A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Archive for March 2013

Trey Burke, Ty Lawson and D.J. Augustin – Of little PGs and red herrings

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Trey Burke is the star of this year’s March Madness. After a college season that will likely win him player of the year honors, he’s brought the Wolverines to the Final Four. Most noteably carrying them to a huge final minutes comeback and overtime win against Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen.

Doubters of his NBA career will point at his physical tools. Burke isn’t a blazing athlete and is about 6 foot flat.

The scariest player comparison for Burke is D.J. Augustin, a player resembling Burke in size and athleticism who had a similarly star sophmore season at Texas. This helped Augustin get picked 9th overall by Charlotte in 2008, ahead of Brook Lopez. The pick ended up a disaster for the Bobcats with throughly average production before letting him walk in free agency. On his 2nd team the Pacers, Augustin is barely producing at a useable backup level.

A more encouraging comparison for Burke is Ty Lawson, a small PG who had a dominant season and led UNC to the national title. Because of his size Lawson fell to the 18th pick in the 2009 and is now a star of an elite team in Denver, touching on dominance at times the 2nd half of this season.

Augustin and Lawson is an interesting comparison to me, because pound for pound they are similar players. Both have an above average feel for the game as instinctually sound and smooth players. Lawson’s feel is better, but not by a large margin. As perimeter shooters both are good, but not elite.

I see the difference as physical. Lawson is one of the league’s fastest point guards, exploding to the rim in the halfcourt or in transition. He adds to a wide body and great strength. With this combination of speed and strength, he can get to the rim and finish regularly. Augustin on the other hand, does not have impact speed, or a great frame. As a result he struggles both getting to the rim and if he gets there, with weak height and strength struggles to finish. Augustin struggles as much as any PG at “slashing” and physically impacting the game by attacking the rim, while Lawson is at the least, good in this area. Lawson is also a peskier defender than Augustin largely due to his speed and strength. Here are my talent grades for Lawson and Augustin:

D.J. Augustin

Physical impact talent grade – 1

Skill impact talent grade – 7

Feel for the Game talent grade – 7

Total talent grade – 15

Ty Lawson

Physical impact talent grade – 6

Skill impact talent grade – 7

Feel for the Game talent grade – 9

Total talent grade – 22

*In my grading system, 24-25 is the rough benchmark for perennial all-stars, 19-20 are “blue chip” players, 14-15 are average players, enough to get a bench role or spot starter role.

The advantages I listed for Lawson, that his speed and build allows him to slash and finish at a greater level than Augustin – is reflected in these talent grades. Lawson largely separates himself in the physical impact category.

That Augustin is short for his position, is largely a red herring for me in regards to the failure of that draft pick. There are tall PGs such as Steve Blake, Jose Calderon, Beno Udrih among others, who struggle to physically impact the game as much as Augustin does, because the speed and strength isn’t there. Making Augustin taller does no necessarily mean he scores in the paint any more than a Blake or Calderon does, nor does it make him a better defender.

So what to make of Trey Burke? Here are my present talent grades for Burke:

Physical impact talent grade – 2

Skill impact talent grade – 8

Feel for the Game talent grade – 9

Total talent grade: 19

This would indicate starting talent, bordering on blue chip – but not as standout as Lawson’s.

Physically Burke reminds me of Augustin and not Lawson. He’s largely not an explosive player attacking the basket, despite great ballhandling. Furthermore his small height in combination with a lack of great strength, makes it hard to envision him finishing well in the NBA. I have a hard time seeing Burke score points in the paint in the NBA or physically impacting the game. Burke is likely to struggle defensively at the next level

Burke’s standout trait is his feel for the game. Instinctually he is a natural, smoothly creating off the dribble or finding teammates. He makes the game look easy offensively. His smooth feel is what makes many compare him to a young Chris Paul.

Where Burke’s career is likely to hinge in my opinion, is his skill impact game. His 3 point shooting in college has been excellent, which when combined with an 80%+ FT clip is encouraging. Burke has great form and deep range. With his ballhandling he’s great at creating shots and space for himself to shoot. He’s also a respectable playmaker for teammates, showing skill as well as vision in passing. But barring a freakish shooter like Stephen Curry or JJ Redick, I’d argue every prospect’s shooting unpredictably translates to the next level. Burke should be favored to shoot 3s well in the NBA, but it’s no lock. I believe if he became one of the league’s best perimeter scorers and passers, with his feel for the game it’d make him a blue chip, standout PG if not on the level of a Ty Lawson. However, if I overstated his shooting talent and he simply stroked it at an average level, I have a difficult time seeing him stand out with a slashing game that’s unlikely to translate well.

With Trey Burke, I agree with many of the conclusions. That there’s a risk he becomes an irrelevant NBA player and the next D.J. Augustin. That if he pans out he has the chance to be a very good, if not blue chip player – but physical inabilities preventing real stardom. Yet I see the reason for this as much less related to height than others suggest. Height has some relevance in finishing and defending, but I see the bigger dangers a lack of elite speed and strength, unlike a player like Lawson. And along with that, Burke’s game at the next level relying so much on shooting which is unpredictable translating from the NCAA to the NBA, creates risk potential.

Written by jr.

March 31, 2013 at 4:23 pm

Posted in Basketball, NBA Draft

The lack of risk in giving John Wall a maximum contract

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WIth John Wall exploding in March to all-star numbers, the Wizards are fated to give him a maximum contract this summer.

Washington Wizards v/s Philadelphia 76ers Nove...

Washington Wizards v/s Philadelphia 76ers November 23, 2010 (Photo credit: Wikipedia), the Wizards are fated to give him a maximum contract this summer.

Does Wall deserve the max based on his play so far? Of course not. An inefficient 16.8 points/7.7 assists/4.6 rebounds on a poor team, is far from star numbers. The Wizards extending him is a matter of paying for potential and knowing they have to max out Wall to keep him past next summer, whether they wait to extend him or not.

