TrueHoop: Beckley Mason

Why Kyrie Irving won the NBA offseason

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
3:25
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Mason By Beckley Mason
Special to ESPN.com
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IrvingGonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty ImagesThough he and the Cavs stalled out in 2013-14, Kyrie Irving bounced back in a big way this summer.
"The third year is a big year for a person in my position -- kind of on the cusp, on the fence between being good and great."

That’s Kyrie Irving, just before his disappointing 2013-14 season. Like just about everyone else, Irving saw himself in the lineage of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose: young players who became MVP candidates and led their teams to the playoffs in their third seasons.

Irving accomplished neither in 2013-14. His personal production and his team's performance both stagnated, and the rancor among Irving, his teammates and his coaches could be felt through the TV. Instead of ushering in an era of dominance as a do-it-all point guard, he ranked 37th in WAR at his own position. By summer 2014, Cleveland Cavaliers expert Brian Windhorst was calling his attitude "defeatist," and statistics guru Nate Silver used him as an example of a player who shouldn't receive a max contract.

For someone who had so many trophies -- rookie of the year, All-Star MVP, 3-point Shootout champion -- Irving had won very little. His Cavaliers have never had a record over .500 other than starting the past two seasons 1-0. There were even rumors that LeBron might not want to come to Cleveland unless the Cavaliers dealt Irving. Routinely characterized as selfish, weak spirited and overrated, the Kyrie Irving brand limped into the 2014 offseason.

Yet after this summer, it's almost hard to remember that Irving was so recently so ridiculed. The tsunami of coverage the accompanied James and then Kevin Love joining the Cavs washed that all away.

Irving has helped himself, too. His performance in the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup was in step with the paths current NBA greats have taken -- most notably Durant, who torched teams throughout the same tournament four years ago.

Irving has a knack for shining brightest when he's next to other stars. Even among luminaries such as Stephen Curry and James Harden, Irving's talent stood apart. Though his coordination and quickness are undeniably special, Irving has impressive but not exceptional explosiveness -- he's no Rose. Instead, he has an unmatched gift for deceptive dribbling and Steve Nash's ability to carve into the heart of the defense even when he doesn't appear to be moving full speed. He just gets where he wants. Irving's elusiveness is such that defenders can appear to be participating in a choreographed routine that ends with Irving at the rim.

It's untrue to call Irving's international play a revelation; this guy was a better rookie than James was. It was a reminder, in both a good and a bad way. He controlled the pace and mesmerized his defenders. He pressured the ball and sprinted into closeouts. In his committed, commanding performance leading a team full of stars, Irving showed why the Cavaliers and their fans had a right to be disappointed in his previous season.

So maybe he still takes bad angles on defense and it's possible that he is drawn to screens as though by magnets, but is there anything better than Irving walking down his man at the top of the key with a live dribble? There's a certain definition of talent that focuses more on what a player can do rather than what he does. In Irving's game, as in no other young guard's, unexpected method mingles with seemingly inevitable result.

This summer Irving didn't prove he is ready to carry an NBA team (how could he?), but there is no doubt his talent is unmatched among his generation of guards. With Love and James by his side for the foreseeable future, will anyone even remember Irving's underwhelming seasons?

You would forgive the casual fan who really has no idea what Irving's game is about. The Cavaliers played on national TV a total of 10 times in his first three seasons, a rust belt team struggling in obscurity. This season Irving's game will be broadcast nationally 24 times, including five of the 15 showcase games on ABC.

No one outside of Cleveland, and likely few die-hard Cavs fans, will remember Irving slumping his shoulders after a bad turnover or getting torched by D.J. Augustin. These moments, like Kobe Bryant's demands to be traded from the Los Angeles Lakers, will likely end up as blips in Irving's professional legacy.

It’s not exactly an NBA title, or even a playoff berth, but you can add The Summer of 2014 to the list of things Kyrie Irving has won.

Let Melo walk

June, 18, 2014
Jun 18
10:00
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Mason By Beckley Mason
Special to ESPN.com
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AnthonyNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesLet Carmelo Anthony test out the free-agent waters. The Knicks would be better off without him.
Since they won 54 games in 2012-13, every attempt at improvement by the New York Knicks has backfired. They reupped with J.R. Smith, who proceeded to have the worst season of his career. They made space for Metta World Peace and Andrea Bargnani, but neither finished the season in the rotation. The only time they had a winning record in 2013-14 was when they started 1-0.

But there’s finally some good news: Carmelo Anthony intends to opt out of the remaining year of his contract, and rumors abound that he’ll skip town.

Yes, losing their best player would be welcome news for the Knicks. Should Anthony leave, the Knicks would finally be free to start over with a player good enough to carry a franchise.

Just how good is Anthony? It’s hard to find consensus. Some count him among the best in the NBA and perhaps the best one-on-one scorer in the league. He has a top-10 player efficiency rating and two Olympic gold medals. There just aren’t guys with his kind of size and strength who can handle and shoot the ball like a guard. In the right scenario, he’s deadly. With his quick, accurate release and great first step, covering him on a hard closeout is pretty much impossible. He is a monster on the offensive glass and has been one of the best scorers as a pick-and-roll ball handler for the past two years. It’s a rare combination.

[+] EnlargeCarmelo Anthony
AP Photo/Seth WenigMelo is one of the NBA's best, but he's still not worth a max deal.
Others are less charitable. They see a player who dies on screens, is overeager to switch and treats defense in general like a personal inconvenience. He’s a volume scorer who traffics in volume statistics, but less so in wins, and doesn’t create a ton of opportunities for others.

What’s tough for the Knicks is that both impressions of Anthony are correct. He is not a contributor on defense, and he’s a constant mismatch for just about everyone in the league, especially when he plays on the perimeter as a power forward.

Anthony has serious game, but all the things you have to do right to maximize what he brings to a team make him tricky as a franchise centerpiece. You need multiple guys with point-guard-level passing skills to keep the ball moving. You need a lockdown defender on the perimeter to take on the toughest wings, because he’s just not very interested in those assignments. You also need a great defensive big man behind him, because to max out Anthony’s offensive capabilities, you need to play him at the power forward, which means you need extra-stout basket protection from your other frontcourt player.

