TrueHoop: Joakim Noah

Who is the NBA MVP?

March, 24, 2014
Mar 24
10:22
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
Amin Elhassan gives us his early top-five ballot for the NBA's MVP.

Joakim Noah for MVP?

March, 13, 2014
Mar 13
1:45
PM ET
Elhassan By Amin Elhassan
ESPN.com
Archive
Who is in third in the race for MVP? According to Ethan Sherwood Strauss, it's most certainly not Bulls big man Joakim Noah.

Unbroken Bull

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
12:26
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Joakim Noah says losing Derrick Rose to injury and Luol Deng to trade has been a challenge, but he still believes Chicago is on the path to a title.

Noah backs up talk, puts up historic line

May, 5, 2013
5/05/13
12:31
AM ET
By ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
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AP Photo/Julio CortezJoakim Noah came up huge for the Bulls as they eliminate the Nets in Game 7
For the first time since Michael Jordan’s shot over Craig Ehlo in Game 5 of the 1989 Eastern Conference First Round, the Chicago Bulls won a “winner-take-all” game on the road. It is the first time the Bulls won a Game 7 on the road in franchise history going 0-6 previously.

The Brooklyn Nets failed in their attempt to become the ninth team in NBA history to win a series after falling behind three games to one. The Nets fall to 0-2 all-time in Game 7s and have not won a playoff series since 2007.

What went right for Bulls?
Joakim Noah talked the talk and then walked the walk. After Chicago’s Game 6 loss Noah said, “We're going to go into a hostile environment in Brooklyn and we're going to win."

Noah made certain of that with 24 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks. Considering his foot injury, it was a heroic and historic performance. Read on for more on where that stat line stands among the all-time greats below.

Noah had a series high 1.33 points per play and shot 71 percent from the field Saturday.

With Kirk Hinrich out, Marco Belinelli and Jimmy Butler came up big. Belinelli poured in a playoff career-high 24 points. Butler played the entire game and was stellar defensively – holding Deron Williams to 4-11 FG and Joe Johnson to 0-5 FG when they were matched up.

What went wrong for Nets?
Miguel Cabrera
Johnson
Johnson – who had several clutch moments during the regular season – went ice cold. Johnson scored just six points, missing 12 of his 14 shots.

The Nets never led in the game - trailing by as many as 17 points, but they were able to cut the deficit to single-digits for most of the last quarter-and-a-half.

Johnson’s struggles were part of the reason Brooklyn couldn’t complete the comeback. After an alley-oop dunk at the 6:37 mark in third, he missed his last seven shots of the game, six of them coming from beyond the arc.

Elias Sports Bureau Stat of the Game
Noah became the first player with at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in a Game 7 win since Kevin Garnett in 2004. In fact since blocks became official in 1973-74 the only ones to reach those numbers in a Game 7 win besides Noah and Garnett are Dikembe Mutombo, Patrick Ewing and Elvin Hayes.

For the Bulls, a clear turnaround

April, 22, 2013
4/22/13
11:45
PM ET
By ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
Archive

The Bulls shot the ball well in the third quarter ...


But the bigger story was how mightily the Nets struggled against the Bulls defense.


The story of Game 2 of the Brooklyn Nets-Chicago Bulls series can be told in a pair of shot charts (which you can see above) and a very simple graphic noted in the chart on the right.

The Nets dominated inside in Game 1 of the series, but could do little against Joakim Noah and company in Game 2.

This was particularly true in the third quarter when the Bulls outscored the Nets in the paint, 10-4, and held Brooklyn to the 2-for-19 shooting from the field. We've put the spotlight on that with the images above.

Noah's impact was much more pronounced in Game 2.

With Noah on the floor in Game 1, the Nets made 7-of-10 shots in the paint and were 6-for-8 from within 5 feet.

In Game 2, the Nets shot just 8-for-21 in the paint including just 7-for-15 from within 5 feet.

Difference Maker: Kirk Hinrich
Noah will get a lot of attention for his defensive work in Game 2, but Kirk Hinrich played a very significant role as well, holding Deron Williams to 1-for-9 shooting.

The Bulls outscored the Nets by 10 points with Hinrich on the floor in Game 2. They were outscored by 19 with him on the court in Game 1.

Value of a win
And just how important was Game 2 for the Bulls?

Teams that go down 2-0 in a best-of-7 series win the series just six percent of the time (15-233 all-time).

How They Got Here: Seven All-Star Newbies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The book on Tom Thibodeau

January, 18, 2013
1/18/13
10:17
AM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
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Tom Thibodeau
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesTom Thibodeau: The defense-first drill sergeant.

