TrueHoop: Ryan Gomes
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
The Sam Cassell-for-Marko Jaric trade in 2005 set into motion a series of bizarre and historic events.
Almost seven years ago, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Clippers swung a trade on a sleepy August day.
The Clippers sent combo guard Marko Jaric and Lionel Chalmers to Minnesota in exchange for 35-year-old point guard Sam Cassell and a Timberwolves first-round draft pick that was lottery protected for the next six years.
And so began an odd relationship between two teams whose fortunes became inextricably linked. For the next several years, the Wolves and Clips mysteriously ran into each other everywhere and got trapped in the same elevator more than once. Cassell retired nearly three years ago and joined Flip Saunders' coaching staff in Washington. Jaric married model Adriana Lima and was last seen in a Montepaschi Siena uniform. Yet that trade still has enormous implications today, as the teams prepare for a Friday night matchup at Staples Center that will be nationally televised on ESPN -- something that would've been unthinkable even a year ago.
Cassell led the Clippers to their most successful season in history in 2005-06, when his mouthy leadership took the team within a Raja Bell 3-pointer of the Western Conference finals. The Timberwolves won 33, 32, 22, 24, 15 and 17 games respectively over the next six seasons and, for a stretch, somehow displaced the Clippers in the Crapola Sweepstakes as the NBA's most ridiculed franchise, even after the Clippers fell back to earth.
The Clippers had historically stood as the team most likely to botch the NBA draft, but the Timberwolves were nipping at their heels. For a while, the Brandon Roy-for-Randy Foye trade dogged the Wolves. Then, in the 2009 draft, the Timberwolves were mocked for choosing three point guards in the first round -- Jonny Flynn, Ricky Rubio and Ty Lawson -- Flynn and Rubio back-to-back at No. 5 and No. 6. Rubio's first reaction when Minnesota picked him? "It's cold there." The Timberwolves kept Flynn while trading Lawson, chosen at No. 18, to Denver (as instructed by the Nuggets as part of a trade). Today, Flynn rides the pine in Houston, while Lawson is running point for an impressive team in Denver.
How did the Timberwolves score the pick for Rubio? They fetched Mike Miller from Memphis in an eight-player deal featuring O.J. Mayo and Kevin Love, but included Jaric. The Timberwolves eventually sent Miller, along with Foye, to the Wizards for the pick that became Rubio. Foye, of course, is now in his second season with the Clippers.
Before the Timberwolves cornered the market on first-round point guards in 2009, the Clippers took Blake Griffin at No. 1. While Griffin was the obvious choice for the Clippers, it's easy to forget that Rubio was leading many draft boards during the winter and spring of 2009, and there was a reasonable minority that felt he was the finest prospect in the draft. Sacramento was the odds-on favorite to win the first pick before the lottery betrayed the Kings, and many observers had the Kings selecting Rubio if they landed atop the board. Had the Clippers not had Baron Davis locked into an extended deal, Rubio might be in L.A.
After the Clippers selected Griffin, they began the process of rebuilding. In the two seasons following the 2009 draft, they recruited half the Timberwolves' roster. Craig Smith, a former second-round pick of the Timberwolves, became a fan favorite in Los Angeles, while Ricky Davis became a fan unfavorite. Sebastian Telfair, who came over with Smith in a deal for Quentin Richardson, served as Davis' backup for 39 games (before landing back with the Timberwolves a season later). Needing to fill out their depth on the wing in the summer of 2010, the Clippers signed Foye and Ryan Gomes to modest multiyear deals.
Lingering above all this is what became known in Los Angeles as simply "The Minnesota Pick" -- the one the Clippers acquired along with Cassell in 2005. The worse things got for the Timberwolves, the more excited Clippers fans and execs became at the prospect that the misery in Minnesota would outlive the lottery protection on the pick. If the Timberwolves could continue to be awful for just a couple more seasons, the Clippers could conceivably have a top pick in 2012! When Rubio opted to remain in Europe for two seasons, that possibility went from remote to real.
"The Minnesota Pick" ultimately became a centerpiece of the most fateful trade in Clippers history just a few weeks ago, when the team reeled in Chris Paul from New Orleans. The pick was the one asset that set the Clippers apart from other suitors, and the Hornets were adamant about its inclusion in any deal.
On Friday night, Paul -- hamstring permitting -- will face off against Rubio in a contest between two of the most telegenic teams in the league. Individual matchups are often overrated, but Paul on Rubio -- and Rubio on Paul -- has a marquee quality to it. In a league dominated by point guards who earn their livings on the attack, Paul and Rubio are throwbacks to a time when vision trumped speed. Prefer a big-man brand of basketball? Keep your eyes on the low block, where Griffin and Love will wrestle for supremacy.
The Timberwolves have been rewarded for their patience, the Clippers for their craftiness. Now two teams that have been tethered together in the Western Conference dungeon for the better part of a decade will get to show off their shiny new toys.
AP Photo/Danny Moloshok
How much can we take away from the Clippers' stellar performance on Monday night?
It was all so odd.
Not just that the Clippers trampled the Lakers in a preseason game, or that the media scrum outside the Clippers' locker room after the game dwarfed the crowd waiting to get inside the Lakers' inner sanctum.
Not even Donald T. Sterling, inside the Chick Hearn Media Room after the game, lecturing his guests about the virtues of making basketball a physical -- not a cerebral -- contest.
The strangest moment of the night was more basic than that. It was the sensation of looking out on the floor at Staples Center and seeing the two most trustworthy guards in basketball manning the backcourt for the Clippers.
