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TrueHoop: Rick Adelman
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesRick Adelman: The quiet innovator
Name: Rick Adelman
Birthdate: June 16, 1946
Is he an emotional leader or a tactician?
A tactician whose schemes have influenced coaches at every level of competitive basketball. When Adelman wants to motivate a player or address a potential conflict, he’s far more likely to sidle up next to the guy at a shootaround or at practice for a quick conversation than make a fuss. Adelman is not a consoler, pep squad leader or speechmaker. His dominant message? Practice is tomorrow at 11. For players who prefer more communication or need hand-holding, this can be difficult, but Adelman has a knack for maintaining harmony.
Is he intense or a go-along-get-along type?
He has the unique ability to manage diverse personalities with his even temperament. Clyde Drexler clashed with an intense Mike Schuler during his early years in Portland, but when Adelman took over, Drexler was on the same page as his new coach from the outset. Adelman errs on the side of less practice, not more, and is constantly mindful of whether his players are in a good place, and that basketball isn’t becoming a chore to them. He isn’t inclined to develop deep relationships with players, but they’re confident he won’t play favorites and won’t call them out in a group setting. Adelman is a quiet teacher, a stoic and somewhat of an introvert, which is a rarity in this profession. On the road, he’s more likely to spend a night in than go out to a dinner where basketball might be the leading topic of conversation. He requires time to recharge.
Does he rely on systems, or does he coach ad hoc to his personnel?
Although his schemes offer a fair amount of flexibility, Adelman certainly falls on the system end of the spectrum. He wants the game played a certain way, something expressed in his corner sets that have been replicated a million times over in the league. A few NBA teams actually refer to these play calls as “SAC” (as in Sacramento), where Adelman refined his offensive approach. While the principles of Adelman’s offense remain the same -- all five players engaged, move the ball quickly, remain aggressive as you read and react -- he will adjust and modify the primary options to accommodate different skill sets. The best example would be Yao Ming, who needed to be fed the ball in places on the floor that, in most circumstances, Adelman would prefer vacant.
Does he share decision-making with star players, or is he The Decider?
Adelman believes that a player who buys into the program is entitled to a piece of the enterprise. He doesn’t preside over a dictatorship, but most of all, he pre-empts any conflict by making decisions his players can get behind. His system also entrusts players to make decisions and unleash their creativity.
Does he prefer the explosive scorer or the lockdown defender?
He has an affection for high-IQ scorers -- Peja Stojakovic, Kevin Martin, Mike Bibby, even Von Wafer. Under Adelman in Houston, Aaron Brooks got the bulk of the minutes over Kyle Lowry at the point until Brooks went down with an ankle injury in Adelman’s final season with the organization.
Does he prefer a set rotation, or is he more likely to use his personnel situationally?
A set rotation works best for Adelman, who wants to avoid making waves that might divert the focus of the team away from what’s happening on the court. When Adelman assigns someone to the starting lineup, he’ll exercise patience with that player.
Will he trust young players in big spots, or is he more inclined to use his veterans?
Young players, especially those who can score, get plenty of opportunities under Adelman. He took immediately to Cliff Robinson in Portland when the Trail Blazers were among the elite. Rookie Jason Williams led the Kings in minutes during the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season. Houston was largely a veteran outfit during Adelman’s tenure. Minnesota has been a MASH unit -- any healthy body will do.
Are there any unique strategies that he particularly likes?
Adelman isn’t looking for one specific shot in a possession. He imagines a range of positive outcomes and has created a framework for achieving one of those objectives, which we know generally as the corner offense.
The corner isn’t so much a system of play calls as it is a systematic way to promote ball and player movement through smart reads. Multiple players are involved in just about every possession, which keeps offenses humming and players happy.
At its most basic, a corner set will feature three players on the strong side -- at the wing, corner and a big man at the elbow who has the instincts and skills to facilitate offense on the fly, players such as Chris Webber, Vlade Divac or Brad Miller. Offensive players size up the defense, then choose an action that best exploits what the defense surrenders.
In short, read and react.
For instance, a dribble handoff is a popular option within the corner. A wing who can capably read a defense will play out the sequence based on what the defense affords him. If his defender is trying to deny the handoff by hugging him tightly, he can slip back door. If the defender goes under the big man, the wing can stop and pop. If the defender is trailing, then take the ball and penetrate, draw contact or, if help comes from the weak side to collapse, make a pass to a shooter in the corner (Stojakovic and Shane Battier were frequent beneficiaries). Of course, the big man can always fake the handoff and, if his defender bites, turn around and shoot an open jumper. While all this is going on, the weakside big might give his weakside small a down screen. This gives the corner crew another option -- a shooter popping out to the perimeter.
A lot of cool stuff can materialize with the corner, and most playbooks around the league include a couple of “C-sets” with multiple triggers. Ultimately, the collective instincts of the five-man unit drive the offense, and each player on the floor is empowered to do something over the course of the possession to test the defense and keep it guessing. The ball moves and, when run correctly, the offense never starts and rarely finishes with isolation basketball. The corner doesn’t offer the level of structure found in the Triangle or the continuity offense in San Antonio, but it’s easier to pick up and allows players to be a bit more creative -- which can be both an asset and a drawback.
What were his characteristics as a player?
A standout at Loyola Marymount, Adelman was a 6-foot-1 point guard without much of an outside shot and zero speed. But he could defend in the half court, move the ball to the scorers and make a pass on the move. He was chosen by the San Diego Rockets in the seventh round of the 1968 draft, and wore a hockey mask for the first couple of months of his NBA career after breaking his jaw in a preseason game. That Rockets team included Pat Riley. Two years later, Adelman became a charter member of the expansion Portland Trail Blazers team.
Which coaches did he play for?
