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Archive for October 2014

The case for Miami making a 5th straight final

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Yesterday I predicted Miami to once again represent the East in the Finals, despite the loss of Lebron James. I wanted to elaborate on this a bit.

Truthfully, I’m pretty split between Cleveland, Miami and Chicago to make the Finals and I expect Cleveland to have the best regular season record. So I still feel there’s a better chance of Miami not making the Finals than making it. Nevertheless, I side with them.

Why I am high on Miami:

Talent level 

In general, I see talented teams and players largely figuring it out over time. For example evaluating teams by splitting up their offense and defense can be tricky, because teams with great offensive talent can finding themselves saving more energy for defense, or taking other strategical measures like a slow pace to make their results balanced on both ends.

The Heat have a very talented team even without James. Yes, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are not at their apex, but these are still Hall of Famers in their 12th season. Some recent 12th seasons for Hall of Fame caliber players include Kevin Garnett’s, 2006-2007, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash’s 2007-2008, Tim Duncan’s 2008-2009, Paul Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki’s 2009-2010. When the talent is high enough, most players of Wade and Bosh’s caliber continue to have elite production for their positions. Their strengths are as much basketball IQ as physical tools, so when added to skills this should persist.

In addition to a dynamic SG and PF/C, the Heat’s talent doesn’t end there. Luol Deng is one of the most talented “3rd options” in the league. When looking at other teams in contention for most talented in the league such as Oklahoma City, L.A. Clippers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Deng’s talent level when considering both ends is fair compared to players like Serge Ibaka, Deandre Jordan or Kyrie Irving. Deng not fitting in Cleveland statistically, is not enough to yet say he’s past his prime or won’t return to all-star production.

Miami’s backup bigs Josh McRoberts, Udonis Haslem and Chris Anderson can all be productive. McRoberts can space the floor and pass the ball well at PF, Anderson’s efficiency finishing at the basket is a difference maker and Haslem is a solid, high IQ player. On the perimeter Mario Chalmers has been long proven competent shooting and defending at PG, Norris Cole  has a clearcut role as a defender, Shabazz Napier and James Ennis may contribute offensively as rookies after their preseason performance. Danny Granger’s contributions are unclear, but if he comes through he may shoot and defend. The Heat have the depth to compliment their talented top 3.

Age and coaching

If teams play to a level different than talent, often age or coaching has something to do with it. Young teams struggle by making mistakes offensively and defensively compared to more experienced teams. Older teams like the Spurs and Mavericks can make a coach look good by working their system with precision and timing.

The Heat are one of the oldest teams in the league and Eric Spolestra from what I’ve seen, appears to be a great coach. Even before Lebron James arrived, Spo had the Heat making the playoffs with a weak roster around their star Wade, on the back of defensive results and system play After losing to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, he was ahead of the curve enough to make Lebron a small ball power forward and fully jump into the spacing-first offensive strategies of the modern NBA.

And this is where I take the Heat over the Cavs even though I am predicting the latter to have a better regular season record. If the Heat play the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals, it’s a tough look for Cleveland. They have many more inexperienced playoff performers, young players potentially making mistakes on defense and a coach who hasn’t going through a deep NBA playoff series. In addition to the fact that the Heat may be near their class in talent level anyways.

But what about the Lebron fall-off?

The Heat won 54 games last year, so how does losing one of the best players of all time equate to being as strong a team next year? There are multiple variables in play. As great as Lebron is, if Deng plays like a top 7 or 8 small forward in the league it at least cuts the loss of James in half in the win total. In addition, Dwyane Wade played 54 games last year and more-so, playing a secondary ball handler role to James negates some of his strengths. Wade is not a strong off the ball player because of his subaverage 3 point shooting along with declining defensive energy. Putting the ball in his hands more allows Wade to greater take advantage of his penetration and passing skills. At small forward Deng provides great balance to the Heat. He can make an impact without taking the ball out of Wade and Bosh’s hands, by playing defense and then having a naturally supporting offensive role. It’s true the Heat’s season could be submarined if Wade’s health gets the better of him or him and Bosh simply decline, but I could also see a surprisingly effective “old legend” season like so many of the greatest players of his era like Bryant, Duncan, Dirk, Nash, etc. churned out.

There’s also the fact that the Heat won 66 games just two years ago, with a team where Lebron’s supporting cast seemed less talented than the 2014-2015 Heat will be. That season the Heat were firing on full cylinders in the regular season far more than 2013-2014, but with a deeper team and a big addition in Luol Deng, who’s to say these Heat can’t perform like the 2013 team without Lebron more than the 2014 team without him? When I stepped back from last year’s record, I saw the Heat being one of the most talented teams in the league thanks to the headlining power of Wade, Bosh and Deng and solid depth. And when added to ample experience and coaching that should presumably help maximize talent, this made them look like an all around force.