Name: Tom Thibodeau

Birthdate: Jan. 17, 1958

Is he an emotional leader or a tactician?
Thibodeau’s obsessive, workaholic personality has an unmistakable presence on the sideline of every game and throughout the Bulls’ organization, but his greatest value is as a defensive tactician. No coach in the NBA understands how a team works as one to close down driving angles and to deny the offense’s preferred move better than Thibodeau. Playing the kind of defense that Thibodeau teaches demands an extreme work ethic from his players, so differentiating between strategy and emotional commitment is tough. However, his most significant contribution to any team will be the X’s and O’s.

Is he intense or a "go along, get along" type?
Thibodeau is one of the most intense men in the NBA. His defensive system is built on hard and fast rules, and there’s no negotiating. Thibodeau won’t coddle anyone, not even a star like Derrick Rose, and needs players who have the mental toughness to get on board with both the style of play and style of communication that Thibodeau brings.

Practices are run with military precision, and Thibodeau is known to work through Saturday nights in the offseason. He's a no-nonsense coach, but his personal authenticity and the success of his strategies endear him to his players.

Does he rely on systems, or does he coach ad hoc to his personnel?
He relies on systems, especially on defense.

Though similar, Thibodeau’s defensive system in Chicago is a bit different than the one he installed as a defensive assistant in Boston. Instead of using a hard show on pick-and-rolls -- something no big man did better than Kevin Garnett when Thibodeau coached him from 2007 to 2010 -- the Bulls almost uniformly “down” pick-and-rolls. This means the big man hangs back a bit more while the guard directs the ball handler to him and toward the baseline. One effect of this modification, which allows the Bulls bigs to remain closer to the paint, is that Chicago has been a top-10 defensive rebounding team since Thibodeau took over in 2010.

More generally, Thibodeau is not an especially creative in-game coach. Though he is inventive in his meticulous pregame preparation, his adjustments during games are just OK, especially on the offensive end. With all his success, it’s sometimes hard to remember 2012-13 is Thibodeau’s third season as an NBA head coach. This is one skill that could really evolve as he gains experience.

Does he share decision-making with star players, or is he The Decider?
The Decider. Thibodeau communicates well with his players but, especially during games, expects his players to follow his directives, not discuss them.


Does he prefer the explosive scorer or the lockdown defender?
Explosive scorer. This is a controversial distinction for Thibodeau, who, despite being a defensive ace, has a tendency to give big minutes to players like Carlos Boozer and Rip Hamilton, two guys who contribute real value only on the offensive end. For example, facing Miami in the 2011 playoffs, Thibodeau struggled to decide whether to lean on Boozer or defensive stopper Taj Gibson. When he left Boozer in for crunch time, the Heat successfully and repeatedly attacked him in pick-and-rolls.

Does he prefer a set rotation, or is he more likely to use his personnel situationally?
Thibodeau prefers a set rotation, but he will make quick substitutions, especially when it comes to playing Luol Deng and Joakim Noah abnormally long minutes.

Will he trust young players in big spots, or is he more inclined to use grizzled veterans?
Thibodeau has a clear affinity for veterans, even when it may benefit the team in the long term to give younger players more minutes early in the regular season.

Are there any unique strategies that he particularly likes?
Thibodeau’s defensive system is the pinnacle of team defensive strategy in the NBA. He is often credited with being the first coach to fully leverage the abolition of illegal defense by loading up the strong side box while having the weakside defenders zone the back side of the defense. In effect, Thibodeau's defenses force ball handlers -- whether in isolation or in side pick-and-rolls -- to the baseline and then send a second defender from the weakside over to the strong side block to cut off dribble penetration.

He is especially detail-oriented when it comes to pick-and-roll defense, getting down to the specific angles that each defender’s feet should be pointing. Thibodeau wants to send everything away from the middle of the court and force lob passes or bounce passes out to the perimeter, allowing defenders more time to get back to their men.

Off the ball, every defender in the Thibodeau system will have his hands up and active, with arms stretched as wide as possible. The goal isn’t actually to get deflections, though that happens. The real objective is to take away the first passing option of the offense -- to make the ball handler hesitate and throw a slow pass rather than whipping a chest pass to an open shooter. This gives the defense more time to recover from screens and cuts and often forces the ball away from the offense’s primary option on a given play.

Thibodeau knows he can't ask his defenders to do everything, rather he teaches them to take away certain high-percentage options for the offense. When everyone does their jobs, the odds tilt heavily in the defense's favor.

Most of Thibodeau’s offensive sets are not rudimentary, but he tends to keep things basic in big moments. It’s not uncommon to see some brilliant flex-based sets early in the game devolve into a steady diet of standard pick-and-rolls and pin-downs by the fourth quarter. He makes solid adjustments from game to game. For instance, he used Noah in the middle of the court to unlock Miami’s pick-and-roll defense in their 2011 playoff series, but Thibodeau is not known for drawing up brilliant offensive game plans on the fly.

