TrueHoop: Jeff Bower
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Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton are some of the most productive lower draft picks ever. Do they get playing time because they're so productive, or are they so productive because they get playing time?
As I've mentioned, I've been stepping up my Twitter game, for better or worse.
Honestly, I'm digging it. It's a place where smart people debate hoops around the clock. It reminds me a little of the early days of the TrueHoop comments, when the vibe was a little like the bar scene in "Cheers." (Sometimes these days, the commenting vibe all over the web is a tad more "Rambo.")
But last night, for the first time in the last several-hundred tweets, I really chafed at that 140-character limit. Basically, I couldn't figure out how to make my point that quickly without acting like a jerk.
Thankfully, ink is free on TrueHoop and now I can explain a little better.
Zach Lowe (he of CelticsHub fame) wrote a great story for The New York Times' blog making a case that, relative to draft position, the Hornets' rookies Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton are among the most productive picks ever.
The Times' Howard Beck tweeted about that, and my initial response, by Twitter, however, was that those guys have something amazing that most lower picks do not: A coach who is really motivated to make them look good. After Byron Scott was fired, Jeff Bower became not just the guy who picked those players, but also the one who hands out the playing time. That's a powerful combination.
Now, let me be clear: the players have done the work, and earned all that time. Collison and Thornton have earned everything they have -- any team would love to have those guys. What's impossible to say is how many other players picked late in the draft have also done that work and would also be fantastic with the kind of coach's support, and minutes, that those two enjoy. They got an opportunity a lot of players don't get, especially those drafted outside the lottery.
Lowe is right to call them some of the most productive rookies drafted that late. But a wholly different thing is to call them the best players drafted that late, because without a coach's support and playing time, it's almost impossible to tell what most late-drafted players would have done.
Beck replied that he thinks, by and large, players get the playing time they deserve. It seems like a pretty simple thing, though, really. Players who produce get time, and players who don't produce sit. Some other tweeters jumped in and pretty much accused me of disrespecting those Hornet rookies, which is the last thing I'd want to do.
If I agreed with Beck's assertion, though, this is something I'd be able to discuss meaningfully in 140 characters.
But player development experts I've talked to at length are unanimous that one of the best things one can possibly do to help a rookie's career is to bless him with the confidence of a supportive coaching staff and minutes to get used to the NBA game -- and very few players get that. Just a week ago an elite player development coach told me that every single player in the NBA can play, and it's really just a matter of opportunities and coaching and the team.
David Thorpe has been making similar points for years. He talks all the time about "the royal jelly." Literally, that's what worker bees feed a chosen baby bee to make her the queen. But it's also, says Thorpe, what coaches and others can feed players to help them achieve their potential. A lot of it has to do with building confidence. Throughout his career, Thorpe has been accused of hyping up his players up and giving them big heads, to which he replies, jokingly, "guilty!" Thorpe is convinced that "the royal jelly" can and has fundamentally changed the careers of countless players. The gold standard of helping a player evolve, he says, starts with playing time.
"Playing time is the first part," says Thorpe. "A coach's support is another thing -- it helps you grow as a player if you know you're not going to get yanked the first time you miss a shot. That gives you the confidence to be creative and expand your game. And then the final aspect of the ideal set-up is coaching you up on the new things you're adding to your game. A great recent example of this was Trevor Ariza with the Lakers last season. In the spring, everyone was wondering why they'd let him shoot all those 3s. It wasn't productive. But they needed him to be able to do that, they let him do that, they didn't yank him for doing that, and they coached him how to do that better. And in the playoffs he was amazing at that and helped them win a championship."
So here are the Hornets: In the starting backcourt are two rookie guards. One was taken 21st in the draft, the other 43rd. Both had enough perceived weaknesses and faults that more than half the teams in the league passed on them. There were seven point guards taken in front of Darren Collison (nine if you include Tyreke Evans and Stephen Curry as PGs). There were twelve shooting guards taken in front of Marcus Thornton. The expectations for them were not high.