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Written by jr.

October 28, 2014 at 4:48 pm

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Quick predictions

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Here are some predictions to get them in before the season starts

Eastern Conference

1. Cleveland Cavaliers – 55 Ws
2. Miami Heat – 51 Ws
3. Chicago Bulls – 50 Ws
4. Toronto Raptors – 45 Ws
5. Atlanta Hawks – 45 Ws
6. Indiana Pacers – 42 Ws
7. Washington Wizards – 41 Ws
8. Brooklyn Nets – 39 Ws
9. New York Knicks – 39 Ws
10. Charlotte Hornets – 38 Ws
11. Milwaukee Bucks – 36 Ws
12. Detroit Pistons – 27 Ws
13. Boston Celtics – 20 Ws
14. Orlando Magic – 19 Ws
15. Philadelphia 76ers – 14 Ws

Western Conference

1. San Antonio Spurs – 61 Ws
2. L.A. Clippers – 59 Ws
3. Oklahoma City Thunder – 55 Ws
4. Golden State Warriors – 55 Ws
5. Memphis Grizzlies – 53 Ws
6. Houston Rockets – 52 Ws
7. Dallas Mavericks – 52 Ws
8. Portland Trailblazers – 50 Ws
9. Phoenix Suns – 50 Ws
10. Denver Nuggets – 45 Ws
11. New Orleans Pelicans – 38 Ws
12. Utah Jazz – 29 Ws
13. Sacramento Kings – 27 Ws
14. Minnesota Timberwolves – 22 Ws
15. L.A. Lakers – 21 Ws

Eastern Conference Finals: Miami Heat over Cleveland Cavaliers (6 games)

Western Conference Finals: San Antonio Spurs over L.A. Clippers (7 games)

Finals: San Antonio Spurs over Miami Heat (6 games)

Most Valuable Player: Lebron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Rookie of the Year: Julius Randle, Los Angeles Lakers

Defensive player of the Year: Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers

Sixth man of the Year: Isaiah Thomas, Phoenix Suns

Coach of the Year: Eric Spolestra, Miami Heat

Most Improved Player: C.J. Miles, Indiana Pacers

Written by jr.

October 27, 2014 at 9:44 pm

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The Pacers offense and old school thinking vs new school

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The Indiana Pacers season is seen with a pessimistic viewpoint due to the loss of Paul George and Lance Stephenson to injury and free agency. Those wings have been effectively replaced by new additions Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles, along with expected increase in minutes for Chris Copeland. Many predictions for the Pacers now have them falling into the 30s in wins, a steep fall from last season’s 56-26.

When it comes to their results as a whole, I’m not sure how well their defense will hold up without Paul George. It’s not just that George is one of the best defensive perimeter players in the league, but making up for losing him may cause Frank Vogel to integrate a more offensive style of play, or the Pacers to expend more energy on offense. This could hurt their defensive results. Although the Pacers still have an elite defensive front court with Roy Hibbert and David West backed up by options like Ian Mahimni and Lavoy Allen.

However offensively, I believe the Pacers drop-off is not as severe as some believe.

Old school thinking

10 or 15 years ago when fans and the league were more obsessed with points per game and “creating their own shot”, the Pacers losing their two leading scorers in George (21.7ppg) and Stephenson (13.8ppg) would be seen as a disaster in the making. The Pacers are surely a disaster without any perimeter players who can create their own shot, right?

Yet how offense is played and viewed is clearly different in 2014. Like RBIs in baseball, it’s not about how many points per game you get, but how it occurs in relation to the team. A player who scores points per game but does so inefficiently and who stops the ball from moving to other more efficient shots, may not be valuable. In addition, floor spacing is now one of the best places to start when evaluating how successful an offense will work as a unit. That doesn’t invalidate the concerns about losing George and Stephenson as both were above average in league efficiency and losing them may cause defenses to key on other players, but it suggests at least looking closer before writing the new Pacers offense off as automatically worse than last year’s sub-average one, finishing 23rd in ORTG and plummeting to league worst levels after the all-star break.

How the Pacers would succeed offensively

The key to the Pacers surviving at SG and SF without Stephenson and George is in spacing and ball movement, both more paramount to offensive success than “creating your own shot”.

