TrueHoop: Brook Lopez

Better off Brook-less?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KG, Pierce look to make immediate impact

July, 19, 2013
7/19/13
12:12
PM ET
By Sunny Saini, ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com

Jim Davis/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesKevin Garnett and Paul Pierce will look to upgrade the Nets pick-and-roll offense next season.
The NBA is a pick-and-roll league. In the last five seasons, nine of the 10 teams to make the Finals have featured the pick-and-roll (including passes) offense on at least 20 percent of their total plays. The only exception was the Los Angeles Lakers in 2009-10.

The Brooklyn Nets were one of the most inefficient teams in the pick-and-roll (including passes) last season, running it only 13.9 percent of the time, the lowest percentage in the league.

In addition, the Nets had a 0.88 points per play (PPP) average, which ranked 23rd. Brooklyn also had the third-worst turnover percentage in the NBA, turning it over 13.4 percent of the time on pick-and-roll plays.

Even with Deron Williams running the point, the Nets had the worst pick-and-roll ball handler offense.

Last season, Williams averaged 0.77 PPP while shooting 45.6 percent from the floor as the pick-and-roll ball handler. Among the 103 players with at least 100 such plays, Williams ranked 67th.

In addition, Williams turned the ball over 23 percent of the time on such plays, ninth-worst in the league.

The Nets roll men on the pick-and-roll were also in the bottom half of the NBA, averaging 0.95 PPP and shooting 47 percent on the pick-and-roll, below the league average in both categories (0.99 PPP and 49.5 percent shooting).

Kevin Garnett gives Williams another great pick-and-roll option

Both Garnett and Brook Lopez can hit the midrange shot and take it to the basket on any given play. However, in the pick-and-roll as the roll man, Lopez usually prefers to roll to the basket. Garnett likes to pop out for the midrange jump shot.

Lopez made 82 field goals as the roll man in the pick-and-roll, with 60 of those made field goals coming in the paint (49 were drives and finishes at the basket).

Garnett made 62 of his 103 field goals from the midrange and outside as the pop man on the pick-and-roll. In fact almost 39 percent of Garnett’s total makes were from 15 feet and outside last season.

Paul Pierce takes pressure off of Williams

Pierce gives the Nets an efficient option in the pick-and-roll to take the load off of Williams. Pierce averaged 0.97 PPP in pick-and-rolls (including passes), which ranked 26th in the NBA. That total was also slightly higher than Williams, who averaged 0.96 PPP.

As the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, Pierce had a better effective field goal percentage than Williams (49.3 percent to 45.6 percent) and turned the ball over at a lower rate (18.4 percent to 23 percent).

Pierce assisted on 24.5 percent of his teammates field goals last season, second only to LeBron James amongst forwards (min. 1,000 minutes played).

Nets find openings inside to extend series

April, 29, 2013
4/29/13
11:31
PM ET
By ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
Archive

The Nets took advantage of opportunities in Game 5.

The Brooklyn Nets won Game 5 by the same formula that worked for them in their series-opening win against the Chicago Bulls.

Let’s take a closer look at how the Nets staved off elimination.

Key Player: Deron Williams had it much easier vs Nate Robinson
With Kirk Hinrich out of the lineup in Game 5, Nate Robinson drew the start and was the primary defender on Deron Williams. Williams was 6-for-10 shooting and scored 19 of his 23 points when guarded by Robinson in Game 4.

Williams shot 33.3% (13 of 39) when guarded by Hinrich the first four games of the series.

Williams joins Jason Kidd as the only Nets player in last 25 seasons with multiple 20-point, 10-rebound games in single postseason.

The Bulls are 41-23 when Hinrich plays this season and 7-16 when he doesn’t.

When Nets score in paint, they win
The Nets scored 54 points in the paint in Game 5 and have now eclipsed 50 paint points in both of their wins against the Bulls this series. They shot 67 percent in the paint in those two games.

In the three losses, the Nets have averaged 36.7 paint points in regulation time and shot 51 percent in the paint for the game

By the Brook
Brook Lopez finished with a career playoff-high 28 points. He’s scored 20 points or more in all five games in this series, the longest streak by a Nets player since Vince Carter had eight straight 20-point games in 2007.

Key stat: Second-Chance Points
The Bulls allowed 24 second-chance points to the Nets in Game 5. That’s the most second-chance points allowed by the Bulls in a game this season.

Keep this in mind as the Bulls head home
The Bulls have never been forced to a Game 7 in the dozen previous instances in which they led a best-of-7 series by a 3-1 margin. They won in five games eight times and won in six games the four other occasions.

The Bulls loss did keep this stat intact: They have not won four straight games (or lost four straight) at any point this season.

How They Got Here: Seven All-Star Newbies

January, 31, 2013
1/31/13
11:39
AM ET
By Ernest Tolden
ESPN.com
Archive

David Dow/NBAE/Getty ImagesKyrie Irving and Jrue Holiday will join forces in their first All-Star games
A look at the seven players selected to their first All-Star team this season:

JAMES HARDEN
James Harden becomes the first Houston Rockets All-Star since Yao Ming in 2011. Harden ranks fifth in the NBA, averaging a career-high 25.9 points this season. His scoring has increased by 9.1 points per game from last season, the highest increase among all players from last season to this season.

The NBA’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year award winner has been one of the best pick and roll ball handlers this season. Among the 107 players with at least 50 such plays, Harden ranks second in the NBA, averaging 1.03 points per play.