Anthony is a good player to build with but not around.

Although there’s room to argue about just how good Anthony is, almost no one would claim that a player with his faults is the second-best player in the NBA. But if he reups at the max in New York, only Kobe Bryant would be more handsomely compensated.

Consider Anthony’s market value. How does $23 million sound? What about $25 million or $27 million? Because that could be his price tag at the tail end of another max deal.

Consider that Anthony just turned 30, about the age most NBA players begin to decline. He would make most when he’s worth least.

Consider whether Anthony is truly a franchise cornerstone. At the price he can command by staying in New York and reupping for a medium-term deal, the Knicks had better be sure, because these contracts cripple payrolls. He just had his best season ever, with career highs in a bunch of key scoring and rebounding metrics ... but his team won 37 games. It’s possible that his teammates were just that bad, but at his salary, one would hope for a player who guarantees a winning season in a weak Eastern Conference.

Then consider where the Knicks are as a franchise.

The Knicks' foundation is rotted; even if Anthony stays at a discounted price, they likely will want to dispose of their three other most highly paid players. If the Knicks can’t make major moves next season, there is no chance they will contend for anything other than a playoff spot.

No matter what happens next with Anthony, the Knicks will be rebuilding. There are variously expedient ways to do so, but whether you’re piling up assets or luring name free agents, it’s still called rebuilding. Phil Jackson does not have to slowly, meticulously build through the draft, but he does have to be careful about where he spends James Dolan’s money. The Knicks have almost no money on the books after the 2014-15 season. They are resetting the roster one way or another. The only question is how prudently they will do so.

Anthony’s departure would release the Knicks from the cycle of adding overpriced veterans and pretending to contend. This is the league’s richest franchise in the media capital of the world, and this is an opportunity to rebuild from the ground up. But there is less margin for error, which means that signing anyone to a huge max contract is a high-risk proposition.

It’s especially risky with Anthony because he limits the kinds of other players you should sign. Championships are won by two-way stars.

It must be acknowledged that Anthony is a star attraction, even if he’s not always a superstar player. There will be plenty of pressure to sign Anthony and retain at least one star player on the roster to drive fan interest. But the Knicks are an organization with coffers to make Scrooge McDuck blush; they aren’t going bankrupt off a down season or two.

There’s also a chance Anthony will go somewhere else and excel as a complementary piece. But that’s what he is. A wise team doesn’t make him the second-highest-paid player in the league, and a wise team doesn’t make a secondary piece its franchise cornerstone.

Phase 1 of the Phil Plan: Complete

June, 10, 2014
Jun 10
4:22
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Mason By Beckley Mason
Special to ESPN.com
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Derek Fisher and Phil JacksonJennifer Pottheiser/NBAE/Getty ImagesProblems remain in New York, but the hiring of Derek Fisher proves there's at least a plan in place.
The New York Knicks' leadership articulated a strategy and successfully acted upon it. Phil Jackson hired Derek Fisher.

Fisher may not have been Jackson’s first choice, but on some level, that small victory is heartening for an organization that has drifted rudderless for 15 years, with a brief stint of respectability steered by Donnie Walsh in between.

Jackson wants to infuse the Knicks with his cultural leanings and basketball beliefs, and who better to do it than Fisher, a five-time champion as the point guard for Jackson’s Los Angeles Lakers and a certified leader of men? This is the guy who could reportedly get in Kobe Bryant’s face at halftime of a Game 7 and to whom Kevin Durant praised in glowing terms in his MVP speech: “Even though he's done so much in this league, played with so many great players, he always wants to learn.”

Fisher’s curiosity should serve him well in New York. In today’s NBA, the ability to communicate credibly with players, and the openness to new influences and information may be the two most valuable resources a coach can have.

As Henry Abbott wrote in a piece wondering if Phil Jackson’s adherence to orthodoxy could hinder the Knicks, there’s so much new information and data that, for a coach, “The only right answer is to be curious.” Decisions guided by curiosity are less likely to be fueled by ego and more likely to be pragmatic.

Fisher’s new neighbor offers an instructive example. When Brooklyn Nets coach Jason Kidd realized he wanted to be a head coach a few seasons before his retirement as a player, he began writing things down. Then a point guard under Rick Carlisle, Kidd kept a journal of how Carlisle and his staff decided substitution patterns and taught the 2010-11 Mavericks’ systems. As a coach, that journal became a starting kit, something that Kidd could reference as he faced new challenges. It’s hard to tell how much his notes helped. The first two months of Kidd’s tenure were a disaster, but he eventually found his footing.

We don’t know if Fisher has an equivalent to Kidd’s coaching journal, but we do know that Jackson has literally written the book on coaching … eight times. This is a good thing. New coaches need mentors and guidance, and Fisher is lucky to work for someone so knowledgeable, and who also respects and cares for him.

Still, Jackson’s influence will loom large in Fisher’s first season as a head coach. Some will openly question whether Jackson is the one “pulling the strings.” Just how involved Jackson is at practice and in other on-the-court settings will be a daily beat in itself. Did Jackson scurry upstairs before reporters were allowed into the practice facility? You can already see the “Zen Master of Puppets” headline in the Post.

The scrutiny will be merciless and at times unfair, but Fisher has as much experience as any player could in such settings -- first as a player during tumultuous stretches in Los Angeles, then as the leader of the NBA Players Association during a time of intense and public strife. His temperament appears fit for the madness of the New York media and the potential franchise overhaul that awaits, even if the Knicks retain Carmelo Anthony.

Jackson’s priorities have changed since he last teamed up with Fisher. The new team president must focus on more than just a title run. He must set up the organization for a sustained run of success.

Fisher’s focus will be in the weeds. The coach-front office dynamic works best when both parties are aligned on long-term goals and how those objectives are served by day-to-day instruction and player management. Fisher will need to define a space for himself to assert authority and maintain the respect and trust of his players while also relying on Jackson, the guy who can decide whether those players stay on the team.

