TrueHoop: Rashard Lewis
The Heat add shooters, but at the expense of youth, athleticism.
“Add old shooters with big-time reputations” is a fair summary of the Miami Heat’s offseason agenda thus far. Their two free-agent acquisitions, Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, are 36 and 32 years old, respectively, and have spent a combined 30 seasons playing NBA basketball. Each has made some monster 3-point shots in the playoffs, an important résumé item for anyone planning to join Miami, especially now that LeBron James has established residence on the block.
But both players are also inarguably on the decline. In 2007, Allen and Lewis boasted PERs of more than 20. However Lewis’ PER hasn’t been above 15 (league average) in three seasons and Allen’s dipped below 15 for the first time in his career last season. The Heat's role players didn't exactly shine during the regular season, so these two are likely an upgrade, especially in the short term. But keep in mind that in 2011-12, Allen lost his starting spot to second-year guard Avery Bradley and battled bone spurs while Rashard Lewis has played in less than 60 percent of his team’s games over the past two years.
Sure they can still shoot, but can they play, especially in Miami’s frenetic defense, one that emphasizes speed and versatility?
Consider the case of James Jones, who played about eight minutes per game during the Heat’s playoff run and couldn’t even get in the game a few times. Jones is a lights-out shooter, a champion of All-Star weekend’s Three-Point Shootout. The dude can be trusted to make it rain when he’s open.
However Jones also fits poorly into the Heat’s defensive plan. He’s smart and aware, but really struggles on closeouts or to handle anyone with much strength inside or speed on the perimeter.
A player who worked out in a big way, Shane Battier, doesn’t shoot or even drive the ball much better than Jones and is hardly "quick," but he can guard a bunch of different positions and that allows the Heat to capitalize on their team speed. Even Mike Miller, who looked like he needed to be playing with a Life Alert (“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up”) alarm on his wristband, could shuttle defensively between three positions, though not always with much effect.
Long story short: If you looked at the Heat bench during the playoffs, you’d see a bunch of players who can play only one position. Even though the Heat are wise to replace Miller's crumbling body and game, they are attempting to do so with players who, while more productive, have less malleable identities.
For all the experience and dead-eye shooting Allen and Lewis will bring to the Heat, defensive versatility is decidedly absent from their repertoires. That’s not to say they won’t be useful. Defending the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade pick-and-roll gets a whole lot more complicated when Ray Allen is coming off a double screen on the other side of the court. Rashard Lewis gives coach Erik Spoelstra a second power forward, along with Shane Battier, who can pull a help defender all the way to the 3-point line, freeing up the middle for the Big Three.
Still, I question whether this is how a dynasty is built -- on players with deteriorating skills and rapidly approaching expiration dates.
Here's a short list of way-too-old players acquired by the Heat just in the past two years: Jerry Stackhouse, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Mike Bibby, Jamaal Magloire, Juwan Howard, Erick Dampier you could even lump Eddie House in there.
The Heat skipped an opportunity to add valuable young talent -- Perry Jones, John Jenkins and Draymond Green come to mind -- in the draft, preferring to patch over holes rather than add to the team’s foundation. Now they have two more multiyear contracts with players whose defensive ability -- remember this has been Miami’s real strength on its back-to-back Finals visits -- is questionable already and will only become more so.
It should be mentioned that, if these two can stay healthy throughout the season and Lewis finds his stroke again, I have no idea how any team is going to guard the Heat. As our Tom Haberstroh mentioned on Twitter, “When Miami's Big 3 played with 2 non-PG shooters, they scored 127.4 points per 100 poss. All other Big 3 lineups? 109.8.”
That’s serious firepower, but only if the gunpowder stays dry.
Thinking one year at a time is generally bad strategy in the NBA; that’s how teams get stuck with bad contracts and fading players. Certainly right now, with each member of the Big Three still putting up big playoff numbers (combined 72.0 playoff PER), the strategy makes some sense. But Dwyane Wade, who underwent another knee operation this offseason, is on the tail end of his prime and we’ve already seen the benefits of developing young talent in what a crucial player Mario Chalmers has become.
Miami’s offseason moves suggest the franchise is living for its brilliant present. They’ll sort out the future, which always gets here before anyone expects, when it arrives. That’s the luxury of having James and Bosh, two superstars in the early stages of their prime years.
- Classmates of Kim Jong Il's son, Kim Jong-un, testify that the presumed successor in North Korea wasn't all that interested in politics when he was at school in Switzerland. What really got him going was basketball. "He worshipped basketball players in the NBA. A friend who visited his apartment at #10, Kirchstrasse, Liebefeld, recalls that Kim had a room filled with NBA-memorabilia. 'He proudly showed off photographs of himself standing with Toni Kukoc of the Chicago Bulls and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers. It is unclear where the pictures were taken. On at least one occasion, a car from the North Korean Embassy drove Pak Un to Paris to watch an NBA exhibition game,' the [Washington Post] said. In class, Pak Un was generally shy and awkward with girls, but he became a different person on basketball court, according to his classmates. 'A fiercely competitive player,' said classmate Nikola Kovacevic. 'He was very explosive. He could make things happen. He was the playmaker.'"
- Michael Pina of Red94 composes a stellar post on the psyche of trade bait. There are those, like Kevin Martin and Chauncey Billups, who take it a little personally. Others, like Lamar Odom, are driven to tears. Then there are Luis Scola, Rajon Rondo and Pau Gasol, who are able to convey detachment -- at least publicly.
- The Heat have pledged to switch up their offense this season by incorporating more fast-break attacks and putting more of a premium on spacing. Beckley Mason of HoopSpeak exchanges with a reader who explains what "the Invert" offense in lacrosse can teach us about defending the Heat.
- Charlie Widdoes of ClipperBlog feels the Clippers gave up too much for Chris Paul, and that staying the course with Eric Gordon and the salary flexibility that would've come with Chris Kaman's expiring contract was the right call.
- Aaron McGuire of Gothic Ginobili on the composition of the reigning champions in Dallas: "So where does that leave you? A short stint with a lineup where Lamar Odom is the primary ballhandler, employing Dirk and Marion as roll men with Delonte and Carter in the wings if the play goes sour? Does the team manage a point-by-committee sort of strategy? And who defends what? Dirk’s defense has gotten better over the years, but at this point Odom is essentially the best defensive talent in the Mavs’ big rotation. Do you cross-match Odom on the opposing center and hope he can draw them out of the paint? Do you keep Dirk at center and live with the terrifying defensive results? I really don’t know, and I’m not sure anyone else does either. And that’s part of what makes this Mavs team so interesting."
- Kris Humphries chalks up impressive numbers on the Wins Produced metric, prompting Andres Alvarez of Wages of Win to ask why the power forward remains unsigned.
- When Boris Diaw was growing up in France, his mom -- a former player -- ordered him not to join the throng of kids who'd storm the scorebook immediately after the game to tally their point totals.
- Watching Al Jefferson's deliberate but effective post game drives Zach Harper to thumbing through periodicals during live play, but Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams are shiny!
- The amnesty deadline passed and Rashard Lewis is still a Wizard. Lewis is setting up house in Washington, where his daughter has enrolled at nearby Sidwell Friends, where the Obama girls attend school.
- Who would you rather be -- the Lakers or the Clippers?
- Kevin Durant's fans will scour North America for his backpack like it's an afikoman.
Ray Allen's three-point field goal with 11.6 seconds remaining put the Celtics ahead for good. Allen scored 18 of his 24 points in the second half.
He is now 2-for-3 on go-ahead three-point field goal attempts with 24 seconds or less remaining in the fourth quarter or overtime in playoff games since joining the Celtics in 2007-08. Rashard Lewis is the only other player with two such makes during that span.
New York blew a double-digit halftime lead against the Celtics for the second time this season, both coming since the Carmelo Anthony trade.
The games were eerily similar with New York shooting under 35 percent in the second-half in each of the contests.
In the two games combined the Knicks were outscored by 48 points in the second half, while Carmelo Anthony accounted for a total of just eight points.
On Sunday it was the Celtics forcing their style of play that got them back into the game.
The Knicks averaged 14.6 transition plays per game in the regular season and finished with the eighth most transition points in the NBA.
But in Game 1 against the Celtics, video footage showed the Knicks only got into transition on six plays and did not record a single point.
The Knicks, forced to play in the half court for much of the game, succumbed to the Celtics pressure in the second half.
Boston held New York to 0.67 points per play in the half court after halftime.
Even worse, the Knicks scored on only 31.4 percent of their possessions in the half court, down from 55.8 percent in the first half.
Despite the struggles, the Knicks still had a shot with the ball down two points as time was winding down.
Carmelo Anthony scored only three of his 15 points in the second half and was 1-for-10 from the field before missing the final attempt, a potential game-winning three-point field.
So why did the Knicks go to Anthony?
Exactly one week ago today he hit a game winning jumper with 4.9 seconds remaining as the Knicks defeated the Indiana Pacers, which sparked this note from Elias:
• Carmelo Anthony has made five go-ahead or game-tying field goals in the final ten seconds of either the fourth quarter or overtime this season (two for Denver and three for New York), the most by any NBA player.
Essentially Anthony was the most clutch player in the NBA this season, however he was certainly not the most clutch Knicks player today.
That honor belonged to Amare Stoudemire, who led the Knicks with 28 points while grabbing 11 rebounds. He went 6-for-7 from the field in the fourth quarter, but didn’t even get a touch on any of the Knicks final seven plays.
Instead Carmelo Anthony used four of the final seven possessions without recording a point (two turnovers, two missed shots).
- I like Phoenix over Portland in a tough, 7-game series, but Michael Schwartz of Valley of the Suns aptly points to a huge concern for Phoenix: "I’m not sure if the Suns have a plan to keep Camby off the boards, but they sure need one. When the Suns win the rebounding battle, they often win the game, and believe it or not they out-rebound their opponents. Controlling Camby is one of Phoenix’s biggest keys to the series in my mind."