What were his characteristics as a player?
Thibodeau’s playing career ended with his last game for the Division III Salem State University Vikings. His team won its league in his junior and senior seasons, and Thibodeau captained the team in his final year. An odd note: According to Salem State’s records, Thibodeau shot just 48.9 percent from the free throw line as a senior.

Which coaches did he play for?
Art Fiste (Salem State).

What is his coaching pedigree?
In the NBA alone, Thibodeau has worked with Bill Musselman, Jerry Tarkanian, Rex Hughes, John Lucas, Jeff Van Gundy and Doc Rivers. He was a longtime assistant to Van Gundy in New York and Houston before joining Rivers in Boston.

If basketball didn't exist, what might he be doing?
Running an ultra-high-end personal security company.




The spirit of the 1984 Bill James Baseball Abstract was summoned for this project.

Tuesday's player to watch: Joakim Noah

December, 24, 2012
12/24/12
9:36
PM ET
By Sunny Saini
ESPN Stats & Information
Archive
AP Photo/Ross Franklin
Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah is averaging career-highs (so far) in points per game (13.5), assists per game (4.5), blocks per game (2.2) and (1.4) steals per game heading into today's game with the Houston Rockets.

If all of Noah’s season averages hold, he will join Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett, David Robinson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, and Bob Lanier as the only players to hit all of those benchmarks over an entire season.

Noah also leads the NBA with 10 games of at least 10 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.

Even with the best offensive start to his career, Noah’s calling card has always been on the defensive end.

Defensive win shares are an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player due to his defense (for more on this stat, click HERE).

Noah currently leads the NBA with a defensive win shares rating of 2.1.

This season, he has become irreplaceable for head coach Tom Thibodeau and is averaging a career high in minutes at nearly 40 per game.

The last power forward or center to average that many minutes per game for a season was Tim Duncan in 2001-02, a year in which he received the league’s MVP award.

When Noah is off the court the Bulls are allowing 106.1 points per 100 possessions compared to 95.6 points when he is on the court.

No one has protected the paint better than Noah this season.

When he is on the court the Bulls allow 35.6 points in the paint per 48 minutes compared to the 46.5 points opponents score per 48 minutes when he is on the bench.

That is nearly an 11-point difference, which is the best among all starting power forwards and centers in the NBA.

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.

Absent Derrick Rose, Bulls become Pacers

April, 30, 2012
4/30/12
3:16
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
Archive

Lineups that are killing it in the East

March, 14, 2012
3/14/12
2:31
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Chicago BullsChicago Bulls
PG Derrick Rose  SG Ronnie Brewer  SF Luol Deng  PF Carlos Boozer  C Joakim Noah
Minutes Played: 284
Offensive Rating: 111.6 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 91.8 points per 100 possessions

How it works offensively
In 2010-11, the Bulls were a middling offensive team that relied on one dominant mode of attack -- a dynamic Rose at the top of the floor. This season, Rose is still the prized asset in the Bulls' scheme, but he's orchestrating a deliberate, savvy offense that's expanded its breadth.

This unit plays at a plodding pace of 90.9 (which would rank them last in the NBA), but it's a tight, killing-you-slowly kind of assault. How many teams pressure you with a point guard like Rose, who collapses the defense anytime he works off the dribble, but can also feed the post and have three quality options from there? When you watch these Bulls move around the court with purpose, it's hard not to see hints of the best of the Deron Williams-Boozer era in Utah -- only better, because Noah's screens and ball skills are so exceptional for a big man.

This group also features two world-class athletes in Deng and Brewer who understand how to play off a penetrator, as well as a couple of big guys who know how to hit a cutter. Ever since Derrick Rose arrived on the scene in Chicago, we've been hearing about how the Bulls have a fatal hole at shooting guard. Bulls fans, you have your shooting guard. His name is Ronnie Brewer.

The rap on Brewer has always been that he can't space the floor. Fair enough, because Brewer is a subpar shooter from beyond 10 feet. But elite teams find workarounds for flawed players, and the Bulls have maximized Brewer's many strengths beautifully. Spacing is a nice attribute to have in an offense, but movement is woefully underrated in today's game. And you won't find a lot of players who move more intently off the ball than Brewer. He might not hit a shot for you from 24 feet, but he never stops moving. Feed, clear, cut and repeat.

Would there be more space for Rose to work if he had a couple of wings who were better conventional shooters than Brewer and Deng? Possibly, but there are more ways to bludgeon an opponent than a drive-and-kick. Putting bodies in motion and forcing opponents into bad decisions with endless actions has its virtues.

