TrueHoop: League-Wide Issues
Danny Ainge saw him work out once and begged him not to work out for anybody else. The Celtics drafted Greene with the 53rd pick of the 2005 NBA draft.
Greene's 30 now, and there's no good reason he couldn't still be in the NBA. He isn't exactly a lights-out shooter, but he still has all the size, strength and mindset that people liked. If nothing else, he's the kind of player D-League GMs cherish.
But off the court he has become one sad complication after another, mostly of his own doing. And as a result he's a 30-year-old guy with a head full of riddles of the international power struggle between FIBA and the NBA and a yearning to pay the bills of his growing family by playing basketball just about anywhere in the world.
His problem is that he has been banned by FIBA for the better part of four years, and nobody seems to know much about exactly when, or indeed if, that ban will end.
Here's just one of the things Greene screwed up: He says he used to smoke marijuana, but doesn't anymore. To get around drug tests while playing in Amsterdam, he had a system of submitting urine that wasn't his own to the drug testers. He collected, he says, urine from three different clean people. And for a while it worked. But then it failed in various different fancy ways. As his time with the team was coming to an end, he took a drug test himself, with his own urine, and failed. Then, in the months that followed, somehow the sports' governing body figured out that other samples hadn't been his. There were interrogations, implications, some confessions.
"I didn't want to cooperate with nothing," Greene says. "One who was pissing for me, we didn't get along, so I told them his name. But I protected the two other guys. They put pressure on this other guy, and he kind of folded on me."
So they had Greene implicating one accomplice, and a different one confessing. You can see how FIBA felt they had to drop the hammer. "That kind of spiraled," Greene says, "into 'We don't want you to play nowhere.'"
In 2010, Greene was suspended for two years, backdated to 2009. But 2013 is almost over now, and he's still banned.
FIBA manages all kinds of difficult things, from the rules of international competitions to the transfer of players between countries. The NBA itself is not subject to FIBA jurisdiction, but the two bodies have staked out certain truces -- for instance NBA players play in FIBA-governed contests like the Olympics and World Championships, and the NBA won't let its teams go after players under contract in FIBA-governed leagues.
Which brings us to Greene's suspension, which seems to fall into a confusing gray area between the NBA and FIBA. Several times since Greene left Amsterdam, he has been "cleared to play" by different teams, including in the D-League, as he has been told at various times by any number of agents, lawyers, officials and advisors. There has been communication with FIBA itself in the form of various phone calls and emails that Greene can rattle off from memory. Put it all together and you get repeated instances of Greene being told he was cleared to play, then playing, and then later learning that he was never supposed to have played, had offended FIBA rules by playing. This is how his ban has lasted so long.
He has one story after another. He thought he couldn't play in the D-League, and knew he would have to go through some kind of background check to clear him to play. So when the Utah Flash wanted to add him to the roster for a playoff run a few years ago his thought was "Well, that ain't going to happen. I stayed home."
But then Drew Sellers, president of the now-defunct Utah Flash, told Greene he was cleared to play and picked him up at his house personally. Greene had a good game, the Flash won, and all seemed well in the world.
Then Greene learned FIBA was not cool with any of that, and his ban would be extended further.
There was another time he had a deal to play in China. The arrangement was that someone would meet him at the airport with his first paycheck. It seemed like he'd have real money to pay for his little children, something that gnaws at him. But instead of being met by someone with money, he was met instead by someone with a note from FIBA saying he was not cleared to play. He stayed a week trying to get it resolved, before returning home as frustrated as you can imagine.
Greene says that at one point a FIBA official told Greene the date his ban would end. Greene waited past that date, signed a deal, and then was told his ban had not in fact ended, and that the official he has spoken to was no longer at FIBA, and that his ban would be extended.
That's his story, these days. His professional life, for the last year and a half, has been nothing but one long ban extension, punctuated by a tournament now and again in the Middle East, which falls beyond the control of FIBA.
How does it all end? Who knows? But Greene says that in the interim, he has seriously downgraded his expectations. When we spoke three years ago, he was all about returning to the NBA. Now Greene says "I'm just focused on paying the bills, playing anywhere I can, 'cause I have kids now."
There are a lot of different ways basketball dreams wind down. Injury, age, bad luck. But this one, where the central challenge of his past few years has been not drug tests, nor bans, but finding out if he truly is banned or not ... that just doesn't seem like it should be a way to go down.
Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images
Portland's 3-rich offense may be untraditional, but it's also off the charts.
The Blazers have just about the best record in basketball, the best offense in the game by a fair margin and egg on the faces of every pundit in the land.
They were supposed to be mediocre, and so far they have been stellar.