BROOK LOPEZ
After playing just five games during an injury-plagued 2011-12 season, Brook Lopez makes his first All-Star team in his fifth NBA season. Lopez averages an NBA-high 18.6 points among centers this season.

According to the Hollinger PER (Player Efficiency Rating) rankings, Lopez ranks fourth in the NBA with a mark of 25.4. Only LeBron James (30.3), Kevin Durant (29.1) and Chris Paul (26.1) have recorded a higher PER this season.

KYRIE IRVING
In his second NBA season, Kyrie Irving becomes the first Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star since LeBron James in 2010. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Irving will be the sixth-youngest player in NBA history to play in an All-Star Game at 20 years and 331 days old on February 17.

After winning Rookie of the Year last season, Irving has blossomed into one of the best guards in the NBA this season. He ranks fourth among point guards with a 22.5 PER.

JRUE HOLIDAY
Jrue Holiday becomes the second member of the Philadelphia 76ers in as many seasons to earn his first All-Star selection (Andre Iguodala, 2012). Holiday is averaging career highs in points (19.4), assists (8.9), field goal percentage (46.1) and rebounds (4.1). He and Russell Westbrook are the only two players averaging at least 19 points and eight assists this season.

Holiday has assisted 40 percent of his teammates’ field goals when he’s been on the court this season. That assist percentage ranks fifth in the NBA.

PAUL GEORGE
Paul George leads the Indiana Pacers in scoring, averaging a career-high 17.4 points this season. Despite his emergence on offense, George has made his biggest impact on defense. George ranks second in the NBA with 3.5 defensive win shares according to Basketball-Reference. Defensive win shares estimates the number of wins contributed by a player due to his defense.

JOAKIM NOAH
Joakim Noah is one of two Chicago Bulls selected as All-Star reserves (Luol Deng). Noah is averaging career highs in points (12.1), rebounds (11.3), and assists (4.2), which leads all centers. Noah has recorded at least 10 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in 11 games this season. Only LeBron James has recorded more such games with 13.

Noah has anchored a Bulls defense which ranks third in defensive efficiency, allowing just 97.5 points per 100 possessions this season. He leads the NBA in defensive win shares with 3.7 and ranks eighth in blocks with 2.1 per game.

TYSON CHANDLER
In his 12th NBA season, Tyson Chandler was finally selected to his first All-Star team. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year is averaging a career-high 11.9 points and 10.6 rebounds this season. Chandler leads the New York Knicks with 17 double-double and is one of just nine players averaging at least 10 points and 10 rebounds this season.

Chandler leads the NBA with a 70.6 true shooting percentage this season. True shooting percentage measures a player’s shooting efficiency taking into account two-point field goals, three-point field goals and free throws, a category Chandler has led in each of the previous two seasons.

Monday Bullets

December, 31, 2012
12/31/12
2:44
PM ET
By kevinarnovitz
ESPN.com
  • Thank you, Bruce Arthur, for compiling "The year in lip," the most hilarious sports quotes of 2012.
  • Andrew Han of ClipperBlog estimates that, coming into the 2012-13 season, Vinny Del Negro had served as an NBA head coach for 10,080 hours. Those who subscribe to Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule would note that that's the amount of time it takes for a person to achieve mastery at a skill: "Another factor in parsing out Del Negro’s evolution is what David Thorpe refers to as “royal jelly”; the stuff that turns baby bees into queens. Thorpe suggests that some players would be able to thrive anywhere. But others need the right environment, the proper nurturing to reach their potential. Without it, these players could struggle or even fall out of the league. This could be a case of royal jelly not being just for the players, but for the coach as well. Maybe being paired with the smartest point guard in the league, three of the most coach-ready active players ... is what will enable Del Negro’s continued improvement. Already, this season, the Clippers run cleaner sets out of timeouts. Vinny’s rotations, substitution patterns and timeouts hint at a definable thought-process."
  • Darius Soriano of Forum Blue & Gold sees a Lakers team under Mike D'Antoni running sets and working within schemes that would look at home in a Mike Brown playbook.
  • Brook Lopez makes strong reads without the ball, and destroyed Cleveland and Charlotte over the weekend. Beckley Mason of the New York Times: "Though Lopez actually does pretty well from the post, he is not a great passer, and the Nets prefer to make him the finisher rather than the creator. Against the Cavaliers, the Nets frequently used Lopez in early pick-and-rolls. Deron Williams is a master of the pocket bounce pass, and a couple of times he found Lopez on the roll where the seven-footer could pull off his odd but effective lunging finishes. But even when the Cavaliers rotated to take away the initial pass, Lopez was still able to establish great position for a post up. It’s an action the San Antonio Spurs have used for a decade to get Tim Duncan to his preferred spot on the left block and one that can be similarly effective for the Nets. Perhaps we will see a steadier stream of Lopez-Williams pick-and-rolls to initiate the Nets offense going forward."
  • Gregg Popovich tells the San Antonio Express-News' Jeff McDonald that he still hasn't been informed by the NBA what the guidelines are for resting players in the regular season.
  • A most unlikely tandem is named the NBA's Eastern and Western Conference Players of the Week.
  • Tom Ziller of SB Nation names Jimmer Fredette as his early favorite for Most Improved Player: "Jimmer doesn't even resemble the confused, overwhelmed rookie we saw in Sacramento a year ago. Last season, Fredette was an infrequent scorer, a poor shooter, an iffy passer and an overmatched defender. This season, he's a really frequent scorer, a dope shooter, a decent passer and ... well, an overmatched defender. The calling card to Jimmer's improvement is this: Thanks to improved shooting and more aggression, his points per 36 minutes has risen from 14 to 22. Right now, he sits behind a (mostly) elite list of scorers in scoring frequency: 'Melo, Kobe, KD, LeBron, Harden, Kyrie, Brook Lopez, Chris Copeland (I said mostly) and D-Wade."
  • The Score's slideshow of the year's 26 most Outrageous NBA outfits is such fun viewing, it's destined for syndication.
  • The Raptors have won seven of eight, and Blake Murphy of Raptors Republic has some New Year's resolutions for the newly resolute Raps.
  • As a kid, Kendall Marshall once camped out with his Dad at the mall at 4 a.m. to be the fourth and fifth people in line for a pair of Altitude 13s.
  • For $2,000, Vin Baker will be your fourth on the links, and will regale you with stories of life in the NBA. Or, for the same amount, Anthony Mason will hang out at your fantasy basketball draft for a couple of hours or, better yet, your Bar Mitzvah.
  • It's hard not to be impressed with the condiment selection at T.J. Ford's house.

