TrueHoop: Al Horford

Monday Bullets

February, 25, 2013
2/25/13
5:59
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
  • When is it cool or not cool to boo your own player on his home court? The jeers for Andrea Bargnani have grown increasingly loud at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. Blake Murphy of Raptors Republic writes that as bad as Bargnani has been this season, the former No. 1 overall draft pick hasn't crossed the Vince Carter threshold in Toronto and shouldn't be subject to the home boo. Eric Koreen of The National Post says that while Bargnani is a reasonable target, the booing borders on the absurd when fans start killing a guy because he got caught with a hand grenade at the shot clock buzzer and fired up a desperation heave: "When fans boo him without cause, the valid points get lost. The booing is not helping, as Bargnani is shooting just 30% at home this year compared to 47% on the road."
  • There was an active Twitter argument today about weather as a factor in free agency. To that effect, here's what "relaxing after practice" in February looks like in Los Angeles. And here's what coming home from a long February road trip looks like in Miami.
  • Steve McPherson of Hardwood Paroxysm on dunks in the digital age: "[G]reat dunks are not strictly physical acts carried out in three-dimensional space before disappearing into an unrediscoverable past. They are not simply performed, but witnessed, recorded, replayed, ingrained in our memories. They are spontaneously generated, but not out of the void, not from nothingness. They instead occur where the ley lines of practice, talent, chance, the known and the unknown converge to create something larger than life. In this way, they are less part of a game and more akin to musical improvisation."
  • Let's say you and your teammates make a pact to not shave until the team gets to .500. What happens if you get traded? Dahntay Jones, who went from Dallas to Atlanta at the deadline, is sticking with the pledge even though he's no longer a Maverick [Hat Tip: Rob Mahoney of The Point Forward].
  • At Friday's MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Kirk Goldsberry and Eric Weiss will be presenting a paper that takes a hard look at how to evaluate interior defense. The Bucks' Larry Sanders plays prominently in the study.
  • Big guys tend to get passed over in final-possession situations at the end of games. Down one in that situation on Saturday night, the Hawks inbounded the ball to Al Horford. The play calls for a hand-off to Devin Harris, but as Peachtree Hoops shows us in pictures, Horford opted to keep the ball and back down Larry Sanders one-on-one. Horford was aggressive on the drive and found an easy bank shot from the right side to win the game for Atlanta.
  • After an 0-for-8 start from the field in his season debut on Saturday, Danny Granger drains his ninth attempt and the Pacers' bench goes berserk.
  • Michael Pina, writing for The Classical, on Kenneth Faried: "Pull any possession from Faried’s career and in some order he will soar, crash, overheat, and explode. Catch him at the right (or wrong?) moment, and all these things will seem as if they're happening at once. He seems to be enjoying himself, and he is already very effective, but he also plays with all dials squarely in the red. But to look at Faried and wonder what will happen when he "learns how to play" doesn’t quite work, either. Faried will get better—in areas like boxing out, setting screens, learning a post-move or two, and gaining overall insight on the defensive end—if not likely to the point of reinvention. He will never be Tim Duncan. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and those responsibilities will never intersect. His job, to stick with the tautological statement thing, will be to be himself, and he will always do it better than anyone else could."
  • Jarrett Jack God Mode is a thing in Oakland.
  • Stephen Jackson: Less impressed with In-and-Out Burger than your average Spur or Californian.
  • The Basketball Jones took a Twitter meme on the road to Houston, asking NBA players (and Russell Westbrook himself) whether Westbrook is a cat or a dog. Watching the video, you get the sense there are some macho implication at work here, as some of the responses suggest that portraying a fellow player as feline is emasculating.

 

Atlanta's O after Iso-Joe

August, 21, 2012
8/21/12
2:03
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
Archive
Jeff Teague
Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty ImagesJeff Teague will be the driving force in Atlanta's new offense.
Months before dramatically re-shuffling their roster, the Atlanta Hawks had a real shot at the Eastern Conference finals. But in their tight, injury-riddled opening-round series against the Boston Celtics, the Hawks' offense seemed a team of two minds.

Ever since Joe Johnson arrived in Atlanta in 2005, the big scoring guard defined the Hawks’ tempo and style of play. Though Johnson himself was a reasonably efficient scorer in Atlanta’s isolation-heavy attack, the Hawks’ offense was usually in the middle of the pack during his tenure. In the Hawks' series with Boston, a team whose defense is specifically designed to counter isolation scorers, he managed just 37 percent shooting and was unable to get into the paint off the dribble -- he hoisted six 3-pointers per game.

Then there was the other side of the Hawks’ playoff offense, one fueled by high pick-and-rolls between Jeff Teague and Josh Smith. While Teague was, at times, sloppy with the ball, the explosive point guard routinely raced around the edges of the Celtics’ help defense, carving tunnels into the center of Boston’s second-ranked defense.

The two styles weren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but certainly Teague’s fantastic athleticism would lend itself to a faster pace than the more controlled, measured isolation-focused offense.

But after trading Johnson to the Brooklyn Nets, it appears the Hawks have decided to give Teague the keys to the offense. Instead of wing isolations, the new Hawks roster is well-equipped to adopt an up-tempo, spread pick-and-roll attack more along the lines of Steve Nash’s old Suns than anything we’ve seen from Atlanta in the last five years. Expect the Hawks to incur some dings and scratches early on, but this offense has the potential to be one of the most efficient and prolific in the East.

Here’s how it could work:

The system
The fundamental purpose of a spread pick-and-roll offense is to open up the middle of the court. That’s the space that is the most difficult for help defenses to account for, which partly explains why Dirk Nowitzki’s high-post game was so devastating in Dallas’ 2011 championship run.

Typically, two or three shooters align themselves along the 3-point line (often in the corners, to make helping off even harder) while the point guard and big man run a pick-and-roll in the middle of the court. As the screener rolls to the rim, the other big man (assuming he isn’t a Ryan Anderson-type that can camp out on the perimeter) flashes up from the baseline to the top of the key.

While there are countless permutations, the essential goal is to create a 2-on-1 in the middle of the court between the point guard and the big man rolling to the rim. When a defender rotates off a shooter to help down low, the point guard must find the open man.

The engine
Though he doesn’t have to be Atlanta’s best offensive player, Teague, who is 24 years old and coming into his fourth NBA season, would be the most important piece in a pick-and-roll based offense. A passable 3-point shooter, Teague has a burst to the bucket that rivals elite athletes like John Wall and Derrick Rose. Because it takes only a sliver of daylight for Teague to end up with two points at the rim, his explosiveness puts real pressure on the entire defense. When defenses play soft, he can counter with a nice little floater. For a guard still considered somewhat raw, Teague is an adroit pick-and-roll scorer.

That helps, because though Teague reads the floor well, he isn’t an especially creative passer like Rajon Rondo. Still, Teague seems to regard himself as a more traditional point guard than a super-scorer like Russell Westbrook. Teague's 4.9 assists per game in 2011-12 are a bit underwhelming, but it’s not bad considering how much Johnson and even Smith dominated the ball in the half court. But even in his hybrid role last year, Teague showed good feel for knowing how to occupy the defense’s attention then pass off the dribble.

That’s going to come in handy this season, when he’s surrounded by a full stable of shooters.

The second (and third) gunman
A spread pick-and-roll is only as effective if the shooters pose a real threat to the defense. Enter lights-out gunners Kyle Korver, Anthony Morrow and rookie John Jenkins. Heck, even Devin Harris, who will likely share the backcourt with Teague in a two point-guard lineup along the lines of the Andre Miller-Ty Lawson pairing in Denver, shot 39 percent on spot-up 3-pointers last season.

