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Archive for January 2013

2013 NBA Draft Big Board update – February 2013

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My prospect talent rankings midway through the college season. My talent grading system is based on 1/3 how much a player physically impacts the game, 1/3 his skill impacts the game and 1/3 his feel for the game, with each category being scored out of 11 and a maximum total of 33. I have slightly changed my grading method to where I only give grades of 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11 in each category, more specific grades than that are unnecessary and hard to grade with the uncertainty of college prospects. A more detailed (though slightly dated) description of my talent evaluation can be found here.

1. C Alex Len – 23 (Borderline perennial all-star talent) (Physical impact talent grade: 7, Skill impact talent grade: 9, Feel for the Game talent grade: 7)

A great bet on the offensive end due to his inside-outside skill and smooth feel. Has the length and athleticism to anchor a defense one day. Not a transcendent prospect, but a complete package at C.

2. PF Anthony Bennett – 23 (Borderline perennial all-star talent) (Physical impact talent grade: 7, Skill impact talent grade: 7, Feel for the Game talent grade: 9)

Very impressive pound for pound talent for a PF. Explosiveness and strong enough to attack the basket, with the ability to step back and hit the perimeter shot to open his game. Great feel for the game, showing the craftiness and smoothness to adjust on the dribble. Has high potential in the post. Might be a 20/10 big man in the making.

3. PF Isaiah Austin – 23 (Borderline perennial all-star talent) (Physical impact talent grade: 5, Skill impact talent grade: 9, Feel for the Game talent grade: 9)

Elite combination of inside-outside perimeter skill and feel for a power forward prospect give him immense offensive talent. Doesn’t have the size or explosiveness to impact the game physically at an elite level, but has decent length. Can be one of the best offensive bigs in the league and is somewhat of a poor man’s Dirk.

4. SF Le’Bryan Nash – 23 (Borderline perennial all-star talent) (Physical impact talent grade: 9, Skill impact talent grade: 7, Feel for the Game talent grade: 7)

A player who’s production in college makes it understandably uncertain whether he’ll reach his talent level and upside, but I believe that talent is enormous. Combination of elite speed/size for a SF, a high upside in skill level (as shown by his impressive post game and midrange shot for a 3) and an excellent, smooth feel for the game. At times looks like a lesser Carmelo Anthony. Trick with Nash is determining whether his lack of college production comes from him being enigmatic, or simply his game not fitting college.

5. C Rudy Gobert – 21 (Blue Chip starter talent) (Physical impact talent grade: 9, Skill impact talent grade: 5, Feel for the Game talent grade: 7)

Very high shotblocking upside due to his all-time great 7’9 wingspan and is an excellent athlete for a C. Great hands leading to a supernaturally high FG% on his French team. Appears to be a high IQ, aware player. If he reaches his upside, could be Tyson Chandler-like on the offensive end while leading the league in blocks, which would make him a monster.

6. SG Ben McLemore – 21 (Blue Chip starter talent) (Physical impact talent grade: 5, Skill impact talent grade: 9, Feel for the Game talent grade: 7)

An incredible shooting talent, putting up elite numbers both from 3pt and FT% in college. Great athleticism, but lack of great ball-handling could prevent him from top notch slashing and physically impacting the game. Nice IQ, particularly moving off the ball. Needs to attack the basket to be an elite SG, but has a chance to be a true blue chip SG who fits in any lineup.

7. PG Marcus Smart – 21 (Blue Chip starter talent) (Physical impact talent grade: 7, Skill impact talent grade: 5, Feel for the Game talent grade: 9)

Impressive mix of size and athleticism should help him penetrate and create plays in the NBA. Great vision and feel for the game for a PG. His upside depends on his shooting game. If he can hit the 3 consistently he’ll be the full package for a PG.

8. PF/C Cody Zeller – 21 (Blue Chip starter talent) (Physical impact talent grade: 5, Skill impact talent grade: 7, Feel for the Game talent grade: 9)

High skill and feel should make him a go-to player offensively. Lack of strength and length is a problem on the defensive end, though Cody does have explosiveness. Most likely situation to me is that he ends up a team’s version of Greg Monroe, not a franchise player, but a rock solid offensive building block.

9. PF C.J. Leslie – 21 (Blue Chip starter talent) (Physical impact talent grade: 7, Skill impact talent grade: 5, Feel for the Game talent grade: 9)

One of the best athletes in the draft, simply beautiful explosiveness for a 6’8+ power forward. Elite feel for the game, looks smooth and able to pick apart the space defenses give him offensively. Needs to improve his perimeter range and touch and will need to commit to playing PF inside SF, but has massive upside if it all comes together.

10.  PF Nerlens Noel – 19 (Blue Chip starter talent) (Physical impact talent grade: 11, Skill impact talent grade: 3, Feel for the Game talent grade: 5)

An amazing athlete, with his explosiveness and length helping him put up freakish shotblocking numbers. Due to rarity of shotblocking at PF, could have historic physical impact on the game at the PF position. Lacks high end skill or feel. Raw outside of finishing shots around the basket in skill and while having decent defensive awareness, does not look smooth or natural offensively. Should have an impact career but don’t love him as a future star.