Nets core issues cost Johnson

December, 27, 2012
12/27/12
5:24
PM ET
By ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com
Archive

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Avery Johnson, Deron Williams and the Nets were just .500 when Johnson was fired as head coach.
A promising November gave way to a disastrous December for the Brooklyn Nets, as not only did the team go 3-10, but its three wins all came against teams with losing records. The net result was Avery Johnson losing his job, but the underlying statistical reasons for the Nets disappointing start are many and encompass all facets of the game -- offense, defense and personnel.

The recent narrative for the Nets has been a lack of offensive execution, as both Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace have voiced concerns with the offense. The team does rank second-to-last in the NBA in pace but its true shooting percentage stayed consistent -- 52.5 percent in November, 52.6 percent in December.

The biggest change has come on the defensive end -- the team was ninth in opponents points per 100 possessions in November (100.0) and 28th in December (108.6).

The offense isn’t completely off the hook, though. Under Johnson, the Nets experienced the biggest drop-off in offensive efficiency, field goal percentage and rebound percentage between the first and second half of any team in the NBA this season. They've lost a league-leading six games this season in which they led by at least 13 points.

But the real issue with this team might not be coaching or offensive philosophy, but rather the personnel on the court. The Nets invested heavily in the Williams-Joe Johnson-Brook Lopez-Wallace core, and it simply has not lived up to its billing this season.

Williams, the franchise cornerstone, is putting up his lowest Player Efficiency Rating (17.1) and lowest assist-per-40-minutes marks (8.7) since his rookie season of 2005-06, and his field goal percentage (39.8) would be the lowest of his career.

Of the 151 players who are averaging at least 25 minutes per game this season, Williams (52nd), Lopez (74th), Johnson (83rd) and Wallace (87th) all rank outside the top 50 in Win Shares. Lopez has missed seven of the team’s 28 games, including six in December during which the Nets went 1-5. Meanwhile, Wallace has scored in single digits more times (10) than he’s scored 20 or more (2).

Is it possible this isn’t just a bad system fit or small sample size, but rather players in decline? Joe Johnson’s current PER of 13.6 is nearly five points lower than his mark last season and would be his lowest since 2002-03. Wallace’s PER is on a much more sustained nosedive, going from 18.6 to 18.3 to 16.2 to 15.9 to 14.6 since the 2008-09 season.

But perhaps most alarming of all is the multi-season shooting decline from Williams, who has seen his true shooting percentage drop from 59.5 in 2007-08 – which ranked tied for 29th in the NBA that season – to 51.6 this season, good for T-188th.

Avery Johnson and the expectations game

December, 27, 2012
12/27/12
3:28
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive

Mike Ehrmann/NBAE/Getty ImagesIn 28 games this season, Avery Johnson couldn't point the Nets in the right direction.

The buzzards had been circling in Brooklyn over Avery Johnson for the better part of two weeks. After finishing November at 11-4, the team has dropped to 14-14 and sits at .500 in an Eastern Conference where any team worth its salt should be winning more than it's losing. Not satisfied with their level of saltiness and with the losses piling up, the Nets dismissed head coach Avery Johnson on Thursday, with P.J. Carlesimo serving as head coach in an interim capacity.

Public expressions of discontent are among the surest signs of trouble for a head coach, and those voices had grown increasingly audible in recent days. Less than half an hour after the Nets' dispiriting loss to Boston on Christmas Day, Brett Yormark tweeted, "Nets fans deserved better today. The entire organization needs to work harder to find the solution. We will get there."

Late Wednesday night in Milwaukee, where Brooklyn, without Deron Williams, looked terrible in a 108-93 loss to the Bucks, Gerald Wallace let loose: "It seems like guys are content with the situation that we are in, and I'm f------ pissed off about us losing, especially losing the way we are losing."

While Yormack's remarks were general, and Wallace's were targeted at teammates, point guard Deron Williams was more explicit 10 days ago when he cited what he saw as flaws in the Nets' offensive schemes as the major symptom. Williams waxed nostalgic for Jerry Sloan's flex system, praising the constant motion that facilitated an easy offensive flow, a direct jab at Johnson (and one laced with irony given Williams' grouchiness in Salt Lake City). Meanwhile, Knicks guard Jason Kidd -- not exactly Avery Johnson's biggest champion in Dallas -- challenged Williams' premise: "I don’t think it has anything to do with the coach ... I think it’s just a matter of getting comfortable making shots."

