TrueHoop: Anderson Varejao
Anderson Varejao has been serving as something of a World Cup correspondent for the NBA in his native Brazil. In the following clip (transcribed below), he sits down with Kobe Bryant to discuss the Los Angeles Lakers guard's passion for soccer, his experience in Brazil and what he sees happening in the World Cup moving forward. To see what the NBA is doing at the 2014 FIFA World Cup follow #NBAINBRAZIL. To stay up to date with all the latest NBA news, follow @nbauk on twitter or visit facebook.com/nbauk.
Varejao: "Can you tell me a little bit about your passion for soccer? How did it grow [in Italy]?"
Bryant: “Well you know growing up in Italy from the age of 6 to 14, at the time Serie A - that was the best league in the world. All the best players were there; Maradona was there, Baggio was there, Van Basten was there. So when I was growing up that became a passion of mine so I was literally playing football every single day.”
Varejao: "So of course you want Italy to win the World Cup?"
Bryant: “Well, yeah. See, that's where I'm conflicted, because I root for the USA, right? But I'm always for Forza Azzurri, it's always there a little bit.”
Varejao: "What do you think about the Brazilian team?"
Bryant: “Passion, passion. Passion for their culture. Passion for their country and what their culture represents. And I think the world is missing out. The next 3-4 years are a great opportunity for the rest of the world to see what Brazil is all about and what their culture is all about, because I believe that passion can really inspire everybody else.”
Varejao: "Thanks about that. That's what I think about Brazil, too. So who do you think is going to win the World Cup?"
Bryant: “A couple of years ago I had Germany picked to win it, 'cause I felt like their young players were developing and everyone would be in their primes. Watching how Brazil has handled the pressure, particularly of the first match [a 3-1 win over Croatia], it's going to be hard to bet against them. I think we'll wind up seeing a Brazil vs. Argentina final and that's going to be an epic final.”
The slightly more upbeat source of intrigue in Cavsland, of course, is the potential for deals before the Feb. 24 trading deadline.
The Cavs still have that infamous $14.5 million trade exception created in the LeBron James sign-and-trade salvation mission with Miami to take on a hefty contract if and when, in the words of Twitter-happy owner Dan Gilbert, they finally decide to “strike.”
NBA front-office sources say that the Cavs have likewise been making guard Mo Williams available since the summer and continue to receive trade interest from rival clubs for the likes of veteran forward Antawn Jamison and swingman Anthony Parker.
Cleveland’s most enticing trade asset – rugged Brazilian big man Anderson Varejao – was ruled out for the rest of the season in early January thanks to a torn ankle tendon. Varejao still hasn’t decided whether he’s going to have surgery on the ankle, but the severity of the injury brought an understandable halt to some thought-provoking negotiations that sources say had quietly begun to percolate between the Cavs and Oklahoma City.
The Thunder, as noted in Monday’s Power Rankings, began the week having outrebounded only 22 teams … compared to 55 last season. The Thunder, in short, need another big man to truly contend in the West. And they know it.
Varejao’s injury, though, essentially ensures that it won’t be him, tantalizing as it must be for Thunder fans to imagine what sort of impact he potentially could have had in the same frontcourt rotation with Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison.
It has to be noted that the Cavs, from everything I’ve heard, really didn’t want to part with Varejao when he was healthy. The scrappy power forward, who averaged 9.1 points and 9.7 rebounds in the 31 games he did play, is naturally the sort of physical player beleaguered new Cavs coach Byron Scott is fond of.
It also seems safe to suggest that the Cavs would have asked for Jeff Green or James Harden in a Varejao deal, which almost certainly would have had Oklahoma City balking.
The Thunder, though, do have a stash of quality draft picks and other young big men (Cole Aldrich and Byron Mullens) to offer that likely would have forced the Cavs to keep taking their calls. A veteran big who can defend and rebound with greater regularity than Nenad Krstic is the sort of big man, sources say, that OKC is looking for … even though Varejao is pricier than the typical Thunder target with three guaranteed years worth nearly $25 million left on his contract after this season heading into the uncertainty of a new labor agreement.
Yet the argument likewise could be made -- bearing in mind that no one really knows how restrictive conditions will be for teams in the next labor deal -- that Varejao isn’t outrageously expensive when you start talking about proven centers who are proficient defensively and have a willingness to do the dirty work that would seemingly mesh so well with the needs of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Something tells me that this could have been one of the more riveting back-and-forths of this trade deadline if Varejao didn’t go down.
Bass scored a career-high 27 points, making his first 11 field goals before missing his final attempt of the game late in the fourth quarter.
Had Bass made his final field goal attempt, he would have broken the team record for most field goals made in a game without a miss. Dwight Howard went 11-for-11 last season at Houston.
From the Elias Sports Bureau: Bass is the first player who did not start a game to make his first 11 field goal attempts since Kelvin Cato did it for the Houston Rockets against the Boston Celtics on Dec. 18, 1999.
The most field goals made in a game this season without a miss is 10 by Pau Gasol (Nov. 21 vs Warriors) and Anderson Varejao (Nov. 5 at 76ers).
In the first half, Bass was perfect from both the floor (8-8) and free throw line (4-4).
From the Elias Sports Bureau: Bass is the first Magic player to go at least 8-8 from the field in the first half of a game since Howard went 10-10 against the Philadelphia 76ers on April 14, 2007.
The 11 field goals made were also a career high for Bass, who had never made more than nine in a game prior to Friday.
For those who follow the Cavs closely, there's sincere ambivalence about the prospect of Stoudemire joining the team. When the rumors surfaced a few weeks back, John Krolik of Cavs: the Blog articulated those feelings:
On the one hand, it’s Amare. This could be the move that would make the league’s most dangerous offensive player the leader of the league’s best offense. On another hand, he doesn’t look like a good fit on either offense or defense. Plus, the Cavs are only now getting used to their one big acquisition, and do seem to be rolling on all cylinders. On a third hand, possibly an elbow, most of Amare’s perceived flaws don’t look very bad at all on paper. But then again, that’s what people were saying when the Magic signed Vince Carter. Ugh.
That's three hands, an elbow (and an 'ugh' for good measure), and each concern seems just as plausible as the one that precedes it.
Krolik went to the painstaking task of examining the variables Stoudemire would introduce on both ends of the floor for Cleveland. Among his most compelling findings about Stoudemire:
- "He’s one of the best shooting power forwards from the 10-15 foot range and the 16-23 foot range this year." How good? Stoudemire is an impressive 51.4 percent shooter from 10-15 feet and 45 percent from 16-23, putting him in the top echelon of the League. He might not be as stretchy as Antawn Jamison, but Stoudemire is actually a better overall jump shooter than the Wizards forward.
- There's a popular perception that Shaquille O'Neal's presence in Phoenix hurt Stoudemire's production, and Cleveland would be ill-advised to reunite the two big men. Krolik counters, as J.A. Adande did this week, that the numbers refute this claim. "Despite the fact that the Suns have replaced Shaq with three-point bomber Channing Frye and opened up the paint for Amare, his numbers at the basket remain identical to where they were last season. He takes 46 percent of his shots at the rim, up 1 percent from last season. He shoots 66.8 percent at the rim, up exactly 1 percent from last season. And his foul drawing rate is 18.2 percent, which is actually a little lower than it was last season. Whatever it was that caused Amare’s effectiveness at the basket to drop last season, it looks like it wasn’t Shaq."
- Spend some time checking out various statistical metrics, and you'll discover something interesting: "Anderson Varejao is the second-best player on the Cavaliers. It’s true. Say it aloud. It’ll help it sink in ... How would Andy be able to play next to Amare? They would both need too many minutes to never play with each other. Almost all of Varejao’s offensive game is predicated on him setting the screen up high and/or cutting around the hoop and looking for easy baskets. When Amare’s in the game, it would be foolish not to use him in the high pick-and-roll offensively and try to set him up with as many dunk opportunities as possible. Andy can’t stretch the floor in those situations. Will there be enough space for Andy to be effective in the same lineup as Amare and LeBron?"
- Stoudemire is a lousy defender by most measures. The Suns are 3.5 points better when he's on the bench and opposing power forwards have put up a player efficiency rating (PER) of 20.2 against Stoudemire this season. That kind of performance won't get the Cavs where they want to go and Stoudemire would have to step it up on the defensive end of the floor: "For Amare to be effective defensively alongside of Shaq, he’d have to be active on the perimeter, show on pick-and-rolls, and discourage opposing teams from hitting easy jumpers as Shaq sags back to shut down the paint. With Amare’s knees, it’s an open question whether or not he could handle that responsibility even if he had the desire to do so. And it’s a very open question whether he’ll ever develop the desire to do so."
That's a lot to consider for the Cavaliers. It seems unthinkable to pass up an opportunity to upgrade your roster with one of the most devastating pick-and-roll masters in the league. But Stoudemire would introduce a series of unknowns into a Cleveland outfit that's humming along as we enter the final two months of the regular season.