HoopSpeak's Brett Koremenos has a theory I really like called “The Rule of Three,” which boils down to the idea that it’s much easier to have a really efficient NBA offense if at least three shooters are on the court at once. That doesn’t mean 3-point shooters, necessarily, which means Al Horford’s reliable long-2 game counts. Zaza Pachulia is decent from there, as well. After general manager Danny Ferry’s run on 3-point bombers, the Hawks have enough shooting depth to keep the corner-3 battlements manned at all times.

High on the High-Low
Al Horford and Josh Smith might be a little undersized for a starting front court, but they complement each other wonderfully in a pick-and-roll offense. Criticisms about Smith’s shot selection are deserved, but there’s no doubt he is one of the elite finishers in the NBA. Even though he’s listed at 6-foot-9, Smith stretches the floor vertically in a manner similar to 7-footers like Tyson Chandler. The threat of Smith catching on the move, whether it’s a lob or a bounce pass en route to the rim, can cause defenses to sink into the paint even before the ball is passed his way.

Meanwhile, Horford (a skilled finisher himself) is a deadly pick-and-pop player who can command attention even 18 feet from the rim, not unlike what Chris Bosh often does for Miami in secondary pick-and-roll actions. What’s more, both bigs are good passers and ball handlers that can be trusted to find cutters and shooters as the defense scrambles.

Filling the void
Stat guru Bradford Doolittle projects Atlanta to come in second in the East next year in large part because Johnson’s long jump shots will be replaced by more efficient shots like free throws and 3-pointers. Of course, Doolittle also expects Atlanta to win fewer games than they did last year (by percentage), perhaps because, despite getting Horford back, there are serious questions about whether this team can again be a top-10 defensive outfit.

But the departure of Joe Johnson is also a fresh opportunity for Atlanta’s team offense -- and especially Jeff Teague. If Atlanta’s personnel moves are an indication of the team’s on-court philosophy, we will see the 2012-13 Hawks evolve toward a more exciting and efficient style of offense.

The treadmill of the very good

July, 27, 2012
7/27/12
7:52
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Atlanta Hawks
Kevin C. Cox/NBAE/Getty Images
After five seasons in Atlanta, the band broke up.

Some people back home in Atlanta want to know what this upheaval with the Hawks is all about. They’re not angry or suspicious or euphoric or charged -- just ambivalent about what they’ve witnessed since the arrival of Danny Ferry as the Hawks' new general manager. There’s a collective awareness that Ferry’s aggressiveness is regarded as positive by those who follow this stuff closely, but the implications of these big decisions are still cloudy.

For years, the Hawks maintained a dogged consistency. By and large, they deployed the same collection of talent, with a little turnover on the periphery. The quality of the basketball was reliable to the point of predictable. Fans, as well as those inside the organization and around the league, became accustomed to certainty.

It’s the same feeling patrons of a city’s symphony or philharmonic experience when a music director or conductor moves on after many years. Supporters grow to expect continuity at the hall. The music should sound a certain way and the performances should achieve an honest standard. When that all ends, it can be jarring.

For 20 years, Robert Shaw was city’s maestro at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. He was a choral guy, and that was never my bag. But even though Shaw was no Bernstein, he gave a Southern arts community that was trying to get on the map a long, successful run. When Shaw stepped aside in the late '80s, Atlanta was a far cry from the artistic backwater it was when he started.

Hawks fans have lived with the same reality for several years. As a class, they never had championship ambitions, but after years in the wilderness, the serious fans among them were generally satisfied with the Joe Johnson-Josh Smith-Al Horford Hawks.

Johnson wasn’t transcendent and definitely wasn’t worth the money, but he gave the team a chance to win every night -- and more times than not, it did. Fans who went to a home game from the moment Johnson, Josh Smith and Al Horford came together in 2007 to the end of the past season had a 70 percent chance of watching a home victory.

The product wasn’t all that spectacular stylistically -- though Smith had his moments -- but in an era when there are fewer constants in sports than ever, the Hawks’ firm place in the NBA’s upper middle class provided a decent life for fans in Atlanta.

With Johnson gone, they don’t know what to expect in 2012-13. Has Ferry officially blown up the enterprise, or is there a chance the team can craft a decent pick-and-roll offense with Jeff Teague at the helm, newcomer Lou Williams on the wing and the familiar, versatile front line of Smith and Horford?

So when the old Omni gang asks me what’s going on, I tell them to expect even more uncertainty and to embrace it. Of course, telling sports fans to embrace uncertainty is like telling a goldfish to recite verse, especially when those fans have concluded that steadiness and a .600 win percentage are ends unto themselves. They aren’t all that hospitable to the idea that resigning yourself to 45-50 wins and a middling playoff seed annually doesn’t make a lot of sense, even while they acknowledge the logic behind the argument.

I recently made the case to a friend that the more forcefully Ferry swings that wrecking ball in Atlanta, the better. This friend then reminded me that, growing up in Atlanta during the Wilkins era, we never bitched about the futility of pulling for a 50-win team. Those were blissful times. Every season, our team was in the conversation. The Hawks had a recognizable core -- ‘Nique, Doc, Willis, Tree, Randy, Spud, ‘toine, Cliff. Even Koncak -- and the Hawks had a puncher’s chance against the Celtics and Pistons in a seven-game series.

Looking back, there was definitely some lingering disappointment that the team didn't fulfill its full potential, but we still saw a lot of compelling basketball. The Hawks won a ton of games during our formative years as fans, so why on earth would we have wanted anyone to upset that security for the sake of getting worse … for the sake of getting better?! Can you imagine how we would’ve reacted had the team been ripped apart during a period of sustained success because of … payroll flexibility?! In fact, you know when things started turning sour? When management tried to get cute and signed Reggie Theus and Moses Malone, both on the other side of 30, in an attempt to push all in.

It would be uncharitable to classify this kind of thinking as Stockholm syndrome, even if it’s rooted in defeatism. Ferry’s strategy is the right tack at the right time because the Hawks desperately needed to get out from under Johnson’s contract if they ever want to play an Eastern Conference finals game, something they've never done.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t costs to efficient team-building. Forty-five or 50 wins a season would nourish a lot of fans in places like Oakland, Washington, Milwaukee and even New York. That might not be a recipe for a title, but we all need to be fed.

Pacers avoid Game 6, race to semifinals

May, 9, 2012
5/09/12
1:24
AM ET
By ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
Archive
On a night when four teams could have ended their first-round playoff series, only the Indiana Pacers claimed a spot in the Conference Semifinals.

After losing the series opener, the Pacers dominated the series against the Orlando Magic. In the clinching game, they outscored Orlando 18-0 in fast-break opportunities and 46-22 in the paint. For the series, they held a 69-13 advantage in fast-break points and outscored the Magic by 76 points in the paint.

Darren Collison dished out 23 assists and committed just one turnover during the series. Since individual turnovers were first tracked by Elias in 1978, he is only the fourth player with 20 or more assists and one or fewer turnovers in a playoff game. The others were John Paxson (1990 Bulls), Fat Lever (1988 Nuggets) and Eddie Johnson (1987 Sonics).

Dwight Howard's injury doomed the Magic before the series started. Including the playoffs, Orlando finished 5-12 without their starting center and 33-21 with him in the lineup. This was the fifth time in the last 20 years that a team was missing its leading regular-season scorer in the playoffs – all five teams lost in the first round.