Almost every NBA team has a degree of internal rivalries and grumbling. But the Nets aren't your average NBA team in your average NBA market with an average set of expectations. In New York, the light bulbs flash brighter, the microphones are larger, the media pricklier and the fans are always restless.

That's all true whether or not a franchise is coasting or, in the case of the Nets, has drawn up some of the most aggressive designs for organizational renovation the NBA has ever seen. Owner Mikhail Prokhorov has no qualms about the Nets sitting in tax territory for the immediate future. They handed both Deron Williams and Brook Lopez the max, absorbed Joe Johnson's enormous contract and shelled out big money for Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries.

Big payroll aside, the optics -- and Oculus -- loom large. The Nets play in the most ambitious arena built in North America in decades, a building into which Prokhorov invested heavily. And they also have a formidable measuring stick across the East River in Manhattan. Although the Nets weren't exactly looking to take a large bite of the Knicks' market share so much as expand the base of NBA fanhood in the city, the Knicks' rosy success so far has cast an imposing shadow. Had the Knicks fallen flat, both teams could've bunked together in New York Fan and Media Jail. Instead, the Nets have the entire joint to themselves (though they share a wall with New York's pro football teams).

How much of this is Avery Johnson's fault? That depends on how much you believe player performance is dependent on coaching. If you're Avery Johnson's son, an admittedly partial source, the onus falls on the players. Soon after the firing was announced Thursday, the younger Johnson tweeted, "I'm sorry are best players couldn't make open shots. Yeah that's my dads fault totally..."

The kid has a point. Is it Johnson's fault Deron Williams has missed 166 shots outside the paint this season for a ghastly effective field goal percentage of 41 percent from that range? Is it on Johnson that Williams, while not altogether wrong about the contours of the offense, couldn't do what max point guards do -- wield his exceptional individual talent to make the system work?

In recent days, Johnson has ripped several pages from the Utah playbook, installing some tried-and-true flex actions -- baseline screens for cutters who move directly into the next off-ball screen. The results were mixed, but for all the talk about an underachieving offense -- and the Nets have most certainly failed to maximize their assets on that end of the floor -- the team has lost a lot of basketball games in December because it fields the NBA's 10th-worst defense.

When Johnson was in Dallas coaching the elite Mavericks teams of the mid-2000s, "42" was one of his mantras, as in success for his team would be measured in large part by the defense's ability to hold the opposition to a field goal percentage of less than 42 percent. Only a handful of teams are able to accomplish that more times than not, but the Nets are rarely one of them.

It's difficult to assess to what extent Johnson's coverages are at fault. Lopez's skills as a pick-and-roll defender are remedial (his Synergy stats indicate proficiency, but they don't account for demands Lopez places on baseline and top-side rotators). Johnson's menu of options at power forward don't leave him much to work with. Wallace is active, while Johnson has size, but Williams has never demonstrated the instincts or commitment of a quality defender on the ball (though he'll body up in the post).

Schemes and strategies aside, the assignment of blame is one of the trickier exercises in pro sports, because everyone orders the list of NBA coaching responsibilities. Some NBA players want a guy who they can trust, others don't care so long as they get minutes, while others simply just want a friendly workplace where the boss isn't up in their face all day long.

For management and ownership, those aforementioned expectations are everything, especially this season in Brooklyn. Putting an inferior product on the floor, getting embarrassed on national television, crossfire in the tabloids -- it just can't happen. And from the perspective of most owners and managers, maintaining morale ranks just behind winning as the top deliverable for an NBA coach.

Intelligent people can disagree about whether the Nets spent their money well, or whether general manager Billy King has good taste in basketball players, or whether Williams is a coach-killer, or whether it's the coach's job to horse-whisper a temperamental floor general just as the player has the responsibility to do what he can with the coach's system.

But Prokhorov isn't going anywhere, and King has furnished the roster with enough paper tigers to deflect blame (for the time being) and the contracts on the team's books aren't very movable.

That left one remaining party, the guy sitting in the first chair on the bench -- the loneliest seat in basketball.

 