The results have said otherwise. Despite all the perceived weaknesses, the two of them have formed one of the best drafts any team can claim. As starters, they have combined for 32.9 points on 25.8 shots (1.28 points per shot), 8.2 assists, and 7.7 rebounds a game. That's comparable, or better, than a good 75% of the backcourts in the rest of the league.
Jeff Bower the coach must be pining for Paul to return. Bower the general manager, however, must love seeing those rookies perform.
Over the season's opening five weeks, two NBA coaches have been fired. On both occasions, the teams' general managers have been called upon to fill the vacancies. First, Hornets GM Jeff Bower took the reins in New Orleans after Byron Scott was let go, and now Nets GM Kiki Vandeweghe will patrol the sidelines for New Jersey beginning with Friday night's game in East Rutherford against Charlotte.
According to Dave D'Alessandro, assuming coaching duties wasn't Vandeweghe's idea:
The 51-year-old Vandeweghe has never been a coach, and team officials who are not authorized to speak for the Nets say he was initially reluctant to take the job. But Thorn mandated that Vandeweghe occupy that role, if only because his imprint on the roster is indelible, as he is especially close to Devin Harris, Yi Jianlian and Courtney Lee – the three young players acquired for Kidd, Jefferson and Carter.
Back when policy-makers were behind closed door debating the implications of the war in Iraq, Colin Powell reportedly referenced a Tom Friedman column, citing the "Pottery Barn rule" as a basis for some of his private skepticism about the war:
"You break it, you own it."
Down in New Orleans, Hornets president Hugh Weber implicitly evoked the Pottery Barn Rule at his press conference introducing Bower a few weeks ago:
Through the summer we programmed what that change needed to be to execute at an elite level. We went out and found the players we felt would help us compete an elite level. And yet the team is broken...
Stepping into [the role of head coach] is Jeff Bower. And why Jeff is the right person, right now are twofold: One, not only is he a talented developer of talent, a coach, a tactician, but he's also the one who's the architect for this team. If you want to talk about accountability, and you want to talk about being held accountable to get results that this team was built to get, nobody wants it more than Jeff. He has built this team in a manner of assembling players, not only for their style of play, but for their principles and character. And for us, to have an immediate impact this season, we felt a change of someone who's been involved with the process the entire time, who's worked arm in arm with the coaching staff, who understands these players and their needs was the right choice...
I told Jeff the genie is out of the bottle. Nobody can say he didn't have the right players. Jeff has hand-selected this team and we like the idea that now Jeff will be held accountable for the results.
The Hornets stated that Bower doesn't wear the interim label, which made him the second head coaches in the league to have official dual GM/head coach roles (Mike Dunleavy of the Clippers is the other). Vandeweghe is currently being regarded as an interim coach, but in the meantime, he'll become the third official hybrid, and fourth if you count Gregg Popovich, who has decision-making authority in San Antonio.
At a time when NBA teams are stressed financially, it's cheaper to shop in-house for a replacement. But a tough economic climate also prompts corporations to squeeze higher productivity and accountability from their workers. When you listen to Weber and the reports out of New Jersey, it's clear that team executives are demanding that those who've been toting around the shopping baskets take direct ownership of what's inside.
NBA training camps are still a few weeks away, but rosters around the league are gradually taking shape. Once David Lee, Allen Iverson and Ramon Sessions have jobs, we'll be ready to go.
The favorites in each conference are easy to spot -- they bear a striking resemblance to the teams that were playing on Memorial Day weekend. But which teams are lurking beneath the surface, ready to assume the role of improbable contender?
