TrueHoop: J.J. Hickson

Friday Bullets

October, 21, 2011
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
  • From a discussion at Wages of Win about the salaries and earnings of NBA players: "That’s right; the lottery [not the NBA draft lottery] has produced almost twice as many millionaires in the last year as the NBA has in the last twenty years!"
  • Zach Lowe of The Point Forward on the union's disclosure of some vivid details of Thursday's negotiations: "It was an extraordinary public accounting of a private negotiation, one clearly fueled by anger over the alleged misrepresentations Silver and Holt gave reporters a few minutes earlier. We have seen nothing quite like it so far in these talks. It is discouraging. And the anger matters. The two sides need to cool off now, and it is unclear when they will meet next."
  • Belgrade is a basketball hotbed. When Serbia took on France in EuroBasket 2011, you could hear hoots, hollers and moans emanating from alleyways in the Serbian capital. Acie Law has joined Partizan Belgrade and has been blown away by fan passion: "I've never seen anything like it, you don't see fans like that in the United States."
  • A nice story in the Sporting News about SEEDS Academy, Amadou Gallo Fall's basketball school in Senegal. The piece includes a clip of a documentary, "Elevate," by filmmaker Anne Buford -- San Antonio general manager R.C. Buford's sister.
  • Rex Chapman on owner-player vengeance: "League owners possess much resolve. They've vowed athlete-payback 4ever. Branded into memory are their yrs of daily P.E. dodgeball beatings."
  • One ancillary benefit of the lockout? Stars like Stephen Curry who traditionally deliver boilerplate quotes are now expressing their sincere opinions.
  • Raja Bell to Dan Le Batard and Stugotz on 790 AM in Miami: "I feel like that is their target to shoot just below the bar, so it looks like they are negotiating and in fact there is not a real attempt to negotiate.”
  • If you didn't catch HoopSpeak Live yesterday, you missed some compelling stuff from Bomani Jones and Larry Coon. Jones speaks about how $5 million players have $5 million dollar bills, while Coon revisits the contentious issues that are dividing the camps in the labor negotiations. Equally as entertaining, with a whole lot of whimsy, is Zach Harper, who stops by 48 Minutes of Hell's 4-Down Podcast.
  • John Wall in a Dougie-off at a Reebok promotional event.
  • LeBron James gets zinged on twentysomething dramedy "Happy Endings." (Hat Tip: Ball Don't Lie & Your Man Devine)
  • Magic big man Brandon Bass tells Zach McCann that he's spending his time in Orlando working out with Jameer Nelson, Gilbert Arenas and Jason Richardson. On his to-do list? Extending his range beyond 18-20 feet.
  • J.J. Hickson makes aliyah, as he signs with B'nai Hasharon in Israel, replacing Trevor Booker on the roster.
  • Can you name all the D-League teams? You've got four minutes on the clock. Go.
  • Metta World Peace would like some company. Via his Twitter feed: "It's not a weird question to ask where the fellas at. I can't entertain 100's of ladies alone. My party yesterday was all girls."

Too much Kobe dooms Lakers

December, 1, 2010
By ESPN Stats & Info
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
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.
By D.J. Foster

Chase Budinger is no stranger to being the most athletic guy in the gym. As a top-rated basketball and volleyball prospect in high school, Budinger was loathed by opponents (including your narrator) for being graced with otherworldly athletic ability. The way he could run the floor and soar through the air effortlessly seemed downright unfair, especially from a ground-level perspective.

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images
Is Chase Budinger starting to put it all together?

The playing field in the NBA, of course, is a little more even. Summer league has its quirks, but there are plenty of ridiculously athletic prospects who can jump out of the gym and knock down an open 3 floating around. Budinger fits that billing, but he also has a firm grasp on what it will take for him to rise above the pack. Essentially, Budinger knows he needs to start playing chess instead of checkers.

"You always have to be thinking on the court," Budinger said. "That was probably one of the biggest things I learned right when I got to the NBA. On the defensive end you have to be in the right spot at the right time, because if you're not there then it's going to be tough."

Long gone are the days of players getting by solely on their athletic ability. After a solid yet unspectacular rookie campaign with the Rockets, Budinger came to Vegas, to loosely quote Jackie Chan, more focused on his focus.

"There were games last year where I should have been more aggressive," Budinger said. "In summer league, I had to be more aggressive."

That level of assertiveness often unseen in his rookie season came out in spades on Wednesday as Budinger led all scorers with 24 points on 9-for-14 shooting. The tell-tale play for Budinger came late in the fourth quarter when for a brief moment he seemed to piece it all together.