A caterpillar of a 33-game winner has emerged from the chrysalis of the offseason and taken flight, on pace to double last season's wins.
Somebody has some explaining to do. Three prevailing theories:
THEORY #1: MVP Aldridge
LaMarcus Aldridge has emerged as an MVP candidate, they say. And he has been fantastic ... but his performance isn't so different from what he has done in recent years. This is only part of the story.
THEORY #2: Roster upgrade
General manager Neil Olshey deserves major kudos for his offseason, most notably in bringing in starting big man Robin Lopez who has been a monster on the offensive glass, the team's best rim protector and, most importantly, the player who let Aldridge play his preferred power forward position. Olshey also upgraded the bench, to be sure.
But remember whatever is working in Portland must account for massive, not incremental, improvement. The Pacers, Thunder and Spurs are 0-3 against this team. Could that really be attributable to Lopez, Mo Williams and Dorell Wright -- even as most people rank this year's top four Blazer contributors as Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum, none of whom are new?
THEORY #3: Dumb luck
It is undeniable. Lillard can scarcely miss with the game on the line, including Tuesday night's off-the-dribble shocker, which, as Brian Windhorst points out, was "a game-winning 3-pointer that he drilled from the edge of the center court logo with less than a second left." Matthews is shooting an insane 46 percent from 3. Not to mention, they've had a knack for encountering opponents at the right time, for instance when key players are out injured.
But the biggest luck they've had of all, if you are to believe Charles Barkley on TNT the other night, or nearly any other pundit, is that they've hit jump shots.
And, the story goes, that's not how you win in the playoffs, when rim attacks, post-ups and power basketball carry the day. This is well-worn territory of NBA commentary; Mike D'Antoni's Suns and Rick Adelman's Kings tried this high-paced 3-rich offense, and it was cute for a while, but neither won a title, proving it's an offensive approach that is more of curio than a strategy worth fearing. Like those other soft teams, the Blazers will eventually start missing, and beat themselves.
Meanwhile, Portland head coach Terry Stotts chafes at the notion there's anything gimmicky about what's working. "That," he says, "is the easy way out."
The trickier analysis, the more nuanced one, is that these carefully constructed 3-rich offenses have intractable benefits. In Portland, it starts with Aldridge, who has the length and shooting touch to score like Dirk Nowitzki without the 3s. That's somebody you'd double-team.
But, how are you going to do that? The Blazers have, count 'em, five top-shelf 3-point shooters (each shooting 38 percent or better, with at least 65 attempts in the first 26 games). Other than garbage time, every single minute of this season Portland has had at least three of those top shooters on the floor. Help off one of them, and pay in 3s. The only other guy you might help off is the big man, generally Lopez, but how can you leave a seven-footer standing all alone under the hoop?
Every instant, every Blazer is a high-risk scoring threat. And, worse for the defense, they're all so darned far apart. Coaches always talk about spacing, on this team it's like outer spacing. The 3 shooters aren't within 20 feet of each other, leaving Aldridge an unperturbed acre on the left side to make the catch and exploit a defender. NBA defenses have schemes to help and rotate, but helping and rotating with players 20 feet away takes a lot of hard running, with all of its delay and imprecision. These are defenders out of position and under stress.
When such rankings are publicly available, it's a good bet we'll learn the Blazers lead the league in open shots.
And an emerging truism of both basketball history, and cutting-edge stat geekery: There's nothing like an open shot. Shooting those shots works, and has created a collaborative mood among Portland's players.
In a Wednesday phone conversation, Terry Stotts discusses his team's early success:
Charles Barkley says your success can't last because jump shooting teams can't win in the playoffs. Your thoughts?
I think that's the easy way out.
I don't like the idea that Phoenix didn't win a championship and so what they did was wrong. If that's the case, then 29 teams are wrong every season.
We won in Dallas [in 2011] with a lot of shooters. San Antonio has changed their style, and shoots more 3s now. Miami has their approach. There isn't one definitive style that wins. To win a championship you have to be very good, top ten or so, in both offense and defense.
The best defenses take away the paint, and not many teams have been able to score well against teams like that.
But every team can't shoot very well, because not every team has good enough shooters.
You have five elite 3-point shooters, in Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Dorell Wright and Mo Williams. I just looked it up, and except garbage time at least three of them are always on the floor. Is that by design?
Those five guys play all the minutes at guard and small forward, unless we play small, and then they're at the power forward too. I can't play any other way but to have three of them on the floor. Last year, we had a different makeup, and I tried to keep two starters on the floor at all times.
We have a lot of different lineups, but I'm not concerned about three shooters specifically, other than that's how our roster is constructed.
