TrueHoop: Erik Spoelstra

Clippers in good hands without Chris Paul

February, 5, 2014
Feb 5
10:20
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Blake GriffinAP Photo/Mark J. TerrillBlake Griffin and the Clippers have taken a big leap forward while Chris Paul's shoulder mends.
In Portland a few nights after Christmas, LeBron James spent the evening in a camo tee, brown leather pants and a tan jacket. On the floor, his teammates beat a hot Trail Blazers team on a late 3-pointer by Chris Bosh. The Heat got some nice minutes from Michael Beasley, Ray Allen, Norris Cole and Rashard Lewis on a night that wasn’t Dwyane Wade’s most efficient.

About a half hour after the game, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was more animated than usual. It was a big win, he explained, because it was important for James to see the team succeed in his absence. It’s not that James isn't trusting of his teammates -- one glimpse at his career assist numbers tells that story -- but it’s common for a superstar to feel as if his team’s fortunes rest on his shoulders, and James certainly falls into the category.

So does Chris Paul. Like James, much of Paul’s game is predicated on trusting teammates -- one glimpse at his career assist numbers tells that story too. And like James, Paul is obsessive about playing. CP is the ultimate control freak, but how in the name of the holy point god is he supposed to exert that control when he’s not dressed for the game? It’s not that he doesn't think the world of his teammates, but when Paul’s body doesn't allow him to take the court, he develops a nervous energy.
[+] EnlargeChris Paul and Blake Griffin
AP Photo/Danny MoloshokSitting out has been tough for CP3, but the Clips are 11-5 without him.

“He talks more, if that’s possible,” Doc Rivers said Saturday before the Clippers beat the Jazz. “He was back in the coaches’ section every trip [during the Clippers’ seven-game road swing]. And we’re like, ‘Go back to the front and play cards.’”

Everything's fine, Chris. The team is 11-5 since you went down with a separated AC joint in your right shoulder Jan. 3. Since that night, the Clippers own the most efficient offense in the NBA, scoring a fat 111.7 points per 100 possessions. Blake Griffin is playing out of his mind. Paul’s understudy, Darren Collison, has an effective true shooting percentage of 63 percent as the starter and an offensive rating of 113 points per 100 possessions. The Clips are getting serious offensive production from Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick. A disappointment the first third of the season, Jared Dudley is playing his best basketball as a Clipper and leading the team in net rating during the stint without Paul.

The only regular who has been struggling profoundly over the past month is Matt Barnes, who has been trudging his way back from an eye injury. And if not for a wild, off-balance Randy Foye 3-pointer at the buzzer Monday night in Denver, the Clippers would have logged another feel-good moment with a clutch win on the road in their final possession courtesy of a 3-pointer from Barnes. DeAndre Jordan even hit a couple of big free throws to tie the game inside of two minutes. The Clips nailed the process, but results conspired against them, at least for a night.

One of the things the Clippers brass likes about Rivers’ reign is the relative calm that has permeated Playa Vista. Rivers’ predecessor, Vinny Del Negro, never truly had job security in his three seasons, and gut-wrenching losses were often followed by bouts of hand-wringing. But Rivers, who is also the team’s senior vice president, can’t be bothered to sweat regular-season losses of the quantum variety. He is monitoring the Clippers’ process for defects. Do that well and results will follow.

In this regard, Griffin has been a revelation over the past month, and with Paul out, he now occupies the focal point of the Clippers’ offense. The ball lands in Griffin’s hands earlier and more often, and the choreography rotates around him. His usage rate has skyrocketed over the past month -- 29.8 since Paul left the lineup, up from 26.9 prior to Paul’s injury. Applied to the full season, that number would trail only Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.

Griffin and Rivers had conversations prior to the season about using Griffin out of the pinch post as a playmaker to maximize his triple-threat capabilities. Griffin loved the idea to showcase his passing but also wanted to reserve the right to back down a guy who couldn't match him physically.

He was back in the coaches’ section every trip [during the Clippers’ seven-game road stretch]. And we’re like, ‘Go back to the front and play cards.'


-- Doc Rivers on an injured Chris Paul

With Paul on the shelf, Griffin’s game looks like a combination of what he and Rivers each imagined. Griffin is now the Clippers’ most potent playmaker and most reliable facilitator. Per ESPN Stats & Info, his assist rate prior to Paul’s injury was 14.5, which is impressive for a big man. Since Jan. 4, it's 22.0 -- a number usually owned by distribution-minded wing players.

But it’s not just Griffin’s assist stats; it’s his command. When Redick buzzes around those multiple screens and curls up from the baseline, it’s Griffin’s play to make -- whether it’s a pass, a handoff or a quick jumper for himself in open space. When the Clippers need to establish an offensive rhythm, it’s Griffin’s responsibility to control the game and time the possession.

It’s not as if Griffin is a reluctant playmaker with Paul on the floor, and he never shies away from working down low. The Paul-Griffin two-man game has been the foundation of an offense that has finished in the top four each of the three seasons the pair has played together. Paul’s re-entry into the force field should require no adjustment other than the realization that there’s more that Griffin can do offensively than previously thought.

The carping from the gallery that Griffin couldn't suffice as a No. 1 option has quieted in recent days, but as much as Griffin has impressed the critics on the set, the most important observer is on the Clippers’ bench. Paul has spent the past month watching Griffin house-sit the offense. The Clippers have learned some illuminating things about themselves and Griffin in Paul’s absence, which should end in the next couple of weeks. His return to the lineup will serve as the ultimate midseason acquisition.

Meanwhile, the Clippers feel like a real contender for the first time since the preseason. If the guys on the court believe it, and the suits upstairs see it, and the fans sense it, then Paul must too. This was the meaning behind Spoelstra’s message in Portland: Superstars need reassurance that the world will remain on its axis without them. The Clippers’ supporting cast has provided that.

If current trends continue, the place will be in as good condition when Paul returns as it was when he left -- and that’s as vital for Paul as it is for anyone.

TrueHoop TV: Erik Spoelstra

July, 16, 2013
7/16/13
9:09
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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A series of adjustments: What's next?

June, 19, 2013
6/19/13
3:59
PM ET
By ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
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Getty ImagesThe head coaches for both teams have made the right moves throughout this series.
Game 7 won’t just come down to the players on the court. The two coaching staffs in the NBA Finals have each made adjustments throughout the series that have paid off significantly.

Let’s run through what they’ve done so far:

Game 2: Heat go to Chalmers-James pick-and-roll
After the Heat went 0-for-4 on Mario Chalmers/LeBron James pick-and rolls in Game 1, Erik Spoelstra had faith his team would fare better.

The Heat went to this combo often during Game 2's most pivotal run.

The Heat made 6-of-7 shots and scored 16 points on pick-and-roll plays with Chalmers handling and James screening during a 33-5 run in the Heat’s series-evening win.

GAME 4: Mike Miller inserted into the starting lineup
The Heat used a lineup with one traditional big man for all of Game 4 after doing so 65 percent of the time in Games 1-3.

This opened up driving lanes. The Heat shot 11-of-15 off drives by James and Dwyane Wade, with Wade hitting all six of his field goals off his drives.

GAME 5: Manu Ginobili starts for first time since June 6, 2012
Spurs use Boris Diaw extensively on LeBron James

Gregg Popovich inserted a slumping Manu Ginobili into the starting lineup and Ginobili responded in a huge way. He scored a season-high 24 points, including 14 on drives to the basket. His nine points on drives during the Spurs 19-1 fourth-quarter run helped put the game away.

Popovich and crew also gave Boris Diaw an extended look against LeBron James.

James was 1-for-8 shooting against Diaw for the game.

GAME 6: LeBron James attacks with Wade on the bench
The Heat were outscored by 15 points with Dwyane Wade on the court in Game 6, the worst +/- among any Miami player.

Wade was subbed out with 39 seconds remaining in the third quarter with the Heat down 12 in Game 6. When he returned with 3:48 left in the fourth, Miami had a 3-point lead.

James was given more space to drive after Dwyane Wade sat on the bench for the first 8:12 of the fourth quarter, going 3-of-4 on drives in the fourth quarter/overtime.

James was the ball handler on the pick and roll 15 times in Game 6, nearly twice as often as his usage on those plays the first five games of the series.

The Heat shot 7-of-9 on pick and rolls when James was the ball handler in Game 6 (10-of-30 in Games 1-5).

Will this carry over to Game 7? Therein lies some interesting discussions for potential adjustments.