The Boston Celtics had a chance to eliminate the Atlanta Hawks, a team against which they had won nine of 10 previous playoff series. According to Elias, that .900 series winning percentage is the highest for any team against another in NBA history (with a minimum of six series played).

This was the 12th time under Doc Rivers that the Celtics had a chance to close out a series on the road; they have only succeeded twice. They return to the comforts of TD Garden on Thursday, where they are 7-3 under Rivers in potential close out games.

The key for the Hawks on Tuesday was Al Horford. In the 41 minutes that he was on the court, the Hawks outscored the Celtics by 10 points and grabbed eight more rebounds. While he rested, they were outscored by nine.

With a chance to finish their series against the Chicago Bulls, the Philadelphia 76ers couldn’t even match their nickname in the point column. Philadelphia was held under 70 points in a playoff game for the second time since the shot clock was introduced in the 1954-55 season. The franchise low was 68 points against the Magic in the 1999 playoffs.

With the win, the Bulls avoided becoming the first No. 1 seed since the playoffs were expanded to 16 teams in 1984 to win fewer than two games in the playoffs. The four previous top seeds to lose in the first round all won two games before they were eliminated.

The Los Angeles Lakers were looking to win their ninth-straight potential series-clinching game, but lost at home to the Denver Nuggets. It was their first loss in a potential close out game since Game 6 of the 2009 Western Conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets. According to Elias, that was the fourth-longest such streak in NBA playoff history. The Lakers also own the longest, 12 straight from June 2000 to May 2004.

Kobe Bryant scored 43 points in the loss, the 84th time in his career that he reached 30 points in a playoff game. The only player with more was Michael Jordan, with 109. It was the 12th time that he reached 40 in the playoffs and first since the 2010 Western Conference finals.

Hawks fly to finish against Bulls

May, 9, 2011
5/09/11
12:11
AM ET
By ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com
Archive
Josh Smith scored 23 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and added eight assists as the Atlanta Hawks defeated the Chicago Bulls to even the series at two games apiece.

Smith became the first Hawks player to have a 20-point, 15-rebound, 5-assist game in the playoffs since Moses Malone, who did it in a loss in 1989. No player had done so in a Hawks playoff win since 1966 (Bill Bridges).

Smith, like the rest of his teammates, saved his best for last as he scored 11 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter.

Atlanta entered the fourth trailing by two with the daunting task of trying to come from behind against the NBA's best fourth-quarter team. (The Bulls had +187 point margin in fourth quarter during the regular season.)

But it was all Atlanta down the stretch as they finished the game on a 16-4 run over the final 4:30 of the game to pull out the victory.

Al Horford (20 points), who shot an efficient 9-for-11 from the field for his fifth career 20-point playoff game, had six points during the Hawks final run.

During that same span, the Bulls only took five field goal attempts thanks to three turnovers, two of which were committed by Derrick Rose.

A quick glance at the stat sheet would make it appear Rose had another stellar game as he notched 34 points to go along with 10 assists, his first 30-point, 10-assist game of this postseason.

However, he needed 32 shots for those 34 points, taking home the rather dubious honor of becoming just the third player in the past 20 postseasons to take 30 field goal attempts and record 10 assists in a non-overtime game.

The others to do so were LeBron James in the 2007 NBA Finals against the Spurs and Kevin Johnson in 1994 against the Rockets. Not coincidentally, both of those players lost as well.

Still the Bulls will likely chalk this loss up to a letdown on the defensive end in the fourth quarter. Atlanta shot 65 percent from the field in the final frame.

Including both the regular season and postseason, the Bulls had allowed opponents to shoot just 41 percent from the field in the fourth quarter, best in the NBA.

According to game footage, the Bulls held the Hawks to only 52 points on possessions in the half court through the first three quarters. However in the fourth, the Hawks scored 31 of their 33 points in the half court, making 12 of their 18 field goal attempts.

The key for Atlanta was getting the ball inside. Of the Hawks 33 fourth-quarter points, 22 came in the paint, with another six coming from the free throw line.

Griffin posterizes a car for dunk title

February, 20, 2011
2/20/11
1:44
AM ET
By ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com
Archive
SPRITE SLAM DUNK CONTEST
Blake Griffin was a heavy favorite to win the dunk contest and he didn't disappoint, capping his night with a dunk over a 2011 Kia Optima after receiving a pass through the car's moon roof from Los Angeles Clippers teammate Baron Davis.
Blake Griffin
Griffin


Taller players tend to struggle with the voters when it comes to the dunk contest, but Griffin - at 6'10" - became just the third player 6'10" or taller to win the contest. Griffin joins Larry Nance in 1984 (6'10") and Dwight Howard in 2008 (6'11").

JaVale McGee, who lost to Griffin in the finals, would have become the tallest to win the contest at 7'0".

FOOT LOCKER THREE-POINT CONTEST
James Jones of the Miami Heat came away with the victory as he scored 20 points in the final round. Jones is the third Miami player in the last five years to take home the title, joining Jason Kapono in 2007 and Daequan Cook in 2009. The Heat have won four overall, tying the Celtics and Bulls for the most in the event's history.

Jones has been shooting the ball well this season, sporting a 42.1 three-point percentage, which is his highest at the All-Star break since the 2007-08 season when he was at 46.7 percent with the Trail Blazers. Jones was able to win the contest despite not receiving any passes. We mention this because Jones does not have an unassisted field goal this entire season.

TACO BELL SKILLS COMPETITION
Stephen Curry took home the title with a time of 28.2 seconds. It was the fastest by a winner in the event since Deron Williams set an event record of 25.5 seconds in 2008. Chris Paul was making his fourth appearance in the event, most of any player, but did not advance past the first round.

HAIER SHOOTING STARS
The Atlanta team made up of Al Horford, Coco Miller and Steve Smith came away with the win. Team Texas was trying to become the first team to repeat as champions since the event's inception at the 2004 Los Angeles All-Star weekend. The Atlanta victory came in 70.0 seconds, which is the slowest time by an eventual winner, smashing the previous "record" of 58.4 seconds by the 2009 Detroit team of Arron Afflalo, Katie Smith and Bill Laimbeer.

Fisher, Bogut both beat buzzer Wednesday

December, 9, 2010
12/09/10
3:42
AM ET
By ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com
Archive
Derek Fisher hit a game-winning layup to beat the Clippers on the same night that Andrew Bogut tipped-in the game-winner for the Bucks to beat the Pacers. That's the first time that two game-winning buzzer-beaters were hit on the same day since January 19, 2009 when Chris Paul and Dirk Nowitzki both beat the buzzer.

Derek Fisher
Fisher
At 36 years and 121 days old, Fisher is the oldest player to hit a game-winning buzzer-beater since Glen Rice did it for the Clippers in 2003.

Beating the buzzer is nothing new for Fisher. Since 2002-03, including the postseason, Fisher has hit three buzzer-beaters in games in which his team was trailing. The only player who has hit more in that span is Fisher's teammate Kobe Bryant who has hit six.

Elsewhere around the NBA:

• Amar'e Stoudemire continued his strong play with 34 points and 14 rebounds in a win over the Raptors. Stoudemire has now scored 30 or more in six straight games. That is the second longest streak in Knicks history behind the seven-game streak set by Willie Naulls in the 1961-62 season.

FROM THE ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU: Stoudemire is the first player with 30 points in six straight games, all wins, since LeBron James (seven straight in 2005-06).

