A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Archive for April 2014

Why OKC is struggling in the playoffs

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Oklahoma City is down 3-2 headed to a Game 6 in Memphis. If the Grizzlies close out at home, it will be a disastrous result for the Thunder who haven’t had a healthy playoff exit since the 2012 Finals and who would be forced to celebrate Kevin Durant’s MVP in a press conference, 2007 Dirk Nowitzki style. If they get through the Grizzlies, this series and losing 2 games at home already, doesn’t bode well for them in the 2nd round and beyond.

What is happening? Scott Brooks is getting the biggest blame, Russell Westbrook as always has his detractors and Kevin Durant’s disappointing numbers, possibly from fatigue, haven’t helped. There’s also the fact that the Grizzlies may just be one of the 4 best teams in the league with the Heat, Spurs and Clippers and sometimes, you just get took by an even bigger dragon.

My explanation for the Thunder’s problems and why I never expected them to get out of the first 2 rounds heading into these playoffs, can be explained in an 7 word sentence:

They don’t move the ball well enough

Ball movement is crucial in the postseason. When I envision most of the great playoff runs, I see teams who are surgical dissecting the opponent’s halfcourt defense. By moving the ball they pressure the defense into exposing an open shot sometime in the 24 second shot clock. From the stars to the shooters to the big guys, if a team is smart and patient enough they can find the shots. The phrase “read and react” is important when understanding how great offenses beat great defenses.

For having one of the best records in the league the Thunder are not good enough at this. Whether it’s because of Russell Westbrook’s erratic of play, Scott Brooks lack of an offensive system, the insistence to play non-offensive threats like Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha, or a combination of factors. They are not a team who patiently dissects the opponent or excels at read and reacting. Instead of working the body to weaken their opponent, they just throw haymakers and hope they land.

Consider the example of the 2011 Mavericks, one of my favorite recent champions. Offensively they gave the opponent a no-win situation. If you didn’t cover Dirk with more defenders, he annihilates his matchup. The moment you put extra defensive attention on Dirk, the Mavs supporting cast used their passing skill and basketball IQ, to find one of their many open 3 pt shooters or bigs at the rim. They at once had the most unguardable one on one scorer in the league and a team masterful at taking advantage of it once you left other defenders open to guard him. The combination meant there was practically nothing teams could do except hope they missed good shots.

Ideally the same could be built around Durant, but with an even more talented star. But right now the Thunder are not a skilled or smart enough team, or are not getting the right message from the coach, to play a read and react style or to master their opponent tactically. The Thunder are losing for the same reason John Calipari’s Kentucky only has one national title so far, despite having the most talented team virtually every season. In the tournament Kentucky’s age and less refined style of play, usually catches up to them. The difference is Cal’s team’s warts come with the territory of building rosters around often raw freshman. In OKC’s case, they can build whatever type of team they want and have just chosen this path.

Written by jr.

April 30, 2014 at 2:58 pm

Did the Golden State Warriors put themselves in a box of impatience?

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In 2012-2013, the Warriors reinvigorated their franchise with a 47 win season and upsetting Denver to make it to the 2nd round. With a young superstar in Stephen Curry, the Warriors became a team of the future.

What makes cases like this usually so fascinating, is how the team reacts to the pressure of these expectations. The next steps can be the difference between making the Finals one day and never making it past the 2nd round. The Warriors looked at their cards and saw a great hand, but how would they take advantage of it when the flop came?

Going against the Warriors last summer was Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack becoming free agents, both 6th man of the year caliber players in 2012-2013. With an incentive to stay under the luxury tax, the Warriors looked set to let both players go, which may have costed them a playoff spot the next year.

Then they made their big moves. First they used 2 future 1st round picks and 3 2nds to sign and trade the expiring contracts of Richard Jefferson, Andris Biedrins and Brandon Rush for Andre Iguodala at 4 years, 48 million. Iguodala would be a perfect impact small forward to make up for losing Jack and Landry. I was critical of the Iguodala move at the time however. The Warriors also signed Andrew Bogut to a 3 year, 36 million extension. Bogut and Iguodala will combine for 25.3 million salary in 2014-2015, salary uncommitted by the end of the season last year.

Thanks to Bogut’s health, the Warriors are headed for their first 50 W+ season in 20 years, but will be a 6th seed at best and underdog in the 1st round. Their starting lineup was clearly upgraded this year, but the bench never recovered from losing Jack and Landry.

Between these two moves, the Warriors made a huge commitment to veterans. 3 of the Warriors starters in Andrew Bogut, David Lee and Andre Iguodala are from the 2004 or 2005 draft, putting them in their last few prime years before declining as most do once they become 10 to 12 year vets. To improve the team, they won’t have capspace for several seasons, nor a 1st round pick in 2014 or 2017 to either draft a young player or trade. Their best trade assets may be Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green, talented but not untouchable pieces.