That's because the defining characteristic of Clippers fandom has always been fear. Fear that basketball possessions would be squandered carelessly by players without the talent or inclination to get the job done. Fear that the organization would choose caution over risk and fumble an opportunity to change course. Fear that supernatural forces would conspire against the Clippers ... just because that's what supernatural forces do.
That fear wasn't present Monday night, and its absence was the most profound epiphany during an entertaining preseason game from which very little about basketball could be gleaned.
We know the Clippers are a dangerous unknown -- only a tad less unknown than they were 24 hours ago. Their regular season opens on Christmas Day in Oakland against the Golden State Warriors, after which they'll play the Bulls, Lakers and Heat at Staples Center over a 15-day period. How do we know if the Clippers are for real? Here are some guideposts to follow:
Have Chris Paul and Blake Griffin developed mental telepathy?
All this talk of seismic cultural shifts in Los Angeles boils down to one essential ingredient: the level of havoc these two All-Stars can wreak in the pick-and-roll.
Everything else is just scene-setting.
We saw what Paul was able to do with an exacting partner like David West in a pick-and-pop game. Now Paul will have the most explosive power forward in a generation at his disposal. How quickly can they get into their dance steps? When opponents play Griffin for his signature spin, or when the entire defense sags and drops into the paint, how can the dynamic duo make them pay? Paul and Griffin's proficiency will not only determine how lethally they can punish the league, but how many open spot-up jumpers can be generated for Chauncey Billups and how easily Caron Butler will be able to dart off down screens for quick looks.
It will take a little time, but once Paul and Griffin become fluent in their common language and the need for cues and verbal direction melts away, the true potential of this team will be much clearer.
How is Chauncey Billups acclimating to playing off the ball?
Billups is a combo guard by origin, but it's been a long time since he was asked to defer ballhandling duties to a teammate and make a living off the ball. Last season before being moved to New York, Billups' numbers as a catch-and-shoot threat were superb (1.36 points per possession). In 2009-10, Billups finished 15th in points per possession as a spot-up shooter for players with more than 100 attempts, and in 2008-09, he was fourth in the league.
Billups is prideful. Telling him that, at 35, the best way for him to extend a prolific and celebrated career is to go stand over there on the wing away from the action is easier said than done. Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro reiterated on Monday night that he doesn't see 1s and 2s and 3s on a whiteboard so much as he sees "basketball players." If Billups can buy into the practical implications of this and make himself comfortable as a floor-spacer and secondary playmaker, he can help the Clippers score a ton of points.
Is Vinny Del Negro the man for the job?
The big winner of Monday night?
Del Negro. Not because he outcoached anyone, but because what transpired on the floor suggests that Del Negro's shortcoming will be mitigated by circumstance.
The league is moving away from systems and intricately choreographed play calls from the sidelines. Today's NBA is about getting the ball up and finding clean looks at the basket before defenses can get set. And if you have a couple of floor generals such as Paul and Billups on the roster, there will be plenty of margin for error because they're more than capable of manufacturing opportunities for themselves and others when the shot clock begins to tick down. The thickness of Del Negro's playbook measures only a 10th of the thickness of what Mike Dunleavy toted to work every day. With this team at this moment, that might do the trick.
But sometime in late spring, a critical moment will arise. The Thunder will use Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison to clamp down on Griffin. The Mavs will identify a fatal inefficiency in the Clippers' defense. When it's time for Del Negro to counter, will he have a solution?
Are the Clippers treading water with their reserve units?
DeAndre Jordan gets hit with two early fouls. Griffin walks off the court toward the tunnel for examination in the trainer's room. These things aren't worst-case scenarios -- they're inevitabilities in the NBA. Young, high-flying centers become overexuberant, and bouncy power forwards turn ankles.
A healthy Clippers squad is stacked at the guard spots. But right now, they have a frontcourt reserve corps of Brian Cook (a stretch-4), Ryan Gomes (a smart 6-foot-7 tweener) and rookie Trey Thompkins, who John Hollinger projects to be the next Brian Cook. None of the three can be fairly characterized as a banger, and the Clippers are likely to sign a brawny big man over the next 72 hours. That understudy could prove to be fateful for the Clippers. Small sample-size theater has never been more hazardous than in a shortened season, but whether you watch the progress of the Clippers' five-man bench units on Basketballvalue.com, or just eyeball the team's rhythm and flow when Griffin takes a seat, we'll learn something about the Clippers' prospects in late May and early June by how well those second units perform.
Will Donald T. Sterling stay out of the way?
Longtime Sterling consigliere Andy Roeser and general manager Neil Olshey have put the Clippers in a position to reverse decades of futility. Selling Sterling on the vision was likely every bit as challenging as swinging the deals themselves.
Whatever liabilities remain for the Clippers on the roster or in the locker room, they pale in comparison to the damage that could be unleashed if Sterling were to decide to meddle in the progress. He insulted Gomes and Randy Foye in August 2010, soon after the two veterans were acquired. He embarrassed himself, Baron Davis and the franchise by loudly heckling the team's former point guard courtside.
With Paul and Griffin weighing their long-term options over the next 18 months, the Clippers can't afford to have Sterling do anything to disrupt the aspirations of everyone involved in this project -- not Roeser or Olshey, not the superstars, not the supporting players, nor the fans in Los Angeles. Sterling has earned several lifetimes of fortune. He can add to it by simply letting basketball people conduct basketball business and basking in the glow of the winter sun at the Malibu compound.
Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE/Getty Images
A new study says a Chris Paul-for-Deron Williams trade would've helped both New Orleans and Utah.
Before Allan Maymin, Philip Maymin, and Eugene Shen introduce their new basketball metric, "Skills Plus Minus," they conjure up the spirit of Steve Jobs, quoting the Apple founder at the top of their paper:
My model for business is The Beatles. They were four guys who kept each other’s negative tendencies in check. And the total was greater than the sum of the parts. Great things in business are not done by one person; they are done by a team of people.
To borrow from the parlance of hoops, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr might not have been the best musicians at their respective positions, but their individual skill sets created magic because those skills complemented each other perfectly.
Harrison's restraint as a guitarist was a perfect shadow for McCartney's sunniness. And Starr's devotion to tempo (even weird time-signatures like "All You Need is Love") punctuated Lennon's moony vocals.
That's called good chemistry and it's the prism through which the authors of "NBA Chemistry: Positive and Negative Synergies in Basketball" look at how NBA teams can make beautiful music together on the court.
Measuring chemistry is tricky
Folks who use hard data to measure success and failure in sports are skittish about ascribing losses to bad chemistry or chalking up winning to good chemistry. That's because chemistry always seems to be a chicken-and-egg game marred by tautology:
Good teams have chemistry. How do we know? Because they're winning -- and winning is the product of good chemistry.
Yet even the most hard-core analysts have an inkling that there are certain players and skills that optimize each other on the floor. You're smart to surround Dwight Howard with perimeter shooters, and smart to pair Chris Paul with a big man who can punish defenses in the pick-and-roll.
Those aren't advanced discoveries -- just intelligent observations from watching the Magic lead the world in 3-pointers made over the past few seasons and from seeing David West drain face-up jumper after face-up jumper as defenses try to trap Paul.
An eye test is one thing, but hard data is another. What if we could identify less obvious skills (and the players who embody those specific skills) that, if placed alongside each other on the court, could improve your team's chance of winning basketball games? Is loading up a lineup with the five best available players always the best idea? Could piecing together a unit with specialists create better synergy, even if those specialists might be lesser overall players in our minds?
George Harrison for Jimmy Page?
Would the Beatles have been better off swapping out George Harrison for Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page -- considered by many music junkies to be one of the best rock guitarists ever -- or was Harrison's less dynamic, more understated style a better fit for what the Beatles wanted to accomplish?
We'll never know, but it's hard to find fault with the Beatles' oeuvre. In that same spirit, you could argue that Led Zeppelin would've been worse off with Harrison instead of Page.
In other words, Harrison-for-Page would've been "a trade that hurt both bands."
But how is that possible? If one guitarist -- or point guard, or center, or small forward -- is empirically better than the other, then wouldn't he be a more valuable member of the band or team, no matter what the circumstances?
The essence of Skills Plus Minus -- and the CP3/D-Will debate
In search of some answers, the authors, all of whom work as quantitative traders in the financial world, put their new metric to the test. They describe the basic parameters of Skills Plus Minus:
We introduce a novel Skills Plus Minus (“SPM”) framework to measure on-court chemistry in basketball. First, we evaluate each player’s offense and defense in the SPM framework based on three basic categories of skills: scoring, rebounding, and ball-handling. We then simulate games using the skill ratings of the ten players on the court. The results of the simulations measure the effectiveness of individual players as well as the 5-player lineup, so we can then calculate the synergies of each NBA team by comparing their 5-player lineup’s effectiveness to the “sum-of-the-parts.” We find that these synergies can be large and meaningful. Because skills have different synergies with other skills, our framework predicts that a player’s value is dependent on the other nine players on the court. Therefore, the desirability of a free agent depends on the players currently on the roster. Indeed, our framework is able to generate mutually beneficial trades between teams.
As Shen says, "A player's value to his team depends on the skill of the other players on that team." A sophisticated metric like Advanced Plus Minus (and Regularized Advanced Plus Minus) have been inordinately useful, particularly in identifying which 5-man units work well together. Skills Plus Minus builds on that work by trying to answer the question, "Why?"
What is it about Player X's skills that make him a better fit in a lineup when you sub him in for Player Y, who happens to be regarded as a better overall player?
Unlike Advanced Plus Minus, Skills Plus Minus simulates possessions to account for variables (a possession that starts with a steal produces different results from, say, a possession that begins out-of-bounds). Looking at player attributes is an important ingredient in answering many of these questions. (For an advanced illustration, please visit Dean Oliver's study on beach paddleball, a sport which not only serves as a nice alternative to body-surfing or the construction of sand castles, but offers a good laboratory for this kind of examination.)
In SPM's first case study in their study, the authors tackle one of the more spirited debates in recent years: Would the Hornets or Jazz have won a Chris Paul-for-Deron Williams trade in the summer of 2010? Their discovery:
[S]urprisingly, the answer is YES to both. A Williams-for-Paul swap would have made both teams better off and is an example of a mutually beneficial trade.
The authors broke down Paul and Williams' games using those three basic categories on both ends of the floor: scoring, rebounding and ball-handling. After the data was sufficiently crunched, the findings were interesting:
A Paul-for-Williams swap would've helped both teams.