It started with an impressive display of leaping -- over a crowd of defenders to snatch a defensive rebound. Then came the aggressiveness when he immediately pushed the ball up the middle of the floor. Lastly came a wonderful show of confidence that manifested itself in a fancy around-the-back dribble and gorgeous no-look pass to a streaking Jermaine Taylor for the flush.

You could almost see the light bulb pop over Budinger's bushy head of hair as he ran back up the court. It was the perfect blending of ability and confidence and of body and mind that the Rockets can only hope Budinger can retain going forward.
  • DeMarcus Cousins filled the boxscore with 22 points, including the game-winner, but it's a single technical that's going to raise a few eyebrows in Sacramento. Cousins got mixed up with T-Wolves big man Greg Stiemsma in the first half and earned a quick T from the ref after a little jaw-jackin'. As the Kings went to the tunnel at halftime, assistant coach Mario Elie had some words for Cousins after watching his brush with the Wisconsin big man: "He's trying to get a job, you already have a job. Forget him."
  • Ish Smith is a 5-foot-11 point guard who weighs 155 pounds. In his senior season at Wake Forest, he shot a DeAndre Jordan-esque 49.4 percent from the free throw line while converting on 22.2 percent of his three-point attempts. Can a player like that survive in the NBA? Just maybe. Smith showed impeccable court vision, speed, and playmaking abilities, running the Rockets offense more like a seasoned vet than a prospect. Smith had six assists to just one turnover in 29 minutes and went a long way in showing he's not a completely incompetent scorer by going 7-for-8 from the field.
  • D-League all-star and former Utah Jazz draft pick Morris Almond continues to get buckets wherever he goes. The 25-year old scored 14 points in just 14 minutes for Chicago in their shellacking of the Clippers, showing off impressive range and a good first step in the process. Almond is too selfish for most offensive systems, but a bad team looking for instant points off the bench could do much worse for themselves.
  • The young Clippers can't hit the broad side of a barn right now, scoring just 50 points against the Bulls on 28 percent shooting from the field. Meanwhile, superfan "Clipper Darrell" remained right at 100 percent on his "U-G-L-Y" chants producing laughter from opposing players on the free-throw line.
  • The path for Joey Dorsey has already been paved by Raptors' dirty worker and possible future teammate Reggie Evans. Dorsey is a nasty screen-setter and a banger on the block, but similar to Evans, it's his offensive rebounding that could be his meal ticket on the next level. The big man out of Memphis is averaging nearly five offensive rebounds a game in Vegas through his first three games. Dorsey's solid frame and nasty disposition could lend itself well to a Toronto team short on toughness.
  • The best musical selection of the day by the DJ at the Cox Pavilion? The SpongeBob SquarePants theme song, played in its entirety. Media row was completely baffled.
  • Courtesy of Land O' Lakers, here's David Thorpe on Derrick Caracter: “The guy clearly should have been a first-round pick. A bunch of teams messed up. There’s really no other way of saying it.”
  • John Krolik of Cavs The Blog on J.J. Hickson: "Hickson had one of the most dominant performances of Summer League, putting in 34 points on 12-19 shooting from the field. He's really trying to add new aspects to his game, and the results have been fairly mixed. On one possession, he'll drain a smooth step-back jumper. On the next, he'll walk trying to execute a post move or force an off-balance shot over a waiting defender. What really allowed Hickson to dominate was the Cavs' focus on getting out in the open-court. Fast-break basketball has been the buzzword for the Cavs during this summer, and Hickson really thrives in an up-and-down game. He ran the court all day long, and he was usually rewarded with a pass for an easy dunk or layup, either from the break or the spacing the threat of early offense created. He's so much better as an athlete than most summer league bigs are, and it really shows in the uptempo game."
  • Jeremy Schmidt of Bucksketball on John Lucas: "In 60 career NBA games, Lucas has hit exactly one quarter of his 3-point attempts. But his last NBA game came in 2007. Since then, Lucas has turned himself into quite a shooter, hitting 44 percent of his threes in a 2008-09 D-League stint and then 45 percent last year with the Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese Basketball Association. Lucas was showing off that refined stroke Wednesday night, hitting all six of his 3-point shots en route to 25 points."
  • Joe Gerrity of Hornets247 on J.R. Smith: "Smith surprised the Vegas crowd by not only showing up at the Cox Pavilion, but actually suiting up and playing significant time against the Houston Rockets. Asked why, Smith cited his 'love of the game.' Early on he knocked down a silky smooth three-pointer and a rolled in a sweet reverse-layup in traffic, but that would do it for the Nuggets sixth-man. Despite the lax summer league defense, Smith finished 2-for-12 from the floor (1-for-8 from deep) with four fouls, three turnovers, two rebounds and only a single assist."
  • Surya Fernandez of Hot Hot Hoops on Garret Siler: "With Duke guard Jon Scheyer going home due to an eye injury and most of the starters for the Miami Heat summer league roster taking the day off, there wasn't much to take out of the Heat's game against the Detroit Pistons. Well, maybe there was one 'big' reason to watch: The steady play of 6-foot-11, 304 pound Garret Siler who is raising his game with each opportunity. Over on the Pistons end, center Greg Monroe also had a solid game by getting to the free-throw line regularly. Most impressively, both big men kept their turnovers down while remaining active in the paint -- a rarity in summer league where most bigs try to do too much and commit unforced errors."
  • John Krolik of Cavs The Blog on Christian Eyenga: "Eyenga is invisible for long stretches of play, but he does have his moments. He had an offensive rebound and putback where he just came from out of nowhere, and a crushing fast-break tomahawk that took the air out of the building. He's a ways away from harnessing his talent, but it's there."
  • Kevin Arnovitz on Alonzo Gee: "Never underestimate the power of being the most assertive guy on the floor in a summer league bout. That's how the Spurs' Alonzo Gee was able to dominate the floor in the Hawks-Spurs game. Not only was Gee the focal point of the offense, he was also the guy making sure the 5-man unit was on the same page coming out of a timeout. In transition -- but increasingly in the half court -- Gee can change direction on a dime. Pressuring him out on the perimeter just gives him an invitation to drive. If you play off Gee, he'll bear down, draw contact and finish."

