Marc Stein: Scouts Takes

Al JeffersonHoward Smith/-USA TODAY SportsAl Jefferson and the Bobcats are within a game of .500 and moving up the East standings.
An Eastern Conference scout on the Bobcats’ surge to within a game of .500:
“They’re no joke. [First-year coach] Steve Clifford has obviously brought them a strong defensive concept and they’re defending at a high level. He deserves a lot of credit for what they’ve got going when you remember where they were and where they’ve been.

“He’s in the [Tom] Thibodeau mold. It’s a grinding style where he gets them very compacted, nothing [allowed] in transition, everyone gets back. It’s a 'you’re not going to score in our paint' mentality and the guys have bought into it.

“They also have players fitting their roles very well and they’ve got two guys they can go to when their offense gets stuck: Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson. And now they’ve added some shooting with the trade [for Gary Neal and Luke Ridnour], which I thought was a great trade.

“They’re the fourth-best team in the East to me. Chicago is the third-best team; everybody knows they have problems scoring but I promise you no one wants to play the Bulls in the playoffs. Then I like Charlotte.

“The Nets are going to have problems playing defense in the playoffs consistently. They rely a lot on experience and that’s not something you can rely on all the time. And I just think Toronto is a little soft inside. Their defense isn’t good enough to sustain for four [wins] in a series, and if you really get after DeMar [DeRozan] or Kyle Lowry, they’re going to struggle to score. I like Charlotte better than both of those teams.”
Phil JacksonJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesServing as Knicks president could prove to be the most challenging job of Phil Jackson's stellar career.

Eastern Conference scout on the Knicks' forthcoming hiring of Phil Jackson:

"Yes we've been talking about it. Of course we've been talking about it. Everybody's talking about it. But I hate to say it: I think it's going to be a terrible fit.

"Why would they pay him that amount money when he's never really done that job? I understand his name and resume carry a lot of weight, but being the GM is a completely different deal than coaching. For all [Jackson's] credibility, I just think [Knicks owner James] Dolan would have been better off paying [San Antonio's] R.C. Buford or [Oklahoma City's] Sam Presti something like $6 or $8 million a year to come in there and really rebuild this organization.

"To me, by hiring Phil, it's just 'win the media hit.' How long that lasts, I don't know. I'm sure you're saying, 'Who the hell is this [scout] questioning a guy who has 11 rings?' But since you asked, my opinion is that I think it's going to just end up being another classic Knicks manuever.

"I also want to know who's going to want to coach this team under Phil Jackson? Who's going to be strong enough to handle it if the team starts off badly and the fans are chanting, 'We want Phil, we want Phil' all the time? They need a roster overhaul and a change of style of play. And to do all that you need a helluva coach. But is a helluva coach going to want to work under Phil Jackson? It's just a weird dynamic to me all the way around.

"I know everyone says that money doesn't matter to the Knicks, but we're still talking about an extraordinary amount of money in the hope that Phil can figure all these things out.

"If you think Jason Kidd had a hard job [when he agreed to become coach of the veteran-laded Nets with no coaching experience], this job is going to be harder. Way harder."
Dwight Howard, Chandler ParsonsBrace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsThe Rockets have plenty of firepower, but do they have what it takes to be a true contender out west?


Eastern Conference scout on the Houston Rockets' 23-8 surge since Jan. 1:

"All the top teams [in the West] have certain flaws and the Rockets are no exception. But I like that they stay true to themselves. They don't hesitate about who they are. So as a result the players' minds are free to just go play.

"They run, they shoot a lot of 3s, they want to get to the rim ... and anything else is post-ups for Dwight [Howard]. And they're not going to make a lot of adjustments.

"Maybe I'm in the minority, but I think Kevin McHale should be getting more credit than he does. People want to see a coach calling a lot of plays, because they make so much money, so [McHale] opens himself up to criticism with the approach he takes. But it takes a pretty strong person to sit through some of the low points without trying to change things because he wants to stay true to what they do.

"They're like that NCAA team, that seventh seed that can knock off a No. 1 seed but doesn't have enough juice to go all the way to the Final Four. The Rockets are going to be a pain in the ass for somebody in the playoffs and can definitely knock somebody out if the matchup is right. Especially if Dwight continues to bounce back; he's moving so much better than he was a year ago.

"The problem in the playoffs is that, eventually, execution matters. [The Rockets] play at one speed -- and they play great at that speed -- but at some point they're going to run into somebody who makes that a problem for them.

"The one team that nobody wants to mess with in the playoffs is Memphis. They're the one team that can make every series a street fight and really play a nasty, physical game. Who else in the West can really say that?