Jackson wants to be more involved with the on-court action than most front-office execs, but doing so risks rendering Fisher as something less than a fully empowered head coach. It’s a question that Erik Spoelstra once had to deal with as a rookie coach under Heat president Pat Riley. It’s no fun wondering if your guardian will one day decide to come down and do your job, too. Fisher carries the benefit of an 18-year playing career and five championship rings, but it goes without saying that Fisher will have less to work with than Spoelstra.

Jackson is an important resource, but Fisher must assert autonomy and be more than an implement of Jackson’s will. He should certainly borrow from Jackson, but how much can he defer? Nothing is ever simple in New York.

The Knicks are at an inflection point. Who really knows what this team will look like going into the 2015-16 season? In that sense, Fisher literally doesn't know what he’s getting into. If the Knicks are lucky, Fisher will have the right mix of personal experience and open-mindedness to navigate a situation very much in flux. In Fisher, the Knicks may not have a solution to all that confounds them, but at least they appear to have a plan.

Mike Woodson's long goodbye

April, 21, 2014
Apr 21
11:03
AM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
Special to ESPN.com
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Mike Woodson Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesOusted New York Knicks coach Mike Woodson never found sustained success in two-plus seasons.
After two and a half tumultuous years, Mike Woodson’s term as New York Knicks head coach came to a close Monday morning. His dismissal ends what was, even by the Knicks’ standards, a strange chapter in recent NBA history.

Woodson’s coaching reputation has swung wildly over the last 26 months. Under Woodson’s direction, the Knicks went 72-34 from when he took over for Mike D’Antoni in March 2012 through the end of the 2012-13 season. It’s not as if Woodson’s name was mud before the Knicks' 100-game hot streak, but his regular-season success in Atlanta -- the team won more games than the year before in five consecutive seasons -- was tainted by Atlanta’s inability to make noise in the playoffs. The Hawks never lost to a lower seed, but they never really looked capable of a deep playoff run, either.

After his time in Atlanta, critics cast Woodson as inflexible and somewhat dreary from a tactical standpoint. Woodson’s isolation-heavy offense repeatedly broke down in the playoffs, and his Hawks never had an effective backup plan.

But after coaching under Mike D’Antoni with the Knicks, Woodson seemed to become a believer in the spread pick-and-roll, and his Knicks rode that action, and a barrage of 3-pointers, to a 54-win season in 2012-13. The conversation around Woodson changed almost overnight: He had won full buy-in from Carmelo Anthony and somehow kept J.R. Smith focused; he modernized his offense and embraced the state of the art in basketball strategy.

The Knicks, for the first time in a long time, exceeded expectations. Was it Woodson? Or were the Knicks just more talented than people realized? Wasn't it Woodson who made Jason Kidd, Pablo Prigioni, Steve Novak and Chris Copeland useful players?

Before the 2012-13 season, Wages of Wins combination of metrics and analysis predicted the Knicks would be the top seed in the East. The two main reasons were Kidd and Tyson Chandler, the point guard-center battery of the 2011 champion Mavericks. Kidd was old, sure, but he still made his teams better with rebounding, shooting and crisp ball movement. With the Knicks, Kidd’s play became the shared language through which Anthony’s game could communicate with the spread pick-and-roll.

When Kidd retired, the Knicks’ half-court offense descended into Babel. Again, this was partly due to situations outside of Woodson’s control. In the offseason, the Knicks replaced important shooters Novak, Kidd and Copeland with Metta World Peace and Andrea Bargnani. World Peace was a defensive contributor during a brief period of good health, but otherwise the Knicks essentially scrapped the identity that made them so dangerous -- great ball movement and killer shooting -- in favor of big names.

The same Wages of Wins analysts who picked the Knicks to be very good in 2012-13, then picked the Knicks to finish outside the playoffs, as did the SCHOENE metric developed by ESPN.com’s Kevin Pelton.

Whether Woodson ever really believed in the free-wheeling, 3-pointer crazed offense of 2012-13 is an open question. The Knicks abandoned their small-ball strengths at the first sign of trouble in the 2013 playoffs, abdicating their perimeter advantage to wage an unwinnable war inside against the Pacers. And this season, Woodson often professed a desire -- possibly at behest of the front office -- to make the “Big” lineups work, even though playing Bargnani, Anthony and Chandler together had miserable results.

Strategy aside, if you consider the variable roster quality during the last two seasons, it is hard to say whether Woodson is responsible at all for either the good times or the bad ones.

Doubt that those role players the Knicks lost in the offseason really matter enough to so dramatically swing the Knicks' win-loss records? The fact is Carmelo Anthony was actually better this season than he was last season. Logic argues that he wasn't the controlling factor in the Knicks' success.

With Kidd and the shooters gone and Chandler hobbled, the Knicks just didn't have a very good roster -- so they weren't a very good team.

This gets us closer to the truth of Woodson’s value as a coach. Of course his teams in Atlanta got better every year, the roster improved every year, too!

Young stars such as Josh Smith and Al Horford joined the Hawks as rookies and followed a logical trend: They were better at 21 than 20, and better at 24 than 23.

History suggests Woodson does not make his teams better, nor does he really inhibit them. He puts his players in positions to succeed, but he is no Rick Carlisle, masking flaws with smoke and mirrors.

Given the Knicks’ lack of draft picks and tradable assets, the roster probably won't be much stronger next year. If they want a significantly better record, they'll need to find a coach who can win more games than player quality projects.

Woodson will be remembered as a players' coach, one who forged strong bonds with difficult personalities but never found a way to make them much better than they already were.

Better off Brook-less?

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
10:34
AM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
Special to ESPN.com
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Brook LopezNed Dishman/Getty ImagesBrook Lopez may be the Nets' best player. The Nets may also be better off without him.
Despite going 33-15 since Jan. 1, the Brooklyn Nets will end the 2013-14 season with a worse record than they had last season. Still, these Nets were a success. If this season’s team couldn't fully overcome a disastrous 10-21 start, it did accomplish something more meaningful than a higher seed: It found an identity.