Monday Bullets

December, 24, 2012
12/24/12
2:40
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Pop Quiz: Who is the NBA's leader in corner-3 accuracy (minimum of 30 attempts)? (A) Paul George (B) Ray Allen (C) Wes Matthews (D) Shane Battier (E) Klay Thompson. You'll find the correct answer is at the bottom of the post.
  • Dwight Howard says there are moments when he can't feel his feet.
  • Kevin Draper of The Diss discusses how Blake Griffin has used the KIA campaign as an effective platform for elevating his public persona with a light, self-deprecating touch.
  • Jordan Heimer of ClipperBlog and The Clippers Podcast on Blake Griffin, Season Three: "After routinely being described last year as a WWE heel, Griffin has hugely reduced his expressive commentary, limiting his smirks, stare downs and incredulous hand gestures. He seems more content to let his game speak for him; even when calls don’t go his way, it no longer seems to distract him the way it did in the past. Tonight, after Shannon Brown sent him sprawling into the baseline photographers on the fast break, Blake skipped the scowling, untangled himself quickly and sank both free-throws."
  • Noam Schiller of Magic Basketball on Tracy McGrady's historic 2002-03 season: "The man was the beginning, middle and end of everything the Magic did. The raw numbers (32.3 points per game, 6.5 rebounds per game, and 5.5 assists per game) and the advanced stats (a PER of 30.3, one of just 8 players to cross the 30 threshold, and a True Shooting percentage of 56.4 percent) are mind-blowing even without the YouTube archives. It had to be watched to be believed. He was a unique combination of other-worldly athleticism and every single skill the basketball court offers."
  • The Nets' offense reside in the top half of the league, but they're not maximizing their potential. Deron Williams says the absence of a coherent system like the one he ran in Utah is a factor. Rob Mahoney of The Point Forward: "Some initial success (and an early run to an 11-4 record) helped disguise the stagnation of Avery Johnson’s offense, but so far Brooklyn has lived and died by the limits of isolation basketball. Whether enabling center Brook Lopez in the post or guard Joe Johnson on the wing, the Nets’ sets have been rudimentary and clear in their intention: Players like Williams get the ball to a specific place with few programmed alternatives, and a shot attempt is manufactured from that player leveraging some perceived advantage in a one-on-one matchup. That approach has helped Lopez post a career high in field-goal percentage and points per minute, but also worn on the patience of a point guard accustomed to the continuity in movement of the flex offense. But couched in Williams’ quote-slinging is another complicating factor: The max-contract point guard tabbed to usher in a new era of Nets basketball is having essentially the worst season of his eight-year career."
  • Populating a roster with good guys, as the Wizards did this past offseason, doesn't guarantee harmony. Here's what Nene told NBA.com's David Aldridge: "When you play with confidence, and you're together, it's different ... You feel, you know your teammates know you, and you give your best. But right here, right now, it's the opposite. Total opposite ... Because people have no respect for the game ... They think this opportunity's nothing right now. That's the problem with the young guys. They don't take advantage of being in the NBA, the best basketball in the world. A lot of young guys want to be in their position. But right here, I don't think they realize that."
  • Avery Bradley is close to returning for the Celtics. Romy Nehme of 2 Girls, 1 Ball writes a paean to Bradley at Celtics Hub: "As Bradley’s return draws near(er), it’s funny to think about how the size of his body of work and impact seem somewhat incongruous; it also bears reminding fans that his surge from irrelevancy wasn’t some time lapse chronicling a player’s evolution over a year. It unfolded in real time, in little time, and documented a progression no one saw coming. At least I didn’t. It transformed Bradley from a specialist into someone who was now making roaming defenders pay with baseline cuts, fulfilling Rondo’s longings for an up-tempo companion and nailing corner 3s like he was #20."
  • Jason Gallagher of BallerBall polled NBA players over Twitter about their favorite Christmas movies. The results, with a little bit of vacillation from Corey Maggette.
  • On the agenda for several NBA players on Christmas Eve? Go-Go inspired D.C. rapper Wale's newly released mixtape, "Folarin."
  • If you don't have proper stemware this holiday season, you can always do what Shelden Williams does in a pinch -- drink your vino from an old spaghetti sauce jar.
Quiz answer: (B) Ray Allen, 58.3 percent (21 of 36)
The New Orleans Hornets can do little wrong these days.

On a night featuring multiple instances of last-second heroics, the Hornets had one of the most dramatic victories, edging the Oklahoma City Thunder, 91-89 on a David West hoop with 0.5 seconds remaining.

The Hornets have won nine straight games and done so with their defensive work. It didn’t look like it was going to be a stellar defensive effort as the Hornets allowed 33 points in the first quarter. That was their first time allowing 30 points in a quarter since January 5 against the Golden State Warriors (38 points in the fourth quarter), and It snapped a streak of 39 straight quarters without allowing a 30-point quarter (three OT included).

The Hornets regrouped and yielded only 56 points in the final three quarters to pull out the win. The Thunder shot 52 percent in the first quarter and committed only one turnover, but shot only 44 percent with 16 turnovers in the final three quarters. The Thunder’s 89 points marked the seventh time in this nine-game streak that the Hornets have held a team below 90 points.

Even superstar Kevin Durant fell victim to the Hornets stingy defense as he was held to zero points in the fourth quarter. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Durant’s 0-for-5 effort tied his largest "0-for" in any period of any game this season. He was also 0-for-5 from the floor in the Thunder's win against the Utah Jazz on November 15.

Elsewhere, three teams had dubious accomplishments in defeat:

• The Cleveland Cavaliers tied the franchise record with their 21st straight road loss, losing to the New Jersey Nets on a last-second shot by Brook Lopez. They’ll get a shot at No. 22 on Tuesday against a Boston Celtics team that is 21-3 at home.

• The Washington Wizards lost to the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden and lost their 21st straight on the road to start the season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that is the longest streak to start an NBA season since the 1997-98 Denver Nuggets started 0-22.

• The Minnesota Timberwolves set a team record for most points in a regulation loss with their 129-125 loss to the Houston Rockets. The only other time they lost when scoring at least 125 points came in 2008, when they lost to the San Antonio Spurs, 129-125 in double-overtime.

It's time to update the Dwight Howard meme

December, 28, 2010
12/28/10
11:40
AM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
Archive
Dwight Howard
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images Sport
There's plenty to like beyond Dwight Howard's biceps

Beckley Mason is Founder of the ESPN TrueHoop Network Blog HoopSpeak.com. You can also find him on Twitter here, and contributing his thoughts on basketball and jewelry commercials to Daily Dime Live.

The thing about stereotypes is that they endure long after any relationship to reality fades. Once opinion about a player is accepted as fact, it’s easy to reinforce prevailing perceptions with selective examples that obscure changes over time. For Dwight Howard, his rough offensive performance against the Boston Celtics on Christmas reawakened accusations that he is a jolly Philistine who can’t handle being pushed around; a terrifying defender who yet lacks the offensive skills common to NBA centers.