The Wizards giving him the max is still a good move. What it comes down to, is the contract has less risk than it seems. This is because even if Wall doesn’t progress past 16 pt, 7 ast, 5 reb point guard who can’t hit jumpshots, he’ll likely easily be tradeable. Wall has too much pedigree between his massive athletic talents and as a former #1 pick for teams to turn it down. 2-3 years from now, a 24-25 year old Wall will likely still be looked at as a player who can break out to star status, even for a team to give up for value for him. Some teams will believe “He just needs a new situation, the Wizards didn’t develop him right”.

The best analogy is Rudy Gay. Gay’s statistical production couldn’t have been more disappointing after signing his max deal. Yet Memphis had no problem moving Rudy, in fact with Toronto giving up real value in Jose Calderon and Ed Davis to give him a try. This is because Rudy’s star talent is so obvious that it led to trade value instead of the numbers. Wall’s talent and reputation arguably has even more pedigree than Gay’s did as an even more special athletic talent for his position and a former #1 pick. His leash will last for years before he’s seen as a maximum player without trade value.

The one risk is health-related., with Wall sitting out the first half of this season with knee problems. However as far as I know, Wall’s long term health is not expected to be in danger – and health concerns are a risk every team giving out a huge contract has to take.

As for the reward of keeping Wall, it’s clear. If indeed has star potential because his recent shooting surge is a sign of things to come, those players are too hard to find – and after making a leap forward defensively and with Wall in the lineup this season, the team is in fine position to make a leap up in the standing and perhaps start winning games on an Indiana Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies caliber level. When comparing risk to reward, unless his knees are damaged goods in their current position maxing out Wall is a near no-brainer.

Written by jr.

March 29, 2013 at 1:41 pm

Posted in Basketball

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Should there be an 8th/9th seed play-in game?

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Last season the MLB added an extra playoff “spot” with 2 wild cards having a play-in game, instead of 1 wild-card automatically getting in.

The motive for this is easy to see. Aside from increasing the revenue for the teams who get an extra spot and by putting 2 huge television games on the schedule – it also keeps more teams alive late in the season, helping fans keep interest longer in the year.

Should the same logic apply to the NBA? Instead of the 8th seed getting in automatically, make them play the 9th seed in a 1 game play-in. The winner gets the 8th seed as it is now, entering a full series against the 1st seed.

Here’s the benefits:

– The 8th seed play-in game is beneficial for revenues. The 4 teams involved in it get an extra high priced playoff game. Television ratings are likely strong as event TV.

– 2 extra “playoff” spots increases interest late in the season for more teams. For example right now Milwaukee is 8th in the East at 34-36. Following them is Philadelphia at 28-43, Toronto at 26-45, Washington at 26-45. Instead of Philadelphia and Toronto’s season being over for months, they’d be wrapped up in an exciting playoff race right now. Washington’s great play with John Wall would have put them back in the race. This teams being thrown in the race would be great for sales and ratings. Moreso, franchises build reputations to fans by making the playoffs or coming close, as well as build winning cultures on rosters that way.

– This creates a race not only between 8th and 9th – but between 7th and 8th. For example last year New York and Philadelphia finished 7th and 8th in the East separated by one game, while Dallas and Utah finished with the same record at 7th and 8th in the West. Make the 8th seed mean a 1 game playoff instead of a guaranteed spot and that race would have been a lot more intense.

– If an 8th seed is likely to be beat badly by the 1st seed every year, giving them a carrot by winning a big play-in game helps add a little more meaning to that season. Would Baltimore’s season last year in the MLB have as felt as special without the play-in win?

An 8th/9th seed play-in game is good for revenues, good for building the credibility of franchises and good for the fans. It seems an all-around win, as it is for the MLB. After the MLB got the ball rolling, similarly adding a play-in game may be impossible to resist for the NBA and NHL.

Written by jr.

March 28, 2013 at 3:28 pm

Posted in Basketball

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Beware the Unconventional Swordsman: Why I still see the Knicks as the biggest threat to the Heat in the East

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Carmelo Anthony

Carmelo Anthony (Photo credit: Keith Allison)

“There are some things that can beat smartness and foresight? Awkwardness and stupidity can. The best swordsman in the world doesn’t need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn’t do the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn’t prepared for him; he does the thing he ought not to do; and often it catches the expert out and ends him on the spot.”

– Mark Twain

With the Miami Heat on a 27 game winning streak and up 12.5 games on 2nd place in the East, the first 3 rounds of the playoffs in the East looks like a mere formality. After Miami the rest of the East are the Seven Dwarves. Who of the group of Indiana, New York, Brooklyn, Chicago, Atlanta, Boston and Milwaukee can possibly beat this Heat team – and this legend in Lebron James, at their absolute apex? Can they even get more than 1 game against the Heat?

Some are selling themselves on the Pacers or Nets or the Bulls if Derrick Rose returns as a threat, but my overwhelming choice for the “Maybe… if… perhaps” threat to the Heat, is the New York Knicks.

True, the Knicks are only 11-8 after the all-star break and are both old and badly injured. They’re wilting and barely holding onto their division lead and a top 3 seed. The Knicks are not a sexy choice right now.

My case starts with going back to the 2011 Mavericks, the only team to beat these Heat. My theory for why the Mavs pulled this off – and as I predicted before that series – is because of how weird they were to play. The Heat’s stellar athletes were forced to chase 3 point shooters around the perimeter, instead of using their athleticism to protect the paint. Of course this was added to defending Dirk’s spread/post offense at the 4, hands down the most unconventional player to guard in the league. Adding to this, defensively the Mavericks used not freakish athleticism, but intelligence and a coaching bag of tricks. The Mavericks were the opposite of the Heat. Instead of blinding athleticism and slashing, they used skill and shooting. Instead of physically dominating teams defensively, they relied on formation and positioning and weird tricks like sticking Jason Kidd on Lebron. If the Heat were Superman, a supernatural physical force of powers – then the Mavericks were Batman, a hero with no superpowers but incredible intelligence and an array of gadgets. In 2013 with the Heat playing like this, I suspect having a shot comes down to being Batman, not an inferior version of Superman.