His first NBA coach was Jack McMahon, regarded as a players’ coach. He also played for Rolland Todd, Stu Inman and Jack McCloskey, all of whom lost a lot of games. Adelman then moved to Chicago, where he played for Dick Motta, before moving on to New Orleans, where he played for the nomadic, fiery, profane Butch van Breda Kolff, then finished his career with the Kings and Phil Johnson.
What is his coaching pedigree?
Adelman got his start at Chemeketa Community College in Oregon, where coaching basketball was just one part of the gig. The position was actually the province of the college’s counseling department and Adelman’s other responsibilities included educating high school kids about the junior college system. Adelman’s big break came in 1983, when he got a phone call from Dr. Jack Ramsay asking him to join the Trail Blazers’ coaching staff. Ramsay’s “turnout” offense, with its continuity, multiple screens, cuts and quick passing, was foundational for Adelman, and Ramsay is very much the spiritual godfather for much of what Adelman has developed as an offensive practitioner. After Ramsay’s departure from Portland, Adelman stayed on under Schuler, then took over the head job when Schuler was let go in February 1989.
If basketball didn't exist, what might he be doing?
A lover of history who appreciates time to contemplate, Adelman would be on the faculty of a junior college in California or Oregon.
Getty ImagesMoving the needle in 2012-13: Andre Iguodala, LeBron James and Blake Griffin.
1. Will the Nuggets finally reward their army of boosters?
Beckley Mason: Oh man, I don’t wager money on the NBA, but let’s just say I emptied my vanity coffers investing preseason plaudits on this team. I’m worried that I’m so excited about how fun this team will be, I have overestimated how much it will actually win. The Nuggets represent the open style of team play I wish was more common in the league, getting the best possible shots -- layups and 3-pointers -- all game.
But I have also been encouraged by the preseason.
The early offense is clicking. Andre Iguodala, Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried have been as advertised in the open court, and Kosta Koufos and Corey Brewer look ready to make unexpected contributions. For guys like John Hollinger and Kevin Pelton, both of whom have Denver finishing second in the Western Conference, there’s clearly something here. As usual, the Nuggets project as a juggernaut top-three offense, but this season they’ll have the personnel to play defense in the half court.
Kevin Arnovitz: Aside from the stylistic appeal, where does this collective love for Denver come from? Is it a sincere belief the Nuggets have the necessary tools to mount a guerrilla war in the West and take down the likes of the Thunder or the Lakers or just a desire to see a verdict rendered once and for all that Carmelo Anthony is a bad guy?
I also wonder if the post-Melo Nuggets haven’t become a symbol for those who were repelled by the Anthony saga two years ago. In the era of the superteam, romantics want the Nuggets to prove that a team of non-superstars can compete for an NBA title through sheer effort, athleticism and creativity. A lot of basketball junkies want to live in a world where the 2004 Pistons aren’t a historical outlier and Anthony is the fool. The Nuggets represent their best hope.
Mason: Unlike those Pistons, the Nuggets are a rare case of a superstar-less team that wins without a superstar. Two different models. The question is …
2. What do you do in the NBA if you can’t recruit a superstar?
Arnovitz: The Moneyball principle was never about putting data ahead of scouting. It was about identifying an undervalued commodity in a sport and finding bargains in players who bring that commodity to a roster.
Individual defense -- loosely defined -- is probably that undervalued commodity at the moment, largely because we have a hard time defining it statistically. Players have traditionally been paid based on their offensive stats. You can jump up and down about this guy being a top-five defender (think Tony Allen) and that defense is 50 percent of the game, but we rarely see defensive specialists score the kind of contracts one-way offensive players like Monta Ellis do.
That’s what made Houston’s three-year, $25.2 million deal for Omer Asik so interesting. That’s a significant investment in a guy who most people around the league would regard as a one-way defensive player. Some thought it was an outlandish offer, but would anyone raise an eyebrow if a top-20 offensive player landed the same contract?
Mason: Let's just say Asik has a better chance of being worth $8 million a year than Charlie Villanueva.
Arnovitz: Sure, and if you’re a team that can’t get meetings with the LeBrons of the world and can’t realistically find your way onto the wish list of the truly elite offensive free agents, your best course of action might be to stock your roster with the best value defenders in the league, aspire to be a top-three defense and play it out from there.
Drew Hallowell/NBAE/Getty ImagesTom Thibodeau: Defense first.
I’d argue it’s easier to teach a player to be a great defender than it is to teach a player to be a dominant offensive force, which means coaching is key. Is there anything a young athletic team -- and aren’t all young teams athletic? -- can benefit from more than a great defensive mind?
Tom Thibodeau’s success in Chicago is an example of the impact a great defensive system can have, but what about Scott Skiles’ work with the 2009-10 Bucks? That team worked incredibly hard and, anchored by guys like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Andrew Bogut, had the league’s second-best defense. Even with a rookie point guard and Bogut out with an injury for the playoffs, Milwaukee came within a game of reaching the second round -- all on a serious budget (if you don’t count an injured Michael Redd’s $17 million contract).
Arnovitz: Here’s a question for the defensive savants ...
3. How can anyone match up with LeBron James and three or four shooters?
Mason: Thibodeau has been a master of aggravating big scorers in big series, but this might be the NBA’s unsolvable riddle between the lines. James’ new comfort as a scorer with his back to the basket has made him even better at commanding space near the paint. His most underrated skill is his ability to, with the flick of a wrist, throw a basketball 40 feet on a frozen rope to an open shooter. He throws passes so hard, and with such little warning to the defense, that he forces defenses to stay closer to shooters than any other player while simultaneously overwhelming any individual defender in front of him. Barring a player who can tangle with James in pick-and-rolls and one-on-ones on the block, I’m not sure there is a reliable way to defend the Heat with actual defense.