In reality, Howard has been steadily evolving since he entered the league, and it’s time to update this collective opinion.

It’s true that there have been noticeable additions to Dwight’s reputation this year, as Howard’s well-produced three days with Hakeem Olajuwon and his improved face-up jump shot have garnered praise. But the core narrative, that Howard operates primarily by brute force, remains intact.

It’s not hard to locate the source of this perception. His shoulders look like they might pop if they don’t first destroy his opposition’s sternum, and his terribly awkward free throw release is a singular example of public self-destruction. But his menacing upper body distracts from a relatively skinny base that cannot anchor Howard to the block like the thick legs of Tim Duncan. Indeed Howard’s most important attribute has never been his size and power (he's 6-foot-9 without shoes), but his leaping ability, lightning quick feet and mid-air body control.

By casting Howard as the brute force, we easily overlook all the thinking he does on the court. Over the last few seasons, Howard has become one of the league’s best big men at passing out of the double team. This can be hard to notice because of the offense in which he plays. Unlike the Lakers’ Pau Gasol, who feeds a steady carousel of cutters from the post, racking up assists that are easy to spot in a box score, Howard’s role is to make the hockey assist for his 3-point shooting teammates. When the Magic space the floor around Howard, often the wide open 3-point shot or closeout-busting drive will come two passes after Howard kicks the ball out of the double team. Howard may not tally the assist, but his decision making and ability to absorb a full double team before finding the right teammate on the perimeter are vital to his team’s success.

Defensively, Howard’s volleyball spike blocks are spectacular, but what’s truly impressive is the amount of times each game Howard contests an attacking player by trusting the principle of verticality and jumping straight up without attempting to swat the shot. The weakside blocks are a freakish display of explosiveness; the perfect rotations that result in missed shots are the result of a cerebral defensive approach. He also is one of the best in the league at hedging on screen-and-rolls. Howard was actually a guard for much of his childhood, and his lateral quickness on the perimeter remains impressive.

It can be hard to find where these improvements show up statistically. Since 2008 his scoring and field goal shooting percentages have remained fairly static while his assist to turnover rate unimpressively hangs around .33 assist to turnover ratio. However his usage percentage, an indicator of how many plays are being run through Howard, has climbed steadily during his career to a very respectable 28.6 percent. For perspective, Kobe Bryant currently owns the league’s highest Usage rate, 34.34 percent, and Dirk Nowitzki's is 28.4 percent. So the Magic are using Dwight just as much as the Mavericks employ Nowitzki’s offensive genius, but how many people believe Howard to be the offensive focal point that Nowitzki is?

I wouldn’t argue that Dwight is nearly as skilled or efficient a scorer as Dirk, but clearly Howard is not an offensive afterthought.

Even the storyline that Howard is particularly incapable of playing well against Boston is overblown. Over the last three games of the last season’s Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics, when Howard stopped kicking out and started attacking on his own, he personally demolished the Celtics’ front line to the tune of 27.0 points and 12.7 rebounds on 64.6 percent shooting.

Is Howard capable of putting up big numbers against the Celtics? Absolutely. Why do you think the Celtics picked up Shaq (who fouled out Saturday trying to keep up with Howard)? To match up with Joel Anthony?

Last night against the Nets’ Brook Lopez, who is significantly larger than Dwight, Howard got back on track, dominating the boards (13 rebounds to Brook’s seven), recording six blocks and leading a defensive effort that held the Nets to 39.7 percent shooting from the field. Howard made smart plays all over the court, using his feet to snuff out pick-and-rolls, getting in position to contest everything at the rim and creating offense for his entire team by forcing the Nets to double him.

Certainly Howard still has offensive limitations that should not be overlooked. His lack of lower body strength sometimes causes him to fight for position with his arms, which results in easily spotted, maddeningly cheap fouls off the ball and makes it hard for him to back in his man under the basket. It would also be great if the Magic team doctor could remove whatever it is in his arm (oh, it’s his enormous bicep?) that prevents him from extending his elbow when he shoots.

Understandably, these flaws aren’t doing anything to change people’s mind on Dwight. But in the interest of progress, next time you see that 6-foot-10 guy posing as Superman, try to keep an eye on all the plays he makes using the head on top of those cartoonish shoulders.

Too much Kobe dooms Lakers

December, 1, 2010
12/01/10
1:20
AM ET
By ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com
Archive
The Los Angeles Lakers might have to learn that a little less Kobe Bryant may go a long way this season.

On Tuesday, Bryant scored 29 points but it took him 25 shots to get there in a 98-96 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. During the Lakers current three-game losing streak, Bryant has attempted at least 20 shots in each game and has averaged 26.3 FGA per game.

Kobe Bryant
Bryant
This season, the Lakers are 2-3 when Bryant attempts at least 25 shots in a game, compared to 11-2 when he attempts fewer than 25 shots.

Look even deeper and you will see that all five of the Lakers losses have come when Bryant has at least 20 shots. When Bryant attempts fewer than 20 shots, the Lakers are 7-0.

Tim Duncan recorded his first regular-season triple-double since March 14, 2003 as he had 15 points, 18 rebounds and 11 assists in the San Antonio Spurs 118-98 win over the Golden State Warriors. Duncan actually has more postseason triple-doubles (four) than in the regular season (three).