What's Stoudemire been up to lately? I was able to catch his performance against Sacramento a couple of weeks back. Stoudemire put up a line of 30 points and nine rebounds against the Kings. That's the good news. But he was also the primary culprit in giving up a 31-point, 7-rebound performance to Donte Greene, who was playing power forward for the Kings in Jason Thompson's absence.
The game offered viewers the full breadth of Stoudemire's game, its best and worst qualities -- the explosiveness and the disinterest, the silky mid-range jumper and the troubling tendency to get beaten to the ball beneath the glass. Stoudemire is a confounding -- but spectacular -- talent:
Lisa Blumenfeld/NBAE via Getty Images
Could a team with this tandem give the All-Star squads a game?
The All-Star Game is a collection of the best basketball talent in the world, but it rarely produces anything resembling the best basketball. Counter-intuitive as that might seem, the reasons for this annual letdown are fairly obvious. Chauncey Billups recited some of them following the lackluster 2007 All-Star Game, everything from fear of injury to exhaustion from the weekend's festivities.
Could there be other factors that keep this collection of talent from playing beautiful, or even watchable, basketball? In a highly functional basketball unit, do certain players need to defer to other players, something that's difficult to demand of the world's premier scorers? Are teams loaded with this kind of firepower vulnerable to the pitfalls that might have doomed USA Basketball in 2002, 2004 and 2006?
These questions got us thinking: Is it possible to assemble a roster of non-All-Stars that could challenge the teams taking the floor in Dallas on Sunday?
We asked the bloggers in the TrueHoop Network to participate in our high-grade parlor game.
In sculpting our roster, we came up with a few basic questions. What kind of players would you look for? Do you tap the best of the remainders who were left off the rosters (snubs like Josh Smith and Nene)? Knowing you're outgunned, is it better to adopt the principles of guerrilla warfare and engage in a less traditional brand of combat? To that end, are there specific skill sets you should look for?
A few criteria and common themes emerged:
Defense and Rebounding
- Bret LaGree of Hoopinion: "Defense and rebounding would ... be vital, both to limit the efficiency of the All-Stars and to rebound as many missed shots as possible. If the non-All-Stars give the best offensive players in the world many second shots, it's hopeless."
- D.J. Foster of ClipperBlog: "I want them to grab every defensive rebound, I want them to get tons of turnovers..."
- Matt Moore of Hardwood Paroxysm envisions a team whose tactical goal is "DEATH FROM HYPER-LONG-ATHLETIC DEFENDERS FROM ABOVE."
Is it realistic to believe that there are defensive stoppers who can contain the most prolific scorers in the game? Probably not, which means we should look for a very specific brand of defender.
- Rahat Huq of Red94: "In a game like this, you don't necessarily want guys who are great individual defenders. No one is going to shut down those all-stars in combination ... You need the best help defenders in the game. These guys can't be left alone on an island."'
Our team won't have the capacity to create shots the way the All-Stars can, so they better be efficient, says Matt Moore. "You're creating a team that takes shots at the rim and at the arc. Most at the rim. Very much so at the rim." When the Houston Rockets are clicking on the offensive end, they do this proficiently without a single player who approaches All-Star status.
"Intangibles" are abstract, unsatisfying and impossible to measure, but there's no denying that our players need to embody certain qualities to knock off the big boys.
- Henry Abbott: "If you look at the best lineups in the NBA, they almost all include role players (like Anderson Varejao). But when picking the best teams, it's very hard for coaches, GMs or anybody else to pick a role player over a multi-talented star. So they take the star. Anyone read Malcolm Gladwell's book "Outliers"? After 10,000 hours people are candidates to become masters at something. I'm thinking you want people who have their 10,000 hours in doing boring things that lead to wins, like playing D. Stars don't have more hours in their days. They have to spend a lot of time on other stuff."
- Rahat Huq: "You want players who 'impact winning,' which entails deflections, making quick rotations, pushing pace effectively, never making mistakes -- all the things that impact the outcome in the aggregate. The only way to beat an all-star team is through some sort of synergism. You'll have to play a virtually flawless game."
Toppling the All-Star teams is an uphill battle, but not impossible. Here's the group we've recruited to get it done:
Jason Kidd (PG)
If mastery comes from 10,000 hours of practice, then Kidd is the wily veteran to run point for our squad. Darius Soriano of Forum Blue & Gold: "I'd want a point guard who could push the ball and make the right decisions on both the break and in the half court."
Andre Iguodala (SG)
Defense? Rebounding? The ability to finish at the rim? It's all right here. Iggy's outside shot presents a bit of a concern, and makes him an imperfect selection. The sum of the parts, though, gives our team too many important ingredients to pass over.
Andrei Kirilenko (SF)
There was a groundswell of support for Kirilenko, whose ability to make plays from anywhere, cover multiple positions, protect the rim and provide help defense, make him a classic insurgent against a team of All-Stars.
Josh Smith (PF)
Ryan Schwan of Hornets247 likes Smith and Kirilenko as a forward tandem. "Kirilenko and Smith will cover each other and everyone else on the floor with quick-footed athletic defense."
Lamar Odom (C)
Not a traditional center by any stretch, but a trio of Odom, Kirilenko and Smith just might be skilled, long, springy and athletic enough to defend an elite front line. Spencer Ryan Hall of Salt City Hoops is as enamored with the playmaking potential of the Odom-Kirilenko combo as I am. "Give me Odom at the 5 just to watch him and Kirilenko together." Thorpe adds that the defensive strategy of Kirilenko-Smith-Odom would be "to press and trap baseline and corner catches and generally make it a scramble game. Blitzing ball screens will be effective too."
Kyle Lowry (G)
Henry Abbott makes the strong case for the efficient Lowry off the bench, where he's excelled for Houston. "[He] fights like a dog and gets to the line like crazy, while also making his team's defense better."
Jamal Crawford (G)
Thus far, we don't have any pure shooters. As Zach Harper of Cowbell Kingdom points out, Crawford has his flaws, but is worth signing up. "I'm not sold on him completely here but if he's hot, it doesn't matter who is guarding him." Just ask the Boston Celtics. Anthony Morrow finishes a close second for the role of sharpshooter off the bench.
Manu Ginobili (G)
"Manu Ginobili HAS beaten All-Star teams, in international competition," writes Henry. He gives the squad one guard who can truly probe the defense in the half court.
Tyreke Evans (G)
We don't care how you classify him positionally. We just know he can score on any perimeter player in the league when he's disciplined and keeps the ball moving in the half court.
Hedo Turkoglu (F)
Critics will knock his defense, but he did just fine on Orlando's shutdown squad last season. In a talent pool that's bereft of big wings, Turkoglu is a good choice for his flexibility as a pick-and-roll practitioner. Imagine what he and the guy just below could do as a tandem in the second unit to that effect.
Jeremy Wagner of Roundball Mining Company describes his assets this way: "A big man who can score on the block, face up and hit the 15 footer or drive and is a very good passer. Plus he has as good of a chance to defend both Tim Duncan and Dwight Howard as anyone." If Nene is unavailable, we like the indefatigable Carl Landry.
Anderson Varejao (F/C)
We don't need him to score, we just want him to annoy the hell out of max-contract superstars. When that pest makes his team's defense inordinately better, crashes the glass and collects the garbage, we'll find the minutes. Joakim Noah was a strong contender for this 12th man slot.
Gregg Popovich (Coach)
"You don't deserve anything. You just go play. You start thinking about what you deserve and what you don't deserve and it just makes you soft. You just go play the game." -- Gregg Popovich, May 2006.
The counter argument
Leave it to M. Haubs of The Painted Are to be the hard-bitten realist. For him, this is a fun, but ultimately futile, exercise. The talent on the All-Star rosters is just too much to contend with, no matter how much synergy our team can muster and no matter how much precision it can deploy. He also challenges the premise that the USA Basketball teams that struggled in the early part of last decade failed because they were overstaffed with scorers:
I have to say that as much as people wanted to blame Team USA's underachievement from 2002-06 on lack of shooting or role players or some mystical qualities, the dirty little secret about the ultimate redemption in 2008 was talent - they brought a roster filled with All-NBA players, which they had not really done since 1996. The teams that Manu beat in '02 and '04 were not really All-Star teams -- those teams had too many role players, not too few.
I'm really not trying to be the poop in the punch bowl here, but I will take CP3, Kobe, Melo, Dirk and Timmy, with Nash, D-Will, Durant, and Pau off the bench, and you can try to beat me with your collection of role players. And please, by all means, try to press and speed up the tempo; I have Chris Paul and Steve Nash.