You have to defend them with your offense. Keep the turnovers low, take good shots and either pound the offensive glass or send at least four men back on every shot. James really kills in transition when defensive help is hard to organize, and he loves to receive a drag screen in the middle of the court and blast past the defense to the rim.
In terms of actual defense, no one bothers James as much as Chicago. Having two bigs -- Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah -- who can handle James in a switch at the end of the shot clock is vital to that success.
Arnovitz: Erik Spoelstra is cracking that code. Getting LeBron to buy into this role was probably the biggest coaching achievement in the NBA last season.
So much of the innovation in coaching today is assignment-based rather than the sculpting of a coherent system for your team. It’s about getting LeBron to buy in as a multitasking power forward, figuring out how to horse-whisper Carmelo into a similar role with the Knicks or crafting an offense for a team that has virtually no reliable outside shooting.
The great system coaches are an endangered species. Phil Jackson is back on his ranch, like Lyndon Johnson after vacating the White House. Although Ty Corbin has preserved much of what flourished over the past quarter-decade in Utah, Jerry Sloan is gone too. Mike D’Antoni is in exodus. Stan Van Gundy tailored a provisional system around Dwight Howard. Even a guy like Eddie Jordan was not successful but certainly ambitious.
Rick Adelman might be the lone graybeard, systems coach left. The rest of the league has moved to a predictable half-court game. The high pick-and-roll is the new iso, and why not? It stretches the defense across the floor for quick point guards who can devour most coverages and dance into the paint.
4. Is most of the cool innovation happening on defense, while NBA offenses are simplifying?
Mason: Thibodeau, Spoelstra and Dwane Casey are young coaches developing creative, principle-based systems for their defenses, which supports that.
The offensive piece we can trace back 20 years, when the NBA began to change the rules in ways that opened up the court and encouraged perimeter-based play. Coaches have come along with systems that can better account for the dangers presented by a quick point guard and three shooters, but we may be stuck with the spread pick-and-roll’s ubiquity until the next round of rule changes.
Still, I sense there is a crop of coaches toiling with terrible teams that will one day number among the NBA’s most visionary. Monty Williams has a record as a strong defensive coach and might have the most creative pick-and-roll schemes in the league. Rick Carlisle is one of the most flexible minds in the game. No one coaches to personnel as well, and his strange roster in Dallas augurs well for those who like to see a hoops genius pushed to his creative limits. I’m also intrigued by Terry Stotts, a Carlisle disciple. Who knows what he has in Portland? If his development chops are legit, that’s another interesting team that will fall well short of contending.
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images
DeMarcus Cousins: Beast or burden?
5. If DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t evolve into a beast, whose fault is that?
Mason: I’ve seen Cousins play in person only once, and it wasn’t even in an NBA game. It was at the Goodman League versus Drew League exhibition in Baltimore during the 2011 lockout, a game that pitted NBA players from the Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles areas against each other.
The game was a microcosm of Cousins’ NBA career. He made jumpers and sharp passes, he bullied JaVale McGee and dunked all over him, and there was a moment when he picked James Harden’s pocket and gathered up the loose ball on the run, keeping his dribble at knee height. His skill and dexterity, at that incredible size, was jarring.
He also failed to finish the game. He argued with his exhibition coach (whoever that was) about playing time and touches, was constantly annoyed with the ref and let the event’s emcee, who dubbed Cousins “Bad Attitude,” get under his skin.
Cousins makes you shake your head for reasons both good and bad, and we have to attribute some of that weirdness to Cousins himself. But doesn’t it feel like the Sacramento franchise hasn’t been doing him any favors?
Arnovitz: This is one of my favorite counterfactuals: What if Cousins were drafted by the San Antonio Spurs? You can try it with any young player who has come through the league. Are we absolutely certain Adam Morrison or Michael Olowokandi couldn’t have put together decent NBA careers had they landed with more resourceful or nurturing organizations? An apprentice can thrive if the workshop is conducive to good training and his mentor rocks (see Lawson, Ty).
Fundamentally, these teams are workplaces, and more professional offices tend to get the best of their team. Individual strengths are fostered; shortcomings are neutralized.
If you’re lucky, you get to work at a place like this. Cousins hasn’t been lucky. So he can either succumb to the worst instincts of his environment or take it a personal imperative to defy them.
Mason: Player development is such a tricky issue because so much happens behind the scenes. But maybe the Internet’s leading Clipperologist can help answer this one ...
6. What does Blake Griffin have in store for the world, and what does the world have in store for Blake?
Arnovitz: I’ve been trying to figure out what to take away from Griffin’s drop this year in #NBARank. Last season, Griffin beat his rookie shooting and efficiency numbers, yet there was constant sniping about his shortcomings. Much of that criticism was legitimate but disproportionate, driven in some part by a certain strain of antipathy.
Yes, his defense needs to be faster and smarter, but it’s not as if Kevin Love and Zach Randolph are winning games as defenders. When Dirk Nowitzki and Lamar Odom came into the league, they had few instincts defensively. But the Mavs have been significantly better defensively with Dirk on the floor the past few seasons, and Odom established himself as a strong, versatile -- even aggressive -- defender before he started taking on weight like a loading dock.
I sense most of the Blake-lashers know that, which means the charges are a little excessive.
Still, a lot of rational people's hoop sensibilities are offended by Griffin’s on-court persona. Many of them love playing the game, but Griffin wouldn’t be a guy they’d enjoy sharing the court with. At least that’s my interpretation.
Beck, it’s fair to say you’re one of those people, isn’t it? You asked Blake last season to cool it with the “WWE heel routine.” Over the summer, did you harvest any affection for Blake? If not, what’s wrong with playing the heel for a few hours a week?