Friday Bullets

February, 12, 2010
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Seven questions for 2010

December, 30, 2009
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
One of the simple ways of experiencing basketball is by talking about it with people who share your love of the game. One of the people I enjoy rapping with is John Krolik of Cavs the Blog and SLAM Online. The best conversations are the ones that produce interesting questions, then aim to answer them. Here are some of those questions about the NBA John and I have been bouncing around in our last couple of conversations:

D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty Images
Combo Plate: A ball-handling scorer ... and a scoring ball-handler.

As guys get freakier and more athletic, are we witnessing an end to positional orthodoxy?
JK: We're definitely seeing a lot of blurring in positional lines, particularly outside of the center position. One thing in particular I like is the rise of the true combo guard. Early in the decade, we got a lot of alleged "combo guards" who were really just superpowered bench gunners given control of teams with mixed results; Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis, et cetera. (Iverson is Iverson.)

But now we're really starting to see effective players who are a cross between the one and the two in a good way, and they're being complimented with other multi-skilled guards rather than going with a strict point guard/shooting guard backcourt. In San Antonio, they put Tony Parker, who's a great scorer for a point, next to Manu, who's a great playmaker for a shooting guard, and things went well. The double-combo backcourt of Mo Williams and Delonte West turned Cleveland's backcourt from a disaster area to a huge strength last season. Even Jason Kidd, the truest of points, is playing with JET and JJ Barea, and has even become adept at knocking down catch-and-shoot 3s off of other people's assists. Phil Jackson's won only 10 championships using an offense that doesn't require a traditional point. And so many young combo guards are coming in with tons of talent: Tyreke Evans, Russell Westbrook, Brandon Jennings and even John Wall, who should definitely be put next to a guy who can pass and shoot when he comes into the league so that he can spend some time in each game going on guilt-free scoring rampages. Wall might be the combo-guard messiah.

KA: This is a beautiful trend because it's created a much more diverse range of basketball styles. Very few teams around the league look alike, even though many of them run much of the same stuff. The fact that so many players can do so many different things on the floor creates an exponentially greater number of things a team can do schematically. On many teams, shots on the floor can be drawn up for almost any player at any spot! Part of this can be attributed to athleticism. One the things that made a power forward or a center a big men was his ability to perform big men tasks -- rebounding, shot-blocking, the ability to routinely get high-percentage shots close to the rim. Today's NBA perimeter players have the athleticism to do a lot of that -- and many of the bigger guys in the league have perimeter skills, as well.

This seems like a nice segue to ...

Do traditional big men have a future?
KA: Whether you chalk it up to the prohibition of hand-checking or the stylings of Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns teams (I'd argue that former rendered the latter), the professional game has undergone a seismic shift over the past decade. Perimeter play has taken over. Today's power forwards have big guard games and two of the top three players in 3-point attempts are 6-foot-10. It's a world gone mad, but you can't complain about the product on the court. The NBA has never been more fun to watch, and we're just getting started...

...or are we?

Trends have a way of feeling permanent while they're being experienced, but they rarely last forever. At some point, laws of macroeconomics take over. Right now, there aren't more than a handful of big men in basketball who have refined post moves and can drain a running right-handed hook with consistency. Teams don't value those attributes as much as speed and 3-point shooting. But as more and more players have the ability to drain 100-200 3-pointers per season at a 40 percent clip, the demand will shift. Kids who arrive on the NBA's doorstep with the ability to dominate the game inside with uncanny efficiency will be shopping skills that few teams will be able to defend.