- Daryl Morey to Jason Friedman on elite free agency movement this summer: "I actually think they’ll all go sign-and-trade. Even the teams with room often will sign-and-trade into the room and get something back from the team. A free agent is picking where he wants to go more or less, so he eventually tells the team, 'I want to go there,' and the team doesn’t want to lose him for nothing, so they try to work out some sort of arrangement."
- For those who believe Shawn Marion lacks that killer instinct. (Hat Tip: Two Man Game)
- Orlando-Charlotte might be the series with the lowest Q Rating, but it's a chance to watch a chess match between two of the more cerebral coaches in basketball. Eddy Rivera of Magic Basketball talks with Queen City Hoops' Brett Hainline about what the Bobcats need to do to compete with the Magic. Kelly Dwyer of Ball Don't Lie makes a pointed argument that the Magic can't afford to have Rashard Lewis go M.I.A. if they want to be playing in June.
- Few teams have a less certain future than the Chicago Bulls, writes Matt McHale of By the Horns: "Rose and Noah are the foundation of the team. Beyond that, anything is possible. The Bulls are going to be rebuilt over the summer. In the end, this season has been about developing Derrick, Joakim, and even Taj. To that extent, the season was a success."
- At Basketball Prospectus, Kevin Pelton and Bradford Doolittle offer all kinds of great stuff headed into the first weekend of the postseason. In the Lakers-Thunder preview, Pelton touches on my biggest concern for Oklahoma City: "When Durant has the basketball and the starting lineup is on the floor, only Jeff Green (33.3 percent) is any kind of threat from beyond the arc, which will allow the Lakers to offer help to Artest." As vulnerable as the Lakers seem right now, their proficiency for overloading defensively in the half court is still very, very strong. A team like the Thunder which doesn't shoot well from the perimeter and has few ball-movers can have a lot of trouble against that kind of strong-side pressure.
- The 1st Annual Tarence Kinsey Award goes to ...
- Liberty Ballers itemize what's gone wrong in Philadelphia.
- Darius Soriano of Forum Blue & Gold jots down a playoff wish list that includes more insults from Ty Lawson and traffic paralysis in central Los Angeles sometime in mid-June. As someone who uses Figueroa Street as a primary north-south thoroughfare, I'll concur on the first and punt on the second.
- Bethlehem Shoals and Tom Ziller apply Bill James' log5 method to prognosticate the first-round playoff series. Bulls fans, look away.
- You'll need at least $200 for a seat in the lower bowl at the Ford Center in Oklahoma City next Thursday night for the Thunder's first home playoff game.
- How a New England transplant and die-hard Red Sox fan came to love the Thunder and started to warm to the NBA.
- Zaza Pachulia isn't impressed with Mo Evans' spring fashion.
In a phone call, David Thorpe shared some thoughts:
Back when I was a high-school coach, Lon Kruger was the coach at Florida, and he came to my gym to recruit a player. That's how we first met. I talked to him, and his assistant Ron Stewart, a lot about coaching.
Lon had a line that he used all the time, which I still use every day: "There's nothing else to think about."
Think about it. If Rashard Lewis was guarding you, in the first quarter of some game, and Joe Johnson put that shot up, all he'd have to worry about was making contact with you. That's the main thing. Then he can go get the rebound, or someone else will. But when that shot goes up, it's about contact. There's nothing else to think about.
Now, the only downside of baseline shots is that rebounds can go long and start the break for the other team. It's a debate. Some coaches will tell some players that if a guard like Johnson is out of position to run back to prevent the other team's break, they should.
But think about Rashard! He's not guarding you, he's guarding the guy who might be the most athletic power forward in the game. And there's no time on the clock, so there's no worry about any fast breaks the other way. Orlando doesn't even need to get the rebound. If the ball just hits the floor, the clock expires and they're OK. There's never anything else to think about, but there's especially nothing else to think about on that play.
So, Rashard screwed up.
I'll tell you what, though. I would not be at all surprised if at some point in the near future, late in this regular season or in the playoffs, a similar play will develop and Rashard will make the box-out beautifully. Because you can not have a more powerful teaching point than last night.
People act like players should progress in some way, like you get a certain amount of experience and coaching and then you can check the box that says "knows how to box out." But of course it's not like that. Bobby Knight said the most important skill for a player to have is the ability to concentrate, and he's right. This is the kind of thing that can make you concentrate.
UPDATE: Stephen Danley, former University of Pennsylvania big man, and current grad student, writer and TrueHoop reader, begs to differ:
Not sure it matters, especially with basketball minds as good as Kevin, Thorpe and Stan Van Gundy arguing the other direction, but as a big I completely disagree that the play was a basic boxing out mistake by Rashard Lewis.
Boxing out seems like a simple concept (hit your guy) but in the case of help defense it gets much more complicated. I watched the film. Dwight Howard leaves his man to play help D, leaving Lewis and Nelson guarding 3 players on the weak side. Lewis pushes Nelson up to guard Marvin Williams at the top of the key, leaving Lewis with two offensive players. When the shot goes up, both Horford and Smith crash the boards.
This is where it sucks to be a big man. Because of the defensive scheme, which involved Dwight Howard helping, Lewis now has to rebound the whole backside. Who should he block out? Horford? Smith? Just jump and try to get a piece of the ball?
Obviously, whatever Lewis chose didn't work out, but whatever else it was, it wasn't a simple box out.
As efficient as the Hawks have been offensively this season, they sometimes contract the sniffles in the fourth quarter. The ball stagnates as all eyes turn to Joe Johnson.
Against Orlando Wednesday night, the Hawks put together a steady third quarter during which they build a double-digit lead. After Mike Bibby drains a 3-pointer on the left wing with 10:22 remaining the fourth quarter, the Hawks lead by nine -- but then fall into a slumber.
They don't hit another field goal until the 1:38 mark, as that 9-point lead is whittled down to three.
Just over a minute later, Vince Carter deadens the crowd when he nails an off-balanced, contested bomb from beyond the arc.
The Hawks must race the ball up the length of the court with no timeouts and 9.9 seconds left on the clock:
Watch the play again. How does Josh Smith get free for the follow?
Ask Rashard Lewis.
- Player agent Arn Tellem has a column at the Huffington Post regarding the battle brewing between ownership and players over the collective bargaining agreement. Tellem issues a strong challenge to the players: "Given the NBA's hard-line stance, the players must decide whether they have the skills and the resolve to defend their basket. Will young marquee players like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and Kevin Durant form a united front? If they don't, the owners will score at will. Which begs the question: Has the union jumped the shark? If so, why even have one?"
- Intellectual property issues can be sticky in our 21st century global village. Shaquille O'Neal hasn't taken kindly to his "Superman" nickname being handed down to Dwight Howard without authorization, as Brian Windhorst explains.
- One of the interesting early subplots of last night's Cleveland-Orlando game was Stan Van Gundy's decision to sandwich O'Neal with Howard and Rashard Lewis. Van Gundy gambled that J.J. Hickson -- Lewis' primary matchup -- wouldn't hurt the Magic. Unfortunately for Van Gundy, it didn't play out that way.
- According to Nazr Mohammed, the NBA's real All-Star destination this weekend is the Bahamas: "Everywhere I look another player."
- DeMar DeRozan tells TMZ he plans to pay tribute to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" in the Dunk-off.
- 24 years ago, Dallas native Spud Webb won the slam dunk contest at Reunion Arena. Tim McMahon checks in on Webb, who is now working with Donnie Nelson on building Frisco into a model D-League franchise.
- Celtics bloggers gather in an unmarked warehouse in East Boston to discuss the precarious state of their team.
- Steve Nash, surrealist.
- Anthony Macri of Basketball Prospectus on the Nets' defense: "The defensive problems New Jersey has are apparent to even a casual observer. There is almost no ball pressure, the help-side rotations are slow if they happen at all and transition defense is largely about making sure players retreat. To put it bluntly, the Nets play like a bad high school JV team on the defensive end."
- The Nuggets looked flat last night and their offense was uncharacteristically stagnant for long stretches of the game. Jeremy Wagner of Roundball Mining Company: "While Melo forced a good number of bad shots that lead to his 6-17 performance we once again have to go through the chicken and the egg discourse questioning if Melo did not pass because no one would cut or if no one cut because Melo would not pass."
- Andrew A. McNeill of 48 Minutes of Hell described the dynamic at the Pepsi Center: "Thursday night’s contest between the Spurs and Nuggets, the last game on the NBA’s slate before All-Star Weekend, had the feeling of a Friday afternoon class leading into Christmas vacation. The Nuggets simply wanted the time to fly by so they could get started on celebrating the occasion. The fourth quarter dragged on like the last 15 minutes of that class, with the Nuggets left wondering if the teacher was going to let everyone out early. And the Spurs were the annoying kid who kept asking questions."
- Basketball Free for All looks at the NBA's best pure shooters.
- How deserving of a Western Conference All-Star roster spot is Jason Kidd?
Combo Plate: A ball-handling scorer ... and a scoring ball-handler.
JK: We're definitely seeing a lot of blurring in positional lines, particularly outside of the center position. One thing in particular I like is the rise of the true combo guard. Early in the decade, we got a lot of alleged "combo guards" who were really just superpowered bench gunners given control of teams with mixed results; Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis, et cetera. (Iverson is Iverson.)
But now we're really starting to see effective players who are a cross between the one and the two in a good way, and they're being complimented with other multi-skilled guards rather than going with a strict point guard/shooting guard backcourt. In San Antonio, they put Tony Parker, who's a great scorer for a point, next to Manu, who's a great playmaker for a shooting guard, and things went well. The double-combo backcourt of Mo Williams and Delonte West turned Cleveland's backcourt from a disaster area to a huge strength last season. Even Jason Kidd, the truest of points, is playing with JET and JJ Barea, and has even become adept at knocking down catch-and-shoot 3s off of other people's assists. Phil Jackson's won only 10 championships using an offense that doesn't require a traditional point. And so many young combo guards are coming in with tons of talent: Tyreke Evans, Russell Westbrook, Brandon Jennings and even John Wall, who should definitely be put next to a guy who can pass and shoot when he comes into the league so that he can spend some time in each game going on guilt-free scoring rampages. Wall might be the combo-guard messiah.
