TrueHoop: Larry Sanders

The Bucks' hobbled march to a bright future

December, 16, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Larry Sanders border=
David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty ImagesAbsent Larry Sanders and several others to injury, the Bucks are winning the race to the bottom.
Not more than 90 minutes before the Milwaukee Bucks’ opener on Oct. 30 in New York, Luke Ridnour and the team’s trainers decided he couldn't play. Despite receiving an epidural cortisone shot 10 days prior, the herniated disc in Ridnour’s back had flared up again.

Playing without him was an inconvenience, but not debilitating. Brandon Knight had earned the starting gig at the 1 for Milwaukee, and the third-year point guard was raring to go. But 1 minute and 45 seconds into his Bucks debut, Knight strained his hamstring pushing the ball upcourt in transition. He promptly checked out of the game, and so began the career of Nate Wolters -- South Dakota State Jackrabbit and No. 38 overall pick in the 2013 draft -- under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden on opening night.

The injuries to the point guard corps were merely the newest installments in the Bucks’ medical drama. Milwaukee signed Carlos Delfino this past offseason under the assumption that the bone fractured in his right foot during the playoffs would be healed for the start of the season. But in September Delfino suffered a setback in his recovery that moved his estimated return date back to around just before the new year. He'd need extensive bone repair therapy.

While Delfino was rehabbing, big man Ekpe Udoh had his knee scoped Oct. 10. He missed the start of the season and didn’t return to the court until Nov. 6.

The Bucks received the worst news of all only three games into the season, when Sanders was lost after tearing a ligament in his right thumb at a Milwaukee club the night of Nov. 3. The pin that protects the ligament reconstruction was removed a week ago, and he's just been cleared for light basketball activity. The hope is that Sanders will return soon after Christmas.

Hours before Sanders found trouble, Ersan Ilyasova aggravated the nasty right ankle sprain he suffered during the preseason. Four days later, Ilyasova had joined Sanders, Knight, Ridnour and Delfino on the shelf (Udoh was just about to make his return). He’d miss six games for the Bucks, then return to play sporadically for the remainder of November. The results have been dispiriting: Statistically, Ilyasova is putting up the least impressive numbers of his six-year NBA career.

The hits kept coming for the Bucks: A week after the Sanders dust-up and Ilyasova, Delfino announced via his website Nov. 9 that he’d need another round of surgery, a procedure he underwent Saturday in Argentina. The team says Delfino will be out at least another eight weeks, but it's possible he won't suit up for Milwaukee this season.

Feel-good story Caron Butler didn't feel so good. On Nov. 15, he flew to Los Angeles to consult a specialist about his tweaked shoulder and missed consecutive blowout losses to Indiana and Oklahoma City. Two weeks later, Butler was sidelined again, this time with a swollen left knee. He isn’t expected back in uniform for another week. Meanwhile, Gary Neal has missed a couple of games because of a foot injury and left Saturday's game against Dallas because of plantar fasciitis in his left foot.

There's more: Center Zaza Pachulia will be in a walking boot on his right foot for the foreseeable future after suffering a stress fracture a week ago. That leaves the Bucks with a frontcourt rotation of John Henson, Udoh, a hobbled Ilyasova and first-year import Miroslav Raduljica.

What does all this mean? Is it an unmitigated disaster or the perfect unintentional way to secure a top-five pick in a prolific draft?

That’s a matter of interpretation.

If you’re owner Herb Kohl, the 5-19 start is a travesty. The Milwaukee Bucks brand might not register nationally, but the team’s annual pledge to put a competitive product on the floor for the community has been compromised.

One of the hallmarks of Milwaukee Bucks basketball has been the promise that if you buy a ticket on a cold winter night, there’s a better than even chance you’ll see a win for the good guys. The Bucks haven’t had a losing home record at the dilapidated Bradley Center since the 2007-08 season, but they’ve treated the local folks to only two wins in 12 games there this season.
[+] EnlargeJohn Henson
Allen Einstein/Getty ImagesJohn Henson has unintentionally benefited from Milwaukee's woes.

The litany of injuries is undeniable, as is the fact that the summer’s projected starting lineup of Knight, O.J. Mayo, Butler, Ilyasova and Sanders hasn’t played a second together. The team doesn’t have a single five-man unit that’s been on the floor for 100 minutes this season. You can boast about the potential of rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo and marvel at the length Larry Drew will be able to assemble on the floor once Sanders returns to play alongside Henson and Antetokounmpo.

Yet businessmen tend to be fixated on results -- and 5-19 is 5-19. City governments and those listening to proposals about the construction of new facilities in a depressed urban economy don’t read draft reports or go to NBA salary sites for a rosy picture of the franchise’s cost structure.

A project like the Milwaukee Bucks can’t afford bad morale when it’s up against all kinds of adverse conditions. Last summer, assistant general manager David Morway spoke about how losing, even with the disclaimer that losses can be teaching moments and part of the life cycle of a young team, can become habit, which is dangerous. It’s not just players. Organizations who aren't winning and/or don’t have a definable mission like the one Sam Hinkie has in Philly, can be infected off the court, too. There are a couple of examples on opposite sides of the East River.

But if you’re a pragmatist or, possibly, a cynic, the organization might have lucked into something. Kohl’s mandate to win as many games as possible is born out of noble intentions and menschkeit, but it costs you several draft slots each season and, often, a reasonable chance at a transcendent talent.

The Bucks have some promise on the roster. Sanders has the opportunity to grow into one of the five most valuable defensive players in the NBA. We need to see more of Antetokounmpo to make a legitimate estimate of his potential, but from the ground floor it looks like a vaulted ceiling. With the front-court depth depleted, the Bucks are asking a lot of Henson and he’s delivering consistently. He doesn't currently have the stretch to be a logical counterpart to Sanders up front, but the learning curve is on a steep upward ascent.

No one in good conscience can say injuries are anything but bad -- they cause victims pain in the present and anxiety about the future. But unintended consequences can have benefits. Speaking of Henson, his smart, confident voice is growing louder in a locker room that needs some young guys who express a belief in what might be possible in Milwaukee. The Oklahoma City model is referenced a lot, but one thing that’s commonly left off its list of characteristics is how the young Thunder core took ownership of the enterprise, even when they were losing a ton of basketball games.

There were questions coming into the season about how much action Antetokounmpo would see. The injuries to Delfino and periodic absence of Butler have wedged the door open a little bit more. People around the league have been surprised by what Khris Middleton has demonstrated in big minutes as a starting small forward.

But the Bucks need another big talent before this thing becomes real, and if current trends continue, they’re in prime position to add one through the June draft. There’s a good deal of irony at work, namely that a team that promised to make every attempt to be competitive is the Eastern Conference’s least. Sometimes serendipity is better than brilliance.

What's up with the Milwaukee Bucks?

September, 6, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Bradley Center
Mike McGinnis/NBAE/Getty
The Milwaukee Bucks don't believe in tanking, which makes them misguided -- or wonderful.