How it works defensively
The vaunted Tom Thibodeau defense is no longer an exotic mystery cooked up in some lab in Cambridge, Mass. It's simply standard operating procedure for several NBA defenses -- but few, if any, of the imitators run it with the precision this unit does.

On nearly every half-court possession, the Bulls' defense has one objective -- keep the ball out of the middle of the floor. Once they have you confined to the sideline and you try to, for example, run a pick-and-roll, the Bulls will strangle you like a python by trapping, then bringing a third defender to the ball side of the paint to add further pressure.

What makes this unit particularly deadly when they implement this defense? Let's start with Joakim Noah. Bringing three guys to the ball is all well and good, but it doesn't help if you don't have two defenders who can cover the rest of the floor in what's essentially a two-man zone. There isn't a big man who performs this task better than Noah. He instinctively knows where the offensive threat is coming from -- when the ball will be reversed out of that pressure, to whom it will go to and how to best help without compromising the system.

Throw in two lanky defenders like Brewer and Deng, whose length, agility and smarts allow them to both stifle defenders on the ball or work as Noah's partner in that backside zone, and you have the components for the most difficult defense to score against in the NBA.


Orlando MagicOrlando Magic
PG Jameer Nelson  SG J.J. Redick  SF Hedo Turkoglu  PF Ryan Anderson  C Dwight Howard
Minutes Played: 178
Offensive Rating: 118.3 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 98.4 points per 100 possessions

How it works offensively
How good has this group been with the ball? There isn't a five-man unit that's recorded a higher offensive rating or a larger point differential in its favor. This isn't Orlando's most-used unit -- that would be the starters with Jason Richardson at shooting guard instead of Redick (402 minutes on the floor versus 178). The starting five aren't chopped liver, but the Redick-at-the-2 unit blows them away.

In many respects, this unit evokes the halcyon days of the Magic, circa 2009. Stan Van Gundy is one of the great pragmatists in the league. He deftly appraises his personnel on the floor and always seems to find a way to maximize those players' strengths while minimizing their weaknesses. These are familiar schemes that leverage Howard's presence down low to open up the perimeter for the Magic's snipers along the perimeter -- specifically Redick and Anderson.

Many times it starts with a high pick-and-roll with Nelson and Howard. The Magic get penetration or a deep feed to Howard in the paint, which forces the defense to collapse. When that happens, you know the drill -- a kickout to Redick or to a lifted Anderson for a clean look at a 3-pointer. Nelson has also developed a nice pick-and-pop rhythm with Anderson to find him open shots.

Other times, they initiate offense through Turkoglu on the left side. Turkoglu's efficiency numbers have fallen off since 2009 (he's shooting poorly and turning the ball over too frequently), but he's still capable of putting the ball on the floor and finding shots for others, and getting Howard the ball where he likes it. Redick is in constant motion in the Magic's half-court sets, breezing around baseline screens, getting free via pin-downs and using his escape dribble along the perimeter to find space.

And that's how an NBA unit chalks up a gaudy true shooting percentage of 60.5 percent, even with a below-average free throw rate.

How it works defensively
This unit earns its money on the offensive end -- a 98.4 defensive rating isn't anything to be ashamed of, but doesn't qualify as elite. Still, these five are getting a sufficient number of stops.

Unlike their contemporaries up in Chicago, Orlando places more of a premium on chasing shooters off the 3-point line, and they have the luxury of staying at home because they have a very large man with very broad shoulders manning the basket area and cleaning up any blow-bys that might occur. How is that going? Opponents are shooting 24 percent from beyond the arc against this unit and converting only 4.8 3-pointers per game. That is what chopped liver tastes like.

As imposing as Howard is under the basket, altering shots and intimidating, his pick-and-roll defense is also a key ingredient to this unit's defensive success. The Magic don't need to rotate all that often and, when they do, Howard recovers promptly to the back line and those rotators can immediately dash back to the perimeter where they can contest long shots with a close out, or just stagnate the offense.

One-on-one defense can occasionally be problematic, but Redick's tenacity -- both on-the-ball and chasing rabbits like Ray Allen around screens -- is vastly underrated. Turkoglu is no Tony Allen, but his length and awareness of where Howard is lurking makes him an adequate defender, as well. Finally, Nelson is a sturdy fireplug who can use his strength to bother opposing point guards, though he does yield his share of blow-bys.