The last 2 years C.J. Miles in Cleveland hit 39.3% and 38.4% from 3 on 4.1 and 5.0 3pt attempts a game, in only 19.3 and 21.0 minutes per game. This equates to a sky high 7.7 and 8.7 3pt attempts per 36 minutes. Between his % and volume, it seems fair to suggest Miles could produce a strong 3pt shooting season for the Pacers. Chris Copeland shot 41.8% from 3 for the Pacers last year on 1.9 attempts a game, however by playing 6.5 minutes per game in 41 games, this was on a low volume. However for the Knicks his rookie year he shot 42.1% from 3 on 2.5 attempts a game in 15.4 minutes per game. Overall, it would also seem Copeland is a reliable 3pt shooting option. The Pacers also have a Croatian rookie wing Damjan Rudez who shot 44.1% from 3 on 4.5 attempts a game from 3 last year in the ACB. The wing who is a problem as as shooter is Rodney Stuckey, who has a career 3p% of .286 and shot 27.3% from 3 last year in Detroit. However Stuckey provides a different important skill set to the Pacers, which isg eating to the FT line. Stuckey has averaged 4.3 FTA per game for his career, or a per 36 rate of 5.3 a game. Last year George averaged 5.8 free throw attempts a game on a high volume of shots, while Stephenson only averaged 2.5 a game. Stuckey isn’t the type of offensive player I favor, but he does provide an element of driving to the basket and free throw line hat may be lacking in players like Miles, Copeland, Rudez or Pacers veterans like George Hill.

The Pacers are PG, PF and C are similar offensively to last year. George Hill is not a spectacular PG but he’s a reliable 3 point shooter and passing “game manager”, hitting 36.5% from 3 on 3.4 attempts last year and averaging 3.5 assists to 1.2 turnovers. C.J. Watson is an average but respectable backup point offensively. David West remains a solid option in the post and pick and pop. While for his dreadful offensive numbers at times, I still feel like Roy Hibbert has offensive skill on the block that if used more heavily, could draw defensive attention. Luis Scola had a poor season last year but could refind his skill game this year.

Ideally the Pacers would find themselves with floor spacing provided by players like Miles, Copeland and Rudez and having SGs and SFs who play off the ball, would help the team have ball movement. With players like Hill, West and Hibbert, the roster is still very high IQ, which could help them pass the ball to post players and then if doubles are drawn, out to open shooters. For all of Paul George and Lance Stephenson’s talent, they also dominated the ball and contributed the Pacers finding themselves stagnant enough to settle for midrange jumpshots. The new Pacers may not be able to “create their own shot” like George and Hill, but if there’s more ball movement and spacing, this could in its own way create more open shots from 3 or at the rim than they struggled to get last year.

Barring a defensive collapse I see a lot of reasons why the Pacers would outdo expectations this year. They are a team full of veteran professionals who tend to win compared to younger, mistake-making teams and who has been well coached defensively by Frank Vogel. They won’t wow anyone with talent, but the key is intelligence and effort level. This would play out not only with continued defensive success, but finding open shooters with precision on the offensive end. A season around 44 or 45 wins and being the same type of success story the Bulls have been the last 2 seasons without Derrick Rose, would not surprise me.

Written by jr.

October 26, 2014 at 2:19 pm

Revisiting Shabazz Napier in the 2014 draft

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Shabazz Napier in my opinion has been one of the most impressive rookies this preseason. His averages of 12.7 points, 3.0 assists, 2.2 rebounds and 1.0 steals in 20.3 minutes, extrapolate to a robust 22.5 points, 5.3 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals per 36 minutes. Although his FG% is only 41.2%, by scoring from 3 and the FT line his TS% is a solid .586.

I wanted to revisit why Shabazz Napier fell to the Heat at 24 and why I liked him more than that before the draft, ranking him 8th on my mixed model board, which took into account other factors than my traditional talent grades (where he rated 6th), such as conventional draft ranking, college production (PER by age) and analytics performance.

The reasons Napier fell

Napier had several traits that hurt players draft stock. Despite being in the spotlight as a national championship winner, Napier being a senior who turned 23 in July still played against him. Seniors are typically considered lower upside prospects who have less room to develop. While Napier’s production was good enough to lead UConn to the title, it wasn’t as elite as some seniors in the past. He had a 26.0 PER as a senior, while my “benchmark” I wanted to see seniors clear in my PER/age adjusted model was 28.0.