In the series, Miami has been outscored by 56 points with James and Wade on the court together (+48 when James is on the court without Wade)

James is shooting 13-of-14 inside five feet with Wade out of the game in this series, and just over 50 percent on such shots with Wade on the floor.

Killer lineup: The Heat's big starting five

January, 16, 2013
1/16/13
12:32
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Miami Heat
Mario Chalmers | Dwyane Wade | LeBron James | Udonis Haslem | Chris Bosh
Minutes Played: 251
Offensive Rating: 111.6 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 99.1 points per 100 possessions

How it works offensively
Last postseason, the Heat defied convention when Erik Spoelstra placed Shane Battier alongside LeBron James in the frontcourt. The seas parted, tectonic plates shifted beneath AmericanAirlines Arena and James was no longer a small forward -- just a champion.

The Heat stuck with that blueprint to start this season before Battier sprained his MCL in late November. In an effort to preserve the spacing, Spoelstra experimented with Rashard Lewis as a starter, but when that didn't yield results, the Heat's yeoman, Udonis Haslem, was inserted into the lineup. Even as Battier recovered, Spoelstra stuck with his frontcourt of James, Chris Bosh and Haslem, which is where we are now. And with that, the Revolution of 2012 came to a close.

That seems to be the case on the surface, except when you look at the the Bosh-Haslem unit in the half court, it looks a whole lot like the Heat’s small-ball lineup, only it’s Bosh who’s setting up in the far corner where Battier generally does. Bosh still does his fair share of diving to the hole off high ball screens, but if he’s not a part of the primary action, you’ll usually find him out on the perimeter as the play materializes -- not hanging out near the paint.

Naturally, the Heat make good use of that space and it all starts with James. There’s good reason why he’s averaging a point per possession as an isolation player this season for the first time in his career. With the boundaries of the floor stretched, James has more room to work than ever before. As a result, he’s drastically reduced the number of those pull-up jumpers from midrange. It’s not that he has suddenly become a paragon of discipline. With the floor spread, defenders are simply too far away to help load up on him when he’s attacking the basket.

The spacing also pays dividends to Dwyane Wade, who can do more off the ball in a less-cluttered environment, especially if James is facilitating. We saw this Monday night in Utah, when the Heat ran a flex cut for Wade with Mario Chalmers as the screener. As Wade streaked to the basket, easily shaking Randy Foye, James delivered the ball on the doorstep to Wade for an easy bucket.

Well, what about Haslem? He’s not draining those baseline jumpers with any sort of proficiency. Shouldn’t that be adversely affecting this unit’s offensive output? We can say this about Haslem -- he’s a guy who understands his limitations and how to make himself useful. Whenever the Heat have anything resembling a break, Haslem will run the floor one lane over from whoever is bringing the ball up. And almost every time down court, Haslem will set an early drag screen before his man has even the slightest chance of being in a position to defend it. James, Wade and occasionally Chalmers routinely have a gold-paved path to the rim on the secondary break, and Haslem is the guy laying the bricks.

That early offense has become essential for this unit, especially for Wade, who knows precisely how to exploit a backpedaling, unbalanced transition defense. And the Heat still have plenty of tricks in the bag when the pace slows. They’ll frequently post up James just off the left block. On these sets, Bosh is very good at watching James work inside, then fading to a spot at about 17 feet with an agreeable angle for one of those zip passes. You can also spot the Heat running staggered pin-down screens off which James busts up from the baseline, collects the pass, then returns right where he came from -- only this time with the ball.

Even though they’re committing to their pace-and-space strategy, the Heat haven’t torn out every page of the playbook that utilizes Bosh at the elbow. They’ll have Wade rub his man off Bosh at the high post on the weakside. If Wade gets separation, Bosh’s man will often pick up Wade diving toward the basket. Now a free man, Bosh will step to the foul line extended area, catch the pass and shoot -- one fluid sequence of motions.

Will Spoelstra stay with this unit indefinitely, or will Battier find his way back into the starting lineup when the Heat reach May? Either way, the Heat have made the spacing work.

How it works defensively
Like the whiz kid who screws around during dead week knowing he has the raw intellect to crush his finals without a lot of preparation, the Heat seem fully convinced they’ll succeed defensively when they need to, even if they take certain liberties along the way.

Most nights, on most of their half-court possessions, the Heat apply the same principles that helped them establish an elite defense from the moment they planted their stake in Miami. Gone is the switch-fest that was all the rage of the 2012 postseason. Bosh and Haslem show high and hard on most ball screens, or make a concerted effort with Chalmers to corral point guards who are moving quickly to their strong side.

Spoelstra long ago accepted that with James and Wade on the floor, he wouldn’t be able to install a system with the structural integrity like the one his defensive mentor, Stan Van Gundy, implemented in Miami, then Orlando. With three inveterate gamblers in James, Wade and Chalmers, along with two mobile bigs in Bosh and Haslem who aren’t prototypical rim protectors, this unit allows the risk-takers to indulge their habits, while using the collective speed of the unit to compensate for any bets gone bad.

When things are going well for this lineup defensively, it’s because they’re focused intently on taking away the opponent’s best stuff in the half court. The Heat pay a lot of attention to entry angles early in possessions. This isn’t just about unleashing chaos by jumping a passing lane. The Heat are intent on denying the primary action, whether that’s an entry pass to Roy Hibbert (witness Bosh fronting the Pacers’ center aggressively early in a recent loss -- but solid defensive effort -- at Indiana), or loading up on LaMarcus Aldridge as he bounces up off a pin-down to Dirk-Land for a quick feed.

Here’s where the starters are at the best and worst as a defensive unit. Like many skilled gamblers, James and Wade love nothing more than to leverage their bets when they have an advantage at the table. Once that first option is extinguished, James and Wade begin their paramilitary operation, attacking a young, vulnerable guard (say, Damian Lillard or Isaiah Thomas on the current West Coast swing) who is trying to manufacture something after the initial plan has gone awry.

This strategy cedes plenty of acreage on the weakside, and Haslem is generally the guy who has to patrol the baseline and, as is often the case, close out on shooters in the corner. This unit is surrendering a ton of 3-point attempts (21.8 per 48 minutes). Opponents are hitting those shots at only a 31.6 percent clip, but when you roll the tape, two things are evident:

1. James is capable of closing out on a shooter from an adjacent county.
2. The Heat are getting very, very lucky.

The Heat will tell you that they’re focused on taking away the middle, that they have to communicate better when the ball is reversed, that penetration inevitably causes breakdowns. All true, but even when the roving works, there’s collateral damage on the boards. This lineup collects only two out of every three defensive rebounds -- you won’t find a worse starting unit in the NBA. There’s no single explanation, but when the Heat’s opponents crash the offensive glass, it’s often because defenders are nowhere near their primary assignments.

Should the Heat worry? Is the Heat’s defense in danger of suffering a systematic breakdown if these problems aren’t corrected, or are the speedy wings exploring the limits of their intuition and athleticism?

Truth be told, this unit is doing fine defensively (the reserves are another story entirely). The starters’ 99.1 defensive rating (and the 98.7 rating of the starting unit that includes Battier), would still place them sixth overall in the league in defensive efficiency. It’s a reasonably safe assumption that, come playoff time, Heat defenders will stop rerouting themselves on recoveries and embrace the scheme’s tried-and-true methods.

How worried should Miami be about its D?

December, 7, 2012
12/07/12
12:32
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Christopher Trotman/NBAE/Getty Images
There was a little too much of this on Thursday night for the Heat's beleaguered defense.

Chris Bosh says it’s the frenetic pace. LeBron James says it’s about communication. Shane Battier says it’s all in the head. Erik Spoelstra says it’s execution.

However you diagnose the Miami Heat’s defensive meltdown against the New York Knicks and the champs’ general listlessness all season, they’re a disaster on that end of the floor.

There are no shortage of explanations, but Miami’s woes are especially bizarre because, with the exception of Ray Allen, the personnel is largely the same as last year’s championship team, which ranked No. 4 overall in defensive efficiency. Theoretically, most of the principles are the same, but somewhere between application and result, the defense is drifting off-course.

Occasionally when you look at a colossally bad defensive performance, a single, obvious flaw reveals itself. What’s notable about Thursday night’s train wreck is how diverse the lapses were.