Wayne Winston consulted with the Mavericks when you were there. He is a pioneer of adjusted plus/minus, and once told me he suspects there's magic in lineups with at least three really good shooters. He has noticed they tend to perform very well, not strictly because of the 3s, but also because it gets the defense scrambling, and increases the chances every shot will be open.
I don't know about that theorem, but I firmly agree with the idea.
Look at last year's Finals. They say defense wins championships, and it does.
But look at the key adjustments in the series. The Heat brought Mike Miller in, and San Antonio responded by taking Tiago Splitter out. The key adjustment, for both teams, was to put another shooter on the court.
Meanwhile, one of the league's best shooters, Kyle Korver, a record-setter, recently told me he played for years before any coach drew up a play designed to get him a 3.
It goes against "old school" basketball, which says "pound it inside." And that can work.
But look at the history of this league. I'm big into looking at the history of this league and the ABA. Look at 3-point shooting. We were talking about this the other day: Rick Pitino's 88-89 Knicks team shot 40 percent more 3s than the next team, and won 50 games. That was radical! They shot more 3s than anybody.
And last season? That rate of 3s would have been 29th in the NBA.
I don't think we talk enough about the effect the rule changes had on all this. For starters, for three years they moved the 3-point line in and the attempts exploded. Then they moved it back out, and the attempts stayed up, and then gradually went up even higher.
And the rule changes in 2001, that's about freedom of movement, and it changed a lot. The rules used to dictate that you could only play a certain kind of defense, and that kept the ball on one side of the court. But with more movement, you get more skill players on the court.
Those 2001 changes are still having an impact.
If your team shot even more 3s, would the offense be better or worse?
I'm not concerned with the number of 3s we take. I don't go into a game saying we need to take more 3s, and I don't worry about how many we shot after a game.
My biggest concern is the 3s that we get. If we get the ball in the post, kick out, swing pass, and you're open ... take a 3. We have five guys who are are basically shooting 40 percent. It's about quality of attempts. I'm not talking about dribbling down and taking a 3 off the dribble. Those aren't the 3s I'm looking for. It's about the ball popping and finding the open man. Those are the 3s we want, and they make us an unselfish team.
It's hard to get good shots in the NBA, if we're talking about a good shot for that player.
If you have it, you have to take it.
And there has to be buy-in of what we do. If there were a strategy that said we had to try to shoot a 3 every time down the court, that wouldn't fly with these players. Sometimes chemistry can get lost in the numbers. It's essential to get the buy-in. I'm really proud of how we're passing the ball. I think they're proud of how they run this offense. I think it's the style that works for us.
What about the idea too many 3s are bad for the game?
Change always divides people into two camps: People who want it and people who don't.
That's the way things work. All these 3s, they inspire debate. It might be good for the game. It might be bad. But the debate is good. That's how we learn.
Does it matter to you if your team is fun to watch?
I'm proud we're fun to watch. It wasn't a priority heading into the season. But it comes with what we wanted to develop. I like that kind of basketball, I enjoy it. But it wasn't the goal.
The Suns didn't win a title. Neither did the Kings. Did it delay the NBA's embrace of the 3 that those 3-heavy teams don't have rings?
Why does Dallas get left off the list? We won a title with passing and shooting. Was that too much of an outlier? Is that not accepted?
29 teams failed that year, by this measure.
I have a lot of respect for what Phoenix did for the game. The way they played? They made the game better. What we're doing right now is a byproduct of what they did, absolutely. And those Kings teams were awesome. Just because neither team happened to win a title we're going to assume nothing those teams did mattered?
To win a championship you have to be in the top ten in offense and defense, pretty much. We were outliers in Dallas, where we were 11th in defense, I believe. The other outlier is the Pistons, who were not in the top ten in offense. But if you're trying to be a champion, you have to be good in both.
So what about your defense? [The NBA's 21st-best when we spoke.]
We're working on it. And we have gotten better on D. It's not like we're not defending. Look at the different measures, we've been improving. In games decided by five points of fewer, we're a very good defensive team. We're 12-3, I happened to notice, in games when we've made 44 percent or less. It's not like we have to be making every shot to win.
David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty ImagesAbsent Larry Sanders and several others to injury, the Bucks are winning the race to the bottom.
Playing without him was an inconvenience, but not debilitating. Brandon Knight had earned the starting gig at the 1 for Milwaukee, and the third-year point guard was raring to go. But 1 minute and 45 seconds into his Bucks debut, Knight strained his hamstring pushing the ball upcourt in transition. He promptly checked out of the game, and so began the career of Nate Wolters -- South Dakota State Jackrabbit and No. 38 overall pick in the 2013 draft -- under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden on opening night.