The Knicks this year has been built very similarly to the 2011 Mavericks. On both teams Tyson Chandler manned the middle at C, with elite efficiency and positional defense. Carmelo and Dirk play the stretch PF and center the team’s offense. Then on the perimeter, the teams lack great penetrators but a group of perimeter shooters. Instead of driving into the paint against Miami’s swarming help defense, they will wait on the perimeter for shots to open up. The Heat’s athleticism is much less dynamic on defense, when it’s chasing 3 point shooters instead of blocking penetrating.

Another model for the East’s Seven Dwarves to follow is the 2009 Magic, who shocked the 66 win Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Like the 2011 Mavericks, the Magic were a weird team, defined by it’s 6’10+ 3 point shooting combo in Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis flanking Dwight Howard at C. The Magic rained 3s on the Cavaliers, too short to cover those shots. The 2009 Cavaliers were flawed, but playing an untraditional team did not help matters.

In the above Mark Twain quote, the Indiana Pacers are the 2nd best swordsman in the East. They are as fundamentally sound as can get, the play the “right way.” The Heat have no reason to fear the Pacers, their straight laced fundamentals also makes them less likely to play over their heads. But the Knicks are the unconventional swordsman. By relying on the 3 pointer if they get hot and players like Jason Kidd, JR Smith and Steve Novak start hitting from the outside, no amount of athleticism chasing them on the perimeter will be able to stop those shots from going in. Defensively they are old but smart and will try to positionally block off the Heat.

Finally, the Knicks have all too much reason to be confident against the Knicks. Tyson Chandler and Jason Kidd have already beat them. JR Smith is the ultimate “irrational confidence” player, to quote Bill Simmons. Carmelo Anthony is good enough to believe he can be the series’ best player. Players like Iman Shumpert, Kenyon Martin, Amar’e Stoudemire, Steve Novak are also far from lacking in balls. The Knicks have also had success against the Heat this season to boost their belief.

I’m far from betting against the Heat in the East this season. But it’s no lock. Nothing is a certainty in the NBA. If I had to pick one team to “shock the world”, I’m taking those weird, unconventional swordsman New York Knicks.

Written by jr.

March 27, 2013 at 4:46 pm

Gary Harris and the case of the stealth high risk prospect

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A sleeper name in the 2013 draft is Michigan State’s SG Gary Harris. Out of the blue ESPN’s Chad Ford put him in his lottery at 10th a few weeks ago. The tournament has given him a bigger spotlight since then, as one of the few highly ranked prospects who’s played well.

If Harris declares and projects as a lottery pick, expect to hear the word “safe” paired with him. Harris has the style of play of a role player at SG – open 3s, defense and a high IQ & feel. He lacks the speed, size or ball-handling of a standout slasher at the next level. As a result, the book on him will be this prevents star upside, but he’ll be a safe bet to contribute right away due to his perimeter polish and high IQ. The mentality behind taking a Harris top 14 is since many prospects at that range bust, why not play it safe with a reliable contributer, even if he has a lower upside?

I see this safety blanket as a myth. In fact I’d call Harris as risky as any of the other lottery prospects, if not moreso. Here’s why: If he’s bound to be a spot up shooter in the NBA, he better have that knockdown 3 point shot. A version of Gary Harris who hits 20 foot 2 pointers but can’t hit the 3, is fubar in the NBA. No team wants a spot up 20 foot shooter because of how inefficient those shots are, it’s the open 3s where the value is. Even if his feel for the game kept Harris in the NBA despite a lack of 3 point range and athleticism, it’d be as a deep bench player. And in the NBA drafting a 9th man in the lottery is no better than drafting a non-NBA talent, because deep bench players to fill out a roster can be found in free agency at any time.

Now why Harris is considered a safe prospect, is an assumption his 3 point shooting is a guarantee to translate. Harris is sitting at 41.9% from 3. But on 65 3FGM for 155 3FGA for the season, this is subject to a small sample size. If he had gone 55 for 155, hitting 10 less 3s over the season – he’d have shot a middling 35.4%. 50 for 155 is 32.2%, 45 for 155 25.8%. 10-20 3s over the season separating these %s, is within the range of luck. Moreso, the issue is the NCAA 3 point line is a few inches shorter than the NBA version – meaning NCAA 3s aren’t a true measure of NBA range. Finally, free throw % is a relatively decent indicator of shooting mechanics, where shooting over 80% and 85% is most encouraging. Harris is at 76.6% from the FT line for the year, which is fine but not a ringing endorsement.

All of this doesn’t rule out Harris as a standout shooter at the next level. It just means it isn’t a lock that he is. And that is why Harris is risky. To avoid “bust” status as a lottery pick, he has to be a good to great shooter. If his shooting is unpredictable – with the possibility it doesn’t translate – thus there’s a risk it doesn’t translate and he busts.

This isn’t to slight Gary Harris’ upside if he pans out. With his elite feel for the game, if he added one of the best perimeter shooting games in the league, in my books that’d be enough to be an uncontested blue chip starter in the NBA even if not a slasher. I simply contest that Harris – or the “role player” prospects like him every year, are less risky than everyone else. Since the perimeter shooting polish that leads to safe label, is in fact more of an unpredictable a bet to translate than the raw athletic tools the “risky” prospects have, such as this year’s Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress or last year’s Andre Drummond.

Written by jr.

March 25, 2013 at 11:49 pm

Posted in Basketball

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Do Gorgui Dieng and Kelly Olynyk have star potential?

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USD Toreros vs Gonzaga Bulldogs 02-02-13 Kelly...