In reality, I would suggest that you lobby hard to play the game under FIBA rules, with unlimited zone defense to clog the lane and a shorter three-point line for a better puncher's chance, and I'd recommend that a college coach like Coach K be forced to be the game coach for the All-Stars.
We've given you our roster, please tell us yours.
Combo Plate: A ball-handling scorer ... and a scoring ball-handler.
JK: We're definitely seeing a lot of blurring in positional lines, particularly outside of the center position. One thing in particular I like is the rise of the true combo guard. Early in the decade, we got a lot of alleged "combo guards" who were really just superpowered bench gunners given control of teams with mixed results; Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis, et cetera. (Iverson is Iverson.)
But now we're really starting to see effective players who are a cross between the one and the two in a good way, and they're being complimented with other multi-skilled guards rather than going with a strict point guard/shooting guard backcourt. In San Antonio, they put Tony Parker, who's a great scorer for a point, next to Manu, who's a great playmaker for a shooting guard, and things went well. The double-combo backcourt of Mo Williams and Delonte West turned Cleveland's backcourt from a disaster area to a huge strength last season. Even Jason Kidd, the truest of points, is playing with JET and JJ Barea, and has even become adept at knocking down catch-and-shoot 3s off of other people's assists. Phil Jackson's won only 10 championships using an offense that doesn't require a traditional point. And so many young combo guards are coming in with tons of talent: Tyreke Evans, Russell Westbrook, Brandon Jennings and even John Wall, who should definitely be put next to a guy who can pass and shoot when he comes into the league so that he can spend some time in each game going on guilt-free scoring rampages. Wall might be the combo-guard messiah.
KA: This is a beautiful trend because it's created a much more diverse range of basketball styles. Very few teams around the league look alike, even though many of them run much of the same stuff. The fact that so many players can do so many different things on the floor creates an exponentially greater number of things a team can do schematically. On many teams, shots on the floor can be drawn up for almost any player at any spot! Part of this can be attributed to athleticism. One the things that made a power forward or a center a big men was his ability to perform big men tasks -- rebounding, shot-blocking, the ability to routinely get high-percentage shots close to the rim. Today's NBA perimeter players have the athleticism to do a lot of that -- and many of the bigger guys in the league have perimeter skills, as well.
This seems like a nice segue to ...
Do traditional big men have a future?
KA: Whether you chalk it up to the prohibition of hand-checking or the stylings of Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns teams (I'd argue that former rendered the latter), the professional game has undergone a seismic shift over the past decade. Perimeter play has taken over. Today's power forwards have big guard games and two of the top three players in 3-point attempts are 6-foot-10. It's a world gone mad, but you can't complain about the product on the court. The NBA has never been more fun to watch, and we're just getting started...
...or are we?
Trends have a way of feeling permanent while they're being experienced, but they rarely last forever. At some point, laws of macroeconomics take over. Right now, there aren't more than a handful of big men in basketball who have refined post moves and can drain a running right-handed hook with consistency. Teams don't value those attributes as much as speed and 3-point shooting. But as more and more players have the ability to drain 100-200 3-pointers per season at a 40 percent clip, the demand will shift. Kids who arrive on the NBA's doorstep with the ability to dominate the game inside with uncanny efficiency will be shopping skills that few teams will be able to defend.
JK: I'd say the hand-check rules imposed an artificial set of circumstances that forced a change, so I don't think we'll see the pendulum swing all the way back to where it was. But I think guys are finding out that even though big men need to be faster and more skilled than they used to be and can't count on getting minutes just because they can score with their backs to the basket and do nothing else (i.e. Eddy Curry), the post-up game is still a valuable weapon. Look at the Lakers. Andrew Bynum, when he's engaged, defends the rim, gets rebounds and is quick enough to find room and finish off of others, but also posts up. Pau Gasol plays the high-post, runs the floor, gets rebounds, passes beautifully and can knock down the mid-range jumper, but also has a wonderful post game. And of course Kobe can and does do just about anything that's possible for a basketball player to do, but also utilizes the post game.
I'd say that the post-up specialist won't be in vogue again in the foreseeable future, but more and more bigs and wings who can do what's demanded of them in the post hand-check NBA are going to find that the actual post game is still a hugely valuable weapon, especially as fewer and fewer teams know how to defend it.
Of the current young up-and-coming teams, which ones are for real and which ones will provide an entertaining illusion of success?
KA: When sizing up a team's future prospects, the first thing I ask myself is, "Can I imagine this team ranking in the top half of the league defensively?"
Oklahoma City is the quintessential upstart squad. They're fun, charismatic, dynamic, athletic ... and not all that impressive as an offensive unit. It's the Thunder's defense that's led them to a 17-14 record this season. So long as tough, lanky defenders like Russell Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha are patrolling the perimeter (and James Harden too), opponents are going to have a tough time scoring against them. With that Kevin Durant angle pick-and-roll as the anchor of their offense, they're a good bet to win a playoff series sometime soon.
Brandon Jennings has sparked any and all attention the Bucks have received this season, but Milwaukee's frontcourt of Andrew Bogut, Ersan Ilyasova and Luc Mbah a Moute have put up gritty defensive numbers. Mbah a Moute comes as no surprise, but I was shocked by Bogut's stats, until I looked at his figures under Scott Skiles last season -- also really, really good. Once they get a (healthy) shooting guard who can play drive-and-kick off the Jennings-Bogut pick-and-roll, the Bucks could be dangerous under a coach who was booted from his last gig in Chicago after assembling the league's top-ranked defense and the Eastern Conference's 3rd best record the previous season.
Sacramento's lousy defensive numbers don't concern me right now. They strike me as a team that's going to experience a major overhaul over the next 18 months, and a big part of that metamorphosis will be acquiring some pieces around Tyreke Evans who can defend. I have less faith in Memphis, Minnesota, Golden State and, to a slightly lesser extent, Philadelphia, who all have rosters riddled with defensive ciphers.
JK: I think Oklahoma City wins a playoff series when their backcourt clicks into place, and that's close to happening. I love Westbrook's game and think he has a ton of potential, but he just needs to be more disciplined. He pushes the ball, plays great defense, and does all these little things, but then he'll throw up a bad jumper, brick a full-speed reverse layup, or make a silly pass, and his true shooting percentage and turnover rates are way off of where they need to be because of that. It'll be interesting to see if the answer there is Harden maturing to the point where he can play 30-35 minutes a game and cover some of Westbrook's weaknesses with his shooting, playmaking and ability to create off the drive. (Combo guards!) But I think that young frontcourt is the envy of a lot of teams in the league, Sam Presti keeps getting valuable pieces without giving up much, and I'd call the future very bright there.
For Sacramento, the short-term question is how Tyreke is going to work with Kevin Martin. They might cancel each other out or become absolutely unstoppable together, although they might need to do the latter to make up for Martin's suspect defense. But Thompson, Hawes, Casspi, and even Brockman all look like keepers, and Tyreke has given every indication that he can be built around.
In Milwaukee, I think they should be having serious brainstorms on how they can hide Mbah a Moute on offense so they can keep him on the floor longer, maybe even looking for a stretch four so they can put Mbah a Moute closer to the basket offensively and use him like Detroit used Ben Wallace. He's that good defensively.
I agree with you about the rest of the teams, although I give Memphis some upside because I think it's a bit too early to completely give up on Hasheem Thabeet as an impact player defensively; if Orlando could build a defense around Howard and four perimeter guys, there's a chance Memphis can as well. (A chance, mind you.)
What is it about Stan Van Gundy that we like so much?
JK: I think we've got a pretty narrow view of how to evaluate coaches, because we don't see the vast majority of what they do and we're trained to look for their failures and not their successes. Coaches almost exist to be fired, and every time they make a mistake with their play-call or substitution, it'll get talked about the next day.
I think the biggest job of a coach isn't to call timeouts strategically or be a genius with his in game substitutions. (Although both are definitely important, especially the latter.) I think the job of an NBA coach is to set up a system that best utilizes the talents he has available to him, and that's where Stan Van Gundy comes in, especially last season. Of his five starters, he had three guys with below-average defensive reputations, Dwight Howard, and a rookie.
Instead of trying to have everyone play straight-up or stick Rashard Lewis at the three, he evaluated what he had -- the best shot-blocker in the league and more quickness on the perimeter than most other teams had. So he stuck Lewis at the 4 and never looked back, and built a defense around running other teams off threes and keeping Howard at home under the basket. What happened? The Magic gave up the second fewest made baskets at the rim, the second fewest made 3s per game, and more shots from 10-15 feet and 16-23 feet than any other team in the league. They also had one of the league's three best defenses in terms of efficiency.
Offensively, he had Dwight Howard, who can catch and finish with the best of them but isn't a great post player, more shooting and playmaking at the forward spots than most anyone, and a bunch of guys who can shoot threes. So he had Howard look for catches at the rim, ran 3/4 screen-rolls, and had his players shoot a bunch of threes rather than try to do what everyone else was doing. Van Gundy's failures last season were there for the world to see, but what he did extremely well was more subtle.