The switch-outs that guided the Heat to success in the 2012 playoffs allowed Miami to respond quickly to opponent’s actions. Against the Knicks, those switches created confusion both at the point of attack and in the back-side rotation. The Heat have a lot of guys who can defend bigs, smalls and space, but right now that flexibility isn't producing results.

For the most part, the Heat got back in transition promptly on Thursday night, but virtually every Miami defender would backpedal to the middle of the floor to stop the ball with no one splaying out to the wings where the Knicks had been spotting up and blistering opponents all season.

On those rare occasions when the Heat accounted for perimeter shooters while Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler ran a high pick-and-roll, there was nobody to bump (or “chuck”) Chandler off his course to the rim.

And the rotations behind the Heat’s traps of Felton (a questionable strategy in itself) made the Heat appear like a bunch of second-year players straight off the bus from their first training camp. When the Knicks have long-range threats like J.R. Smith, Steve Novak and Jason Kidd spread along the perimeter, it’s unconscionable to have a third guy drifting away from one of those shooters toward a trapped Felton at 27 feet, leaving the two remaining defenders to account for Chandler diving toward the rim along with three shooters primed for a catch-and-shoot.

James isn’t himself without blame. He’s an all-powerful defensive god when his antenna is up and he’s reading every movement, potential action and passing lane on the floor. When James is locked in, there isn’t a defender in the league who makes smarter risk-reward decisions like when to shoot the gap on a post feed and when to stay home; when to zone up on the two guys he’s covering on the weak side, and when to call, say, Mario Chalmers to fill his spot so he can meet a driver at the rim.

One of the great pleasures of Heat basketball is observing James play half-court defense in a big game. Try it sometime -- instead of watching the ball, focus solely on what James is doing. But had you done that last night, you wouldn’t have caught a glimpse of that sharpness. James was working -- primarily because he spent a ton of time on the ball -- but those secondary decisions weren’t made with a lot of precision. Even on a bad night, James is still a plus-defender. But if you’re looking for a reason why a No. 4-ranked defense falls to No. 23, decision-making by principal defenders is a contributing factor because, tempting as it might be, you can’t blame Allen for everything.

It’s an empirical fact that the Heat are playing horrific defense, but we’re also pretty certain they feature the personnel to play elite defense. There's actual evidence of this somewhere in a glass case inside AmericanAirlines Arena. So how manageable are these issues? Are they merely coasting rather than playing on a string, which is how the Heat characterize their defensive proficiency when everyone is where they’re supposed to be and all five guys moves as one unit in the half court? Would a healthy Battier and a few more minutes of Joel Anthony do the trick?

This time last season, the defense wasn’t exactly locking opponents down. The Heat weren’t running shooters off the 3-point line and they were gambling more loosely than Floyd Mayweather. Miami took some lumps early but privately understood that Spoelstra was engaged in some experimentation. The Heat were trying to figure out if they could morph a fairly conventional scheme into one that could maximize speed and instincts without sacrificing the integrity of the entire defense. It took a while, but the strategy bore a Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Is that what’s going on here in the early going? Is an outing like Thursday night just a symptom of a team that’s futzing around in the laboratory trying to come up with new solutions?

Chalking up bad defense to systematic failures (Defenders aren’t pushing guards down on the pick-and-roll; Nobody is sinking to the level of the ball when it goes inside; etc.) is usually more satisfying than attributing them to generalities like energy motivation, but there’s something that rings true in the postgame statements from James and Bosh about the Heat’s lack of urgency. The game tape looks like a snuff film, but even watching all the Heat’s tactical errors on defense, you find yourself saying, “They know better than this.”

The knowing part is simple, as are the basic adjustments required to fix what’s broken. This isn’t about buying into a system -- that sale was made a year ago. It’s not about hiding older, poorer defenders, abandoning a pick-and-roll coverage that isn’t working or modulating the pace.

This new project is about fully appreciating that immortality doesn’t exist in sports. You never know demise until it’s too late.

Conversation starters for 2012-13

October, 31, 2012
10/31/12
10:41
AM ET
By Kevin Arnovitz and Beckley Mason
ESPN.com

Getty ImagesMoving the needle in 2012-13: Andre Iguodala, LeBron James and Blake Griffin.

1. Will the Nuggets finally reward their army of boosters?

Beckley Mason: Oh man, I don’t wager money on the NBA, but let’s just say I emptied my vanity coffers investing preseason plaudits on this team. I’m worried that I’m so excited about how fun this team will be, I have overestimated how much it will actually win. The Nuggets represent the open style of team play I wish was more common in the league, getting the best possible shots -- layups and 3-pointers -- all game.

But I have also been encouraged by the preseason.

The early offense is clicking. Andre Iguodala, Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried have been as advertised in the open court, and Kosta Koufos and Corey Brewer look ready to make unexpected contributions. For guys like John Hollinger and Kevin Pelton, both of whom have Denver finishing second in the Western Conference, there’s clearly something here. As usual, the Nuggets project as a juggernaut top-three offense, but this season they’ll have the personnel to play defense in the half court.

Kevin Arnovitz: Aside from the stylistic appeal, where does this collective love for Denver come from? Is it a sincere belief the Nuggets have the necessary tools to mount a guerrilla war in the West and take down the likes of the Thunder or the Lakers or just a desire to see a verdict rendered once and for all that Carmelo Anthony is a bad guy?

I also wonder if the post-Melo Nuggets haven’t become a symbol for those who were repelled by the Anthony saga two years ago. In the era of the superteam, romantics want the Nuggets to prove that a team of non-superstars can compete for an NBA title through sheer effort, athleticism and creativity. A lot of basketball junkies want to live in a world where the 2004 Pistons aren’t a historical outlier and Anthony is the fool. The Nuggets represent their best hope.

Mason: Unlike those Pistons, the Nuggets are a rare case of a superstar-less team that wins without a superstar. Two different models. The question is …

2. What do you do in the NBA if you can’t recruit a superstar?

Arnovitz: The Moneyball principle was never about putting data ahead of scouting. It was about identifying an undervalued commodity in a sport and finding bargains in players who bring that commodity to a roster.

Individual defense -- loosely defined -- is probably that undervalued commodity at the moment, largely because we have a hard time defining it statistically. Players have traditionally been paid based on their offensive stats. You can jump up and down about this guy being a top-five defender (think Tony Allen) and that defense is 50 percent of the game, but we rarely see defensive specialists score the kind of contracts one-way offensive players like Monta Ellis do.

That’s what made Houston’s three-year, $25.2 million deal for Omer Asik so interesting. That’s a significant investment in a guy who most people around the league would regard as a one-way defensive player. Some thought it was an outlandish offer, but would anyone raise an eyebrow if a top-20 offensive player landed the same contract?

Mason: Let's just say Asik has a better chance of being worth $8 million a year than Charlie Villanueva.

Arnovitz: Sure, and if you’re a team that can’t get meetings with the LeBrons of the world and can’t realistically find your way onto the wish list of the truly elite offensive free agents, your best course of action might be to stock your roster with the best value defenders in the league, aspire to be a top-three defense and play it out from there.


Drew Hallowell/NBAE/Getty ImagesTom Thibodeau: Defense first.
Mason: I agree, particularly because it takes a certain ingenuity to be a truly great offensive player. That’s just not the case on the defensive end, where position, intelligence and effort are the hallmarks of excellence.

I’d argue it’s easier to teach a player to be a great defender than it is to teach a player to be a dominant offensive force, which means coaching is key. Is there anything a young athletic team -- and aren’t all young teams athletic? -- can benefit from more than a great defensive mind?

Tom Thibodeau’s success in Chicago is an example of the impact a great defensive system can have, but what about Scott Skiles’ work with the 2009-10 Bucks? That team worked incredibly hard and, anchored by guys like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Andrew Bogut, had the league’s second-best defense. Even with a rookie point guard and Bogut out with an injury for the playoffs, Milwaukee came within a game of reaching the second round -- all on a serious budget (if you don’t count an injured Michael Redd’s $17 million contract).

Arnovitz: Here’s a question for the defensive savants ...

3. How can anyone match up with LeBron James and three or four shooters?

Mason: Thibodeau has been a master of aggravating big scorers in big series, but this might be the NBA’s unsolvable riddle between the lines. James’ new comfort as a scorer with his back to the basket has made him even better at commanding space near the paint. His most underrated skill is his ability to, with the flick of a wrist, throw a basketball 40 feet on a frozen rope to an open shooter. He throws passes so hard, and with such little warning to the defense, that he forces defenses to stay closer to shooters than any other player while simultaneously overwhelming any individual defender in front of him. Barring a player who can tangle with James in pick-and-rolls and one-on-ones on the block, I’m not sure there is a reliable way to defend the Heat with actual defense.