Napier’s physical tools also largely played against him. According to draftexpress.com’s combine database, the average 1st round project PG prospect at the combine measures an average of 6’1.02 in shoes, 185 pounds, 6’5.2 wingspan and 8’0.8 standing reach. Napier measured 6’1 in shoes, 175 pounds, 6’3.25 wingspan and 7’9 standing reach. Thus Napier is legitimately undersized for a point. Despite solid defensive results in college, his lateral quickness in the NBA also projected to be mediocre at best. So a lot of Napier’s doubters looked at him as a player who would struggle to finish at the basket or defend at the NBA level.

Physically he was also considered just an average athlete. When added to his size concerns, Napier was not rated as a slashing prospect in the pros, more likely to throw up jump shots as a spark-plug off the bench.

With growing number of teams looking at analytics to draft players, Napier also did not perform well here. Age is very important to analytics ratings, thus Napier’s senior status made it hard for him to perform well in those ratings.

Therefore for all these reasons he gets drafted 24th where most drafted PGs are targeted to be backups, not future starters.

However, there are some things Napier had going for him in my system that made him rate as a top 10 prospect:

An elite, not good shooting prospect?

One of my pet tricks in the draft is to not only look at 3P% when evaluating shooters, but FT% to back it up as a sign of the player’s mechanics, along with to a lesser extent volume of 3pt attempts.

Here was the 3P% of Napier compared to Doug McDermott and Nik Stauskas last year in college, considered the two most elite shooting prospects in the class:

3P%

McDermott: 44.9%

Stauskas: 44.2%

Napier: 40.5%

McDermott and Stauskas outperform Napier here. But here is their the FT% and 3PA per 40 minutes:

FT%

Napier: 87.0% (6.8 FTA/40)

McDermott: 86.4% (7.0 FTA/40)

Stauskas: 82.4% (5.7 FTA/40)

3PA per game:

McDermott: 6.1 (7.2 per 40)

Napier: 6.0 (6.1 per 40)

Stauskas: 5.8 (6.5 per 40)

What made Napier’s shooting line so rare his last year in college, wasn’t just hitting 40% from 3 on a high volume of attempts, but a stellar 87% from the FT line. It’s rare for a college production to be aces in both categories. McDermott had the most complete shooting numbers of the 3, but a case can be made Napier’s 3P%/FT% combination is as impressive as Nik Stauskas’ was.

When it comes to shooting it’s important for a player to not just hit a higher % of spot up shots, but to be able to shoot off the dribble, thus creating jump-shots instead of having them created for him. Creating jump-shots off the dribble is an area where Napier thrives. Of the above 3 shooters, McDermott appears to be the likely concerning candidate in this area without the noted handles that Napier and Stauskas have. Thus by having seemingly more off the dribble skills than McDermott and a higher FT% than Stauskas, a case can be made Napier was no worse an overall shooting prospect than either.

Going against this is the admitted fact that Napier’s jumpshot just looks strange aesthetically compared to a classic shooter like McDermott or Stauskas. However I believe the abnormal part of it is when he lands, as uniquely he lands on one foot. It’s possible this doesn’t affect the rest of his shot compared to others. As players like Kevin Martin has proved, if it goes in it goes in.

If Napier becomes not just a good but elite shooter in the NBA off the dribble and/or spot up, clearly it goes a long way to establishing him as a legitimate starter or all-star.

A slasher with ballhandling, not athleticism

Napier may be an average athlete, but he was clearly one of the best ballhandling prospects in the class with all sorts of nifty tricks up his sleeve to get by players, with perfect control. Ballhandling and athleticism have a similar end game offensively for guards in the NBA. If Player A uses his blazing first step to get by an opponent and player B uses his ballhandling skills to get around him, an equal amount of value penetrating past the defense may have been gained by each trait. It’s for this reason that the list of best penetrating guards in the league contains non-elite athletes like Chris Paul, Tony Parker and James Harden, instead of just athleticism-driven players like Russell Westbrook and Eric Bledsoe.

When I judge how perimeter player penetrate, I use a visually-driven technique rating how well they “get behind” the defenses when they drive to the rim. Napier performed fairly great in this method, using his ball handling to drive right into the heart of the defense. In preseason so far, Napier’s high free throw attempts rate (5.3 attempts per game in 20.3 minutes, or 9.4 per 36 minutes) may be a result of this more able than expected penetration. Napier’s size may remain a weakness when finishing at the rim and defending, but his ballhandling helps cover up for some of what he loses as just an average athlete.

Or to step back and look at it from a big picture perspective, if Napier was an elite shooting prospect and an elite ballhandling prospect, then his overall skill level including both shooting and ballhandling, is a fearsome combination that only comes along every so often in the draft for a guard. In the draft elite physical tools for a position gets all the press, but elite skill level for a position may get a player just as far.