KA: I like his press conferences, too. The irony of Van Gundy is that popular perception sometimes paints him as inflexible. But as you said, no coach sculpted a more sensible system for his personnel last season than Van Gundy. He did a full appraisal of his talent, saw where he had edges over his opponents at each position (ballhanding at the 3, shooting at the 4, mobility at the 5) and designed his offense to exploit those advantages.
This isn't to say there's anything wrong with building an elite team by first implementing the system, then by populating that system with players whose talents most conform to it. Whatever works, by all means. Just win. But the ability to create a system around a disparate collection of talent that was brought together randomly is in many ways even more impressive.
Should LeBron James be playing more power forward?
KA: Despite James’ size, strength and efficiency on the glass, Mike Brown has him firmly situated at the small forward slot. In fact, you have to go pretty far down the list of Cleveland’s 5-man lineups to find units in which James is playing power forward. But in the six lineups that feature James surrounded by one traditional big man and three smaller players for at least 10 minutes, the Cavs outscore their opponents 96-83 (prorated for 48 minutes).
Those numbers are enough for me, but let’s think about it in practical terms. We’ve already discussed how positional dogma is a thing of the past in an NBA that’s much smaller than it was 10 years ago. When thinking about how to best maximize LeBron in the half-court, wouldn't you prefer that he drag a bigger defender out to him in order to create more space on the floor for your offense? And defensively, wouldn’t a team like Cleveland, whose primary weakness has been its plodding frontcourt, be better served by having LeBron cover Rashard Lewis on Orlando’s pick-and-pop or Boston’s bigs on the Celtics’ rotating screen-and-rolls? Doesn’t it make more sense to challenge Stan Van Gundy and Doc Rivers to match up with a more athletic lineup? And wouldn’t Cleveland benefit from more transition opportunities?
Would team rebounding suffer? When you look at those aforementioned six lineups with LeBron at the 4, the answer is no. Apart from the political stickiness of limiting the minutes of the Cavs' veteran big men, I have trouble seeing how making the Cavs a more athletic team around LeBron comes with much downside.
JK: The short answer is that I'm extremely confused as to why LeBron doesn't get more time at the 4 position, at least for around 10 minutes of his time on the floor. I understand some of the reasoning behind not giving him significant minutes down there. The Cavs show hard on every perimeter screen, which would require LeBron expending more energy on the defensive end than the Cavs are comfortable with, especially in the first three quarters. And of course, the Cavs don't want LeBron in foul trouble under any circumstances. And generally speaking, the Cavs' big men are better players than Jamario Moon, who typically plays the 3 in the Cavs' small-ball lineup. But LeBron getting the ball in the 10-15 foot range and making his move from down there is absolutely deadly, and that small-ball lineup should definitely be something used more often to keep opposing teams on their toes.
What confuses me more than anything is that while the Shaq/Varejao frontcourt has some offensive issues and the Shaq/Hickson frontcourt has some serious defensive issues, a Shaq/LeBron frontcourt hasn't been tried at all this season, and I mean at all. I suppose the reasoning is that LeBron would be forced to expend way too much energy on the perimeter defensively as Shaq sags to the paint on pick-and-rolls (LeBron's never gotten minutes at the four alongside Z either), but with the Cavs supposedly looking for a "stretch 4" at the deadline to make life easier for Shaq, it's odd that they haven't at least tried using LeBron in that role.
There are nights when the Mavericks look deadly serious.
KA: Little known fact: Of the 50 5-man units that have played together the most this season, two of the top three in overall efficiency belong to the Dallas Mavericks. Whether it's Jason Terry or J.J. Barea at the shooting guard, the Mavs' big names are absolutely crushing their opponents on both ends of the floor. Dallas is a Top 5 defensive squad and features one of the game's great shotmakers in Dirk Nowitzki. They also have tremendous flexibility to match up with opponents on either end. They can play old-school or new-school. Want to tease the Mavs with small ball? That's fine, because they're perfectly good going with three guards and moving Shawn Marion and Nowitzki into the frontcourt. Want to try to outmuscle them? Erick Dampier may have an outsized contract, but he's also one of the better basket protectors and garbage collectors in the league. Opponents shoot a measly 57.4 percent at the rim against the Mavs -- only Boston, Cleveland and San Antonio are better.
More than anything, the Mavs strike me as a team composed of professionals. These are serious basketball players led by a serious coach. Is it possible that a squad with so many thirtysomethings breaks down physically over the course of an 82-game season? Perhaps. But where some see brittleness, I see experience. In fact, I see shades of the best San Antonio Spurs squads. I see a team that truly understands its collective talents and limitations and puts a premium on execution.
Can they compete with the Lakers in late May? I'm not sure anyone in the Western Conference can, but Dallas -- with its length, smarts, and perimeter prowess -- might just be the toughest competition the Lakers encounter.
JK: Dallas has a ton of talent, Dirk is right up there with the best players in the league, and the team defends. My caveat would be that they're thinner than people think, and much more dependent on Dirk. As of December 26th, Dallas was +11.6 points per 100 possessions with Dirk on the floor and a stunning -16.5 points per 100 with Dirk on the bench. As bad as LeBron and Kobe's benches are, their teams are only -8 when they sit, to offer some perspective.
A lot of that has to do with Drew Gooden; Gooden's plus-minus is -23.1, and as someone who's watched a good deal of Gooden in his life, I can tell you that's not random noise. Drew Gooden is the anti-Battier. I'm also not a huge J.J. Barea fan. He's fun to watch and works fairly well with Kidd offensively, but I believe you were the one who said he plays defense "like a man frantically searching for his car keys," and the plus-minus numbers support the theory that Barea's somewhat of a defensive liability. Dallas can play with anyone, especially when Dirk's on the floor, and if they do something to get a better backup for Dirk than Gooden and hide Barea's defense a little better (maybe play more Beaubois, who's gone through growing pains and will probably continue to do so, but has lockdown defensive potential), I'd call them a true force to be reckoned with in the West. If not, I'd say they have a solid puncher's chance of knocking the Lakers off their Western Conference throne.
How do we begin to make sense of adjusted plus-minus?
JK: Outside of the obvious conclusion, which is "no one stat or metric, no matter how advanced or intricate, is ever going to come close to saying everything about one player," I have two thoughts on adjusted plus-minus.
The first is that I get how the basic +/- you see in box scores and 82games.com's version of plus-minus work, but I still don't totally understand how advanced plus-minus works, and that's a problem. I mean, I get the theory, that it adjusts for having good or bad teammates or playing against good and bad opponents, but how exactly does it define "good" and "bad"? Is "good" based on the other guy's adjusted plus-minus, or is the value of others derived from something like Player Efficiency Rating? Aren't both approaches problematic? Right now, adjusted plus-minus is sort of "He's good. Trust me," which I have trouble swallowing as a fan and certainly can't use to convince friends or readers of a guy's value.
The second problem is one that will get fixed over time, which is that we still don't really know how to read plus-minus type stats yet. We know with a stat like field goal percentage that a shooting guard is going to have a lower field goal percentage than a center, but we also know that the guard is probably shooting more 3s, shooting his free throws better and taking tougher shots than the center. We know how to read that stat.
But because plus-minus is one number and so nebulous, we don't know which plus-minus numbers to take with a grain of salt and which ones not to. I'll bring up the semi-infamous Durant example here. Durant had terrible +/- ratings for his first two seasons, but has been incredible in year three. Was the Durant phenomenon ever even real, or did Durant actually improve this year in ways the stats didn't see? If we want plus-minus metrics to be as legitimate as the box score ones, we have to stress-test it like we have the conventional numbers that came before them.
KA: I'm drawn to adjusted plus-minus because I'm desperate to find any metric that will approximate a player's defensive value, something we just don't have the tools to do right now. I'm more faithful than I probably should be given the lack of stress tests you talk about. Your point is well-taken and I'd add that stats like these are only valuable to the extent that they're predictive. There will always be players who make colossal jumps or experience unusual crashes in productivity, but apart from outliers, a stat must be dependable enough to offer a clear -- if general -- estimation of what that player is worth in the past, present and likely future. I've begun to spend more time examining the adjusted plus-minus numbers of 5-man units rather than individuals, in part because it seems more practical.
I suspect we'll know a lot more in three to five years than we do now. The metric's practitioners (and the people who trust them) will have a better sense of where the numbers skews, what those number might miss and the kind of noise those numbers create. In the meantime, I'll continue to watch the 2-year figures (and eventually 3-year, and 4-year). Any system that values Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant as the five best players in the NBA has to be on to something, right?
While the cellar-dwellers prepare their draft board, the NBA's elite have some tough calls to make. Will the Lakers pony up for Lamar Odom? Is Hedo Turkoglu worth exceeding the cap for? And the Cavs confront the reality that they're a couple of rotation players away from Eastern supremacy.