"But Memphis and Houston aren't all that different in this one sense: Can they run the table and go all the way? Like Houston, you have to say probably not."

Eastern Conference scout on the Clippers' credentials as a contender and the state of Blake Griffin's game:

"The team that's made the big jump in the West is the Clippers. They've taken a major step forward defensively. Really, really impressive last time I saw them.

"It's living proof that you shouldn't pre-judge things 30 or 40 games into the season, because he looked absolutely confused back then. You would sit there wondering: 'Are they ever gonna get there?' But now you watch them and they definitely seem to understand what they're doing as a group. They play with good energy [defensively].

"That doesn't mean they're gonna lock the other team down every time. Nobody does that in the regular season. But now you can tell that this is a team that can really amp it up. They seem to have each other's backs now [on defense] and I think they have another gear to show us when the playoffs come.

"A lot of it has to do with DeAndre Jordan's development. When you talk about players who've improved since last season, he's a big part of their success. But I just see a team that's more in sync. Everyone talking on D, everyone's anticipating rotations, moving on the flight of the ball. The makings are there for them to ramp it up another notch.

"The question with these guys is going to be: Can they can make enough outside shots to compete for the title? But they're a real threat. And you have to give Blake Griffin a lot of credit for that, too.

"He's improved a little bit every year. Some of the kinks in his shot have been ironed out, which is a really long process. That doesn't happen in a month.

"But specifically what jumps out at you is his footwork is really good. You can tell he's put a lot of work in there. He's an undersized post player, but he can have success against taller guys because he pivots with both feet so well. He's under control and his balance is so good that he can create angles and get shots up against longer players."
NoahMike DiNovo/USA TODAY SportsThe Chicago Bulls, led by Joakim Noah, have become the team no one wants to face in these playoffs.

Western Conference scout on Joakim Noah and Chicago's success without Derrick Rose and Luol Deng:

"My all-time favorite guy has been carrying them. I love me some Joakim Noah. His passion just keeps them going.

"I don't buy that [Rose was holding Noah back]. I don't think that at all. [Noah is] doing more now because he has to, not because he wants to. With the level of depth and talent they have right now, he has no choice but to showcase more of his stuff.

"I'm curious to see what they do with Jimmer [Fredette], because they do need his outside shooting. But I don't see him playing a whole lot. Maybe he'll come off the bench when they're playing a team that really packs it in, but he's not going to be Kyle Korver, because Korver is 6-6 and keeps people in front of him. If Jimmer gets on a roll you can play him a little bit, but putting him on Mario Chalmers or Norris Cole or [Dwyane] Wade ... that's going to be a problem.

"But they're as close to healthy as they've been for a while having [Kirk] Hinrich back. He's huge for them. [D.J.] Augustin has done a great job since he got there, but now you've got some depth. And if they're going to have any chance against Miami, they need Hinrich, because he can guard their point guards or D-Wade and make shots when he's healthy.

"I really think they're gonna be a pain in the butt for both [Miami and Indiana in the playoffs]. The Bulls will take the challenge of playing Miami or Indiana and convince themselves that they can beat the team that's getting all the hype. But I think they're more likely to beat Miami in a series than Indiana, because Indiana has enough depth inside to help neutralize Noah.

"Between [Roy] Hibbert and [Andrew] Bynum and [Ian] Mahinmi, they have enough depth to counter Noah. Then it comes down to the Bulls making shots. But Miami's big weakness is rebounding. And that's one area where Chicago obviously excels.

"I don't know that Chicago can beat either one of them. But I could see them making it a seven-game series against the Heat and a six-game series against the Pacers."
Western Conference scout on the load Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant is shouldering with Russell Westbrook out injured:

“I’ve been to a couple games lately where I thought Durant was getting really frustrated with how much he has to do when they play the good teams for OKC to have a chance, whether it was admonishing his teammates or looking over at the bench when something went wrong. But I think it’s pretty natural if you’re in that situation.

“He knows he’s going to have to score 35 for them to have a chance to win games without Westbrook. He can’t be a guy who passes in the first half and then scores in the second half. He’s got to give it to them all the time to keep them in the game. And you can see there’s a lot of pressure there.

“Look what just happened Friday night. He scored 54 points ... and OKC won by six at home.

Reggie Jackson is a good player, but he’s definitely a score-first guy. I think he’s trying to do all the right things now that he’s trying to run the team, but there’s a thought process you can see he’s going through on the court that I think is slowing him down a bit. I don’t want to say it’s a LeBron/Mario Chalmers thing, but that’s kind of the way I felt the last time I saw the Thunder, because Durant jumped his ass more than once.