KA: This is a beautiful trend because it's created a much more diverse range of basketball styles. Very few teams around the league look alike, even though many of them run much of the same stuff. The fact that so many players can do so many different things on the floor creates an exponentially greater number of things a team can do schematically. On many teams, shots on the floor can be drawn up for almost any player at any spot! Part of this can be attributed to athleticism. One the things that made a power forward or a center a big men was his ability to perform big men tasks -- rebounding, shot-blocking, the ability to routinely get high-percentage shots close to the rim. Today's NBA perimeter players have the athleticism to do a lot of that -- and many of the bigger guys in the league have perimeter skills, as well.
This seems like a nice segue to ...
Do traditional big men have a future?
KA: Whether you chalk it up to the prohibition of hand-checking or the stylings of Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns teams (I'd argue that former rendered the latter), the professional game has undergone a seismic shift over the past decade. Perimeter play has taken over. Today's power forwards have big guard games and two of the top three players in 3-point attempts are 6-foot-10. It's a world gone mad, but you can't complain about the product on the court. The NBA has never been more fun to watch, and we're just getting started...
...or are we?
Trends have a way of feeling permanent while they're being experienced, but they rarely last forever. At some point, laws of macroeconomics take over. Right now, there aren't more than a handful of big men in basketball who have refined post moves and can drain a running right-handed hook with consistency. Teams don't value those attributes as much as speed and 3-point shooting. But as more and more players have the ability to drain 100-200 3-pointers per season at a 40 percent clip, the demand will shift. Kids who arrive on the NBA's doorstep with the ability to dominate the game inside with uncanny efficiency will be shopping skills that few teams will be able to defend.
JK: I'd say the hand-check rules imposed an artificial set of circumstances that forced a change, so I don't think we'll see the pendulum swing all the way back to where it was. But I think guys are finding out that even though big men need to be faster and more skilled than they used to be and can't count on getting minutes just because they can score with their backs to the basket and do nothing else (i.e. Eddy Curry), the post-up game is still a valuable weapon. Look at the Lakers. Andrew Bynum, when he's engaged, defends the rim, gets rebounds and is quick enough to find room and finish off of others, but also posts up. Pau Gasol plays the high-post, runs the floor, gets rebounds, passes beautifully and can knock down the mid-range jumper, but also has a wonderful post game. And of course Kobe can and does do just about anything that's possible for a basketball player to do, but also utilizes the post game.
I'd say that the post-up specialist won't be in vogue again in the foreseeable future, but more and more bigs and wings who can do what's demanded of them in the post hand-check NBA are going to find that the actual post game is still a hugely valuable weapon, especially as fewer and fewer teams know how to defend it.
Of the current young up-and-coming teams, which ones are for real and which ones will provide an entertaining illusion of success?
KA: When sizing up a team's future prospects, the first thing I ask myself is, "Can I imagine this team ranking in the top half of the league defensively?"
Oklahoma City is the quintessential upstart squad. They're fun, charismatic, dynamic, athletic ... and not all that impressive as an offensive unit. It's the Thunder's defense that's led them to a 17-14 record this season. So long as tough, lanky defenders like Russell Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha are patrolling the perimeter (and James Harden too), opponents are going to have a tough time scoring against them. With that Kevin Durant angle pick-and-roll as the anchor of their offense, they're a good bet to win a playoff series sometime soon.
Brandon Jennings has sparked any and all attention the Bucks have received this season, but Milwaukee's frontcourt of Andrew Bogut, Ersan Ilyasova and Luc Mbah a Moute have put up gritty defensive numbers. Mbah a Moute comes as no surprise, but I was shocked by Bogut's stats, until I looked at his figures under Scott Skiles last season -- also really, really good. Once they get a (healthy) shooting guard who can play drive-and-kick off the Jennings-Bogut pick-and-roll, the Bucks could be dangerous under a coach who was booted from his last gig in Chicago after assembling the league's top-ranked defense and the Eastern Conference's 3rd best record the previous season.
Sacramento's lousy defensive numbers don't concern me right now. They strike me as a team that's going to experience a major overhaul over the next 18 months, and a big part of that metamorphosis will be acquiring some pieces around Tyreke Evans who can defend. I have less faith in Memphis, Minnesota, Golden State and, to a slightly lesser extent, Philadelphia, who all have rosters riddled with defensive ciphers.
JK: I think Oklahoma City wins a playoff series when their backcourt clicks into place, and that's close to happening. I love Westbrook's game and think he has a ton of potential, but he just needs to be more disciplined. He pushes the ball, plays great defense, and does all these little things, but then he'll throw up a bad jumper, brick a full-speed reverse layup, or make a silly pass, and his true shooting percentage and turnover rates are way off of where they need to be because of that. It'll be interesting to see if the answer there is Harden maturing to the point where he can play 30-35 minutes a game and cover some of Westbrook's weaknesses with his shooting, playmaking and ability to create off the drive. (Combo guards!) But I think that young frontcourt is the envy of a lot of teams in the league, Sam Presti keeps getting valuable pieces without giving up much, and I'd call the future very bright there.
For Sacramento, the short-term question is how Tyreke is going to work with Kevin Martin. They might cancel each other out or become absolutely unstoppable together, although they might need to do the latter to make up for Martin's suspect defense. But Thompson, Hawes, Casspi, and even Brockman all look like keepers, and Tyreke has given every indication that he can be built around.
In Milwaukee, I think they should be having serious brainstorms on how they can hide Mbah a Moute on offense so they can keep him on the floor longer, maybe even looking for a stretch four so they can put Mbah a Moute closer to the basket offensively and use him like Detroit used Ben Wallace. He's that good defensively.
I agree with you about the rest of the teams, although I give Memphis some upside because I think it's a bit too early to completely give up on Hasheem Thabeet as an impact player defensively; if Orlando could build a defense around Howard and four perimeter guys, there's a chance Memphis can as well. (A chance, mind you.)
What is it about Stan Van Gundy that we like so much?
JK: I think we've got a pretty narrow view of how to evaluate coaches, because we don't see the vast majority of what they do and we're trained to look for their failures and not their successes. Coaches almost exist to be fired, and every time they make a mistake with their play-call or substitution, it'll get talked about the next day.
I think the biggest job of a coach isn't to call timeouts strategically or be a genius with his in game substitutions. (Although both are definitely important, especially the latter.) I think the job of an NBA coach is to set up a system that best utilizes the talents he has available to him, and that's where Stan Van Gundy comes in, especially last season. Of his five starters, he had three guys with below-average defensive reputations, Dwight Howard, and a rookie.
Instead of trying to have everyone play straight-up or stick Rashard Lewis at the three, he evaluated what he had -- the best shot-blocker in the league and more quickness on the perimeter than most other teams had. So he stuck Lewis at the 4 and never looked back, and built a defense around running other teams off threes and keeping Howard at home under the basket. What happened? The Magic gave up the second fewest made baskets at the rim, the second fewest made 3s per game, and more shots from 10-15 feet and 16-23 feet than any other team in the league. They also had one of the league's three best defenses in terms of efficiency.
Offensively, he had Dwight Howard, who can catch and finish with the best of them but isn't a great post player, more shooting and playmaking at the forward spots than most anyone, and a bunch of guys who can shoot threes. So he had Howard look for catches at the rim, ran 3/4 screen-rolls, and had his players shoot a bunch of threes rather than try to do what everyone else was doing. Van Gundy's failures last season were there for the world to see, but what he did extremely well was more subtle.
KA: I like his press conferences, too. The irony of Van Gundy is that popular perception sometimes paints him as inflexible. But as you said, no coach sculpted a more sensible system for his personnel last season than Van Gundy. He did a full appraisal of his talent, saw where he had edges over his opponents at each position (ballhanding at the 3, shooting at the 4, mobility at the 5) and designed his offense to exploit those advantages.
This isn't to say there's anything wrong with building an elite team by first implementing the system, then by populating that system with players whose talents most conform to it. Whatever works, by all means. Just win. But the ability to create a system around a disparate collection of talent that was brought together randomly is in many ways even more impressive.
Should LeBron James be playing more power forward?
KA: Despite James’ size, strength and efficiency on the glass, Mike Brown has him firmly situated at the small forward slot. In fact, you have to go pretty far down the list of Cleveland’s 5-man lineups to find units in which James is playing power forward. But in the six lineups that feature James surrounded by one traditional big man and three smaller players for at least 10 minutes, the Cavs outscore their opponents 96-83 (prorated for 48 minutes).
Those numbers are enough for me, but let’s think about it in practical terms. We’ve already discussed how positional dogma is a thing of the past in an NBA that’s much smaller than it was 10 years ago. When thinking about how to best maximize LeBron in the half-court, wouldn't you prefer that he drag a bigger defender out to him in order to create more space on the floor for your offense? And defensively, wouldn’t a team like Cleveland, whose primary weakness has been its plodding frontcourt, be better served by having LeBron cover Rashard Lewis on Orlando’s pick-and-pop or Boston’s bigs on the Celtics’ rotating screen-and-rolls? Doesn’t it make more sense to challenge Stan Van Gundy and Doc Rivers to match up with a more athletic lineup? And wouldn’t Cleveland benefit from more transition opportunities?
Would team rebounding suffer? When you look at those aforementioned six lineups with LeBron at the 4, the answer is no. Apart from the political stickiness of limiting the minutes of the Cavs' veteran big men, I have trouble seeing how making the Cavs a more athletic team around LeBron comes with much downside.