• The Knicks have now won six straight for the first time since January 2-13, 2006. Speaking of six straight, the Heat have also won six in a row - all by double-digits.

• After a slow start to the season, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have found their rhythm on the court together. Over the last six games, the Heat have outscored their opponents by 22.3 points per game when all three are on the floor. During the first 17 games of the season, the Heat outscored the opposition by just 8.2 points per game when all three were on the court together as Miami went 9-8.

• The Timberwolves lost 111-103 to the Thunder, but Kevin Love had another big game with 22 points and 21 rebounds. It is the fifth time this season that Love has gone 20-20. The rest of the NBA has combined for five such games.

Hawks' next move? Wolves feeling Love?

November, 1, 2010
11/01/10
5:02
PM ET
Ford By Chad Ford
ESPN.com
Archive

Here are some notes I collected this weekend and this morning:

• Al Horford's five-year, $60 million extension came as a mild surprise to a number of GMs around the league on Monday. Clearly the Hawks love Horford and the toughness he brings to their front line, but can they really afford him after giving more than $100 million to Joe Johnson this summer?

Several GMs believe the Hawks won't be able to keep Johnson ($18.5 million in 2011-12), Josh Smith ($12.5 million in 2011-12), Marvin Williams ($8 million in 2011-12) and Horford ($12 million in 2011-12) together past this season for financial reasons.

While Horford's new salary won't push the Hawks into the luxury tax, it will put them very close. The move means they won't be able to afford to re-sign Jamal Crawford, or replace him with a similar salaried player next season, without incurring the tax.

That situation is already leading to speculation that GM Rick Sund may be forced to put Smith on the market soon. Sund briefly flirted with trading Smith last summer, before pulling back. While no one is claiming he's been made available yet, a number of GMs around the league expect his name to be in the mix by the February trade deadline.

Williams would be the Hawks' first choice to move, but he didn't get a lot of bites when he was available this summer. That could push them to see what they can get for Smith.

A number of teams, including the Knicks, Nets, Pistons and Suns, have shown interest in the high-flying forward in the past. It will be interesting to see if talks heat up as we get closer to February.

The extension for Horford (along with previous extensions for Kevin Durant and Joakim Noah) essentially takes away the three best restricted free agent prospects from the draft class of 2007.

Still, the restricted class is pretty strong. Greg Oden, Marc Gasol, Thaddeus Young, Rodney Stuckey, Jeff Green, Aaron Brooks, Mike Conley, Wilson Chandler, Brandan Wright, Arron Afflalo, Yi Jianlian and Marcus Thornton haven't received extensions as of Monday afternoon. (UPDATE: Conley signed an extension on Monday night.)

Typically restricted free agents struggle to get big offer sheets, and if they do, their team usually matches. But given the plethora of teams with major cap space this coming summer, that could change.

• The Timberwolves drew the wrong types of headlines on opening night when head coach Kurt Rambis benched forward Kevin Love in the fourth quarter of a tight game against the Kings.

Love was clearly unhappy and it didn't take long for fans to start a "Free Kevin Love" campaign. Love had a rocky relationship with the Wolves last season, too, and this clearly wasn't the way to start off the new season.

However, those who think Love is going to be traded soon are going to be disappointed. Sources say that the Wolves and Love have talked since the game and that going forward, Rambis won't be benching the team's best player in the fourth quarter. While Love clearly could use some work on the defensive end, he's the franchise right now until Ricky Rubio arrives (if he arrives) and the Wolves are going to do more to make sure he's happy.

• Speaking of the Wolves, don't be too hard on GM David Kahn for taking Wes Johnson over DeMarcus Cousins. The Wolves didn't think he'd be a fit next to Love. But that wasn't the biggest reason they passed. There was a bigger concern that Cousins would be too much to handle in the locker room -- especially on such a young team.

Those concerns, according to sources, are already being borne out in Sacramento. While Cousins has played very well in the summer league, preseason and in the Kings' first three regular-season games, there are concerns.

Sources close to the Kings tell me that Cousins has earned his reputation for being difficult. Several players on the team have complained privately about his attitude and he's already butted heads with assistant coaches in practice.

• On draft night, the Knicks caught me by surprise when they took Stanford forward Landry Fields with the 39th pick in the draft. Fields was in our database ranked as the 116th-best player in the draft. He's the first American player ever to be drafted that wasn't in our Top 100 since we started doing this in 2003.

Clearly, I blew it.

Fields has earned a starting position for the Knicks and through three games is posting a very impressive 19.30 PER -- better than both Blake Griffin and Cousins.

How did I (and a number of NBA teams) miss so badly? Our Top 100 is based on the consensus of a number NBA scouts and executives. Fields wasn't mentioned by any of them. He was so off the radar that he wasn't one of the top 60 players invited by the NBA to participate in the Chicago predraft camp. The NBA selects participants based off of rankings by all 30 NBA teams.

But that's not an excuse. One NBA scout, along with a source close to the Stanford team, called me and told me I was sleeping on Fields. I pulled down some tape from Synergy and, frankly, just didn't see it. Had I thought about him specifically for Mike D'Antoni's wide-open system -- maybe. But the truth is I thought he was a good European prospect, not an NBA one.

He's proven me and the rest of the league very wrong in the early going. From all accounts he's a very nice kid who's working really hard. Here's hoping he keeps it up over the course of his career.



Ten days to go for Class of ’07 extensions

October, 22, 2010
10/22/10
1:53
AM ET
Stein By Marc Stein
ESPN.com
Archive
When only six first-rounders from the 2006 NBA Draft scored contract extensions before the Halloween deadline last October, we witnessed a new low in the Modern Rookie Scale era.

And now we’re quite possibly heading for a new low.

The deadline for extensions for 2007 first-rounders is a day later than usual -- pushed to Nov. 1 because Oct. 31 falls on a Sunday this year as opposed to a business day -- but it’ll take a late rush to see even five extensions before this year’s buzzer.

You’ve probably heard or read by now that only two first-round draftees from 2007 have secured extensions to date: No. 2 overall pick Kevin Durant ($85 million max deal over five seasons from Oklahoma City) and No. 9 Joakim Noah ($60 million plus incentives over five years from Chicago).

Thanks to an increasing reluctance leaguewide among GMs to hand out extensions before they know the specifics of the next collective bargaining agreement – and the lukewarm overall regard for many of the players taken in the Durant Draft -- everyone else from the Class of ’07 appears headed for restricted free agency in the summer of 2011 unless they can manufacture an extension in the next 10 days.

Who still has some hope of joining Durant and Noah?

There appears to be only one strong contender at present: No. 3 overall pick Al Horford.

Despite persistent chatter in recent days that Horford and the Hawks have made little recent progress in negotiations, sources close to the situation maintain that a deal before the deadline remains probable, given Horford’s status as a borderline All-Star big man … and the fact that Horford is being represented in negotiations by the same agent (Arn Tellem) who squeezed the biggest contract of the summer ($123.7 million over six seasons) out of the Hawks for Joe Johnson. (Word is reigning Sixth Man Award winner Jamal Crawford, meanwhile, has to wait until Horford’s window passes before Atlanta seriously entertains the idea of signing Crawford to the extension he seeks.)

UPDATE (Oct. 26): If negotiations do end up progressing from “probable” to done deal -- with much of the hesitation stemming from the fact that Hawks GM Rick Sund did not hand out extensions in somewhat similar circumstances to Ray Allen or Rashard Lewis in Seattle and waited until Johnson’s free-agent summer to strike a new deal with the Hawks’ All-Star guard -- one source with knowledge of the talks says we should expected a five-year deal “just slightly north of Noah’s” in the $65 million range.