"We thought that was pretty interesting," Shen says. "It turns out our framework predicts that stealing the ball has positive synergy. So if you have two guys on your team who steal the ball, it will actually generate more steals than if the two players played separately. Chris Paul steals the ball very well -- but his teammates do not. But Utah does. On the flip side, Deron Williams would've fit better on New Orleans because our framework predicts that offensive scoring has a negative synergies because you have to share the ball. On the Hornets, Williams wouldn't have to share the ball with as many teammates."
Which skills are good fits?
The research team pored over a ton of data, ran countless simulations and looked at how many points certain combinations of skills created.
Some of the conclusions are obvious to the basketball fan: Offensive ball-handling and offensive scoring have positive synergies. Likewise, offensive ball-handling has a positive synergy with offensive rebounding because, as the paper explains, "[O]ffensive ballhandling helps a team convert possessions into shot attempts, and offensive rebounding increases the number of possessions over which the ballhandler can protect the ball." In other words, give Chris Paul teammates who can score and others who can generate more possessions on the offensive glass, and his team will thrive.
But offensive ball-handling has a negative synergy with itself. It's not that having a couple of guys who can capablly handle the ball is a bad thing, but your team simply won't be able to extract the full value of those skills because there's only one basketball on the court. If Ball-handling stud A has possession of the ball, by definition Ball-handling stud B doesn't -- and that minimizes his best skill.
Here's a result that initially surprised me: Offensive rebounding has a negative synergy with offensive scoring. That seems counterintuitive, until Shen explained it to me.
"Players who have trouble scoring generate more missed shots than players with high offensive scoring ratings," Shen says. "So offensive rebounding will be more valuable to a team that misses shots because there are more opportunities."
One pattern that emerged was that "rare events" (like steals/defensive ball-handling) tended to produce positive synergies, while "common events" (like defensive rebounds) produce negative synergies. How come? Because increasing a team's rebounding rate from 70 percent of defensive rebounds (which would be lousy) to, say, 75 percent (very good) represents only a 7 percent increase. But upping offensive rebounds, which aren't nearly as common as defensive rebounds, from a rate of 30 percent to 35 percent represents a robust 17 percent gain.
The mutually beneficial trades
In addition to the Paul-for-Williams deal, the authors of the study identified 222 potential trades among starters in 2010 that could've helped both teams. Although that seems like a lot, 222 represents only 2 percent of all possible trades.
Some of these trade scenarios, like Paul-for-Williams, are fascinating to contemplate. Others, like Marvin Williams for Daequan Cook, elicit nothing more than a yawn. But on a few rare occasions, the proposed trade is mind-boggling, like sending Amare Stoudemire from Phoenix to Minnesota for Ryan Gomes a couple of years back -- a trade the system says would've helped both the Timberwolves and the Suns at the time.
I asked Shen whether, as a scientist, he was genuinely happy to see the system produce such a novel result or was it frustrating because it might undermine the credibility of the study.
"Amare Stoudemire's reputation is so much better than Ryan Gomes', so the first reaction is 'Can that be right?' Shen says. "But I'd be dishonest with myself if I rigged the system so it doesn't spit that out. For what it's worth, Amare Stoudemire's ratings are not very high. He's rated very close to Ryan Gomes [between 2006-2010]. They have very different skill sets, and the system predicts they would've been a good trading fit. So, I guess, I find it interesting and thought-provoking that the system would generate a trade like that. But on the surface, of course, everyone thinks Stoudemire is better and that would never happen in real life. But I hope it stimulates some good discussion."
I told Gomes about the paper, which not only had him in a mutually beneficial trade for Stoudemire, but also Luis Scola and Udonis Haslem. Gomes got a good laugh out of it but, like Shen, maintained that specific attributes don't get emphasized enough in the NBA.
"Different guys have different skills," Gomes says. "You see it all the time. You might be a bad fit on one team, get dealt, then all of the sudden you play great under a new system with new teammates and a new coach."
Several smart people I communicated with who work with advanced stats had a generally favorable impression of the paper -- though none of them would deal Stoudemire for Gomes. But they unanimously praised the effort and feel that the study represents a natural progression in the discussion of analytics.
Figuring out the component parts of what we know as chemistry or synergy is one of the next great frontiers of this movement. It's not enough to put an exceptional distributor on the floor. To maximize that point guard's gifts, a team must surround him with the right combination of players -- and that combination might not always be the sexiest free agents on the market.
For all his offensive failings, rebounding machine Reggie Evans might be the perfect power forward for a dime-and-steal happy point guard. And is it possible that Thabo Sefolosha, who ranks second among starting 2-guards in defensive rebounding, helps offensive scoring juggernauts Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in ways that aren't apparent to the naked eye?
In an NBA where the margins of victory are razor thin, every variable counts. And it's becoming increasingly clear that things we've always regarded as assets or liabilities reside in a very gray area.
On Tuesday, Bryant scored 29 points but it took him 25 shots to get there in a 98-96 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. During the Lakers current three-game losing streak, Bryant has attempted at least 20 shots in each game and has averaged 26.3 FGA per game.
Look even deeper and you will see that all five of the Lakers losses have come when Bryant has at least 20 shots. When Bryant attempts fewer than 20 shots, the Lakers are 7-0.
• Tim Duncan recorded his first regular-season triple-double since March 14, 2003 as he had 15 points, 18 rebounds and 11 assists in the San Antonio Spurs 118-98 win over the Golden State Warriors. Duncan actually has more postseason triple-doubles (four) than in the regular season (three).
There were 239 triple-doubles in points, assists and rebounds in between Duncan's games. Among the many players who picked up at least one in that span were: Ryan Gomes, John Salmons and Bob Sura, who had two on consecutive days in April 2004.