JK: The short answer is that I'm extremely confused as to why LeBron doesn't get more time at the 4 position, at least for around 10 minutes of his time on the floor. I understand some of the reasoning behind not giving him significant minutes down there. The Cavs show hard on every perimeter screen, which would require LeBron expending more energy on the defensive end than the Cavs are comfortable with, especially in the first three quarters. And of course, the Cavs don't want LeBron in foul trouble under any circumstances. And generally speaking, the Cavs' big men are better players than Jamario Moon, who typically plays the 3 in the Cavs' small-ball lineup. But LeBron getting the ball in the 10-15 foot range and making his move from down there is absolutely deadly, and that small-ball lineup should definitely be something used more often to keep opposing teams on their toes.
What confuses me more than anything is that while the Shaq/Varejao frontcourt has some offensive issues and the Shaq/Hickson frontcourt has some serious defensive issues, a Shaq/LeBron frontcourt hasn't been tried at all this season, and I mean at all. I suppose the reasoning is that LeBron would be forced to expend way too much energy on the perimeter defensively as Shaq sags to the paint on pick-and-rolls (LeBron's never gotten minutes at the four alongside Z either), but with the Cavs supposedly looking for a "stretch 4" at the deadline to make life easier for Shaq, it's odd that they haven't at least tried using LeBron in that role.
There are nights when the Mavericks look deadly serious.
KA: Little known fact: Of the 50 5-man units that have played together the most this season, two of the top three in overall efficiency belong to the Dallas Mavericks. Whether it's Jason Terry or J.J. Barea at the shooting guard, the Mavs' big names are absolutely crushing their opponents on both ends of the floor. Dallas is a Top 5 defensive squad and features one of the game's great shotmakers in Dirk Nowitzki. They also have tremendous flexibility to match up with opponents on either end. They can play old-school or new-school. Want to tease the Mavs with small ball? That's fine, because they're perfectly good going with three guards and moving Shawn Marion and Nowitzki into the frontcourt. Want to try to outmuscle them? Erick Dampier may have an outsized contract, but he's also one of the better basket protectors and garbage collectors in the league. Opponents shoot a measly 57.4 percent at the rim against the Mavs -- only Boston, Cleveland and San Antonio are better.
More than anything, the Mavs strike me as a team composed of professionals. These are serious basketball players led by a serious coach. Is it possible that a squad with so many thirtysomethings breaks down physically over the course of an 82-game season? Perhaps. But where some see brittleness, I see experience. In fact, I see shades of the best San Antonio Spurs squads. I see a team that truly understands its collective talents and limitations and puts a premium on execution.
Can they compete with the Lakers in late May? I'm not sure anyone in the Western Conference can, but Dallas -- with its length, smarts, and perimeter prowess -- might just be the toughest competition the Lakers encounter.
JK: Dallas has a ton of talent, Dirk is right up there with the best players in the league, and the team defends. My caveat would be that they're thinner than people think, and much more dependent on Dirk. As of December 26th, Dallas was +11.6 points per 100 possessions with Dirk on the floor and a stunning -16.5 points per 100 with Dirk on the bench. As bad as LeBron and Kobe's benches are, their teams are only -8 when they sit, to offer some perspective.
A lot of that has to do with Drew Gooden; Gooden's plus-minus is -23.1, and as someone who's watched a good deal of Gooden in his life, I can tell you that's not random noise. Drew Gooden is the anti-Battier. I'm also not a huge J.J. Barea fan. He's fun to watch and works fairly well with Kidd offensively, but I believe you were the one who said he plays defense "like a man frantically searching for his car keys," and the plus-minus numbers support the theory that Barea's somewhat of a defensive liability. Dallas can play with anyone, especially when Dirk's on the floor, and if they do something to get a better backup for Dirk than Gooden and hide Barea's defense a little better (maybe play more Beaubois, who's gone through growing pains and will probably continue to do so, but has lockdown defensive potential), I'd call them a true force to be reckoned with in the West. If not, I'd say they have a solid puncher's chance of knocking the Lakers off their Western Conference throne.
How do we begin to make sense of adjusted plus-minus?
JK: Outside of the obvious conclusion, which is "no one stat or metric, no matter how advanced or intricate, is ever going to come close to saying everything about one player," I have two thoughts on adjusted plus-minus.
The first is that I get how the basic +/- you see in box scores and 82games.com's version of plus-minus work, but I still don't totally understand how advanced plus-minus works, and that's a problem. I mean, I get the theory, that it adjusts for having good or bad teammates or playing against good and bad opponents, but how exactly does it define "good" and "bad"? Is "good" based on the other guy's adjusted plus-minus, or is the value of others derived from something like Player Efficiency Rating? Aren't both approaches problematic? Right now, adjusted plus-minus is sort of "He's good. Trust me," which I have trouble swallowing as a fan and certainly can't use to convince friends or readers of a guy's value.
The second problem is one that will get fixed over time, which is that we still don't really know how to read plus-minus type stats yet. We know with a stat like field goal percentage that a shooting guard is going to have a lower field goal percentage than a center, but we also know that the guard is probably shooting more 3s, shooting his free throws better and taking tougher shots than the center. We know how to read that stat.
But because plus-minus is one number and so nebulous, we don't know which plus-minus numbers to take with a grain of salt and which ones not to. I'll bring up the semi-infamous Durant example here. Durant had terrible +/- ratings for his first two seasons, but has been incredible in year three. Was the Durant phenomenon ever even real, or did Durant actually improve this year in ways the stats didn't see? If we want plus-minus metrics to be as legitimate as the box score ones, we have to stress-test it like we have the conventional numbers that came before them.
KA: I'm drawn to adjusted plus-minus because I'm desperate to find any metric that will approximate a player's defensive value, something we just don't have the tools to do right now. I'm more faithful than I probably should be given the lack of stress tests you talk about. Your point is well-taken and I'd add that stats like these are only valuable to the extent that they're predictive. There will always be players who make colossal jumps or experience unusual crashes in productivity, but apart from outliers, a stat must be dependable enough to offer a clear -- if general -- estimation of what that player is worth in the past, present and likely future. I've begun to spend more time examining the adjusted plus-minus numbers of 5-man units rather than individuals, in part because it seems more practical.
I suspect we'll know a lot more in three to five years than we do now. The metric's practitioners (and the people who trust them) will have a better sense of where the numbers skews, what those number might miss and the kind of noise those numbers create. In the meantime, I'll continue to watch the 2-year figures (and eventually 3-year, and 4-year). Any system that values Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant as the five best players in the NBA has to be on to something, right?
Posted by Timothy Varner of 48 Minutes of Hell.
- I'm always more sympathetic to players who test positive for PEDs when the phrase "over the counter" is part of the story. If a substance is readily available to your local high school football team, why would we slap the hands of professional athletes for taking it? Well, as you might have guessed, that sort of reasoning is entirely too simplistic. Dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, is only available by way of a sad piece of legislative history. Jeff Passan details that episode in this article. Go read Passan's take, and when you're done join me in giving the NBA three cheers for having more integrity on this issue than MLB. The NBA has its warts, but I'm happy that looking the other way on DHEA is not one of them. (Thanks to Third Quarter Collapse for bringing our attention to the Passan piece.)
- Bradford Doolittle of Basketball Prospectus frames the Rashard Lewis discussion differently than most: "Performance enhancers are a fact of life. Rather than pouring all of these resources into vilifying athletes that made choices no different than what 99% of us would have made, perhaps it would be better to legitimize the industry and work to make PEDs safe. After all, the reason that they have been declared illegal by the FDA isn't because they allow you to hit a baseball farther (if it's true that that is the case); they are illegal because they have unacceptable risks for potentially lethal side effects. Modern athletes are serving as guinea pigs for a developing arm of pharmacology that in 20 years, no one is likely to object to...if they have found ways for all of us to improve the quality of our lives."
- Will the Rashard Lewis suspension dramatically impact the playoff race? One stat geek says not so much: "As far as I'm concerned, the only relevance this news has is this: The Magic will lose the services of an excellent player for 10 games. But Orlando projects to be a deep team this season and when I reduce Lewis' playing time projection by 10% and up that of players like Mickael Pietrus, Matt Barnes and Ryan Anderson, I see that the Magic's win projection drops from 52 to 51. That is all that really matters."
- Marvin Williams is set to re-sign with the Hawks. Really, it's true this time.
- Jon Nichols of Hardwood Paroxysm takes a smart look at shot selection in the final two minutes of games.
- The Memphis Grizzlies fascinate me. Memphis GM Chris Wallace recently spoke to Chip Crain of 3 Shades of Blue and placed the size of his team's scouting staff in perspective. Michael Heisley takes a beating in the press, but Ronald Tillery makes an argument that Heisley does some things very well. And in a companion piece, Heisley paints himself as Clay Bennett's opposite. Who knew that the Grizzlies were so provocative?
- Russell Westbrook tells Dime about all the hard work that has gone into his vertical leap. (Thanks to Royce Young of Daily Thunder for the alert.)
- Someone else who thinks the Lakers lost in the Ariza/Artest exchange.
- Ridiculous Upside reconsiders the question of whether to play in the D-League or Europe. And, don't look now, but they're out in full force defending the Grizzlies too.
- Neil Paine of Basketball Reference provides a bunch of data that adds up in this way: "...it appears that there's a very slight trend over the last decade that says teams who rely on their guards and smaller players tend to win a few more games over the course of a season. This makes sense, given that the league spent most of the Oughts trying to tip the advantage in favor of perimeter scorers with modifications to the rules on hand-checking and more liberal foul calls on drives in general."
- Meet Dr. Foot.
- You have to appreciate Tony Parker's candor. He tells L'Equipe that his recent return to San Antonio was upsetting and that he plans to gradually work himself back into his national team's rotation. They have a heavy schedule between now and training camp. (HT: Kace)
- I spent the morning listening to a terrific Blazer's Edge podcast with Kevin Pelton. If you don't have time to listen to the entire podcast, skip to segment 4 where Benjamin Golliver and Pelton pick up the hot-button topic of Moneyball, scouting, and the changing face of player evaluation in the NBA. (Soft caution: PG-13 audio between clips.)