Napier was not a perfect prospect because of his size, no better than reasonable college production for his senior, mediocre analytics production. However I believe all the tools are there to be an above average starter at his position, with a relatively rare offensive combination of shooting ability, the ball handling skills to drive to the paint and the craftiness and heart to put it all together.

Written by jr.

October 19, 2014 at 8:53 am

Steven Adams, Mitch McGary, Jusuf Nurkic and re-evaluating “big men near the rim” in my talent grading system

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As of the 2014 draft I feel I have near nailed down my talent grading system for evaluating draft prospects, fixing some of the holes that were still in the system by 2013. Although it’s still early I am encouraged by the play of my highly ranked players in summer league and preseason.

However there’s still one area I’m struggling to perfect, so to speak. When it comes to my “physical impact” category I am confident in how to rate players who’s offensive games start on the perimeter, by judging their ability to penetrate through the defense first and then adjusting for factors like length, strength and lateral mobility. This also apples to big men who play on the perimeter.

The main issue I have is how to reconcile this with judging big men who play near the basket on offense, typically centers. For these big men, there isn’t really defenders or space to “penetrate” by like for perimeter-orientated players and frankly, most centres don’t have the ball handling skills to do so anyways. Yet by playing nearer the basket there is other opportunities to “physically impact the game” in various ways including blocking shots, boxing out players for rebounds or simply finishing lob plays/alley-oops. For example some players like Deandre Jordan and Tyson Chandler can be “physically impactful” by doing these things despite not penetrating past defenders off the dribble in the same fashion perimeter players are required to.

One of the ways I noticed this is that privately regrading 2013 prospects with my 2014 evaluation methods, Steven Adams stuck out as a sore thumb by still rating as a late 1st or 2nd round caliber prospect. Adams had a productive rookie season for Oklahoma City and appears headed for a long career as a starting center, thus this rating appears inevitably too low. One of the ways to fix this may be the above logic regarding Adams physically impacting the game. On one hand Adams isn’t really a player who “penetrates” the defense off the dribble, but he has a very impressive combination of length, strength and lateral mobility. Thus because of his style of play and proximity to the rim, it may make more sense to treat Adams’ length/strength/mobility as more important than it would be for a perimeter player like a point guard, but his tools penetrating to the basket to be less important.

This is a weird comparison I may elaborate on later, but in the last year I’ve been trying to translate NBA prospects to how they would look as NHL prospects as a way to double check myself. Why would I do this? Because the NHL is by far the best of the major leagues at drafting players and my feeling it’s because their evaluation of players physical tools, skill level and instincts which they call “hockey sense” is balanced between those categories. The NBA and NFL are more obsessed with physical tools in the draft and mention IQ less. As a comparison in the 2009 NHL Draft John Tavares was selected 1st overall Victor Hedman and Matt Duchene, the three had separated themselves from the pack before the draft. All 3 have become stars, but Tavares has had the most impressive career so far, finishing 3rd in MVP voting in his last healthy season 2012-2013. What’s interesting is in the NBA this would have never happened. Both Hedman and Duchene were more “physically dynamic” prospects, Hedman is a gigantic defenseman who could skate well and Duchene projected to be one of the league’s fastest skaters. Tavares wasn’t more than an average talent for his position in either size or speed, his game was predicated on an incredible combination of skills and hockey sense and then having respectable enough size and speed to be an offensive superstar. In the NBA in my opinion, it’s unlikely a Tavares-like prospect would get selected over a Hedman or Duchene like one. Compare that to how in the 2009 draft James Harden and Stephen Curry were projected. Despite having dominant skill level, IQ and production for their position in college, they were projected to have a more limited ceiling because of non-dominant physical talent/athleticism for their position. If an NBA player Tavares would have likely been rated similarly to them, a strong prospect but one supposedly with a ceiling compared to more physically dynamic players. You may point out that Kyrie Irving being selected 1st in 2011 is an example of a “skill, not physical tools” player receiving star hype, but Irving went 1st because of the presumed lack of quality of his competition and not because he was rated as having an elite ceiling. I have little doubt that James Harden in the 2011 draft would have also gone 1st.

Ok, so what does this have to do with Steven Adams and my previous thoughts about size and centre prospects? Because I was thinking about defenseman are rated in the NHL vs forwards. I presume that for defenseman, size matters a little more in proportion to speed than it does for forwards. A defenseman who’s one of the physically biggest players at his position, an average skater, has average offensive skill level and has solid IQ, could still be a really valued player. Sure his skating and skill level problems may not make him a star, but the size in the defensive zone while competent talent in other areas, is something every team wants as their 3rd or 4th best of 6 starting defenseman. But if giving a forward the same combination of elite size, average speed, average skill and solid IQ, his weaknesses may overwhelm his strengths more than it does for a defenseman.  Without better speed and skill level he may become a more marginal “checker”. Having more speed and skill instead of size may be a better trade-off for that player.