In other words, the Warriors more or less went all in on the Lee, Bogut and Iguodala “era”. Their plan presumably is to ride this core until Lee, Bogut and Iguodala’s contracts expire in 2016, 2017 and 2017, then use the opened capspace to put a new team around Curry and Thompson.

But this doesn’t mean the move lacks opportunity cost. If not making the Bogut and Iguodala commitment, they could’ve spent 2014, 2015 and 2016’s capspace building their youth core. For example they could’ve made an offer sheet to younger players such as Gordon Hayward, Greg Monroe, Isaiah Thomas, or they could’ve used their capspace to do precisely what Utah did in their trade with the Warriors, take on unwanted contracts but getting draft picks in return. This is in addition to keeping the draft picks they gave to Utah, including a 2014 1st that presumably would have been a lottery pick without the Iguodala trade.

In other words, by committing to Bogut and Iguodala, they used up assets that could’ve been put towards younger, more long-withstanding team. Asset allocation is essential in the NBA. Using assets to make the 2014 and 2015 Warriors better could leave the team with less assets to make the 2018 and 2019 Warriors as great as possible. If the age of Curry and Thompson made contending 4-5 years from now more likely than this season, this could be a costly mistake. Assets are a scarce resource, when teams give them up, they’ll never get them back.

My feeling is the Warriors were too impatient. There was nothing wrong with finishing 9th in the West this year, then using 25 million capspace and a lottery pick to truly set the groundwork for a future Warriors champion. Instead they used crucial assets to make the 2013-2014 Warriors as great a team as they possibly could. And even that unfortunately may not get them out of the 1st round, if a series against the Clippers, Thunder or Spurs goes to the favorites. A “short term” all-in mindset fits a franchise like the Dallas Mavericks desperate to win before Dirk declines, but when your star is Stephen Curry who’s prime 7th to 10th seasons are still years away, I don’t like the approach the Warriors took. I’m not sure the Warriors have a great long term plan to raise a championship banner.

Written by jr.

April 14, 2014 at 1:51 pm

Posted in Basketball

Revisiting Gorgui Dieng and Jeff Withey’s talent level

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The 2013 draft class has started so slow, making literally any judgments about players careers may be misguided. Nobody has proven they’re good yet, nobody playing bad has to stay that way.

However two of the most successful picks on the board so far, are Minnesota taking Gorgui Dieng 21st and New Orleans taking Jeff Withey 39th. Both centers are over 15 PER, albeit in under 800 minutes. Dieng has gotten more buzz such as in this ESPN article, but in a redraft it appears both players would go much higher.

With my draft talent grading system I rated Withey and Dieng the 8th and 9th most talented prospects respectively in the 2013 draft, though I don’t mean that to brag. It’s still 3 or 4 years until my big board as a whole and system, should be judged. A critic could say even a broken draft system could be a blind squirrel finding a few nuts and point to the other prospects who haven’t performed yet.

But I wanted to use their play as an example to revisit why I liked their talent level more than most.

First, consider the main reason they dropped in the draft, despite Louisville and Kansas’ great success in college putting them on the map: Age. Both were 23 when drafted, now  24. Draft models that start with statistical production in the NCAA, rely on adjusting for age. In other words, players with a physical and experiential advantage over opponents may dominate them because of it, rather than more talent. Therefore their strong play in college was doubted.

In my system either age or net college production is irrelevant. I only rate them by talent level, which doesn’t diminish with age. When judging the clock for players to reach their talent level, I care about minutes played in the NBA, rather than age (by the time an NBA player reaches say, 6,000-7,000 minutes, it’s time to start showing their talent). Right now I am under the assumption that if a player has untapped talent level, he can always grow into it, even if he’s been a slow starter. In a few years if predictions for older prospects go the wrong direction, I may start to consider an “older prospects who aren’t producing are less likely to reach their talent level” adjustment, but right now I don’t see the evidence for this to be the case. Certainly if Dieng and Withey had great careers, it would help prove it’s right to not overreact to age.

So how about their talent level? First, here are two clips showing Dieng and Withey in impressive games so far in the NBA:

What most draft sites like ESPN/Draftexpress and I agreed on most with these players, is their basketball IQ/instincts. Withey and Dieng were players everyone knew were smart, because of they were top defensive anchors in the NCAA, intelligently rotating on help defense. Dieng was also a great passer, often associated with instincts.

In my system to help identify instincts in young players who may play “dumb” for experience or maturity reasons, I use the player’s fluidity and “naturalism aesthetic” to judge their feel for the game. Dieng and Withey also check out well with this test. Players like :31 and 1:02 in Dieng’s video and :28 in Withey’s help show those. Other resources like Draftexpress.com’s excellent prospect videos, help show they are fluid and natural moving prospects.