- Jeremy Tyler will not be playing for Union Olympija Lubiana.
- Kurt Rambis is the leading candidate to become the T-Wolves next head coach. Shaquille O'Neal is not the GM in Minnesota.
- Most of the emails I received today were about the new Nike promotional featuring Kevin Durant, Mo Williams and Rashard Lewis.
- Save Our Sonics thinks James Donaldson has the best chance of restoring an NBA franchise to Seattle.
- Bethlehem Shoals says meh to the much ballyhooed free agent race of 2010. Chad Ford says these nine teams are in that race.
- Update: Sebastian Pruiti of Nets Are Scorching learns that upon being drafted Terrence Williams was immediately enamored by New Jersey's market size. That Terrence Williams caught on quick.
Orlando Magic forward Rashard Lewis has been suspended for violating the NBA's policy banning performance-enhancing drugs. Three immediate reactions:
For no good reason, I'm inclined to believe Rashard Lewis when he says his use of DHEA was unintentional, and that he had no idea it was part of an over-the-counter supplement.
However: How many athletes have used that excuse? At this point, I think it's up to 1.2 zillion.
Even just in the NBA, Darius Miles was similarly mystified last fall.
It's about to stop being an OK excuse.
Memo to all athletes: If you go down to the place where all the muscle heads buy supplements, and you buy anything, and you take it, you're putting yourself in a high-risk category to fail one of these tests. At some point, not knowing is not good enough. Therefore, if it's important to you not to take performance-enhancing drugs, either don't take those supplements, or do some serious research first, and stand by your decisions.
No Small Penalty
Rashard Lewis will be suspended for 10 games to start the season, which will cost him slightly more than $1.6 million in salary. This must be one of the most expensive drug tests in history.
But that's not all. The Collective Bargaining Agreement calls for a first positive test for performance-enhancing drugs (SPEDS or "Steroids or Performance Enhancing Drugs" in NBA parlance) to be accompanied by a 10-game suspension and treatment in the league's SPED program. (A second failed test means a 25-game suspension, a third a year suspension, and a fourth banishment from the league.) I'm curious to know what that program entails.
Will Lewis endure the treatment program if we believe he took this supplement only by accident? And if we don't believe him ... what does that say? Are the Sixers going to want a do-over after Lewis killed them in Game 6 of last year's playoffs? How about the Celtics (Lewis was tremendous in Game 3) or Cavaliers (he was 9-13 from the floor as the Magic stole Game 1)?
Football, baseball, cycling, track and field, swimming, weightlifting ... all kinds of sports have faced brutal questioning about performance-enhancing drugs. But not so much basketball.
I have been asking NBA people for a decade. They all say the same things: that they haven't seen it, and that the kinds of muscles people get from steroids wouldn't help in basketball.
Even if we accept all that as once true, performance-enhancing drugs have evolved at a more advanced pace than these blanket denials. Especially as the list of violators grows: Matt Geiger, Don McLean, Soumaila Samake, Lindsey Hunter, Darius Miles and now Rashard Lewis.
Not to mention, athletes in all sports have been getting bigger, stronger and faster. In many of the other sports, some of that has been attributed to cheating. But not in basketball.
Is that because basketball has been cleaner, or less scrutinized?
When Miles tested positive, Dave from BlazersEdge captured the sentiment nicely:
If you ask me if I think performance-enhancing drug use is rampant in the NBA I will say that I don't think so, but I'm not certain. If you ask me whether I trust the NBA to be vigilant against PED's or to take care of the problem if it already has one, I will say no. If you ask me if the NBA could be more invested in protecting players rather than revealing them, I'd say there's considerable incentive for them to do so.
It's not so much that my suspicion is overwhelming, it's that my trust is thin.
No, we don't have cause to cast suspicion all around the NBA. But surely we're also losing our ability to laugh these kinds of things off as aberrations.
Google terms like "genetic enhancement" and "human growth hormone." It is undeniable that in 2009 there are myriad ways NBA athletes could get ahead by cheating. Running faster and jumping higher is only the beginning. Recovering faster -- from surgery or a grueling schedule -- building muscle ... elite basketball players can benefit from such things. And with that reality, it seems inevitable that the NBA will not stay above the drugs fray for too long.
Matt McHale of By the Horns: "It's a bad sign when fans start longing for the halcyon days of the Michael Sweetney Era. And it's especially frustrating for Bulls fans, who had to deal with the loss of Ben Gordon while the league's rich got even richer: Boston got Rasheed Wallace, Cleveland got Shaq, L.A. got Ron Artest and San Antonio got Richard Jefferson ... It makes sense that the fans wanted to see a move. Something big, something juicy. But sometimes, staying the course might be the best plan of action. Or inaction, as the case may be. As things stand right now, the Bulls have a solid core of players -- a budding All-Star-in-the-making, a few savvy vets, some developing youngsters -- and enough expiring contracts to make a major move next summer or at the trade deadline. And Chicago will certainly be a much more attractive free agent destination if the Bulls can match last season's success than if they fell apart because [Carlos] Boozer took his usual 30-40 game vacation and our backcourt players broke down from playing too many minutes. Now, if the Jazz wanted to trade Boozer for some loose parts off the Bulls' scrap pile -- Tim Thomas, Jerome James, Anthony Roberson -- then let's get it done. And while we're dreaming, maybe they'll trade us Deron Williams for Brad Miller's expiring contract. But barring some mass hysteria and insanity in Utah, I guess Bulls fans will have to be satisfied with some incremental progress and hope for the future."
Zach McCann of Orlando Magic Daily: "The only real issue with signing Brandon Bass is that -- at least technically -- he plays the position where the Magic were the deepest before his arrival. Rashard Lewis and Ryan Anderson gave the Magic talent and depth at power forward, making it the only position with a legitimate starter and legitimate reserve (I'd count point guard as well, but that's arguable). When a team has eight players under contract, as the Magic did last week, an all-star and a promising rookie at one position feels like an overabundance of wealth. So, at the surface, bringing in another power forward doesn't make a whole lot of sense (especially a 6-foot-7 power forward who's seemingly too small to fill in as the team's primary backup center, even if the statistics say otherwise). But that doesn't mean it was a bad signing. I love the move - like most Magic fans do - especially for the relatively inexpensive price tag. For a 23-year-old who seeps potential and has already played meaningful minutes on an upper-echelon team, $18 million over four years is a great deal. Anytime you can attain a quality player for that kind of value, you do it."
Graydon Gordian of 48 Minutes of Hell: "I love watching [DeJuan] Blair work under the boards. He has a mature sense of spacing and soft, accurate hands. His rebounding was particularly notable on the offensive end, where he consistently turned misses by his teammates into open layups and trips to the line (where he went 5-6). As will be the case with during the regular season, Blair was by no means the tallest player on the floor. But he was the only player on either team whose rebounding count reached double digits. Blair's offensive contributions weren't limited to put-backs; he showed promising signs that a well-rounded offensive game may be in his future. On the first play we ran specifically to him, Blair turned and hit a smooth 12-footer. On the next play, he received the ball at almost the exact same spot and used his defenders over-adjustment to take him off the dribble and draw the foul. Blair's mechanics are a little loose, but the origins of a reliable offensive arsenal are there."
(Photos by Andrew D. Bernstein, Doug Pensinger, Noah Graham, Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)
As traumatic as the first trade of a young player's career is said to be, Ryan Anderson appears to be grieving about as much as a lottery winner after being sent to Orlando from New Jersey as part of the draft-day deal involving Vince Carter.
Ryan Anderson: "He's one of those guys ... It leaves his hands and you say, 'It's in." (Fernando Medina/NBA via Getty Images)
out of here....'
"That's definitely not what it was. I talked to the whole staff in New Jersey. It was a hard decision for them to make, but if I could go with anybody, I'm glad I came with Vince.”
It took just five summer games for Anderson to make Orlando look like his personal Magic Kingdom. He finished with 33 points -- one shy of Travis Diener's league-record -- and 14 rebounds Tuesday against
He followed with five 3-pointers and 26 points against Utah. At times, Anderson was the second-best player in Orlando after Russell Westbrook and showed just how much he could thrive playing behind
Rashard Lewis with the Magic.
"How many guys in the league, when the ball leaves their hands, do you feel like, 'It's in'?” Jazz assistant Scott Layden asked. "All of a sudden the basket looks like a hula hoop.
"He's one of those guys, really. It leaves his hands and you say, 'It's in,' right? He's that way. And what a team to play for. Wow. Think about that. You get looks on Orlando.”
Anderson had one sequence Thursday during the second quarter against Utah in which he hit a 3-pointer, put the ball on the floor against Goran Suton -- spinning back for a layup -- and then buried another 3-pointer off a pick-and-pop.
Anderson averaged 7.4 points and 4.7 rebounds as a rookie in New Jersey, but played in only 66 games. The 21-year-old spoke about the importance of confidence, which he figures will be easier to maintain
with a defined role off the bench in Orlando.
"Rashard didn't really get too much of a break, so I'm there to relieve him,” Anderson said. "You can play the same game with Rashard on and off the court.”
Not even two weeks after the trade, Anderson crossed paths all week in Orlando with the Nets' Lawrence Frank, Rod Thorn and Kiki Vandeweghe, in town to watch their own summer-league team. Anderson said there was no awkwardness in the least.
"I think it's kind of nice,” Anderson said. "I have that team family and now I have a brand-new family.”
The vibe around the Magic couldn't have felt better this week. Dwight Howard was a regular -- even for Friday's 11 a.m. getaway game between the Jazz and Oklahoma City -- while Vince Carter stopped in a handful of times.