USD Toreros vs Gonzaga Bulldogs 02-02-13 Kelly Olynyk (Photo credit: SD Dirk)

When making my early draft rankings this year, two players I neglected to grade are Gorgui Dieng and Kelly Olynyk. I don’t have an excuse other than I didn’t go out of my way to scout and grade them because I bought the assumption they weren’t good enough.

After looking closer at them, I’m convinced both are outstanding prospects. Enough to rank in my top 5 for this draft.

Breaking it down:

Gorgui Dieng

Physical impact: Dieng is impressive here. At 6’10 with a 7’4 wingspan, he has the length to be a shotblocker at either PF or C. He has impressive mobility and explosiveness and a solid frame, increasing his chance of playing C. Due to the rarity of athletic shotblockers who can play in the frontcourt, I see his physical impact talent as cleanly above average, if not elite in the NBA.

Skill impact: Labelled an anti-skill player, I find his toolset more promising. The key is he has a jumpshot with 20 foot range, similar to Serge Ibaka’s shot. He also can make turnaround jumpshots and a few hooks in the post, albeit without great size to hold position may struggle in the post in the NBA. Not a great finisher around the rim. Excellent passer for a C. I wouldn’t call Gorgui a standout skill player at the next level, but if his shot and passing translates I’d call him a respectable skill player.

Feel for the Game: Arguably more of a strength than his physical talents. Among the NCAA’s most intelligent defenders and plays a smooth and natural offensive game. His excellent feel and instincts is why I wouldn’t call him a raw offensive player.

Here is a standout game for Dieng this year

At 0:07 he shows smooth feel by driving to the basket after a fake, then finishing

At 0:15, 0:55 and 1:40 he shows his passing talent

At 0:21 and 1:16 he hits a long 2 point jumpshot

At 0:38, 1:00, 1:10, 1:47 and 2:03 he shows his athletic tools by blocking shots

At 1:31 he executes an impressive turnaround jumper out of the post

At 1:50 he shows some speed and feel driving the basket, albeit needs 2 attempts to finish

Dieng has an impressive combination of talents. I give him a grade of 8 in physical impact talent due to his athleticism and shotblocking, 5 in skill impact talent due to his reasonable perimeter shot and moves inside and 9 in feel for the game for his instincts and smoothness. This adds up to 22 – which is a terrific number, one near perennial all-star status. In fact since the C position isn’t known for its skills, if he plays there and has a consistent perimeter shot – my grading for him in skill could be undercutting him. On the other end, if his shotblocking doesn’t project like I expect, he may have less of a physical impact than I see right now.

Looking past how he’s been ignored for his age (23) and lack of points per game in college, the tools are there for Dieng. He has impact athleticism and shotblocking potential, an intelligent feel and the makings of an inside-outside skill game, which when added to his feel and fluidity, could be deadly. That’s a huge package of tools.

Kelly Olynyk

Physical impact: Known as Olynyk’s weakness. But while he’s not hulking in strength, Olynyk’s speed is impressive. One of the fastest bigs up the court and has blow-by ability in the halfcourt due to his first step and ballhandling. Underrated vertical explosiveness, he is capable of a poster above the rim. If he can use his ability to attack the basket facing the basket, he can physically impact the game at the pro level at a respectable level.

Skill impact: Has a terrific perimeter shooting game for a PF/C, with a chance to extend his range to the 3 point line. He is just as good a post player, but with his frame I wouldn’t expect him to hold position well in the post. Superb finisher around the rim however. Perimeter shooting bigs grade very well in skill impact for their position, thus Olynyk looks quite good here.

Feel for the Game: Olynyk’s strongest category. Among the league’s smoothest offensive players and a natural carving up space against defenses. Makes a lot of plays off instincts and playing at an easy pace.

Here is draftexpress.com’s video of Olynyk

From 0:53 to 1:20, the “Running the Floor” section, it shows Olynyk’s speed up the court and finishing

From 1:20 to 3:17, the “Off the Dribble” and “Pick and Roll sections, it shows Olynyk’s first step in the halfcourt as he blows by defenders to the rim

At 3:12, he has his most impressive athletic play of the season, a huge one handed poster

3:17 to 6:28 shows a variety of Olynyk’s scores around the rim. Much of these plays don’t look like they’re be effective against NBA competition physically, but their smoothness is evidence of excellent feel for the game

6:28 to 7:20 shows Olynyk’s very good perimeter shooting ability

I give Olynyk a grade of 6 in physical impact for his ability to blow-by defenders and attack the basket. I grade him an 8 in skill impact for his perimeter shooting game, seemingly a good bet for knockdown midrange ability if not 3 point range – as well as skill around the basket. Finally, I confidently grade him a 9 in feel for the game due to his natural instincts and fluidity. This score is 23. Like Dieng, a superb number. If Olynyk became a knockdown 3 point shooter, I’d likely bump that skill impact grade up. His potential slashing using his blow-by ability, may also be better than I gave him the grade for. His most likely scenario of falling below my project is my physical impact grade ending up too high and Olynyk sticking to perimeter jumpshots, or his shooting game somehow not translating. I’d say Olynyk has conceivable star potential. His perimeter skill and feel looks so good, that if he can take defenders off the dribble attacking the basket, he’d have a complete offensive game.

This will be far from the last I say of Dieng and Olynyk – these are unique, great prospects! Olynyk looks to be getting enough buzz to go in the lottery or top 10, but it remains to be seen whether Dieng’s buzz picks up. With the NBA’s love affari with athletic bigs and shotblockers, surely someone will have interest or notice he also has offensive potential? Perhaps his low ranking on mock drafts, is from teams not revealing information about how they high are on him.

Written by jr.

March 25, 2013 at 9:27 pm

Posted in Basketball, NBA Draft

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Is Rob Hennigan making feel for the game the center of Orlando’s strategy?

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I’ve made a point on this blog of emphasizing feel for the game as a key to player talent and success. I see it being as important as athleticism to a player.

The team who has the biggest trend of targeting feel for the game players is the Spurs. Here is an article I wrote describing how I see it as the key to their infamous draft steals. I am just about convinced they go out of their way to grab instinctual and feel for the game heavy players.