You have to defend them with your offense. Keep the turnovers low, take good shots and either pound the offensive glass or send at least four men back on every shot. James really kills in transition when defensive help is hard to organize, and he loves to receive a drag screen in the middle of the court and blast past the defense to the rim.

In terms of actual defense, no one bothers James as much as Chicago. Having two bigs -- Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah -- who can handle James in a switch at the end of the shot clock is vital to that success.

Arnovitz: Erik Spoelstra is cracking that code. Getting LeBron to buy into this role was probably the biggest coaching achievement in the NBA last season.

So much of the innovation in coaching today is assignment-based rather than the sculpting of a coherent system for your team. It’s about getting LeBron to buy in as a multitasking power forward, figuring out how to horse-whisper Carmelo into a similar role with the Knicks or crafting an offense for a team that has virtually no reliable outside shooting.

The great system coaches are an endangered species. Phil Jackson is back on his ranch, like Lyndon Johnson after vacating the White House. Although Ty Corbin has preserved much of what flourished over the past quarter-decade in Utah, Jerry Sloan is gone too. Mike D’Antoni is in exodus. Stan Van Gundy tailored a provisional system around Dwight Howard. Even a guy like Eddie Jordan was not successful but certainly ambitious.

Rick Adelman might be the lone graybeard, systems coach left. The rest of the league has moved to a predictable half-court game. The high pick-and-roll is the new iso, and why not? It stretches the defense across the floor for quick point guards who can devour most coverages and dance into the paint.

4. Is most of the cool innovation happening on defense, while NBA offenses are simplifying?

Mason: Thibodeau, Spoelstra and Dwane Casey are young coaches developing creative, principle-based systems for their defenses, which supports that.

The offensive piece we can trace back 20 years, when the NBA began to change the rules in ways that opened up the court and encouraged perimeter-based play. Coaches have come along with systems that can better account for the dangers presented by a quick point guard and three shooters, but we may be stuck with the spread pick-and-roll’s ubiquity until the next round of rule changes.

Still, I sense there is a crop of coaches toiling with terrible teams that will one day number among the NBA’s most visionary. Monty Williams has a record as a strong defensive coach and might have the most creative pick-and-roll schemes in the league. Rick Carlisle is one of the most flexible minds in the game. No one coaches to personnel as well, and his strange roster in Dallas augurs well for those who like to see a hoops genius pushed to his creative limits. I’m also intrigued by Terry Stotts, a Carlisle disciple. Who knows what he has in Portland? If his development chops are legit, that’s another interesting team that will fall well short of contending.


Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images
DeMarcus Cousins: Beast or burden?
Arnovitz: Development is another one of the great unknowns in basketball, and here’s a head-scratcher of a case study:

5. If DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t evolve into a beast, whose fault is that?

Mason: I’ve seen Cousins play in person only once, and it wasn’t even in an NBA game. It was at the Goodman League versus Drew League exhibition in Baltimore during the 2011 lockout, a game that pitted NBA players from the Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles areas against each other.

The game was a microcosm of Cousins’ NBA career. He made jumpers and sharp passes, he bullied JaVale McGee and dunked all over him, and there was a moment when he picked James Harden’s pocket and gathered up the loose ball on the run, keeping his dribble at knee height. His skill and dexterity, at that incredible size, was jarring.

He also failed to finish the game. He argued with his exhibition coach (whoever that was) about playing time and touches, was constantly annoyed with the ref and let the event’s emcee, who dubbed Cousins “Bad Attitude,” get under his skin.

Cousins makes you shake your head for reasons both good and bad, and we have to attribute some of that weirdness to Cousins himself. But doesn’t it feel like the Sacramento franchise hasn’t been doing him any favors?

Arnovitz: This is one of my favorite counterfactuals: What if Cousins were drafted by the San Antonio Spurs? You can try it with any young player who has come through the league. Are we absolutely certain Adam Morrison or Michael Olowokandi couldn’t have put together decent NBA careers had they landed with more resourceful or nurturing organizations? An apprentice can thrive if the workshop is conducive to good training and his mentor rocks (see Lawson, Ty).

Fundamentally, these teams are workplaces, and more professional offices tend to get the best of their team. Individual strengths are fostered; shortcomings are neutralized.

If you’re lucky, you get to work at a place like this. Cousins hasn’t been lucky. So he can either succumb to the worst instincts of his environment or take it a personal imperative to defy them.

Mason: Player development is such a tricky issue because so much happens behind the scenes. But maybe the Internet’s leading Clipperologist can help answer this one ...

6. What does Blake Griffin have in store for the world, and what does the world have in store for Blake?

Arnovitz: I’ve been trying to figure out what to take away from Griffin’s drop this year in #NBARank. Last season, Griffin beat his rookie shooting and efficiency numbers, yet there was constant sniping about his shortcomings. Much of that criticism was legitimate but disproportionate, driven in some part by a certain strain of antipathy.

Yes, his defense needs to be faster and smarter, but it’s not as if Kevin Love and Zach Randolph are winning games as defenders. When Dirk Nowitzki and Lamar Odom came into the league, they had few instincts defensively. But the Mavs have been significantly better defensively with Dirk on the floor the past few seasons, and Odom established himself as a strong, versatile -- even aggressive -- defender before he started taking on weight like a loading dock.

I sense most of the Blake-lashers know that, which means the charges are a little excessive.

Still, a lot of rational people's hoop sensibilities are offended by Griffin’s on-court persona. Many of them love playing the game, but Griffin wouldn’t be a guy they’d enjoy sharing the court with. At least that’s my interpretation.

Beck, it’s fair to say you’re one of those people, isn’t it? You asked Blake last season to cool it with the “WWE heel routine.” Over the summer, did you harvest any affection for Blake? If not, what’s wrong with playing the heel for a few hours a week?

Mason: One of the primary criticisms of Griffin’s play is that he is just a dunking machine. But if you were to design a power forward, you could do much worse than a machine that did a lot of dunking. Griffin led the NBA in dunks last season by a wide margin, which means he did a better job of getting the highest percentage shot in the league than anyone else. That’s a really good thing no matter how you slice it.

As you wrote, I still have a hard time squaring the guy who is pitch perfect as a book club sensei and the one who gets a preseason technical foul for going after an ostensibly innocent Paul Millsap. Blake stays mean-mugging at opponents and refs, but except for in the instances where it keeps him from getting back on defense, I can live with it -- and even smile at it.

I’m actually bullish on Blake going into this season. He has looked just as freaky explosive and deft around the rim as ever in the preseason, and his passing is world class at the power forward position.

Look, Griffin is going to learn to shoot and play better defense, but it will be a careerlong project. Because Griffin’s flaws are so glaring -- he doesn’t just miss free throws, he air-balls them -- they can seem to counterbalance all the good stuff he does. But that’s ludicrous. He is only 23, and every part of his game is on the upswing. His lower ranking this season was probably a reaction to being overrated after his first season and not an accurate representation of where his game is headed.

TrueHoop TV: Heat coach Erik Spoelstra

July, 18, 2012
7/18/12
7:04
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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In their own words: 2012 NBA Finalists

June, 22, 2012
6/22/12
10:46
AM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
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LeBron James
David Dow/NBAE/Getty Images
What did everyone have to say when all was said and done?

LEBRON JAMES: It took me to go all the way to the top and then hit rock bottom basically to realize what I needed to do as a professional athlete and as a person.

DWYANE WADE: You know, two years ago, putting this team together, obviously we all expected it to be a little easier than it was. But we had to go through what we had to go through last year. We needed to. And as much as it hurt, we had to go through that pain and that suffering. To get to this point of this season and the rest of our careers together, we'll take nothing for granted.

CHRIS BOSH: I think it did that to all of us, where we couldn't even see the light of day because it hurt so much.

JAMES: The best thing that happened to me last year was us losing The Finals, you know, and me playing the way I played, it was the best thing to ever happen to me in my career because basically I got back to the basics. It humbled me.

WADE: We had a group, a team meeting, and for the first time I heard LeBron James open up, and he kind of let us in on what it's like to be LeBron James. None of us really know. I said as one of his close friends, I said,"Wow, I don't deal with that." And I deal with a lot.

BOSH: Nobody in the world can understand what he's went through this past two years, since the moment that we came here.