JK: I'd say the hand-check rules imposed an artificial set of circumstances that forced a change, so I don't think we'll see the pendulum swing all the way back to where it was. But I think guys are finding out that even though big men need to be faster and more skilled than they used to be and can't count on getting minutes just because they can score with their backs to the basket and do nothing else (i.e. Eddy Curry), the post-up game is still a valuable weapon. Look at the Lakers. Andrew Bynum, when he's engaged, defends the rim, gets rebounds and is quick enough to find room and finish off of others, but also posts up. Pau Gasol plays the high-post, runs the floor, gets rebounds, passes beautifully and can knock down the mid-range jumper, but also has a wonderful post game. And of course Kobe can and does do just about anything that's possible for a basketball player to do, but also utilizes the post game.

I'd say that the post-up specialist won't be in vogue again in the foreseeable future, but more and more bigs and wings who can do what's demanded of them in the post hand-check NBA are going to find that the actual post game is still a hugely valuable weapon, especially as fewer and fewer teams know how to defend it.

Of the current young up-and-coming teams, which ones are for real and which ones will provide an entertaining illusion of success?
KA: When sizing up a team's future prospects, the first thing I ask myself is, "Can I imagine this team ranking in the top half of the league defensively?"

Oklahoma City is the quintessential upstart squad. They're fun, charismatic, dynamic, athletic ... and not all that impressive as an offensive unit. It's the Thunder's defense that's led them to a 17-14 record this season. So long as tough, lanky defenders like Russell Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha are patrolling the perimeter (and James Harden too), opponents are going to have a tough time scoring against them. With that Kevin Durant angle pick-and-roll as the anchor of their offense, they're a good bet to win a playoff series sometime soon.

Brandon Jennings has sparked any and all attention the Bucks have received this season, but Milwaukee's frontcourt of Andrew Bogut, Ersan Ilyasova and Luc Mbah a Moute have put up gritty defensive numbers. Mbah a Moute comes as no surprise, but I was shocked by Bogut's stats, until I looked at his figures under Scott Skiles last season -- also really, really good. Once they get a (healthy) shooting guard who can play drive-and-kick off the Jennings-Bogut pick-and-roll, the Bucks could be dangerous under a coach who was booted from his last gig in Chicago after assembling the league's top-ranked defense and the Eastern Conference's 3rd best record the previous season.

Sacramento's lousy defensive numbers don't concern me right now. They strike me as a team that's going to experience a major overhaul over the next 18 months, and a big part of that metamorphosis will be acquiring some pieces around Tyreke Evans who can defend. I have less faith in Memphis, Minnesota, Golden State and, to a slightly lesser extent, Philadelphia, who all have rosters riddled with defensive ciphers.

JK: I think Oklahoma City wins a playoff series when their backcourt clicks into place, and that's close to happening. I love Westbrook's game and think he has a ton of potential, but he just needs to be more disciplined. He pushes the ball, plays great defense, and does all these little things, but then he'll throw up a bad jumper, brick a full-speed reverse layup, or make a silly pass, and his true shooting percentage and turnover rates are way off of where they need to be because of that. It'll be interesting to see if the answer there is Harden maturing to the point where he can play 30-35 minutes a game and cover some of Westbrook's weaknesses with his shooting, playmaking and ability to create off the drive. (Combo guards!) But I think that young frontcourt is the envy of a lot of teams in the league, Sam Presti keeps getting valuable pieces without giving up much, and I'd call the future very bright there.

For Sacramento, the short-term question is how Tyreke is going to work with Kevin Martin. They might cancel each other out or become absolutely unstoppable together, although they might need to do the latter to make up for Martin's suspect defense. But Thompson, Hawes, Casspi, and even Brockman all look like keepers, and Tyreke has given every indication that he can be built around.

In Milwaukee, I think they should be having serious brainstorms on how they can hide Mbah a Moute on offense so they can keep him on the floor longer, maybe even looking for a stretch four so they can put Mbah a Moute closer to the basket offensively and use him like Detroit used Ben Wallace. He's that good defensively.

I agree with you about the rest of the teams, although I give Memphis some upside because I think it's a bit too early to completely give up on Hasheem Thabeet as an impact player defensively; if Orlando could build a defense around Howard and four perimeter guys, there's a chance Memphis can as well. (A chance, mind you.)

What is it about Stan Van Gundy that we like so much?
JK: I think we've got a pretty narrow view of how to evaluate coaches, because we don't see the vast majority of what they do and we're trained to look for their failures and not their successes. Coaches almost exist to be fired, and every time they make a mistake with their play-call or substitution, it'll get talked about the next day.