• The Cleveland Cavaliers scored 87 points in their loss to the Boston Celtics on Tuesday. When the two teams last played in Cleveland on October 27, it was the Celtics who scored 87 points in the loss.
In the October matchup, J.J. Hickson led the Cavaliers with 21 points. On Tuesday, he had just one point on a free throw and was 0-for-4 shooting.
The Celtics outscored the Cavaliers 60-26 in the paint, the second time this season in which the Celtics scored at least 60 in the paint. The 26 by the Cavaliers in the paint were two points away from their season low in a November 2 loss against the Atlanta Hawks.
• Amare Stoudemire scored 35 points for a second straight game in the New York Knicks 111-100 win over the New Jersey Nets. The last Knicks player with 35 points in two straight games was Stephon Marbury -- Stoudemire’s former teammate with the Phoenix Suns -- in March 2007.
Brook Lopez scored 36 points for the Nets in the loss, one shy of his career high set on March 26, 2010 against the Pistons.
Prior to Lopez, the only Nets center in the last 25 seasons with at least 36 points in a game was Sam Bowie on March 20, 1991 when he had 38 against the Timberwolves.
A couple of months ago this was going to be the summer of all summers for the Clippers, a fresh start, a chance to hire a new coach, $17 million in cap space to go after LeBron or other big names like him and make a huge splash.
And so they signed Randy Foye and Ryan Gomes.
Or, as Sterling put it, "If I really called the shots we wouldn't have signed Gomes and what's the other guy's name?
"You know, they told me if we built a new practice facility we'd attract all the top players in the game," Sterling adds. "I guess I should have doubled the size of this place."
He's no different than most Clippers fans.
"I swear to you, I never heard of these guys," Sterling says, "but what if the coach says he wants them?"
Try to imagine you're at a business gathering, maybe a trade show. Your boss holds court in one corner of the room. He's surrounded by people who are insiders in your industry -- some of whom know you personally, while others are only vaguely familiar with your work.
The next morning you find out through a third party who doesn't even work for your company that your boss told those insiders he has no idea why the company hired you (only he called you "Whatshisname.").
Or maybe your boss told the circle you have lousy taste in personnel and couldn't lure the real comers in the field, even though that was your job. Your boss complained about how his investments in capital improvement were supposed to attract better talent, only you couldn't close.
The irony of Sterling's griping about his organization's inability to lure top talent is almost too obvious to acknowledge. You might agree with Sterling that the signings of Gomes and Foye represent a failure for the franchise this summer. You might hold Clippers general manager Neil Olshey accountable for that, or head coach Vinny Del Negro for his input in those choices. I think Olshey exercised discipline and deployed a sound long-term strategy given the circumstances -- Sterling being one of the primary circumstances. Intelligent people can disagree about how the Clippers fared this summer in the marketplace. But whichever side of the argument you fall on, there isn't a reasonable excuse in the world for what Sterling did to Gomes, Foye, Olshey and Del Negro.
The Clippers' curse isn't a supernatural phenomenon. It has a name, a face and an unfortunate history of personal failure.
Over the past few years, I've gotten to know a lot of people who work for the Clippers. They exist across the organization in sales, marketing, communications, digital media and basketball operations. These are professional people who are proud of their work -- and they should be because every day they do a solid job for a brand few people think very much of. Yet they do the work, some of them with a sincere hope that one day they'll be able to say that they had something to do with the moment the Clippers became an entity that mattered in Los Angeles and in the NBA.
Although I haven't met Foye, last week I visited with Gomes for the first time one-on-one. I found a thoughtful professional. A very measured executive for one of the league's most well-respected franchises told me that Gomes is one of the best people involved in professional basketball. Olshey is eager to do his job well. He's always courteous, has pretty decent taste in basketball players and is a more creative dealmaker than he's been allowed to be. Del Negro has been with the team for only five weeks, but has brought the kind of charisma and exuberance that vaulted him to the top of Sterling's list of coaching candidates.
Whether Gomes, Foye, Olshey and Del Negro are basketball geniuses or likable doesn't really matter. As employees of the Los Angeles Clippers, they all warrant Sterling's basic respect, which ultimately requires so little of such a blessed, wealthy man. All Sterling has to do when asked about his employees in polite company is offer an endorsement -- or, at the very least, not publicly humiliate them. That's his only ambassadorial duty as team owner on a day when the Clippers introduce the media to some minor stylistic tweaks on their uniforms.
Imagine it's your world again. We return just as you've found out your boss was trashing you to people outside your company. Now ask yourself:
Is this a place you want to work?
- More good stuff on the positional revolution, this time from Jesse Blanchard of 48 Minutes of Hell. Blanchard writes that defensive roles are much harder to define than offensive ones, which makes reclassifying (or declassifying, so to speak) defensive positions a nearly impossible task. The more NBA basketball I watch and the more NBA people I speak with, the more convinced I've become that off-the-ball decision making composes at least 50 percent of a defender's grade. It's important to have wing players who can smother isolation scorers, big men who can bang down low and guys all over the floor who can defend the pick-and-roll, but the margins of the game are won and lost because of the quality and speed of rotations, recoveries and anticipation. That's going to be true irrespective of how we define or redefine what a point guard, power forward or center looks like.
- We've heard a lot about the Orlando Magic's "4 out/1 in" scheme over the past few seasons. Here's what it looks like.
