TrueHoop: Kevin Arnovitz
November, 27, 2014
ATLANTA -- The Toronto Raptors won’t accept your compliments. Marvel at the 126 points they dropped on the Atlanta Hawks on Thanksgiving eve, and they’ll squawk about the 115 they gave up at the other end. There’s even a cognitive dissonance to the Raptors’ language, as head coach Dwane Casey twice said after the game that his team “kept grinding it out.”
Coach Casey, we just witnessed your team leave burn marks on the floor at Philips Arena. There was nothing remotely grind-ish about it. Your guys got whatever they wanted on the night. They produced clean looks out of thin air and looked great doing it. Overall, your Raps have posted nearly five points more per 100 possessions than the second-ranked offense in the East. So when you say “grind” -- twice! -- I do not think it means what you think it means.
The Raptors’ reluctance to bask in the glow of their gaudy offensive numbers is understandable. This core in Toronto has come of age with team defense as its hallmark. During his decades in the coaching ranks, Casey has developed a reputation as one of the most imaginative defensive minds in the game. In Dallas, he fashioned a scheme in which the Mavs floated from man-to-man and zone in the same possession. In Toronto, his team goes against the grain, as defenders force ball handlers to help rather than pushing them sideline and down, the prevailing trend in the league.
It’s not as if Toronto wasn’t offense oriented -- we’re talking about a team whose primary threats in recent years were Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan -- but the Raptors never won many style points when they had the ball. Kyle Lowry bowled his way to the rim, or a wing found a mismatch and went to work -- low-risk, low-turnover and, yes, grind-it-out offensive basketball.
Know what? The Raptors still run a guard-oriented offense that’s programmed to get good looks for their perimeter guys, with the ball in Lowry’s hands for the bulk of the possession. Sure, they’ll put the blossoming 7-foot Jonas Valanciunas or backup forward Patrick Patterson on the move to run interference, but this is still a straightforward scheme. But, man, it runs like clockwork.
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Amir Johnson,Kyle Lowry and guard Lou Williams celebrate their team's sixth straight win.
Wanting to better understand how the Raptors have built one of the league’s most prolific offenses, I hit up Raptors reserve othersized big man Chuck Hayes after the game. A longtime Rocket whose first two coaches in the league were Jeff Van Gundy and Rick Adelman, Hayes typically has interesting stuff to share about the inner workings of a team.
“It’s nothing like what we ran under [Adelman] and it’s nothing like what we ran under Jeff Van Gundy, a lot of left-right, work both sides of the floor,” Hayes said. “We’re going to run sets where our guys can get to their sweet spots for high-percentage shots. We’re going to get DeMar a shot he works on constantly -- he’s a killer from 17 or 18 feet. His footwork is unbelievable, so we get him the ball in space.”
To better illustrate this the-right-shot-at-the-right-spot-for-the-right-guy offense, Hayes cited a moment when Toronto led by 10 with a little more than eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter. With their reserves on the floor, the Raptors ran a pick-and-roll -- the kind of action you see a few dozen times a game from each side, but this one served a specific purpose.
“This gentleman didn’t score all game, but then we run a play for him,” Hayes said, intentionally withholding the name of the player in question. “It was James Johnson. He had Kyle Korver on him. So we play to [Johnson’s] strengths. At his size, he gets the ball at the free throw line. Our spacing allowed him to make that Eurostep and beat the help. He hadn’t scored the entire game until we called that play. He’s not in rhythm, he’s got the flu, he hasn’t put up many shots. But we’re going to give him a shot at his sweet spot. That’s a high-percentage shot for us.”
This play call doesn’t materialize out of nowhere. The Raptors had examined the matchups on the floor and made note of what was available. Greivis Vasquez and Lou Williams were both unconscious, which had prompted the Hawks to tighten up their perimeter defense. They threw a trap at Vasquez and, just like Hayes said, the Raps leveraged the coverage.
There’s nothing specifically novel about this strategy. If a defense moves outside, then you move inside. If it pressures one side of the floor, you reverse the ball to the other. This is what NBA teams do on a nightly basis.