I think the biggest job of a coach isn't to call timeouts strategically or be a genius with his in game substitutions. (Although both are definitely important, especially the latter.) I think the job of an NBA coach is to set up a system that best utilizes the talents he has available to him, and that's where Stan Van Gundy comes in, especially last season. Of his five starters, he had three guys with below-average defensive reputations, Dwight Howard, and a rookie.

Instead of trying to have everyone play straight-up or stick Rashard Lewis at the three, he evaluated what he had -- the best shot-blocker in the league and more quickness on the perimeter than most other teams had. So he stuck Lewis at the 4 and never looked back, and built a defense around running other teams off threes and keeping Howard at home under the basket. What happened? The Magic gave up the second fewest made baskets at the rim, the second fewest made 3s per game, and more shots from 10-15 feet and 16-23 feet than any other team in the league. They also had one of the league's three best defenses in terms of efficiency.

Offensively, he had Dwight Howard, who can catch and finish with the best of them but isn't a great post player, more shooting and playmaking at the forward spots than most anyone, and a bunch of guys who can shoot threes. So he had Howard look for catches at the rim, ran 3/4 screen-rolls, and had his players shoot a bunch of threes rather than try to do what everyone else was doing. Van Gundy's failures last season were there for the world to see, but what he did extremely well was more subtle.

KA: I like his press conferences, too. The irony of Van Gundy is that popular perception sometimes paints him as inflexible. But as you said, no coach sculpted a more sensible system for his personnel last season than Van Gundy. He did a full appraisal of his talent, saw where he had edges over his opponents at each position (ballhanding at the 3, shooting at the 4, mobility at the 5) and designed his offense to exploit those advantages.

This isn't to say there's anything wrong with building an elite team by first implementing the system, then by populating that system with players whose talents most conform to it. Whatever works, by all means. Just win. But the ability to create a system around a disparate collection of talent that was brought together randomly is in many ways even more impressive.

Should LeBron James be playing more power forward?
KA: Despite James’ size, strength and efficiency on the glass, Mike Brown has him firmly situated at the small forward slot. In fact, you have to go pretty far down the list of Cleveland’s 5-man lineups to find units in which James is playing power forward. But in the six lineups that feature James surrounded by one traditional big man and three smaller players for at least 10 minutes, the Cavs outscore their opponents 96-83 (prorated for 48 minutes).

Those numbers are enough for me, but let’s think about it in practical terms. We’ve already discussed how positional dogma is a thing of the past in an NBA that’s much smaller than it was 10 years ago. When thinking about how to best maximize LeBron in the half-court, wouldn't you prefer that he drag a bigger defender out to him in order to create more space on the floor for your offense? And defensively, wouldn’t a team like Cleveland, whose primary weakness has been its plodding frontcourt, be better served by having LeBron cover Rashard Lewis on Orlando’s pick-and-pop or Boston’s bigs on the Celtics’ rotating screen-and-rolls? Doesn’t it make more sense to challenge Stan Van Gundy and Doc Rivers to match up with a more athletic lineup? And wouldn’t Cleveland benefit from more transition opportunities?

Would team rebounding suffer? When you look at those aforementioned six lineups with LeBron at the 4, the answer is no. Apart from the political stickiness of limiting the minutes of the Cavs' veteran big men, I have trouble seeing how making the Cavs a more athletic team around LeBron comes with much downside.

JK: The short answer is that I'm extremely confused as to why LeBron doesn't get more time at the 4 position, at least for around 10 minutes of his time on the floor. I understand some of the reasoning behind not giving him significant minutes down there. The Cavs show hard on every perimeter screen, which would require LeBron expending more energy on the defensive end than the Cavs are comfortable with, especially in the first three quarters. And of course, the Cavs don't want LeBron in foul trouble under any circumstances. And generally speaking, the Cavs' big men are better players than Jamario Moon, who typically plays the 3 in the Cavs' small-ball lineup. But LeBron getting the ball in the 10-15 foot range and making his move from down there is absolutely deadly, and that small-ball lineup should definitely be something used more often to keep opposing teams on their toes.

What confuses me more than anything is that while the Shaq/Varejao frontcourt has some offensive issues and the Shaq/Hickson frontcourt has some serious defensive issues, a Shaq/LeBron frontcourt hasn't been tried at all this season, and I mean at all. I suppose the reasoning is that LeBron would be forced to expend way too much energy on the perimeter defensively as Shaq sags to the paint on pick-and-rolls (LeBron's never gotten minutes at the four alongside Z either), but with the Cavs supposedly looking for a "stretch 4" at the deadline to make life easier for Shaq, it's odd that they haven't at least tried using LeBron in that role.