There was a time when the Milwaukee Bucks lorded over the NBA’s Central Division as perennial contenders. In the mid-1980s, Don Nelson still had a modicum of structure in his nightly war plan (Nellie’s Bucks consistently ranked in the bottom half of the league in pace), and the Bucks ran off seven straight divisional titles between 1979 and 1986.

Sidney Moncrief was a rock in the backcourt. Out on the wing, Paul Pressey established himself as a prototype for what would become the modern-day defensive stopper. Marques Johnson joined him out there as one of the more reliable, high-percentage wings in the league. When the Bucks swapped Johnson for Terry Cummings, they adapted seamlessly, and Cummings would become a top-10 player during the latter half of the Bucks’ golden period. Alton Lister anchored a defense that was routinely in the top three.

Soon after that stretch, expressions like “small market” entered the league’s lexicon, and the NBA’s better players became empowered to be more selective about where they’d build a career. Gradually, places with cold weather and less cosmopolitan sensibilities had a harder time attracting talent. To play in these markets, stars have to accept a lower Q rating, and that represents lost dollars in today’s sports economy. All of this produces a compounding effect: the belief among players that building a winner in that city is near impossible.

The Bucks organization has always retained its reputation as one of the league’s classier outfits, but it couldn’t fight this tectonic shift. The franchise simply didn’t have enough mitigating factors to overcome it. Like their city, whose spirit has been sapped by new insurmountable economic realities, the Bucks began to fight an uphill battle.

Since Milwaukee struggles to recruit the kind of players who can single-handedly deliver home-court advantage in the playoffs, that leaves the Bucks with two general directions to follow. They can tread water as a league average team with the hope that, with a break or two, they can add 10-12 wins to their .500 record, join the adult table and continue to build from there. The Indiana Pacers, the former employer of Bucks assistant general manager David Morway, have deployed this strategy in recent years. The Bucks' alternative is to deliberately place themselves in a position to acquire a collection of high draft picks who could morph into an elite core -- the Oklahoma City Model, now a proper noun in the NBA.

"Guys are going to say, 'I want to be a part of this because they're winning,' or you need to be a team, like Cleveland, that gets two No. 1 picks or three or four top-five picks, and a guy says, 'I see what they have,' ” Bucks general manager John Hammond said.

The treading-water strategy needs a public relations professional. The basketball intelligentsia mocks teams that seem content to chase the No. 8 seed, especially in the East (No. 8 seeds in the West are usually pretty good and generally have legitimate aspirations to finish higher). The maxim, “If you’re not contending, you’re rebuilding,” is regarded as smart thinking. Some league executives publicly adopted another neologism -- “the treadmill of mediocrity" -- to describe what many of them see as a fatal condition. A popular notion exists that nothing short of running the table with a series of mid-first-round picks as the Pacers did, a team is a long shot to contend with this blueprint, even though there's little evidence that losing ultimately leads to winning.

The more clever teams looking to improve seek to capitalize on the glitch in the league’s incentive structure. Blow it up, pick high, nail those picks (and every front-office guy believes he was born to evaluate prospects), and you’ll play in late May. Don’t you know that the market inefficiencies that come with the existence of the NBA draft were meant to be exploited? We don’t make value judgments about the ethics of tanking, because aesthetics are irrelevant. These are the rules as they’ve been designed by the league, and the job of an executive is to succeed within those confines.

Under the leadership of owner Senator Herb Kohl and Hammond (a contributor to the assembly of the Pistons’ teams of the early- to mid-'00s), the Bucks have squarely situated themselves in the survivalist camp. Their goal each offseason is to shoot for as many wins as possible. The catalog of transactions in pursuit of this goal isn’t without blemishes -- and management will own up to the Harris-Redick deal -- but that’s been the consistent tactic in Milwaukee.

The Bucks’ brass articulates its rationale behind this strategy. Part of that argument is based on principle, while the other half is the stated belief that tanking doesn’t necessarily yield better results than doing it their way.

“We're trying to say with Larry Sanders -- one of the top defenders in the league -- with Ersan [Ilyasova], with veterans like Zaza [Pachulia], Luke [Ridnour], Carlos [Delfino], with young players like O.J. [Mayo], Brandon [Knight], John [Henson], Gary [Neal], Ekpe [Udoh], and Giannis [Antetokounmpo], I know we may not win a world championship today, but I do think we can be competitive and continue to build with draft picks and cap space” Hammond said.

Critics (present company included) raised eyebrows at extending Mayo a contract of $8 million per season over three years, but the Bucks answer that they acquired one of the best talents among the free agents they could realistically target. If they overpaid by 10-15 percent, that’s just one of those variables that Milwaukee can’t control. Besides, it’s not as if giving a $6 million player $8 million is going to decimate their fairly roomy cap situation.

“We're not unique,” Hammond said. “Cleveland has to do the same thing. Indiana has to do the same thing. Sacramento has to do the same thing. It's also true in major league baseball. Sometimes you have to overpay for talent.”

Morway was one of the architects of Indiana’s build-on-the-go strategy. Now in Milwaukee, Morway has considered the Pacers’ success and has come to feel deeply that, even with the league’s weird incentive structure, tanking isn’t necessarily a better strategy.

“There isn’t one way to build a franchise,” Morway said. “You can build a team [by pursuing high draft picks], but there’s a lot that goes on between the concept and the execution.”

For every Oklahoma City, there’s a Charlotte and Sacramento. There’s cause for optimism in Minnesota, Cleveland and Washington, but those teams are still trying to make good on multiple high picks, and none of them have seen the postseason during their current era. The Bucks can cite their own history -- the center they chose at No. 15 in the draft (Sanders, in 2010) will likely contribute more when it’s all over than the center they drafted No. 1 (Andrew Bogut, in 2005). There was undoubtedly some bad luck involved but, for the Bucks, that’s the whole point -- there’s no certainty hitting the lottery jackpot will actually pay out in real life.

Then there’s the case against tanking that can’t be quantified on the floor but which most small-market teams feel a need to abide by. Like Pacers owner Herb Simon, Kohl is one of his city's last great patricians. The son of Jewish immigrants, Kohl built his fortune in Milwaukee, where he was born, raised and has resided in his entire life except for a couple of years earning his MBA at Harvard. With that accumulated wealth and a dutiful sense of noblesse oblige, Kohl has been one of Milwaukee’s leading philanthropists for decades. And as a member of the United States Senate for 24 years, he literally represented Wisconsinites for a generation.

A sports owner like Kohl (and similarly Simon) who lives in an older city that has struggled to join the growth economies of the sun belt or tech corridors often sees his franchise as a public trust. The team has an accountability to the city. And part of that is delivering a competitive product, to let those making the trip to an aging arena know that there’s a better than 50 percent chance they’ll see a win for the home team. Unlike so many of the newer owners who live out of town and have only a passing relationship with the cities of their teams, Kohl sees Milwaukeeans as neighbors. When you invite your neighbors over to your place, you owe them your hospitality.