Darius Soriano of Forum Blue & Gold: "We're at the point where [Lamar] Odom's true value to this team is no longer a mystery. When you talk X's and O's, he's the player that makes our strong side zone work as he provides the mobility and length to move from one side of the court to the other, pick up flashing big men, guard perimeter players, trap the ball handler, and still recover to the paint to rebound. He's the player that helps create our tremendous offensive spacing - playing as a PF that can initiate the offense, play on the perimeter (and be effective with the jumper or the drive), find creases in defenses to take advantage of the double teams that Kobe and [Pau] Gasol face, and also play in isolation from any position on the court (wing, top of the key, low block, elbow, etc). And when you talk team building and chemistry, he's also a real leader for the Lakers. Many will point to Kobe [Bryant] or [Derek] Fisher as our leaders - and rightfully so - but it's Odom that has been the stabilizer for our squad. He's been the bridge between our first and second units, the guy that organizes team dinners and brings in a chef for training camp, the guy that is in the middle of the huddle motivating and inspriring our guys for the battle ahead, and the guy whose lighthearted nature and devotion to the team keeps the locker room loose. We need this player."
Zach McCann of Orlando Magic Daily: "[T]o other teams, is [Hedo] Turkoglu really worth close to eight figures? John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Rating isn't perfect, but it's probably the best method we have of comparing players. Turkoglu's PER this season was less than Travis Outlaw, Marvin Williams, Grant Hill, Rudy Gay, Anthony Randolph and Richard Jefferson. And PER often punishes player who are shut-down defenders - something Turkoglu is not. We all know the intangibles of Hedo Turkoglu - his ball-handling skills, his abilities to create mismatches, his knack for shooting well in the clutch - are why he's so valuable to the Orlando Magic. But it can't be ignored how much Turkoglu fell off from last season to this season ... It's not like 30-year-old players regularly bounce back after down years. It's hard to imagine the Magic, or any team, think Turkoglu's career year of 2007-08 is the norm. The Turkoglu we saw this season is likely what most people expect out of Turkoglu going forward. Is 16-5-5 with a poor shooting percentage worth $10 million?"
John Krolik of Cavs the Blog: "A rotation big is hard to find. Really hard to find. And even if Andy [Varejao] comes back, this team, as Ben Wallace's corpse made clear in the ECF, is having trouble filling those minutes, especially considering Joe Smith seemed to be out of the playoff rotation. JJ Hickson is a great prospect, but even he has serious question marks at the defensive ends. The good news: LeBron James can give you 15 absolutely unbelievable minutes at the 4 on a nightly basis. The numbers were eye-popping ... this season when he played at the 4: A PER of 38, 39/11/8.5, and 2 blocks per 48 minutes, a higher net +/- per 48 minutes than his minutes at small forward, and he holds his man to less than a league-average PER defensively. And this is all with Wally [Szczerbiak] holding down the three spot and essentially doing nothing and getting exploited defensively. In the playoffs, Wally was simply too much of a liability. With a true rotation-quality swingman, the Cavs could take advantage of LeBron's ability at the four without leaving a hole, and it's much, much, much easier to get a rotation-quality swingman than a rotation-quality power forward."
(Photos by Noah Graham, Jesse D. Garrabrant, Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
The Cavs and Magic each came into the series with a full playbook of good offensive material that worked all season -- which is why they're playing basketball in late May. The difference came down to which team better executed its stuff. Saturday night, it wasn't even close.
Dwight Howard: Turning Defenses Inside Out (John Raoux/NBAE via Getty Images)
As dominant as Howard was -- he chalked up twice as many points as Orlando's second-highest scorer -- the Magic's clincher was a collective effort offensively. What's striking about Orlando is how many different things they execute well offensively -- to say nothing of their top-ranked defense. Orlando gets a lot of praise for its pick-and-roll game, which is spearheaded by Hedo Turkoglu and Dwight Howard. Orlando is special in that everyone in their rotation can perform this part of the offense.
Just look at how Orlando amassed its first double-digit lead:
- [2nd quarter, 7:41] It's not the patented 3-5 Turkoglu/Howard screen-and-roll. Howard isn't even in the game, nor is starting point guard Rafer Alston. Rotund backup point guard Anthony Johnson is at the controls. Rashard Lewis steps out to the top of the floor, and slips a screen to Johnson's right. When Johnson recognizes that Wally Szczerbiak and Daniel Gibson have gotten crossed up on the switch, he shuttles the ball over to Lewis, who has an open driving lane to the hoop. Varejao challenges Lewis underneath, but Lewis puts the ball in his off hand, contorts himself, then lays it in.
There's nothing ingenious about what Orlando does. It's the flexibility of the team's personnel that makes the Magic impossible to defend. Everyone is an interchangeable part in the offense. Each of the six guards and forwards can shoot the three, pass the ball, and put it on the deck. Howard appreciates this, and has gotten very shrewd at letting his teammates make plays for him. He checks in immediately after Lewis' hoop, and converts on the very next possession:
- [2nd quarter, 6:20] Johnson is still at the point. He gets a strong screen up top from Lewis, then penetrates into the paint. Howard, meanwhile hangs out just off the mid-post on the left side. The instant Cleveland's interior defense collapses on Johnson, he pitches the ball off to Howard, who now has a huge amount of space to muscle his way to the rim. Anderson Varejao tries to reestablish his presence underneath, but Howard is too quick. By the time Varejao shifts his attention back to the big man, Howard is already into his drive. His running hook from five feet is soft.
This is the Howardized variation of the drive-and-kick, only with the ball ending up in the hands of the big man near the basket rather than a shooter out on the arc.
Orlando uses its bread and butter to establish control of the game just before halftime, and Howard gets the assist:
- [2nd quarter, 4:55] The Orlando 4-out/1-in: The single most effective offensive scheme we've seen from any team in the postseason. Everyone on the floor and on both benches knows it's coming.
When Howard gets the ball off the left block, the Cavs promptly send a double-team, as Delonte West joins Varejao on the cover. Howard has gotten so good at sizing up the backside of the defensive zone in this situation. He takes a looks at his four shooters spread around the arc. At first glance, there isn't much there. For all of Cleveland's problems this series, they're still one of the best defensive teams in basketball, and they rotate very well early in this set. Orlando realizes that in order to work itself an open shot, someone has to scramble the defense.
That's when Courtney Lee dives hard for the basket from the top of the arc. LeBron James, who has been monitoring the top of the floor, has no choice but to pick up Lee on the cut. When Lee cuts, Lewis fills that open space up top, where Howard finds him for the wide open three-pointer. Lewis drains it. He finishes with 18 points on the night, capping off a solid series.
This is just a sampling. Roll through the game tape, and you can find possessions like these everywhere: Another set run through Howard on the left block that results in a full swing of the ball around the perimeter for an open three-point shot by Alston [2nd quarter, 1:27], a Turkoglu/Gortat screen-and-roll that produces a kickout to a wide open Mickael Pietrus [2nd quarter, 8:04], Howard doing his best Pau Gasol imitation with a pass over his shoulder out of the block to Pietrus on the basket cut [3rd quarter, 0:22].
All season, skeptics questioned whether Orlando played a style of basketball that was conducive to winning a championship -- as if winning is a question of aesthetics. In modern basketball, we've seen fast teams, slow teams, motion offeneses, pick-and-roll outfits all win NBA Championships. No matter what their offensive agendas, these teams had one thing in common: They executed.
Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
Despite Dwight Howard's protests following Orlando's Game 5 loss to Boston in the Eastern Conference semis, there's no correlation between the number of shots Howard takes and the likelihood of an Orlando Magic victory. Even though Howard's claims that he should be seeing more shots weren't rooted in any empirical truth, his misperceptions could potentially be beneficial. Given his muscle and athleticism, the Magic should prosper from the ball being in Howard's hands. If it takes a false impression of reality to motivate him to be a better finisher on set plays, who's going to complain?
Dwight Howard: Happy When Fed (Elsa/NBAE via Getty Images)
Tuesday night, Dwight Howard scores only four points on 1-4 shooting from the field in the second half. Some of that can be chalked up Orlando's reliance on the three-ball, which is itself a response to Cleveland's clogging the middle against Howard. In the final six minutes of regulation, Howard manages only one chance from the field, when he gets a pass deep in the post from Hedo Turkoglu just inside of the 2:00 mark of the fourth quarter. Howard is immediately hacked by Anderson Varejao. Although his presence is helping Orlando's shooters, Howard is essentially an offensive decoy in the second half.