Danny Bollinger/NBAE/Getty Images
There are nights when the Mavericks look deadly serious.

How Real is Dallas?
KA: Little known fact: Of the 50 5-man units that have played together the most this season, two of the top three in overall efficiency belong to the Dallas Mavericks. Whether it's Jason Terry or J.J. Barea at the shooting guard, the Mavs' big names are absolutely crushing their opponents on both ends of the floor. Dallas is a Top 5 defensive squad and features one of the game's great shotmakers in Dirk Nowitzki. They also have tremendous flexibility to match up with opponents on either end. They can play old-school or new-school. Want to tease the Mavs with small ball? That's fine, because they're perfectly good going with three guards and moving Shawn Marion and Nowitzki into the frontcourt. Want to try to outmuscle them? Erick Dampier may have an outsized contract, but he's also one of the better basket protectors and garbage collectors in the league. Opponents shoot a measly 57.4 percent at the rim against the Mavs -- only Boston, Cleveland and San Antonio are better.

More than anything, the Mavs strike me as a team composed of professionals. These are serious basketball players led by a serious coach. Is it possible that a squad with so many thirtysomethings breaks down physically over the course of an 82-game season? Perhaps. But where some see brittleness, I see experience. In fact, I see shades of the best San Antonio Spurs squads. I see a team that truly understands its collective talents and limitations and puts a premium on execution.

Can they compete with the Lakers in late May? I'm not sure anyone in the Western Conference can, but Dallas -- with its length, smarts, and perimeter prowess -- might just be the toughest competition the Lakers encounter.

JK: Dallas has a ton of talent, Dirk is right up there with the best players in the league, and the team defends. My caveat would be that they're thinner than people think, and much more dependent on Dirk. As of December 26th, Dallas was +11.6 points per 100 possessions with Dirk on the floor and a stunning -16.5 points per 100 with Dirk on the bench. As bad as LeBron and Kobe's benches are, their teams are only -8 when they sit, to offer some perspective.

A lot of that has to do with Drew Gooden; Gooden's plus-minus is -23.1, and as someone who's watched a good deal of Gooden in his life, I can tell you that's not random noise. Drew Gooden is the anti-Battier. I'm also not a huge J.J. Barea fan. He's fun to watch and works fairly well with Kidd offensively, but I believe you were the one who said he plays defense "like a man frantically searching for his car keys," and the plus-minus numbers support the theory that Barea's somewhat of a defensive liability. Dallas can play with anyone, especially when Dirk's on the floor, and if they do something to get a better backup for Dirk than Gooden and hide Barea's defense a little better (maybe play more Beaubois, who's gone through growing pains and will probably continue to do so, but has lockdown defensive potential), I'd call them a true force to be reckoned with in the West. If not, I'd say they have a solid puncher's chance of knocking the Lakers off their Western Conference throne.

How do we begin to make sense of adjusted plus-minus?
JK: Outside of the obvious conclusion, which is "no one stat or metric, no matter how advanced or intricate, is ever going to come close to saying everything about one player," I have two thoughts on adjusted plus-minus.

The first is that I get how the basic +/- you see in box scores and's version of plus-minus work, but I still don't totally understand how advanced plus-minus works, and that's a problem. I mean, I get the theory, that it adjusts for having good or bad teammates or playing against good and bad opponents, but how exactly does it define "good" and "bad"? Is "good" based on the other guy's adjusted plus-minus, or is the value of others derived from something like Player Efficiency Rating? Aren't both approaches problematic? Right now, adjusted plus-minus is sort of "He's good. Trust me," which I have trouble swallowing as a fan and certainly can't use to convince friends or readers of a guy's value.

The second problem is one that will get fixed over time, which is that we still don't really know how to read plus-minus type stats yet. We know with a stat like field goal percentage that a shooting guard is going to have a lower field goal percentage than a center, but we also know that the guard is probably shooting more 3s, shooting his free throws better and taking tougher shots than the center. We know how to read that stat.

But because plus-minus is one number and so nebulous, we don't know which plus-minus numbers to take with a grain of salt and which ones not to. I'll bring up the semi-infamous Durant example here. Durant had terrible +/- ratings for his first two seasons, but has been incredible in year three. Was the Durant phenomenon ever even real, or did Durant actually improve this year in ways the stats didn't see? If we want plus-minus metrics to be as legitimate as the box score ones, we have to stress-test it like we have the conventional numbers that came before them.