“Why should I come to the games if you’re telling me you’re not trying to win?” Morway asks rhetorically.

For Kohl, playing to win every night is a common courtesy to fans, the majority of whom have elected him to the Senate on four occasions, the last time with two-thirds of the overall vote. Public trusts have to perform -- especially if they’re asking for popular support. The Pacers are, again, an appropriate case study. In Forbes’ team valuations published in January, they ranked 24th, while the Bucks were dead last. The Pacers asked from the public and received $33.5 million to address their shortfall in operating income at their home arena. Coupled with a negative public image, the fallout from the Palace brawl, the Pacers felt they couldn’t afford to tank. That’s a privilege reserved for organizations in healthy markets and/or those who have accumulated equity and good will.

The Bucks will soon need to make a hard sell to the residents of Milwaukee that they can’t survive without a new home. They play in arguably the worst facility in the league. Unlike some of the concrete palaces in Sacramento or Salt Lake City, there’s no intimate charm or deafening noise in the Bradley Center. It’s just tired. While a team can’t control the climate, economy or general mood of its city, it can offer a nice work space. The Bucks can’t do that until they build a new facility in Milwaukee, and that’s an easier sell when there’s electricity in town, the Bucks are on the verge of a series upset and Bango the Buck’s antics make him a cult hero.

The Bucks maintain that putting together a run like that without cohesiveness and that there are psychic costs when a team accepts losing as part of the program.

“To build a winning culture ... you can’t turn it on and off,” Morway says. “Players see that.”

Oklahoma City managed it, but by pulling off a rare trick. It built a unique relationship with Kevin Durant, who understood that for a few years, the organization would define success on its own terms. Building that kind of trust requires the rare player in a near-perfect situation. For most young players -- even some who project as future All-Stars -- losing can quickly become a bad habit, and that’s not a risk most teams can assume.

At one point or another, most executives at least float the idea to their owner of starting from scratch. But for reasons ranging from civic responsibility to anecdotal evidence, Kohl and Bucks management decided some time ago that they couldn’t seriously entertain a tanking strategy. Instead, they’ll strive for respectability year in and year out. Since dynamic scorers tend to look past Milwaukee in free agency, the Bucks will focus first on building a top defense, then look to add durable perimeter scorers who can nudge their offense above the league average mark.

Some of the criticism targeting the Bucks is aimed squarely at questionable deals like trading Tobias Harris for two bumpy months with J.J. Redick and a 3-year, $15.6 million contract for reserve big man Zaza Pachulia. But the overriding sentiment is that the Bucks are foolish to do anything to compromise their future in service of winning more games in the present. Truth be told -- they might be. Unless Antetokounmpo, Henson and Knight explode, and Mayo makes a quantum leap (he’s still only 25), it’s difficult to see the path to the conference finals, and history tell us that’s even more likely if they continue to pick in the mid-first round.

Teams like Bucks who direct their management to assemble this year’s model with the highest-performing engine they can design are regarded as quixotic at best and, more times than not, myopic. Chasing the eighth seed is the ultimate act of madness because respectability is worth far less in the current structure than 60-65 losses. Does this kind of arrangement, one where NBA teams who put the best product on the floor might compromise their future, make the league stronger?

Larry Sanders wins one for the geeks

August, 21, 2013
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
Blake Griffin
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesLarry Sanders' big payday in Milwaukee reflects a new world order in the NBA.

When Larry Sanders signed his four-year, $44 million contract extension, he exalted, “... can't believe I've been granted this opportunity to represent Milwaukee for the next 5 years and hopefully the rest of my career.”

Perhaps Sanders is referring to the unlikely journey of going from mid-first-rounder to franchise building block, but he also just might be genuinely surprised. The Milwaukee big man has never averaged double figures in any major statistical category and he scored a mere 3.6 points per game in 12.4 minutes the season before last. He’s not even the kind of super athlete on whom general managers project future success -- Sanders registered a combine vertical leap five inches below what master shuffler Chuck Hayes managed as a rookie.

Just based on the raw numbers, signing Sanders to this deal makes no sense.

Unless you’re a nerd -- the kind who appreciates Sanders’ mastery of angles, the timing of his jumps and his penchant for adhering to his defensive responsibilities. To the NBA geek, this validation of Sanders is a validation of looking deeper than mere “counting stats.” Though Sanders is the big winner with a hefty pile of cash, his success is a giant victory for basketball nerds all over.

It means Kirk Goldsberry, in detailing Sanders’ secretly sterling defense at the MIT Sloan Conference, isn’t talking to a wall. His reality-based ideas can either influence NBA decision-makers or reflect smarter NBA decision-making.

It means Grantland’s Zach Lowe, he of the “LARRY SANDERS!” meme, can get many readers excited about the subtleties of Sanders’ interior defense, stuff that didn't rate before in-depth writers like Lowe seized the mainstream as their turf. Even if big men tend to make more, they rarely cash in while scoring fewer than 10 points a game. But the basketball cognoscenti isn't laughing at this contract.

Why? Because the nerds are winning.

If the nerds are indeed winning, someone has to lose. That poor guy is Monta Ellis. The volume scoring guard opted out of $11 million this year with those same Bucks, banking on greener pastures. Instead, he found a market wary of his inefficient offense, concerned about his flighty defense, and underwhelmed by his raw point totals. Ellis finally signed with the desperate Dallas Mavericks to a little more than $8 million per year for three seasons.

Historically, inefficient volume scorers like Ellis usually got paid more generously than guys like Sanders. Ellis hogged the ball and racked up points, which was enough to make him the face of the Golden State Warriors. In a nerdier era, though, a ball-dominant talent like Ellis can be overshadowed by Sanders, a dirty-work defender who formerly worked in the shadows.

TrueHoop TV: Larry Sanders

April, 2, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Larry Sanders is making quite the name for himself.

In March, the Milwaukee Bucks center was the toast of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference in Boston, where stat geeks celebrated him as one of the NBA's best interior defenders. Sanders ranked second in the league in block percentage, blocks per game and blocks per 48 minutes. He also resides among league leaders in a couple of more dubious categories -- technical fouls and ejections -- but he's working on keeping his cool.

What's crazy is that Sanders never had designs to play basketball, even as late as his teenage years when he was more likely to be found on a skateboard than a blacktop. As a kid, he was more decidedly more artsy than sporty.

Sanders sat down with TrueHoop TV on Tuesday. In Part I, he talks about how he developed "pro habits" as an NBA center, his love of art and what he turns to when he wants to lower his temperature.

In Part II, Sanders discusses hard fouls in the NBA from the perspective of a rim protector and whether it's good for the game when a defender wraps up an offensive player who's driving to the basket. We also probe why big guys prefer to be listed as 6-foot-10 or 6-foot-11 rather than 7-feet.