Miami HeatMiami Heat
PG Mario Chalmers  SG Dwyane Wade  SF LeBron James  PF Chris Bosh  C Joel Anthony
Minutes Played: 389
Offensive Rating: 109.9 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 94.7 points per 100 possessions

How it works offensively
This past summer, Erik Spoelstra immersed himself in a single exercise: Examine how he could make life easier for the Heat's offense by diversifying their attack. In 2010-11, Spoelstra grappled with several strategies -- elements of the Rick Adelman's corner offense, "elbow sets" run through Bosh with multiple triggers and even some old Hubie Brown sets to free up shooters. The Heat finished the season as the NBA's third-ranked offense.

Spoelstra came to a realization, one that didn't necessarily conform to his natural instincts: The Heat could do better, and to achieve that improvement, it would require less conventional structure. He has freed up James and Wade, made transition opportunities and early offense priorities (Miami has gone from 21st in pace last season to 12th this season) and found new ways to space the floor.

So far as Wade and James, they have one imperative -- catch the ball and attack and don't allow the defense to set. No more dawdling at the top of the floor, waiting for stuff that never materializes. Off that, the Heat have found gold with Chalmers' vastly improved outside shot. The Heat were assembled with the idea that James and Wade would have quality shooters primed for kickouts, and with Chalmers, they have a teammate shooting 44.3 percent from 3-point-land.

Fewer sets are being run through Bosh at the high post with this unit, though he's still able to facilitate when the pace settles into a more deliberate, half-court game. Many of those sets that started with Bosh at the high post are now being initiated with James at the "Karl Malone" spot off the mid-post. Meanwhile, Bosh and Anthony screen with the best of them -- especially to lend space for Wade to attack -- and Bosh is still superb at lifting to a spot 18 feet away from the hoop for a no-dribble J.

How it works defensively
Spoelstra is still experimenting and tinkering with the Heat's schemes. Many a night, Miami is flirting with a Thibodeau-style strongside strategy, but one with a bit less structure and more freedom for James and Wade to rove. This isn't coming without costs: This unit is giving up 19.2 3-point attempts per 48 minutes, and opponents are shooting 40.4 percent from beyond the arc in the process.

The Heat are aware of the shortcoming and seem willing to tolerate a few gimmes on the perimeter in service of their larger defensive goal -- create chaos. That means more ball pressure than ever from Chalmers, and Bosh and Anthony jumping out with impunity on every ball screen. When it comes to defending the pick-and-roll, Bosh and Anthony might be the best big man tandem in the business at showing hard and recovering to the right spot on the back line.

Most of all, Spoelstra is encouraging James and Wade to operate as free safeties in what can be described as a quasi-two-man zone. Spoelstra's nature favors order over chaos and he traditionally has discouraged gambling, but he's come to appreciate that doubling-down on his team's athleticism makes good sense.

The results are there. Opponents are turning the ball 16.8 times per 48 minutes against this group. More impressive, the unit generates 23.3 points per 48 minutes off these turnovers and 22.5 fast-break points per 48 minutes. There simply isn't a defense in the world that can stop James and Wade in the open floor and the Heat's newfound guerrilla defense has maximized these opportunities.

Why Bulls fans needn't worry about injuries

January, 29, 2012
1/29/12
12:51
AM ET
By Ernest Tolden, ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
Over the past few weeks, some of the Chicago Bulls' key players have been hit with the injury bug. Starting point guard and reigning league MVP Derrick Rose has been nursing turf toe on his left foot. Big men Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson are nursing ankle injuries and starting small forward Luol Deng has a torn ligament in his non-shooting wrist that has kept him sidelined the past few games, and maybe longer.

The Bulls, who currently lead the Eastern Conference by two games over the Miami Heat, should be able to stay afloat. Below are three reasons that Bulls fans shouldn’t be worried.

Bench mob
Kyle Korver
Korver
The Bulls are one of the deepest teams in the league with reserves who play specific roles on both ends of the court.

Kyle Korver continues to be one of the best shooters in the NBA, primarily in spot-up situations. His 1.30 points per play leads the team and ranks fifth in the NBA among players with at least 40 spot-up plays this season. Korver is fourth in the NBA in three-point field goals off the bench with 28.

Backup point guard C.J. Watson has developed into a reliable floor general behind Rose. He leads the Bulls’ primary bench players in scoring, averaging 7.7 points in games he’s come off the bench. Watson has also been one of the Bulls’ best spot-up shooters; he’s second behind Korver on the team with 1.22 points per play in spot-up situations.

Inside, Omer Asik and Taj Gibson continue to be the Bulls’ defensive enforcers. Their 26 blocks each are tied for second in the NBA among players in games they did not start.

Defense
The Bulls’ defense remain one of the best in the NBA. This season, they're allowing just 87.0 points per game, the fewest in the league.

Chicago is fourth in the NBA in opponents’ points per play (0.81) and sixth in opponents' score percentage (39.6) in the half court.