Last season, the Nets were numbingly predictable. They routinely beat up on bad teams and faltered against tough competition. It wasn’t a question of character -- they played hard. For all of their veteran players, the Nets didn’t play like a clever, cagey team. Against the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs, they were undone not by their willingness to battle on the boards with Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, but by their inability to contain Marco Belinelli in the side pick-and-roll.

It wasn’t just the X’s and O’s. Last January, Howard Beck, then with The New York Times, wondered: “Who defines the Nets? Who is their driving force, their conscience, their soul?” In that same article, Beck referenced Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett as players who offer their team definition. They stand for something, whether it’s Pierce’s pump-up-the-crowd bravado or Garnett’s manic intensity.

Now that Garnett and Pierce have joined the franchise, it’s hard not to notice the changed vibe in the Nets’ locker room. Before Deron Williams emerges from the showers, Pierce holds court, lobbing trash talk across the room at teammates, endearing himself to local media and fans with ready wit and a gravelly voice.

Garnett is something of a basketball mystic. In October he explained to reporters the benefits of a diversely talented team: “How you would write a story is different from how you would write a story or how this lady would write a story. You might be able to chug a gallon of milk quicker than she can. I don’t know. We all have our strengths, is the point I’m making.”

Brash, quirky and serious all at once. It’s that sort of vibe that connects the Nets with their fan base, as does a two-month home winning streak.

On the court, this comes through in the team’s unorthodox playing style: with a switching, reaching, deflecting defense (the Nets force turnovers more frequently than any team but the Heat and Wizards) and an offense that moves the ball and fires away from deep (the Nets have increased their 3-point attempts every month except one).

It’s that upward trend in 3-pointers and wins that reminds us of the elephant in the walking boot at the end of the bench. It’s working now, but the reality is this team wasn’t built with Pierce’s special brand of funky, stretch-4 hoops in mind. It was built for Brook Lopez, the best low-post scorer in the NBA.

Listed at 7 feet, 275 pounds, Lopez is a mammoth who almost always demands a double-team from 12 feet and in. Before he went down for the season with yet another foot injury, he had a 25.5 PER (which would rank seventh-best in the NBA) and career numbers in every meaningful offensive category. And at 26 years old, he’s still getting better.

But after breaking his right foot twice and missing 185 games in the past three seasons, it’s impossible not be skeptical about Lopez’s future with the Nets, especially with two more years and about $33 million left on his contract.

He was immensely valuable to last season’s squad, but removing Lopez from the equation this season clarified everything. Lopez is not a role player; he needs to ball to make a real impact. Even when he was playing well, catering to Lopez put players like Pierce in unfamiliar roles. All of Lopez's touches have been distributed among Nets shooters, while their big guards (Joe Johnson, Shaun Livingston and Williams) take turns attacking mismatches on the low block Lopez used to occupy.

[+] EnlargePaul Pierce
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty ImagesSince Lopez's injury, the Nets have embraced the bravado brought by Paul Pierce and others.
Lopez’s injury also made way for Mason Plumlee. The rookie forward is the type of high-flying, tip-dunking, LeBron-blocking big man that perfectly complements the Nets’ switching defense. To get the most out of Lopez, a team must slow it down and really grind out games through the post. Plumlee is simply a better fit for how the Nets are playing now on both ends.

Things are going well, but the question persists, even on the horizon of another likely first-round series with the Bulls: How long can the Nets pursue their current strategy?

Their opponent on Tuesday, the New York Knicks, know what a delicate brew good NBA chemistry can be. Last summer they lost Jason Kidd to retirement and replaced Chris Copeland and Steve Novak with lesser shooters who have hardly played in the second half of the season. After winning 54 games and the East’s No. 2 seed last season, the Knicks this year will watch the first round from home.

There are no guarantees that Brooklyn’s current run of strong play will continue, with or without Lopez. The Nets aren’t exactly spilling over with young talent. Pierce and Garnett will be out of the league well before Lopez turns 30. Livingston’s injury struggles are well-documented, and Andrei Kirilenko hasn’t played 70 games since 2008.

The Nets could consider moving Lopez to upgrade their talent on the wings or improve long-term roster flexibility. Would post game-centric Denver be willing to trade Danilo Gallinari and a pick for a premier post presence? Would a couple of first-round picks get it done? The Nets have only one of those in the next three drafts.

When the Nets went “all in” by bringing in high-priced aging talent, the assumption was that Pierce & Co. were a luxury, but worth it. Overpriced, sure, but they would be a vital upgrade. Instead, they’ve contributed to a philosophical overhaul. In more ways than one, the Nets got more than they bargained for.

While you weren't sleeping

March, 4, 2014
Mar 4
10:00
AM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
Special to ESPN.com
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LeBron JamesJustin Jay/Getty ImagesLike LeBron James here in 2005, NBA players often must find a good nap wherever they can get it.
During his heyday, Michael Jordan reportedly slept only a few hours a night. It’s a fact that’s often used as evidence to prove Jordan was something other than human. While what he did on such little sleep was of course incredible, but the fact Jordan wasn’t sleeping? Well, that’s just life in the NBA.

Take it from Kiki Vandeweghe. An NBA player for 13 seasons, Vandeweghe, now the league’s senior vice president of basketball operations, recalls that sleep was a precious commodity, always in short supply. “You made up for it by sleeping basically whenever you stopped moving. On the bus, waiting to drive to the airport, waiting for the plane, you slept.”

The NBA schedule has throttled back some since then. Back-to-back-to-backs are no longer common, but it’s still rough. At the Sloan Conference, it became clear that people around the NBA are getting wise to the crippling effect that sleep deprivation has on player performance.

You made up for it by sleeping basically whenever you stopped moving. On the bus, waiting to drive to the airport, waiting for the plane, you slept.


-- Kiki Vandeweghe
The benefits of a good night’s sleep are so fundamental to team success that many franchises now employ sleep consultants to encourage healthier nocturnal habits. Harvard Medical School Professor Dr. Charles Czeisler, who spoke at Sloan, is one such consultant. He began working with the Trail Blazers and Celtics in 2008 and made a believer out of Doc Rivers by predicting a bad loss, months in advance, just by looking at the schedule.