Mason: One of the primary criticisms of Griffin’s play is that he is just a dunking machine. But if you were to design a power forward, you could do much worse than a machine that did a lot of dunking. Griffin led the NBA in dunks last season by a wide margin, which means he did a better job of getting the highest percentage shot in the league than anyone else. That’s a really good thing no matter how you slice it.
As you wrote, I still have a hard time squaring the guy who is pitch perfect as a book club sensei and the one who gets a preseason technical foul for going after an ostensibly innocent Paul Millsap. Blake stays mean-mugging at opponents and refs, but except for in the instances where it keeps him from getting back on defense, I can live with it -- and even smile at it.
I’m actually bullish on Blake going into this season. He has looked just as freaky explosive and deft around the rim as ever in the preseason, and his passing is world class at the power forward position.
Look, Griffin is going to learn to shoot and play better defense, but it will be a careerlong project. Because Griffin’s flaws are so glaring -- he doesn’t just miss free throws, he air-balls them -- they can seem to counterbalance all the good stuff he does. But that’s ludicrous. He is only 23, and every part of his game is on the upswing. His lower ranking this season was probably a reaction to being overrated after his first season and not an accurate representation of where his game is headed.
- Many NBA teams divvy up minutes to young players based on which guys have guaranteed contracts. Sometimes this results in more promising and/or productive players getting buried on the depth chart behind someone the front office and coaching staff feels has to play in order to justify that deal. The San Antonio Spurs are not one of those teams.
- A fact, then a question: Allen Iverson missed a ton of shots as an NBA player. In fact, nobody in history racked up more seasons of 1,000 misses (six) than Iverson. Here's the question: Is that stat damning in and of itself? Or does it require a little more context, namely, was the player able to compensate in other areas?
- Aaron McGuire of Gothic Ginobili poses an interesting question for your NBA coffee klatch: "How much better can Kevin Durant really get?" I feel like there's a ton of room for growth on the defensive side of the ball, not just because Durant is tireless in his pursuit of mastery, but that body of his, once he learns how to use it, lends itself to perimeter stoppage.
- My 89-year-old grandfather has, in the words of Howard Beale after his crack-up in "Network," "run out of bull****." You probably have older relatives who fall into this category. You hang around this world long enough and you get to a certain point in life and career where you find that filter between private thoughts and public utterances to be unnecessary. Having observed Rick Adelman up close and in person, Zach Harper senses that's the case with the Timberwolves' veteran coach.
- Some more evidence that Martell Webster could be a useful player for a team that knows how to maximize his good-at-a-lot-of-stuff-but-great-at-nothing skill set. Could Randy Wittman's Wizards be that team?
- Love this Kelvin Sampson quote picked up by Jason Friedman at Rockets' practice: "Basketball is not a game of great plays; it's a game of eliminating mistakes." This isn't scintillating marketing material for the NBA, but when you peruse the list of the NBA's most efficient offenses, you're more likely than not to find teams that contain turnovers at the top. In the same vein, teams that play the best brand of defenses often don't have a lineup of stoppers. They simply rotate well, make smart decisions on pick-and-roll coverages and gamble selectively. And that's why the oldsters prosper in June.
- Phoenix Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby asks what he feels is a rhetorical question of Michael Schwartz of Valley of the Suns, but one that actually has a range of legitimate answers: "What do you want us to do? Do you want us to be bad so we can get good? Are you willing to live through two, three, four seasons?" Is living through two, three and four seasons of 34-win ball a decidedly different experience than enduring two, three or four seasons of 23-win ball? Babby continues: “How do you go to work every day and how do you lead a group of people both in an organization and players playing to make their living when either the conscious message or the subliminal message is ‘We want to lose’? ... I don’t know how to do that. So does that condemn us to purgatory for longer? I hope not. Could you come to work every day if you thought your boss was trying to be bad? How long does that take and how many front offices use it as an excuse?”
- Now throwing his hat in the right for the NBA's 2012-13 Most Improved Player award: Eric Bledsoe. The gritty third-year guard was the talk of Vegas in the Clippers' preseason loss to Denver on Saturday night. He scored 25 points (12-for-17 from the field), gobbled up eight rebounds and tallied five steals. Charlie Widdoes of ClipperBlog: "Simply put, last night marked the continuation of a streak in which he has done anything and everything the team could possibly ask of him. Starting in last year’s playoffs, to his brief stint in summer league and through last night, he has been their best defender, their best wing scorer, and even their best facilitator."
- After emerging as League Pass darlings in 2010-11, the Clippers put on the black hat in 2011-12 as a team many fans -- and a slice of NBA players -- love to hate. Count Rudy Gay among those who find the Clippers insufferable, and Chris Paul in particular.
- Adam Kaufman of No Regard for Human Life offers up another installment in the NBA/Presidential previews: The Atlanta Hawks through the prism of Plains, Georgia native Jimmy Carter.
- Portland rookie big man Meyers Leonard is learning the piano. He's got some of the beginner standards down, but he really wants to master the theme song to "The Office."
- Two great tastes that taste great together: Chris Singleton starts his day with a bowl of Fruit Loops and last night's episode of "Dexter."
- Retired guard T.J. Ford gets set to return to UT-Austin for fall classes.
- Are you a hoops junkie with a vision for new ways NBA basketball -- and, more specifically, the Dallas Mavericks -- can be covered in a blog format? If so, please reach out to Rob Mahoney at Two Man Game. Mahoney will join Ben Golliver as the new two-man game at Sports Illustrated's Point Forward blog.
Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty Images
Kevin Martin is reunited with Rick Adelman and Brad Miller -- and couldn't be happier about it
There might not be a player in the league with a more confounding game than Kevin Martin. Take a look at the odd, left-leaning release on his jumper and you can imagine a nation of high school basketball coaches cringing. Martin's field-goal percentage and defensive game have never been all that impressive on the surface. But once you get past traditional measures -- both aesthetic and statistical -- you'll find a uniquely efficient perimeter player who thrives in systems that take advantage of those gifts.