There were 239 triple-doubles in points, assists and rebounds in between Duncan's games. Among the many players who picked up at least one in that span were: Ryan Gomes, John Salmons and Bob Sura, who had two on consecutive days in April 2004.

• The Cleveland Cavaliers scored 87 points in their loss to the Boston Celtics on Tuesday. When the two teams last played in Cleveland on October 27, it was the Celtics who scored 87 points in the loss.

In the October matchup, J.J. Hickson led the Cavaliers with 21 points. On Tuesday, he had just one point on a free throw and was 0-for-4 shooting.

The Celtics outscored the Cavaliers 60-26 in the paint, the second time this season in which the Celtics scored at least 60 in the paint. The 26 by the Cavaliers in the paint were two points away from their season low in a November 2 loss against the Atlanta Hawks.

• Amare Stoudemire scored 35 points for a second straight game in the New York Knicks 111-100 win over the New Jersey Nets. The last Knicks player with 35 points in two straight games was Stephon Marbury -- Stoudemire’s former teammate with the Phoenix Suns -- in March 2007.

Brook Lopez scored 36 points for the Nets in the loss, one shy of his career high set on March 26, 2010 against the Pistons.

Prior to Lopez, the only Nets center in the last 25 seasons with at least 36 points in a game was Sam Bowie on March 20, 1991 when he had 38 against the Timberwolves.

Tuesday Bullets

August, 17, 2010
8/17/10
1:19
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
  • More good stuff on the positional revolution, this time from Jesse Blanchard of 48 Minutes of Hell. Blanchard writes that defensive roles are much harder to define than offensive ones, which makes reclassifying (or declassifying, so to speak) defensive positions a nearly impossible task. The more NBA basketball I watch and the more NBA people I speak with, the more convinced I've become that off-the-ball decision making composes at least 50 percent of a defender's grade. It's important to have wing players who can smother isolation scorers, big men who can bang down low and guys all over the floor who can defend the pick-and-roll, but the margins of the game are won and lost because of the quality and speed of rotations, recoveries and anticipation. That's going to be true irrespective of how we define or redefine what a point guard, power forward or center looks like.
  • We've heard a lot about the Orlando Magic's "4 out/1 in" scheme over the past few seasons. Here's what it looks like.
  • While we're on the topic of what constitutes a power forward, should Rudy Gay be spending time at the 4? Joshua Coleman of 3 Shades of Blue: "Team USA is apparently content to live with their lack of size in the traditional post position of PF by maximizing their talent and athleticism at those spots by playing Rudy Gay at the 4 with Andre Iguodala and Kevin Durant manning the SG and SF positions, respectively."
  • An evocative piece by Bethlehem Shoals about his trip to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame has two of my favorite things in one place -- basketball writing and travel writing. On seeing Wilt Chamberlain's jersey from the 100-point game in Hershey: "I couldn't help but stand, slack-jawed, for several minutes. I took in every detail of the fabric, trying to read the game's action, or Chamberlain's mood, through the patterns of sweat and scuffs. Most telling was the long blood stain across the back, where someone had evidently clawed the big man as he took the individual game past all acceptable limits."
  • Dave of Blazers Edge: "So much attention gets paid to [Greg] Oden's physical struggles that his true potential Achilles' Heel gets overlooked. The mental and emotional aspects of the game and the league will be Oden's biggest bugaboos. After three years of substantial non-playing his connection to health, basketball, championship-level play, and teammates is fishing-line thin. The organization will have quite a task reeling in such a huge specimen on that fragile line. Greg is more used to rehabbing than playing. He's more used to trying to decide what movie to watch than watching film. Competition is absent, muscle memory faded, rhythm non-existent. How will he adjust to his renewed calling and the renewed expectations...expectations with which he was never comfortable in the first place?"
  • Kevin Durant's first dispatch from Madrid: "I’m really looking forward to this whole experience. It should be a lot of fun. I’ve never been to Europe, never been to Spain, never been to Turkey or Greece. I’m looking forward to that and just being able to interact and be around some of the best players in the league. Guys like Rudy Gay, Iguodala, Rajon, Lamar…just to be with those guys and learn, it’s going to be pretty cool and it’s going to help me."
  • Jeremy Wagner of Roundball Mining Company on Carmelo Anthony's lame-duck status in Denver: "Carmelo already lacks defensive intensity and is not known for restraint on offense when it comes to letting shots fly. How much worse will those characteristics be accentuated if Melo is longing to be somewhere else."
  • Could a breakout season by Brook Lopez propel the Nets to the postseason?
  • If you take a look at the Wins Produced metric, it turns out Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley (both still with Phoenix) were the Suns' biggest overperformers during the postseason and Amare Stoudemire and Leandro Barbosa (both no longer with the Suns) were the team's biggest underperformers.
  • Matt Hubert of D-League Digest lays out five Nancy Lieberman storylines as she takes the reins as head coach of the Texas Legends. Hubert wonders if Lieberman will be the target of any chauvinistic abuse from fans.
  • Scott Schroeder breaks down the 10 must-see D-League games in 2010-11.
  • A slew of teams introduced small modifications to their jerseys on Monday. The Jazz returned to an old motif and won the day.
  • Chris Paul: Big fan of Coca-Cola's Freestyle Fountain.
  • The commercial realities of globalism disappoint Donyell Marshall.
  • Ben Q. Rock of Orlando Pinstriped Post tweets: "Oh man, guys, do a search for '2010 nba rookie portraits' on Getty. Some incredible stuff up there."
  • The cheapest seat in the house for the Heat's home opener will run you $185 plus service charges.
  • There are few guys in the league more fun to talk shop with than Ryan Gomes. Throw Gomes on the list of "players most likely to coach." When it's all over, Gomes has his eyes set on the Providence College gig.