As for names beyond Horford, there are only maybes galore.

A source with knowledge of Greg Oden’s thinking told ESPN.com that 2007’s No. 1 overall pick is resigned to the idea that an extension from the Blazers is not forthcoming. I’m told Oden isn’t even pressing for it, after appearing in just 82 games over his first three seasons, because he knows he’s better off trying to put together one strong season and proceed to restricted free agency -- provided restricted free agency still exists in the next CBA -- than negotiate now against his lengthy injury history.

No. 5 overall pick Jeff Green? Oklahoma City, as ever, has been exceedingly quiet about its intentions, but one source close to the process said this week that Thunder general manager Sam Presti and agent David Falk “aren’t close” to a deal despite maintaining a regular dialogue on the matter. The belief persists that OKC wants to save its money for next summer, when point guard Russell Westbrook is eligible for the sort of extension Durant just received.

Who else?

No. 4 Mike Conley (Memphis), No. 7 Corey Brewer (Minnesota), No. 15 Rodney Stuckey (Detroit) and even No. 26 Aaron Brooks (Houston) appear highly unlikely to be extended thanks to their teams’ reluctance to spend money before a new labor agreement is in place … and with Stuckey’s situation complicated by the Pistons’ sale-in-progress.

One source with knowledge of Washington’s thinking said recently that extensions for No. 6 Yi Jianlian and No. 14 Al Thornton would definitely be discussed, but that’s as far as it’s gone to this point. (Although I tend to believe that the Wiz, having watched Yi follow up his strong play in the World Championships in China with a good start in DC, could still try to sell him on an Andray Blatche-type deal.)

I’ve also been advised to at least file away the possibility that No. 23 Wilson Chandler might make a late charge for an extension, if only because the first year of a new deal from the Knicks would figure to be less than his projected free-agent cap hold next summer of roughly $6.5 million.

But the only confirmed new name we can add to the discussion is No. 22 Jared Dudley, whose emergence as a reliable sparkplug and fan favorite in Phoenix has established Dudley as a member of the Suns’ core, which has kept alive extension talks this month.

“We are talking and have been talking for a few weeks,” Dudley’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, told ESPN.com on Thursday. “They’ve made it very clear that they want Jared to be there and Jared has made it clear to them that Phoenix is where he wants to be. Whether that means we can make a deal that makes sense for both sides, we’ll have to wait and see.”

Waiting and seeing. In the Modern Rookie Scale era, we’ve never seen more of that.

Wednesday Bullets

June, 3, 2009
6/03/09
3:48
PM ET

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

  • What constitutes a "lopsided trade"? "Generally, lopsided trades require two conditions: 1. a team that needs to dump salary, either because they are cheap, because they want to get under the luxury tax line or because they want to create cap space to target a free agent in the future. In some cases, this team must also be willing to withstand media criticism and fan anger for making what might appear to be an unfair trade ... 2. a team with cap space willing to take on new contract(s) and sacrifice some flexibility."
  • The Kamenetzky Brothers marvel at the bifurcated tasks Pau Gasol will have to perform guarding Rashard Lewis one minute, while dealing with Dwight Howard the next: "This is like playing guitar in an Andres Segovia revue one day then ripping for a death metal band the next night."
  • Given all the events surrounding Luol Deng's injury, the NBA's choice for "Team Physician of the Year" raised some eyebrows.
  • Who on Orlando's roster is going to guard Kobe Bryant? In addition to spelling Mickael Pietrus' name with an umlaut a diaeresis, Kevin Pelton contrasts Pietrus and Courtney Lee's defensive styles: "Mickaël Pietrus has gotten the toughest defensive assignments for the Magic the last two rounds, making both Paul Pierce and LeBron James work for their points. It remains to be seen whether Pietrus or rookie Courtney Lee will spend more time on Bryant in this series. Lee's style of defense, more technical than Pietrus' use of his athleticism and physicality, may be a better match for Bryant."
  • Is there a legitimate case for Jeff Van Gundy to recuse himself from doing color for the NBA Finals? Kelly Dwyer says it's a whole lot of nothing: "First, we're big boys and girls. We can handle this. We're grown up enough to understand what Jeff Van Gundy is going through, where his loyalties lie (even though they've only been in place for, quite literally, 24 months), and how it's is going to shape his broadcasting style. That is to say, it's not going to have much of an impact when he's discussing Trevor Ariza."
  • A footwear substitution for Mickael Pietrus: "While Pietrus has been rockin' the Nike Zoom Kobe IVs for the majority of the season, now that he's going up against Black Mamba means Pietrus is changing his kicks."
  • The All-Time Blazer Fantasy Draft at Bust a Bucket. With the number 9 pick, Scottie B selects...Zach Randolph?! 
  • Celtics assistant Clifford Ray, who taught Dwight Howard how to operate in the post and was a cog in the Warriors 1975 championship team that upset the Washington Bullets, is picking the Magic. Did you know that Ray once rescued a dolphin at Marine World by sticking his long arms into its stomach and pulling out a screw? 
  • Zaza Pachulia: Worth holding onto: "Beyond his value on the glass, both absolutely and in consideration of the relative weakness his teammates in that crucial facet of play, Pachulia plays sound position defense when able to establish position and forces opponents to make free throws when he's caught out of position. Furthermore, though his offensive role has shrunk since Al Horford's arrival, Pachulia rebounded from his injury-plagued 2007-08 season to post career highs in both FG% and FT Rate"
  • The Starting Five has a solid interview with Sekou Smith, the beat writer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Among other topics, Smith delves into the uncertain future of the newspaper model: "I would like to think that we're resilient enough to reconfigure and stay relevant for a long time, certainly as long as I'm in the business. I don't know exactly where we fit in the traditional model. I know there's a place for what we do. It's just a matter of finding that place."
  • Are the Clippers suckers for the bad offseason trade? Clips Nation pores over the evidence and says, "Think Again." 
  • Joey at FreeDarko breaks down Mike Breen's game: "Listening to Breen call a basketball game is like hearing someone new to Judaism intersperse oddly pronounced Hebrew among his usual idiolect: you know what he's doing, but it doesn't sound right, and you question its authenticity, not least of all because it already seems borderline obnoxious when you hear it from rabbis."

The Lakers made their strongest adjustment of the series Wednesday night. The Magic's simple adjustment in the conference finals? Draining open looks. And Tyrus Thomas should adjust his game by launching fewer two-point jumpers. 

Los Angeles LakersKurt Helin of Forum Blue & Gold: " One thing the Lakers did much better was handle the aggressive double teams and traps of Denver. Especially when it happened to Pau Gasol, he had been kicking it out for a three, which the Laker guards had been mostly missing. Tonight it was Kobe [Bryant] trapped in the corner passing to Gasol single-covered in the post. Or, if Gasol was doubled in the post he could hand off to the cutter going right by him. The Lakers moved without the ball when there was a double, and that led to layups. And, that is something that can happen in Denver. That was not about friendly home rims, it was about effort and willingness to take the punishment to be the aggressor."