Even after signing an offer sheet with Dallas, Marcin Gortat watched games every day, evidence perhaps of how tough it is to leave Orlando right now ... or, in Anderson's case, how easy it is to arrive.
"It's a good fit for us because he fits into our style of play,” Magic general manager Otis Smith said. "He's another tall forward that can shoot and you can't have enough of them.”
Having traded up from the Nets to the Magic, from a 34-win lottery team to one that reached the Finals, from winter in the Meadowlands to year-round fun in the sun, Anderson clearly is enjoying the view from the penthouse.
"I think I've always been an underdog guy my whole career,” Anderson said. "I'm finally in a spot where a team really wants me and needs me. Last year in New Jersey, I'm a rookie, so they don't know what to expect of me, really. But here they do, and it's exciting. This is a winning team. I'm really excited to be part of it.”
Watch Earl Clark play basketball, and it's clear he could have the most potential of any player in the 2009 draft. He's 6-10, can do just about everything, and starred on the best team in one of the toughest conferences in NCAA history. So why is he projected to go in the middle of the first round? Kevin Arnovitz investigates.
The summer after eighth grade, Earl Clark's knees started to hurt. Really hurt. His folks took him to a doctor to see if there was something structurally wrong with his body. it turned out to nothing more than growing pains -- the kind a 6-foot kid gets when he sprouts six inches in matter of months.
"I couldn't play for a while," Clark said. "I was growing too fast."
Sizing up Earl Clark is a tricky business.
(Photo by Andy Lyons via Getty Images)
As a 6-foot guard in middle school, Clark excelled at running his team's offense from the perimeter. He could handle the ball and pass. "Before I started growing, I was a guard, so I always had those skills," Clark said. "They never stopped being there."
The growth spurt morphed Clark into a big man, even if only by stature. He went from being a guard's guard in eighth grade to, at 6-6, one of the bigger players on the floor in his freshman year. Size like that invites certain expectations by coaches, teammates, and recruiters. Nobody cares that in your formative basketball years, you cultivated a specific set of skills and sculpted your game around them. A basketball team has tasks that need to be performed by big men. If you're tall, those responsibilities are going to fall to you, even if you remain the best perimeter player on the floor, with a love of playing outside.
"I needed him to be a post presence," Clark's coach his senior year at Rahway High School, Chris Remley, said. "That took the ball out of his hands, and he didn't like that very much."
Clark achieved a steady balance during his high school career. He still thrived on the perimeter, where he was a comfortable and practiced player. He gradually learned how to exploit his length up front, even though that project was less fun for him. What emerged was one of the most versatile talents in the nation by his senior year of high school. Clark took his game to Louisville, where he starred for Rick Pitino. Last season, the Cardinals were the regular season champions of the best league in college ball -- the Big East -- and 6-9 junior forward Earl Clark was their best player.
When team executives and player development people talk about Clark, they rhapsodize about his tools as a basketball player. Then, in the same breath, they qualify that praise with a litany of ifs: If he can apply those tools all the time. If he wants it bad enough. If he can learn how to compete at an NBA level. It's these lingering doubts about his inner desire, the observers say, that have Clark projected to go in the teens on Thursday, rather than in the two-through-eight range.
Something strange happens when you ask where these impressions come from. The observers back off a little and, almost uniformly, tell you that they're just relaying the conventional wisdom on Clark.
Conventional wisdom doesn't manifest itself out of nowhere, right? It has to come from someplace. Finding that place can be a bit of a scavenger hunt.
Top Five Talent
Last season at Louisville, Clark averaged 14.2 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 3.2 turnovers in 34.3 minutes per game. His production has him projected as the 12th best collegiate prospect in John Hollinger's Draft Rater.
Finding evidence of Clark's full array of skills is an easy task. Some of his best performances came in Louisville's biggest games -- in the Big East Tournament, which Louisville won to secure the top seed in the NCAA tournament, and during the Cardinals' run to the Elite Eight.
Clark's effort against Providence in the Big East Tourney opener was one of the most complete games of the college basketball season by any player at any position. Clark scored 24 points (making 10 of his 15 field goal attempts), grabbed 10 rebounds, dished out seven assists, and blocked a couple of shots:
- [1st half, 5:52] When Clark's game is characterized as "versatile," the label usually refers to his offensive game. But Clark's range as a defender in Rick Pitino's system shouldn't be overlooked. During his career at Louisville, Clark has been utilized in the backcourt of Pitino's patented press, on the perimeter against dynamic scorers and, most often, on the back line of Pitino's 2-3 zone. Here, we see Clark slide over from the weak side to block Geoff McDermott's shot. When McDermott picks up the remains, Clark elevates and again blocks McDermott's shot. As the ball ends up in the hands of Terrence Williams -- who pushes it ahead to Edgar Sosa -- Clark races ahead of the pack to put himself in position for the alley-oop, which he converts with ease.
Clark tends to begin offensive possessions out on the perimeter, but moves gracefully and purposefully off the ball to generate good shots:
- [1st half, 4:05] A beautiful possession that begins when Clark leaves the ball up top with his big man, Samardo Samuels. Clark deftly cuts to the basket and catches the entry pass from Samuels down low in traffic. Up against two Providence defenders, Clark creates space for himself by forging ahead with his right shoulder, then flings a soft left-handed hook off the glass for the two.
- [2nd half, 13:54] Critics often point to an unwillingness by Clark to work in the post, but as you go through video of Louisville's games, you see several instances when Clark recognizes an opportunity on the block and exploits it. After a broken offensive possession by the Cardinals, the ball squirts out to guard Jerry Smith out on the perimeter. Clark assertively calls for the ball in the post. With his back to Providence's biggest defender, Jonathan Kale, Clark goes to work -- he backs Kale down with his right shoulder, spins baseline, the launches a turnaround jump shot that falls through.
The most alluring quality of Clark's game might be his instinctive ability to know where both his guards and big men are on a given play. 24 hours after Louisville's win over Providence, Clark had a different sort of game against Villanova. He made only six of 14 shots from the field for 17 points and mustered only seven rebounds. But in a profound way, Clark seemed almost more integral to the offense:
- [1st half, 4:05] Villanova has been applying pressure the whole game on Clark -- even out on the perimeter. When Clark receives the pass out on the left wing, he's immediately swarmed by Villanova's Scottie Reynolds and Corey Stokes. Clark puts it on the deck, starts a dribble drive, but then picks up the ball. He sees that Terrence Jennings has gotten deep position underneath. He elevates for a running jumper, but instead delivers a gorgeous pass over the top of three defenders that hits Jennings in the hands. It's an easy layup for the big man, but it's almost entirely Clark's doing.
- [2nd half, 10:44] Just as he did against Providence, Clark demands the ball in the post. He clearly likes the matchup against Shane Clark on the left block. The ball goes into Clark there. He waits patiently to see if a hedging Rey
nolds is going to slough off Louisville guard Andre McGee to double down on him. When Reynolds commits, Clark kicks the ball out to McGee for a 3-pointer. This is a very pro-like possession, and Clark demonstrates a professional level of patience and execution. He realizes that his value on the play will come not from working down low for his own shot, but by leveraging his mismatch to draw the double-team and, ultimately, a wide open 3-point attempt for one of the shooters.
- [2nd half, 6:52] Clark recognizes what's happening on the floor at a given moment in time. He holds the ball up top. When Jennings draws the 6-foot-1 Corey Fisher underneath, Clark immediately reads the mismatch from the perimeter and fires a pinpoint pass to his big man so that it can be exploited.
Clark can create offense in a variety of ways, though he doesn't always do so efficiently. He attempted only 3.8 free throws a game last season (and hit at only a 64.7% clip at the stripe). His effective field goal percentage dipped below 50% in 2008-09, and he turned the ball over 3.6 times per game -- both red flags for a forward.
There are those who say that the flaws in Clark's overall game can be found in these stats -- forget about the intangible "if" elements that may or may not plague him. These flaws can also be seen in games like Louisville's blowout loss at home to Connecticut where Clark withered against Jeff Adrien -- hitting two of 16 shots from the floor, while hauling down only three rebounds against three turnovers. Clark barely stepped foot into the paint that night, content to settle for long jumpers on perimeter pick-and-pop plays.
Clark's naysayers outside the world of analytics don't mind these numbers. They're actually quite sold on Clark's talent. They worry about two things: Whether Earl Clark truly understands the level of competition that awaits him in the NBA, and whether he has a natural position.
Whatever Earl Clark lacks in intensity, it didn't prevent him from leading the Cardinals to the Big East Championship and a top seed in the big dance.
The Intensity Rap
When Clark was told that there is a legion of basketball people out there that don't think he's a killer, he was befuddled.
"I averaged nine rebounds a game in the Big East," Clark said. "How can you do that, how can you play for Coach Pitino for three years, and not be a killer?"
Clark's skeptics would respond that he didn't work that hard to get those 8.7 rebounds. They believe that because Clark is so uniquely talented, and so much better than everyone else he's played with for most of his 21 years, that he never had to grind to be effective. They point to the UConn game as an example of Clark's inability to elevate his offensive game against an elite defense. Why not challenge Adrien off the dribble? Why not get Thabeet and company to collapse and use playmaking skills to find shooters on the perimeter?
His high school coach, Remley, recalled the 2006 state high school championship game between Rahway and Haddonfield, led by 7-foot-1 center Brian Zoubek, who went on to play for Duke. "I thought [Clark] would make Zoubek look slow," Remley said. "But Earl looked like he was in a hole, like he was 6-2. He couldn't do anything." Clark finished with 12 points and seven rebounds, while Zoubek went for 27 points and 18 rebounds in Haddonfield's 71-37 win.
Other than the UConn game and Remley's testimonial of a game Clark played three years ago in high school, I had trouble finding too many instances of Clark taking plays off. I watched hundreds of sequences on video, taking special care to study Clark's body language, which had been labeled as languid and carefree by some. Though Clark has a sleepy expression at times, it rarely translated into performance. That Providence game? Clark flashed few facial expressions that afternoon; he was too busy dominating the action. But for those desperate for a little show of emotion, Clark punctuated his assist on that interior feed to Jennings described above with an emphatic fist pump.