The Magic's pick-and-roll game gets lost at times in their prolific three-point attack, but they start the overtime period with a high Howard/Turkoglu screen-and-roll. As Turkoglu turns the corner to his left, Howard dives through the lane, where all three Cleveland guards collapse on him. Varejao ultimately picks Turkoglu's pocket, which leads to a Cleveland break and a couple of free throws for Boobie Gibson. It's an inauspicious start to overtime for the Magic.
When Orlando brings the ball up the next trip down, it appears as if the Magic aren't going to use Howard in the offense any differently than they did in the second half. Off the initial pick-and-roll, Howard draws Mo Wiliams on the rotation in the paint, but Rafer Alston doesn't look at Howard. By the time he does, Varejao has recovered and replaces Williams as the post defender on Howard, and the mismatch is lost.
As Alston passes the ball off the Turkoglu on the left wing, Howard keeps fighting with Varejao for position on the left block. Sometimes, Howard can get dejected when he's ignored on the initial action. He won't quit working, but there's a difference between setting up in the post and bruising for every last inch inside. On this possession, Howard is doing the latter. Turkoglu recognizes it, and promptly feeds Howard on the left block. Howard does something here he doesn't frequently do -- he trusts his feet. Pounding the ball into the court, Howard backs Varejao in with his left shoulder. He collects the ball confidently, then pivots on his right foot to spin baseline. That's all he needs to get to the rim for the slam. Normally when Howard gets the ball at this spot in this situation, he's hesitant to change direction and we see him try to sweep across the lane and fling a running hook shot at the basket. Not this time.
What happens the next trip down when Alston is again blitzed on the pick-and-roll? He instantly looks for Howard on the dive. Delonte West has a nice defensive game, but he commits a fatal error here by leaving Howard too early. Instead of waiting another second or two for Varejao to recover, West runs out on Turkoglu, which leaves Howard wide open underneath. Perhaps it's reading too much into nothing more than a mental error, but what does West's decision to worry more about Turkoglu than Howard say about Orlando's late-game offense?
Cleveland's had enough. The last two possessions have prompted them to make a defensive adjustment to account for Howard. When the high screen/roll comes this time around, Varejao drops back into the paint. The Magic run a mirror image of the first Howard set, this time from the right side. Pietrus gets the entry pass into Howard. When Varejao gambles by trying to get in front of the pass, that's all the room Howard needs to build the head of steam that will power him to the rim with a left-handed drive. After Howard drops the ball through the hoop, an irate LeBron James whips his right arm in disgust at Varejao and, according to Doug Collins, yells to his teammate, "Foul him!"
That's exactly what Ben Wallace does with 21 seconds to go and the Magic leading by two. The most common reason attributed to Orlando's reluctance to feed Howard down the stretch in close games is his inability to convert at the line. For the fourth consecutive season, Howard drained fewer than 60 percent of his free throw attempts. Howard is 8-14 in Game 4 before he steps up to the line for two of the bigger attempts of his career. Although Howard's three dunks earlier in the period were more momentous, and his tip-in off a Turkoglu miss two possessions earlier gave the Magic a commanding six-point lead with just over a minute remaining, it's these pair of free throws that probably offer Orlando fans the most comfort. Both shots fall through without grazing the rim.
The broad narrative of Game 4 will be about Dwight Howard's arrival as a closer, the night he lorded his physical gifts over everyone on the court when it mattered the most. Will it also be the point on the chronological axis when getting the ball to Dwight Howard started to matter? Maybe, maybe not. That's a trend that should play out for at least a full season before it's declared meaningful, but you think Dwight Howard cares about sample sizes?
Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
Think about all the things you'd want offensively if you were constructing an NBA team from scratch. You'd start with a dominant big man who's unguardable if he catches the ball within seven feet of the basket. You'd surround him with long-range shooters so that he'll always have an outlet if the defense collapses on him. Those ingredients would probably get you to respectability, but let's be greedy for a second. What if both wings and the power forward could act as interchangeable parts in a dizzying pick-and-roll scheme -- each of them capable of handling the ball, making good passes in the halfcourt, and exploiting mismatches both in the post and off the dribble? If you could assemble a team like that, it would look a lot like the 2009 Orlando Magic.
When Orlando plays with an appreciation of their full offensive range, they're a bear to defend. For the first time in the series Sunday night, the Magic establish those assets out of the gate. Their first 10 possessions yield 16 points in 6:04. The sets are well-chosen, almost perfectly executed, and put to rest any fears that the dagger in Cleveland would have a lingering effect in Game 3. We see the complete breadth of the Magic's repertoire -- the deadly shooting, Dwight Howard's presence down low, the forwards' versatility, and the sharp pick-and-roll game.
Here's how it all starts in Game 3:
Possession #1: Locate the mismatch
The small forward is the fulcrum of any basketball team. Most units feature two big men and two guards with relatively well-defined roles. The 3 man, though, comes in all shapes and sizes, with an elaborate array of skills. If the 3 can play big, the team can play big. If the 3 can shoot from the perimeter, chances are the squad can space the floor. If the 3 can pass the rock, then ball movement will probably be a strength, too.
In this sense, Turkoglu's versatility makes him invaluable to the Magic. Even when he's shooting horribly from the field, as he does in Game 3 (1-11 FGs), he forces the defense to make tough choices (which is how a 1-11 night can translate into a game-high +20). Defend Turkoglu like a traditional 6' 10" forward, and he'll assume ballhandling duties. Assign a smaller defender who can pressure him on the ball, and Turkoglu will exploit that size advantage, which is what he does here with Delonte West. Turkoglu posts up West out on the right wing. He faces up, then takes a quick dribble move toward the baseline to work himself some space to shoot over West. Turkoglu gets a very good look, but it's that kind of night. Still, you can't argue with looking for a mismatch to open the game.
Possession #2: Dwight Howard deep
Dwight Howard will continue to take grief for his rudimentary post game until he establishes a more expansive arsenal. There's every reason to believe we'll see this development over the next few years and it's going to be insanely fun to watch. Until that time, the Magic have one recourse -- get the ball to #12 deep, deep, deep in the paint. The easiest way to do this is in transition, where Howard can use his quickness to beat his man to the restricted circle, which is what he does here off Anderson Varejao's miss on the other end.
Howard barrels his way downcourt. Varejao meets him at the foul line, but Howard has too much forward momentum, and bulldozes Varejao some more before they settle about seven feet from the hoop. There's nothing artful about the play after Turkoglu feeds Howard with the pass. Howard takes an awkward dribble and struggles to bring the ball up to waist level, but he gets hacked and earns a trip to the line where he sinks one of two.
Howard finishes the game a respectable 14 for 19 from the stripe (74%). A more represenatative night from the foul line from Howard would've made for a much more stressful night in Orlando.
Possession #3: Ibid
Transition is one way to get Howard deep position beneath the basket, but pick-and-roll action is another. Alston (guarded by LeBron James) and Howard (guarded by Zydrunas Ilgauskas) run the pick-and-roll at the top of the key. When Howard gets his feet moving coming off the screen, he's able to push Ilgauskas south. Alston kicks the ball up top to Rashard Lewis, which gives Howard another second or two to buy himself even more real estate down low. By the time the pass comes to Howard, he's at the restricted circle. He takes a heavy drop step on the right side, then muscles his way up for a right-handed finish.
Ilgauskas has always been a strong defender, but if you can turn the halfcourt into a dance floor, he's at a decided disadvantage against a quick opponent like Howard. Cleveland is paying for it, and it's a problem they can't always address with a double-team.
Possession #4: Four out, one in
The combination of Howard and four cannons on the perimeter allows Orlando to space the floor as well as any team in basketball. The action starts with the Alston-Howard screen-roll. Ilgauskas makes a defensive adjustment this time around. He's not going to screw with Alston. Instead, Z sets himself defensively one step behind the foul line. That's the line of demarcation, and he will not allow Howard to get deeper than that, at least not on this possession.
Alston recognizes the adjustment, so he dishes the ball off to Rashard Lewis at the top of the arc. The ball doesn't stay with Lewis for long, because he keeps it moving left, over to Turkoglu. At this point, Howard is outside the paint at about 15 feet on the left wing, with Ilgauskas behind him. Turkoglu makes the entry pass into Howard, at which point James drops down to help. The instant he does, Howard kicks the ball out to Alston, whom James has left at the top of the arc.
If you're Cleveland, do you take your chances with Howard man-to-man at 15 feet? James arrives even before Howard invades the paint, which might be just a little too aggressive, unless you're certain you can cut off any pass to the perimeter, which is pretty ambitious.
Possession #5: Four out, one in -- transition edition
Off a Cavs' turnover, Howard bypasses the pick and instead beelines directly to the paint. Meanwhile the four Magic shooters fan out along the arc. Alston zips the ball into Howard off the left side of the paint against Varejao. West leaves Turkoglu at the top of the arc to double down on Howard. Rather than kicking the ball out, Howard opts to drive to the rim with his left shoulder and a couple of right-handed dribbles, before elevating for a shot attempt. Varejao commits his second foul, and Howard goes back to the line where he drains one of two.