When stats turn players into commodities

March, 8, 2013
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
To know someone is usually to empathize with them. They cease to be a skin-wrapped tumbleweed, and morph into something beyond flesh and movement -- a man with tendencies and tribulations that you can recognize in yourself. The more you learn of the human, the more human he becomes. I feel a connection to Michael Jordan when I read that he, too, gets ordered around by his significant other. I see my middle school self in how Chris Bosh gets bullied over social media because he sends out some kind of Piggy from "Lord of the Flies" signal. Don’t you glimpse your own mortality in the winced eyes of an aging, slowing Steve Nash? Just a little?

This empathy isn’t happening at the 2013 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, an event devoted to celebrating our increasing knowledge of the games we love. Paradoxically, the more we know of the athlete, the less we regard the athlete’s personhood. Because we aren’t really getting to know the athlete -- at least that’s not the point. At MIT Sloan, the collective focus is on successfully using the athlete. The ballplayer is a data point. A number. A series of values that can be compared against other values in the dry, info-rich process of reducing gamble to certainty, of taking human performance and extracting every last win from it.

The wages of better information may not mean losing “the magic in sports,” or whatever cliché we’ve used to romanticize the box score. The Moneyball era has seen a spike of interest in games as fans delight in new ways to understand their passions. If the magic is gone, nobody misses it. Well, maybe somebody does, but their concerns aren’t enough to slow down the ever-expanding popularity of live sports.

The issue is that an era of better information means a greater commodification of athletes. At MIT Sloan, the power locus has officially moved from commodified to commodifier. The nerds are no longer begging the jocks for validation. Beckley Mason conveyed the shift when he wrote about the first major event of the conference, one in which no athletes were featured:

“Titled ‘Revenge of the Nerds,’ the panel was something of a victory lap for those who longed to see sabermetricians in powerful roles within sports teams.”

That panel was moderated by Michael Lewis and manned by four sports-conquering non-jocks (Nate Silver, Mark Cuban, Daryl Morey and Paraag Marathe). There was no athlete to be seen because we did not need them in a setting like this. Cuban, Morey and Marathe have the information and the power.

A few hours after that panel ended, I was witness to a howling kind of nerd revenge. Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry hosted a presentation titled “The Dwight Effect,” dedicated to demystifying interior defense. I anticipated that Goldsberry would be the archetypal researcher, droning on in harmony with the hum of his overhead projector as we all suppressed yawns over a topic as superficially riveting as a Phoenix Suns game.

Instead, Goldsberry got the crowd cackling with an energy that would shame the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. He sported a mischievous grin and exuded a roastmaster’s charisma while singling out David Lee as the counterexample of good interior defense. A graphic dubbed Lee “The Golden Gate” on account of his porous paint presence. It felt like a miniature revolution, that signature moment when geeks felt confident enough to rain shame on a tall, PR-savvy millionaire jock.

Goldsberry’s presentation wasn’t just about mocking Golden State’s All-Star. The specific goal was to illuminate how defensively underpraised Larry Sanders is in comparison to some other big men. Sanders has been playing the right way, in an aspect of basketball fans rarely investigate. Perhaps improved analytics can do the social charity of recognizing and rewarding formerly ignored good work. Perhaps this is all just about letting owners and GMs know whom to pay.

The two choices are not mutually exclusive, but I do wish we cared more about the former option. If there’s broad interest in making players feel like their professionalism matters, I can feel better about laughing at poor Lee.

Stan Van Gundy is the conscience of the conference, bristling through mustache bristles, addressing the crowd as “you people” and berating them with what they ought to know about the folks they seek to quantify. “It’s not a video game,” Van Gundy harrumphs. Equal parts clarity and honesty, Van Gundy captivates by merely saying what’s on his mind in a casually blunt manner. He wants people to understand that taking a quick (read: bad) shot to spark a 2-for-1 opportunity might be wise statistically, but that it can build bad habits, or resentment towards whichever player gets to take the heave.

Even this rare act of humanizing the player makes the athlete sound irrational and annoying. Why can’t these guys just get with the program?

The program, it would seem, is leveraging better information into a better chance of winning. Since the information doesn’t by and large come from the players, the program can make an athlete less the hero and more the functionary.

A hero doesn’t follow orders. A hero leads via his internal compass. We are used to relying on a certain measure of athletic inspiration. I’ll find myself saying “Where did that come from?” when a player uncorks a surreally violent dunk, or a gracefully contorted layup. When Stephen Curry scores 54 points and hits 11 3’s, it reads less coincidental than it does a man tapping into formerly unplumbed regions of his soul. The idea is that the athlete is reaching far within, and presenting us with something from his subconscious.

But what if “far within” isn’t so far anymore? Psychological profiling was a buzzword at the conference, with Cuban and Morey both referring to that frontier when (obliquely) discussing Royce White. General managers want to know what’s going on in there and how the brain relates to success on the field. Perhaps you see a sports psychologist as someone merely there to help a player optimize his talents, to calm him down during free throws. I see that, but I also see someone whose main function is to manipulate the athlete towards a certain end, one that might not be entirely healthy. It’s obvious that medical trainers carry a conflict of interest, especially in the more dangerous sports. Getting a guy upright to play isn’t necessarily the same as favoring his long-term well-being. The same could be so in the psychological realm.

Moreover, there’s something almost dehumanizing about having your brain profiled and manipulated accordingly. The prospect recalls that amusing, farcical Kayak commercial where a brain surgeon operates on his patient while making the patient’s hands perform travel site searches for the doctor. We’re a long ways from Cuban controlling a superstar’s brain, in-game, with a sculptor’s precision. We’re a long ways from it, but such a scenario is the tacit goal of analytics.

The misnomer is believing that such a top-down statistical push errs in its aim. “You can’t measure will, bravery and locker room chemistry” some say. Wrong. Data beats gut every day and 2.57 times on Sundays. The MIT Sloan conference truly is heralding an era of understanding sports better and making better decisions within the industry. No, the result isn’t that we’ll cease properly accounting for will, bravery and locker room chemistry. The result is that we’ll properly account for all of it and cease connecting these human qualities with the humans involved. As the athlete is better known, he will be less respected. The athlete will be less respected because a win is all that matters, and he’s dictating less and less of how a win happens.

There’s a phrase Van Gundy himself is fond of saying in his weekly spots on the Dan LeBatard radio show. When ruminating on certain harsh coaching decisions, Van Gundy will chuckle: “I liked all my players, but I never met a player I liked more than winning.”