11.  C Jeff Withey – 19 (Blue Chip starter talent) (Physical impact talent grade: 5, Skill impact talent grade: 5, Feel for the Game talent grade: 9)

Underrated athleticism, can be legitimately explosive at times. I don’t expect his shotblocking to translate to the NBA without elite length. Has a growing offensive game including a midrange jump shot. His strength however is his tremendous IQ and awareness on the defensive end. While it’s high praise, his situation looks like a version of Joakim Noah coming out of Florida to me.

12.  SF Sergey Karasev – 19 (Blue Chip starter talent) (Physical impact talent grade: 3, Skill impact talent grade: 7, Feel for the Game talent grade: 9)

Not an elite athlete, but can occasionally get to the rim due to his excellent ballhandling. Having a great 3pt shooting season and is a perimeter shot creator. Very impressive IQ and feel for the game, has a great recognition of his teammates. Due to relative rarity of 3pt shooting SFs in a league increasingly embracing spacing from the position, I see Karasev being a long term starter and blue chip player at the position.

13.  SG/SF Jamaal Franklin – 19 (Blue Chip starter talent) (Physical impact talent grade: 7, Skill impact talent grade: 5, Feel for the Game talent grade: 7)

Excellent physical talent for a SG, with great size and explosiveness and the ballhandling to get to the basket. Inconsistent shooting, but has shown NCAA 3pt range and can get hot from outside. Good IQ and feel for the game, looking comfortable and smooth on both ends much of the time. If he can shoot well enough, good chance of starting in the NBA for a while.

14.  PG Trey Burke – 19 (Blue Chip starter talent) (Physical impact talent grade: 3, Skill impact talent grade: 7, Feel for the Game talent grade: 9)

Undersized and lacks explosiveness, but great ballhandling helps him get to the basket respectably, avoiding a rock bottom 1 in physical impact talent. Good outside shooter with the potential to be great, plus an excellent passer. His strength is his elite feel for the game and awareness, looking comfortable running an offense and keeping the pulse of his teammates. Depending on his shooting, has a nice shot at being a starting PG long term.

15.  SG Nick Johnson – 19 (Blue Chip starter talent) (Physical impact talent grade: 5, Skill impact talent grade: 7, Feel for the Game talent grade: 7)

An undersized SG, but one who makes up for it by playing way above the rim with his explosiveness and his tenacity. Improving outside shooter and shot creator. Nice feel for the game and craftiness off the dribble. In my opinion, has the talent to be a standout shooter/scorer in the NBA.

16.  SG C.J. McCollum – 19 (Blue Chip starter talent) (Physical impact talent grade: 3, Skill impact talent grade: 9, Feel for the Game talent: 7)

McCollum is an undersized SG, but is one of the best shooters in the draft and has a chance to be one of the best shooters in the NBA. Excellent shot creator for a guard. Because of a lack of size and elite athleticism will likely stick to the perimeter, unable to make an elite physical impact on the game by slashing to the basket. Feel for the Game appears to be very good and natural.

17.  C Willie Cauley-Stein – 17 (Borderline starter talent) (Physical impact talent grade: 9, Skill impact talent grade: 5, Feel for the Game talent grade: 3)

Excellent physical tools for a C, with both elite athleticism and length. Needs to develop physically but has a respectable frame. Can finish around the basket and shows flashes of offensive skill in the post. Has an underwhelming feel for the game, often looking raw and unnatural on both ends.

18.  SF Alex Poythress – 17 (Borderline starter talent) (Physical impact talent grade: 9, Skill impact talent grade: 3, Feel for the Game talent grade: 5)

Poythress has superb physical tools for a small forward, with a great mix of size and explosiveness allowing him to get to the rim and finish. His skill game is fairly raw, being able to hit spot up shots at times but not create his own shot. Has an average feel for the game and awareness of the game/teammates. May end up stuck between the SF and PF positions.

19.  PF James Michael McAdoo – 17 (Borderline starter talent) (Physical impact talent grade: 5, Skill impact talent grade: 5, Feel for the Game talent grade: 7)

James Michael McAdoo has impressive athleticism and strength for a power forward, but is short for the position which could hurt his ability to attack the rim and finish. He has very good touch around the basket but lacks consistent shooting range. His biggest strength is his feel for the game as a smooth, natural offensive player. He has the tools to be a solid but probably underwhelming power forward.

20.  PF Mike Moser – 17 (Borderline starter talent) (Physical impact talent grade: 3, Skill impact talent grade: 7, Feel for the Game talent grade: 7)

Impressive skill level for a power forward, with the ability to hit a perimeter shot and handle the ball well. Good feel for the game offensively, can make offense look natural. Biggest issue is being a very undersized PF will likely push him to the perimeter instead of letting him attack the rim and physically impact the game. May be pushed to the SF position.

Just missed: SG Archie Goodwin, SF Shabazz Muhammad, SF Otto Porter, PG Michael Carter-Williams, PF Kelly Olynyk

Written by jr.

January 31, 2013 at 10:18 pm

Ramble mode activated: Why the Grizzlies’ Rudy Gay trade is a fail

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Yesterday Memphis, Toronto and Detroit completed a trade with Rudy Gay and Hamed Haddidi getting traded to Toronto, Jose Calderon getting traded to the Detroit and Tayshaun Prince, Ed Davis, Austin Daye and a 2nd from Toronto, headed to Memphis.

The obvious winner is Detroit. They moved a poor long term contract in Prince, for a PG in Calderon who’s not only an upgrade in production but fits their needs with two bigs in Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond on the team. If they don’t resign him this summer, it’s a good trade for the capspace alone.