Rick Adelman's read-and-react offense in Houston is one such system. Although Martin is a capable one-on-one player, he's always been most effective running off screens, cutting, curling or fading to the arc when the defense sags. Martin harbors an appreciation for his days in Sacramento, where he went from an obscure late first-rounder out of Western Carolina to the first option in the offense. But he's thrilled to be back with his first NBA coach, whom Martin credits with helping him become that marquee player.
We caught up by phone with Martin in Houston last week, and talked about the change in culture he's experienced since the trade that sent him from Sacramento to Houston, the limitations of his game and the influence of Brad Miller:
So what's your summer day like?
I decided to get a place in Tampa so I could do some extensive training.
What are you working on in specific?
The basics. Getting my form back because I had surgery on my left wrist last year, so we wanted to get my 3-point shot back. There were a couple of minor mechanical things. Also, defenses load up on me, so I'm working on a lot of counter-moves for when the defense stops that first move.
When you're not in the gym, what do you do in your down time? You a beach guy?
I'm more of a city guy. I like to roam around, maybe check out a restaurant. I also like playing with my electronics -- like the new iPad.
So you're a proud member of the Apple cult?
Sacramento to Houston -- the perception is that's a huge cultural move for you. "Culture" is a term that sportswriters -- and front office people when they're talking to sportswriters -- throw around a lot, but does "team culture" really exist from a player's standpoint?
There definitely is such a thing as team culture. It starts with the organization, what kind of veteran players they have. Here in Houston, Shane [Battier] and Yao [Ming] are the veterans. They set the tone for us on how to be professionals. They've been around the community a lot. They set a big example for young fellas and are just two great leaders with what they do.
So if someone were to drop you in a random locker room of some team you didn't know, you could totally tell whether it was a winning or a losing locker room?
Unfortunately, yes. I've been on both sides of it. We're all paid to play this sport we love. If you're on a team like that as a team leader, you wish it didn't happen and you try to minimize it, but you can only control so much. It's up to the players to be professional about it. But you can definitely tell the difference.
How do they do things differently in Houston?
First, it's a veteran ball club with guys who just want to win. We all made names for ourselves in the league and the only legacy we're trying to leave now is winning. We can all put up nice numbers and things like that. You have to give credit to [general manager] Daryl [Morey] for bringing in those kind of people -- players with a lot of class and who are motivated. Of all the guys on our roster, there's really only one player who came into the league with big expectations, and that's Yao. The rest of us -- we've been the hard workers. I was like the 15th player on the roster my rookie year and had to work my way up. Then I was the No. 1 player for three years. This isn't to disrespect guys, but it's not about hype in Houston. These are guys who have worked their way up the ladder. I'm definitely happy to be in an organization like this. You know what you need to do and you just go out there and get it done. You don't need anyone on your throat all the time.
With Trevor Ariza on the move, what does the situation look like at the small forward on the court for the Rockets?
It shows how much faith Daryl has put in our other 3s -- in Shane and Chase [Budinger]. With the starting lineup we have now, Shane is the defensive stopper, and that helps us a lot there. Those guys will have to pick up Trevor's production on both ends of the court. I think we have a great system that allows other guys to do that.
How do you rate yourself as a defensive player?
Great question. I've never had anyone ask me that. I get judged a lot on it. I try to work hard, but the last three years I was a guy who had to put up 25 points a game just to not lose by 10. But my first two years under Rick Adelman, that's how I stayed on the court. It was because of defense. And I could because I had four offensive players around me. I know I have to get back to that, but I also think Houston is a better place to allow me to get back to that because I won't have to be the No. 1 option every night. Now I can do other things on the court.
So it's true that guys conserve energy on the defensive end because so much is asked of them offensively? That means their defense is less intense.
For some players that's true. Everyone has their roles.
Stat-heads love you because your true shooting percentage -- which takes into account 3-pointers and free throws -- is always impressive. You have this knack for drawing contact and getting to the line, or just draining the 3. But one thing I've never completely understood is how a player like you makes decisions. When you have the ball in your hands out on the perimeter, are you looking to either shoot or draw contact? I'm either going to get a clean shot or I'm drawing a foul? Are you looking to do both? How do you decide in the moment?
There are always different scouting reports on how to guard me. Guys know my first step is so quick so they might back up off me. Right there, I'm just going to take the open shot because I'd rather do that then try to go in there against all those big guys and get hammered on the floor. Then other nights, guys are like, "He's such a great shooter," and they try to get up on me. That's when I use my quickness. Once I get by you, I just know the rules -- you can't bump a guy off his path. If I'm going to the hole, and I've gotten past you, you can't get back in my path. That's how I get a lot of those calls. It's tricky and you have to have a lot of moves in your arsenal and trust your game. As the No. 1 guy the last three years, I've gotten knowledgeable about knowing how the defense plays me.
You didn't pass the ball a lot in Sacramento. Was that a function of the system or is that just not your game?
If you watched those games, when I'm making a move, I'm going to make that move and try to score. Also, there's time where my assists weren't there because maybe I'm not the greatest playmaker, but I will pass the ball and give other guys chances. That's how that went. Over my three years in Sactown, they got rid of (Ron) Artest and I was playing with a lot of guys who were trying to make names for themselves in the league. They were young guys and just learning the game. Once Artest was gone, I was playing with four starters who had never started before. But I also think that's what made me the player I am today because I had all the attention of opposing teams.
So we should expect your assist totals to go up this year, just by virtue of Rick Adelman's system?
When we say that a perimeter player knows how "to play off a big man," what does that mean?