- While we're on the topic of what constitutes a power forward, should Rudy Gay be spending time at the 4? Joshua Coleman of 3 Shades of Blue: "Team USA is apparently content to live with their lack of size in the traditional post position of PF by maximizing their talent and athleticism at those spots by playing Rudy Gay at the 4 with Andre Iguodala and Kevin Durant manning the SG and SF positions, respectively."
- An evocative piece by Bethlehem Shoals about his trip to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame has two of my favorite things in one place -- basketball writing and travel writing. On seeing Wilt Chamberlain's jersey from the 100-point game in Hershey: "I couldn't help but stand, slack-jawed, for several minutes. I took in every detail of the fabric, trying to read the game's action, or Chamberlain's mood, through the patterns of sweat and scuffs. Most telling was the long blood stain across the back, where someone had evidently clawed the big man as he took the individual game past all acceptable limits."
- Dave of Blazers Edge: "So much attention gets paid to [Greg] Oden's physical struggles that his true potential Achilles' Heel gets overlooked. The mental and emotional aspects of the game and the league will be Oden's biggest bugaboos. After three years of substantial non-playing his connection to health, basketball, championship-level play, and teammates is fishing-line thin. The organization will have quite a task reeling in such a huge specimen on that fragile line. Greg is more used to rehabbing than playing. He's more used to trying to decide what movie to watch than watching film. Competition is absent, muscle memory faded, rhythm non-existent. How will he adjust to his renewed calling and the renewed expectations...expectations with which he was never comfortable in the first place?"
- Kevin Durant's first dispatch from Madrid: "I’m really looking forward to this whole experience. It should be a lot of fun. I’ve never been to Europe, never been to Spain, never been to Turkey or Greece. I’m looking forward to that and just being able to interact and be around some of the best players in the league. Guys like Rudy Gay, Iguodala, Rajon, Lamar…just to be with those guys and learn, it’s going to be pretty cool and it’s going to help me."
- Jeremy Wagner of Roundball Mining Company on Carmelo Anthony's lame-duck status in Denver: "Carmelo already lacks defensive intensity and is not known for restraint on offense when it comes to letting shots fly. How much worse will those characteristics be accentuated if Melo is longing to be somewhere else."
- Could a breakout season by Brook Lopez propel the Nets to the postseason?
- If you take a look at the Wins Produced metric, it turns out Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley (both still with Phoenix) were the Suns' biggest overperformers during the postseason and Amare Stoudemire and Leandro Barbosa (both no longer with the Suns) were the team's biggest underperformers.
- Matt Hubert of D-League Digest lays out five Nancy Lieberman storylines as she takes the reins as head coach of the Texas Legends. Hubert wonders if Lieberman will be the target of any chauvinistic abuse from fans.
- Scott Schroeder breaks down the 10 must-see D-League games in 2010-11.
- A slew of teams introduced small modifications to their jerseys on Monday. The Jazz returned to an old motif and won the day.
- Chris Paul: Big fan of Coca-Cola's Freestyle Fountain.
- The commercial realities of globalism disappoint Donyell Marshall.
- Ben Q. Rock of Orlando Pinstriped Post tweets: "Oh man, guys, do a search for '2010 nba rookie portraits' on Getty. Some incredible stuff up there."
- The cheapest seat in the house for the Heat's home opener will run you $185 plus service charges.
- There are few guys in the league more fun to talk shop with than Ryan Gomes. Throw Gomes on the list of "players most likely to coach." When it's all over, Gomes has his eyes set on the Providence College gig.
On my desk is the Minnesota Timberwolves' newest media guide. It's about ten months old, and still has that "freshly printed" smell.
But I'm about to throw it away. The Timberwolves have changed so much, and so quickly, that the book is almost worthless.
Thirteen of the players, a head coach or two, and the face and brain trust of the team through its first two decades -- Kevin McHale: All gone.
In their place: One of the most profound and rapid rebuilds the NBA has ever seen, highlighted by the frenetic activity of hardworking new president of basketball operations David Kahn. He has ushered in new young players like Jonny Flynn and Ricky Rubio, a new coach in Kurt Rambis, a small collection of returning players highlighted by Al Jefferson and Kevin Love ... and a thousand questions.
Rookies at point guard, rookies in the executive office, and (but for half a lockout season) a rookie head coach. It's a high-risk, shoot-for-the-moon, long-term approach, which is delightful for what it is not: More of the same.
"I have absolutely no desire," says Kahn, "to build a team that perennially wins 40 to 45 games and scratches and claws for the first round."
In other words, he has no desire to run, well, the Timberwolves.
It's a brand new day for professional basketball in the Twin Cities.
Ripping Right Down to the StudsDavid Kahn objects to my saying that he has "ripped the team down to the studs."
"I mean," he retorts, "we kept Al Jefferson, we still have Kevin Love ..."
Only later did I think that I should have responded: "You don't think they're studs?"
Call it what you will, but it's certainly a historical bit of redirection. New head coach Kurt Rambis is the team's best-known quantity, but in his current post he boasts 37 games of experience, which took place a decade ago (on top of a more meaningful decade-and-a-half assisting in the front office and on the sidelines).
Upon arrival, Rambis talked a little bit about the team's assets, but more about changing the culture of the team. But how much culture could be left to change? The only Timberwolves who have been around for even just a year are Corey Brewer, Brian Cardinal, Ryan Gomes, Al Jefferson and Kevin Love.
"Amazing isn't it?" laughs Love. "One year, and I'm already one of the old guys."