Monday Bullets

February, 25, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
  • When is it cool or not cool to boo your own player on his home court? The jeers for Andrea Bargnani have grown increasingly loud at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. Blake Murphy of Raptors Republic writes that as bad as Bargnani has been this season, the former No. 1 overall draft pick hasn't crossed the Vince Carter threshold in Toronto and shouldn't be subject to the home boo. Eric Koreen of The National Post says that while Bargnani is a reasonable target, the booing borders on the absurd when fans start killing a guy because he got caught with a hand grenade at the shot clock buzzer and fired up a desperation heave: "When fans boo him without cause, the valid points get lost. The booing is not helping, as Bargnani is shooting just 30% at home this year compared to 47% on the road."
  • There was an active Twitter argument today about weather as a factor in free agency. To that effect, here's what "relaxing after practice" in February looks like in Los Angeles. And here's what coming home from a long February road trip looks like in Miami.
  • Steve McPherson of Hardwood Paroxysm on dunks in the digital age: "[G]reat dunks are not strictly physical acts carried out in three-dimensional space before disappearing into an unrediscoverable past. They are not simply performed, but witnessed, recorded, replayed, ingrained in our memories. They are spontaneously generated, but not out of the void, not from nothingness. They instead occur where the ley lines of practice, talent, chance, the known and the unknown converge to create something larger than life. In this way, they are less part of a game and more akin to musical improvisation."
  • Let's say you and your teammates make a pact to not shave until the team gets to .500. What happens if you get traded? Dahntay Jones, who went from Dallas to Atlanta at the deadline, is sticking with the pledge even though he's no longer a Maverick [Hat Tip: Rob Mahoney of The Point Forward].
  • At Friday's MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Kirk Goldsberry and Eric Weiss will be presenting a paper that takes a hard look at how to evaluate interior defense. The Bucks' Larry Sanders plays prominently in the study.
  • Big guys tend to get passed over in final-possession situations at the end of games. Down one in that situation on Saturday night, the Hawks inbounded the ball to Al Horford. The play calls for a hand-off to Devin Harris, but as Peachtree Hoops shows us in pictures, Horford opted to keep the ball and back down Larry Sanders one-on-one. Horford was aggressive on the drive and found an easy bank shot from the right side to win the game for Atlanta.
  • After an 0-for-8 start from the field in his season debut on Saturday, Danny Granger drains his ninth attempt and the Pacers' bench goes berserk.
  • Michael Pina, writing for The Classical, on Kenneth Faried: "Pull any possession from Faried’s career and in some order he will soar, crash, overheat, and explode. Catch him at the right (or wrong?) moment, and all these things will seem as if they're happening at once. He seems to be enjoying himself, and he is already very effective, but he also plays with all dials squarely in the red. But to look at Faried and wonder what will happen when he "learns how to play" doesn’t quite work, either. Faried will get better—in areas like boxing out, setting screens, learning a post-move or two, and gaining overall insight on the defensive end—if not likely to the point of reinvention. He will never be Tim Duncan. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and those responsibilities will never intersect. His job, to stick with the tautological statement thing, will be to be himself, and he will always do it better than anyone else could."
  • Jarrett Jack God Mode is a thing in Oakland.
  • Stephen Jackson: Less impressed with In-and-Out Burger than your average Spur or Californian.
  • The Basketball Jones took a Twitter meme on the road to Houston, asking NBA players (and Russell Westbrook himself) whether Westbrook is a cat or a dog. Watching the video, you get the sense there are some macho implication at work here, as some of the responses suggest that portraying a fellow player as feline is emasculating.


Under-the-radar milestones on NBA horizon

February, 4, 2013
By Justin Havens, ESPN Stats & Information
Larry Sanders, LeBron James and Tyson Chandler are making runs at under-the-radar milestones this NBA season. A glance at what each player can accomplish:

Larry Sanders

Sanders, of the Milwaukee Bucks, leads the NBA in blocks per game at 3.11. Why is that interesting? He’s doing it while averaging 25.5 minutes per game.

Since the NBA started tracking blocks in 1973-74, there have been eight previous instances of a player recording three or more blocks per game while averaging fewer than 30 minutes (minimum 2,000 minutes).

But there have been only three instances in which a player averaged fewer than 30 minutes and led the league in blocks per game.

Sanders will clear the 2,000-minute mark if he stays healthy and plays at roughly his current pace for the remainder of the season.

At his current 25.5 minutes per game, he would set the mark for fewest minutes per game for a player who led the league in blocks per game, edging out Manute Bol and Mark Eaton.

LeBron James

There have been 16 previous seasons in NBA history in which a player posted a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 30.0 or better (minimum 45 games played). James’ PER is a league-best 30.37. Assuming he can keep it up, James would become the second player in history with four or more seasons with that mark, joining Michael Jordan.

Tyson Chandler

For the third time in the past three seasons, New York Knicks center Chandler is making a run at the record books. Chandler’s True Shooting Percentage -- which takes into consideration 2-point field goals, 3-point field goals and free throws -- is in rare territory once again, at 70.1 percent on the season. That is just fractionally behind his own record from last season (70.8).

Bulls 'D' makes the difference
The Chicago Bulls continued their recent domination of the New York Knicks, beating them for the second time this season and the sixth time in the last seven meetings.

The Knicks were 8-for-26 from 3-point range, continuing their live-by-the-3-pointer ways. They are 1-4 this season when shooting below 31 percent from 3-point range, 18-3 otherwise.

The Bulls have held the Knicks to 37 percent shooting in their two meetings this season, including 33 percent from 3-point range. They've also outrebounded the Knicks, 98-80.
-- Steven Martinez

Sanders earns one for Bucks
Milwaukee Bucks forward Larry Sanders has been one of the biggest reasons that the team won three of four meetings with the Boston Celtics this season. Sanders finished Friday with 17 points and 20 rebounds in the overtime win.

The Elias Sports Bureau notes that he is the first Bucks player with 17 points and 20 rebounds against the Boston Celtics since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975. He is also the first player with a 17/20 game against the Celtics in Boston since Dikembe Mutombo for the Philadelphia 76ers in 2001.

In four games against the Celtics, Sanders shot 24-for-35 from the field (69 percent). He's shooting a hair under 50 percent against the rest of the league.
-- Mark Simon

Calderon continues to roll
Toronto Raptors point guard Jose Calderon, who has been the focus of trade rumors (most notably involving the Los Angeles Lakers) continued his solid play in a win over the Orlando Magic.

Calderon has played at a much higher level when he’s been able to start, like in this game, in which he shot the ball well and chipped in nine assists.

He’s averaging 11.1 assists per 36 minutes in 13 games as a starter compared to 6.8 per 36 minutes in 15 games off the bench. Consider the fact that only one other player averages more than 11 assists per 36 minutes this season –- Rajon Rondo (11.7).

Toronto’s offense has seen drastic improvements with Calderon getting most of the minutes. In the 13 games he’s started, the Raptors are scoring 97.5 points. They're averaging 94.9 when he hasn’t. The gap widens to better than eight points per 100 possessions when you adjust for pace.

Calderon has dished out at least 17 assists in three of his 13 starts. That’s as many as the rest of the NBA’s point guards have combined.

When Kyle Lowry starts, the Raptors are 2-13. But when Calderon is on the floor for tip-off, they are now 7-6.
-- Josh Parcell

The Bucks: Respectable to a fault

December, 19, 2012
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings are catalysts for the mildly surprising and watchable 13-10 Bucks.

The most vital tasks for any NBA franchise can be boiled down to recruitment and/or retention.