I've always wanted to play with a guy like Yao. I think the trick is to keep them happy. You give them the ball when they're in great scoring position and you make the right plays when they give you the ball -- like me and Brad [Miller]. My offensive game is where it is today because of Brad Miller. The way he and Rick taught me how to cut and things like that made me so much better. The last three years in Sacramento, it was all, like, one-on-one. Now I'm back in a system where I can cut. Playing with big guys like Yao who get rebounds for you, you feed them back. Keep them happy.
Let's talk more about Brad Miller and Rick's system.
Rick's system is all about read-and-react. When you're young and watching film, you like to watch a couple of guys who you're modeling your game after, and mine was always Rip Hamilton. I always looked at how he came off screens. That's where my shooting and curling evolved. That was my bread and butter my first three years. Then I moved on to other things. Playing with Brad, he's the one who taught me how to cut at the right time -- not cut too early. When I started doing more iso stuff, I watched film of [Dwyane] Wade iso situations. You put all this together and that's how you become a more complete player.
So Brad was like Yoda Big Man? How did he impart this knowledge to you?
With Brad and me, it was always on the court. And I also got a chance to watch him and Peja [Stojakovic] play a lot my first year because I didn't really play too much. He and Peja had a great connection. I knew I was a lot quicker and had a lot more agility than Peja. So at the beginning, I would always do everything so fast. I'd be too fast before the cut, during the cut, after the cut. Brad would say, "Slow down! You're faster than everybody out here, but you have to read it!" He showed me the ins and outs of making those cuts and reads -- when to come around. Like when a guy plays under you, come around and take the jumper. And when a guy is playing you tight, you just go back door. Brad taught me how to play.
Kobe said the influence of international players in the NBA has helped create a “hybrid” culture, where players of all sizes possess skills in all areas and can conceiveably play any position on the floor.
“That’s the one difference I’d like to see us kind of shift to,” Kobe said.
This vision of five basketball players, devoid of traditional positional constraints, passing and cutting and posting and shooting and dribbling with equal aplomb, is near. The concept of players assuming a definite position on the floor and sticking to that role is fading away like one of Kobe’s jumpers, as a new age of hyrbids begin to take over the game.
And while the soon-to-be 32-year-old Bryant is among the closest representations to his own ideal (6-6 shooting guard who led his team in assists and has one of the most effective post-up games in the League), he also could have been describing LeBron James (6-8 with point guard skills), Kevin Durant, or a number of other younger stars.
The future of positional conformity has been an active topic of conversation this summer in certain quarters. As Rob Mahoney of Two Man Game writes, it's a discussion that becomes more relevant when a luminary like Bryant weighs in:
A universe where all ballers can play in perfect harmony, stand as equals, and worry not over the endless criticism regarding their positional performance. That’s the endgame of all of this, and the fact that Kobe sees it too is a positive sign. Positions as we know them aren’t quite dead, but when one of the league’s pillars decrees them unworthy from atop his ring-and-trophy-adorned tower, people would be wise to listen.
Bryant is far from infallible, but he’s one of the sport’s more active scholars. He knows where this game has been and where it’s headed, and he has an intimate look into the eye (or rather, an eye) of the storm, to boot. From Pau Gasol to Derek Fisher, Shannon Brown to Ron Artest, and Lamar Odom to Kobe himself, the Lakers have a lot of versatile talent that evades convention. The entire league has a lot of versatile talent that evades convention, and that’s something both you, I, and Kobe can agree on.
Mahoney's last remark speaks to an issue that hasn't been all that present in the salon:
Blurring the definitions and imperatives of basketball positions can be fully realized only if there are systems ready to accommodate that shift.
There's a reason the Lakers have "a lot of versatile talent that evades convention." It's because the team features an offense that de-emphasizes traditional positions in favor of function. In the triangle offense, Derek Fisher -- the nominal point guard -- acts as a spot-up shooter in the confines of the half court (particularly in corner sets) far more often than he does as a distributor. The wings in the triangle are often the trigger men, and the Lakers can maximize Bryant (their shooting guard) in the post without disrupting the sequential flow of the triangle.
The same holds true in Utah, where the Jazz's two and three man actions require every player on the floor to perform every conceivable offensive function. There's nothing new about the flex -- it's been around for decades -- but its bedrock principles demand that every player be able to screen, pass, shoot and cut. By the time the Jazz finish their "power swing" set, at least two perimeter players have set screens, at least one of the big men has cut from one side of the court to the other, and at least three or four different players have made passes off reads.
Orlando's sets rely on more traditional positional functions, but having a wing that can handle the ball in a screen-and-roll set and Rashard Lewis' long-range game are both crucial to the Magic's offensive success. Rick Adelman's system has traditionally broadened the positional functions of his big men (think Chris Webber). It also requires that every one else work in concert. Once a perimeter player has the ball, Luis Scola's responsibilities are virtually indistinguishable from Shane Battier's -- even if the latter has greater range. Everyone moves and everyone fills.
In short, pro basketball is ripe for a positional revolution -- but like every revolution, those challenging the status quo must be ready to govern once they take control.
By virtue of Portland's 90-89 win over Houston Saturday night, Jason lost the bet.
Unfortunately, the Trail Blazers lost something more significant in Saturday night's game -- Greg Oden to a season-ending injury.
As a writer who covers the Houston Rockets, Jason Friedman is has a great deal of empathy for Trail Blazers fans, and is well-versed in the coping mechanisms required of those who lose their favorite players to injury:
What do you say to a grieving acquaintance?
The inherent lack of intimacy often makes consolation a pipedream. Their pain is not your own. Any words of support or encouragement are destined to come across as hollow and trite, received as if they were nothing more than mere platitudes borne of obligation. Sometimes it’s better to simply let silence rule the day; to nod your head as a token of respect and understanding while allowing the aggrieved whatever time and space they require.