The injuries to the point guard corps were merely the newest installments in the Bucks’ medical drama. Milwaukee signed Carlos Delfino this past offseason under the assumption that the bone fractured in his right foot during the playoffs would be healed for the start of the season. But in September Delfino suffered a setback in his recovery that moved his estimated return date back to around just before the new year. He'd need extensive bone repair therapy.
While Delfino was rehabbing, big man Ekpe Udoh had his knee scoped Oct. 10. He missed the start of the season and didn’t return to the court until Nov. 6.
The Bucks received the worst news of all only three games into the season, when Sanders was lost after tearing a ligament in his right thumb at a Milwaukee club the night of Nov. 3. The pin that protects the ligament reconstruction was removed a week ago, and he's just been cleared for light basketball activity. The hope is that Sanders will return soon after Christmas.
Hours before Sanders found trouble, Ersan Ilyasova aggravated the nasty right ankle sprain he suffered during the preseason. Four days later, Ilyasova had joined Sanders, Knight, Ridnour and Delfino on the shelf (Udoh was just about to make his return). He’d miss six games for the Bucks, then return to play sporadically for the remainder of November. The results have been dispiriting: Statistically, Ilyasova is putting up the least impressive numbers of his six-year NBA career.
The hits kept coming for the Bucks: A week after the Sanders dust-up and Ilyasova, Delfino announced via his website Nov. 9 that he’d need another round of surgery, a procedure he underwent Saturday in Argentina. The team says Delfino will be out at least another eight weeks, but it's possible he won't suit up for Milwaukee this season.
Feel-good story Caron Butler didn't feel so good. On Nov. 15, he flew to Los Angeles to consult a specialist about his tweaked shoulder and missed consecutive blowout losses to Indiana and Oklahoma City. Two weeks later, Butler was sidelined again, this time with a swollen left knee. He isn’t expected back in uniform for another week. Meanwhile, Gary Neal has missed a couple of games because of a foot injury and left Saturday's game against Dallas because of plantar fasciitis in his left foot.
There's more: Center Zaza Pachulia will be in a walking boot on his right foot for the foreseeable future after suffering a stress fracture a week ago. That leaves the Bucks with a frontcourt rotation of John Henson, Udoh, a hobbled Ilyasova and first-year import Miroslav Raduljica.
That’s a matter of interpretation.
If you’re owner Herb Kohl, the 5-19 start is a travesty. The Milwaukee Bucks brand might not register nationally, but the team’s annual pledge to put a competitive product on the floor for the community has been compromised.
One of the hallmarks of Milwaukee Bucks basketball has been the promise that if you buy a ticket on a cold winter night, there’s a better than even chance you’ll see a win for the good guys. The Bucks haven’t had a losing home record at the dilapidated Bradley Center since the 2007-08 season, but they’ve treated the local folks to only two wins in 12 games there this season.
The litany of injuries is undeniable, as is the fact that the summer’s projected starting lineup of Knight, O.J. Mayo, Butler, Ilyasova and Sanders hasn’t played a second together. The team doesn’t have a single five-man unit that’s been on the floor for 100 minutes this season. You can boast about the potential of rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo and marvel at the length Larry Drew will be able to assemble on the floor once Sanders returns to play alongside Henson and Antetokounmpo.
Yet businessmen tend to be fixated on results -- and 5-19 is 5-19. City governments and those listening to proposals about the construction of new facilities in a depressed urban economy don’t read draft reports or go to NBA salary sites for a rosy picture of the franchise’s cost structure.
A project like the Milwaukee Bucks can’t afford bad morale when it’s up against all kinds of adverse conditions. Last summer, assistant general manager David Morway spoke about how losing, even with the disclaimer that losses can be teaching moments and part of the life cycle of a young team, can become habit, which is dangerous. It’s not just players. Organizations who aren't winning and/or don’t have a definable mission like the one Sam Hinkie has in Philly, can be infected off the court, too. There are a couple of examples on opposite sides of the East River.
But if you’re a pragmatist or, possibly, a cynic, the organization might have lucked into something. Kohl’s mandate to win as many games as possible is born out of noble intentions and menschkeit, but it costs you several draft slots each season and, often, a reasonable chance at a transcendent talent.
The Bucks have some promise on the roster. Sanders has the opportunity to grow into one of the five most valuable defensive players in the NBA. We need to see more of Antetokounmpo to make a legitimate estimate of his potential, but from the ground floor it looks like a vaulted ceiling. With the front-court depth depleted, the Bucks are asking a lot of Henson and he’s delivering consistently. He doesn't currently have the stretch to be a logical counterpart to Sanders up front, but the learning curve is on a steep upward ascent.