KA: I'm drawn to adjusted plus-minus because I'm desperate to find any metric that will approximate a player's defensive value, something we just don't have the tools to do right now. I'm more faithful than I probably should be given the lack of stress tests you talk about. Your point is well-taken and I'd add that stats like these are only valuable to the extent that they're predictive. There will always be players who make colossal jumps or experience unusual crashes in productivity, but apart from outliers, a stat must be dependable enough to offer a clear -- if general -- estimation of what that player is worth in the past, present and likely future. I've begun to spend more time examining the adjusted plus-minus numbers of 5-man units rather than individuals, in part because it seems more practical.

I suspect we'll know a lot more in three to five years than we do now. The metric's practitioners (and the people who trust them) will have a better sense of where the numbers skews, what those number might miss and the kind of noise those numbers create. In the meantime, I'll continue to watch the 2-year figures (and eventually 3-year, and 4-year). Any system that values Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant as the five best players in the NBA has to be on to something, right?

While the cellar-dwellers prepare their draft board, the NBA's elite have some tough calls to make. Will the Lakers pony up for Lamar Odom? Is Hedo Turkoglu worth exceeding the cap for? And the Cavs confront the reality that they're a couple of rotation players away from Eastern supremacy. 

Lamar OdomDarius Soriano of Forum Blue & Gold: "We're at the point where [Lamar] Odom's true value to this team is no longer a mystery. When you talk X's and O's, he's the player that makes our strong side zone work as he provides the mobility and length to move from one side of the court to the other, pick up flashing big men, guard perimeter players, trap the ball handler, and still recover to the paint to rebound. He's the player that helps create our tremendous offensive spacing - playing as a PF that can initiate the offense, play on the perimeter (and be effective with the jumper or the drive), find creases in defenses to take advantage of the double teams that Kobe and [Pau] Gasol face, and also play in isolation from any position on the court (wing, top of the key, low block, elbow, etc). And when you talk team building and chemistry, he's also a real leader for the Lakers. Many will point to Kobe [Bryant] or [Derek] Fisher as our leaders - and rightfully so - but it's Odom that has been the stabilizer for our squad. He's been the bridge between our first and second units, the guy that organizes team dinners and brings in a chef for training camp, the guy that is in the middle of the huddle motivating and inspriring our guys for the battle ahead, and the guy whose lighthearted nature and devotion to the team keeps the locker room loose. We need this player."

Hedo TurkogluZach McCann of Orlando Magic Daily: "[T]o other teams, is [Hedo] Turkoglu really worth close to eight figures? John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Rating isn't perfect, but it's probably the best method we have of comparing players. Turkoglu's PER this season was less than Travis Outlaw, Marvin Williams, Grant Hill, Rudy Gay, Anthony Randolph and Richard Jefferson. And PER often punishes player who are shut-down defenders - something Turkoglu is not. We all know the intangibles of Hedo Turkoglu - his ball-handling skills, his abilities to create mismatches, his knack for shooting well in the clutch - are why he's so valuable to the Orlando Magic. But it can't be ignored how much Turkoglu fell off from last season to this season ... It's not like 30-year-old players regularly bounce back after down years. It's hard to imagine the Magic, or any team, think Turkoglu's career year of 2007-08 is the norm. The Turkoglu we saw this season is likely what most people expect out of Turkoglu going forward. Is 16-5-5 with a poor shooting percentage worth $10 million?"

Varejao and HicksonJohn Krolik of Cavs the Blog: "A rotation big is hard to find. Really hard to find. And even if Andy [Varejao] comes back, this team, as Ben Wallace's corpse made clear in the ECF, is having trouble filling those minutes, especially considering Joe Smith seemed to be out of the playoff rotation. JJ Hickson is a great prospect, but even he has serious question marks at the defensive ends. The good news: LeBron James can give you 15 absolutely unbelievable minutes at the 4 on a nightly basis. The numbers were eye-popping ... this season when he played at the 4: A PER of 38, 39/11/8.5, and 2 blocks per 48 minutes, a higher net +/- per 48 minutes than his minutes at small forward, and he holds his man to less than a league-average PER defensively. And this is all with Wally [Szczerbiak] holding down the three spot and essentially doing nothing and getting exploited defensively. In the playoffs, Wally was simply too much of a liability. With a true rotation-quality swingman, the Cavs could take advantage of LeBron's ability at the four without leaving a hole, and it's much, much, much easier to get a rotation-quality swingman than a rotation-quality power forward."

Truth About It: The quotable Flip Saunders.
Celtics Hub: The Big Green honor the king of green.
Roundball Mining Company: The latest export to Asia? The Denver Nuggets.