Rashard LewisM. Haubs of The Painted Area: "Make shots. For all the analysis, sometimes basketball just boils down to something so simple: Can you make your open shots? Simply making or missing open threes has been a key factor not only in the Magic-Cavs series, but in the entire Orlando postseason ... In the First Round, Orlando struggled to outlast an inferior Philly team in part because they only hit .346 for the series, while the Sixers -- who were the worst 3pt-shooting team in the regular season at .318 -- outshot them from distance for the series at .368. In the Conference Semis, both the Magic and the Celtics (who were 1st in the NBA in 3pt% at .397) suffered colossal shooting slumps until Orlando broke through with a 13-21 performance on threes which keyed the Game 7 blowout in Boston. To that point, Orlando had been just 43-141 (.305) for the series (the C's were just .289 for the entire series). Now, mercifully for Magic fans, the tide has finally turned, as they have connected on an average of 10.5-24.5 (.429) 3's in Conference Finals, including 17-38 in Game 4, and they've done it against a Cleveland team that ranked 1st in 3pt FG% defense at .333."

Al HorfordBret LaGree of Hoopinion: "Al Horford's season is fairly straightforward to recap: He's a delight to watch on both ends of the floor, he's not a big enough part of the offense, and that fact combined with the time he missed due to injury might have obscured the encouraging and, one hopes, significant improvements he made in his second year in the league ... Horford didn't improve his numbers because his team made better or more frequent use of him. Al Horford improved because he improved his skills and decision-making. I'm worried about the long-term production of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, and (if they return) Mike Bibby and Flip Murray, but I'm confident that Al Horford gives the Hawks a fairly untapped offensive resource which could build upon his solid rebounding and defensive play to create an excellent NBA player. He's the closest thing to an untouchable player on the roster and the most likely member of the current roster to be on a Hawks team that reaches the Eastern Conference finals should that accomplishment ever come to pass."

THE FINAL WORD
Orlando Magic Daily: ORL is bottling up the Cavs' supporting cast.
By the Horns: Tyrus Thomas -- off the mark.
Celtics Hub: Probing Kevin Garnett's knee.

(Photos by Kevork Djansezian, Nathaniel S. Butler, Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images)

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

I've heard the rap on the Orlando Magic. They're essentially a jump-shooting team. They don't hit the offensive glass, and don't have a go-to guy on the wing who can manufacture points in crunch time. In short, the Magic just don't seem like a championship contender in the eyes of their doubters. How do you gauge what constitutes a contender? As Justice Potter Stewart said of obscenity, you know it when you see it. 

Funny thing is, with the possible exception of a home loss to Dallas nine weeks ago in which Jameer Nelson played his last 19 minutes of the season, every time I see the Magic play, they wallop the opposition.

Arguments that their style doesn't conform to the postseason seem remote while watching them dismantle Western Conference powers on the road, or rip off 13 out of 15 games after their point guard and team leader was lost for the season. It's enough to make you ask, "Exactly what style of basketball are we talking about? A style that translates into the league's second most efficient defense and sixth most efficient offense? A style that wins more than 70% of its games on the road?" 

Amid the noise, we perused the schedule and found that the Magic had tough back-to-back games over the weekend: A Friday night showdown with Cleveland in Orlando, followed up by a road date against a tough home team in Atlanta, where the Hawks were 29-9 going in.  

The results were impressive. The Magic decimated the Cavs, leading by 40 at one juncture in the third quarter. The following night in Atlanta was a bit more of a struggle. Despite the fact that this jump-shooting team missed a slew of open looks, they managed to grind out a win with a heady defensive effort and second-chance points. 

Getting beyond the platitudes, here's what we discovered about the most polarizing, least examined team in basketball:  

Rafer Alston is getting comfortable with the offense.
When Jameer Nelson went down in early February, conventional wisdom loudly proclaimed that the Magic's quixotic first half dash toward the top of the Eastern Conference was over. The acquisition of Rafer Alston was regarded as a crafty maneuver by Otis Smith, but nothing more than a tourniquet for a fatal wound. 

Alston hasn't been able to replicate Nelson's efficiency, but the playground legend has been steady at the point. He's protected the basketball, and has been a quick study in the Orlando offense. In the past month, a noticeable confidence has emerged in his overall game.  

Rafer Alston
Rafer Alston is making himself at home in the Orlando offense.
(Getty Images)

[Friday vs. CLE, 1st Quarter, 9:20 mark] There's a very simple, but effective sequence in opening minutes against the Cavs where Alston and Rashard Lewis run a screen-roll on the left side against Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao. Lewis cuts over from the weak side, bringing Varejao with him. The Cavs trap Alston, who delivers an easy sideline pass to Lewis. Courtney Lee clears to the weak side, giving Delonte West -- the potential rotator -- pause. Lewis hits the 18 footer. This is nothing fancy, but Alston has started to execute this kind of stuff with the fluency of a point guard who knows his teammates' habits, and their on-court biorhythms.

Later in the half [Friday vs. CLE, 2nd Quarter, 1:40 mark], Alston hurries the ball upcourt to Lewis on the right side, intent to push the tempo. Varejao picks up Lewis before he can unleash that signature slingshot three-point stroke, so Lewis puts the ball on the floor, then sends a baseline bounce pass to Lee on the other side. Orlando has gotten very good at keeping defenses off-kilter with reversals and cross-court passes. There are a lot of guys in gold jerseys with their heads on a swivel. Cleveland recovers nicely, so the ball goes back to Alston up top. On the surface, this seems like a reset, but upon further review, you can see that Alston knows exactly what he wants: That preceding madness yielded two mismatches -- Alston/Szczerbiak and Turkoglu/West. What does Alston do? Easy. He exploits the first mismatch by driving against the slower Szczerbiak (Poor Wally. Does a day go by when someone isn't impugning his quicks?), then delivers a pretty interior touch pass to Turkoglu underneath to capitalize on the second mismatch. An easy two, and the Magic now lead by 17, only a minute and a half before the break. 

Alston has always had good instincts, and now he's begun to apply them to what the Magic do on a nightly basis.  

Dwight Howard can and will kick it out of the post...and his shooters will make it easy for him.
Maybe it's the perceived simplicity of Orlando's offense that attracts skeptics (feed it into Howard, surround him with three-point shooters...), but when you watch the Magic closely, the nuances of what they do come to the surface, just as the Spurs' system is more impressive upon a closer examination.  

[Saturday vs. ATL, 4th Quarter, 8:41 mark] This isn't a textbook set with fluid motion and perfect ball movement, which, in some sense, makes it a better case study. In fact, Howard shares the floor with only one other starter, Courtney Lee, along with three bench players -- Anthony Johnson, J.J. Redick, and Tony Battie.  The Magic rotate a couple of pick-and-rolls, the first with Lee and Howard up top on the right side, which doesn't yield much. The second is on the left side with Redick and Battie. Though the Magic don't generate any clean looks here, they've managed to pick up some mismatches against switch-happy Atlanta. Redick sends the ball into Howard in the left post against Josh Smith. Horford, now covering Redick along the arc, moves low to double Howard, which leaves Flip Murray, Joe Johnson, and Maurice Evans to zone up the rest of the floor. Redick darts to the open space to Howard's right, where Howard sends him out a perfect pass out of the post that gets Redick a three-point attempt in rhythm. The Magic go up by nine, their largest lead.

[Saturday vs. ATL, 4th Quarter, 4:30 mark] The prettiest set of this kind comes a little later in the period. The starters are back on the floor for Orlando. The Hawks' bend-don't-break defense is hanging in there, and Lee swings the ball to Turkoglu with :12 on the shot clock. Taking advantage of the action on the far side, Josh Smith waves to Mike Bibby to switch back onto Alston. At :10, Turkoglu dumps it into Howard in the left post against Horford.