So in light of this, Steven Adams the NHL prospect probably makes sense as a successful draft pick for the Thunder so far, fitting that mold of the D man with elite size, average speed, average skating and solid IQ.

The other angle one could take with Adams is it’s possible a bigger proportion of his success, or players like him’s success, comes from raw toughness instead of talent. This may make some sense when his game is more reliant on banging with others under the basket. This is something I’ll have to look into to have any confidence in it, but again the NHL defenseman comparison isn’t a bad one since it’s important for D-men to not only be physically large, but to be proficient at initiating contact and using their bodies, instead of shying away from it and playing like they’re smaller.

Obviously it’s unclear if such a direct comparison from NHL talent requirement to the NBA should be made, but nevertheless. In general, what would a greater shift towards length/strength/lateral mobility for big men who play near the basket mean for my 2014 draft rankings? Would I have any corrections to make?

The answer is not really. Part of it is luck. 3 of the big men expected to play near the rim in this class are Joel Embiid, Julius Randle and Noah Vonleh. But they already rated 1st, 3rd and 4th on my mixed model board before this adjustment. So since I was already bullish on them for other reasons, if they project to have even more success, it just plays into the hands of my already high ratings of them.

After Embiid, Vonleh and Randle there were few other prospects picked in the 1st round or rated top 30 on my list, who fit the mold of the near the basket big man. Aaron Gordon may play near the rim due to lack of shooting skill, but I gave him credit in my system for having the ball handling to drive to the basket. Not to mention he may just play like the perimeter even if he can’t shoot, in fact Orlando has been using him at small forward this preseason.

The notable players who really jump out are Mitch McGary and Jusuf Nurkic. Both are players I did not rate as “penetrators” but have above average combination of strength, length and lateral mobility, an elite combination in Nurkic’s case. Both have reasonable skill and McGary has a strong feel for the game, so if giving them more credit for “physicially impacting the game” due to size, they become stronger prospects than I had them rated at the time. McGary’s strength, feel for the game and what skill he has, reminds me of Anderson Varejao. Although I still don’t think the feel and skill combination is great for Nurkic, he’s just so huge that he may end up a productive starter anyways.

McGary and Nurkic rated 21st and 22nd on my mixed model board while in real life they were picked 16th for Nurkic and 21st for McGary. Therefore if they break out to be legitimate starters and top 15 prospects in this class, I’m not sweating the discrepancy overwhelmingly since the NBA would have only done a slightly better job rating Nurkic and had the same rating for McGary. Neither rate as true star prospects even after the change. Missing on their success would be annoying but it wouldn’t disclude my draft system as a whole looking more correct than the NBA’s methods.

Written by jr.

October 14, 2014 at 3:35 pm

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Looking at Russell Westbrook’s talent imperfections in the wake of Kevin Durant’s injury

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It was announced today Kevin Durant has a foot fracture and will be out 6-8 weeks. The first thought for many is what it means for Russell Westbrook’s season. Last year Kevin Durant thrived statistically with the increased responsibility while Westbrook was injured, now the situation is reversed. Another historical comparison is when Shaquille O’Neal missed the first month and a half of the 1995-1996 season, which Penny Hardaway responded to spectacularly including averaging a 27ppg, 5.8reb, 6.5apg on 51% shooting in the November to open the season.

Westbrook’s supporters feel giving him the ball as a #1 option will unleash an MVP-caliber stat line that proves him as one of the best players in the league. The pessimistic side is wondering if defenses guarding Westbrook as a #1 option will cause him to shoot his way to poor %s from the field.

I’ve had the belief for a while Westbrook’s talent level is not as high as his reputation. He is still a very very talented point guard and gets the most out of his talent with effort level. But when it comes to talent I put him in a similar tier as players like Mike Conley, Jr. and Kyle Lowry mores than a Chris Paul or Stephen Curry.

Westbrook’s strengths as a talent are clear. He is either the most athletic point guard in history or close to it. He is one of the best ball-handlers in the league, which in combination with his athleticism makes him the most unstoppable at the point guard position at driving to the basket. Westbrook is a bigger than average point guard in both length and strength, which makes the physical domination created by his speed and ball-handling even more unfair.