Since Rob Hennigan became GM of the Magic, they look to be following the same path. Check out his moves so far:

2012 draft – Took Andrew Nicholson in 19th overall in the 1st round.

Nicholson plays at a permanently slow, controlled pace – in a good way. He has what can be called an “old man’s game”, a good indicator of feel for the game. Feel for the game overwhelmingly is what makes Nicholson unique.

In the Dwight Howard trade he acquired Arron Afflalo, Nikola Vucevic and Moe Harkless among draft picks.

Afflalo’s strength is overwhelmingly his feel for the game. He is a natural mover and scorer. Like Nicholson lack of explosiveness to attack the basket and physically impact the game limits his upside, but his feel and instincts are high end.

Vucevic is another instinctually impressive player. You can see the calm he has in the post and around the basket. Furthermore his terrific rebounding numbers largely seem instinctually based, without elite athleticism or lift – similar to Kevin Love’s rebounding.

What about Moe Harkless? You guessed it. Smooth. Fluid. At ease when he drives instead of out of control for a raw player. Above average feel for the game again.

At the trade deadline, Orlando grabbed Tobias Harris and Doron Lamb as the young prospect haul for JJ Redick.

Tobias has the best feel for the game out of all these Orlando players. In fact I would argue Tobias has one of the best feel for the games in the entire league. Look at how natural and fluid this man plays. He manages to get to the rim not because he’s explosive, but because he’s that smooth.

Like a broken record, Doron fits the profile of all these other Magic players. He’s not the fastest or biggest guy, but he has a combination of skills – and more importantly, a natural feel and fluidity to his game. He’s struggled mightily translating his shot this year but I’d expect Doron to pan out over the long run.

All these players being feel for the game heavy, makes me strongly think Rob Hennigan is doing this on purpose. While feel for the game is not the only thing that matters for player success, if added to other skills like athleticism, size and perimeter skills, players are cooking with gas. I’m very impressed by Hennigan with the Magic. This might be a playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers situation.

Written by jr.

March 25, 2013 at 2:33 pm

A 33 point method FAQ!

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I realize that while the talent grading system I’ve used since last year makes straight forward and undeniable sense to me, I may not always explain it well. Here I will answer a number of questions I imagine some may ask:

Q: You don’t talk about rebounding much. Isn’t this a major part of the game?

Rebounding is tricky because it arguably involves of physical talents, skill and instincts – as well as motor, which I do not include as a talent in this system. Thus while I’m confident my categories cover all talents leading to rebounding, the distribution between the categories isn’t consistent enough for me to speak with confidence which players will be great or weak rebounders. The talents leading to Javale McGee rebounding well, is different from Kevin Love doing so – with the former primarily using athletic talents and the latter instincts.

I try to evaluate where a player’s physical tools or instincts project them as an impact rebounder, on a case by case basis. But one reason rebounding does not take center stage, is the tools leading to it, shows itself in other ways. For example I already give Kevin Love a perfect grade or close to it in instincts/feel for the game for reasons unrelated to his rebounding, he makes it evident enough in his offensive game, craftiness and vision for a PF. Likewise Javale McGee’s physical impact on the game shows up in ways like attacking the basket and shotblocking, that it’s enough to get an elite score in the category before accounting for rebounding. As a result Love’s instincts or McGee’s physical talents are already accounted for and giving them credit on the glass in those categories, doesn’t change their talent grade.

Finally I admit, one reason I shy away from a huge focus on rebounding, is I see individual defensive rebounds as the game’s most overrated statistic. I see offensive rebounding as individually based, but defensive rebounding as a team skill, with all 5 players working together to box out the other team and prevent an offensive rebounding. The more physical impact and feel for the game friendly players a team has, the more likely they are to rebound well, in my opinion.

Q: What about defense? It seems you’re mainly judging offense

I find defensive talent to be relatively simple to grade. It is a combination of physical impact talent and feel for the game. The former a combination of physical talents through athleticism/mobility, length, size, the latter how instinctually intelligent and aware players they are on the defensive end.

Paul George is a unique case in that I am not entirely impressed by how well he “physically impacts” the game on the offensive end, as he is not a high end slasher – but due to his immense length, his physical tools shine on the defensive end – and when added to his elite feel for the game, make him a tremendous talent on that end. George’s length thus improves his physical impact grade, to impressive but not elite levels – but when added to great perimeter skills and elite feel for the game, makes him a tremendous talent.

Q: What you say physical “impact” and skill “impact”, what does that mean?

My best way to describe the difference between “physical impact” and generic “physical talent”, is to see from a team perspective. Think about how a team becomes more “physically dominant”. What comes to mind is teams who attack the rim and put relentless pressure on the defense, run teams off the court in transition, block shots, attack teams with superior athleticism and size defensively and on the glass, etc. I’ve used the example a few times of Gerald Green and Wes Johnson, two players who are technically athletic but do not physically impact the game. From a team perspective this is easy to understand, as their function in the offense is to stand at the 3 point line and take open shots – which without the ability to attack the dribble or put pressure on the defense, is not physically impacting the game very much.

“Skill impact” likewise has a more precise meaning than generic “skill”. Again, seeing it from a team perspective is helpful. What makes a team feel like they’re making more “skill plays”? Perimeter range and the quantity of 3 point shooters is essential. Having perimeter players who create their own jumpshots off the dribble. A standout passer on the wing, helps the skill, especially in that it helps create open 3 point shots. A team having standout post skills especially from its bigs, makes them seem more skilled. Bigs who shoot the ball even if they don’t have 3pt range, likewise increase their team’s skill impact. For the most part, skill impact can be boiled down to perimeter plays made by shooting/passing, or post play.

Q: You keep talking about “feel for the game.” I don’t see it?

At this point feel for the game is so obvious and easy to spot for players and teams – it literally jumps off the screen as much as a player’s athleticism does to me, an essential and impossible to ignore feature that makes up a large part of everyone’s game.