No one in good conscience can say injuries are anything but bad -- they cause victims pain in the present and anxiety about the future. But unintended consequences can have benefits. Speaking of Henson, his smart, confident voice is growing louder in a locker room that needs some young guys who express a belief in what might be possible in Milwaukee. The Oklahoma City model is referenced a lot, but one thing that’s commonly left off its list of characteristics is how the young Thunder core took ownership of the enterprise, even when they were losing a ton of basketball games.
There were questions coming into the season about how much action Antetokounmpo would see. The injuries to Delfino and periodic absence of Butler have wedged the door open a little bit more. People around the league have been surprised by what Khris Middleton has demonstrated in big minutes as a starting small forward.
But the Bucks need another big talent before this thing becomes real, and if current trends continue, they’re in prime position to add one through the June draft. There’s a good deal of irony at work, namely that a team that promised to make every attempt to be competitive is the Eastern Conference’s least. Sometimes serendipity is better than brilliance.
Lineup: Patrick Beverley, James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones, Dwight Howard
Minutes Played: 180
Offensive Rating: 114.6 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 97.8 points per 100 possessions
How it works offensively
For years, the Rockets worked toward a day when they could employ elite talent to create an offense around basketball’s most efficient shots. With the acquisition of Dwight Howard, that day has arrived in Houston.
The numbers are outrageous: 53 percent of the starting unit’s shot attempts have been taken in the basket area, and another 26.3 percent of them come from beyond the arc. That means nearly four out of every five shots for this unit originate from one of the sweetest spots on the floor -- almost unheard of. Per 48 minutes, this lineup has scored 14.7 points more than its opponents just at the rim, coming into Thursday night.
James Harden, Howard & Co. generate these premium shots by adhering to two basic objectives: Don't let the defense get set, and find the quickest, best shot off the first action. There's an assumption that the Rockets' starters have appropriated the offense of Howard’s Orlando Magic teams from a few years back: “Surround Howard with shooters, and go from there.”
Yes and no.
Howard’s Orlando teams launched from long range, but those shots were products of more deliberate half-court sets. The Rockets are a little less orderly, though the starters are hardly their most frenzied unit.
All five guys can do positive things in transition. They also initiate a lot of possessions with early drag screens on a controlled break, with the intention of maintaining that break long enough for the ball to find an open guy. Unlike the Magic, with their four proficient outside shooters fanned out in spatial perfection around Howard, his Houston quartet is involved in a more jagged, improvisational production.
A good number of these early screens are built around Harden, who lords over the chaos. He loves to attack a defense that’s still getting organized, barreling into contact, maneuvering his way to the rim, stepping back for a jumper or generally creating mischief. He manufactures these points at will. If the defense sinks, he’ll kick the ball out -- often with the intention of getting it back.
Lately, defenses have been giving Harden a bit more cushion to shoot. One coach recently privately conceded that given Harden’s knack for drawing fouls, and his middling numbers from long range, yielding a little space to Harden isn't the worst strategy.
But Harden isn't the only option early. On the weak side, Terrence Jones might make a basket cut, or Chandler Parsons will trail, pick up the ball on the move or catch a pass in stride before stepping into a 3-pointer. Parsons has exceptional court vision, so he can move the Rockets into their next action if the shot isn't there. Patrick Beverley isn't much of a spot-up threat but isn't a bad place to have the ball early because that allows Harden to get on the move against a discombobulated defense.
This unit's slower half-court stuff isn't all that systematic, much of it designed around post feeds for Howard. He has more vision down low than we give him credit for, and gathers information as he backs a guy in. When Howard is on the left block with the ball, he spins low and finishes with his left if he doesn’t see help coming along the baseline. If he does, he turns middle and moves into his running hook. This isn’t anywhere close to the Rockets’ most efficient offense, but if Howard on the block is the gristle on the steak, the team is in good shape.
Naturally, Harden gets plenty of opportunities to isolate when the game slows down. He knows where the vacant spots and empty lanes are on the floor. Harden makes a handful of bad decisions per night, but the volume of creativity more than compensates for it. The aesthetics leave something to be desired -- the constant head-jerks and flailing are like bad miming -- but it’s hard to argue with the production.
The Rockets now have increasing faith in Beverley to get them into a half-court possession, but his first two imperatives are still to get the ball into the hands of Harden (off a pin-down, curl, etc.) and Howard (simple entry pass). Beverley is the weak link offensively but doesn't cost this unit a lot. He’s just passable enough from 3 to require some monitoring, and he’s not a bad distributor even if he doesn’t rise to the level of playmaker. All in all, Beverley plays a smart game. In parts of two seasons now with Houston, he’s put up some of the team’s best overall on-off ratings.