If they can avoid the injury bug, and the chemistry works just right, here are three teams that could emerge as success stories come spring:
It's easy to forget just how dominant the Dallas Mavericks were when they took the floor against the eighth-seeded Warriors on a Sunday evening in April 2007. This was the last game of the postseason's opening weekend, a perfunctory item of business for the Mavs en route to a conference finals matchup against the Suns or the Spurs.
|Can this pair inflict serious damage in a brutal Western Conference? (Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images)|
Dallas was one year removed from an NBA Finals appearance, and had just piled up 67 wins in the regular season. Only five teams in NBA history had recorded more Ws in a single season. Dirk Nowitzki was the presumptive MVP (and would go on to win the award).
The Mavs' epic collapse in that first-round series against the Warriors has been well-documented, and over the next two seasons, Dallas would descend from its perch into the Western Conference's upper-middle class.
What's interesting about that falloff is how many of the elements of that Mavs team remain intact today -- to say nothing of the quality pieces that have been added since. 67 wins isn't ancient history; we're talking two seasons ago.
Dirk Nowitzki, at 31, is the same age as Kobe Bryant. While Nowitzki is unlikely to reproduce his 2006-07 exploits, he remains one of the league's best players. Jason Terry has been a model of consistency for Dallas and had arguably the most efficient season of his career as the Mavs' super sub in 2008-09. Josh Howard is only 29. When healthy, he's still one of the more flexible swingmen in the game and a lockdown defender. In 2006-07, J.J. Barea logged fewer than 200 minutes, but he's become a spark plug for the Mavs' quality second unit ever since.
With Jason Kidd settling nicely into the role of veteran facilitator (and surprisingly efficient shooter), the franchise doubled down on the bet that its solid core could maximize what's left of Nowitzki's prime. The Mavs landed Shawn Marion.
Like Howard, Marion is versatile, freakish, and mercurial. Defensively, he can stay in front of speedy point guards, bother face-up power forwards, chase spot-up shooters, and clean up on the boards. Offensively, Marion's downward trajectory the past season and a half began the moment he left Phoenix. Coincidence -- or evidence that his talents demand the care of a veteran, pass-first point guard?
When you consider those assets, then throw in sensible additions like Drew Gooden and Kris Humphries to bolster Erick Dampier on the block, defensive stopper Quinton Ross, and a pair of intriguing rookies, and the Mavs appear ... stacked.
There is no shortage of nightmarish scenarios by which Dallas' gamble can implode. Nowitzki, Kidd, Marion, Terry, and Dampier are all on the wrong side of 30. Howard is accustomed to missing about 15 games a year, and being less than 100 percent for long stretches. The Mavs' best offensive lineup (Kidd-Terry-Howard-Marion-Nowitzki) won't give them much interior defense, and the loss of Brandon Bass makes them a less energetic bunch.
But with Kidd at the point, and a roster of flexible guys who can each serve multiple functions on the floor, Dallas has the potential to develop into a grizzled, selfless squad with the kind of mental edge that just might have been the missing ingredient 28 months ago.
How much should we read into Chicago's classic seven-game series against Boston? Was the Bulls' gutsy performance a harbinger of things to come, or was it lightning in a bottle? Did they graduate into a team that knows how to scramble defenses with a legitimate pick-and-roll game, or were they just lucky to encounter a crippled Celtics team ill-suited to deal with their quickness and athleticism?
Those aren't the only imperative questions for Chicago. Even if we conclude that they came of age in April, is it fair to expect them to continue their progress without their top scorer, Ben Gordon, whom they lost to Detroit?
Short answer: Yes.
Although there will be nights when Gordon's fearlessness as a sniper will be missed, the Bulls might be better served long-term by the three-guard rotation of Derrick Rose, Kirk Hinrich, and John Salmons. With Gordon out of the picture, Rose can assert himself both as distributor and scorer. He's a transcendent young point guard, and one that should flourish now that his running mates in the backcourt are a little more pliable.
| Derrick Rose: Season Two
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Both Rose and Hinrich are expert ballhandlers -- and Hinrich is very comfortable off the ball as well. Salmons, along with Hinrich, is capable of defending all three perimeter positions, can score on pin-downs, slash to the rack, and fire from 3-point range (41.7 percent).