But it occurs to me this wasn’t always the case. I had enjoyed basketball for a half lifetime without even considering the term feel for the game. Perhaps one has to be “looking for it”, or it just clicks in. The biggest tell is the smoothness of players. I recommend when watching games or clips, watching which players make the game look smooth, easy, natural and as if the game moves slower for them. On the other hand, players with a poor feel play as if they are moving too fast and out of control for the court. Their games are un-aesthetically pleasing. There is a naturalness and ease to the way a Chris Paul or Tim Duncan play and a robotic stiffness to JR Smith and Anthony Randolph.

Or just connect it to basketball IQ, which everyone accounts for. I’ve made a point to not use the term bball IQ because I see it as affected by context like experience in the league, nerves, whether a player guns for their own stats, etc. that to me, are outside of pure talent level. Instincts and feel for the game are terms I feel has a closer relationship to talent and innate ability. With that said, the vast majority of players who are classified as strong or poor basketball IQ, will have feel for the game/instincts matching that.

Finally, I also recommend looking for feel for the game in other sports, as it shows up in every one. Roger Federer is probably the best example of feel for the game in all of sports, he’s made a career out of playing at a smoother, easier and instinctually superior game to his peers and it jumps off the screen. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees are have incredible feel for the game for NFL QBs. I barely know anything about soccer, but Lionel Messi seems like a transcendent example of feel for the game, soccer’s Federer in his ease and natural talent. Finally if you’re a hockey fan, feel for the game means more in that sport than everything else combined as at the incredible speed it’s played at and premium on decision making, smoothness and reactionary awareness is everything. Wayne Gretzky is the all-time example of feel for the game in it (if not all of sports), while in modern day players like Nick Lidstrom or Sidney Crosby can dominate largely off that superiority.

Q: How do you account for development of players?

Remember, I am trying to grade pure talent. It is true that players can make a leap in skills such as shooting or ballhandler, which would change their grades. That is why my grades are guesses for their talent level. I am not saying my talent grades are infallible way to judge players for this reason. I have complete confidence in the framework of my system, but my grades can be wrong. I graded Damian Lillard wrongly before last year’s draft in part due to seeing so little quality Weber State footage, his feel for the game and shooting ability proved better than I projected. I now grade him as the 3rd perennial all-star caliber talent in the draft with Anthony Davis and Jeremy Lamb, to my lukewarm grade for him before. Likewise Andre Drummond is a player I was lukewarm on, because I underestimated his respectable skill impact (due to finishing around the rim) and better feel for the game than I had thought. While not spectacular in either skill or feel, average in both categories is enough to make Drummond a star with a perfect physical impact talent.

With that said, while development occurs, for the most part I believe most talents are there in college. By that I mean the players who are the most skilled or have the best feel for the game in the high school and college classes, are likely to be the standout players for their peer group in skill and feel at the NBA level as well. The more natural a player looks in the areas of skill impact or feel for the game, are likely to have the easiest time transitioning to the next level. I believe the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of judging skill and feel for the game talents by how much they show by college.

Q: What happens when a prospect is caught between positions? ie. a combo guard, or a PF/C? Wouldn’t they grade differently at each position?

Yes and this is a monkeywrench to get around. For the most part, I try to use my grades to determine which position they will perform best at. For combo guards, I believe the biggest determiner of which position they will play is feel for the game and instincts – which is where a player gets the vision and pacing needed to play the 1. Trading size for PG for speed the 2, is close to an even trade-off anyways in most situations. Likewise a player may gain speed moving from a big SF to a small PF or from a big PF to a small C, but lack size at the latter position to give some of that value back. The transition from PF to C is unique in that a player is less likely to score in the post if scoring against bigger Cs instead of smaller PFs, which hurts their skill impact. But this is counteracted by the standards for skill at C being lower than at PF. Respectable finishing around the rim and a little range, is enough for a good to great skill impact score at C, but average at PF.

Q: What’s the top 10/20 ranking players of all time by this method?

I’ve tried to make a top 20 of all time and I struggle justifying it as meaningful, just because the scores are too close. My system is not about comparing players with a score of 32 to one with a score of 30 and acting like it’s meaningful the former is ahead. By that range the players are so easily superstars, that there are better ways to pick hairs and separate careers.

Furthermore a problem with ranking the best of the best in regards to historical players, is what to do with 11. Similar to the “A+ or A?” question, too many of the highest scores would be determined by how easily 11 is given out. For example, if Michael Jordan is more physically dominant than Dwyane Wade and Larry Bird has a greater skill impact than Kevin Durant, should Wade and Durant be denied 11s in those categories even if they are transcendent in those areas? Or should 11s include anyone within the range of the best of the best in a category.

Finally, the other problem is 11 in each category is an arbitrary cap. To give a player like Wilt Chamberlain “only” 11 in physical impact may be unfair, as hypothetically there is no limit to how talented a player can be in each category. Once again this is a reason why categorizing talents into tiers means more to me, than judging closely ranked players against each other.

I can tell you this, the only player who has a perfect score of 33? Who else, Michael Jordan. Jordan is an easy 11 in physical impact and feel for the game as the undisputed class of his position in those categories, historically. The only place he can be conceivably dinged is skill impact, as he’s not the best 3 point shooter ever. However his skill impact inside the arc is the greatest ever for his position, due to his transcendent midrange shooting and post scoring ability for a 2 guard. It’s enough for me to give him a perfect grade in skill impact as well, for the perfect 33.

Q: Anything else to say?

The 33pt method is NOT a statistic. The only thing it has in common with statistics is numbers. It is a grade, which has an entirely different meaning. I repeat, it is NOT a statistic.