I might have a follow-up article on Toronto’s end, but I like it for them. They were a team in an undesirable, mediocre position due to the mistakes of GM Bryan Colangelo, so taking a chance on a talent as great as Gay without paying a crippling price, seems a decent move. The main problem the team faces is the unbelievable amount of bad contracts handed out by Bryan Colangelo recently to Demar Derozan, Andrea Bargnani, Landry Fields, Linas Kleiza, Aaron Gray and others, hampering their flexibility. But this is unrelated to the Gay trade.

But for now I want to talk about Memphis’ side in the trade and it’s a fascinating one. Rudy Gay this season is caught in the middle of statistical vs practical analysis battle. Memphis is a 54 win pace team despite Gay shooting a way below average .478 TS% (league average TS% is .532) on an estimated 18 shooting possessions (FGA + 0.44*FTA). If Memphis is a tier 2 team, what’s holding them back from contention is their offensive rating only ranking 18th of 30 teams, while their defense is 2nd. For this reason a statistical argument could be made that Memphis making the leap from pretender to contender could happen by simply taking away Gay’s below average shots and redistributing them to the rest of the Grizzlies. Putting Tayshaun Prince in Gay’s place is as close as you can get to testing that hypothesis, because in skillset he’s almost a dead ringer for a version of Rudy Gay that simply doesn’t shoot as much. He’s a big small forward who’s as underwhelming a 3 point shooter as Gay and who occasionally likes to use his size in the post or take midrange shots. On the defensive end he’ll be expect to perform to a Gay-like level – respectably, but not elite. If all goes to plan, the Grizzlies with “lobotomized Rudy Gay” in the form of Prince of would redistribute the bad shots taken from Gay by above average shots on the rest of the roster, thus elevating that ORTG to top 10 instead of #18 and turning the Grizzlies into a contender.

But of course, there’s a strong argument to be made that things don’t work out this way. Taking away the pressure Rudy Gay puts on defenses as a slasher, may make it easier for defenses to load up against Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. This is especially true considering Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince provide as little offensive value as any SG and SF combination in the league, with no help coming from Wayne Ellington or Quincy Pondexter off the bench, it will be easy for teams to neglect guarding them in favor of double teaming Memphis’ stars. Furthermore I’m a believer in the concept of energy distribution in basketball. By having a high usage player like Rudy Gay on the court offensively, not only does it give his teammates more space, but it gives them more energy. It allows them to save their energy not only for the offensive plays called for them, but for the defensive end and on the glass. Memphis’ offensive stars will now essentially be playing 3 on 5 for large portions of the game on the offensive end. Might this put a damper on how much they have left for defense?

Finally in regards to shot redistribution, I’m not sure if evaluating a player like Gay is as easy as taking his TS% as a whole and comparing it to a league average replacement shot. Gay’s shots can be split essentially into two categories, good shots and bad shots. According to hoopdata.com, Gay takes 4.1 FGs at the rim a game at 65%, to go along with 3.7 FTA (about 1.6 shot attempts) at the FT line at an even better 78%. Thus he “creates” about 5.7 excellent efficiency shots a game. The problem is he takes 2.1 shots from 3-9 FT at 36.3%, 2.2 shots from 10-15 FT at 45.9%, 3.9 shots from 16-23 FT at 35.0% and 2.9 3s at .457 eFG. This is a combined 11.1 shots at a poor efficiency. Thus it’s easy to see where Gay’s way below TS% comes from. While creating good shots, he takes twice as many bad ones. That is why replacing all of his shots with league average ones theoretically would increase his team’s offensive efficiency.

The question however, is how responsible Gay is for his good shots and how responsible he is for his bad shots. The problem with assigning him blame for the latter, is that many bad shots are a result of the team’s imperfection. Teams don’t WANT to take the worst shot in basketball, contested 2 pointers, but they have to when the shot clock is nearing 0 and they have no better shot to take. When Rudy Gay takes one of these shots, converted at a poor efficiency, his shooting % is taking the weight for the failure of the team’s offense as a whole. Removing Rudy Gay from this play wouldn’t prevent this contested 2 point shot from happening. If he’s not there, someone else has to take that bad shot and their efficiency gets worse. My favorite analogy to show this is Allen Iverson. On the early 2000s Sixers, he played on teams with dreadful supporting offensive talent, lacking either shooting or post scoring. Their job was defense and rebounding. In Iverson’s incredibly inefficient 01-02 season (.489 TS%), Iverson took an incredible 18 shots a game from either 3-9, 10-15, or 16-23 FT and all at < 40% shooting, way below league average for TS%. The assumption that Iverson is hurting his team by taking these shots, relies on the assumption that they wouldn’t be taking them anyways. In reality, due to the lack of offensive talent on the Sixers, it’s likely that removing Iverson would cause them to take MORE bad mid-range shots. Iverson was the only one who could be relied upon to create shots at the rim, FT line or from 3. Removing those shots likely forces the team into even more “dead sets” and contested 2 point jumpers. Thus it doesn’t make sense to replace Iverson’s bad shots with average shots when evaluating how well his shots would be replaced, because in all likelihood not only would his bad shots be replaced by his teammates, but his good shots would be replaced by bad ones.