"We are in the midst of re-building," says team president Chris Wright. "It is no secret that we are not going to be competing for an NBA championship this upcoming season. ... We are going to play our young players and allow them to grow and develop together on the court. Are we going to take some lumps along the way? Sure, we are. But, the only way our young core will continue to improve is to play together and experience first-hand all of the various situations within an NBA game."
Wright declined to offer insight into ticket sales this summer -- last season the Timberwolves famously offered some five-dollar tickets, which was seen as a strong sign of a weak economy -- but he says the media and blog buzz about the team has ratcheted up, while "there is a renewed excitement about Timberwolves basketball here in the Twin Cities."
No current Timberwolf has had time to enter the bloodstream of Minnesota fans the way Kevin Garnett once did. The player with the most minutes played in a Minnesota uniform is 26-year-old Gomes, who has played about 5,000 minutes since arriving in a trade for Garnett. Five thousand minutes is nothing to sneeze at, but, for instance, Kobe Bryant has played nearly 35,000 minutes for the Lakers.
Rambis singled out Jefferson, Love, Brewer, Rubio and Flynn as "nice pieces," to build around. But his decision to leave the Lakers also centered around the length of his contract, the upcoming draft picks and cap room, and promised input into personnel.
Basketball executives and coaches are relentlessly sunny, in public, about the prospects of their teams. Yet on the day he was hired, the coach was talking about long-term projects. Translation: This could take a while.But there's more to life than one season's win total, and clearly the new management team has owner Glen Taylor's blessing to take some time in redefining the organization, which may well prove brilliant.
"The singular objective," says Kahn, "is to be a championship-contending team. I don't want to put a time frame on it, but it seems that three to four years is probably realistic."
Kahn spells out that this season will be an exploration of how the existing roster works. Next summer there will be several more new players to be added through the draft and free agency. "2010-2011 could be something of a laboratory, too," says Kahn. "There are so many things that can change, but with the path we're on, I think the third year is the first time we can really expect to make a playoff push."
Counting on Al JeffersonAl Jefferson, the team's MVP and the star they received in the Garnett trade, flatly rejects that schedule, saying "It shouldn't be no three years."
While hardly bitter, Jefferson is not guzzling the kool-aid of rebuilding either. "I was a little disappointed about Kevin McHale leaving, and also a little disappointed about Sebastian Telfair leaving," he says. "But I understand it's a business, and I understand David Kahn is here to do a job and he's doing it. ... The team becomes part of your family. You get close to guys, and to see them go, it hurts. ... I miss the guys. But you move on, and it's a new beginning."
(Love is similarly cautious in sizing up the new direction, stopping well short of an endorsement: "All the changes ... We just got to sit back and see. Hopefully it will work in our favor.")
Jefferson also rejects the slow rebuild out of sheer confidence. "When you look at how quickly things turned around in Portland," he says, "when they got Brandon Roy and those young players ... it's up to us. We have some young players, but if we do what we're supposed to do we can make this happen faster."
Jefferson is the team's only unquestioned star, but even he comes wrapped in uncertainty. Not only is he recovering from a torn ACL, but he is forced to play long minutes as an undersized center. The team has a shortage of real 5s, and Love needs minutes at power forward. (The only real center on the roster is Ryan Hollins.)
Jefferson says his injury ought not be a concern. After ACL surgery last winter, he's still not cleared for contact, but is scheduled to see the doctor on August 24 and swears he'll be on the court and ready to play by training camp.
Jefferson says he has been "doing everything I was supposed to do, and not doing everything I wasn't supposed to do." To play center, he had bulked up to 285 or bigger last season. This summer, after seeing the team draft speedster point guards Rubio and Flynn, and knowing he'd be running more than ever, he resolved to get back to his rookie weight of 265 (he's at 270 right now).
How does one drop weight while taking it easy on a healing knee? "Easy," he says. "I didn't go home to Mississippi and eat all that fried food. I stayed in Minnesota."
Kahn and Rambis have insisted that the up-tempo style they plan to play can use
Jefferson on the secondary break, or when the team can't run. Jefferson, for his part, says he'll be like Amare Stoudemire, out there running and finishing on the primary break, and he's looking forward to it.
As for Jefferson and Love's coexistence, Rambis bats aside the concern that they can't play together: "Kevin Love and Al Jefferson can definitely play together. They're going to be the initiators of the break, and they're both very, very capable rebounders in this league. As Pat Riley talked about many years ago, no rebounds, no rings."
Both Love (third) and Jefferson (25th) are highly rated rebounders, and Jefferson had the 10th best PER in the NBA last season. His All-Star level of play, combined with a five-year career of playing for rebuilding teams, may make him one of the biggest victims of this latest and most profound organizational redirect.Jefferson's impressed with Rambis, however: "The No. 1 thing that amazed me was how he left the Lakers. A championship team, probably was going to be the head coach in the next couple of years, who knows? To come here, and to help turn the Timberwolves around, that gained my respect. I just met him today. He already got my respect for that, because a lot of people don't want to come to Minnesota. I'm here and I want to be here, and I want do something this team has never done before, we're going to need all the main pieces to get us there. Bringing Coach here could be the beginning."
"The Spanish Kid"Of the Timberwolves' many summer soap operas, the most closely watched one has been that of fifth overall pick Ricky Rubio (whom Jefferson referred to thrice as "the Spanish kid," and never as "Rubio," in one 10-minute interview). Some suggest the 18-year-old Spanish heartthrob has the potential to be the best point guard of his generation, and are shocked that he lasted to the fifth spot in the draft. Kahn himself expressed delight and surprise at finding Rubio available.