SUBJECTIVITY is the point. Grades are subjectively applied, but can be reliably and consistently. The irony of statistics versus grades is that the former claims objectivity and the latter subjectivity – yet most people who use stats have a nasty habit of making their studies subjective and biased, while most of the well known examples of grading such as academia, Olympics/other world sporting competitions, licensing, etc., goes out of its way to make the grades rigorously objective. I respect statistics and I will be debuting my own productivity statistic sometime this summer, but there is as much value in grading in my opinion, if done objectively and reliably.

If you have any other questions, ask them in the comment box and I’ll answer them!

Written by jr.

March 21, 2013 at 6:11 pm

Posted in Basketball, NBA Draft

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Predicting a trade: Amar’e Stoudemire to the Raptors

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Amar’e (Photo credit: SportsAngle.com)

Last summer I predicted the Raptors would trade for Rudy Gay, based on Bryan Colangelo’s history – favoring highly priced, big name players who fills the latest “biggest hole”, which at the time was wing offense. I had the trade right, but the timing wrong – Gay ended up in Toronto at the trade deadline, not before the draft.

This post is the sequel. I’m predicting Toronto trades for the biggest, baddest (not in a good way) contract in the league, Amar’e Stoudemire’s. Here’s why

– Toronto can construct a deal with little financial hit or burden to them. Dealing Andrea Bargnani, Landry Fields and Aaron Gray for Amar’e, adds 2.0 million in salary this season and 5.65 million in 2014-2015, both likely inconsequential to a free spender like Colangelo. Replacing Fields with Kleiza in that deal, makes their salary increase in 2013-2014 3.6 million and in 2014-2015 11.9 million – a bigger hit, but easily believable with Colangelo’s history, especially if ownership is willing to pay the luxury tax.

Because Bargnani and Fields are so unproductive for the Raptors, they do not take much risk on in that deal at all. If the worst case scenario happens for Stoudemire’s production, by the season after next, he’s a huge expiring contract which gives them flexibility at the deadline or in the summer. The long term damage of trading for Stoudemire if it doesn’t work out is NBD. Also since Bargnani and Fields’ contracts are such embarrassing mistakes for Colangelo, managing to dump them both will appeal to his PR side.

– As I mentioned, a signature of the Colangelo era is plugging the biggest hole from the season before, in as much a “big media splash” way as possible. The team lacks offense from the frontcourt right now, which makes Amar’e fit like a glove. Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas compliment him, as energy rebounders who have the effort to cover his lapses defensively. With Kyle Lowry, Demar Derozan, Rudy Gay, Terrence Ross as perimeter offensive players next to that frontcourt, the Raptors easily have the talent and look of a playoff team in the East if they stay healthy – they’re already expecting to compete for the playoffs next year, by adding Amar’e even if he only plays 50 or 60 Gs, Colangelo may see the Raptors ending their playoff drought next year a foregone conclusion, with the biggest question as whether they’ll finish top 6. After missing 5 straight years, if Colangelo is extended for another season it’ll be by promising a playoff season next year. Without capspace or a draft pick, making a big Amar’e move will be one of his biggest options to try and have a booming season. The key to figuring out how interested Bryan Colangelo will be in a deal, is to ask “What is the best case scenario for this trade – if I just ignored the possibility of it failing?” The best case scenario for this roster is very very high. It’d presume Amar’e stays healthy and plays like an all-star, Gay breaks out to an all-star caliber season, Lowry plays like a top 10-15 PG, Derozan takes another leap as a scorer with the pressure taken off him efficiency wise, Amir has even better year statistically, Valanciunas and Ross both make leaps forward and prove to be blue chip young players. If all that happened the Raptors would be looking at a top 5 or 6 team in the East. With a strategy defined by ignoring the downside and presuming “I can get out of a mistake if I screw it up”, this should appeal to Colangelo.

I consider a straight up trade of Amar’e for Bargnani, Fields and Gray to be a near no-brainer for the Raptors, considering the lack of financial risk or assets given up, for a high upside acquisition in Stoudemire. The better question is whether the Knicks will ask for the pot to be sweetened. They would dump Amar’e to get more cap friendly and healthier players. With Bargnani’s injury history and his and Fields’ contract, that doesn’t do much for them. With Melo and Steve Novak, finding more stretch 4 play isn’t a pressing need for them. Fields played well in New York, but there’s a reason they didn’t match his offer sheet at that price.

My take: More would have to be given from the Raptors. Here’s the deal I predict:

Toronto gets:
Amar’e Stoudemire

New York gets:
Andrea Bargnani
Landry Fields
Aaron Gray
TOR 2014 1st (lottery protected, until 5-6 years from now when it becomes unprotected)

Toronto gives up a real asset in a future 1st round pick, even if it’s lottery protected. The logic by the bullish Colangelo may be that he projects the pick to be outside of top 18 based on the quality of the new roster, thus a pick he’s willing to give up value wise. By rolling out Lowry, Derozan, Ross, Gay, Amar’e, Amir, Valanciunas, Colangelo does his best to make a big enough splash, to get the Raptors to a top 8 seed next year with an upside higher than that. He gets to sell the team is the most talented the Raptors franchise has seen and has the upside to win now and then progress up the East. As the league’s signature hype man, it fits his profile.

New York gets value back for Amar’e via that pick, as well as fills out their bench with two players in Fields and Bargnani, hoping the latter breaks out with a fresh start. They move on from the injury history of Amar’e and the eventual problems that would come from playing him as 6th man and they clear a little money in 2014-2015. For a guy that most agree has the worst contract in the whole league, this is as fair value as they can expect.

Written by jr.

March 20, 2013 at 3:50 pm

Posted in Basketball

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Figuring out who goes #1 in the 2013 NBA Draft

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Fittingly in a year without a dominant #1, the #1 pick in the NBA Draft is as open for grabs as it’s been since 2006, the Andrea Bargnani year.

I’d narrow down the candidates to these 9: PG Marcus Smart, SG Ben McLemore, SG Victor Oladipo, SF Otto Porter, SG/SF Shabazz Muhammad, PF Nerlens Noel, PF Anthony Bennett, PF/C Cody Zeller, C Alex Len. That makes all the prospects in the conversation for a top 5 pick, making it near impossible one of them isn’t the top pick.