Likewise the danger for Memphis is that by trading away Rudy Gay, they lose the 6 or so “good” shots he creates at the rim and FT line, but the 11 “bad” shots he takes a game are simply replaced by teammates. This would leave them with 6 less “good” shots than they were getting before. It’s possible that Rudy’s 6 good shots and 11 bad shots, end up replaced by 17 bad shots – which would make their offense worse, not better. Rudy takes 8.2 FGA a game combined from 3-9, 10-15 and 16-23 FT, while Conley Jr. only takes 2.2, Tony Allen 3.5 from those ranges. All 3 shoot brutal percentages from those zones. If the responsibility of taking “dead set” shots simply transfers from Gay to Conley and Allen, it doesn’t make a lot of sense punish Gay’s shooting % for those shots as much as it does to credit the ones he creates by slashing to the basket.

Or put it this way: Allen Iverson was one of the best slashers in the game (defining slashing as, getting to the rim, then scoring at the rim). Rudy Gay is a very good slasher. Slashing is how a team gets field goal attempts at the rim and free throw line. If you remove these guys, barring a unique situation, you’re probably going to have a team that is less capable at creating shots at the rim. Now if Memphis traded for a sharpshooter at SF, they could’ve justifed the deal by becoming worse at slashing, but better at 3pt shooting, which is another way to score efficient shots. The problem is that they didn’t improve their 3pt shooting either, with the similarity ability Prince and Gay have in that area. So you have a team that got worse at slashing, without getting better at 3pt shooting. Chances are that team will be worse offensively and at creating good shots.

No, it simply does not make sense to me for anyone to believe that simply removing Gay with such a non-offensive element as Prince, is going to make them BETTER offensively. The Grizzlies now become indisputably easier to guard than they were with Gay. They now have to play with virtual non threats offensively all game at SG and SF which puts a big toll on their offensive stars.

To me the big problem with the Grizzlies offense before, was twofold: A lack of 3pt shooting/spacing and a lack of offensive support off the bench. Trading for Prince, who is as mediocre a 3pt threat as Gay, certainly does not help their spacing. It makes spacing worse because despite Gay’s lack of range, he still attracted attention from Conley, Randolph and Gasol, which Prince won’t. They did improve their bench scoring by adding the talented Ed Davis, but he the 2nd unit needed much, much more offensive support. To me it’s pretty clear that the team got worse offensively.

The timing of this trade for Memphis is also puzzling. After paying a price to get under the luxury tax last year in the trade they made with Cleveland, why the rush to trade Gay? Memphis was still on pace for their best season ever by record and in the mix for a top 5 seed in the West. Trade offers for Gay would’ve still been there this summer, if not greater offers if teams became desperate after a failed playoff run. Toronto has been desperate to add Gay since last June and likely would’ve been this summer as well offering an identical deal. Furthermore while the Grizzlies cleared flexibility this summer, they are not under the cap enough to sign anyone but their own player Tony Allen this summer. It seems the only reason to make this trade now was because they actually thought replacing Gay with Prince and Davis would make them better immediately and give them a better chance at winning the title these playoffs – while improving their long term future with Davis’ talent and the extra flexibility. And in my opinion, they are very wrong about that so called improvement.

Finally, one more side point about Rudy Gay and the Grizzlies. Right now, the two dominant players in the league are both physically freakish small forwards, Lebron James and Kevin Durant. If the Grizzlies want to win the NBA title, those two stars are likely to be standing in their way. In a playoff series with the Heat or Thunder, might it be a good idea to have a Rudy Gay to match up with those players? Not only is Rudy one of the few players who has the size and length to stick on them, but one can make the case that making them defend Rudy Gay on the other end, has some value. Not only could Gay physically tire them out or force them into foul trouble, but mentally, the toe to toe battle with Gay is one more thing Lebron and Durant would have to worry about. On the other hand they can rest physically and mentally if they only have to guard Tayshaun Prince. When playoff series are decided by inches, this could make a difference.

The Grizzlies as a whole took a big step backwards in talent level by trading Gay. This is a huge red flag because having more talent than the other team is everything in the NBA. I believe a better move may have been if trading Gay, for someone with equal “blue chip” status. The perfect trade would’ve been flipping him for Paul Pierce or Danny Granger, two star SFs who fit their lineup. Grabbing Arron Afflalo from Orlando would a respectable mid level wing replacement. If those teams weren’t interested in Gay, perhaps Toronto could’ve rerouted Calderon and Davis to Indiana, Boston or Orlando. But to not even get a sharpshooting 3pt shooting role playing SF in return for Gay (such as Jared Dudley from Phoenix, as rumored), is just an immense failure. If Memphis was to go with a “trade Gay for a lineup that fits more”, they HAD to get an elite 3pt shooting spacer. By only getting Prince, they took a clear step back in the immediate future offensively which defeats the purpose of trading Gay this quick.

Written by jr.

January 31, 2013 at 2:56 am

Posted in Basketball

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Of Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad and the weird relationship between athleticism and camera angles

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If you follow draft prospects, you know Andrew Wiggins. Despite not being eligible until the 2014 draft, he’s a bigger prospect than anyone in the 2013 draft. This is because not only is he ranked #1 in 2014, but has some extra sauce with that. He’s getting “best prospect since Lebron???” next superduperstar treatment by the media. Chad Ford of ESPN.com has repeatedly mentioned “Tracy McGrady with a motor” as his prediction for him. The basis for this hype is his physical tools. Wiggins actually has a raw skill game, with an inconsistent outside shot and shaky ball-handling. The book on him is that his physical tools are so great that it gives him unlimited upside if his skill game catches up.