Kevin McHale has some old-school sensibilities and likes to hunt for a specific matchup advantage and call that number. Against the Warriors recently, Terrence Jones got a bunch of opportunities to work one-on-one opposite David Lee, and torched him. Two nights later, the Rockets looked for Howard against Glen Davis, with Howard raising his hand on the block like a guy trying to get a server’s attention.
This extends beyond individual matchups. The Houston starters are quick to recognize when they have a tactical edge. Up against the paint-packing Spurs in that nutty game a couple of weeks back, they drove at sagging defenders then looked outside and generated a couple dozen good looks from long distance. Against an interior-minded defense, they’ll also run a dribble handoff with Howard and either Parsons or Harden way, way up top. If the small defender can’t get over Howard, the shot is going up without hesitation.
That might be the defining characteristic of this unit -- decisiveness. The ball doesn't always pop around the half court, not with Harden and Howard taking their fair shares of touches for one-on-one situations. But even those possessions are characterized by a clear purpose.
How it works defensively
With Howard situated in the middle of the defense, the Rockets are implementing the inverted principles that guide their offense -- denying opponents good shots at close range and open looks from behind the 3-point line.
Remember that stat up top that highlighted the Rockets taking four out of every five shots either at the immediate basket area or from beyond the arc? For the starters' opponents, that combined number is a paltry 55.6 percent. That’s the equivalent of facing a Doug Collins-coached offense every single night.
The starters take full advantage of the luxury that accompanies a center like Howard underneath. Howard is a patient, mobile rim defender who might have lost some bounce over the past couple of seasons but has cultivated a veteran big man’s nose for sniffing out schemes.
At first blush, it might appear as if Howard is less aggressive, but there’s clearly a defensive mandate to hang back, guard the rim and avoid triggering a rotation. Against pick-and-rolls, Howard isn't a Duncan-esque extremist when it’s time to drop, though he’s certainly inclined to maintain interior control. He commits very early to the driver, and weakside defenders are on alert early.
Jones usually follows the same tack as a pick-and-roll defender, immediately corralling the ball handler, arms extended. But if Jones' counterpart at the 4 is a threat, the Rockets will switch up the coverage. Jones might jump out hard on the pick then scamper back or have Howard tag his man.
Against lethal scorers and playmakers, there are instances when the Rockets will launch a blitz and double the ball -- and not just against a high screen. Playing small against Golden State, Beverley and Jones trapped Stephen Curry deep in the backcourt as soon as the ball crossed the time line. And even with Howard underneath, the Rockets will send another body at an opposing big man working on the block, as they did Thursday night in spots against LaMarcus Aldridge.
One of the better barometers for a defense is how well it responds when it has to improvise. The Rockets adapt well, aided in large part by Howard’s strong ability to buy time for Beverley or Harden and Jones’ flexibility as a guy who can hold his own against most bigs and wings. Howard will rove more than most goalie-centers, but he’s become a bit more selective as a helper and weakside menace. He no longer feels the need to contest anyone and anything in his field of vision and doesn’t enjoy defensive commutes as much as he once did.
The Rockets have found something in Beverley, who gives them a capable on-ball defender who has the wherewithal to monitor what’s going on behind him, how much time Howard can buy him on a given action and when not to gamble. He isn’t an easy guy to beat off the dribble, and when an opposing player dumps the ball off then simply tries to clear through, Beverley loves to bump him off course.
Harden doesn't contribute much defensively. He's not a guy who closes out with any effectiveness, and help from Harden generally means an idle stab at the ball while the driver zooms past. It’s impossible to know for sure since Harden has never been a motivated defender, but the presence of Howard seems to serve as yet another crutch for Harden’s when-the-feeling-strikes brand of defense.
Parsons is an average defender and Jones is a bit undersized in the half court, but as a tandem they’re insanely athletic, which comes in handy when the game turns into a track meet. Both forwards lend the defense a degree of versatility, because both can hold their own on the perimeter and in the post against most competition. With Beverley pressuring the ball up top and Howard guarding the paint down low, it’s a defense that can check just about every box.
Special to ESPN.com
The first time that a person who wasn't black used the word "nigga" to address me face-to-face came when I was out of the country. I was playing basketball for a team in a small, largely Croatian village in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I was walking down the street when I passed three adolescent boys going in the other direction on the opposite side. They were visibly excited to come across a black person in the flesh and called out to me: "Hey man, what's up? Hey, my nigga, how you do?" I didn't respond. I didn't know how to respond. I kept walking, feeling my ears burn and my jaw tighten. In my mind I saw images of barking dogs. The rest of the walk home was a blur. When I had cooled down, I wondered: Were they really trying to insult me? Or had their exposure to black culture led them to believe that this was how I'd like to be greeted?