“But my biggest issue is with Serge Ibaka. I know people talk about how much he’s improved as a shooter, but all he wants to do is shoot jump shots all the time. And he’s not Ryan Anderson. I would be frustrated if it was my team that had him, just like with Josh Smith in Detroit when he takes too many jump shots. [Ibaka] proved me wrong the other night on national TV [when the Thunder came back to beat the Rockets], but I just wish he’d stay closer to the basket offensively.”

Western Conference scout on what ails Minnesota:

“When they’re clicking, they’re as good as anyone you’ll see offensively. Their ball movement and all their little actions ... it’s fun to watch when they’re making shots.

“But then you look at their record and it just doesn’t match up. I think they’re really good. This should be a playoff team. But it’s gotten to the point where you start to wonder if it’s an internal personality thing when a team keeps losing close games over and over and over.

“They have some things working against them. Ricky Rubio’s shooting is becoming more and more of an issue; if you can just keep him out of the paint he’s not a factor at all. They could really use a shot blocker, too, and they always seem to have their fair share of injuries. But when you hear a stat like that [Minnesota is 0-11 in games decided by four points or fewer], what it says to me that they stop trusting each other in close games or they get down on each other quickly.

“I don’t think it’s fair, but this is going to end up falling on [Kevin] Love’s shoulders if they can’t turn it around. This is coming from a big fan of his -- I really don’t know if he could give them much more – but he’s the face of that team. So he’s got to take it. That’s just the way it is in the NBA. If Kevin’s your best player, whether you think that’s fair or not, most of [the criticism] is going to land on his doorstep. And I really don’t see them making the playoffs.

“I’m out on Denver, too. Phoenix ... I just don’t think they can sustain what they’ve done for the first couple of months. It’s starting to go sideways now, so they have to pray that [Goran] Dragic doesn’t get hurt, because he has to play 40 minutes a game now that [Eric] Bledsoe’s out. I think Devin Harris coming back is going to be a big help for Dallas and I think Memphis is starting to put things together. [The Grizzlies are] going to jump back in [to the West’s top eight].

“But Minnesota is the toughest read. Either they’re scoring at will and cutting people apart or they’re losing another heartbreaker. I’ve got Dallas and Memphis grabbing those last two [playoff] spots.”

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Scouts Takes: Spurs best in West

January, 18, 2014
Jan 18

Eastern Conference scout on the best team in the West at the regular-season midpoint:

“It’s the Spurs. And it’s not even close.

“There are only three teams that have a chance to win the championship [this season]: Miami, Indiana and San Antonio. I guess if [Russell] Westbrook comes back and they get on a roll, OKC can be in that mix. But assuming we don’t see any more major injuries, those are the only three teams you need to worry about.

“They look like the same ol' Spurs to me. I know you, Mr. Power Rankings, are going to tell me that they’ve lost a bunch of games to the other top teams. But they know how to approach the regular season. You might call it pacing themselves, but I’d just say they’re in their usual good rhythm. I’ve seen [Tim] Duncan a few times, and I don’t think there’s a whole lot of difference from last year to this year. And I’m pretty sure I saw a clip of [Gregg Popovich] jumping all over Tim’s butt the other day, so he’s still Pop.

“The one thing the Spurs are really missing is that Stephen Jackson or Michael Finley who can play the 4 when you’re going up against a team that plays real small. Kawhi Leonard is going to have to be that guy, but he still defers a lot when I’ve seen him. He was very good last year, but he hasn’t made as big a step as I was expecting.

“The other thing is Danny Green. He’s obviously hurt right now, but they need him to be more consistent than he has been. [Marco] Belinelli is an upgrade on what they had before, but Kawhi and Green are the keys ... as long as Duncan and [Tony] Parker and [Manu] Ginobili are healthy.”

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Eastern Conference scout on the Kings’ Rudy Gay gamble:

“The Kings are relevant again. That’s why this was a good trade. Now they’ve got a point guard, small forward and center that can score 20 every night. This team still has to develop a defensive identity, but they’ve become very tough to beat on their home court and that hasn’t been the case for quite a while. They’ve taken the first step toward legitimacy.

“It’s easy to pile on and rip on Rudy Gay, but I’m not one of those people. Everyone thought Memphis was crazy for taking on Zach Randolph’s contract and he ended up changing his whole reputation. The perception of Z-Bo is much different now than it was when he was with the Clippers or New York. Why can’t Rudy do the same?