When Rivers originally briefed Czeisler on his team’s schedule, Czeisler couldn’t believe it. A rigorous travel schedule and late nights couldn’t help but deplete the best athletes in the world -- a blow to the teams who pay them and fans who pay to see the best at their best.

Losing even one night of sleep significantly impairs reaction time and the ability to quickly spot visual signals. In a sport where tenths of a second are the difference between a timely defensive rotation and a dunk that ends up on SportsCenter, this stuff really matters. Lack of sleep also diminishes testosterone levels -- a week of sleeping four hours a night can reduce a 25-year-old’s testosterone level to that of a 36-year-old -- and increases the body’s inflammatory response.

Speaking before a room dotted with league and team executives, Czeisler did not mince words: “It’s a disservice to the fans to have one of the teams so degraded, because there’s no way structurally to ensure the players get enough sleep when they’re on a back-to-back road trip like that from Portland to Phoenix.”

In the NBA, sometimes the schedule is a team’s toughest competition. It’s not how much or how hard they play that wears players down, it’s how rarely they can get a great night’s sleep to replenish their mental, physical and emotional reserves.

Road-weary players don’t need a doctor to tell them something’s wrong. “We just heard so many complaints from the players about how tired they were when we went to the east coast,” says former Blazers general manager Tom Penn. So, after some research, the Portland Trail Blazers hired Czeisler to consult.

The conventional wisdom for handling road trips was to get on local time as quickly as possible. On Czeisler’s advice, Nate McMillan’s coaching staff moved everything back three hours to mimic the players’ schedule back in the Pacific time zone. Remembers Penn: “The doctor convinced everyone that the circadian athlete rhythm peaks right in that 4 to 5 p.m. time and that’s when our players would be playing. Four to five o’clock on their bodies, 7 or 8 o’clock local time. It was great.”

Many teams are doing the best they can to at least mitigate the demands of the NBA schedule. For the Washington Wizards, getting sleep starts in training camp, when their sleep doctor baselines everyone on the team so they can accurately assess the players midseason.

“If they tell me the more sleep you get, the more chance you have to reduce your risk of injury -- c’mon, that’s the most important thing you can be looking at,” says Wizards senior VP of basketball operations Tommy Sheppard. “For us, if you have a choice to have a two-hour meeting or let guys go get sleep right away, cancel the meeting. We can have the meeting some other time. The sleep is by far more important, and we’re all learning that.”

The Memphis Grizzlies are the most eastern team in the Western Conference, which presents some unique challenges, especially during the playoffs. They’ve tried making their commute a few different ways, but, says John Hollinger, “I just don’t think there’s a perfect answer.”

As it currently stands, the NBA schedule itself robs fans and teams of the best possible basketball. It’s impossible to enforce sleeping habits, especially in a business chock full of owners, scouts, coaches and players who are high-achieving types, many of whom are famous for performing on four hours or less a night. But when the best players in the world are begging new commissioner Adam Silver for another break in addition to All-Star Weekend, it’s hard to argue that the Jordan model is one to follow.

The league says it is studying a wide range of health issues, including player sleep, that impact player performance, which ultimately determines the quality of the league’s product.

On Saturday, Silver said he was open to reconsidering the schedule. “I think to the extent that there’s data that says we can improve performance by changing the schedule, I’m all ears.”

The data exists. Does the will to react to what it tells us?

Maybe Silver will be up for it, if he can just get some rest himself.

Admitted the new commissioner, “I’m genuinely sleep-deprived.”

Thinking outside the box score

February, 28, 2014
Feb 28
9:34
AM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
Special to ESPN.com
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Los Angeles Lakers Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe NBA's next frontier can't be found on a stats sheet. Understanding the human body is the future.
When the first Sloan Conference took place eight years ago, it was held in unused classrooms at MIT. But after partnering with big businesses -- and yes, ESPN -- Sloan gained purchase in the broader hoops consciousness for its critiques of traditional box-score statistics. Even outside of the oceanic convention center that now houses the convention, those box-score battles now seem laughably antiquated. Rebel stats like adjusted plus/minus are now fully integrated tools of the establishment. New NBA commissioner Adam Silver, an early supporter of the conference and the advanced-stats movement, has not-so-subtly hinted that some of the numbers once relegated to the fringe will become part of the official box score of every game.

Silver comes into power at a time when many teams around the league are still working to realign their strategy with the tighter spending strictures of the 2012 collective bargaining agreement. The new set of rules is pushing teams to be smarter and more innovative than ever. What qualifies as “advanced” is always changing, and if every team is in an arms race to acquire the latest information and analytic techniques, Sloan is the premier gun show.

Part trade show, part job fair, all schmooze-fest, Sloan’s major draw is not hearing what someone like Daryl Morey has to say; it’s getting to follow up with him in the hallway later on. Sometimes the big questions aren’t answered in a paper available to the public, but in private conversations over a few beers. For all the cold-hard figures and formulas that get bandied about, at its heart, Sloan is a highly personal affair.

Fittingly, the most vital topic of inquiry among NBA executives in attendance will be data that reveal the mysteries of human biology. In the last couple years, it has become clear that the next frontier of sports analytics is the human body. For two reasons: Healthy players play better and unhealthy players cannot play at all.

Just look at the amount of money sitting in street clothes on the average NBA bench. For teams desperate to maximize the value of players, nothing could be more pressing than figuring out how to keep them on the court.

Forward-thinking teams like the Spurs are already investing, sometimes to the point of controversy, of fatigue management, and ESPN’s Henry Abbott has presented strong evidence that tired players won’t win titles. More and more teams are employing heart rate monitors in practices, and SportVu cameras in every NBA arena can log player movement in an effort to find out how much court time a player can handle and remain at close to his peak level.

Maybe the answer to player health is something as simple as sleeping more. In a conversation with ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz, Harvard professor Charles Czeisler will make that case.