There are generally four schools of thought on the word "nigga." There's the first and largest group -- black working-class (but not exclusively so) people who say it casually because it's what they've always done, or simply because they don't like being told what to do. There's the small but vocal group of middle-class black intellectuals who claim to have "reclaimed" the word, to have turned it into a term of endearment instead of a tool of oppression. It's a neat solution to a messy problem. It ends in "A," after all! This line of thinking is what led us to where Kanye West is currently -- "re-contextualizing" Confederate flags as tour merch. This last seems idiotic at first blush but might yet be proven to be genius. It's too early to talk about it with any sort of nuance, but it's a good marker of the extreme left of the dialogue.
The third group is comprised of the "respectable Negroes," the bootstrap types, the "don't you embarrass me in front of these white folks" crowd. Also largely middle- and upper-middle class, the worst of these would have us believe that if black men only pulled their pants up, stopped littering and stopped calling each other that word, racism and poverty would come to an end.
Last but certainly not least you have the extremely sympathetic older generation that worked to have the word eradicated from white people's vocabularies only to find it shouted from street corners and blasted from car windows in the future they worked so hard for. Carried to the extreme, it's best represented by the NAACP, which literally attempted to bury the word "nigga" in a well-intentioned but ultimately irrelevant funeral in 2007.
As I've played and traveled in various countries around the world, I've often been in situations with another person or their family and realized that this was their very first time meeting a person with skin like mine, shaking his or her hand or breaking bread over the dinner table. It is a strange weight to go from "representing your race" to Representing Your Race, but certainly bearable.”
Our academics would have us believe that the word is fine when in context, used without malice as a term of endearment. It's a simple equation in the U.S. Racism = prejudice + power. "White people" are excluded from using it because of their forefather's complicity in the slave trade and subsequent years of oppression. The paleness of their skin serves as prima facie evidence of their inability to use the word.
But where did the boys from Bosnia-Herzegovina fit in? They used it as a greeting. They were not a threat to me or my well-being. They didn't represent any white-power structure -- their country never had any slaves or colonies, and furthermore you'd be hard pressed to find any point in the past 100 or so years when the average Slav was better off from a material standpoint then a black American. If the word's power comes not from any intrinsic value but from the power structures behind it, why was I so angry?
As I've played and traveled in various countries around the world, I've often been in situations with another person or their family and realized that this was their very first time meeting a person with skin like mine, shaking his or her hand or breaking bread over the dinner table. It is a strange weight to go from "representing your race" to Representing Your Race, but certainly bearable. I've been unusually fortunate. For various socioeconomic reasons and sheer lack of numbers, very few African-Americans leave the United States. The percentage of Americans with passports is reported to be anywhere from 10 to 30 percent. Black passport ownership is believed to be some fraction of this. This means that for the vast majority of the world, the first (and likely only) exposure to African-American culture they will have in their lifetimes is through the Internet. Sports highlights, YouTube clips, memes. These people are receiving all of this without the framework that undergirds every interracial interaction in the U.S. This is not to say our rules are impossible to ascertain, but it makes it very, very difficult.
Highlights, music videos, memes. There is a very popular meme among black people that is occasionally funny, generally depressing and seemingly never-ending. It's called "Niggas Be Like." An example: A picture of a Stevie Wonder with the caption "NIGGAS BE LIKE: 'I'LL PAY YOU BACK NEXT TIME I SEE YOU.'" There are thousands of these on the Internet. You could easily copy and paste some of them on to a white supremacist site without anyone noticing; the conspiracy theorist in me wants to believe that's who keeps coming up with them. But the good ones are the sort of in-joke that has come to be understood as OK within cultures.
The first time I saw one of these, it had been posted by a former teammate of mine. The second person I saw repost one was a white girl. She was German, was dating an African-American soldier, felt like she had been given a pass. I know her personally, know she isn't racist. She is someone who wants to belong, and for whatever reason, the "pass" is seen as the ultimate sign that you're in. It actually is the natural extension of the tortured logic of that second school of thought -- if the word is now a term of love, of endearment, then a white person who can say that word without consequence is loved beyond any other. It would be, it must be, the pinnacle of white cool.
So who gets a pass? Most people, myself included, would argue that people with a black parent are fine. It didn't anger me when I heard that Matt Barnes used it. Conversely, I was dismayed to hear that Richie Incognito used it openly and often, but I know how locker rooms work. All it takes is one black guy to say, "Come on, man, you can say it, you know you my nigga" and all hell breaks loose. It's like a gun ban or a tax increase -- not feasible in a world of people with differing standards.