"I'm not going to start screaming and barking on the court," Clark said. "That's not who I am. If people don't like my persona, I can't do anything about it. I'm just a basketball player."
It's hard not to sympathize with Clark's protests. Would he be a more desirable ballplayer if he got down on all fours like Kevin Garnett and snarled? Is it possible that a player can harbor an inner intensity that doesn't surface in external behavior or mood?
These are difficult questions to answer, which is why fifteen teams are now using BBIQ to evaluate a player's core personality and makeup. Given the reputation Clark has developed as a less than assertive player who lacks an inner fire, you might expect him to perform poorly when measured for mental toughness, court awareness, and competitive instinct. But according to those who have seen the results of his BBIQ test, Clark rates high in coachability, resiliency, and appears to display a strong need for dominance (a good trait). Go figure. Clark's advocates like to add that he comes from a nurturing two-parent family (something that's seen as a predictor of success in certain quarters), and hasn't had any reported academic or personal issues.
Could it be that when some execs and coaches try to quantify intensity and willingness to grind that they look at the wrong things?
Stan Jones, an assistant coach at Florida State, drew an interesting parallel. "It takes a keen eye to tell the difference between motor -- or false effort -- and a true competitive edge," Jones said. "You don't win the Big East Championship with guys who aren't competitive."
In court mannerisms, Clark reminds Jones a little of John Salmons. "They're not the kind of guys who are chewing up the floor and spitting nails," Jones said. "They may not visually look like they're intense, but they're getting plenty done."
Jones' delineation makes a lot of sense, but many general managers and coaches don't have the patience and inclination to play mind reader. Why take a chance on a guy who might give you his all each and every night when you can choose a player who's certain to do so? This is the line of thinking that Earl Clark is up against.
The Plight of the Forward Tweener
In terms of timing, there's something a little ironic about the concern that Clark doesn't have a natural position -- the other major worry about Clark. We just witnessed an NBA Finals that featured a menagerie of unique talents like Lamar Odom, Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis and Pau Gasol. The positional landscape of the NBA is changing before us, yet we cling tightly to an orthodox understanding of the game.
Back-to-the-basket power forwards are nearing the point of extinction; The face-up "four" has become the norm. Even most of Clark's critics concede that with his size, length and court awareness, he's probably capable of guarding both positions. The question they ask is: Where should a team situate him offensively?
Is it possible that indictment #1 (Earl Clark doesn't look like he's trying) is directly related to indictment #2 (Earl Clark do
esn't know what kind of player he is)? Is it a coincidence that guys who are classified as "versatile big men” are often regarded as flighty? We've seen Odom, Shawn Marion, Boris Diaw, Turkoglu, and Lewis each take flak for being whimsical. How can a guy with that size and that range of skills disappear like he does?!
Clark embodies this basketball archetype. When he falls below the radar on the court -- whether it was in that horrendous game against UConn or in a hostile road environment like Morgantown, West Virginia -- it isn't so much that he's unassertive. It's often a case of not knowing which of his many skills to assert on a specific play. A player like Clark can look like he's taking plays off when, in reality, he's paralyzed by choice.
When Clark gets twitchy on a halfcourt possession, he often holds the ball overhead along the perimeter. He looks over at the weak side, then down low, then back up at his point guard. There's a moment you think he'll put the ball on the deck and drive past his defender, and sometimes he'll start his dribble move that way. Only Clark doesn't display the tunnel vision of a fierce slasher. You can riffle through dozens of clips before you see Clark simply put his head down and drive for the hole. He hesitates, will look for a kickout or a cutter, maybe back it out, or just stop in his tracks. It's the tentativeness of someone with too many options.
Watching Clark at moments like these evokes memories of Lamar Odom's early days with the Los Angeles Clippers. Odom came to the pro game with a vast array of skills, almost none of which were wholly NBA-ready. He'd recognize a mismatch -- for instance, a hulking big man guarding him on the ball along the perimeter. Odom's initial instincts would be spot on, and he'd blow by the big man without much effort. But he'd ease up before he got to the hole, which would allow a lanky weak side defender to challenge the play and force him to his weaker right hand. Prior to arriving in the NBA, Odom never needed more than 80% speed to finish an elementary play like that.
It took Odom a couple of seasons to summon a level of effort he'd never before had to apply on the basketball court. He'd have to finish 20% more assertively. His passing game -- which he lorded over much smaller players in amateur ball -- would have to be 20% more precise. He'd have to play 20% less upright on defense because the competition was that much quicker. Above all, he'd have to get comfortable playing 20% harder.
For guys like Odom in his first couple of seasons -- and now Clark -- this might come across as an affront. Are the critics suggesting they haven't been giving it their all this whole time?
Not exactly. When only 80% has ever been required of you to succeed, you might not even realize that you're not working at full capacity. Why would you? Clark's sum effort is uncalculable -- not by scouts, not by BBIQ, not by the Louisville coaching staff, maybe not even by Clark himself. It's entirely possible that Clark's mannerisms distort our perceptions. We won't know until he's playing at the NBA level, an uncertainty that impatient NBA front offices don't want to entertain.
Just a Basketball Player
Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Clark to classify his game. He initially began to roll out some general talking points about his versatility, his defense, and wanting to combine all his skills and bring them to the next level. Then he paused for a beat.
Maybe he lost his train of thought, or maybe he was exhausted from having just finished a workout for his umpteenth team in the last two weeks. Maybe he was just tired of talking about himself.
"I think I'm just a basketball player," he said.
Clark isn't just any basketball player -- he's the enigma of this year's draft class. He has advocates who think his multifaceted skill set is brilliantly suited to a pro game that increasingly rewards versatility at both ends of the floor. He also has an army of doubters who expect him to be the next Tim Thomas -- a boundless talent who lacks the drive to make good on those promises.
Clark realizes there's nothing he can say or do right now to sell anyone on his competitive spirit. When asked about it, he's quick to point out that his team got the best from him when it mattered most last March. Will that be enough to persuade an NBA GM with a Top 10 pick? Only a few more days until we find out.
Orlando lost in overtime in Games 2 and 4. Each was loaded with regrettable moments, from Courtney Lee's alley-oop layup attempt to Derek Fisher's almost wide-open 3. But if the Magic and Lakers could play the series again, and could repeat their efforts of Games 2,3 and 4, quite likely it would be a whole different series -- a bounce here or there changes everything.
The games Orlando ought to regret were Games 1 and 5, when the Magic simply did not play very well.
In the NBA Finals, you can make little mistakes here or there and still win. But you can not lay an egg. And if there's a lesson for next year's playoffs in this year's Finals, it's probably, more than anything, about preventing meltdowns, rather than sweating the details of crunch time.
Not all that long ago, people thought Phil Jackson was crazy for trusting Derek Fisher.
Derek Fisher has been through some serious battles in Laker history -- and has developed a special bond with Kobe Bryant. Yet when he missed shots in big numbers in early rounds of the playoffs, Laker faithful bailed on Derek Fisher in big numbers. But Phil Jackson didn't. He stuck to Derek Fisher like James Carville stuck to the Clintons. Forum Blue and Gold reader Zephid writes: "Everyone under the sun was calling for Phil to bench Fisher and play more Shannon Brown (myself included). Tell me, does anyone honestly believe that anyone outside of Bryant could have made those two shots other than Fisher? Through all his struggles, all the 1-8, 1-7 shooting games, our coaching staff kept the faith in Fisher. Even when he was getting crushed by Deron Williams, Aaron Brooks, Chauncey Billups, and Rafer Alston, the coaching still kept calling his number, sending him in during crunch time, sending him to battle when the games were on the line. And for their faith, they were rewarded with the most crucial victory of the season, delivered to us by one and only Derek Fisher."
3. Kobe Bryant's Mission Accomplished
Kobe Bryant's competitive fires burn as bright as anyone's. (Exchange with a reporter: "As far as me hitting the wall, so what if I did? I didn't, but so what if I did? What does it mean if you did? It means nothing. Because? Because I'll run straight through it.") So, of course, he is obsessed with championships. Winning one without Shaquille O'Neal presumably lifts a tremendous psychic weight, and gives him four, to compare to Michael Jordan's six. Before Game 5, Bryant was asked if he had matching Jordan's six rings on his to-do list. "I'm trying," he said with a smile, "to get this damn fourth one." It has been seven tumultuous years since Bryant's last title.
4. Kobe Bryant Didn't Do It "Alone" All the talk about winning one without Shaquille O'Neal makes it tempting to think of Bryant winning a title "alone." Despite the fact that Kobe Bryant was the series' clear MVP, of course many of the biggest plays of this series were made by teammates like Fisher, Ariza and Odom.
Pau Gasol, however, is series MVP 1a. Not only was he extraordinarily efficient with the ball all series, but he also evolved to be nearly masterful on defense. For much of the decisive Game 5 the Magic simply couldn't finish around or over him -- even as he single-covered Dwight Howard much of the night. ESPN Stats and Information charted Gasol single-covering Howard on 38 possessions -- and Howard did not score from the field on any of them.
6. Yes, Big Men Matter
Spoiler alert: Have you seen "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3?" I'm about to spill the beans, so skip ahead if you don't want to know how it ended.
Before Game 4, Phil Jackson took the Lakers to see that movie. It's essentially a big-budget public transport hostage negotiation conversation between two men: The calm, centered and largely innocent Denzel Washington, and the brilliant but excessively angry character played by John Travolta.
I'm beginning to believe that the primary focus of Jackson's coaching is to keep his players centered and mindful, as opposed to over-adrenalized and mindless. He's the opposite of the coach who screams in your face to play harder.
Denzel Washington's character keeps focused, doesn't lose his head, and gets what is most important to him in the end. Travolta's character is a great strategist, but callous and frenetic. Things don't turn out so well for him.