A screen shot at this exact moment would display the Orlando Magic in platonic form -- Howard with the ball in the post, his four shooters spread almost symmetrically along the arc. At :08, Lee dives toward the hole. This completely disarms Atlanta. Murray, Lee's man, follows him, but Bibby gets momentarily distracted and shifts his weight and attention toward the cutter, leaving Alston wide open beyond the arc on the right side. Howard takes a step toward the hole and makes his sweeping move as if he's going to elevate for his righty hook. Instead, he kicks the ball out instead to Alston, who drains the three-pointer. Magic by nine with 4:27 to play.  

It might sound weird to classify Orlando's offense as a read-and-react system, but that's essentially what's going on here. Howard is the foundation of the offense, and every player on the Magic roster has honed their instincts to respond to what happens down on the block. Redick intuitively fills the spot on the floor where Howard's kickout can most easily find him, but I doubt it was explicitly dra
wn up that way. When Atlanta doesn't send a double-team, Lee makes a basket cut to see if that will free up a shooter on the perimeter -- and it does.

Dwight Howard's presence makes it hard for opponents to run basic offensive sets.
A high screen from a big man initiates a plurality of offense in the NBA, and it's easy to understand why: Big men can create a lot of space for a dribbler. A defense's job is to fil that space before that dribbler can find a shot, and that's where the Magic -- and specifically, Dwight Howard -- are so strong. 

Dwight Howard
Dwight Howard: Lording over the paint for the Magic.
(Getty Images)

[Friday vs. CLE, 1st Quarter, 5:58 mark] The Cavs want to use Varejao to get Delonte West some space, which is exactly what Varejao provides with a solid screen at the top of the arc. West moves to the left of the screen. A lot of teams might choose to trap here, but Orlando doesn't have to because Dwight Howard is so long and agile that he can account for the space in front of West and monitor Varejao on the roll. West sends the ball over to a rolling Varejao, but Howard is immediately all over Varejao, who loses the handle. Fortunately for Cleveland, Varejao manages to get it back to West for a reset with :14 on the shot clock. Varejao again sets a solid screen for West -- this time a few feet closer in. West uses the space to drive left, and this time the Magic switch the screen, as Howard drops back into the lane to pick up West on the drive. West is unable to make any progress against Howard, and ends up trying to hit LeBron James in the right corner with a pass that deflects out of bounds. The very next trip down, [1st Quarter, 5:18 mark], the Cavs try the West/Varejao screen/roll one more time to even worse results when the Magic switch. Howard backpedals against West, staying between the little guard and the basket on the left side of the lane.  When West elevates for a layup, the ball is predictably swatted away by Howard.

Howard's reel for Defensive Player of the Year award will consist of gaudy blocks pelted into the fifth row of Amway Arena, but equally important to Orlando's #2 defense is the flexibility Howard affords the Magic against screen and rolls. Howard seems to always be one swipe away from the ball, whether he's picking up a big man on the roll, staying between the ballhandler or the basket on the set, or, more often than not, patrolling the zone in between. His feet are so quick, his arms so long, and his timing so precise that the only way to generate much offense against the Magic is to keep the ball moving around the perimeter, and just hope for an open seam that doesn't end at #12.  

(Read full post)

Everyone Buddy Up

April, 2, 2009
4/02/09
5:22
PM ET

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

If you watched the Bobcats-Lakers game earlier this week, the interplay between Kobe Bryant on the floor and Michael Jordan courtside was infectious. Bryant drained an unconscious shot in the third quarter and as he ambled down the court his eyes were locked on MJ. In some sense, it was completely natural.  Bryant has been staring at Jordan since childhood, studying every facet of his hero's game -- his mannerisms, his biomechanics, his competitive spirit. It's undoubtedly one of the things that makes Bryant the killer he is. So far as Jordan goes, there are reasons icons are icons. There probably isn't a guard born in the 1970s or 1980s who hasn't imitated MJ on some court somewhere in some fashion.  

Figuring out who to imitate is half the fun. In David Thorpe's new Rookie Watch feature, he assigns each rookie a veteran mentor to study. I like the homework he gives Sacramento's Jason Thompson, taking a closer look at second-year big man, Al Horford :

I actually think Thompson and Horford are already very similar -- both have great size, length and speed for either post spot. But while Thompson plays at 100 mph at all times, Horford is a model of tremendous effort under control. The Hawks' second-year man never takes a play off, is always around the ball and basket and, despite playing out of position, has not fouled out of a game this season.

Thompson has the right motor, but he needs to adjust his speeds better so he can finish around the rim more and foul less. He's starter material for a good team when he learns this trait.

Thorpe tells another big, the unrefined but talented J.J. Hickson, to track down some David West game tape: 

Hickson has loads of raw potential, so who better to study than a technique guru like West? The Hornets' two-time All-Star is an expert at creating angles for easier shots by using fakes and changing speeds on his back-in moves. And he has all the shots within 15 feet of the rim.

West also competes at a high level with passion, but under control. He is a great example for Hickson and other young power forwards.

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

One of the best things about All-Star weekend is the breadth of talent all gathered in one location.  You can't walk 50 feet in the Sheraton Downtown Phoenix without bumping into an NBA legend, past or present.   This makes All-Star weekend the perfect occasion to gather opinions from players.  

We thought it would be interesting to survey every player we stumbled across, and pose a single question to them:

Your basketball life is on the line and it comes down to a single possession.  You're in isolation.  Who's the last guy you want to see defending you?   And how do you beat him?

We added that the nightmare defender doesn't have to be a current NBA player.  It might be someone they played against in college, AAU, high school, even in a pickup game.  

The field poll has just begun, but we're getting an assortment of great responses.  

In the first installment of the series, we'll start with our rookies and sophomores:

Kevin Durant

Ron Artest.  He's so strong.  He uses his body well, his hands.  He's very quick. He uses his feet well.   You have to try to shoot over the top of him.  Make him run around a little bit.  Put him in pick-and-roll situations and stuff like that.

Michael Beasley
Reggie Evans. He's one of those guys who just doesn't care about anything.  He's plays hard every second of the game.  He'll get mad. He'll break your neck before he lets you score on him. You just gotta come with it against him. He and I got in a bit of a tussle, because me being who I am and where I'm from, I'm not one to be scared.  But playing against guys like him...I love it. He makes you work a little harder, but it's fun and competitive.  I like to bang, and he's a real strong guy.

Al Horford
Probably Ben Wallace.  He's tough to move.  He's a really solid defender.  You can't back him down, so you have to be able to face him up, and probably take a couple dribbles in and try to go off the right or off the left with quick moves. 

Thaddeus Young
I play the 4, so all of them are hard to get by.  But I'll say LeBron.  When you lay the ball up, or you throw a hook shot, it's like he's there. You could've left him, but then he just comes out of nowhere and blocks your shot.  And you're like damn, where in the hell did he come from?!  I see him get lots of blocks in transition.  You'll run the ball up and he just comes out of nowhere and swats it out of bounds.

Al Thornton
My Dad.  He's physical -- a real physical lockdown defender. 

Derrick Rose
Bruce Bowen.  He's just a good defender.  He knows every trick in the book.  It's really hard to beat him. The best thing to do if he's defending you is pass the ball. 

Eric Gordon
Ron Artest.  He's a big strong guy and it's definitely tough to hit a shot over him.