The Bulls have also limited their opponents' production close to the basket, allowing an NBA-low 49.6 points per game within 10 feet of the rim.

Derrick Rose
Above all, Rose remains the key to the Bulls holding their season together. His scoring average is down from 25.0 points last season to 21.9 points this season, but he’s become more efficient in the offense, attempting fewer shots and averaging a career-high 7.9 assists.

Being the ball handler in the pick and roll has become Rose’s specialty. He’s scoring 1.02 points per play in that type of offense, ranking fourth in the NBA among players with at least 50 plays. Rose has also increased his shooting percentage (49.0) and percentage of plays he’s scored (48.1) as the pick and roll ball handler to almost 50 percent.

Kevin Love and height liars in shoes

December, 29, 2011
12/29/11
11:29
AM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images Kevin Love and Derrick Williams have different listed heights

Stumbled across this when I wrote of Dwight Howard as a 6-9 center. Some of you just could not accept the recorded fact that Dwight Howard is six-foot-nine. This, despite a link to evidence of Howard’s barefoot height. I was astounded, perplexed and in search of even more synonyms to describe a state of utter confusion, shock, and befuddlement. We have his pre-draft measurements--his pre-draft measurements! Why do you insist on listening to some sorcerer’s Magic listing?

Others believed that barefoot height does not matter because “in shoes” is the favored metric. I’ve heard it before, the argument goes: “They play in shoes.” I can be sympathetic to this logic line--for a second.

In-game Dwight Howard may well tower to 6-11. But, do we record NFL player height “in helmet”? Do we weigh boxers “in gloves”? Do we act like jockeys are centaurs and measure them “on horse”? Of course not, because there is no need to tweak traditional human measurements.

Moreover, there are those who aren’t listed “in shoes.” I asked around for some names of infamous height liars, and many thought Kevin Durant shaded short at 6-9. It turns out KD is just the victim of being a truth teller in a liar’s world. Per his draft combine, Durant really is a barefoot six-feet-nine-inches. But how are fans supposed to believe KD when he dwarfs a “6-9” guy who is 6-6 in real life? This is the problem with allowing a flexing metric to govern our perspective.

The good news: We have more accurate information on player height than ever before. Draft prospects used to get measured at the NBA’s pre-draft camp, an experience that was bundled with an intensive five-on-five drill. Many players eschewed the camp’s game action, so they also went unrecorded.

Starting in 2009, the NBA Combine allowed for athletes to undergo a physical while engaging in less strenuous drills. From that point forward, the data filled out--save for the occasional European prospect.

After the draft, teams got to (and get to) determine the height of their employees. This is what you see on the player card, and this is what largely informs the public idea of how tall a player is. There is a yearly physical to keep tabs, though teams rarely make changes. For example, the Warriors informed me that Andris Biedrins is their only player to receive a height alteration over the last decade, due to a spurt that took him from 6-11 to 7-0.

While I believe that teams are mostly honest in their height-recordings, the arbitrary “shoes or no shoes” allowance irks. It seems that a larger body should codify one way of doing this, rather than accept an over two-inch margin of error. And what if a team blatantly lies? I asked NBA spokesman Mike Bass about this, and he responded: “I am not aware of any instance where the team was asked (by the league) to change a player's listed height.” Perhaps I am cynical and paranoid, but I could easily envision a dystopian future where David Kahn successfully trades “7-1” Michael Beasley.

For now, teams own the means of height deduction. Despite all the hard work Jonathan Givony of Draft Express does in compiling draft height data, the almighty player card is the loudest guy at the bar. When I asked him about team listings, Givony remarked: “Generally these pre-draft measurements are ignored when the NBA puts up the player's heights on their rosters and bios online. Don't ask me why.”

My theory: That official NBA seal is mightier than established facts. At least Givony’s numbers give me a reference point for my 2011-2012 All Height Liars Team. Without ado, further:

All Height Liars Team

PG: Jose Juan Barea (“6-0”): We don’t know Barea’s real height, but J.J. looks like he could bathe in a sealed thimble. This is my only data-blind submission, but only because Barea’s height deception is so easily seen.

SG: Tyreke Evans (“6-6”): Leon Trotsky’s political strategy was to announce the next far-fetched program right as you were beginning to mobilize against his current far-fetched program. Sacramento will try to convince you that Evans is a point guard. As your brain bounces like a slapped speed bag, they’ll tell you he’s 6-6. His pre-draft height is 6-4 and unlike Trotsky, he can’t maneuver left.

SF: Thaddeus Young (“6-8”): Thad is really 6' 5.75.” I could just as easily rank Donte Greene here, but Young gets the edge on account of being a more notable player. Also notable: Three teams (Wolves, Kings, Sixers) have the market cornered on height liars. This may be because they’re replete with tweeners.