JAMES: I dreamed about this opportunity and this moment for a long time, including last night, including today. You know, my dream has become a reality now, and it's the best feeling I ever had.

ERIK SPOELSTRA: We have a brotherhood now that you don't necessarily have unless you've been through the fire together, and two years of it made us all more closer, and it makes this moment that much more gratifying.

WADE: Last season I felt that it was too much questions in our mind, in our head, and guys looking at each other and not wanting to step on each other's toes. This year I know I'm playing with the best player in the world, and that doesn't take anything away from me at all.

BOSH: I know a bunch of people made fun of me and said I was soft, but you can't be soft playing this game, especially at that five, you know what I'm saying? We wanted it so bad, I just wanted it so bad, I didn't care what anybody said, I didn't care what anybody thought. All I thought about was pushing forward to get that trophy.

SPOELSTRA: We all knew that this team was built a little bit differently, and we needed to absolutely embrace what some would see as unconventional. We would need an inside presence to be able to play inside out. LeBron knew that, as well.

We were all on the same page about it. He dedicated the summer to develop that game, and that allowed us to play like the power teams that you see with a big center, but to do it with a versatile power forward, small forward, and to be able to play inside out.

And so people saw us as small, but we played a power game, attack the paint, inside out, play out of the post, things of that nature.

SCOTT BROOKS: Obviously it's too early to understand and internalize all the things that we will learn through this series. But just the one thing, that they play extremely physical basketball. They are a very athletic team and they use it every possession, and that's something that we will talk about. You have it, you'd better use it.

KEVIN DURANT: Their defense is really good. Those guys are really good over there. I didn't want to admit it during the series, but now that it's over, those guys are really good. Last team standing, so you've got to tip your hat.

BROOKS: I've never used age as an excuse. But we've got some incredible experience these last three years of being in the Playoffs, and it kind of -- it has helped us get to this point and to compete at his level.

JAMES HARDEN: I think now we know that every possession in The Finals matters, it counts. There were several possessions that we just gave away. I think that third quarter, we brought the lead out to five quick, and then they hit two threes in a row.

Every possession matters in The Finals. We just gave too many away.

KENDRICK PERKINS: Each individual has to think about it when you’re lifting weights, as you run suicides, just think about this feeling, think about this moment and how close we came. We just fell short. At the end of the day, nobody really gets praised for second place.

RUSSELL WESTBROOK We hugged each other and told each other to embrace this feeling and remember this feeling. We kind of looked around and just -- we've got to get better. We've got to be the guys that come back and push everybody next season and just got to get better, man, before we can find a way to get back here.

WADE: This is one of the best Finals, when you talk about matchups, when you talk about everyone tuning in and wanting to see, because these are two teams that in the summer everyone said they should be in The Finals.

We lived up to the billing.

LeBron James' leap year

June, 21, 2012
6/21/12
9:00
AM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
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LeBron James
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
LeBron has backed the Thunder into a corner with his impressive post play.

LeBron James spent the last two years learning how to win four feet of space.

Four feet. That's roughly the difference between where James was taking his shots during Tuesday night’s brilliant 26-point, 12-assist performance and where he was shooting a year ago in Game 4 of the 2011 Finals, a disastrous eight-point effort that was the first of three consecutive Heat losses.

Two years. That’s about how long LeBron James has been seriously committed to transforming his post game from an untapped resource to an unstoppable weapon.

Think back to last season. Is there really any doubt about whether this version of James would have manhandled DeShawn Stevenson and Jason Kidd?

When Heat.com's Couper Moorhead profiled James' evolving post game before last year’s playoffs, he stressed that James had become very effective when he could catch the ball with deep post position. In his first season with the Heat, James had improved from visibly uncomfortable on the block to capable of a quick drop step or jump hook, usually with one or no dribble.

In the 2011 Finals, the Mavericks worked hard to take those looks away by fronting James on the low block. In fact they succeeded by forcing him into the exact same position, 18 feet away from the hoop in what's called the "mid post," from where James is now destroying the Thunder.

A review of Game 4 in Dallas shows LeBron catching an average of approximately 16 feet from the rim on his 11 field goal attempts. That's right where he was launching his moves against the Thunder in Game 4, but it's no longer where James starts that necessarily determines where he finishes.

There’s no secret to this development, it’s the product of literally hundreds of repetitions. Despite playing in fewer games, James was in the post nearly 120 more times (about twice as often) in 2012 than he was in 2011, according to Synergy Sports. He didn’t shoot as high of a percentage as he did last season, but he put in the time to make playing from the post, and not just finishing with deep position, second nature.

On Tuesday James and the Heat reaped the fruit of that labor. Time and again, James patiently worked his way toward the basket for layups and hook shots in close. On average, James managed to get seven feet closer to the rim before letting fly with a shot compared to just two feet closer a year ago.

James’ actual jump shot fared no better a year later than it did when Dallas made him look decidedly average. The real difference is that James is just better at getting to his kill zone, particularly out of the high or mid post, than he was last year, allowing him to bring his fantastic passing and finishing skills to bear.

The Heat’s X's and O's have changed a bit, but mostly those adjustments are a reflection of Heat coach Erik Spoelstra's commitment to feeding James over and over in that pocket off or just below the elbow. That’s the spot occupied by the power forward in Miami’s offense, a position James once resisted playing but now enthusiastically inhabits.

As a result, James is spending relatively little time running high pick-and-rolls against Oklahoma City. Rather, he often begins many possessions as a screener in the corner or high post. After an initial action designed to loosen up James' defender, he demands the ball. He catches the ball 16-19 feet from the rim, and goes to work. It's easy to diagram and nearly impossible to deny.

Or at least it was in the second quarter of Game 4, when that simple look fueled Miami's dramatic rally. As the Heat trimmed the lead from 13 to three, James made three shots at the rim and assisted to six different Heat players.

Keep in mind that getting James to turn his back to the basket anywhere outside of 10 feet used to be a major victory for the defense. He had (and still has, at times) a tendency to go to his baseline fall away or step back jumper, a comparatively good result for the opposition.

But go ask James Harden about how that strategy is working today.

Late in the third quarter of Game 4, James caught the ball just off of the elbow on the right side of the court. Harden immediately ceded ground, backing up in a desperate plea for James to please just shoot the wide open shot.

No dice.

James surveyed the floor to figure out where the defensive help would likely come from, then pivoted and moved into Harden with his back. As his Heat teammates ran interference on the other side of the court (and it should be mentioned that his teammates have gotten better at this, as well), LeBron kept his eyes to the middle, scanning for open shooters or a double-teaming defender, and calmly pushed Harden closer and closer to the paint.

Finally, just eight feet from the rim and with Harden summoning every ounce of strength to push him away, James spun baseline off of Harden's shoulder, elevated, and dropped in an almost casual jump hook off the glass that would make any coach grin with pride -- well, except the coach who has to figure out how to stop it.

See, with his size, vision and willingness to hit the open man, James is the last player on the court you want to double team. James won two MVP awards in Cleveland by leveraging these talents on drives the the basket. In the playoffs, however, it becomes harder and harder to find those driving angles and thus trickier to manipulate the defense and find shooters.

So, just as many people advised him to do in unsolicited columns, tweets and shouts at TVs, James found a work-around by developing a new skill set basically from scratch.

It wasn't easy and it didn't all happen at once. It wasn't long ago every James jumpstop in the post was so over-exaggerated you could almost hear him thinking: "OK, now I'm going to try this new move."

But James stuck with it and now floats from post to perimeter without a second thought, at home anywhere on the court. Players often lean on what they know when the pressure is most intense, so it's telling that James is leaning on his post game in the Finals.

The question now is how do you slow James down without leaving shooters alone on the perimeter?

That's Scott Brooks and the Thunder's unenviable task. OKC is playing by the old book on stopping James: use speed and length to keep between him and the basket and fight to front in the low post. Get low and be physical with him and he’ll pass the ball.

But now James is so locked in with his post game that it seems like Nick Collison or Serge Ibaka may be better suited to single-covering him than even ace wing defender Thabo Sefolosha.

Realistically, the only remaining weakness in LeBron’s entire game may be his outside shot, a rare NBA skill that generally improves with age.

Having seen decisive evidence of the hours upon hours of work James logged to become one of the best back-to-the-basket players in the game, who would bet against James also becoming a better outside shooter?

Indeed, who would bet against him at all?