Along with novel answers to old questions, NBA teams will also be looking for fresh talent -- programmers, coders and smart, young people who love sports so much they will forgo more lucrative applications of their talents in tech and finance to help teams find ways to maybe win a couple more games per season. At last year’s conference, dozens of eager applicants swarmed Celtics assistant GM Mark Zarren after he mentioned his team was looking for a programmer during a panel discussion.

The hunger of smart people with new ideas is palpable, and their desire in the presence of so many decision-makers lends the weekend an unmistakable intensity. When a presentation or paper hits the mark, as Kirk Goldsberry and Eric Weiss’s "Dwight Effect" did last year, it can send a ripple of energy throughout the building.

The Sloan Conference is now an established brand. Though it has helped raise the profile of the NBA’s analytics movement, some have cast it as the embodiment of how mystery and beauty are being drained from the basketball conversation. Sloan has a rap for being the domain of number crunchers pushing their own orthodoxy. But in the end, the people and teams who benefit most from Sloan are the ones who maintain an open mind and are willing to question everything, the ones who hold no orthodoxy above the pursuit of novel ideas.

Rather than narrowing the game to something digestible in a spreadsheet, Sloan has dramatically expanded the scope of basketball knowledge. Perhaps the best thing about the conference is that for every mystery it solves, it presents five more. This weekend, the brightest, most serious thinkers in basketball will find out what they don’t know.

Splitting the difference

February, 13, 2014
Feb 13
11:12
AM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Shaun Livingston and Deron WilliamsUSA TODAY Sports, Getty ImagesShaun Livingston has defied all expectations, while Deron Williams struggles to live up to them.
Almost seven years removed from the catastrophic knee injury that could have led to amputation, Shaun Livingston’s admirable, arduous transition from young phenom to wizened role player is the feel-good story of the Brooklyn Nets' season. Yet his bright play when all expectations of the once-presumed future superstar seemed to have vanished only underlines the struggles of the Nets' current superstar to live up to his massive contract.

Left for dead when Brook Lopez was lost for the season to yet another foot injury, the Nets are 14-5 since the calendar flipped to 2014 and have a realistic chance at snagging home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. The positive momentum began with Livingston starting while Deron Williams recovered from a tweaked ankle. With his ranginess and vision, Livingston played a crucial role in the Nets' suddenly staunch defense, even taking on Kevin Durant when they beat Oklahoma City on the road at the end of January.

In reality, only Kevin Garnett has had a more positive on-court influence on the Nets than Williams, even during this hot stretch. But "more helpful than Shaun Livingston" isn't exactly what a team hopes for when they shell out a $98 million contract. Expectations frame accomplishment. It's flat out more fun to root for the best version of Livingston we've seen in a while than the current version of Williams.

Back in 2007, the season of Livingston's catastrophic injury, Williams was riding on the superstardom jet stream. In his first playoff appearance and just his second season as a pro, Williams led the Utah Jazz to the Western Conference finals, where he averaged 25.8 points and 7.8 assists in five games against the San Antonio Spurs.

If it now seems ludicrous that Chris Paul and Deron Williams were once destined to battle for supremacy atop Point God Olympus, remember that Paul still has yet to reach the playoff depths Williams did as a 24-year-old.

What has happened to Williams' game in his three seasons as a Net is both obvious and elusive. Injuries are mostly to blame; this we know. He has fought through a bum shooting wrist, and ankles that gave him so much pain he could barely get up and down the stairs of his apartment. But the dimensions of his injury history also resist our compassion. Williams' pains don’t stem from a hippocampus-searing incident that easily explains his struggles to any fan who has been paying attention. We rarely know as much as we think about the athletes we see everyday, but Williams is especially inscrutable.

You want to talk about injury stories that elicit empathy, talk about Shaun Livingston.

Despite the bad contract and disappointing record, Brooklyn fans want to embrace Williams. When fully healthy, he's capable of running the show like no other point guard in the East. Following a pain-reducing, platelet-rich plasma treatment around last year's All-Star break, Williams averaged 22.9 points and 8 assists on 62.2 percent true shooting percentage in the season's second half.

One can imagine Deron Williams, likable New York star. As he reminded Paul in December, Williams still has the nasty handle of a classic New York point guard. He lives in a fantastic penthouse apartment in fast-paced Tribeca rather than the more typical suburban McMansion. Since their adopted son was diagnosed with autism, Williams and his wife have become outspoken advocates for autistic children. Even his occasionally truculent relationship with the media is the kind of grouchiness New Yorkers can get behind. But the series of injuries that are just debilitating enough to hold him back, but not severe enough to keep him out, has made it difficult to form that connection with a fan base still figuring out who the Nets are and what they’re about.
[+] EnlargeWilliams
AP Photo/Kathy WillensHis play may not match the wild visions elicited long ago, but D-Will has fueled the Nets' bounce back.

Now, as the Nets claw their way to respectability, Williams' contributions aren't the story. He is not the most important player on his team -- that would be Garnett -- though he certainly makes them better. He's the proverbial 40-degree day.

Heck, when Williams was healthy enough to re-enter the lineup, he did so as a substitute so as to preserve the good vibes of the Livingston-led starting unit. Now imagine Paul ever, ever in a million moons coming off the bench for Darren Collison.

In the past week, there have been worrisome signs that Williams, who is once again starting and playing major minutes, hasn't shaken the ankle problems that prevent him from shaking defenders. Sunday against Detroit, on the second night of a back-to-back, Williams' movements were dulled. The unfortunate fact may be that Williams' ankles need the Dwyane Wade treatment: rest on back-to-backs and more than 32 minutes of action only on special occasions. Facing the Pistons' porous defense, Williams failed to record an assist in 25 minutes of play.

Meanwhile, Livingston has a career-best player efficiency rating of 14.3, which is slightly below league average. No matter. Livingston is triumphing over the image of him writhing on the hardwood in Los Angeles. Expectations frame achievement.

For Williams, nagging, debilitating injuries may have put his 2007 high-water mark permanently out of reach. No one expects the Nets to be in a conference finals, and rightly so. There's something especially cruel about his decline, how its subtlety resists a compelling narrative of redemption. Maybe that's why no one wants to talk about it.