But as the first month of the season comes to a close, the Raptors have elevated pragmatism to an art form. They’ve taken several imperfect offensive pieces, identified what each one does best, and tripled-down on that skill. “Everyone stays in their lane,” as Casey likes to say. That might lack the flair of his innovative defenses, but discipline is its own kind of creativity. And right now, the Raptors have created something beautiful in its simplicity.
October, 24, 2014
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesThis season, NBA referees will be aided by a replay center in N.J. that will help them make calls faster.SECAUCUS, N.J. -- “I love this,” said Joe Borgia, the NBA’s senior vice president of replay and referee operations.
Borgia and his team devised a true-false quiz on the NBA rulebook for a group of journalists and we were bricking question after question. A few minutes later, the video portion of the test wasn’t much easier. I denied Kendall Marshall continuation when he was fouled on a drive to the hole, and it wasn’t until Borgia’s aide replayed the reel frame by frame that I saw my error. On first watch, I swore Marshall gathered the ball, planted a foot, then took two additional steps before going up. But in slo-mo, Marshall took only the two permitted steps after cupping the ball against his torso -- totally kosher. I was dead wrong.
Even as Borgia dinged us, the exercise was all good times, but the underlying message was obvious: Officiating professional basketball is inordinately difficult for mortal beings. On Tuesday night when the 2014-15 season opens, those mortal beings will have a little more help from the shiny, new NBA Replay Center at NBA Entertainment’s headquarters in Secaucus, New Jersey.
That means when you see game officials at an NBA arena this season gather in front of the monitor at the scorer's table after a play triggers a video review (there are now 15 instances when that happens), those officials will be looking at clips, images and angles that are curated at the replay center by an individual who is not only well-versed in the arcana of the rulebook, but who has no other priority for three hours than to monitor the game in question from nine different camera angles. Standing behind that person, quite literally, will be a senior NBA honcho -- for example, Borgia, Rod Thorn (president of basketball operations) or Kiki VanDeWeghe (senior vice president of basketball operations).
“Here was the issue that we wanted to solve,” Steve Hellmuth, the executive vice president of operations and technology, said. “The referees would huddle, come over to courtside. By the time they got there, frequently the broadcasters and the production guys had already shown the answer maybe three or four times. Then [the officials] are looking at the video and our referees are looked upon as slowing things down. It’s, ‘Why don’t they know. I already know.’ Well, now during that time interval, we’re going to be working with the video.”
In past years, NBA officials relied on broadcast producers to provide video of a play. If a ref at the scorer’s table wanted a baseline angle or the precise moment a point guard gathers the ball during an off-ball foul call, he’d have to ask for it. The producer in the truck could have an Emmy to his name, but he might not know what a “gather” is and probably wouldn’t ace Borgia’s rulebook quiz either.
Borgia recalled the simulation the league performed during the five games of the NBA Finals. Game 1 in San Antonio had been rough, and before Game 2, he asked the producer for a few new angles, including the overhead camera. Borgia’s request was granted quite literally -- the replay team had the blimp shot for Game 2.
When basketball officiating lifers communicate with even the most talented live game producers on the planet, a lot can get lost in translation. But an officiating lifer like Borgia, his charges at the individual game consoles and the refs on the ground share a common vocabulary.
“We speak the same language,” Borgia said. “We don’t have that issue. When [game officials] come on, we sort of know what they want, whereas a producer, as great as they may be, ‘OK. Clear path? What the hell is a clear path?’ They don’t know the criteria. We’ve got it set up. We’ve had some [preseason situations] as short as seven seconds of video.”
The change in process and personnel will undoubtedly speed up the replay process, which is crucial for a league that sees flow as one of its greatest edges over sports such as football and baseball. The way Borgia, Thorn and Hellmuth explained it, the replay center -- decked out with nearly 100 monitors, 14 very cool individual game consoles each featuring nine camera angles, six more behind those, the presence of wise men with decades of collective NBA experience -- will tee up crystal-clear evidence that will make the call abundantly obvious. It’s almost as if the replay center is making the call ... except that it’s not, which the NBA is very intent to emphasize.