We can talk about the culture of an organization, its commitment to player development, and a ton of other ancillary qualities -- all of which have real value to a franchise. But ultimately, success comes down to a team’s ability to recruit the best talent, either through the draft or free agency, and retain those players’ services when they reach free agency. With precious few exceptions, teams need stars (preferably superstars) to contend, and if you’re not putting at least one on the floor, the ceiling for success is limited.

Fans in big coastal markets can’t really grasp how tough the Milwaukee Bucks have it in this regard. Milwaukee is a small, cold-weather market in an era when NBA players are more mindful than ever about what kind of city they want to live in and use as a platform to build a personal brand. For reasons fair -- and probably also a little unfair -- that recruitment and retention piece is a tough nut for the Bucks.

They can accumulate swaths of cap space, but have little hope that a top-15 player would accept a max contract to play in Milwaukee. Their most marketable player, the brand-conscious Brandon Jennings, probably will see the Bucks match an offer sheet next offseason. Jennings is more diplomatic than Eric Gordon, but you can imagine the feeling about staying in a Bucks’ uniform for four more seasons won’t exactly be giddy.

Adverse conditions aside, on most nights the 13-10 Bucks are a compelling on-court product. Jennings and Monta Ellis compose the Bucks’ speedy, dynamic backcourt. Both continue to post negative on-court/off-court numbers that show the team is more productive when they’re not on the floor (side note: Are we sleeping on Beno Udrih, who has been a savant the past two seasons, according to this metric?).

But offensively, both are a blast to watch and rank as the best starting ankle-breaking duo in the league (Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford take the overall honors when they share the floor in Los Angeles). Jennings and Ellis also have been driving forces behind pushing the ball for the Bucks, who rank sixth in the league in pace factor. That tempo hasn’t translated into results for the NBA’s 24th-ranked offense, but if you have to endure some inefficiency, watching Jennings and Ellis beats the plodding Sixers or Pistons as sheer entertainment.

The Bucks still make their living defensively, where they rank 11th in efficiency going into Wednesday night’s game at Memphis. Recognizing that the league pays a premium for offensive players and that many of them prefer glitzier destinations, general manager John Hammond has accumulated top-flight defenders and young guys with the potential to mature in that direction.

There are NBA defenses we appreciate for their proficiency, and then there are others who are downright fun to watch (think this season’s Clippers) because defenders swat shots, stuff guys at the rim, pick pockets that lead to fast breaks and generally wreak havoc. There’s always the potential for something exciting whose appeal is far greater to viewers than a well-executed defensive stop.

The Bucks are right there. They force turnovers at a higher rate than all but the Clippers, Hawks and Grizzlies. Hoopdata has a cool stat called “defensive play rates” -- a ratio of how many opponents’ possessions end in a block, steal or charge. The Bucks and Clippers own that stat, and it’s not a surprise.

Jennings is an inveterate gambler and thief. In Milwaukee’s recent big road win at Brooklyn, he recorded five steals in the half court. Jennings is a master at watching a ball handler’s eyes, eagerly waiting for the moment his man will avert his eyes away from Jennings to scan the court. When that happens, Jennings pounces. He jumps passing lanes and anticipates handoffs, when he squeezes between the QB and the running back to snatch the ball away. Jennings pokes, prods and jumps on outlet passes.

esse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesEkpe Udoh and Larry Sanders: Tree people
Over time, are these house bets? The numbers suggest they might be, but Jennings brings an unpredictability to the game that’s alluring.

In contrast to the iffy numbers hanging over the Bucks’ two scoring guards, the wings (Luc Mbah a Moute and Marquis Daniels) carry the workaday responsibilities of stunting perimeter scorers and diverting guys to places on the floor they don’t want to go.

Meanwhile the young bigs, Larry Sanders and Ekpe Udoh, are maturing defensively at a staggering rate. In only their third seasons, they have developed into savvy, menacing pick-and-roll defenders.

Scott Skiles has his centers drop into the paint when ball handlers burst off a high pick, but unlike a lot of big guys who backpedal with the nervous look of a matador, Sanders and Udoh play angles and slide with ease between driver and basket -- especially Udoh. As a result, guards rarely get direct routes to the hoop and clean looks at the rim. Often those attempts get sent back at the shooters, as both Sanders and Udoh rank in the top 20 in block rate.

The Bucks have a few other nice assets up front. They feature rookie John Henson as yet another potential defensive ace, while Samuel Dalembert -- though he’s seen vastly reduced playing time -- is still a useful guy to have around.

Ersan Ilyasova has had a bumpy start to the season, but was widely praised as a solid offseason re-signing that gives the Bucks another look at the power forward spot, where Mbah a Moute also plays. Ilyasova has shown signs of life recently, and projects to improve over the winter.

Then there’s 6-foot-8 Tobias Harris (recovering from a laceration on his arm), who looks like a keeper.

We can’t fairly classify Milwaukee as Jazzian, at least not yet, but it’s a deep frontcourt that will keep the Bucks in the East's middle class and a possible low seed this spring.

Therein lies the rub for Milwaukee. The team suffers from lackluster attendance, and Bradley Center hardly offers fans the most cutting-edge production value. To compensate, ownership has made respectability a priority. For a team that desperately needs to find talent through the draft, that presents a serious conundrum. It’s not impossible to find future offensive stars in the middle of the first round, but it’s considerably more difficult.

Some remotely positive scenarios exist. The Bucks could find a star in the middle of the first round, or absorb some big-name players from teams looking for a trading partner to take on money and who are willing to throw a draft pick Milwaukee’s way for the trouble. They can hope Jennings develops into a top pick-and-roll practitioner who can cultivate a rapport with a couple of those bigs and improve his ability to finish at the rim. And to establish a top 5 defense they can pair with a better-than-average offense -- a combination that’s been known to get a few teams into the latter days of the postseason.

So the front office is in a bit of a bind, a similar type of dynamic that existed in Houston for a few years. They live in the NBA’s purgatory, a world where a promise to be a competitive squad under a capable coach works against a team because the NBA’s inefficient system punishes overachievement for middling teams. Every time the Bucks unearth a useful but non-elite ballplayer, they pick up a win or two and consign themselves to the treadmill.