“I know the contract boxed [the Kings] in money-wise, but teams in their situation that aren’t going to get free agents have to pay more to get good players. This is still the honeymoon phase we often see when a player gets traded, but I’d be encouraged by what the Kings are getting from [Gay] so far.

“If you can get to 34-35 wins [this season], that’s a start. I thought Sacramento would be a little bit more like Charlotte in terms of improving their defense [under new coach Mike Malone] -- I thought there would be more of an immediate difference [as seen with the Bobcats under Steve Clifford] -- but it’s not an easy situation to navigate because the Kings have so many offensive-oriented players.

“[DeMarcus] Cousins is in better shape, so he has the stamina to finish games, which is very important. He’s a very good offensive player who puts up numbers every night -- he’s just bigger and stronger than everyone else -- but with him it all starts with his conditioning. And Isaiah Thomas ... you’ve got to give him a lot of credit. He’s fearless with the ball and he’s carved out a really nice niche. I didn’t think he could do this coming out of college.

“Does [Thomas] distribute the ball great? No. He’s not a classic point guard. But he gets to call most of the plays. He has some freedom and may not be as good if there was a ton of halfcourt structure. I’m telling you: When Sacramento’s top three guys are on, you’re not going to be able to keep up with them.

“But now the Kings need to give Malone some time. You’ve got your guy; let this group grow together. You can’t be changing everything every two years like the Kings were doing before the ownership change. Instability has been a big problem in Sacramento. They have a bit of a foundation now and the trade is working out better than I thought it would.”

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Eastern Conference scout on the Warriors' credentials as title contenders:

“Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not a believer. I’m not buying it in the playoffs. Their defense is better with [Andre] Iguodala, but I don’t see it as championship-level.

“When we play Golden State, we’re not worried about scoring. The focus of the game plan is taking away their 3-point shot. When the playoffs come, I think the Warriors will be just like Houston. Good show, fun to watch, great excitement ... but I don’t see them getting past the second round. I know the stats say otherwise, but they haven’t changed their spots completely.

“When you play Chicago or Miami, you know you’re going to run into a buzz-saw defense. San Antonio is one of the few teams -- maybe the only team -- that has an equal dose of both. They’re not great defensively or great offensively, but they’ve got the best combination of both. I would personally say Golden State isn’t there yet.

“Iguodala has made a difference, but he’s also thinking about his offense more than he used to playing with those guys. He wants to score, too. Bogut, to me, is more the defensive anchor than Iguodala. [Bogut] can block a shot, takes charges, he’s really cerebral, he uses his 2.9 seconds [before refs can whistle for illegal defense] to really get back and forth. He covers up for a lot of mistakes.

“But I think the Clippers have a better chance than the Warriors to go deep [in the playoffs] as long as Chris Paul comes back healthy. [The Clippers'] point guard is as tough as nails and their style of play is more conducive to playoff basketball.”

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Scouts Takes: Love for Luol Deng deal

January, 17, 2014
Jan 17

Western Conference scout on the Cavs’ acquisition of Luol Deng:

“I’m a huge Deng fan. He’s such a perpetual-motion guy, such a pro. It’s a trade I’d have done in a heartbeat.

“People want to say that the Cavs are one of the biggest disappointments [of the season], but this is a talented group. And Deng brings a consistency and a level of professionalism that they haven’t had for a while. Let’s see if it rubs off.

“I’m a huge [Anderson] Varejao fan, too. You put him with Deng and you finally have a couple guys that want to defend. They’re all still learning how to play together -- I don’t think we know yet how all these personalities will mesh -- but they need to put a lot more into defending collectively than they have up 'til now. Which is unusual to say about a Mike Brown team.

“I thought they laid down [as a team] several times pre-Deng. And it really surprised me that they didn’t rally around [Andrew] Bynum quitting on them, because I think most teams would have tried to use that as a rallying point. But Deng ... I don’t care how much [Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau] played him these last few years. It’s just in his nature to play hard all the time.

Kyrie Irving is an unbelievable talent -- and I think [Dion] Waiters wants to be Kyrie Irving -- but those young guys need to see [Deng in action] and learn how to approach the game like he does."

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Eastern Conference scout on whether the Heat should be worried about their recent struggles or if they’re merely cruising:

“The way they play is a little different than other teams. Defenses in the NBA are generally very protective of the rim. They lay back like NFL defenses that play with two safeties that are just trying to keep everything in front of them. It’s not a perfect analogy, but there’s a lot of bend-but-don’t-break [thinking] out there.

“But the Heat really get after you. They’re like Doberman pinchers. They’re like pit bulls on steroids. And it’s really impressive to watch when they’re on. But the problem with that type of system is that you gotta have athletes, you gotta have length and you gotta have great effort. And that’s why a lot of teams don’t want to mess with it.