In the view of the league’s top basketball operations people, officiating is an experiential task that must be performed on the court of play. A guy sitting in Secaucus can’t hear a power forward tell his defender, “Do that again next time down and I’ll beat your ass,” and he can’t get a clear decibel reading of the intensity of the game. Technology is an aid, but it’s not a substitution.
“From our standpoint, we don’t want to take it away from a referee right now,” Thorn said from the replay room Thursday.
But if Secaucus has already watched the sequence one frame at a time from three optimal camera angles and is certain of a call before a game official has picked up the monitor, why not just furnish him with the call? If the goal is to (a) get the call right and (b) make that call as quickly as possible, isn’t the most efficient route to say into the game official’s ear, “Chicago ball”?
“Two years from now, that may be,” Thorn said. “Down the road, yes. Right now, we want to make sure we get this thing right and god knows what the glitches may be. So far everything has been fine but we’re not in the regular season and I’m sure some things will come up that we’re going to have to deal with. Our feeling was that we’ll leave the ultimate decision in the hands of the on-court crew chief with his guys for right now. But there may come a day when you have a chip in your ear, you’re running down the floor, you wave your hand about a 3-point shot and Joe Borgia says, ‘His foot was on the line. It was a 2,’ so you don’t even have to go over to the table.”
We have been on that incremental path for some time now. Though this is the first season of the command center, replay is now 12 years old. There will be a day in the future when thermodynamics might be the best way to determine contact on a foul call or motion sensors can detect traveling. The game will always look different -- and from the vantage point of a console in New Jersey, toggling between nine angles, frame by frame over Eric Bledsoe’s crossover from Wednesday night’s Phoenix-Clippers game, it looked mesmerizing. If the NBA’s investment in technology pays off, it also will look more fair than ever.
October, 16, 2014
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Clippers, once L.A.'s indie darlings, have gone mainstream. Is the future theirs for the taking?The Ballmerization of the Clippers and the rejection of “eternal Clipper hell” doesn’t mean Los Angeles isn’t still a Lakers town. Clippers fans know that, and many of the lifers wouldn't want it any other way. The team has long been an expression of sports counterculture, a dive bar for NBA-crazed Angelenos who can't tolerate the velvet-rope club, Team Bukowski. Tribal identities are difficult to shake, no matter how much history evolves.
One of Los Angeles’ newer tribal identities is “eastsider.” Much of the cachet that used to belong to the city’s westside has moved that way, and these neighborhoods on the downtown side of Western Avenue have caught fire. Westsider Baron Davis could see it coming three years ago.
This year’s cult television comedies, “You’re the Worst” and “Transparent,” are set in Silver Lake and neighboring environs, and their thirtyish characters claim eastside citizenship as an element of their urban identity. Ryan Gosling and James Franco have planted stakes in the neighborhood. Are these real and fictional people Clippers fans? Unknown, but spiritually that’s where they live. If they’re not, their kids, unburdened by the past, will be.
There has long been a civic obsession in Los Angeles about the future, probably because there isn’t as much of a past. The city has been playing a game of catch-up with its eastern brethren and San Francisco for more than a century, and has never stopped building. That’s a nice ethic for a city to have, but it also encourages Angelenos to get lost in a fantasy of what the city will look like. The most alluring feature of Spike Jonze’s “Her” last year was his imagination of Los Angeles’ near future -- a dense urban paradise, greener, walkable; a warmer, more communal place that still gets more than 300 days of temperate sunshine.
Given current trends, would the Clippers be a better representative of that future Los Angeles than the Lakers? It’s hard to say, but the normalization of the Clippers under Steve Ballmer, Doc Rivers, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul means this is a legitimate question for the first time. According to an ESPN Sports poll, NBA fans are far more likely to switch allegiances -- OK, bandwagon hop -- than fans of other sports. Los Angeles is a young and diverse market that's obsession with the future only compounds the possibility a championship-caliber Clippers team could make up ground, especially if the Lakers swing and miss on the league’s marquee free agents and stop playing basketball in May and June. At least that’s the thought.