Now, assessment of the athleticism of high school players is hit and miss. One reason Marvin Williams went 2nd overall over Chris Paul and Deron Williams in 2005, is that he had a Wiggins-like profile in high school as an all-time great wing athlete. Of course, we know now he’s an average athlete in the NBA. Likewise O.J. Mayo and Harrison Barnes were thought to have much more impressive athletic profiles beside their skill games and Demar Derozan was thought to be a freakish athletic specimen, only to turn out average. The best recent example may be Shabazz Muhammad, who has been an extremely underwhelming athlete during his NCAA career. Shabazz is relevant because it tipped me over an edge in regards to judging high school athletes by the footage available of them at the time. Here is a video I made before the NCAA started trying to evaluate Shabazz and admittedly, almost everything I said in it turned out inaccurate

Here are some other videos of Shabazz in high school

 

Watching videos like this would give no reason to doubt Shabazz’s athleticism or to call him anything less than good to great in the area. He’s blowing by defenders and playing above the rim. However this is how Shabazz has looked at UCLA:

 

The difference is quite striking. Perhaps it’s the competition he’s playing with, but my guess is it’s simply the camera angle that makes Shabazz look like he’s covering much less ground. The frame of reference is different. We are used to judging athletes so much based on the NCAA and NBA courts, that if the angle changes, they may be moving at a speed that looks elite based on what our eyes are used to into the NBA – but without the common denominator of the same court size and angles, it may be an optical illusion. What I now realize is that the best indicator for Shabazz’s athleticism was the Nike Hoop Summit, a game played on NBA style cameras between the top prospects.

 

In this game he looks identical to his UCLA version. Skilled and crafty, but with weak blow-by ability and mostly an under the rim player. After this, I’m not going to trust any more clips of high school players unless they have the frame of reference of NCAA/NBA style cameras. No more clips of players with the camera near the floor, no more highlight videos.

What does this have to do with Andrew Wiggins’ athleticism? Everything. Here are some clips where Wiggins looks like an unstoppable combination of speed and size attacking the basket and exploding above the rim

 

If one only saw these they would have little reason to doubt the massive Lebron, McGrady-like hype around Wiggins’ athleticism. But for the reasons I listed, the NBA style cameras during the Nike Hoop Summit may be the more reliable indicator

 

Wiggins’ athleticism looks shockingly underwhelming in that clip. His first step certainly does not wow, which in combination with shaky ball-handling, makes him look hardly unstoppable slashing to the basket. He has to pull up on many drives instead of taking it all the way to the basket. Even when it comes to vertical explosiveness around the rim, his supposed strength, he underwhelms. At 3:23 he awkwardly lays in a basket instead of having the power to finish the dunk. From 4:55 to 5:17 he misses multiple finishes inside in traffic. At 6:07, he misses a dunk at the rim due to a lack of power going up strong. If one saw this clip without the other, alternate angle ones or highlight videos, they likely in no way would compare Wiggins to Lebron and McGrady athletically. Wiggins looks like a great, smooth athlete, but not a freakishly explosive one. I have watched the above video many times and simply cannot see the type of athlete that should be garnering Lebron comparisons.

Now since seeing the above clip, I have tried to watch Wiggins whenever his games are shown on ESPN, which they have been regularly this season. While not as perfect a match for the NBA style cameras that the Nike Hoop Summit is, they’re filmed in a way that’s fairly reliable. Once again his explosiveness did not stand out to me, as a wing relying on his size, power, skill and feel, but not freakish speed or blow-by ability.

Does Wiggins have a chance to be an excellent wing player in the NBA? Yes. His feel for the game is elite if not transcendent. He has the shooting form to develop strongly in that area and is a natural in the post. He’s at worst, a very good athlete for a wing player. But I’m convinced his athleticism is badly overrated, possibly as much as Marvin Williams’ was.

Written by jr.

January 28, 2013 at 9:12 pm

The year of coaching narratives and the right fit

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Mike D'Antoni coaching the New York Knicks in ...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve made a handful of posts regarding the value of coaches in the NBA. My general belief is coaches are more often than not overrated. There is usually no escaping a team’s talent level in the NBA. Furthermore something I’ve been fascinated by is the connection of offense and defense in the NBA. I do not favor isolating team ORTG and DRTGs, because I believe teams can have “identities” or push their energy and planning towards one side of the court, elevating either the ORTG or DRTG, but at the cost of the other end. As a good example this year’s Indiana Pacers are 1st defensively and 29th offensively. Why so futile offensively with talents on that end like Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert? They’re probably playing below their heads offensively for the same reason they’re playing above their heads defensively: Because they’re a defensively orientated team. On the other hand, the Houston Rockets are 9th offensively and 19th defensively despite having one of the best defensive centers in the league in Omer Asik and little offensive talent outside of James Harden. Chances are with a different style of play they could be better defensively but at the cost of offensively. The end result of the Pacers and Rockets is that they’re playing almost exactly as expected, the Pacers in the mix for the 2nd-4th seed and the Rockets in the mix for the 8th. While I respect Frank Vogel and Kevin McHale, I see little reason to believe they’re coaching has made their teams better. It makes more sense to say Pacers are great because they have 3 all-stars at SF, PF and C in George, West and Hibbert, the Rockets because they have one of the league’s best players in Harden along with a few decent supporting pieces like Asik, Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin – and the coach and system did enough for these rosters to play up to their ability, no matter whether it was with offense or defense emphasized.