This may be the first and last time that Stan Van Gundy gets compared to John Travolta.
Meanwhile, Mickael Pietrus assigned himself his own cinematic inspiration. Before Game 5, he watched "Borat."
7. A Laker Benchwarmer Savors a Personal Victory
Laker forward Josh Powell played just 73 minutes during these playoffs, but he more than earned the sense of victory and relief that comes with his first championship ring. Needing money to support his family, Powell left North Carolina State in 2003. Long, skilled, athletic and tough he was so impressive at some of his workouts that he was briefly discussed as a lottery pick -- although he ultimately went undrafted, and has played for several team overseas in the NBA in the interim.
One of his workouts was for the Washington Wizards, where Patrick Ewing was then an assistant coach.
After the workout, Ewing stunned Powell, by telling him that he would never make the NBA.
Powell has not forgotten. "Every time I see him," he says, he remembers the words that once cut him. "It was just motivation. I can't do nothing but respect it, if that's his opinion. It just drove me to go hard. It drove me to stay hungry."
About then, some NBA personnel came through the champagne-soaked Laker locker room with the gleaming NBA championship trophy. Powell finishes his thought, reaching for the trophy: "Everything worked out for the best ... now let me see that thing right there ..."
8. Courtney Lee's Missed Alley-Oop
Despite point #1, aren't we all going to remember that Game 2 was almost decided on a buzzer-beating alley-oop? One of the most electric missed opportunities in NBA Finals History.
In addition to playing for a title, Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza were essent
ially playing for their Laker lives this post-season. Both are free agents and, each could have played their last game as a Laker. Of course, there's nothing like a championship to encourage an owner to spend to keep a team together.
Which could be concern for the likes of Orlando's Hedo Turkoglu and Marcin Gortat -- both of whom could command big dollars on the open market this summer. Losing either player, but especially Turkoglu, could be a blow to an Orlando team with a lot of promise.
The other big goodbye that must be anticipated one of these years: Phil Jackson's. If Tex Winter was right that Jackson was motivated by a desire for ten rings, then what's going to keep Jackson in the hunt now?
Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
The Orlando Magic have endured their share of shaky runs this postseason. They coughed up an 18-point lead with less than a minute remaining in the third quarter to lose their playoff opener. They were painfully close to taking a 3-2 series lead home to Orlando when they led by 10 points with fewer than five minutes remaining in Game 4 of their conference semifinal against Boston, but faltered down the stretch. For sheer drama, those late-game meltdowns were spectacular, but the run that proved to be fatal was the 16-0 run they surrendered to the Lakers in the second quarter of Game 5 Sunday night.
Orlando looked sharp over the first quarter and a half of the game. We witnessed two of the best offensive minutes of Dwight Howard's career to start the second quarter. He showed us a baby dream shake, then a graceful spinning dribble move for an easy layup. The Magic executed on one of their patented reversals to get Mickael Pietrus a nice look from 15 feet, and scored their 40th point at the 7:11 mark of the second quarter.
Trevor Ariza had two 3-pointers, to be exact, during the Lakers' decisive 16-0 spurt in the second quarter. (Elsa/NBAE via Getty Images)
The Magic's fluid offensive attack was masking some of their defensive shortcomings -- lazy pick-and-roll defense [Rashard Lewis, 1st, quarter, 10:01; Hedo Turkoglu, 1st quarter, 4:21], problems on the weak side glass, [1st quarter, 6:45], passive perimeter D [Courtney Lee, 1st quarter, 4:48]. Most notably, though, Orlando doubled Kobe Bryant very liberally in the
first half. The Magic paid for it when Bryant kicked a quick pass over to a Trevor Ariza drive at the 3-minute mark of the first quarter. Ariza had an easy path to the basket and was fouled on his short attempt by Howard.
It was this type of overcompensation by Orlando that ignited the Lakers, and gave them nine of their first 11 points of their spurt:
- [2nd quarter, 5:54 mark] The Lakers ran out in transition, but after the Magic raced back, Derek Fisher reset. Though the Magic did a generally good job of recovering in transition, neither of their wings were able to spell Rafer Alston. Bryant smelled blood, and immediately posted up Alston on the right block. That's where Fisher's pass went.
That Alston needed help was obvious. The question was, where should it come from? Pietrus had some distance to cover from the right corner, but it was a manageable commute. Instead, Turkoglu raced over from Fisher, leaving Game 4's hero wide open for a 3-pointer (good). Rashard Lewis could've rotated up, but the price would've been Lamar Odom at 18 feet.
- [2nd quarter, 5:09 mark] The Lakers didn't just hurt Orlando when the Magic doubled Bryant in the halfcourt -- they made the Magic pay in transition, too. After Bryant picked off an entry pass intended for Howard, he raced down the right sideline. Almost every single magician made a beeline to Kobe on the break. Lewis was backpedaling in front of Bryant, with Pietrus in close pursuit, and Howard not far behind. When Turkoglu joined the mob, that left the entire near side of the floor for Alston. Bryant whipped a pass to Ariza, who had all day to set up and launch a 3-pointer (good).
- [2nd quarter, 4:11] "Smart player" is one of those characterizations that gets thrown around a lot. Put another way, a smart player is one who applies useful information about the past to the present. Bryant was clearly attuned to the fact that Turkoglu was leaving Ariza the nanosecond Bryant went directly at his defender. So what did Kobe do? Attack off the dribble with his left, to the spot where Turkoglu was set up on his hedge. Turkoglu reacted predictably -- by shifting his weight and attention to Kobe. The only thing required of Bryant was an easy kickout to a wide open Ariza on the left wing for another successful 3.
Nine out of the first 11 points came on Bryant assists out of the double-team. The other two points? A pull-up jumper by Bryant against a double-team of Pietrus and Howard [2nd quarter, 4:43].
The tipping point? (Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
Those are tactical matters, but they were almost certainly informed by the emotional flashpoint of the game -- a confrontation between Turkoglu and Ariza following Fisher's 3-pointer. Orlando called timeout, then Turkoglu and Ariza earned double technicals when they jawed at each other nose to nose. Out of the timeout, Ariza and the Lakers played some of their most relentless defense of the postseason. That defense was every bit as vital to the 16-0 run as Bryant's kickouts on the other end:
- [2nd quarter, 5:37] The Lakers take a lot of flak for their pick-and-roll defense, which can be indecisive at times, but they began their defensive stand in the second quarter with a strong possession. Turkoglu -- with Ariza in hot pursuit -- swung around the arc to pick up a handoff from Alston. Howard stepped out to give Turkoglu a ball screen, but Ariza bowled right through Howard to stay close to Turkoglu. Just in case, Gasol showed assertively, slowing Turkoglu's momentum. Once Ariza recovered, Gasol dashed to Howard.
A lightning quick show and recovery by Ariza and Gasol. Had you frozen the screen, you would've seen Fisher, Odom, and Bryant zoning the floor exquisitely. Pietrus ultimately settled for an off-balance jumper in traffic.
After a loose ball foul on Gasol, the Lakers have to do it again, and the Magic initiated a similar play: Handoff for Turkoglu with an immediate perimeter screen from Howard. Again, Ariza and Gasol played it to perfection. The prettiest part of the sequence was the teamwork by Odom, who had to account for Lewis at the 3-point line, and Gasol, who needed to follow Howard to the block, but not before Ariza recovered. Their coordination was precise. Odom delayed Howard's path, then got out of there to close on Lewis in the nick of time.
Whether it was coincidence or the dramatic renderings of the basketball gods, Turkoglu and Ariza always seemed to be at the center of things during the 3:16 stretch:
- [2nd quarter, 4:02] Seconds after Ariza hit the second of this 3-pointers, the ball worked its way over to Turkoglu. The Lakers early strong-side pressure left Ariza on Lewis -- with Odom on Turkoglu -- on the far side. For a lot of teams, a 3-4 cross-match might be problematic, but not the Lakers, with their agility and length. Turkoglu began his dribble against Odom along the baseline, but Odom -- one of the best big perimeter defenders in the league -- gave up nothing. Turkoglu was trying to find some space ... any space, thought he had Howard in the post, but the entry pass was knocked away and grabbed by Ariza. Orlando's transition defense never recovered, and the Lakers ended up with Fisher taking Howard off the dribble in isolation. Layup.
- [2nd quarter, 3:29] Coming out of the timeout, the end of the series felt palpable for the first time. The Lakers were rabid, and when Lewis got the ball out on the perimeter, he was swarmed by a double-team 20 feet away from the basket. Lewis frantically tried to dish the ball off to Turkoglu, but Ariza shot the gap, knocked the ball away, and slashed his way downcourt one-on-one against Turkoglu. The only recourse for Hedo was to f
oul, and Ariza made his way to the line, where he drained one of two.
- [2nd quarter, 3:12] Ever since the confrontation with Turkoglu, Ariza had been an animal on the defensive end, clawing at Turkoglu off the ball. After Ariza's made free throw on the other end, the Lakers led by 10. Alston brought the ball down as Howard, Turkoglu, and Lewis converged awkwardly at the top of the key. Even during their earlier collapses, the Magic never appeared this disoriented, unable to set up a basic halfcourt set. Turkoglu was clearly supposed to free himself up courtesy of a Lewis down screen, but Ariza didn't let Turkoglu get even an inch of daylight. In his effort to shake free of Ariza, Turkoglu tripped over Lewis. Both Magic forwards sprawled to the hardwood. Ariza picked up the loose ball and, from the ground, heaved an outlet pass to Odom that resulted in a 3-on-1 Lakers break.
Ariza has always displayed an aggressive style, but Sunday night, he was an aggressive player. It wasn't just his tactical game -- Ariza's entire persona was transformed into a killer. Bryant was able to use his supremacy to create the shots during the spurt, but it was Ariza's passage from contributor to winner that was decisive in the Lakers' championship stand.