The Clippers as the city’s team of the future isn’t a bad piece of casting. When a glossy mag wants to showcase the next-wave American athlete on its cover, it brings Griffin in for a shoot. With Griffin, Paul and DeAndre Jordan in the leads, the product on the court is fast, physical ... modern. Meanwhile, the Lakers limp to the starting line with a couple of aging, brittle Hall of Famers seven seasons or so past their prime and a few adhesives.
Under an owner who, as a matter of principle, believed that capital investment is a gimmick, the Clippers lagged behind most of the league in areas of innovation. With Ballmer and Rivers presiding, the organization has expanded its analytics operation, pushed its way to the front of the line for snazzy tools that used to be the domain of the Texas triumvirate and are listening to cutting-edge health specialists. With no real guiding principle other than the preservation of tradition for its own sake, the Lakers were the lone holdouts at the 2014 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and still regard the European market as a novelty.
Los Angeles’ core is more dynamic than most, but power and wealth are still concentrated in the 310. The Clippers are beginning to gentrify the basketball landscape in town, but it’s not as if Paul, Griffin and Rivers are moving next door to Jimmy and Gretchen from "You're The Worst" or hanging out on York Boulevard -- they live west. And no matter how unsightly the freak show gets, the Lakers will continue to rule, at least for a good while. Fifty-two percent of NBA fans in Los Angeles call the Lakers their favorite team. The Clippers draw only 12 percent. Kobe Bryant is the favorite of 55 percent of those fans, while Griffin checks in at 4 percent. Those numbers will move in the coming years -- and they already are. The Clippers clocked in at only 2 percent to 3 percent just three seasons ago, while the Lakers have tumbled considerably from 70 percent. But turning Los Angeles into a Clippers town still might not occur in Ballmer’s lifetime.
AP Photo/John LocherCan Blake Griffin become the face of Los Angeles sports once Kobe Bryant cedes the throne?
The Loy Vaught-Michael Cage contingent in Clippers Nation might not care if the team closes the gap, but the silent majority would love to see counterculture turn mainstream in Los Angeles -- and so would the organization. Pioneering new territory is all well and good, but you still need somewhere to eat in the neighborhood, a reliable grocery, some decent coffee and a dry cleaner that’s worth a damn. Ballmer didn’t spend $2 billion for a boutique storefront; he wants to own the block.
What will that take? Aside from hanging some fabric alongside the sleek new LED fixtures at Staples Center, Griffin evolving into an iconic star. As the old trope goes, the NBA is a superstar league and the Lakers’ dominance is as much an expression of Magic and Kobe as it is the rings. Bryant will soon retire, and when he does that 55 percent will come off the board and it’s Griffin’s for the taking if he can parlay his crossover appeal into broad approval.
Demography and rivalry aside, maybe the better question is whether it matters at all. Does a team need to win the popular vote in its market to affirm itself or its fans? The revenue from a more robust local cable deal would be nice, especially since Ballmer figures to be spendy, but Clippers fans might just prefer to keep the chains out of the nabe, and Griffin as their indie hero.
October, 1, 2014
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe action stalls out when it's free-throw time. Would the NBA be better off granting just one shot?I went looking for a photo of a free throw to accompany this story. Finding an appropriate image is tougher than you’d think.
A search for “Free Throws NBA” on Getty Images yields about 25,000 results, the majority of which are close-ups of the individual shooter, usually a name player. In a good number of those pictures you see a guy looking at middle distance wearing more than a blank look but less than a game face. A foul shot is one of the few moments during a game when a photographer can snap an unobstructed shot of a star. Absolutely nothing of substance or style is going on -- no acrobatics, broken ankles or rare feats. It’s a scene that could be re-enacted by any 10 fans in the crowd.