However, that players like Paul and Curry can dominate the PG position more offensively with not close to his physical tools, shows that the position has other crucial requirements. First of all, when it comes to skill level Westbrook is a mixed bag. On one hand in addition to his ballhandling, he’s a good midrange jump shooter and is a skilled passer. However his career 3 point% of .305 is subpar for the skilled point guard position. This both hurts his efficiency and hurts his ability to space the floor for teammates. 3 point efficiency and spacing is massive in today’s game for a perimeter player and is a black mark on Westbrook’s game. Westbrook’s touch finishing in the paint has also long been average at best. Westbrook shot 57.9% at the rim last year, as a comparison Paul 69.3% and Curry 62.6%. Kevin Durant shot an amazing 78.5% at the rim.

The biggest problem however may be Westbrook’s erratic decision making or feel for the game. While it’s hard to pick apart how much of this is talent or an overaggressive mentality, when evaluating perimeter players feel for the game I use a specific method based on their fluidity and control driving to the basket. Westbrook does not pass this visual test well with my method. In fact of all the players widely considered superstars in this league, he passes the test the worst. When added to the evidence of out of control decision making, it makes me confident saying he has a talent-based flaw when it comes to feel for the game. And this is a huge part of evaluating him as a talent. Think of it as the difference between Westbrook’s career statistically and Dwyane Wade’s. Wade’s size, athleticism, ball-handling, shooting and passing skill is very very similar to Westbrook. Why hasn’t Westbrook matched his dominance statistically? Because in his prime Wade’s feel for the game gave him a fluidity, craftiness and ability to probe defenses in his prime that Westbrook appears to lack. This has allowed even Dwyane Wade in his physical condition now to remain as productive as Westbrook in the games he plays. It’s why Tony Parker arguably has peaked at a higher level statistically than Westbrook has, despite not being any better a 3pt shooter than he is and having far worse raw physical tools. When looking at players I would consider as impressive talents as Westbrook like Mike Conley, Jr., Kyle Lowry, Goran Dragic, or current Tony Parker, feel for the game is the biggest area they make up ground on Westbrook, despite their physical inferiorities compared to him.

Another way to put it is this. When Westbrook is on your team he makes you vastly more physically dominant offensively and defensively. However he doesn’t make you a more spacing/3pt shooting friendly team and he doesn’t make you play smarter, in fact he may make you play dumber. The reason a player like Conley may be as valuable is even if his physical impact on the game isn’t nearly the same, he makes you a better 3pt shooting team more-so than Westbrook does and most importantly, he makes you a lot smarter on both ends. Put Mike Conley on the Thunder and they may not drive in the half-court or transition as much, but suddenly the ball is moving to open shooters more, there’s more spacing when other players drive, he’s finishing baskets in the paint at a higher percentage, the defense is more positionally sound. All of a sudden by doing these new things, the team may be as good or better than when having Westbrook’s dominance slashing.

It doesn’t mean Westbrook isn’t a very talented player, just that there are reasons he may be too imperfect to be deserve serious consideration as a top 5 player and talent in the league. Westbrook helps the Thunder contend, but they would be an even more dangerous team if not a champion already if either his shooting or feel/decision making were as strong as other superstars in the league. And likewise when Durant is injured to start the season, some of Westbrook’s weaknesses like 3 point shooting, touch at the basket and feel for the game, may prevent him from putting up a prime Dwyane Wade-like elite stat line or impact as a #1 option.

Written by jr.

October 12, 2014 at 5:20 pm

Posted in Basketball

Why the Milwaukee Bucks may be this year’s surprise breakout team

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Last year’s Phoenix Suns ultra-breakout was a fun story, because nobody, like almost literally nobody, predicted it. They were supposed to be awful, they won 48 Gs. A jump that big never happens.

Is there a potential breakout team this year? I’ve got one name on my mind the more I look at it: Milwaukee

Milwaukee is coming off a horrendous 15-67 season where everything that could go wrong, did. However they were a 38-44 playoff team in 2012-2013 and came into 2013-2014 with a roster hoping to make the playoffs, before injuries or off court issues got to them.

A legitimate frontcourt

What’s important to note about the 2012-2013 team is they had a near clear cut two most valuable players and it wasn’t Brandon Jennings or Monta Ellis, who’s poor defense and chucking seasons that year rarely helps teams. It was Larry Sanders and Ersan Ilyasova, who despite providing little to the Bucks in 2013-2014, there’s no reason to think they won’t be back to normal in terms of health and motivation this year.