James on Durant can't solve everything

June, 14, 2012
6/14/12
3:08
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
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Some expect LeBron James to spend more time guarding Kevin Durant, who dropped a breezy 36 points in Game 1, many on Shane Battier's watch. The reasoning is straightforward. As our Tom Haberstroh points out, James is the Heat's best defender and he did good work on Durant during the regular season:
James barely even guarded Durant in Game 1 even though the OKC star was mostly neutralized this season against the Heat when James was his primary defender. According to ESPN Stats & Info, James guarded Durant on only five plays in Game 1, which led to two missed shots and two turnovers. When guarded by a host of defenders led by Shane Battier, Durant scored 34 points and shot 12-for-18 from the floor without turning the ball over once. In fact, all of Durant's 10 turnovers against the Heat have come while James was the primary defender.

This comes full circle. The Heat were desperate for turnovers and stops in Game 1, but they struggled to get any without James guarding Durant.

Of course, there are any number of reasons why Heat coach Erik Spoelstra might want to keep James from guarding Durant, but here are four good ones:
  1. Switches: The Heat want James to be guarding Durant when he looks to score, not when the possession begins. Especially in the second half, Miami switched on almost every screen, so starting James on a player like Westbrook allows him to switch onto Durant whenever those two screen for one another.
  2. Foul Trouble: We saw how tentative Durant became when he was guarding LeBron after picking up a cheap early foul. The Heat needs James to be available and aggressive for as many minutes as possible.
  3. Exhaustion: Asking James to run the offense, score frequently and cover Durant while Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison hit him with burly screens amounts to burning the candle at both ends with a blowtorch.
  4. Team defense: James is a stellar individual defender, but he might be an even better team defender. Starting him on a guy like Perkins doesn't just conserve energy, it allows James to expend that energy helping his teammates. And when there are multiple Thunder players who can breakdown the defense single-handedly, James may be able to prevent more easy shots by playing free safety, sort of like Kevin Garnett does. When James covers Durant, and it's unlikely James would lock down Durant like he did Pierce, he has to stay attached to Durant on the perimeter and cannot slough off to bother Westbrook or Harden.

The fourth point becomes especially significant considering it looks like Russell Westbrook can blow past Dwyane Wade with regularity. That means James might be the only player on the Heat roster who can handle either Westbrook or Durant, though he can only cover one at a time.

Alone, James may be able to dent the Thunder's offensive machine by focusing his efforts more on Kevin Durant. But it will take a total team effort from Miami to throw a wrench in what has been by far the most productive playoff offense since 2005.

Scott Brooks' on-time arrival

June, 11, 2012
6/11/12
12:06
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty ImagesScott Brooks understands the feeding and caring responsibilities of an NBA head coach.

On a Monday morning last January, Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks fielded an easy volley of questions at Santa Monica High School ahead of a game that night against the Los Angeles Clippers.

The Thunder were mowing through their schedule, having won 11 of their previous 12 games, and Brooks’ breezy tone was fitting for a midseason shootaround. He paid homage to James Harden’s throwback qualities and told the small gathering of media that, even though the Thunder had climbed the ranks of the Western Conference, they had to go out and play each night with something to prove.

After the scrum broke, Brooks was asked whether he could imagine Kevin Durant as his power forward of the future. A pile of data and the general direction of the league both suggested that sliding Durant over to the 4 would make a lot of sense.

Brooks had seen the evidence and, in fact, was the man responsible for those minutes Durant logged as a power forward in the Thunder’s smaller lineups. Schematically, Brooks loved the idea of giving his already potent offense even more opportunities to stretch defenses.

The data were certainly compelling, and what coach wouldn’t be tempted to get another athlete on the floor if all it took was placing the dynamo with the 7-foot-5 wingspan at the 4? Brooks suspected Durant eventually would log more time in small-ball lineups, but Brooks also wouldn’t rush into the future.

In Brooks’ mind, an NBA coach’s job isn’t merely to implement strategic goals on the court but also to have a strong feel for the appropriate timetables of those objectives. He explained that a player like Durant derives confidence from familiarity, and in many respects, it’s one of the factors that makes him such a devastating offensive force. So challenging him to expand the boundaries of the familiar demanded a degree of finesse. Understanding how to lure a player into uncharted territory, asking him to expend more defensively, changing up the composition of the offense he marshals -- that was the trick.

Brooks was confident he could do it, but Durant’s long-term success with that transition would be somewhat dependent on Brooks’ management of that process.


We accept that Oklahoma City’s ascension to the NBA Finals can largely be attributed to the maturation of its young core. By competing at the high-stakes table against the NBA’s notable elite over the past seven weeks, Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha have all developed a more astute intuition about the game.

We chart and revel in the progress achieved by talented young players, but whether it’s because coaches are less interesting than players or because the strides in a coach’s games are more opaque (what’s the coaching equivalent of “he developed a post game”?), we tend to see coaches as static. We might pause for a second and consider that men like Doc Rivers or Alvin Gentry aren’t the same coaches that they were a dozen years ago, but we rarely frame that growth the same way we do for players.

Each of the Thunder’s catalysts has refined his game, and we’ll read plenty about Westbrook’s improved vision and discipline, Durant’s full arrival, Harden’s embrace of the big stage, Sefolosha’s building confidence that he could contain a small army and the rounding of Ibaka’s game.

But it isn’t just the Thunder’s roster that has elevated its game. Brooks has followed the impressive trajectory of his players. A coach who, over the course of his young career, was rarely lauded for his gravitas, charisma or mastery of X’s and O’s has put together a helluva postseason, capped off by a brilliant performance in the conference finals against San Antonio.

The pivotal event in the six games against the Spurs might have been Hack-a-Splitter, which disrupted then irreversibly altered the rhythm of the series. Brooks risked a potential toll offensively by investing his wholesale trust in Sefolosha to stymie Tony Parker. Fully embracing his team’s athleticism, Brooks leveraged that asset in a scheme that both simplified and intensified the Thunder’s defense. He urged Westbrook to cleverly exploit the Spurs’ defensive discipline -- never sending strongside help -- by traversing the court’s midline, which never allowed San Antonio to establish where its help should come from. When the Spurs defenders attacked Durant coming off the Thunder’s bread-and-butter play -- the weakside pin-down -- Brooks introduced wrinkles that helped to free up Durant.

And yes, he also moved Durant to the power forward spot for significant stretches of the series, something we didn’t see him do as readily in past seasons.

Perhaps that’s selling Brooks short -- the idea that these discoveries of the craft have been recent. It’s more likely that Brooks’ abilities have been developing over time, just like his players.

Public opinion tends to shine brightly on systematic high-achiever coaches -- Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Jerry Sloan, Tom Thibodeau, until recently Mike D’Antoni, to a large extent Rick Adelman and now Doc Rivers.

Coaches like Scott Brooks and Erik Spoelstra, whose most talented personnel thrives on one-on-one play, must rely on offenses far more dependent on shot creation. As a result, their stuff often appears more rudimentary, and we shape our opinions of their creativity accordingly. There are plenty of coaches around the league for whom that might be true, but Brooks doesn’t appear to be one of them.

For some, the verdict on Brooks’ tactical ingenuity may be pending -- let’s see how his team responds in the Finals. For others, the mere fact that, under his direction, Brooks helped deliver a team that was 23-59 three seasons ago to the NBA Finals is testimony enough to his strengths, whether those strengths reside on a whiteboard or in his intuitive understanding of his players.

And on that late morning in January, talking about the delicate process of easing along a superstar, Brooks conveyed the most valuable gift a head coach can have:

Knowing, understanding and caring for his talent.

Heat switch it up, shut down Celtics

June, 8, 2012
6/08/12
1:20
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
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Boston Celtics
Barry Chin/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesBoston's veteran core struggled to find the basket in Game 6.

Before Game 6, Boston seemed to have Miami's defense figured out. Then Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen combined to shoot 13-for-39.

It wasn't a fluke. If it appeared that Boston's offense was out of rhythm, it might have been because Miami and coach Erik Spoelstra changed the tempo.

What Miami did in Game 6 was switch as much and as often as possible. The strategy has two benefits: (1) defenders are no longer laboring through the Celtics' screen-heavy offense, conserving energy by trading assignments; and (2) those same screens might yield mismatches but not wide-open players.

When the Celtics offense is humming, an unusual number of their makes are assisted. According to HoopData, 66.5 percent of Boston's regular-season makes were assisted, by far the highest percentage in the league.