Brooklyn's brand management

December, 5, 2013
12/05/13
12:32
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Sad NetsAP Photo/John RaouxThe star-studded lineup expected to bring Brooklyn to the top of the East has been all hype thus far.
It's a Tuesday night at Barclays Center and Nets emcee David Diamante has his work cut out for him. The listless, ragged home team is once again being bludgeoned to a pulp, this time by the speed and energy of the Denver Nuggets. The crowd is disinterested at best, disgusted at worst. Diamante is a loyal Brooklynite, an over-the-top hype man from the world of boxing. Hoping to bring the crowd to life, he reaches for Brooklyn's self-identity of hard scrabble, working class pride.

"We may be down, but we're never out!" Diamante says. "Brooklyn, STAND UP!"

The crowd responds with loud boos, its most heartfelt sentiment of the night.

The Nets are 5-13 and haven't won at home in a month. Its lineup of superstars, the one many observers believed could put a real scare into the rest of the Eastern Conference, has hardly played at all. A three-story likeness of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez standing together rings the entrance to Barclays. Thus far that five has played together a grand total of 78 minutes.

The injuries have been unending and severely impacted the on-court product. But the co-opting of Brooklyn’s civic identity has never really suited this team. Its best player is a 7-foot, laid-back Californian. Lopez might be the best post scorer in the NBA, but he’s better known for low rebounding totals that belie the grit and toughness so central to Brooklyn’s self-image. Most of the people who work for the Nets’ front office still live in New Jersey, where the team still practices. The players all live outside the borough, too.

The Brooklynization of the Nets has meant cool jerseys, Jay-Z courtside, great food in the concourse of Barclays Center and the occasional piece of public art that gets a mention in the New Yorker. It’s also been a cynical commercial play to draft off the borough’s rise in national prominence and local cultural import. Two years into its residency on Flatbush Avenue, the Nets may have a stronger identity on the national landscape than they do in Brooklyn.

The team remains a flashy transplant, tossing around money for players with well-known, glitzy brands. If the franchise were a guy showing you around his apartment, you imagine him telling you the price of everything in it: "Oh yeah, that antique is a Paul Pierce. You’ve heard of him, right? Yeah, he’s great. $15 million, but, I mean, there's only one Paul Pierce.”

Pierce's former Boston colleague, Garnett, stars in a new commercial for Beats headphones. Garnett is dressed exquisitely, a professional who has earned his legendary status, as he heads into an opposing arena. Fans line up outside the arena to scream invectives and make fun of his age. Garnett slips on his headphones and drowns out the haters; he’s ready to prove everyone wrong.

"Hear what you want," the ad says.

It’s ironic, given Garnett’s actual play this season. The 37-year-old looks gassed. His defensive rebounding has somehow held up, but his Usage Rate is the lowest it has been since he was a 19 year-old rookie, and he’s on pace for his first season with a PER below the league average.

Garnett's personal defensive rating (a very noisy statistic but one not without merit) is his worst in 15 seasons, a testament to how great he’s been for so long. His credentials as the keystone of Boston's strongside zone are legendary; he would make a short list of current players fit to coach a defense himself. But Garnett is no longer capable of anchoring a defense on the court. His mind is as quick as ever, but changes in direction take a split second longer. Garnett can't reverse course nor, as he did for so long in Boston, can he defend more space than any other player.
[+] EnlargeJason Kidd
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesThe Nets' defense has sunk to last under new coach Jason Kidd.

Overall, the defense is abysmal; the very worst in the NBA. The principles appear mostly sound, but the personnel is simply too slow. Good defenses are characterized by length and quickness on the perimeter, and a lynchpin inside. Despite some other impressive imports, until Andrei Kirilenko is healthy, the Nets are big ... and that's about it.

Meanwhile, in part because of the absurd string of injuries, Brooklyn’s offense has collapsed this season after being a top-10 outfit in 2012-13. For all the criticisms of Avery Johnson and later P.J. Carlesimo’s lack of creativity, the offense worked. The Nets were top-seven in rates of both free throw and 3-point attempts -- excellent indicators of a healthy offense that generates high-value opportunities.

Led by Lopez, the Nets are still getting to the line, but they have not been able to establish any identity on offense. In reality, the only identity they have on either end of the court is negative space: The absence of those who aren't out there because of injury.

In this context, it feels cruel to judge Jason Kidd's debut season as a head coach, especially since Kidd himself publicly renounced many coaching duties in favor of delegating to Lawrence Frank. Recently, Kidd curtly demoted Frank, who coached Kidd on the New Jersey Nets from 2003-07. Frank will no longer sit on the bench or run timeouts, which he did throughout summer league and the first 17 games of the season. Frank is reportedly seeking a buyout, which would terminate the strange arrangement famously used by Larry Bird during his coaching days in Indiana.

This may correct a cosmetic issue -- cameras repeatedly caught Kidd staring blank-faced as Frank conducted timeout huddles -- rather than produce actual change. The details of the breakdown are still unclear, but that the relationship dissolved so quickly and so publicly speaks to greater structural issues within the organization. Given their history, Kidd must have known the kind of coach and co-worker Frank is before he recruited him to his staff.

But that’s just the problem with this Nets team: So many things seemed like given truths and safe assumptions, only for it all to fall to pieces almost as soon as the season began. There was nothing cynical about the preseason optimism. But you can't always trust the hype to deliver once the product is out of the box.
Tune in at 3:30 p.m. ET for TrueHoop TV Live: Playoff Preview!

We'll be chatting with NBA Insider Kevin Pelton and ESPN.com's Israel Gutierrez to break down all the biggest stories heading into the first round of the playoffs.

Twitter on Bulls' hard fouls

March, 28, 2013
3/28/13
2:25
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
Archive

Not the Bulls defense you've heard about

March, 27, 2013
3/27/13
3:59
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
Archive
Joakim Noah
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images
Joakim Noah anchors the NBA's fifth-best defense, but it has been nothing like as effective lately.