And yet Rubio has yet to sign a Minnesota contract and it's unclear when he will.
Sources indicated his initial reticence at joining a team with Flynn, another highly touted young point guard. More recently, indications are that Rubio's entirely happy to join the Timberwolves, but buyout talks with DKV Joventut, his Spanish team, have not been smooth.
When Rubio was 15, he signed a contract that paid him very little for a professional basketball player -- an annual income of less than $100,000 for most of his time there -- but had a massive buyout clause of 5.7 million Euros, or about $8 million. It is believed to be the biggest buyout in Spanish basketball history.
It remains to be seen if Rubio's lawyers would push the issue, but recognizing that teenagers and their families are ripe for exploitation in negotiating with savvy teams -- it would take decades of work for him to afford the buyout -- Spanish law offers certain protections that may apply in Rubio's case.
Meanwhile, Rubio has long been clear that he intended to go to the NBA, and for a time Joventut made noises, publicly, about a willingness to negotiate should the NBA come calling. (The buyout, in a setting like that, would protect Joventut against richer European teams trying to steal Rubio.) As recently as this summer there was talk of negotiating a severely reduced buyout to help Rubio pursue his NBA dream.
But the more recent storylines in the Spanish press have featured a new uncompromising line from Joventut. Team president Jordi Villacampa recently said that relations had deteriorated and he implied that Rubio would not be welcome to return to play for the team. The Timberwolves are only allowed to contribute $500,000 towards his buyout, so Rubio would seem to have few options beyond haggling further, and deciding how much he can afford to pay out of the roughly $6.8 million he'll be guaranteed from his rookie contract, plus whatever he can get from sponsors.
Meanwhile, the Timberwolves have been careful not to say anything about limiting Rubio's playing time or role, apparently wary of deflating his NBA aspirations.
"I have a gut feeling, right now, that Ricky would be the starter," says Rambis. "Flynn with his speed and and nastiness as a defender, I see him being a key player off the bench ... but it's not set in stone."
What Rambis says is unlikely, however, is Flynn and Rubio starting together.
Kahn had spun a yarn, since the draft, that Flynn and Rubio could play together, in the backcourt, at the same time, for the long term. "Right now I see them playing a little bit on the floor together, but that will be extremely difficult to do for long periods of time particularly in the Western Conference," says Rambis, "because of the quality of the point guards, as well as the quality 2 guards. Defensively, that'll be a tough matchup for either one of them."
Rambis adds, however, that training camp could prove him wrong. "We want them to get as much playing time and experience as possible. They're going to learn the most about the NBA by being out there on the floor. ... There will certainly be times when they will be playing together. They could certainly prove me wrong."
2010 Offseason: Even More ChangeThe Timberwolves will spend this season, essentially, getting to know each other.
But just when the dizziness wears off, there's every reason to think the roster-shifting will resume. Minnesota is poised for action in next summer's free agent market, and has the potential to have as many as three (or as few as zero) first-round picks:
- Minnesota's own pick in 2010 is owed to the Clippers but is top-10 protected, meaning unless the Timberwolves play well enough to end up with the 11th pick or worse, they'll keep their pick. (Assuming they keep the 2010 pick, however, the 2011 pick is the Clippers' with no protections at all, which could prove painful.)
- Charlotte's pick in 2010, which is protected if it's top 12.
- Utah's pick in 2010, which stays with Utah if it's in the top 15.
"At a minimum," says Kahn, "I expect we'll be $10 or $12 million under the cap in the summer of 2010. If we have that cap space, and we can spend judiciously on a player who will help our team, we are absolutely ready to spend that money."
In deference to that cap space, Kahn says that he will not take on any more contracts that last beyond next summer, and is "pretty much done with major changes to the roster" beyond "some pruning and trimming."
"The biggest change that could be coming to our roster for this season is finding out whether or not we'll get Ricky Rubio this season," he says.
This is the kind of rebuild that many teams are too timid to attempt, and it's fun to see it in action. It'll take years, however, to know whether it's brilliant, insane, or somewhere in between.
For 'Wolves fans, everything is changing. One thing that won't change, however, is that around this time next summer, we'll probably still be talking about how it will take time to see what the Timberwolves will become, and
I'll probably once again be throwing out my Minnesota Timberwolves media guide before it's even a year old.
(Rambis photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images. Al Jefferson photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images. Rubio photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
It was Bob Ociepka's first head coaching job, at Gordon Tech High School, not far from Wrigley Field in his hometown of Chicago. Perfect situation? Ociepka thought so.
In his fifth season running the traditionally strong program, he had a senior player -- a good one named George (Truck) Robinson Jr. -- with star talent and charisma. One day in November 1983, Robinson, a much-sought recruit leaning toward picking Cincinnati, collapsed in drills. A valve in his heart, it was later determined, had burst.
"He died right there on the court," said Ociepka, now a Timberwolves assistant coach. "It made me think about whether or not I wanted to continue coaching."
He left the school the next season because walking onto the court was just too hard, but he stayed in the game, in large part because Robinson's parents urged him to do so.
Nearly 25 years later, Ociepka, with Wolves forward Ryan Gomes' help, honored Robinson's memory Tuesday in Chicago, where the team played the first of back-to-back games with the Bulls. Gomes, through his Hoops for Heart Health foundation and two other organizations, donated a heart defibrillator to Gordon Tech.