Just how much do they rely on the pass to score? The difference between Boston's percentage of makes assisted and the No. 2 team, Milwaukee, was greater than the difference between Milwaukee and the No. 17 team (Dallas).

In Game 6, just 43.8 percent of the Celtics' makes were assisted.

Death by isolation

Boston's regular-season assist numbers don't just reflect an offense built on sharing the ball but a collection of players who struggle to score without help. Paul Pierce has a deserved reputation for one-on-one talents, but Garnett and Allen need others to do the creating for them. KG can post up and score in isolations, but where he has killed the Heat this series is on rolls to the rim and pops to the midrange, particularly working with passing wizard Rajon Rondo.

As a result of all the switching, the Celtics' best scoring option in Game 6 became attacking a mismatch one-on-one rather than using one another to create wide-open shots. Pierce took 18 shots over at least five different defenders, as Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem and Chris Bosh all spent time on the Celtics' iso ace. Pierce was able to create space to shoot, but fadeaway 18-footers, while a makeable shot for him, aren't a reliable shot for anyone.

Meanwhile, Garnett was able to use his size and soft touch to score over smaller players, but the Heat, especially after the first 18 minutes or so, worked hard to limit him to these more difficult opportunities.

Switching allowed Miami to defend Rondo and Garnett pick-and-rolls without helping too much with a third player. Again, the idea was to force Rondo to score over a bigger player or make Garnett to get his buckets one-on-one -- a fairly reliable but exceedingly taxing method of scoring.

Rondo burned the Heat for 19 points in the first half, many of them in transition, but he also forced passes in the pick-and-roll and seemed ill at ease when the Heat backed off him in favor of taking away Garnett.

Bosh is back

It wasn't strategy alone that made the difference. There were some wide-open missed shots (as there are every game), and the Heat were not without defensive breakdowns. But Miami had a new weapon to clean up those mistakes: Chris Bosh, who swatted three shots in his 28 minutes of court time.

The Heat's interior defense looked stunningly different with Bosh, the team's tallest player, on the court. Spoelstra kept Bosh off Garnett so that he could roam and support mismatched defenders, not unlike how Boston prefers to keep Garnett free to help its overmatched wing defenders.

Can the Celtics adjust?

In Game 6, after consistently scoring for four straight games, Boston's offense looked more like it had in the first two rounds of the playoffs. That's not surprising, considering that Atlanta and Philadelphia are two teams with switch-heavy defenses. In both series, Garnett had to come up big on the offensive end for the Celtics to advance.

That's probably a good predictor of what will have to happen for the Celtics to win Game 7. Bosh's return and the Heat's aggressive switching will force Boston to rely on the Big Ticket, who always has a size advantage over his primary defender. One thing Doc Rivers is likely to do to accentuate this advantage is have his smaller players set screens for Garnett. If the Heat are going to switch and concede a mismatch, Rivers will look for the best mismatch he can get.

But how much does Garnett have left? Fatigue will play a significant role in Game 7, especially considering the phenomenal load of minutes and responsibility that James, Garnett and Rondo have carried not just in this series but throughout the playoffs.

The Heat seem willing to concede decent shots to avoid giving away great shots. The Celtics have a few players who can get it done that way, but the percentages aren't in their favor. Spoelstra and the Heat are trusting the numbers and hoping that the Celtics' old legs will succumb to the challenge of scoring on their own.

After Game 6, Rivers said he thought his players were trying to win the game with individual plays. If the Heat's defense can have a similar impact in Game 7, Boston might have to.

The book on ... Erik Spoelstra

May, 30, 2012
5/30/12
1:23
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Erik Spoelstra
C.W. Griffin/Getty Images
Erik Spoelstra: Master of the process

Name: Erik Spoelstra

Birthdate: November 1, 1970

Is he an emotional leader or a tactician?
A disciple of Pat Riley, Spoelstra likes to set a tone, will traffic in motivational mantras and definitely pays close attention to the emotional pulse of his team. But he's a cool tactician at heart, one who earns his team's confidence with his work ethic. The players generally respect that Spoelstra spends his entire waking life trying to make it easier for these guys to win. Superstars are more likely to respond to that quality than a punchy fight song.

Is he intense or a go-along-get-along type?
Spoelstra projects a quiet intensity. You won't find any bulging veins or hot collars, but he's what you could describe as serious. Despite that, he gets along well with staff and players -- his long-standing relationship with Dwyane Wade the best evidence. He's reserved, but not prickly and can be one-of-the-guys when he chooses to.

Does he rely on systems, or does he coach ad hoc to his personnel?
This is Spoelstra's greatest trial as the head coach of the Heat. He highly values systems -- he spent his summer in search of one. In almost any other context, Spoelstra would develop an offensive architecture designed with clean lines and an orderly flow. But with Wade and LeBron James as the two most important pieces on the board, pious devotion to a system presents all kinds of problems. So instead, Spoelstra spends his time finding creative ways to get Wade and James the ball where they can exact the most damage in the half court. He must accept that a good percentage of possessions will be at the whims of his superstars, often when the stakes of those possessions are at their highest. Spoelstra has an uncanny capacity to accept life's inconvenient realities, but this must torment him a little bit.

Does he share decision-making with star players, or is he The Decider?
He doesn't have much of a choice, does he?

Does he prefer the explosive scorer or the lockdown defender?
Spoelstra tilts radically to the lockdown defender end of the spectrum. Joel Anthony has been a personal project for years and, with Spoelstra's encouragement and attention, has become one of the league's best defenders. The patience shown with Mario Chalmers is, in many ways, an expression of Spoelstra's commitment to defense. When the Heat needed to fill out a spot on the wing, they went after Shane Battier, a Spoelstrite if there ever was one.

Does he prefer a set rotation, or is he more likely to use his personnel situationally?
"The rotation is the rotation," is one of Spoelstra's bread-and-butter remarks for the media scrum. There are constants apparent in his substitution pattern, but Spoelstra is an empiricist, so when there's enough evidence to suggest the sequence isn't working, he'll make an adjustment.

Will he trust young players in big spots, or is he more inclined to use his grizzled veterans?
Spoelstra values longevity and believes there are certain understandings of the game that can come only through experience. The bench is usually populated with oldsters who actually played with a handful of existing NBA coaches. Chalmers has been the rare exception under Spoelstra, and the point guard's development has certainly had its trials.

Are there any unique strategies that he particularly likes?
The Heat are a unique team, one that has produced unique strategies, even if not by design. Take the team's half-court defense, which has morphed into its own thing.

Prior to the arrival of James, the Heat ran a fairly conservative defensive scheme, something more along the lines of what you'd see in Orlando under Stan Van Gundy or in San Antonio. It was a low-risk defense focused on staying at home and clogging the middle. Traps were reserved for only the craftiest point guards to ward off penetration. Better to push up on screens, make the angles more difficult and lure opponents into a midrange jump shot. Little men, fight over that screen and don't tax the time of your big men -- they belong in the paint. Helpers, don't travel from remote locations.

You can find many of these same principles in the Heat's existing defense, but the reality of who James and Wade are as wing defenders has influenced Spoelstra into creating a system that melds all kinds of different looks.

Earlier in the abbreviated 2011-12 season, Spoelstra was engaged in a schematic exercise -- how much pressure should the Heat exert on the strong side of the floor? It's a good question, and any coach who has spent the amount of time Spoelstra has preparing for the Celtics and Bulls has to entertain the idea that elements of those defenses should be incorporated into his. So Spoelstra went into the lab and pursued a lengthy trial-and-error experiment. This is one of the reasons we saw Miami give up so many 3-pointers during the regular season after being decidedly average in 2010-11 defensively against the 3-ball.

Over time, Spoelstra has calibrated the system. His big men often show high and hard, with the rotator coming from the back line. But as opposed to the Thibodeau system that has very explicit instructions about where the back-side defenders should be to zone up the rest of the floor, Miami allows James, Wade and whoever else more leeway to jump out of that zone to disrupt passing lanes, swarm without warning and, at times, leak out prematurely.

This probably wouldn't be Spoelstra's chosen defensive system if you handed him a roster at random, but he's constructed a system that appeals to Miami's ability to disrupt and the need to generate turnovers to maximize their best attributes.

Can we brand it the "Miami system," much the same way hard-core basketball fans know the "Thibodeau" when they see it? Maybe soon.

What were his characteristics as a player?
Spoelstra was a heady point guard who started all four seasons at the University of Portland and was the WCC's freshman of the year in 1989. A proficient 3-point shooter. Willing passer.