Thursday Bullets

November, 10, 2011
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
  • Ben Swanson of Rufus on Fire writes that, given all we know about Michael Jordan's competitiveness, it's not surprising he'd be leading a charge of hard-line owners to secure as much revenue as possible.
  • Kate Fagan covers the Sixers for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She also played basketball at the University of Colorado while the school was confronting a recruiting scandal and understands the complicated culture of big-time college sports: "Big-time athletic programs are not entirely unlike nation-states. Everyone wears the colors, says the pledge, and sings the school anthem. Everyone worships the logo, recites the fight song, and reports up the chain of command. Everyone's committed to defeating a common enemy: Ohio State or Nebraska or Michigan. This is what makes college athletics galvanizing and wonderful. And also, for anyone who has been inside it, it's what can make college athletics frightening. When you're inside, you're often a rah-rah believer. Blind acceptance exists that coaches and administrators, those who have established the institution's culture, possess absolute authority."
  • On Friday night, the University of North Carolina will play Michigan State on the USS Carl Vinson, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that hauled the body of Osama bin Laden to his burial at sea. Tarheel alma mater Danny Nowell is excited for the game. At HoopSpeak U, Nowell explores many of the same contradictions and mixed feelings Fagan has about the fervor of college sports in places like Chapel Hill and State College.
  • A French parody of MTV Cribs featuring a muppet Tony Parker, which concludes with some curious plant life.
  • I've received a number of emails from Canadians who maintain the NBA lockout is illegal under Ontario law, even though the NBA has a labor exemption under antitrust law in the United States (which allows it to impose things like a salary cap which would be illegal in other commercial sectors). Law professor David Doorey of York University looks at Ontario's Labor Relations Act and asks some interesting questions.
  • Noam Schiller of Hardwood Paroxysm has a memo for new Warriors head coach Mark Jackson: "According to, Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis, Dorell Wright, David Lee, and Andris Biedrins played almost 687 minutes together last season. in that time, they were outscored 1553 to 1484, for a net efficiency rating of -4.60."
  • ClipperBlog's Jovan Buha writes that Los Angeles native Tayshaun Prince could be an interesting fit for a Clippers team that's been looking for a solution at the small forward spot since the Taft Administration.
  • Tom Haberstroh has a conversation about the lockout with the hilarious, insightful, sometimes goofy and always thought-provoking behavioral economist Dan Ariely.
  • Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire occupy Sesame Street.
  • Several weeks ago, Knickerblogger's Robert Silverman observed Chris Bosh's charity fashion event at Saks Fifth Avenue: "All I could think about while staring at the huddled masses was the original (and awesome) 1978 Dawn of the Dead -- where zombies have overtaken a mall and are riding the escalators, numbly staring at stuff they couldn’t afford in some half-remembered haze, doomed for all eternity to repeat the pointless, boring, soul-deadening rituals of their former so-called life." Silverman goes on to explain, in further detail, how sports are like zombie movies.
  • Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro speaks about the influence the late Jim Valvano, who was fond of reciting poems to his players at N.C. State.
  • Seattleites take note: Metta World Peace feels for you. Among the other things he misses: "I miss the refs running down the court like they have hot tomales in their pants. I miss Charles Barkley commentating."
  • On his Twitter feed, Larry Sanders offers relationship/break-up advice: "When a good thing goes bad it's not the end of the world, it's the end of a world that you had with one girl."
The most dramatic shot of the Las Vegas Summer League came at the buzzer of the 58th and final game -- a side-winding heave by Mark Tyndale to give the D-League Select a 79-78 win over the Clippers:
  • How will Larry Sanders' game fit in with Milwaukee's existing parts? His sound face-up 18-footer will help a Bucks offense that was choked for open space in the half court. He also gives Brandon Jennings another dependable partner on the pick-and-roll and wins almost every race to the rim in transition. A Sanders-Andrew Bogut tandem could eventually constitute the best defensive frontcourt in the league. Milwaukee is unlikely to reach the highest echelon in the East with its firepower, but by blanketing the paint with two capable pick-and-roll defenders who can block shots and clean the glass, the Bucks have the makings of a team that could post a stingy defensive efficiency rating in the high 90s.
  • Luke Babbitt will be a deadly catch-and-shoot threat and will give Portland the spacing it needs when he's on the floor at either forward spot. On dribble-drives, Babbitt's handle is strong enough, but he had trouble finishing at the rim this week through traffic. In his final game, Babbitt made an adjustment. He was still aggressive off the dribble, but looked to draw and absorb contact. Babbitt got to the stripe eight times (8-for-8) after earning only 13 attempts in his first four games.
  • After turning the ball over 28 times in his first four games, Clippers point guard Eric Bledsoe put together a heady, controlled performance against the D-League Select team. He changed speeds and read the defense beautifully off high ball screens from Rod Benson -- bursting into the paint only when invited, and making smart passes or drawing contact when the defense converged. He scored 13 points (6-for-10 from the field), grabbed five rebounds and dished out five assists against three turnovers.
  • The Spurs bludgeoned the Grizzlies by sticking Benetton Treviso guard Gary Neal in the left corner and creating open looks for him off drive-and-kicks or curls. When sets broke down for the Spurs, Neal was the safety valve. He hit 6-of-9 attempts from beyond the arc in the first half.
  • Greivis Vasquez finished up an unremarkable week at the point for Memphis. Never has so much dribbling produced so few results.
  • DeMarre Carroll, who has also struggled this week, looked more like the active, versatile forward whose intensity gave the Griz a jolt of energy at selective moments last season. He looked most comfortable at the 3 on Sunday.
  • It's not unusual for a player to take a tour with one team in summer league and then hook on with another squad after the first team finishes up or has gotten a sufficient glimpse of him. Sun Yue started summer league with the Wizards, then moved over to the Bucks midway through the schedule. Meanwhile, Gary Forbes played sparingly with Houston, then got a call from the Clippers, who wanted to get a look at his game.
  • At 6-foot-9, Wayne Chism defends all over the floor, fights through perimeter screens, keeps the ball moving and will battle -- even if he doesn't excel -- as a post defender. If he can get a little stretchier with his range, he could help out an NBA team in the future as a thinking man's Brian Cook.
  • Yaroslav Korolev was in action against the Clippers, the team that drafted him in 2005 with the 12th overall pick. Now 23 years old, the 6-foot-9 Korolev has filled out and looks the part of the rangy, athletic all-purpose forward, but he still lacks an intuitive rhythm for the game. Against a small Clippers lineup, Korolev could've been a strong defensive presence, but he's far too timid as a helper. Offensively, he's decisive only as a spot-up shooter from distance. The closer he ventures to the basket, the less assertive he is.
  • John Krolik of Cavs: The Blog on Omar Samhan: "Samhan has really worked on that pick-and-pop jump shot, and it's looked good throughout his time in Vegas. When he can get his feet set, he's very comfortable -- it's a very natural shot for him. He went 0-10 from the three-point line during his time at St. Mary's, but earlier today he stepped out behind the college three-point line and calmly swished one. He told me earlier in the week that he's working on extending his range to the NBA three, and he's making strides in that direction. Hopefully he performs well in Lithuania."
  • New rule for Las Vegas Summer League 2010: Defenses are required to implement a full-court press for at least three possessions per half.

Day Eight Las Vegas summer league roundup

July, 17, 2010
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Summer league action can be a tough place for a skill-to-size big man to brandish the full breadth of his game. Much of the action consists of speedy guards buzzing through traffic or one-on-one isolations on the block for post players who need their reps. For a player like Detroit first-round pick Greg Monroe, whose finest moments often occur in the high post as a facilitator, the experience is like being a tenor in a death metal band.