There are good reasons sleepers are sleepers, and the caveats for Chicago reside in its frontcourt. Start at small forward, where Luol Deng will be returning from a stress fracture in his right leg. He last played in a game on February 28. When 100 percent, Deng is a rangy, athletic force in transition and in the halfcourt, where his height and handle give him a big advantage over most defenders at the small forward. When Deng is on his game, he's also the correct answer to the question, "Who's going to make up for Ben Gordon's 20.7 points per game?"
There's a reason why any time a marquee big man comes on the market, he's rumored to be headed to Chicago. But desperate as the Bulls are for help on a threat on the block, we saw something interesting down the stretch last season. Rather than resign themselves to their lack of post scoring, the Bulls began to use Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas in pick and roll schemes, where their agility allowed them to beat their defenders to the rim. So long as Thomas resisted launching jump shots, it worked.
Noah doesn't have the jumper to be a high-post center (like backup Brad Miller), but his passing and mobility around the hoop might be enough in Chicago's offense. Thomas, of course, is the wild card. A composite of his finest moments last season would show him as a defensive ace, capable of creating opportunities for himself off the dribble, hitting a face-up jumper, and blocking any shot in medium proximity.
If that highlight reel can become a reality, if Deng can bounce back, and if Rose can continue his co
urse as one of the game's best young playmakers, the Bulls might turn their novelty act from last spring into a long-run production in 2010.
New Orleans Hornets
Here's one you can play by the pool:
Name the best starting power forward/center tandems in the NBA.
You could begin with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. After the Lakers' duo, there's only one other pair of starters who each recorded a player efficiency rating greater than 18:
David West and Emeka Okafor.
|For Emeka Okafor, playing alongside Chris Paul will be more pleasant than playing against him. (Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images)|
After playing in relative obscurity with Charlotte over the past five seasons, Okafor moves to New Orleans, where he'll fill Tyson Chandler's spot at center for the Hornets. Chandler was a sentimental favorite in New Orleans -- both of the fan base in the Crescent City and his teammates. The Chris Paul to Tyson Chandler alley-oop was one of the NBA's signature highlight reel snippets.
Okafor may not be an elite center, but he's a very, very good big man and a more complete player than Chandler. For an extensive look at New Orleans' upgrade, take a look at John Hollinger's must-read comparison of Okafor and Chandler.
One of the most productive frontcourt tandems in the league and arguably the best point guard on the planet: That's a pretty nice place to start a season, don't you think?
Paul, West, and Okafor might not warrant a "Big Three" designation, but we can agree that they qualify as some sort of troika -- particularly in a scheme that's as dependent on the pick-and-roll as the Hornets offense.
Unfortunately for New Orleans, the NBA game demands that its best teams field a couple of guys on the wing who can create and/or defend -- preferably both -- and this is where the Hornets have depth problems.
As a catch-and-shoot artist, Peja Stojakovic is about as good as we've seen over the past decade, but he's coming off his worst season since the Clinton administration and is increasingly having trouble staying healthy. The Hornets signed James Posey a season ago to play the same role in New Orleans that he did in the Celtics' 2008 championship run -- defensive and 3-point specialist. Posey is good for 25 minutes per night in that capacity, but not dynamic enough to play much more. Morris Peterson was once thought to be a solution on the wing, but injury and age have slowed him. Those three guys -- each born in 1977 -- won't get them the 96 minutes per night they need from the off-guard and small forward.
The Hornets don't need All-Stars at the wings, but they must get solid production. Enter enigmatic, third-year forward Julian Wright.
Whereas the Hornets' aforementioned veterans have trouble doing much more offensively than spot up and shoot, Wright -- on his better nights -- can do everything but shoot. Though he was a menace defensively for the Hornets -- the team was about five points stingier with him on the court -- Wright took a step back last season offensively. The gifts are apparent, but there's still a lot of refinement needed, both mechanically and mentally.