I've been in locker rooms where European players used it nonchalantly around black players, mostly when singing along to song lyrics. Occasionally, I'd pull someone aside and ask them to stop. This was mostly greeted with a look of confusion, an unanswerable question ("But why do you guys say it so much if it's such a terrible word?") and, finally, acceptance and an agreement not to do it again.
Outside of that basic, American, black/white binary, the lines are hard to define. What about Puerto Ricans and Dominicans? Africans? Indians? Last year during a casual conversation, a half-Malian, half-French teammate told me, "Nigga, quit lying!" I asked him not to call me that, please. He was genuinely hurt. "What, I'm not black enough to say that? I don't count?" It dawned on me that it wasn't just his attempt at speaking my language -- it was an expression of solidarity. It was an assertion of blackness. He was placing his flag on the ground. I told him that it had nothing to do with being black enough, or that he somehow hadn't earned the right. It was just simply that I'd prefer to be called something else.
That's the best way to describe how I feel. I'd prefer to be called something else. Call me by name. I try to express this quietly. I'm not interested in shaming anyone, so if I don't have the opportunity to say something privately, I won't say anything at all. I think it can be addressed only on an individual level. Personally, I make an effort not to use it, but I reject the notion that it makes me a better person. It's what works for me. I would prefer not to be called that by anyone, but I understand why certain black people do it. Everyone's experience is different. I grew up fairly privileged, in a family in which I never heard the word uttered. I can't be certain that they never said it privately, but my parents made an effort to set the example for me that it wasn't appropriate. I knew without asking or ever broaching the subject. My mother would even balk at a description of another person as "dark-skinned" or "light-skinned." She'd ask, "Isn't there a better way you can describe that person?" I was never truly in the habit of saying "nigga," it was just something I did as a teenager because that's what other kids did. This made it easy for me to give it up. I can't judge other people who have a stronger attachment to it.
Though I dislike the word, what I dislike even more is people moralizing as if poverty, discrimination and institutional racism are the proper rewards for a few slips of the tongue. These critiques are almost always classist and sometimes explicitly so, with privileged people bemoaning a "lack of class" or a "bad upbringing." This sort of asinine scolding only serves to derail the conversation. They lead to people equating words with weapons. It can never be said enough: The tools of enslavement were not words. The tools of enslavement were guns and ships and limited liability companies. Slavery doesn't start with you calling me a nigger instead of sir; it starts when you have a gun and I have a sharpened stick. And it ends not with dictionaries or thesauruses, but with you putting down the gun. It's the age-old swindle of I'll respect you when. "I'll respect you when you pull up your pants, when you stop talking like that, when you cut that hair." For women, it comes as "I'll respect you when you cover your hair. Your midriff. Your knees. Your ankles. Your face." This is a con game, and I sympathize with those who refuse to play it.
Still, I don't know what to say to the older generation. It must be a particular sort of hell to strain against oppression, toe the line cautiously for decades, only to see young black men make millions from rhyming "niggerish" with "nigga-rich." It's unfortunate but feels too late to interdict. The horse has bolted and galloped around the world, and they would have us lock the barn door from the inside.
This is, of course, impossible. The only way I see forward is a sort of live-and-let-live approach. For white people, I would still advise extreme caution. Please spare us your anecdotes about your noble black maid, your "I know my opinion doesn't mean anything, but gosh it makes me uncomfortable" op-eds. And please don't say it. This is hypocritical on its face; of course you have the right to say whatever you want. I know, I know, First Amendment. I even sort of understand the appeal. It's taboo, and everyone wants to get behind locked doors. I just think that this thing, this one thing and virtually nothing else in society, is something you probably shouldn't have. There are probably many younger people who disagree with me; I've heard that teenagers across the country of all races use it indiscriminately without anger. That would have been absolutely unthinkable to me only 10 years ago, but now it doesn't seem impossible. It could be that the future lies in nothing being off-limits to anyone. The world as an unrestrained, post-racial locker room.
Until it comes, we can only police ourselves and the areas around us. Sweep your own doorstep. I expect to be offended. I expect that I'll have to get used to it. The price we pay for modernity is always the discomfort of the old folks with some new aspect of it. I guess I'm getting old, too.
Since graduating from Virginia Tech, Coleman Collins has played professional basketball in Europe and the D-League, after a brief stint with the Phoenix Suns. Currently, he's the starting power forward for the Ukrainian team Azovmash. He's also a semi-regular TrueHoop contributor.