Jack Arent/NBAE/Getty Images
Greg Monroe: A full toolbox

True to form, Monroe had a shaky start in Las Vegas. In his first three summer league games, he converted only 11 of his 26 shots from the field. Many of those smart passes that were Monroe's hallmark at Georgetown were flubbed by unfamiliar teammates which, in turn, made Monroe a more tentative, less decisive player.

Monroe got on track in his fourth game against Miami on Wednesday. Rather than try to conform his deferential style to the ragtag play of summer league, he looked to score, and did so efficiently -- 20 points on 6-for-12 shooting from the field and 8-for-10 from the stripe.

On Friday against New York, Monroe unfurled his complete range of skills for his most complete performance of the week. He finished with 27 points (8-for-10 from the field) and 14 rebounds. Monroe was both playmaker and scorer, facilitator and dominator. He showcased some strong post-and-seal sequences, a nifty soft hook and threw an outlet pass the length of the floor to Marquez Hayes for an easy transition finish.

"As the week progressed, I got a lot more comfortable," Monroe said. "I got into a groove today."

No big man in the 2010 draft class has a more aesthetically pleasing offensive repertoire, something that was captured on a single play in the first half when he delivered a no-look interior pass in the paint, through traffic, to his baseline cutter. When the ball clanked out, Monroe -- a prolific collegiate rebounder -- grabbed it, then muscled his way to the rim through a scrum of Knick defenders for a basket-and-one. It was an assertive possession for a guy sometimes unfairly tagged with the soft label.

For young, versatile bigs, balancing the instincts to create opportunities for others with a need to establish yourself as a scorer can be an enormous burden. With the ball in your hands, it's often paralyzing to weigh all those choices as the defense swarms toward you. Encountering NBA double-teams is one of the hardest lessons for centers and power forwards, which makes Monroe's capacity to deal with defensive pressure vital to his success. On several occasions, Monroe eluded traps along the sideline by merely putting the ball on the deck, dribbling out of trouble, then making a sharp pass to a teammate up top to ignite a ball reversal.

"It's about accepting the double-team, but also attacking it," Monroe said. "I was very comfortable when they came with double-teams trying to make plays."

Monroe reads defenses inordinately well. Unlike so many young centers and power forwards, he's able to keep the ball moving. For a Detroit team that finished 21st in offensive efficiency and 23rd in assist rate, those gifts will help unclog the morass in the Pistons' half court.
  • Toney Douglas' evolution continues to progress nicely. At Florida State, Douglas was primarily a scoring, slashing guard who performed Ronnie Brewerish work off the ball and served as the Seminoles' lockdown defender. Under the tutelage of the Seminoles' staff, he began the process of refining his pure point skills. On Friday, Douglas was a willing and capable distributor. Early, he skidded a pass across the baseline from the right corner to the left to a diving Bill Walker. Douglas also ran some nice two-man sets with rookie Jerome Jordan. Douglas' development is ongoing, but he increasingly looks like a guard capable of running a competent offensive unit.
  • On Friday, John Wall has his best decision-making outing of summer league. He made it simple for himself in the half court. Start with a high pick-and-roll with JaVale McGee. If an opening materialized for either himself or his big man, Wall capitalized on it. If the defense contained the action, Wall swung it weak side. The streamlined approach paid off. After coughing the ball up 19 times over his first three games, Wall limited his turnovers to two.
  • Will Jonas Jerebko ever be more than the quintessential energy guy off the bench? The Detroit second-year forward moves with more resolve than anyone on the court, but his limited skill set away from the glass translates into more chaos than production. That's not to say Jerebko's activity doesn't have a place on the floor, but it's probably more useful in Detroit's less structured second unit.
  • Ed Davis showed off his big bag of tricks against Sacramento: 17 points, seven rebounds and five swats in 29 minutes. Comfort (or lack thereof) is a condition so often used to describe young big men in summer league, and Davis was as settled and poised as any of the lottery bigs on Friday. He exhibited timing, a soft touch and fluidness on both sides of the ball and, above all, patience. Davis rarely takes an ill-advised shot and stays grounded defensively until a shot-blocking opportunity presents itself.
  • There aren't two guys in Las Vegas who love playing together more than DeMar DeRozan and Sonny Weems. On every break, each knows what the other's intentions are. At times, they make beautiful music together.
  • The best descriptor for Larry Sanders? Grown-up. Sanders knows his way around a basketball court. He's a vocal, standout team defender who knows where and, more important, when his help is needed. Offensively, he sets up low on the block -- primed for the deep catch -- and wins every race to the rim in transition. When he steps out to 17 feet, Sanders launches a face-up jumper with an air-tight rotation on the ball. Sanders may never be a Top 5 power forward in the league, but his fundamentals suggest he's going to be a pretty effective player for a very long time.
  • Joe Borgia, vice president of referee operations and George Tolliver, the NBA director of D-League officials, sit courtside directly in front of press row where they evaluate game officials. A half hour prior to the Wizards-Hornets game, Washington summer league coach Sam Cassell came over to emphatically protest a call from the Wizards' last game. Cassell felt that the official who whistled the play was out of position. His monologue went on for a good three minutes, as Borgia and Tolliver politely listened, then offered an explanation. Cassell was only marginally satisfied as he walked away, after which Borgia, with a deadpan smile, said, "He has absolutely no idea what he's talking about."
  • David Thorpe on Donte Greene: "The good: He has all the spirit you want a player on your team to have. He cares about his teammates and it's obvious. He's selfless in his play and he competes hard -- he cares about winning. He's also capable of having good shooting and scoring games, like he had today (20 points). The bad: He had 40 points in his first ever summer league game two years ago for Houston. So we've always known he's capable of having big games. Most players develop naturally, meaning they improve incrementally as their bodies get stronger and they learn the game better. What we're looking for are players who need to make big jumps, but that hasn't happened for Donte. He's in his third year now. At what point are the Kings going to get tired of waiting? That's a fair question."
  • Aside from hitting the glass and the occasionally effective defensive stand one-on-one in the post, it's hard to find a sphere of the game where Joey Dorsey helps his team win basketball games. He's more likely to trap himself too far beneath the backboard than he is to get off a quality shot at close range.
  • The monstrous stylings of JaVale McGee were on full display. In the first quarter, McGee got loose on a dribble drive. As he romped into the paint and elevated toward the rim, McGee went behind his back while airborne, then dropped the ball through the hoop. Then in the fourth quarter, McGee ignited the crowd in Cox Pavilion with a transition posterization of fan favorite Kyle Hines.
  • Michael Schwartz of Valley of the Suns on Earl Clark: "In summer league Clark has yet to show bona-fide NBA skills. He settles for contested jumpers that he misses far too often (both in summer league and the NBA), he has been no better than a mediocre rebounder and even on a team in which he could be the star he hasn’t exactly been a playmaker."
  • What's in Blake Griffin's knapsack?
  • Summer league fan uni watch: A Timberwolves J.R. Rider jersey and a Bullets Gheorghe Muresan jersey.