The elasticity of the Hornets' win total isn't all on Wright and the health of the vets. If Summer League is any indication (that's a much longer conversation, isn't it?), New Orleans scored with its selection of guards Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton in the draft. And forward Ike Diogu was a savvy pickup on the cheap, as well.
One summer ago, the Hornets were being sized up as contenders after a spirited playoff run. This summer, much of the discussion surrounding the team has included the phrase "luxury tax threshold." While general manager Jeff Bower was attending to the spreadsheet, it's possible he constructed a team poised to surprise next season.
In the course of a month, the NBA champion Boston Celtics have somehow emerged as gritty underdogs. The Magic has that look of the mid-80's Pistons -- a good team that hasn't yet learned how to win. The Lakers stomped on the Rockets and, for a night, answered questions about their resolve. And D.J. Augustin turned "undersized" into an asset.
Zach Lowe of Celtics Hub: "The Celtics had to essentially play perfect basketball for nearly six minutes to avoid going on the road down 3-2, and they did it ... Orlando missed six shots and turned the ball over once. Boston made field goals on five of seven possessions and did not turn the ball over. Seven empty trips for one team. Scores on five of seven trips for the other. That is damn near perfect basketball, and the Celtics needed every one of those individual events to go their way in order to win this game. They also needed to make all 21 of their free throws, for the refs to award Ray Allen a three-pointer in the first half when it appeared as if his left foot was on the line, and for two terrible offensive possessions in the last minute (and the C's up 86-85) to end with shots that barely touched the rim and thus produced rebounds that didn't fall where they normally would have -- where Magic players would have scooped them up. They got all of it, and the Celtics are going to Orlando with a chance to be one of the last four NBA teams playing basketball this season."
Zach McCann of Orlando Magic Daily: "If you called this the most devastating loss in Orlando Magic history, I wouldn't argue with you. If the Magic lose one of the next two games, this meltdown will go down with Nick Anderson's missed free throws, Shaq's departure and Fran Vazquez as some of the worst memories in the history of this franchise ... With your team up by 10 points in the final minutes of a crucial Game 5, how can you completely abandon everything that's been working all game? The Magic went scoreless on eight consecutive possessions, at a time when just ONE basket probably puts the game away. I understand Dwight Howard can't figure out Kendrick Perkins in the post, but he deserves to be completely ignored? Rashard Lewis was consistently scoring in the first half by attacking the hoop, so the Magic use him as a spot-up shooter down the home stretch? And how many times can we run a Hedo Turkoglu pick-and-roll to the right with everyone else standing around? The Magic played stall-ball, slowing down their offense and hoped there wasn't enough time for Boston to come back. Now, tell me -- when has this plan ever worked? That's how teams squander leads; they stop playing the way that built their lead to begin with."
Anup Shah of Rockets Buzz: "For a brief moment, four minutes to be precise, I thought the Rockets had a chance to win this game. Through those first four minutes, the Rockets ran an efficient offense, grabbed offensive boards, and didn't commit a single turnover. And then Kobe Bryant made his first shot. A seven point lead quickly evaporated into an 11 point deficit at the end of the first quarter, capped off by Jordan Farmar's ridiculous three-pointer at the end of the period. The Lakers didn't look back from there. They led by 25 at halftime and by 40 at the end of the third quarter. My thoughts at the beginning of the fourth immediately went to the Nuggets trampling of the Hornets a couple of weeks ago. For a split second, I thought that record might be broken ... For the last 48 hours, all people have been able to talk about was how the Lakers blew it, how they got lazy, how they just stopped trying. And Kobe Bryant wasn't going to let that slide."
THE FINAL WORD
Queen City Hoops: D.J. Augustin -- winning point guard.
Hornets247: Evaluating New Orleans GM Jeff Bower.
By the Horns: Fun with nicknames.
(Photos by Brian Babineau, Stephen Dunn/NBAE via Getty Images)