PF: Kevin Love (“6-10”): He measured at 6' 7.75," but that isn’t what makes Kevin Love’s height deception so dastardly. It’s that K-Love is photographed at the height level of a “6-8” Derrick Williams. Now some would say, “This makes his rebounding all the more impressive.” I’m not so forgiving. Turn in your World Championship trophy, you dirty heightener, you.

C: Spencer Hawes (“7-1”): He measured at 6' 10.5,” the same as Joakim Noah did. But Spencer somehow gained a two-inch advantage on Noah in the official listing. If Hawes lacks leaping ability, it could be because he’s wearing platform shoes.

...

I want accuracy, I want “in shoes” to be more unfashionable than socks with sandals. But as I look at this list, I can grasp why some cling to height vagaries, why you might prefer a “6-10” Kevin Love to an undersized striver. Disputed height provides more room for myth making, which is the essence of sports entertainment. These are the fables we tell each other, so as to inspire and awe. And if the sheer height of the giants animates our stories, can you blame people for wanting the freedom to embellish another inch or two? “In shoes,” is a license to take a man and make him Paul Bunyan. “In shoes” is so close to reality that it makes Paul Bunyan feel real.

Since he was picked in medieval times, we have no pre-draft record of Kevin Garnett’s stature. In hushed tones, basketball fans rasp, “You know, he’s really 7-1. He just hides his true height.” Perhaps he does. I would be quite disappointed to learn that there really is no psychological reason behind Garnett’s listing, that he really is a barefoot 6-11, that he only seems bigger in my mind’s eye. That one-to-three inch “in shoes” zone means a player can be tall as your imagination reasonably dictates. Even the doubt sown by a short-seeming listing can trigger Bunyan visions.

But I’m an “in socks” fanatic, congenitally averse to myth. I just want to know how tall Kevin Garnett is. And I just want you to know how tall Kevin Garnett is.

Seats of no particular temperature

December, 28, 2011
12/28/11
5:08
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
In a couple of weeks, we'll start hearing the inevitable chatter about hot seats in the NBA. The formula for who rides the hot seat is pretty reliable. The coach's team has underperformed and his critics believe he has been given ample time to succeed. His contract can't be too onerous because most teams don't enjoy subsidizing the salaries of broadcast commentators, which is the landing spot for many departed coaches.

There's a certain allure to death pools and elimination reality shows, but there are far more interesting sideshows this season than the guillotine. Some of the coaching ranks’ highest achievers have fascinating challenges in front of them:

Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls
Challenge: Use the Bulls' ball-moving big men

Among the unintended consequences of winning 62 games and coach of the year in your inaugural season as a head coach are the expectations that bubble to the surface in Season 2. That's Thibodeau's burden as the Bulls try to topple the Heat for the East's crown.

The Bulls' defense can't get much better than it was in 2010-11, but their offense finished the season as the league's 12th-most efficient. Derrick Rose is a domineering point guard who thrives in isolation and in high pick-and-rolls, so it's tempting to leave well enough alone and allow the MVP to do his thing. But there's something missing from the Bulls' half-court offense, deficiencies that became glaring against Miami (and at times, against Atlanta and Indiana) last spring.

The Bulls' personnel is simply too skilled, too versatile and too big not to finish as a top-10 offense. In Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, the Bulls feature two of the best and smartest passing big men in the game. Their ability to create opportunities out of the high post should give the Bulls a ton of options. Then there's Rip Hamilton, Ronnie Brewer and Luol Deng -- three wings who have the capacity to run a combined 25 miles of cuts, curls and flares over the course of a game.

With a team populated with this combination of talent, there's really no excuse for stagnation. Can the Bulls find their groove this season?

Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs
Challenge: Life in a world in which Tim Duncan doesn't warrant a double-team

There's still no better technician in basketball than Popovich, and last season's 62-win regular season was a testimonial to that.

So much of what the Spurs have been running over the past decade or so revolves around the Spurs' guards looking for Duncan on the block early and late in sets. Traditionally, defenses have been so attuned to Duncan's presence that either A) they end up leaving seams through which Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili can glide to the rim or B) they front Duncan, which leaves the back door open or C) they're forced to double-team Duncan on the block, which opens up clean looks on the perimeter for the Spurs' snipers.

The Spurs have been adjusting to a world in which Duncan's rim rum, deep seal and quick spin no longer compose the league's most deadly attack, and haven't missed a beat. They finished second in offensive efficiency last season by putting more of a premium on spacing and creating double gaps for dribble penetration. Watching that process continue this season will make for compelling basketball.

Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat
Challenge: Keeping the faith

There isn't a coach in the NBA who took a more sober look at his playbook during the offseason than Spoelstra.

As narrated by Tom Haberstroh last week, the Heat's cerebral head coach went on a coaching tour that included a couple of visits with the architect of the Oregon Ducks' spread offense -- which is played on the gridiron. Take that spread offense, add a few parts Rick Adelman and a dash of John Calipari, and you have the Heat's new high-octane offense that has racked up a scintillating 207 possessions in two games against slow-pokes Dallas and Boston.

The Heat's early success must be liberating for Spoelstra, as his team has taken to the change in philosophy like pigs in slop. Spoelstra is one of the league's most resourceful coaches -- a coach whose strength has always been preparation, precision and tactical strategy. But what happens if the Heat struggle?

Spoelstra thrives on order, and might be tempted to impose a little of it on his team. The trick for him will be finding that equilibrium between structure and freedom, a place where the Heat can still exploit teams with speed and athleticism but have a sense of purpose when the game situation demands it. That will mean remaining faithful to the principles of pace and space and keeping his foot off the break -- but also figuring out how to slip wrinkles into the offense so that it doesn't fly off the rails.

Playing overseas is a heavy decision to make

July, 12, 2011
7/12/11
11:31
AM ET
Harper By Zach Harper
ESPN.com
Archive
When players come back from injuries, the idea of rehabbing and working out all the time not being able to equate to “in-game” shape is always confusing.

It makes sense for the most part. When you’re lifting weights, running on the treadmill, taking a spin class or even fighting for that last piece of bacon, you’re using a lot different muscles and using them in different intervals than when you’re on the basketball court. And being able to do that on back-to-back nights or four games in five nights at the NBA level has to take even longer to retrain your body how to recover.

Still it seems weird that the best athletes in the world would essentially be out of shape despite the copious amounts of training they do to get themselves back to being able to play.

If taking extended time off from playing NBA basketball is such a difficult task, are players like Deron Williams and Joakim Noah priming themselves for a big return if the NBA does indeed have another lockout-shortened regular season?

When the NBA returned from its brief absence in 1998, a lot of the players were, for lack of a better term, hefty. There are rumors that Vin Baker came back roughly 60 pounds heavier than before, and Shawn Kemp had certainly seen slimmer days (even though he actually had a very productive 1999 season compared to the previous year). Sure, there were a lot of players that stayed in shape and got themselves ready to go for the brutal grind of cramming 50 games into three months, but a lot of guys also left themselves susceptible to injury by not returning in top physical form.

But with Williams reportedly heading to Turkey as the heir apparent to Allen Iverson and Noah playing for Team France in the European Championships in Lithuania, should more players be taking their cues from these two players and try to stay active in organized basketball?

As of right now, the NBA is full of bored players who are lying down on the ground, taking pictures of themselves “planking” and then tweeting it out to their followers. Since it’s still just July and they have no promise of playing an NBA season this fall, it’s not really a big deal. Guys right now would usually be checking out the Summer League action in Las Vegas or going for a summer vacation to get away from everything.

But with no end in sight to the lockout and threats of owners sacrificing an entire season just to get their way, you have to wonder at what point these players will become motivated to stay in shape.

For a good chunk of August and September, Noah will be practicing with Team France and trying to help them qualify for the 2012 Olympics in London. If the lockout ends in time for training camp in September, he’ll be in better playing shape than most other peers around the NBA.

If the lockout extends beyond September and begins to consume preseason and regular season games, Williams will more than likely head to Turkey and play for Besiktas. Once again, he’ll be practicing with his stepteam and playing in real games. If the lockout ends and brings him back to the NBA for the rest of whatever is left of the 2011-12 season, he’s likely to have the upper hand with conditioning and play at the beginning of the season.

Granted, there are injury risks for going off to play outside of the NBA, just like there are for players coming back to a shortened season while out of shape. Unless you’re Carlos Boozer, it’s pretty hard to get injured just walking around your house, looking for the next hilarious place to plank from. But being rusty in the NBA isn’t just a potential detriment to your team; it’s also a risk to your health with injury.

Williams and Noah aren’t the only guys exploring their options. Andrei Kirilenko is reportedly offering his services to European teams for the low asking price of $5.8 million this winter. A few teams were courting Amar’e Stoudemire before he decided to stay loyal to the Knicks.

It’s one thing to consider going to play organized, professional basketball away from the NBA and another thing to actually commit to it.

Maybe Williams and Noah will get injured during this venture away from the NBA during the lockout. Maybe they are risking all of their guaranteed money waiting for them when the NBA opens its doors back up and invites us all in again.

But it’s a risk that will most likely keep these two ahead of the pack if we end up with another shortened season.

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