Possession #6: Nasty drag-screen
As dangerous as LeBron James is with the ball in his hands, he's more lethal when he gets a running start and catches a pass in motion to the hoop with a full head of steam. The same is true for Dwight Howard.
Stan Van Gundy often points out that the Magic function most efficiently in transition, and this sequence is a smart illustration of that. Remember that adjustment Ilgauskas made on the screen-roll to set himself defensively for Howard near the foul line? There's no time for that here because Alston and Howard immediately get into the action while Ilgauskas is still backpedaling. When James gets hung up on Howard's screen up top, Ilgauskas realizes he has to pick up Alston on the left side. Just as Z shifts his weight and attention toward Alston, Howard takes off for the rim. Alston threads the needle with a killer pocket pass across his body between the two defenders. Howard snatches it and, on the finish, almost destroys additional oper
Possession #7: Sin of commission
Even the Magic's single turnover of the stretch is somewhat excusable. Alston pushes the ball upcourt off the Cleveland miss as the Magic shooters run to their spots. Alston weaves his way through the backpedaling Cleveland defense. As the Cavs' defenders begin to collapse on him, Alston delivers a hard bounce pass to the left sideline which catches Turkoglu just a little off-balance and lands in the front row. A few inches to the left or a nanosecond earlier in the same spot, and Turkoglu has an open look at a three-pointer.
Possession #8: Space for Alston
The Magic goes to another pick-and-roll with Alston and Howard, this time on the right side. Howard lays it on thick against LeBron, giving Alston all kinds of space for a shot. Where's Ilgauskas on the show? Given Howard's activity, Ilgauskas has clearly decided to stay back, willing to yield a jump shot to Alston if it means eliminating (or at least complicating) the possibility of Howard's flying nonstop from the wing to the rim. The gamble doesn't pay off, as Alston drains the long jumper. The only consolation for Cleveland is the low-percentage shot: the dreaded 22-footer.
Possession #9: Reversal
For sheer choreography, this is the prettiest set of the night for Orlando, as all five Magicians touch the ball. They go to their four-out-one-in formation, with Howard getting the entry pass from Altson at the mid-right post. Cleveland immediately sends Ben Wallace on the double-team. When Wallace commits, the four shooters space themselves out exquisitely around the arc against the three remaining Cavs' defenders. Howard kicks the ball out to the one closest to him -- Rafer Alston, who's situated as the last shooter on the right.
From there, it's artistry, as Orlando stretches the Cleveland defense to the breaking point. Alston has the ball in his possession for maybe half a second before kicking it to Turkoglu, twelve feet to his left. Hot potato, as Turkoglu immediately sends it left to Lee, simliarly spaced. The last stop on the Orlando Perimeter Express is Rashard Lewis, who catches, shoots, and nails the three-point shot.
Master of Panic or Master Mechanic?
Possession #10: Locate the mismatch
The Orlando run finishes how it stars, with the Magic using their forwards' versatility to leverage a mismatch. Courtney Lee (guarded by Mo Williams) and Lewis (guarded by Ben Wallace) run a two-man game on the left side of the floor. Orlando gets the mismatch, and Lee is now facing down Ben Wallace. Lee gets to about 18 feet and has a jumper if he wants it, but he wisely looks around for better options, aware that if he has Wallace on him, that means Lewis has Williams.
As it turns out, Wiliams was taken out of the play, but Delonte West has picked up Lewis on the rotation. That's the good news for Cleveland. The bad news is that this still represents a mismatch, and Lewis is hungry. Lewis backs West in with left shoulder, spins baseline, then effortlessly launches that slingshot over West that falls through.
Orlando leads 16-6 midway through the first quarter.
After this efficient start, Orlando spends the next twelve minutes striving for the spectacular, when the operative was working perfectly well. In the third quarter, the Magic reestablishes all that was working in the first six minutes, and they regain control of the game. They also use their quickness and Howard's size to rack up 51 free throw attempts en route to a big Game 3 win. This is to say nothing of their defense, which shuts down almost every mortal facet of the Cavs' offense. If Orlando has a glaring weakness on either side of the ball outside of Dwight Howard's free throw shooting and not having LeBron James under contract, it hasn't been exposed.
Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
It's getting increasingly difficult to put LeBron James' postseason heroics into historical perspective. His production has made an extremely good offensive team (109.7 points/100 possessions in the regular season), even more ruthless in the postseason (up that to 111.9/100).
The Cavs Defense: Where average defenders become good defenders, and good defenders become great defenders. (Andy Lyons/NBAE via Getty Images)
That's an impressive gain, but only a fraction of the improvement the already sturdy Cavs defense has shown in the playoffs. Cleveland has whittled its 99.4 points/100 possessions defensive rating (3rd best out of 30), down to a minuscule 90.8/100 in its two postseason series. Granted, Atlanta and Detroit weren't exactly offensive juggernauts, but their respective offensive ratings in the regular season of 106.6 and 104.5 suggest that the Cavs are tightening their defensive vise with brutal efficiency.
The Cleveland roster isn't composed of guys you'd immediately classify as defensive stoppers. With a defensive rating in the 104 range (number of points allowed per 100 possessions as an individual defender), Delonte West has been rightfully praised for his defense. West's defensive ratings in the four seasons prior to this one? 107, 107, 108, 108. As a Milwaukee Buck, Mo Williams had a reputation as a horrendous defender (and the numbers to prove it), but for Cleveland this season, he's been downright gritty, and his defensive rating dropped from 114 to 106. Did Williams just miraculously grow defensive fangs? Even Wally Szczerbiak, Ukrainian for "has lost some lateral quickness," is posting career-best numbers in various advanced defensive metrics. Nothing eye-popping, but more than passable.
A few hundred video clips of Cleveland defensive sets -- both from the postseason and from post-All-Star Game matchups against playoff contenders -- begin to tell the story. Mike Brown, a disciple of Gregg Popovich, insists that his defenders play straight-up position defense. The Cavs don't gamble a lot (in team steals, you'll find them in the middle of the pack), don't trap off the screen/roll very often, and though they doubled Joe Johnson quite a bit in the Atlanta series, they prefer man-to-man defense most nights. If a Cleveland defender gets beat on a screen or off the dribble, there's an instant rotation, more often than not by Anderson Varejao. For a guy who gives off a lot of hyperkinetic energy, Varejao moves around the court with great purpose. He's my choice for ROY -- Rotator of the Year.
Since Mo Williams isn't a great individual defender, and does get beat on a regular basis, this part of Cleveland's defensive scheme is all the more impressive. When Williams gets taken out of the play by a hard screen, the rotator will immediately pick up the loose end, by moving to either the ball man or the screener. Williams, meanwhile, recovers quickly and intently. He'll immediately dart over to the guy who the rotator/helper has left open (also known as Roger Mason), preventing a kick out or, at the very least, an open look.
It's here, on the back half of a defensive possession, where Cleveland's defense forces bad shot after bad shot. Mo Williams, like most point guards, is going to get nailed by his share of screens from 250-pound centers. That's a given. Good team defenses compensate a couple of ways: [a] How quickly does the rotator pick up Williams' man (or the big man, if a switch is in order)? [b] How effectively does Williams recover and run out on the open man? Bad defenses get beaten by a failure of [a], but even some decent defensive teams can get burned in the closing seconds of a possession by breaking down on [b].
Not Cleveland. You can go through nearly twenty clips of defensive possessions before witnessing a single blown rotation. Every Cavalier closes out on every shooter, and contests every shot. The Cavs move around the court mindful of every open space, chasing guys off their spots, and walling off anyone with the temerity to drive or cut to the basket.
LeBron's explosiveness is undoubtedly the story of the Cavs' scorched earth playoff run, but their stifling defense is the silent killer. If you shaved off a third of James' offensive output, the Cavs' team defense would still make them the favorite in any series going forward.
LeBron James continues to flout the fundamental laws of basketball and physics. The Phoenix Suns are at a crossroads. And is there any reason to believe that a sport that's seen performance enhancement in recent years hasn't been susceptible to PEDs?
John Krolik of Cavs the Blog: "I played Jayvee high school basketball for all of two years. On day one of tryouts, we learned that you can't feed the post from the top of the key. Unless you're LeBron James, who not only managed to break one of the basic rules of Xs and Os, but did it with a BACKHANDED WRIST PASS to hit [Anderson] Varejao under the basket, whizzing the ball by five defenders' ears from 25 feet away on a frozen rope ... one of the things that makes LeBron such an amazing passer is that ... his height and strength allows him to actually make the ball go faster and through different angles that all the court vision and anticipation in the world wouldn't allow him to do normally. "
Michael Schwartz of Valley of the Suns: "This summer we'll hear cries of 'trade Shaq!' and 'Amare is a headcase!' Here's my question: why do anything? ... The fact remains, this was not a bad team. It certainly wasn't very good either, at least for half the year. They finished two games out of the playoffs without Amare for nearly half a season. Tell me that's not a positive to take out of the season ... Let [Alvin] Gentry use Amare to his fullest and keep Shaq as a contingency plan on every possession. Gentry plus Amare equaled two monstrous victories, don't forget that, no matter who they played. Worst-case scenario is that it doesn't work out, and they lose a year that they could have been rebuilding. But even if it doesn't, that's over $36 mil coming off the books in the form of Amare and Shaq, assuming Amare bolts after next year. That sounds like prime time to rebuild right there, all while doing it with less drama and staying competitive and relevant one more year."