Many players get drafted for their physical tools however. In this area Dieng and Withey have strengths and weaknesses.

Dieng’s weakness is his explosiveness/burst is average at best. He is hardly blowing by defenders or rising up for dunks offensively. However I consider explosiveness a portion of physical talents, in combination with lateral mobility, height and strength. In the latter 3 categories Dieng does very well. His lateral mobility was one reason for defensive excellence in college, while he’s both one of the strongest and longest bigs in the class. This combination of strength, length and mobility is likely a major reason he’s excelled at rebounding in Minnesota to end this season. Overall, Dieng has more strengths than weakness as a physical talent. Especially considering a case can be made, for defensive responsibility reasons, C is the position where having lateral mobility, strength and length is crucial compared to offensive explosiveness.

Withey’s physical make-up is a little different than Dieng’s. Like Dieng, he has great lateral mobility which played a part in his shotblocking/defensive success in college. He’s more explosive on the offensive end, showing the ability to play about the rim, which is visible in the above clip. However, he’s quite not as long, as Dieng has a 7‘3.5 wingspan and 9‘3.5 standing reach to Withey’s 7’2 wingspan and 9‘2.5 standing reach, despite Withey standing 7.0’5 in shoes to Dieng’s 6’10.75. The main weakness Withey has however is strength, with a thin frame and one less likely to grow as an older prospect. At the draft combine Withey measured at 222 pounds to Dieng’s 230 pounds, despite Withey standing 7.0’5 in shoes to Dieng’s 6‘10.75. But on the whole, Withey’s offensive athleticism, lateral mobility and length, give him a lot to work with physically, with strength only a smaller portion of the net.

As for what these physical differences mean, it means Dieng is likely to be a better post defending and rebounding talent, while Withey’s explosive burst and agility may allow him to do a few things Dieng can’t offensively.

Finally, the category my system likely drew a result most different from the NBA’s evaluation, is skill level. Once again, the fact that the NBA and likely everyone else cares about NCAA production and my system doesn’t, is the major reason why. Neither Dieng and Withey were top scorers in college, Dieng averaged 9.8 points in 31.1 minutes per game as a junior, Withey 13.7 points in 30.9 minutes as a senior. Dieng’s scoring was considered poor for a 23 year old with physical advantages, Withey’s fine but unspectacular. Because of this, they were widely rated as defensive role players at the next level who would be held back by lack of offensive usefulness. Think Bismack Biyombo and Joel Pryzbilla’s roles in the NBA.

Yet the clips showed me more offensively skilled prospects than this. First, consider that C is by far the least skilled of the 5 positions. Some time after creating my system, I realized that merely the skill to catch/finish plays at the rim very, very well, even if the C didn’t score outside of the rim, was closer to average skill level at the position than poor. From my vantage point, Tyson Chandler and Andre Drummond represent the middle in skill level for Cs, while it’s the Jan Vesely, Kendrick Perkins, Joel Anthony types who represent the bottom. The former have a valued supporting role offensively, the latter players can barely be passed to without disaster happening either catching or finishing.

Although Jeff Withey barely took shots outside of the paint in college, he scored at the rim exceptionally well. More of a Chandler than Vesely, in other words. Further supporting his case was a 71.4% FT stroke, normally indicative of bigs with midrange shooting potential. Because of this I rated his skill level average at the time, but if he develops his shooting, that may prove conservative.

Dieng’s skill level was even easier to spot. Although his touch at the rim wasn’t as impressive as Withey’s, he regularly took jumpshots out to 20 feet, something also visible in clips like the above. In addition he had some skills in the post and was a terrific passer for a C. His 65.2% FT stroke was respectable.

So far this year, 38 of Dieng’s 196 FGA (19.4%) this year have been 10 feet and out jumpshots, hitting 18 (47.3%) of those shots. 12 of 117 (10.3%) of Withey’s FGAs are 10 feet and out, but he’s hit 9 of those 12 shots for a 75% conversion.

Both players project to be useful offensively. Dieng appears to already have a jumpshot, some finishing ability and passing skill. Withey has great finishing skill and the makings of a jumper. At C that’s enough for average to above average skill level. Considering their feel for the game and physical tools both provide things to like, a genuine skill game would complete them as prospects.

To me both Dieng and Withey look like clear starting C talents. At best they could be both defensive anchors with more usefulness offensively than the standard C. Considering the difficulty of finding productive two way Cs, this would be a valuable commodity many teams passed on. I consider it more likely I look at my rating of them 8th and 9th and think “that was too low” in a few years, than regret putting them too high. But they have more to prove.


Written by jr.

April 13, 2014 at 7:53 pm

Posted in Uncategorized