Despite this being my general philosophy with coaching, there hasn’t been a year recently where coaching has seemed more relevant than 2012-2013. Coaching has been a crucial part of the story of the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, and Brooklyn Nets, 3 high profile markets and situations. Let’s start with the New York Knicks. A year ago they fired Mike D’Antoni with the middling results under him and have been playing like a top 3 seed ever since. Woodson’s approach has been to simplify the team. The Knicks understand that to win, they play defense first and then move the ball on the offensive end, from Melo to the array of 3pt shooters to Tyson Chandler finishing inside. A similar simplifying has happened in Brooklyn. Avery Johnson micromanaged his point guard Deron Williams and wanted to run a system heavy team. With Carlisemo the Nets seem freer to make their own decisions on the fly. What’s important about the Knicks and Nets improvement to me is that both teams seem happier. On the surface, to me much their improvement has been emotional. The Knicks have a perfect culture in the style they play. They seem to have great chemistry, share the ball and all commit on defense. The Knicks are now a bonded team in a way that should be emulated by other franchises. Likewise the Nets are playing together on both ends since P.J. took over. Importantly, Deron Williams is a player who’s numbers have greatly improved under their new coach. The freedom in style of play seems to have rubbed off well on him.

Another good example of a “free play” coach is Scott Brooks. Brooks has been criticized at times for being hands off on his players and letting them play. He doesn’t pull in Russell Westbrook’s boundless energy by making him walk up the court and run pick and rolls. He lets the players figure it out and makes sure they play hard and move the ball and this seems to fit their team the most.

But compare this to Tom Thibodeau’s Chicago Bulls, who are the posterboy for elite coaching in the NBA. What’s interesting is that Thibodeau has the mentality of a coach, that the Knicks and Nets arguably succeeded by abandoning. He’s the uber-intense, micro-managing system coach. Yet his style works perfectly for the Bulls. Perhaps it’s because they have the roster to pull it off, mainly thanks to the psychotic competitiveness of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah leading the way. Tom Thibodeau on another team may not have found any more success than Doug Collins in Philadelphia or Scott Skiles on the Bucks, but for the Bulls he is perfect.

Now let’s talk about the mess that is the Los Angeles Lakers. Mike D’Antoni has undoubtedly failed his second franchise in a row. If recent reports are to be true, they are a chemistry disaster. Pau Gasol is a headcase who’s gone off the deep end and the Kobe Bryant-Dwight Howard relationship sounds like it’s going as well as the one between Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano’s characters in “There Will Be Blood”. I believe D’Antoni is the wrong fit for this system that reasons that have little to do with his strategically system. He’s a bad fit because of how he’s clearly not the type who could keep Kobe’s ego, Dwight’s lack of assertiveness and Gasol’s sensitivity from sprawling the team into mental chaos.

One thing this situation made me appreciate is Phil Jackson’s greatness. Look at that Lakers core from a few years ago with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum and Metta World Peace. Based on what we know about those players, that’s a ticking time bomb mix of alienating ego (Kobe), mental fragility (Odom and Pau), distracted immaturity (Bynum) and an actual crazy person (World Peace). Kobe, Odom, Pau and Bynum have befallen to the absolute worst of their character flaws without Jackson, while MWP funnily enough has been the most sane. Phil managing to keep a team with THOSE 5 players afloat from a chemistry and emotional perspective, has to be one of the most underrated coaching achievements of all time. And this is not the first time Phil has done a great job keeping locker-rooms with big heads together, turning the uneasy Shaq-Kobe relationship into 3 titles, as well as keeping Scottie Pippen on board with playing #2 for 6 titles with Michael Jordan (and later, getting Dennis Rodman on track after he had gone off the rails in San Antoni). This is ultimately why Phil Jackson is the greatest coach of all time. Although he had more talent than any coach in history, he did an amazing job playing caretaker to some situations that may have blown up without him.

What this all tells me is that coaching is important, but perhaps coaches shouldn’t be judged in a vacuum. Instead it’s about fitting the players to the coach. Both in style of play and in the way those players approach the game. Sometimes you need a Scott Brooks to leave his hands off and sometimes a Tom Thibodeau to put his hands on.

But with that said. While he’s not in the right spot, let’s face it. Mike D’Antoni is still doing a really, really bad job.

Written by jr.

January 24, 2013 at 8:13 pm

Is Shabazz Muhammad overrated?

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I’m in the process of formulated by 2013 draft prospect rankings and once again I find myself at odds with the “consensus”, ESPN/Draftexpress.com rankings of players. Both in the description of this as a weak draft (It might be my favorite since 2008), but also in the high placing of Shabazz Muhammad and Nerlens Noel as the 2 prospects. I wrote a bit on Noel before the season, my opinion on him hasn’t changed much. Shabazz however has underwhelmed me. (I’ll admit to making a video praising Shabazz based on his high school footage, before he looked like a totally different player at UCLA – one more reason I’m just going to refuse to judge any players’ athleticism until they’re on NBA style cameras).