I know all of this. I get it.
To stand off to the side and say nothing in this instance simply isn’t an option. I was at the Rose Garden Saturday night. I bore witness to the black hole which momentarily devoured every hint of color, joy and hope within the arena at the 7:45 mark of the first quarter until all that remained was the sickening sound of 21,000 distressed souls hoping their eyes had somehow deceived them. You know the rest.
In Houston, of course, we are all too familiar with that sound and the empty feeling which ultimately takes its place. We’ve heard the ludicrous chatter of curses and been filled with the fear which accompanies the label “injury prone.” It’s the price we pay for being human, I suppose. Our uncertain futures lead some to fill in the blanks with nightmares and phantoms of the worst kind. Given enough room to operate, those bogeys will happily shatter your confidence and destroy every last vestige of positive thought.
But there is another option. It is the one I come to pass along to my Portland “acquaintances” today. It is, quite simply, hope.
I know, I know. You don’t want to hear it. It’ still too early, the wound too fresh. That’s fine. I’ve been there. So, too, has Yao Ming. I’ve seen him down, despondent and depressed after his body betrayed him once more. But I’ve also witnessed how he responds to that betrayal with a quiet, steely resolve to return better than ever before. He understands that we are all faced with only two options in life: to give up or to press forward with the hope that each day will be better than the last. And he chooses the latter because he knows the first choice isn’t actually an option at all.
I recall seeing Yao right before the season began, as he was going through his workout routine at Toyota Center with personal trainer Anthony Falsone. Yao used crutches to go from station to station, while dragging along a boot that seemingly came from the Darth Vader collection on his surgically repaired left foot. He’d been going through this routine for more than a month by this point, knowing full well that many more months of monotonous rehab remained. And yet, his countenance reflected no sign of exasperation with that fact; he was upbeat, positive and quick to crack jokes. This part of the process was simply what had to be done in order to get back to the game and the team he loves. Therefore, he would do it.
Yao spoke that day of the grief which accompanied his initial realization that he would miss the entire 2009-10 season. He mentioned the mourning process that included a week spent mostly in disturbed silence. But then he told of his resolution and commitment to the rehab process. The moment for looking back was over. It was now time for work, for diligence and for hope. His goal stood far off in the distance but he knew that each day brought him one step closer and, therefore, each day would be better than the last.
I don’t know Greg Oden. But upon recalling that conversation with Yao, I suspect I have at least an inkling of what’s going through his mind right now. I’ve no doubt that he’s currently mourning in his own way. But just as certainly, I absolutely believe he will soon, if he hasn’t already, steel himself for the journey to come while dispatching the past in the process. Like Yao, Oden has, unfortunately, been through this before. And, like Yao, Greg will find solace by steadying his gaze on a future still rife with possibilities and potential. He’s only 21 years old, after all. He’ll be back.
In fact, Oden and Yao now figure to make their return at the exact same time: training camp 2010. It stands as yet another tie which inexorably binds our two great cities, Portland and Houston, together. The link began 26 years ago when the Blazers selected a ridiculously talented human pogo stick of a guard from the University of Houston named Clyde Drexler. One year later Portland and Houston were the principal figures in an even bigger draft coup: a coin flip for the rights to the No. 1 pick and an opportunity to select yet another U. of H. stud, Akeem Olajuwon. Since then, Drexler returned to Houston, the Blazers drafted Brandon Roy and Rudy Fernandez – both of whom were hotly desired by Houston – the Rockets made former Portland coach Rick Adelman their bench boss and the two teams recently met in the first round of last year’s playoffs. So maybe we’re more than mere acquaintances after all.
Point being, we are now bound together by a common hope: that our two talented and beloved big men can come back to fill the void their absence has left behind; that we can watch them go head-to-head once more, unburdened by the pain of the past and instead enjoying the sight of two of the game’s premiere big men battling each other at the height of their powers.
Their cities deserve such a sight. So, too, do their teams. But more than anyone, this Promethean pair deserves it. Thus, it is for them, and for all of us, that I hold out hope. I know they won’t give up. Neither, then, will I.
The Lakers push back ... literally. The Celtics bounce back against a Magic team with no answer for Rajon Rondo. Of all the transgressions that went down at Staples Center Wednesday night, none was more egregious than Von Wafer's. And what do Rasual Butler and Montgomery "Scottie" Scott have in common?
Kurt Helin of Forum Blue & Gold: "Let me start by discussing the topic de jour, Derek Fisher decleating Luis Scola. I loved it as a Lakers fan. This team has been blasted as being soft for a year now, and as recently as a couple days ago by an LA Times columnist. But anybody who watched this team this season saw the mentality was different- this team pushed back, they fought, they were tough. They learned the lessons seared into them in the ugly game six in Boston last year. There have been some hard fouls, some pushing back all season long. What Fisher did was a team leader saying 'Don't f$*%&$ with my teammates.' This is a team sticks up for each other and will push back. There are those that will call this overcompensation, others that at the next loss will pull out the soft card again, but frankly those are people who have not really seen how this team has changed. They are people who do not really have a grasp of this team."
Zach McCann of Orlando Magic Daily: "If you're a Magic fan, and you're sweating bullets after Orlando's 18-point loss to the Celtics, let me ask you this. Did you really go into Game 2 with the expectation of a victory? Did you really think that Orlando -- a team that struggled to put away a .500 team in the first round of these same playoffs -- was going to walk into Boston and routinely take not one, but TWO games inside a sold-out Boston arena? ... The biggest worry is Rajon Rondo. We saw glimpses of dominance from Rondo in Game 1, and we got a large helping of it tonight. He was the best player on the floor, finishing with 15 points, 18 assists, and 11 rebounds, and the Magic have proven to have no answer for him. Despite the fact that [Rafer] Alston gives zero respect to Rondo's jumper, Rondo is still able to penetrate the lane at will. His court vision and ability to always get out of a predicament are up there with any veteran point guard in the NBA. He's amazing, and the Magic better find an answer quick."