Which coaches did he play for?
At Portland, Spoelstra played for Larry Steele, a Trail Blazer lifer (and member of the 1977 championship team) who had a less-than-successful career as a college coach.

What is his coaching pedigree?
Ever since he joined the Heat organization as an intern in 1995, Spoelstra has grown up in the home of Pat Riley. Spoelstra's manner, obsessiveness and attention to detail are products of Riley's tutelage. Spoelstra also credits Stan Van Gundy, the Heat's head coach for two-plus seasons, for guiding his understanding of NBA defenses.

If basketball didn't exist, what might he be doing?
Leveraged buyouts.


The spirit of the Bill James Baseball Abstracts, 1984 and 1985, was summoned for this project.

Game 1 crucial for both Celtics and Heat

May, 28, 2012
5/28/12
2:39
PM ET
By ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
Archive

Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireLeBron James averages 30.2 points in his postseason career in the Conference Finals.
The Boston Celtics and Miami Heat square off in Game 1 tonight (ESPN, 8:30 ET) in what is the third postseason meeting of all time between these two squads. Boston defeated Miami 4-1 in 2010 in the first round, while the Heat beat the Celtics 4-1 in last season's conference semifinals.

Tonight will be crucial, as the winner of Game 1 in the conference finals has gone on to win the series 80 percent (88-22) of the time in NBA history. The Celtics won the 2011-12 regular season series 3-1, but Mario Chalmers is the only one of the projected Game 1 starters to have started in all four meetings this season.

The Heat have performed well in these situations under coach Erik Spoelstra. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Miami is 5-0 in playoff series opening games at home under Spoelstra, and only four other head coaches in NBA history were 5-0 or better in series-opening home games: Doug Moe (8-0), Mike Dunleavy (6-0), Fred Schaus (5-0) and Bill Russell (5-0).

More good news for Heat fans: LeBron James has averaged 30.2 points in his postseason career in the conference finals, his highest scoring output of any postseason round. James has also averaged 27.1 points per game in 18 career postseason games against the Celtics.

Teammate Dwyane Wade has been even better against Boston, however. In 10 career postseason games, Wade has averaged 31.7 points against the Celtics, his highest against any team.

One aspect to watch for will be when the duo is in transition. James (72) and Wade (57) are ranked first and second in individual transition points this postseason, and the Heat are 7-0 this postseason when they score at least 14 transition points.

Boston, meanwhile, has had to combat history to even reach this stage in the playoffs. According to Elias, the Celtics are just the fourth team since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976-77 to make the conference finals after entering the All-Star break under .500. The last team to accomplish the feat was the Phoenix Suns in 1983-84 (lost to the Los Angeles Lakers 4-2 in the conference finals).

Much of the Celtics' postseason success has been thanks to Kevin Garnett, who has increased his offensive production this postseason. He is averaging a double-double and has already recorded six games this postseason with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds.

Teammate Rajon Rondo has also been key, having recorded at least 11 assists in nine of his 12 games this postseason. Rondo also has nine career postseason triple-doubles, second-most among active players and tied for the fourth-most all time. Rondo's nine triple-doubles have all come in the last four postseasons and are more than all other NBA players combined over that span (seven).

How important is 'playoff experience'?

March, 7, 2012
3/07/12
5:58
PM ET
By Eddy Rivera/Magic Basketball
ESPN.com
Archive

Kent Smith/NBAE/Getty Images
Did an upstart Trail Blazers team fall short in the 2009 Playoffs because of lack of experience -- or was it something else?

Before Brandon Roy's knees degenerated and Greg Oden underwent his third microfracture surgery, the Portland Trail Blazers were the darlings of the NBA. With Roy, Oden, and LaMarcus Aldridge as its young core, Portland was a team built for a long and prosperous future. Portland ranked No. 1 in ESPN Insider's Future Power Rankings around the start of the 2009-2010 season.

How quickly could the Trail Blazers start winning big series deep into the postseason? Some argued in 2009 that they were too young and too inexperienced to win in the playoffs. And with Roy, Oden, and Aldridge in their early to mid-20s at that point in time, that claim seemed to conform to conventional wisdom. As the saying goes, you must fail before you can succeed.

But is that really true? Do teams with inexperience have to take their lumps before winning in the postseason?

According to James Tarlow of the University of Oregon, author of a study titled "Experience and Winning in the National Basketball Association," which he presented at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the answer is no.

Using a data set which consisted of 804 NBA seasons played by 30 teams between the 1979-1980 and 2008-2009 seasons, Tarlow concluded that two elements affect a team's ability to win playoff games: head coach postseason experience and team chemistry.
Coach postseason experience is defined as the number of postseason games coached as a head coach ... Chemistry then is defined as the number of years the five players playing the most minutes during the regular season have been on their current team with one another.

Tarlow also discovered that postseason player experience increase a team's ability to reach the playoffs but doesn't increase its ability to win playoff games.
First, the most common criticism is of the experience of younger teams and this study does not support this conclusion, regardless of whether their NBA experience or playoff experience is the top of discussion. Second, the number of years of experience a coach has in the NBA is an irrelevant figure. It is a coach's playoff experience, not the length of their NBA coaching career, which is relevant to winning in the postseason. Finally, it suggests that what should be assigned more attention is the value associated with keeping teammates together.

In the case of the Trail Blazers, with Aldridge, Roy, Travis Outlaw, Steve Blake, and Rudy Fernandez logging the most minutes during the regular season and playing in their first year together, while being led by a coach in Nate McMillan with some postseason experience, they lost in the first round of the 2009 NBA Playoffs against the Houston Rockets, a team coached by Rick Adelman -- someone who had an expansive playoff resume with the Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings -- with Yao Ming, Luis Scola, Ron Artest, Shane Battier, and Aaron Brooks leading the way in minutes played and also playing in their first year together. In a series that was relatively close, could Adelman have been the difference based on the conclusions reached in Tarlow's paper?

Perhaps.

Over the next two seasons, Portland lost to the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks respectively in the first round of the playoffs. Based on Tarlow’s criteria, team chemistry probably worked in the Suns’ favor in 2010 while team chemistry and head coach postseason experience likely aided the Mavericks in 2011 as they began their quest for an NBA title they eventually won.

Certainly there were other reasons why the Trail Blazers lost three consecutive first-round series, like injuries and matchups. But, as Tarlow has suggested, inexperience likely wasn't one of them.

Dallas proved during their championship run last season that head coach postseason experience and team chemistry does matter.

Just ask the Miami Heat.

Putting it into practice
How do the contenders this season stack up using Tarlow’s criteria?

In this case, the Heat, Chicago Bulls, and Oklahoma City Thunder will be examined. Based on minutes played this season, five players are outlined for each team in that order. Listed in parentheses is the number of seasons those players have played with one another. The number of games stated in parentheses for each head coach is the amount they’ve coached in the postseason for their careers.

Chicago Bulls: Deng-Noah-Boozer-Rose-Brewer (2nd season), Thibodeau (16 games)

This is the Bulls’ second go-round with this group. Richard Hamilton, brought in during the offseason to replace Keith Bogans in the starting lineup at shooting guard, has been hobbled with injuries this season. For the sake of continuity, Chicago may be better off relying on Ronnie Brewer more.

Miami Heat: James-Bosh-Chalmers-Haslem-Wade (2nd season), Spoelstra (33 games)

Like the Bulls, this five-man unit is enjoying their second season together. The difference is that Udonis Haslem has been healthy during the regular season this year. Will improved synergy and Erik Spoelstra’s growing playoff coaching resume be enough for Miami to win a title?

Oklahoma City Thunder: Durant-Westbrook-Harden-Ibaka-Perkins (2nd season), Brooks (23 games)

After acquiring Kendrick Perkins at the trade deadline last season, the Thunder’s first full season with this quintuplet together has been a resounding success so far. With coaches like Gregg Popovich, George Karl, and Rick Carlisle in the Western Conference casting a shadow on Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City can only hope chemistry will trump all.

Looking ahead
Assuming both teams stay healthy heading into the playoffs (which is asking a lot given the truncated season), it appears that the Heat have a slight leg up against Chicago with Spoelstra at the helm since there’s no discernible difference in the chemistry makeup of both teams.

As for the Thunder, what may derail their hopes is the fact that teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks are led by coaches oozing with postseason experience.

Taking Tarlow’s findings into account, consider the next few months an exercise in examination.


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