Breaking down the four-team trade

August, 11, 2010
8/11/10
3:44
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Every acquisition has a cost, which is one of the bedrock principles of bartering. Unless you're purchasing Manhattan or annexing the Sudetenland, it's virtually impossible to get something for nothing. The NBA's trade market has three primary currencies in circulation: talent, cap relief and flexibility -- with the latter two linked to some extent. On Wednesday, Houston, New Orleans, Indiana and New Jersey cooperated on a blockbuster trade that saw each team forfeit assets in service of a larger goal.

Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty ImagesCourtney Lee will pick up some of Trevor Ariza's minutes in Houston.


Houston Rockets

Coming: Courtney Lee
Going: Trevor Ariza


On the surface, the deal for the Rockets appears to be a cost-cutting measure. Houston re-upped Luis Scola and Kyle Lowry this summer, while signing Brad Miller to a free-agent contract. Deep into luxury tax territory, the Rockets unloaded the remaining four years and $28 million on Ariza's deal in exchange for Nets guard Courtney Lee.

The Rockets' front office deeply believes the best value contracts in basketball are max deals granted to transcendent superstars, and rookie scale contracts belonging to productive young players. In Lee, the Rockets get a young wing who will earn only $1.35 million in 2010-11. In addition, the Rockets hold a team option on Lee for $2.23 million in 2011-12. That's real value for a 24-year-old with the talent to start. A $6.3 million trade exception doesn't hurt either.

Lee and Rockets starting shooting guard Kevin Martin train together in the offseason -- the latter regarded as an older brother to the third-year guard. Although Lee might not be the stopper Ariza is, he is capable of covering either guard position and can certainly tread water against some of the league's less dynamic 3-and-D small forwards. Lee will find strong organizational dynamics in Houston, similar to what he encountered during his rookie season in Orlando, where he succeeded. With Ariza's departure, the Rockets will have to figure out who picks up his minutes beyond Lee and whether that means experimenting selectively with Martin at the 3 spot.



New Orleans Hornets

Coming: Trevor Ariza
Going: Darren Collison and James Posey


The wing has been an enduring problem for the Hornets dating back to Desmond Mason, Bostjan Nachbar and J.R. Smith. Ariza might not rank on Chris Paul's list of the top 25 guys he most wants to play with, but the second Ariza puts on the teal, he'll instantly become the most athletic and versatile wing New Orleans has seen in recent years -- but at an enormous cost.

Collison has one of the best value contracts in basketball. He'll earn $1.3 million this season and carries team options for $1.46 million and $2.31 respectively over the subsequent two seasons. As a rookie, Collison played more than 2,000 minutes and compiled an impressive player efficiency rating of 16.55.

There's no guarantee Chris Paul will be sticking around New Orleans after his contract expires in the summer of 2012, and Collison's presence was a healthy -- and cheap -- insurance policy against that departure and any injury. Removing the remaining $13.4 million of James Posey's contract and the addition of Ariza's gifted -- but limited -- game seem to be an expensive bounty for a player with the potential to be very special and who is already contributing on a nightly basis.



Indiana Pacers

Coming: Darren Collison and James Posey
Going: Troy Murphy


"Point guard, Indiana Pacers" has been the NBA equivalent of "Drummer, Spinal Tap." The Pacers haven't been able to buy a break at the top of the floor for several seasons. Jamaal Tinsley, Anthony Johnson, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Jarrett Jack and, most recently, T.J. Ford and Earl Watson have all walked through the revolving door in Indianapolis.

A.J. Price, picked in the second round of the 2009 draft, showed some promise in his rookie campaign. But the acquisition of Collison finally locks down the point for the Pacers for the foreseeable future.

Normally, a salary like Posey's would be an onerous burden, but the Pacers have one of the cleanest spreadsheets in the league going forward -- only $18.8 million committed in 2011-12 before you tack on Posey's deal. The addition of Collison gives the Pacers the freedom to buy out Ford and not overpay for the services of Watson.



New Jersey Nets

Coming: Troy Murphy
Going: Courtney Lee


There's a pleasing symmetry to this deal, and it ends in Newark where Murphy arrives in exchange for the departing Lee. Murphy offers a lot of appeal for the Nets. First, he's in the final year of his contract, which will pay him a hair under $12 million in 2010-11. Second, he gives the Nets a stretch 4 who can crash the defensive glass and deliver smart interior passes, assets the Nets want alongside Brook Lopez's more traditional skill set.

What about No. 3 overall pick Derrick Favors? The power forward out of Georgia Tech turned 19 the week following Orlando summer league. With Yi Jianlian moving down I-95 to Washington, there will be plenty of minutes for Favors in the Nets' frontcourt rotation.

The Nets will presumably fill the void left by Lee with a platoon of Terrence Williams, Anthony Morrow and Quinton Ross -- three players who share absolutely nothing in common. Williams' versatility and range of talents span the board. Meanwhile, Morrow could beat Ross in a shooting contest wearing a blindfold, but few players in the NBA can torment perimeter scorers the way Ross can.

Tuesday Bullets

June, 22, 2010
6/22/10
2:12
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive

Thursday Bullets

June, 10, 2010
6/10/10
1:20
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive

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