My main concern with Shabazz is whether he’ll have the ability to slash in the NBA. He’s been a shockingly underwhelming athlete so far at UCLA. He has little blow by speed and plays almost entirely under the rim. When he moves, he looks like he’s laboring. Like the older guy playing pick up basketball that can’t keep up with the youngins’ athleticism, but at least he has the game and craftiness to make up for it. Dangerously, to this he adds unimpressive ball-handling ability. He does not look like a player comfortable with the ball in his hands a lot, instead looking to quick strike when he gets it or instead play off the ball, searching for outside shot or post opportunities.

This makes me believe he will struggle playing on the ball in the NBA. Without laboring speed and average ball-handling, it will be difficult to get past his man to create shots attacking the paint and rim, or drawing fouls. I call this “physically impacting the game” for a wing player, of which I consider of the utmost importance for upside. Players with his combination of physical tools and ball-handling are thus often relegated to jumpshots – particularly, perimeter jumpshots.

Now Shabazz does have things going for him. He’s had an excellent shooting season, currently at 45.8% of his 3s, though the small sample size of college shooting and the fact that he’s hitting a mediocre 72.7% from the FT line make me less trustworthy of him as a true sharpshooter. He’s a crafty player with a good feel for the game, able to create shots with this craftiness – and he has excellent post ability for a college SG. If he becomes a consistent 3pt shooter, he’s a good bet to be a starting SG.

But his lack of athleticism and ball-handling would seriously worry me. Shabazz’s supporters like to compare him to Paul Pierce and James Harden, two plays who play “slow” but manage to be stars based on their skill and feel for the game. But there is a significant line in the sand between Pierce/Harden and Shabazz physically. Pierce and Harden were great athletes, who had the blow-by ability to get to the rim at will. What makes them look ‘slow’ is that they are more controlled than other players. Harden actually has one of the best first steps in the league and shows tremendous explosiveness at Arizona. This play is evidence alone of how explosive young Harden was. Shabazz on the other hand is not explosive in any way. Physically he is much more like Wesley Matthews, who similarly has great size to go with middling and under the rim athleticism. The other problem with the Harden and Pierce comparisons is those are two of the best ball-handlers in the league, while ball-handling is considered a weakness for Shabazz. So as a whole, the difference between Shabazz and Harden/Pierce in regards to slashing upside is significant. Harden and Pierce are elite slashing talents, while Shabazz has shown no sign of being more than below average in that category.

Shabazz may end up such a great shooter and shot creator, to score 20 points a game on those abilities alone. But in my mind it’s very hard for wing players to stand out if they don’t attack the rim and slash on the ball at a great level. Shabazz could just as easily be a role player with 3pt shooting and size, mimicking Wes Matthews’ role in the NBA. He looks like a safe, but low upside wing prospect for this reason. I would have a hard time justifying him as a top 10 caliber pick in what I believe is a great draft.

Written by jr.

January 23, 2013 at 2:41 pm

Of Austin Rivers and how many skills are needed to succeed in the NBA

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Austin Rivers right now is the NBA’s William Hung. Someone bombing so horrendously that it’s become a fun story for the season.

Many people have delved into historically bad Rivers’ season, highlighted by stats such as his 5.6 PER to his .329 FG% and .399 TS%, to his -1.0 WS in 905 MP so far this year. Rivers is arguably one of the worst players the NBA has ever seen.

Rivers of course is a special case. No matter what someone’s methods were, there was almost no way to justify Rivers going in the top 20 of the draft if not for a combination of nepotism as Doc Rivers’ son and players who are ranked as top 5 prospects in high school, being given the benefit of the doubt if they struggle their first year. The stat-heads hated Rivers coming out of college due to his low production in the NCAA (16.8 PER, extremely low for a 1st round prospect – He was an inconsistent 15.5ppg volume scorer in college) and because most modern statistical studies of the draft consider inefficient volume scoring in the NCAA to have almost no correlation to NBA success, while favoring rebounding, assists, steals, blocks and efficiency as translating better. Wages of Wins has a decent track record using a regression model to predict NCAA to NBA success and ranked Austin Rivers outside of their top 60. Even if one didn’t pay attention to stat head analysis like that, it’s obvious that Austin’s poor production in college combined with mediocre athleticism and size for his position, wouldn’t have been enough to get him drafted in the 1st round if he had a different last name. Of course if you are familiar with this blog you will also know that I have my own way of analyzing draft talent based on equally weighting a player’s projected physical impact on the game, projected skill level and projected feel for the game and intelligence – and Rivers bombed that metric and did not measure out as a 1st round prospect at the time. Rivers lack of strength and athleticism make him a sub-par physical talent for a 2 guard, his skill level is absolutely horrendous due to his lack of a jumpshot or touch around the rim and he had as little feel for the game as any wing player in the draft, showing no spatial awareness whatsoever and often playing totally out of control at Duke. In fact Rivers ranked out of my top 30 at the time despite my grade for him at the time looking inaccurately optimistic. I gave him a very respectable 6 in the skill category giving his jumpshot the benefit of the doubt, when so far he’s been playing like a 1. With that adjustment to his grades he wouldn’t come near a draft-caliber player.