Rookie Challenge Live Blog

February, 13, 2009
2/13/09
8:33
PM ET

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

After weeks of anticipation, debate, and hype, All-Star weekend has finally arrived.  The first major event on the undercard is the Rookie Challenge, which is somewhat of a misnomer...or half-nomer, because it pits the league's best sophomores against the top rookies [insert objections here].  David Thorpe has a terrific preview of the game and what to look for here

We'll be live-blogging the event.  Follow along, won't you...

Greg Oden is going to miss the game.  The reason?  He bumped knees last night with Corey Maggette.

The only numeric redundancy is Wilson Chandler and Thad Young sharing #21.

Who would win a cage match between Young and Chandler?  They both list at 6' 8 and 220, coincidentally.

Warmups underway.  I can't emphasize enough how OJ Mayo drains, like, every single shot attempt to perfection.

Oden not playing is a bit of a buzzkill.  He's the super-hybrid Frosh-more, which made for an interesting subplot.

Dwyane Wade is rocking his Nation of Islam ensemble.

Starting Lineup Sophs: Stuckey-Durant-Horford-Young-Greena

Frosh: Gordon-Rose-Gasol-Fernandez-Beasley

Kevin Durant at SG...Carlesimo Lives

Gatorade strikes again.  An NBA representative just came over to peel off the label on my Dasani water. 

Mayo coming off the bench. Innnntersting....

Looks like Rose/Gasol screen/roll is the tactical foundation of Rook

Judging from Horford's quick demand of the ball from the official, the Sophs want to run the Rooks out of the building.

Pace factor: Sophs>Rooks

Sophs: 7 seconds or less

Rudy in the open floor is a thing of beauty.

Eric Gordon is a quality defender, but against Durant, he's in waaay over his head.  That mismatch is working for Sophs.

Lopez and Mayo about to check in

Rudy in the halfcourt is a thing of beauty.

E Gordon: 4/4, 10 pts

Rudy from beyond the arc is a thing of beauty.

Hollinger: Suggests that, long term, Gordon's shot might be too flat -- from a trajectory standpoint -- for him to be a truly outstanding shooter.

Jeff Green's True Position...Discuss

Lopez is a surprisingly agile big man

Beasley and Green...exchange talk of trash.

Not sure Stuckey is a pull-up jump shooter.

Thornton can catch-and-shoot uncontested, but still struggles mightily from 18+

Scola is about 8-9 years older than everyone on the floor, Thornton the exception.

One of the weak parts of Eric Gordon's game is his rebounding rate.  He's strong, but small and, for whatever reason, has compiled abysmal Crawfordian numbers on the glass.

Have gone the whole way thus far: Jeff Green, Beasley, and Eric Gordon

Reduce that list to Gordon.

If Durant weren't putting up insane numbers every night, we might talk about his passing a little more.

Sort of a bailout.  Westbrook's handle still isn't Grade A...and trying to take Durant off the dribble...wellllll....

In one series we saw one of the only flaws in Westbrook [handle] and Rose's [jumper] game respectively.  Two super players with two distinct weaknesses.

Probably the prettiest set of the game .

Westbrook taunting Durant...hilarious.

ignited by the Lovian outlet by Gasol.

Dare I say this game is getting away from the Sophs?

Thornton has a really strong dribble game when he gets a running start.

Beasley is running a little hot.  Now 2-7

Stuckey knows how to deliver the ball to his bigs...now if only they can get him some in Detroit. 

It'll be interesting to see if Beasley develops a real post game as a PF [though as of today, looks like he'll be assuming the SF for MIA].  It's not *imperative* that he do so, but it would add a huge component to his game.

Is there a better practitioner of the PUJIT than Mayo?

Nice to see Beasley find some high % shots for himself.

I wish I could credit Westbrook with that drive, but the welcome mat was out.

The Spaniards almost make tapas.

The Euros have brought a lot to the NBA game, but Bigs-Who-Can-Pass might be the most exquisite.

Gasol definitely gets the Effort Award.

Where's Eric Gordon?  In Rambis' doghouse??

Momentum builder for Sophs?

The Under 13 Crowd is very excited for someone named Corbin Bleu, which sounds like a TV dinner entree.

Nice part of beasley's game.  Handle + pass

Eric Gordon: Released from Rambis' doghouse

The Los Angeles Clippers: 10/13 for 23 points in 27 minutes

Gordon mentioned today that he was hoping for a littlematchup time with teammate Thornton.  

Durant is now officially controlling this pickup game.

Kevin Durant knows exactly where to be on the basketball court at every nanosecond of the game.

Dwight Howard is now working the refs.

The less said about Aaron Brooks' atrocious betrayal of Kevin Durant's unselfishness, the better.

The Sam Cassell Special from Gordon.

Young has learned to use his right hand better.

Durant: Absolutely stroking it.  Can shoot over everyone on the floor not named Lopez

To review:  Kevin Durant -- 35 points [14/18]

That little lean-in to draw contact on the jump shot and sucker the defender is always referred to as a 'crafty veteran move.'  But it's being used here by the Rooks to perfection.

I like Russell Westbrook a lot, but this rookie team is better with Rose on the floor.

That's the thing with Beasley.  His skill set is that of a '3', but if you play him at the '4', he's more likely to draw a defender he can take off the dribble along the baseline. 

Counter-argument:  He can't defend the post.

Durant True Shooting Percentage: 86.1%

The Rooks are going with the Twin Tower alignment down the stretch.

Clipper Darryl is in the building chanting Let's Go Clippers, Let's Go.

Gordon draws contact on the drive exceptionally well.

You can sort of see the value of Durant at the 2.  I'm not suggesting that the benefits outweigh the costs, but he's unstoppable against a guy 6 inches shorter than him.

Chandler went to the right spot there...just didn't convert.  But a smart little set.

"Set" being a relative term in this game.

The Sophs got the mismatch there.  Another good set...

Beasley has had a fascinating game, an encapsulation of all his strengths and weaknesses.

You sometimes forget he can stop on a dime and step back like that, as if here were a 6' 4 guard. 

Winners get $15K each.  Losers get $5K.  $10,000 difference if my math is correct.

Aaron Brooks: Keeping the Rooks in the game.

Hollinger, re: brooks:  As Ramon Sessions sits at home and says, 'really??

44 pts...Easily a Rookie Game Record.

Only 2 Rookies in + territory:  Rudy Fernandez with a +10; Marc Gasol with +5. 

The best rookie/soph game to date?  Yes.


Kevin Durant wins the 5-0 unanimous vote for MVP.  Go figure.

Amare held the previous record: 36 points in the '04 game at Staples. 

Some unsung heroes: I thought Rodney Stuckey had a solid game for the Sophs.  He navigates the floor really well. I don't like platitudes like winning ballplayer, but Gasol has the patina of a guy who's going to help some good teams win some games before his career is over.

Brook Lopez needs some refinement, but also played a strong game.

As someone who watches Al Thornton on a regular basis, I can say that he's a guy who benefited greatly from this track meet.  He played a relaxed brand of basketball, and seemed very much in his element.   He even delivered a couple of smart interior passes on the drive. [!]

Final takeaway: Durant is a freak.  But we knew that.

Beasley's maturation will be fascinating to watch, even more so with the Heat's acquisition of O'Neal today, which will move Beasley out of the post. 

Eric Gordon should factor more prominently in the conversation as an elite rookie guard.

Jeff Green does everything very well, but nothing exceptional.    That's not intended as an insult.  There aren't 20 guys in the league you can say that about.

Thad Young's game has come along nicely.  I know he had a rough time earlier this season, but his athleticism is starting to round out into a more complete player.

See you tomorrow night for the Skillz Competition. 
 

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