Sanders and Ilyasova is an ideal front-court combination. Sanders in 2012-2013 was a defensive player of the year candidate at centre, but had little offensive skills. Which made Ilyasova’s stretch power forward game the ideal compliment, opening up the offense in a say Sanders cannot. When taking into account efficiency and volume, calling Ilyasova the best scorer and overall offensive producer on the Bucks that season is also most likely the right call. Neither Sanders or Ilyasova made the all-star game, but the combined offensive and defensive value of the pair should not be underestimated when constructing a team.

The rest of the Bucks big men isn’t so bad a look either. John Henson’s per minute numbers have been above average in the NBA with a solid combination of FG%, blocked shots and rebounding per minute. Zaza Pachulia is also a reliable, backup energy big man who’s still only 30. You can do worse than Henson or Pachulia. Jabari Parker may also play power forward for the Bucks. While it’s unclear if he’ll be efficient or defensively competent, he will space the floor at least if he’s at the 4 which helps the offense.

The perimeter may be more effective than it looks

The Bucks perimeter rotation appears to be a bigger weakness, but the whole may be greater than its parts. What’s important about Brandon Knight, Jerryd Bayless, Nate Wolters, O.J. Mayo, Jared Dudley, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker is none project to be horrible, non-rotation caliber players. With the exception of Parker, the rest have established very passable production and roles in a rotation.

What I’d want these perimeter players to do is this: Space the floor, pass the ball and put pressure on the other team defensively. These are things elite talent is not always needed to do. The Bucks perimeter may be capable of this. Khris Middleton had a strong 3pt shooting season last year at 41.4% on 3.5 attempts a game and while O.J. Mayo in an off season overall shot 37.0% from 3 on 4.4 attempts a game. Dudley did not feel healthy last year but has hit 3s well historically with a career 3pt average of 39.7%. Having three good 3pt shooters at SG and SF is an asset for the Bucks. Of course neither may be as important as Giannis Antetokounmpo is on the perimeter, who statistically had a mediocre season last year transitioning to the NBA, but flashed his talent. In summer league and FIBA he looked exceptional. Jason Kidd’s Nets defense last year relied on aggressive trapping defensively, which could fit Giannis’ role on the Bucks perfectly. At 34.7% from 3 on 1.5 attempts a game last year it’s also possible he makes a leap as a shooter. If Giannis could turn into an impact aggressive defender as soon as next year, it could provide a valuable compliment to Larry Sanders in the front court and shooters who struggle defensively like Dudley, Mayo and Middleton.

That leaves PG where the Bucks have competition between Brandon Knight, Nate Wolters, Jerryd Bayless and Kendall Marshall. It’s hard to tell which way Kidd will choose with these points. Knight led the Bucks in points and assists last year, but was the type of high volume, inefficient guard on a bad team that can later go by the wayside when his teammates improve. Knight needs to improve his 3pt% past the 32.5% it was last year to become an established starter. Marshall’s passing skill may be a nice fit with other shooters on the roster and he himself hit nearly 40% from 3 last year, but defensively he struggles. Bayless has winning experience from playing in Memphis but his productivity relies on his 3pt shooting which has been on and off in his career. Wolters on paper didn’t do a whole lot well last year, but is a big guard with passing vision and upside if he can shoot better. Overall, PG isn’t going to be the Bucks strength but if they can get average production out of the position it could be enough.

Jason Kidd and a winning culture?

Under previous ownership the Bucks were never the franchise to lie down and tank, which some claim dooms them to mediocrity. It was possible the new owners would take the Bucks in a Sixers like, draft picks orientated path, but my feeling is the Jason Kidd hiring tips their hand. Kidd does not make sense for the Bucks and the Bucks do not make sense for Kidd, unless they have plans to start winning sooner than later.

What Kidd may have saw is a team built to mimic how he turned the Nets around without Brook Lopez. By playing Pierce at power forward the Nets spaced the floor and played aggressive perimeter defense. The Bucks may be set up to do that, with the Ilyasova and Sanders front court flanked by floor spacing candidates like Knight, Dudley, Mayo, Middleton, Parker, etc. and a full court athlete in Antetokounmpo. The Bucks may not only find themselves with the right coach to take advantage of their talent, but their talent level may be underrated anyways because our eyes drift to the top of a roster instead of looking at whether all 10-12 guys in the rotation deserve to be getting minutes in the NBA, which may be the case with the Bucks.

While I don’t expect the Bucks to win as many games as the Suns next year, some of the ingredients may be similar from internal improvement of young players, a new coaching implementing progressive strategies offensively and defensively and veterans finding their games within this system.

Written by jr.

October 3, 2014 at 3:04 pm