footwork and everything. And then having a schedule that’s four times as long as you’re used to, that’s a lot of wear and beating.

Barry: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. I would be very concerned about that. Now, it’s about if you want to take a risk and see if you can get a few years or more out of him, and maybe help improve your team to get to the championship if you think he’s good enough to help you get there, and you’re willing to take that risk. But it is without question a risk– you’re taking damaged goods. The technology out there today in surgery is un-freaking-believable, right?

HP: Mmmhmm.

Barry: But it’s not normal. You have had something repaired. You are damaged goods, regardless of how good the surgery and the technique was they used to get you back to go out an perform again, you’re not normal.

HP: So there’s no such thing as, “Good as new,” so to speak?

Barry: No, I mean, no. No. You’re able to go out and perform again, but the chances of you being the same as you were before…there’s no chance you can be the same as you were before you injured yourself. I don’t believe that, and maybe the doctor can contradict it and everything, but it’s hard for me to believe that somebody is going to go in there and replace ligaments that you had naturally in your body and tell me you’re better off with those than you were with your normal ones.

HP: Well, we saw with Grant Hill that he wasn’t the same triple-double player after all his ankle issues and repairs. He still wound up extending his career into being a good role player, which is something that wouldn’t have happened in the 80s, 70s and before.

Barry: It’s gonna, it can have an impact on you. Fortunately, I was able to play and play at a high level, but I had cartilage, that’s not a major thing. They didn’t go in and replace ligaments in my knee and stuff, but then I know I would’ve been better– sure I would’ve been better if I had a knee that worked as well as it should’ve worked. I would’ve been better, and certainly a hell of a lot less painful and aggravating for all the years I went through it. You know, I was lucky. I was very fortunate.

These guys that get repaired, I’m happy for them and hope that they get through. Same thing with Derrick Rose: I hope he’s going to be able to go out and play, but my big question is will he be as quick and fast as he was before– there’s a difference between quick and fast. Because if he’s not, he will not be the same player, because that was one of his greatest strengths.

HP: Absolutely.

Barry: Well, two of his greatest strengths were his quickness and his speed, and so that’s going to be a major factor on how well he’s going to be able to perform.

Really quick, let me talk about Ektio.  Well, same thing. Well, why would anyone not want to wear a shoe that could prevent ankle sprains?  You brought up Grant Hill, Steph Curry and my injury when I had to do it; I might not have had to have the same injury and I could’ve played the ’67 Finals without getting shot up because I had a bad ankle sprain if I had been wearing these shoes. These shoes are the first time ever in athletic basketball shoes that there’s a patented technology that can actually help prevent ankle sprains, without question. So why in the world would you not want to wear something that can help prevent something that’s debilitating like that, I don’t understand it.

I don’t understand why someone like Nike or Adidas or somebody wouldn’t buy the company, especially Adidas since Nike’s the leader. Why not buy something that would make you have the best shoe in the market, something that the competition doesn’t have, market the hell out of it and really do something that’s of a benefit to players. What other shoes is out there that says it can help prevent this?

HP: I saw too online that it also works to improve your balance, which is important if you’re a shooter. White-Black 2 shoes no ball with text-2

Barry: Well, it’s stable because of the way it’s built so it doesn’t roll and roll. It’s a little wider in certain spots, and you know, the reports are coming in that 40 percent of guys are saying they got better balance and that’s helping them, which is great. I mean, that was kind of a bonus, it wasn’t done for that, but it turned out to be kind of a bonus that they found out when they sent these questionnaires and got the response they got, which is great.

If I were playing today, this is the shoe I would want to wear, because if I were exposed to it and I had a contract with another company, I would say “Look. Either you guys buy this shoe, or I’m going to go and get out of my contract, because I want to wear this shoe.” Or I would probably buy the company because I would have enough money to do that making the kind of money these guys make, and I’d buy the damn company because it’s the best shoe out there, so why would you not play with it?

HP: I saw John Starks is involved in this, too. Do you work with John as well on this?

Barry: John’s doing some stuff on this that Barry’s got him working on. I don’t work directly John. John does what he can to help promote it and get it out there, so obviously he believes in it. I think anybody who would wear this shoe would say, hey this thing makes some sense. There’s no guarantees in life, but they’ve even had some guys say that they came down on someone’s foot and didn’t sprain their ankle, and that’s really unbelievable. My son actually sprained, in high school, his ankle severely because he was a high jumper and came down at an awkward angle and there was no way the shoe was going to prevent  that from happening. The doctor said to me that he was shocked that he had no instability in his ankle and I told him about the shoe and he says, “Well, that’s probably the explanation because otherwise I’m surprised he didn’t break his ankle coming down like did.”

HP: Well, Rick. You gotta go soon but where can people find more out about Ektio?

Barry: Ektio.com. E-K-T-I-O, dot com. And then they can go to my website if they wanted to, I got a link on RickBarry24.com. People can look to see about some fishing trips I’ve put together, that’s my new passion, where people can put together fishing trips in Alaska or down in Mexico with me if they’re interested in doing that.

HP: Great! Rick, thanks so much for your time, this was really great.

Barry: Okay, take care. Enjoy the playoffs.

NBA Finals Game 1 Sets New Playoff Low For Personal Fouls

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

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

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

Image by nosha via Flickr