Dan Feldman of Piston Powered: "There was a time it was thought pitchers wouldn't benefit from steroids. They've tested positive as often, if not more than, hitters. There was a time it was thought just power hitters would benefit from steroids. Speed guys have tested positive, too. There was a time it was thought steroids would make a player's body deteriorate rapidly and almost immediately. Players have used steroids to help recovery from injury. We're in a time it's thought steroids weren't used in the NBA. How long until that becomes past tense, too?"
THE FINAL WORD
The Painted Area: Haubs goes through his 2007 emails to re-capture the thrill of GSW-DAL.
Hardwood Paroxysm: The "basketball equivalent of Lamar Odom and fava beans."
By the Horns: Finding more gems on eBay -- like Luke Schenscher's game-used shorts.
(Photos by Nathaniel S. Butler, Sam Forencich, Paul Spinelli/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 is making himself at home in the Orlando offense.
[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: Lording over the paint for the Magic.
[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.
The Hornets' sharpshooter might be better off in the second unit. The Cavs' sharpshooter couldn't connect all night...until it mattered. Ron Artest thinks he's a sharpshooter. The TrueHoop Network shoots from the hip.
Ryan Schwan of Hornets247: "Other than Dallas, the Hornets have the worst bench among the current 8 seeds in the West...That means that when the Hornets hit the playoffs, we can expect the second-quarter meltdowns to become even more pronounced. It's pathetic, because the Hornets' starting five is the seventh best in the league, despite all the nagging injury issues they've had. If the Hornets' bench could provide even a little boost, or just play the other team more evenly, it would make the team infinitely stronger and get the starters more rest.
So is there a way to fix the bench? I'm a bit of a pessimist, but here is an idea that several people have already proposed in our comments, and that I agree with: Turning Stojakovic into a sixth man.
During the series of games where Paul, Chandler, and West were all out of commission, the Hornets turned to Peja to be their primary offensive option, and he did a pretty solid job in that role. The past three games with Julian in the starting lineup, the Hornets' starters have produced a slightly worse offensive efficiency of 108.0 and a much nastier defensive efficiency of 84.0 ... The Hornets could start Julian, sub him out for Peja around the 6:00 minute mark of the first quarter and let Peja warm up. At the start of the second quarter, they can start running the offense through him.
Making this change will entail curtailing Posey's minutes some -- but I really think he'd be better served as a 20-22 minute man anyways, not the 29 minute man he's been all season."
John Krolik of Cavs the Blog: "Mo Williams. What do I say? For 47:54, he had absolutely as bad a game as you can have. He's kind of an Anti-LeBron in that he's a guy who's primarily a straight-up scorer whose offense comes from the perimeter, so when he's not in a flow things can get very bad very fast. (Fortunately, he's ridiculously consistent.)
Tonight, he wasn't hitting his shots off the dribble. He wasn't hitting open threes. He wasn't doing well defensively. He had one assist against four turnovers.
And yet, for the third game in a row, Mo Williams was the difference between victory and defeat. And if I had to pick one game to show how valuable Mo is to this team, it might be this one. No matter what he's done before in the game, he's the guy who's there when we need him. Tonight, he was the difference between a great win and the worst loss of the year.
Delonte got off the hook, too-he was an absolute non-factor all game long, which is the one thing he generally never is.
Again, I'm going to point out just how good Joe Smith and Andy were at rolling to the basket all game long and getting layups, and how unbelievable LeBron was at finding them with amazing passes. I do not think it is a coincidence that this came against Zach Randolph."
Michael Schwartz of Valley of the Suns: "We'll never know if things would be different with Amare (I think they would be), but as J-Rich said, the Suns just can't think that way.
As it is, Phoenix struggles to match up defensively against most teams with their small ball lineup, and it makes me a bit queasy that Dirk has said the toughest defender he faces in the NBA is Shawn Marion.
Yeah, he might be a little helpful right about now.
To add insult to injury, the Mavs won this game without Josh Howard to snap a nine-game road losing streak to Western Conference foes, winning their first West game away from Dallas this calendar year. And yes, it is March 10.
For the Suns, it feels like that 'season-changing' win over the Lakers on March 1 was in a whole different calendar year."
(Photos by Glenn James, Noah Graham, Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images)
Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
In an interview with Jason Friedman published yesterday at Rockets.com, Daryl Morey says unequivocally of LeBron James:
Yes, he's the best player in the league – by a good margin, I think. If you had first pick in the all-free agent NBA draft, you'd take LeBron James. I get that question a lot, too, so I figured I'd answer that as well.
He's unbelievable. We have two of the best perimeter defenders in the league and it is going to be extremely difficult for both. They're going to give it their all but, more than anyone, he's a tough guard. There's a reason the [Michael Lewis] article is about Kobe, not LeBron (laughs).
Morey's lighthearted response almost suggests that there isn't enough good data in the world that can construct a coherent strategy for guarding LeBron James. Kobe Bryant? Irrepressible some nights, sure, but still a guy you can prepare for with certain pieces of information that can be assembled into a defensive strategy. If you execute that plan perfectly, you have a chance.
But what about LeBron James?
I put the question to John Krolik of Cavs the Blog on Thursday afternoon. Knowing that the Rockets -- and most specifically Shane Battier -- devise their defensive strategy based on what they've found in the scorer's offensive tendencies, what should we expect to see from Battier and, to the extent that he uses this information, Ron Artest? John responded:
...control where LeBron's getting his catches. What you want him doing is going ISO or Pick-and-Roll 30 feet from the hoop so you can double him up high and have room to rotate back without giving up an easy basket. He's going to hurt you when he does that, but it's not nearly as bad as when he's catching it at the elbow and you're freeing up a good scorer to go double or if you let him catch it on the move, which is when you're just screwed. Cleveland fans are all familiar with something called "LeISO" -- you want as much of that happening as possible.
On the perimeter, try to make him shoot jumpers. It's different with LeBron than it is with Kobe -- LeBron doesn't have set moves or spots he's going to hurt you from on the perimeter. This makes sense in a way because when you shoot 72% at the basket and take 40% of your shots there, it doesn't make sense to be planning out a perimeter game. And don't try to stop penetration, but try to channel his penetration towards where the help is, because his hot zones show how stymied he gets when he meets the second defender. What you want is LeBron out of sync -- he's intensely improvisational and prone to streaks, and when he hits a wall he doesn't have that solid 15-footer or easy move to go back to, and he can end up ineffective that way.
There are data to compliment this scouting report. LeBron's struggles from long-range are no secret: James is a .313 shooter from beyond the arc, and he's not all that potent on two-point jumpers either -- just .379. Where he's lethal is from inside, where he shoots .715. On the drive, well, pick your poison. He's measurably better driving to his right, but still devastating going to the rack any which way.
So how do the Rockets hold LeBron James Thursday night to a mortal 21 points on 7-21 shooting from the field and only six free throw attempts? Is it Shane Battier's savvy preparation and scouting? Ron Artest's defensive aggressiveness?
Let's take a look.
Rick Adelman chooses Artest to be LeBron James' primary defender. Artest's defensive strategy on LeBron is apparent from the outset of the game -- run under any and all perimeter screens, yielding LeBron anything he wants from the outside.
At the 11:25 mark of the first quarter, James gets the ball in the backcourt, 35 feet from the rim. Artest gives him 10 feet of space. Ben Wallace steps out for a pass from LeBron, who then rubs Artest off Wallace to get some space. Rather than struggle over the screen, Artest is more than happy to run under Wallace and give LeBron the jumper from 23 feet. The shot falls through, but somewhere in the building Sam Hinkie is very pleased -- the outcome wasn't great, but the probabilities are in the Rockets' favor. This is the only shot James hits in five first quarter attempts.
Artest uniformly abides by this strategy all night. When the Cavs run the same set (with Wallace and Zydrunas Ilgauskas as the respective screeners) on the right side at the 9:24 and 5:55 marks of the first, again Artest runs underneath, leaving LeBron with a pair of 23-footers, both of which he misses. Even when the screener is Daniel Gibson (2nd quarter, 5:59 mark), whom Artest can plow through at will, James is generously ceded the shot.