“When they’re all dialed up, Miami’s D is one of the best things to watch in the league. But when the effort is not there, they can look bad. It can get ugly in a hurry. And let’s be honest: What’s the hunger level right now? They pulled it out of the fire against the Spurs [in last season’s NBA Finals] and now there’s really only one team in the East that can challenge them. So it’s probably human nature for them to start thinking, ‘We can turn it on when we need to.’

“Are they really hungry right now to get after teams the way they have in the past? They want to make the other team play faster than they want to play and turn them over and swarm you like the '85 Bears, but playing defense that way is really hard work. It has set them apart and makes them unique, but I think it is a concern when you start thinking that you can just flip a switch. You’re playing with fire there."

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Scouts Takes: Dwight's start in Houston

December, 6, 2013
Eastern Conference scout on the start of the Dwight Howard era in Houston:

"I see it as real positive for them. I don't get the negativity about this team. I think they're capable of beating anyone in a series. They are also capable of losing to any team. It's all over the map because they play only one way. Their way.

"They're totally committed to what they do. There's no indecisiveness there. They're very clear on what they want to do and how to go about it. And they're very hard to prepare for because they push the ball, push the ball, push the ball.

"Scouts like coaches that call a lot of plays because it's easy to understand when it all fits neatly into a box you can study. But Houston has a very thin playbook and just keeps coming at you and, after a while, it just takes a toll on you.

"Just look at how many fouls they draw in a a game. Last time I looked at the stats, it was 28 a game, with the next closest team at 23. It's right there in black and white. They are attacking. They are shooting a 3 or taking it to the rim and there's no in-between.

"When it comes to Dwight, it's not an easy yes-or-no answer. On the positive side you like it when he faces up and attacks because he's so quick you can't handle him. On the other hand, because they're so transition-oriented, he doesn't get a ton of touches in the halfcourt, [but] I would say he gets enough.

"You wouldn't consider Dwight or [James] Harden playmkers, but it works. You've got a great scorer who gets to the rim and a guy who protects the rim and attacks the glass. It's probably going to evolve, but the overall talent is very impressive. The approach is not super-traditional, but, again, they have a style of play and they keep coming at you.

"The challenge will be what happens in the playoffs. Will they be able to go up and down? Or will they come up against teams that keep them under wraps and force them into shooting lazy jump shots? Either way they have a clear philosophy and a lot of teams in this league don't. That's something to respect."

Scouts Takes: Key to Nuggets' success

December, 6, 2013

Eastern Conference scout on the surprising early success of the Nuggets:

"I think they got off to a really slow start because [new coach] Brian Shaw was still trying to figure out his personnel. He saw that the players on that squad weren't made for the Triangle [offense he prefers], so he started to let them run and get out and play and do what they do best.

"The other big reason they improved is because JaVale McGee went down. I hate to say it, but that's been a bonus for them. They were originally trying to go inside-out with McGee, but they aren't built like that. I think that's why [Ty] Lawson was out of whack, but Brian -- to his credit -- saw that they didn't have the post presence to play that way and let them go back to what they're good at."

Scouts Takes: Favorite to win the West

December, 6, 2013

Western Conference scout on trying to pinpoint a favorite in the West:

"All the top teams in the West are flawed. Everybody has something wrong with them. But I'm still going with Oklahoma City. I've said it before and I'll say it again: No one has two guys who can close games out like their two guys.

"And they're at a point where they like doing it ... where they thrive on it. Whatever you want to talk about when it comes to the playoffs last year, just make sure you keep in the back of your mind that [Kevin] Durant was on his own because [Russell] Westbrook wasn't there. And he's that good. He made a lot of teams' seasons by not playing.

"I'm not there every day in practice. I'm sure there are people who know a lot more than me. But from what I've seen, Westbrook looks good. He's recovered well [from knee surgery].

"And I seem to be in the minority, but I really like Reggie Jackson. Maybe he's not well known, but if he's not, he will be, because he's really improved. He's a threat. He's not a closer, but he's a very confident player. He's not a classic point guard, he's not a classic distributor, but the playoff experience made him better, and he's not afraid to battle with anybody. Maybe it's not quite a Chris Paul/Eric Bledsoe situation, but there's a lot of teams that would like to have him. Especially when you remember where he was picked in the draft (No. 24 overall).

"Jeremy Lamb is quietly making strides, too. I don't know what the ceiling is, but he's inching along. And the wild card is Steven Adams. They could have eight or nine legit guys by the time we get to the playoffs."