About 26 times per game last season, the action screeched to a halt and players shuffled to their spots to watch a 15-foot set shot. An NBA game featured 47 of these moments on average. It creates a world, as HoopIdea described more than a year ago, in which exhilaration quickly gives way to deflation.
Intelligent people can debate the virtues of the free throw, whether it’s an appropriate deterrent, a necessary evil, etc. But it’s hard to argue that the 15 to 20 minutes it takes to administer several dozen free throws in an NBA game aren’t the most forgettable moments of the night. Any editor charged with trimming the fat from the story would inevitably tag these blocks as the place where the narrative drags. There’s a reason rebroadcasts often skip over free throws, and why at games thousands of fans almost reflexively check their smartphones the instant a foul is whistled.
Around last season’s All-Star break, preliminary chatter began among the league’s basketball operations folks and rule geeks about the prospect of reducing all trips to the free-throw line to a single foul shot. D-League president Dan Reed and Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey were the closest thing to co-sponsors of a bill. Nobody was proposing anything to be fast-tracked, but an imperative to figure out ways to shorten pro basketball games gave the idea some life as something to consider implementing in the D-League.
The concept was this: A player fouled in the act of shooting or in a penalty situation would attempt only a single free throw. If that player was shooting a 2-point shot or in a penalty situation at the time of the foul, the free throw attempt would be worth two points. If that player was fouled in the act of launching a 3-point shot, he’d go to the line for a single shot worth three points.
By doing so, those 47 attempts per game would be whittled down to about 26. There’s no hard data on the average length of time it takes to shoot a pair of free throws, but my stopwatch clocks it at approximately 45 seconds from the sound of the whistle to the second shot reaching the rim. A trip to the line for a single technical or an and-1 situation, though, takes about 30 seconds. These numbers vary wildly. (Walking from one end of the floor to the other after a loose-ball foul takes an eternity, whereas a shooting foul in the paint is a short commute. You also have a fair share of Dwight Howards who can be timed with a calendar.) But we can fairly approximate a second or third free throw as a 15-second exercise. Using that estimate, scrapping 21 free throws from a game would shave more than five minutes of stoppage from the average NBA or D-League game.
“We’re an entertainment product, and the more free flow in basketball, the better,” Morey said. “All the surveying supports that. Basketball is better when basketball players are playing basketball. Stoppages mean less basketball, which is boring. It also means an over-instrumenting of the game. It’s a beautiful game and the closer you can get to two well-prepared teams playing back and forth without interruption or over-management, the better.”
Four rules last season ranging from reducing the number of timeouts to demanding that teams facilitate quicker substitutions trimmed a total of two minutes from D-League games. That’s not insignificant, but it’s a fraction of the five minutes that would be saved if the D-League went to a single free throw. And those five minutes come entirely during a stoppage of live play, unlike, for instance, a measure to shorten a quarter from 12 to 10 minutes, which would snip eight minutes of game action.
Reed kept the conversation about free throws alive on calls and informal conversations through the spring, and the D-League’s Basketball Rules Committee took up the issue at their August meeting. By that point Reed had departed for a position at Facebook and, without a vocal advocate, the committee decided not to pursue the idea any further.
“It’s an interesting concept,” said Chris Alpert, the D-League’s vice president of basketball operations. “But as we discussed it further with the basketball guys, we just felt it would be compromising the integrity of the game and players’ statistics. We didn’t want to skew a player’s free-throw shooting percentage and we didn’t want to compromise the purity of the game.”
In support of the skewed stats argument, the D-League brandished stats that showed that players convert the second of a pair of free throws at a better rate than the first (for D-Leaguers, 71.1 percent vs. 76.3 percent; for NBA players, 73.2 percent vs. 77.7 percent). The trend holds for three-shot trips, as well, as players get progressively more proficient from the first to third attempts. On single attempts -- which would be every trip to the line under the proposed reform -- the D-League shot 71.8 percent, while the NBA shot 72.8 percent.