You may have heard something about the Miami Heat's win streak, which has lasted since February 3.

As the Bulls prepare to face the Heat in Chicago tonight, there's another trend to consider: The Bulls' defense has fallen off a cliff.

Once among the league's very best (and still top five in the NBA on the season) over the period of the Heat's streak, the Bulls' defense has ranked just 20th in the NBA, worse than teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Prior to February 3rd, the Bulls had the third ranked defense and gave up just 97.3 points per 100 possessions. Over the last eight weeks, they're giving up 104.9.

What’s going on?

A look at the tape shows that Chicago is still protecting the paint and closing out to 3-point shooters with typical fervor. They aren’t suddenly giving up tons more layups -- though they have slipped marginally in this area. They remain the best in the league at taking away the precious corner 3.

Fouls and free throws have been fairly constant.

The one area where Chicago’s defense has dramatically changed is in defending the mid-range. Coach Tom Thibodeau’s defense is designed to limit the most efficient shots (at the rim and from 3) while encouraging teams to shoot a ton of inefficient mid-range jumpers. Only the Pacers force opponents to take more long 2s.

Just as impressive, the Bulls have historically done a fantastic job of contesting these jumpers with long, aggressive defenders.

But since February 3rd, a heck of a lot more of those shots are falling, and it's making a big difference.

One reason is simple: in the last eight weeks, three of Chicago’s best defenders have been battling injuries.
  • Taj Gibson missed 10 games with a sprained MCL.
  • Joakim Noah missed a few games in February and continues to play through debilitating plantar fasciitis in his right foot.
  • Kirk Hinrich, a long defender capable of clogging passing lanes and smothering pick-and-rolls, missed most of February with an elbow injury and most of March with a toe injury.
  • Tonight, Marco Bellinelli will be a game-time decision due to an abdominal strain.

Then there are questions of fatigue. Luol Deng leads the league in minutes per game, at a mighty 38.9. And these are hard minutes -- Deng is in constant motion on both ends of the court. Meanwhile, even battling injuries, Joakim Noah’s playing more minutes per game than any other center, at 37.7.

Could fatigue also be dragging down the Bulls defense?

Thibodeau has been criticized for riding Noah and Deng, but he may feel he has no choice. After shedding contracts in the off-season, Chicago has less defensive depth than in previous years. Instead of Omer Asik and C.J. Watson, the players who replace Noah, Gibson and Hinrich are Nazr Mohammed and Nate Robinson.

After Derrick Rose’s injury, the Bulls front office cut salary and assets in a series of moves that seemed to signal they were essentially punting this season. What was the point in paying guys like Kyle Korver and Omer Asik for a Rose-less team that couldn’t compete with the Heat?

But the team’s struggles this season suggest that prophesy of non-contention may have been self-fulfilling. They played well to begin the year even without Rose. With a bit more depth, to keep good players on the floor even in the face of injuries, and to keep the likes of Deng and Noah fresher, perhaps they could have maintained that defensive intensity all season.

Stephen Curry and the foul that never had to be

March, 25, 2013
3/25/13
3:58
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
Archive
Stephen Curry
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images
Stephen Curry was yanked to the ground and had to leave the game.

Stephen Curry was leading the Warriors on a 3-on-1 fastbreak as the Wizards scrambled to get back. Advantage: Golden State.

Until Cartier Martin, trailing the play, made what has become a fairly routine, if constantly dangerous, NBA play. Rather than concede the offense the advantage, he grabbed Curry around the waist.

Curry is crafty, however, and initially eluded Martin with a nifty behind the back dribble. Except Martin wasn't just reaching for the ball. He wasn't really playing basketball at all. His intent was to stop the play. Instead of a touch foul, he held on to Curry who -- in a scene all too familiar to Golden State fans -- rolled over his surgically repaired right ankle (VIDEO).

Curry stuck around to hit his free throws, then went to the locker room to be examined by medical personnel. He would not return to the game.

With all those huge players moving at high speed, injuries like rolled ankles are bound to happen. But the Curry-Martin incident was in a different category of blatantly intentional fouls that never would have happened if the rules didn't encourage players like Martin to prevent likely scores with drastic fouls.

The mission of HoopIdea's Working Bodies campaign is to maximize player safety. Although a number of dangerous plays and injuries are very tough to prevent, intentional fouls are different. There's no mystery about why they occur. They are the result of conscious decision-making, not random chance. On TrueHoop in the days to come, we'll explore this overlooked but important (ask a Warriors fan!) part of the game, and what can be done about it.

 

Does the league still care about flopping?

March, 21, 2013
3/21/13
9:50
AM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
Archive
Chris Paul
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images
Chris Paul, a candidate for MVP of flopping, hasn't been punished.

The NBA began the season with a new rule against flopping, and the early indications were it made a difference.

Since 2013 began, however, the NBA has cited a mere four flops, out of close to 25,000 minutes of live ball play. Here they are, with video:
Considering that the league issued a total of 12 warnings and fines in the first two months of the season, that could be a sign the rule is doing its job, and players are flopping less.

But on the other hand, it's not that hard to find examples of flops that are going unpunished. A sampling:
Subjective observations suggests that the league, as a whole, on the season, has less flopping. But there's also evidence that the NBA is becoming increasingly lax in its policing.

The playoffs, when flopping rates are usually at their season-high, are just around the corner. Teams value every possession more in the playoffs, and therefore the incentive to flop will be high. And the league's flopping policy has always had the flaw that fines and sanctions are only handed down after the game, so a key flop still might win some team or another a playoff game.

Now seems like the right time to make clear the best game plans should not involve flops.

Also, the way the league has punished flopping has not helped to combat the perception that superstars are largely immune. The biggest name on the list of floppers this season is Tony Parker. Meanwhile the player with one of the greatest flopping reputations, Paul, has gotten off entirely, despite video evidence that he hasn't changed his style much. The league has an excellent opportunity right now to prove stars like Paul can get in flop trouble, too.

TrueHoop TV Live: Kobe's injury

March, 14, 2013
3/14/13
2:52
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
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