But getting past all that, I wanted to talk about something very specific with Rivers. Because while it’s clear he totally blows, he does do one thing exceptionally well. Rivers is an outstanding ball-handler. He might be the best ball-handling talent in his whole class. This guy is a natural moving with the ball. But in spite of this and ball-handling clearly being one of the most important traits a wing player can have, it’s clear it’s not enough. Not without a jumpshot, not without the ability to finish at the basket, not without above average athleticism, not with a skinny frame, not without any feel for the court or intelligence. What Rivers really proves is that an NBA caliber player generally can’t just do one single thing well. Just as Jason Kapono may be one of the best shooters in the world but is so incapable of other skills that he’s not in the NBA, or same goes for Hasheem Thabeet who’s talents went as far as being exceptionally long, or how Rafael Araujo had a strong body and that’s about it. A player has to have a combination of talents and abilities to perform at the highest level. It’s not just one skill that makes a player but a combination of them being used together. Austin Rivers’ can still have an NBA career, but he has to do one thing – He has to be able to hit 3pt shots at a consistent level. This combination of ball-handling and shootable would make him useable, at least. If he was a more physically dominant player in his athleticism and length and mixed that with his ball-handling, likewise this would be enough for him to get his 10 to 15 minutes off the bench long term. Or if he was a more intelligent players with better spatial instincts, together with his ball-handling he could find himself on the way. His problem in my opinion is that he just doesn’t have enough. When a player is called one dimensional but still in the league, chances are he has more than one dimensional. Kyle Korver may be “one dimensional” as strictly a shooter, but he’s been a skilled shooter, big for his position and he’s intelligent. Those are a few dimensions. Unfortunately for a guy like Rivers, he’s the true definition of a one dimensional player. Aside from his ball-handling he brings no talents to the table.

Written by jr.

January 13, 2013 at 5:51 pm

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Thomas Robinson, Jonny Flynn and the cause/effect question of height and age

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Wizards v/s Timberwolves 03/05/11

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So far one of the most disappointing rookies from the 2012 draft is 5th overall pick Thomas Robinson. Robinson is putting up 4.5 points, 4.0 rebounds on 40.9% FG so far this season for a 9.3 PER and frankly hasn’t shown much of anything. Most worrisome is that he has yet to have standout game. His best performance of the season statistical is a 12 point, 4 rebound effort against Portland on November 13th. It is his only double digit scoring performance of the season. And compounding all this is that Robinson will be 22 a few months from now in March and was billed as a “NBA ready” performer, one would be near a finished product upon entering the NBA. It is less likely Robinson improves his skill level than younger players.

I am not going to declare Robinson a bust and future journeyman at this point, but if he ends up in that direction it will be easy to see what will blamed. One, that he is an undersized power forward at under 6’9 in shoes and once he entered the NBA against bigger, faster players, his physical advantages over peers that he had in the NCAA no longer existed. Second, that he was an older college player. Size and age are listed as two of the most common “red flags” for prospects. Many draft steals happen because teams passed on them specifically because they were a few inches short for their position or a junior/senior. Situations like Robinson’s are why undersized, older players continue to get passed on.

But what if these are just red herrings? Is it possible that Robinson would look just as bad if he was 6’11 and a 19 year old? Blaming Robinson’s age and height is the easy answer, but it’s not necessarily the correct one. Take two recent power forward steals in Kenneth Faried and Paul Millsap as comparisons. Both, like Robinson, were undersized power forwards (smaller than Robinson in fact) and both came out after 3-4 years in college. Yet their age and size didn’t hold them back. The real difference between Millsap/Faried and Robinson in my opinion is unrelated to age or height. I listed Robinson out of my top 20 prospects in June because I did not like his skill level or feel for the game. He has very weak touch finishing at the rim and an inconsistent jumpshot. He also displays many of the attributes I give to weak feel for the game – He plays “too fast”, often rushing plays out of control, giving himself little time for craftiness or adjustment. He has a rough, unnatural looking game instead of the smooth, controlled ones players with a strong feel have. On the other hand, Millsap has an excellent combination of skill around the basket and on the perimeter, with a very high IQ and feel for the game. Faried has much better touch than Robinson at the basket and a strong feel for the game, as well as freakish anticipation of rebounds. If these are the real reasons Robinson is struggling compared to Faried and Millsap, age and height are irrelevant. He’s simply not as talented a player in skill or mental talent.

Another good example of what I believe is the height and age red herring is Jonny Flynn. Jonny Flynn, a rare case of a top 10 pick out of the league 3 years after his draft in 2009 is a player who may historically be called a bust because of his height. While a very small PG, a PG in the same draft in Ty Lawson had almost identical physical features and made it as a legitimate starter. I believe Flynn failed for reasons unrelated to his height. He’s simply a poor basketball player. He had no jumpshot and little court vision or feel for the game. Lawson on the other hand is a much more skilled and intelligent player.

The other end of this is the amount of physically gifted players for their position who have failed. Jordan Hill and Cole Aldrich are recent busts where height was not a problem for them, but lack of skills and feel was. Marcus Banks is a big, athletic PG who simply didn’t have the skills and vision to make it. It’s possible a taller Robinson is simply Jordan Hill and a taller Flynn is simply Marcus Banks.

I do think height and age is relevant to draft discussions. However in comparison to athleticism, strength, skills and intelligence, it may be a red herring in many cases to why a player failed. There are enough short players who’ve succeeded and tall players who’ve failed that it makes me wonder if correlation and causation is getting mixed up when an undersized player fails.

Written by jr.

January 1, 2013 at 6:19 pm

Posted in NBA Draft

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