(Photos by Noah Graham, Jesse D. Garrabrant, Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Everyone Buddy Up

April, 2, 2009

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How is Josh Howard like global warming? How is Devin Harris like a Béla Lugosi flick? How is J.J. Hickson like Joe Smith? You'll find the answers, like it or not, at the TrueHoop Network:

Josh HowardRob Mahoney of The Two Man Game: "On the court, Josh Howard lives and dies by his emotions.  That much is certain.  His highest peaks are brimming with confidence and joy, and his lowest valleys are shadowed by self-doubt and disinterest.  It's an influence that goes beyond momentum; Howard's emotions inevitably force him into a series of positive feedback loops, self-sustaining spirals that intensify and reinforce themselves over time...

His early career was characterized by nightly demonstrations of athleticism, hustle, and energy, a culmination of the rage of a man denied what he deemed rightfully his: a spot in the 2003 Draft lottery.  It should come as no surprise that Howard's determined play earned him consistent minutes and a concrete role on the team, which only fueled his confidence and provided him a bigger soapbox to voice the world's transgressions against him.  Howard thrived and, in turn, the Mavericks thrived.

Of course, that couldn't last forever.  Howard had earned a reputation as a premier defender, but that status faded as he became more of an offensive threat.  Defense is the work of peasants, and obviously something that emerging stars simply cannot be bothered with.  Next came the jumpshots: Crossover pull-ups, turnaround fadeaways, and contested jumpers in transition.  Becoming an All-Star talent meant taking All-Star shots, degree of difficulty be damned.  Lovely.

All of that was manageable, but then a mini-slump was amplified by the death of Josh Howard's mentor/father-figure and college coach at Wake Forest, Skip Prosser, his god-grandmother, and his great-grandmother.  Then, with the grieving Howard at his most vulnerable, the Mavs traded his closest friend on the team (Devin Harris) to the New Jersey Nets.  So much for support structure.

The 2008 calendar year was about injuries and bad press for Howard.  His on-court troubles were trumped by his inability to keep his name out of the headlines, but injuries hobbled the Mavericks' 'most important player' and rendered him almost completely ineffective as he struggled to return to form.

Enter 2009, where a rejuvenated Josh Howard is finally finding himself.  Howard's recovery from his various ailments still had Howard tentative in his approach, an issue that wasn't resolved until…the Mavericks brought on Darrell Armstrong as an assistant coach.  Does it make a lot of sense?  No, not really, but maybe all Howard needed was a familiar face and veteran influence to adjust his basketball compass...

It's strange that Howard's rise and fall are due to events that have very little to do with basketball: His own reputation, deaths to those closest to him, the distancing of a good friend, and reuniting with an old mentor.  Upon further inspection, though, should it really surprise us that an emotional, sensitive, and aware player is so affected by events outside his control?"

Tim DuncanTimothy Varner of 48 Minutes of Hell: "Duncan is out of tonight's contest with right quad tendonosis...This is the sort of injury that requires time to heal. Duncan and the Spurs are not helped by rushing him back. They need to give him as much time as he needs to get back to full strength, a difficult task this time of year.  But rest and relaxation may only go so far. One cannot turn back the clock just by spending a week on the dole...

Tim Duncan is getting old. This is a degenerative wear and tear injury. This is something his body is not able to make right.

Couple this with Manu's ankle struggles this season and the Spurs have yet more incentive to get on with the youth movement. They've added a few younger pieces this year, and they would do well to go into the offseason with a mind toward adding one or two more young bodies. In addition to getting younger, I prefer Popovich's minutes management program, up to and including letting his stars forego the rigors of back to back contests.  Let the league whine. The games don't count until May and June, anyway."

Devin Harris

Matt McHale of By the Horns: "[T]his loss was like watching one of those cheesy 1930s era horror movies where the monster keeps coming back to life over and over. Only in those flicks, a scientist either figured out the monster's fatal weakness or a mob of angry villagers burned down the mansion/laboratory/windmill it was hiding in. But Vinny doesn't do science and the Bulls players were all out of pitchforks and torches, so [Devin] Harris had his way during the Fourth Quarter of Doom...

And if I sound even remotely bitter, it's because I am. Harris was burning Derrick Rose, so Vinny Del Negro resorted to what's become his favorite 'trick' as of late: He benched Derrick for the final 4:52 of the fourth quarter. Before hitting the pine, Rose had attempted only one shot in the quarter. Vinny, of course, wanted to put a better defender on the court. But here's the problem: Devin scored 9 points while Derrick was in and then 10 points after Vinny replaced him with Kirk Hinrich."

Hoopinion & Roundball Mining Company: Two savvy perspectives on last night's Hawks-Nuggets game.
Celtics Hub: Is there such a thing as a "fair" trade involving an NBA superstar?
Cavs the Blog: J.J. Hickson will be a contributor down the stretch.  

(Photos by Kent Horner, Rocky Widner, Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)