Here’s my ranking from least likely to most likely of this group:

The longshots

9. PF/C Cody Zeller – Likely to carry around a “limited upside!” label around, as ever prospect with non-dominant physical tools does. The combine won’t be a good day for him, with his short arms. He needs a huge tournament run and the right team to be picking 1st. Washington is a fit because they won’t be drafting guard, limiting their options at 1st – Cody also would add to their professionalism and win-now focus lately. New Orleans grabbing him to pair with Anthony Davis is also conceivable.

8. SG/SF Shabazz Muhammad – Not great explosiveness at the 3 and short for the position, will likely doom him. Unlikely to get a big boost from the tournament or workouts/the combine. Best chance is if a team who specifically searching for a scorer gets 1st overall – such as Detroit, Minnesota or Phoenix

7. SF Otto Porter – Like Shabazz, without dominant athleticism is likely to be labeled a lower upside player by the pundits. The biggest thing going for him is team need, as with Washington, New Orleans, Detroit, and Phoenix’s need for a franchise SF, he’d fit like a glove. Washington is the team to watch, as SF overwhelmingly is the spot they need to improve.

Fringe contenders

6. C Alex Len – Not playing in the tournament will hurt, but he makes the list on merits of being the highest ranked true C prospect. Cs have gotten so much love historically in the draft, that a team falling in love with filling that position, can’t be ruled out. Washington again is a possibility once guards are ruled out, while he’d also compliment New Orleans’ needs.

5. PF Anthony Bennett – Bennett may need a big tournament run by UNLV to get in the mix. I have a hunch he’s the type of player a team could be in love with – which is all it takes to go 1st. Charlotte is an excellent fit because of their offensive and frontcourt needs. He’s a big candidate for Washington with the liklihood they take a SF, PF or C, slimming down their choices. Sacramento may be interested in a blue chip PF after trading Thomas Robinson. If Toronto jumps to 1st, he’d also be a favorite with the financial incentive of having a Canadian star prospect.

4. PF Nerlens Noel – Hard for me to get behind Noel landing at 1st with his ACL injury. I figure the impatience and not seeing him in the workout stage, will cost him more than long term risk of his injury. Noel’s lack of offense may have costed him the 1st pick if not for his ACL anyways. Cleveland is the team to watch for Noel, as hoopsanalyst.com – the draft metrics site, who’s numbers ranked Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson 2nd in their draft years – has Noel as overwhelmingly the guy in this draft. Charlotte and Orlando are other teams with the patience to pick Noel. Noel playing beside Demarcus Cousins in Sacramento would be a great fit for him if they had the patience to take him. Toronto is so likely to draft a PF with the top pick, that he becomes a favorite.

The favorites

3. SG Ben McLemore – With McLemore the question is, will teams believe in him as a slasher enough to see him as having star upside? Or will his jumpshot orientated game, give him the label of good, but probably not great. But the biggest reason McLemore is 3rd, is I don’t see the workout stage going as well for him as the top 2 players. McLemore would be the favorite for teams that need a scorer, like Detroit, Minnesota, Phoenix. The best fit of all is likely Charlotte, who need a scorer/shooter beside Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Kemba Walker. Sacramento has enough perimeter shot takers, but could have interest.

2. SG Victor Oladipo – I see teams believing Oladipo has star potential, because with his  elite slashing and elite two way instincts, he just needs a consistent shooting game to round it out. Needing shooting is a great spot for a prospect to be, as it’s usually assumed a player can develop strongly in that area. Especially considering Oladipo is over 44% from the 3pt line this year, even if nobody entirely believes in the validity of that number, it proves the base is there for a great shooting game in the pros. And with a great perimeter shooting game, Oladipo’s upside would be nearly unlimited. Oladipo is also likely to do great in the workout stage, which favors players with “110%” motors who try to kill the prospects they’re matched up with. He also could get huge publicity from the tournament. I look for Cleveland, Charlotte, Orlando, Phoenix, Detroit, Sacramento to have heavy interest in Oladipo’s upside and fit on a winning team. The biggest thing holding me from putting him 1st, is he’ll be a 21 year old Junior by the draft, compared to the top ranked player’s 19 year old freshman status. Freshman and sophmores get a huge edge in the draft process compared to juniors and seniors, all other things equal, most of the time.

1. PG Marcus Smart – Like Oladipo he’s likely to get labeled a star upside player, because with his explosiveness, size and IQ, he’s just lacking the outside shot to complete his game. That he’s young will play well for him, in regards to whether that shooting should be expected to added. Smart also will likely compete extremely hard in the workouts, helping him gain buzz as a player with the motor, work ethic and leadership to guarantee NBA success. A big tournament would help him, but he’s been productive enough this year to maintain his buzz without it. Smart will likely be seen as having one of the highest upsides and highest floors in the draft, with his age primarily giving him the edge over Oladipo. Orlando is the best fit for him, albeit New Orleans, Phoenix, Sacramento are also fits.

For fun, here’s my gun to my head predict for whom each of the lottery teams take, if given the top pick:

Charlotte Bobcats – SG Victor Oladipo
Orlando Magic – PG Marcus Smart
New Orleans Pelicans – PG Marcus Smart
Cleveland Cavaliers – PF Nerlens Noel
Detroit Pistons – PG Marcus Smart
Phoenix Suns – PG Marcus Smart
Sacramento Kings – PG Marcus Smart
Washington Wizards – PF Anthony Bennett
Minnesota Timberwolves – SG Ben McLemore
Toronto Raptors – PF Anthony Bennett
Philadelphia 76ers – SG Victor Oladipo
Portland Trailblazers – SG Victor Oladipo
Dallas Mavericks – PG Marcus Smart
Utah Jazz – PG Marcus Smart

Written by jr.

March 19, 2013 at 6:21 pm