Would eliminating second and third free-throw attempts drop the league’s overall free-throw percentage? If you believe the data would translate to a single-attempt system, then yes, slightly. But a reform would have absolutely no bearing on the competitive dynamics of the game. The foul line isn’t being moved out or in, and scrapping a second and third free-throw attempt would affect both teams equally. Free-throw percentages have been variable throughout time (they were added after the advent of basketball, and even then, their current point value and the location of the shot weren’t settled until 1895), floating from the low to high 70s for the last 50 years or so. Meanwhile, the D-League instituted international goaltending rules in 2010, which has resulted in additional field-goal and blocked-shot opportunities at the rim, particularly for big men. Individual stats have undoubtedly been affected.
A degree of randomness that didn’t previously exist would be introduced into individual games. For instance, a 75 percent shooting clip at the stripe wouldn’t necessarily yield 75 percent of the available points on a given night. Let’s say a guy makes four trips to the line -- three of those attempts for two points each, but one for only a single point (an and-1 situation). Hitting three of four (75 percent) might only yield 71 percent of the available points (if the miss comes on one of the two-point attempts). Or it might yield 86 percent of the available points (if the miss happens to come on the and-1 attempt).
But over the course of the season, this stuff evens out and the overall mathematical effect is close to nothing.
The more likely reasons the proposal didn’t gain more traction are more cultural than empirical. Apart from being at least marginally profitable for those who invest, the D-League has two central mandates as an enterprise:
- Provide an environment in which talent can develop the skills to succeed in the NBA
- Serve as the NBA’s research and development lab
These two missions are in no way mutually exclusive, but they coexist with an occasional degree of tension. Certain voices in the game place a higher degree of import on one objective over the other. A basketball lifer who experiences the game as a former player and is rooted in certain fixed truths might place a higher premium on continuity than a blue-sky thinker whose appreciation for pro basketball are driven by a passion for innovation and imagination for what basketball should look like two decades down the road. We’ve tackled many of these ideas over the last few years at HoopIdea.
Reed was squarely in the innovation camp and his departure has been met with some sadness among the league’s futurists. Morey and others have characterized Reed as a guy who understood how to fashion new ideas and how to temper the anxieties of those who might be nervous about their implementation.
Gregory Shamus/NBAE/Getty ImagesDan Reed is officially out of the NBA innovation game. Will another big thinker take his place as D-League commissioner?
That’s a difficult balance to strike and one reason why identifying Reed’s replacement is a very big hire for the NBA and the D-League. The hope in midtown Manhattan is to have a new president of the D-League in place before its season begins in mid-November. A bias toward innovation is essential, because the gravitational pull among much of the league still veers toward institutional tradition, even if new commissioner Adam Silver is a change agent at heart.
The dead-ball free throw conversation is instructive of these conflicts between tradition and innovation, development and research. It’s far easier to believe that this particular idea got shot down because a radical proposal that feels alien to the game we know and love requires some time to marinate before cautious people upset our perception of what a pro basketball game is supposed to look like. An idea often needs to work its way through the cycle of discussion and consideration a few times before a level of comfort can be achieved. Once decision-makers turn the concept over in their heads a few times, they can form a fact-based argument for or against.
For instance, those 15 or 20 minutes of dead time during free throw attempts could be vital to in-game recovery for players. That may or may not be true, but it makes more sense as a suggestion than the idea that eliminating dead-ball free throw would ruin the statistical integrity of the game.
The league could certainly get away with a safe hire and opt for a “weak executive” model in which decisions are made by the collective opinion of the most powerful voices. There are no shortage of people in the NBA world who feel they have the expertise to run a satellite league that exists almost entirely to accommodate the NBA.
But the NBA and D-League’s current momentum is all the more reason to double down on the success. New York should find a forward-looking influencer who will continue to see the D-League as an incubator for experimentation, not because incubating ideas is more important than incubating basketball talent, but because the NBA and its affiliate already have plenty of smart people who develop players. Developing the consensus for change is far more challenging.
July, 16, 2014