Brody Rollins of Rockets Buzz: "Last night Kobe Bryant was spectacular, but after the first thirty minutes of play the Lakers were no closer to victory despite a seemingly perfect performance. For all the criticism leveled against Bryant that he cannot win a championship without Shaquille O'Neal, he proved them wrong in the second half by distributing the ball just as effortlessly as he was draining shots over Shane Battier ... Perhaps no ejection was more deserving than the one Rockets head coach Rick Adelman leveled against Von Wafer early in the 4th quarter. For many, the Rockets playoff hopes evaporated when Tracy McGrady opted for season-ending surgery in February. Instead, what formed in his absence was a group of role players and hustlers defined by the team-first personalities of Artest and Battier. The facts behind his dismissal remain mysterious, but there is little doubt that Wafer's lack of effort on defense and propensity for playing a one-on-one game led to his confrontation with coach Adelman. In a series where the Rockets are clearly outmatched on a level of pure skill, there is no room for players who don't forfeit their egos at the door."
THE FINAL WORD
Celtics Hub: Baby v. Scal, a study in defensive contrasts.
Philadunkia: Trade proposal -- Andre Iguodala for Ben Gordon.
Hornets247: Trekkies take note -- The Hornets hop aboard the starship Enterprise.
(Photos by Harry How, Brian Babineau, Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
The Blazers and Rockets played a close, professional ballgame. This series is going to be well worth watching. Nothing would surprise me.
- It is an enduring quality of Greg Oden's game, and body, that around him people fall down in pain. Just happens a lot. Tonight it happened to Dikembe Mutombo barely two minutes into his shift. The play looked innocuous, but the results are a little scary. Frank Isola said on NBA TV that the scene where Mutombo was being examined was "emotional," and while it's being reported as a strained knee, he's on his way to Houston to be examined by doctors tomorrow. It occurs to everyone how rare it is to see that man lying on the floor injured, and everyone seems to be concerned, especially knowing that at 42, there is little room for error. TV commentator Mike Barrett put voice to the worry: That for a man of Mutombo's age, a knee injury could be career-ending. Fingers crossed that's not so. UPDATE: The Oregonian quotes Mutombo: "I'm going to need surgery. For me, basketball is over. I cried so much about it when I was laying on the floor."
- Ron Artest's confidence in his own offensive arsenal was one of Portland's better weapons tonight. Several times he fired up the kinds of prayers that would get lesser NBA players benched. On a play in the final minutes of the first half, little Portland point guard Steve Blake was switched onto mountainous Yao Ming. But Artest never noticed and chucked up a contested 3 that missed. His shot selection, on bad nights, seems, to me, to be unprofessional. And of course his GM told that story about wanting to talk to Artest about his shot selection, but Shane Battier advised him not to, saying "you can't cage a pit bull." It occurs to me that most pit bulls actually do live within fences.
- Twice in this one game Nate McMillan did something he did only once all season: He played Joel Przybilla and Greg Oden together. That seemed to be an acknowledgment that this series is something of an arms race -- with the biggest, strongest players controlling the paint. It's also an acknowledgment that Joel Przybilla, while wily and effective, looks tiny next to Yao Ming. He might not get a put-back over Yao all series. At least this way Portland gets a similar size mismatch elsewhere under the hoop, for instance where Greg Oden is tangling with Chuck Hayes.
- If you're looking for hot hands ... LaMarcus Aldridge made six straight in the second quarter, and Aaron Brooks closed the game with a 3, a 2, a 3, and then a 32-foot 3 off the dribble. They were all within the last 30 seconds, and they were all 100% money.
- A key factor in this game was the period that the Rockets spent without a center on the floor. Mutombo was out injured, and Yao Ming had four fouls. While Yao got away with a few no-calls, the fourth one ... the one that sent him to the bench ... was 90% audacious flop by Joel Przybilla.
- Brandon Roy scored 42 points, one of the biggest point totals in Blazer playoff history. And David Thorpe called it! From his pre-game analysis of Game 2: "Now that Roy knows exactly how Houston wants to defend him, he can put together a strategy to have a huge game. It does not look like any Rockets player can contain him. It would not be a surprise if he scored 40 points in Game 2."
- As Spike Lee and Kobe Bryant discuss, NBA coaches don't hide their play calls. Opposing advance scouts (like the Rockets' Pat Zipfel) sit on press row and take down every call all season. By the time of the playoffs, all of the coaching staff and half the players know what a team is going to do before they even set up. The whole trick is just execution, or adding new little wrinkles here and there. Which is why you don't see coaches opening their jackets to hide the secret hand signals they're sending in. Only, I did see Nate McMillan doing that tonight. Clearly. I suspect it's something to do with Shane Battier, who I saw yelling at teammates about Portland calls more than once. For what it's worth, the play where I saw this most clearly started with Battier checking in with 2:47 left. It ended up being nicely broken up by the Rockets' defense, and Brandon Roy was forced into a tough 3 after some ball fakes with a hand in his face. Which he hit, to give Portland a 96-90 lead.
- Four new themes tonight, which changed things from Game 1: 1. That whole fronting Yao Ming thing works. Tonight he ended up 3-6 from the floor, and the Rockets often just didn't know how to get him the ball. 2. Ron Artest is not as effective on Brandon Roy as he once was, and it seems Battier is the better Rocket at containing Roy. 3. LaMarcus Aldridge can now score against Houston. 4. Rick Adelman was out of timeouts down the stretch.