TrueHoop: Stan Van Gundy
So your Magic teams adopted a distinct, spread-floor strategy. How did you come by it?
The plan -- not just my plan but [GM] Otis Smith's plan -- was that, when you have Dwight Howard, he's the centerpiece of your team. What you always want to do is take your best players and figure out how to complement them and the best way to help a big guy like that is to get him room on the floor. And you do that by putting as much shooting out there as possible.
When we looked at guys -- I mean they drafted [J.J.] Redick -- shooting was always a priority. And then what happened in that first year the same summer that I came here. Then we got Rashard [Lewis] and [Hedo Turkoglu] who are both 3-men, but clearly among their top four players [at their position], along with Jameer [Nelson], so they obviously were going to have to play together.
So one of them had to become a 4-man. Rashard was just a better fit at the 4. Look, if Tony Battie had not gotten hurt that year, there's a good chance that we would have played big at least half the game and not been quite as much four-out. With the roster we had, it was just an absolute necessity that we played the way we did. And I thought the shooting around Dwight really helped. The thought was always trying to put guys around Dwight that complemented him.
Is concocting NBA strategy actually fun? Coaches are so famously miserable.
I really enjoyed that part of the job. Sitting around with your staff, and kicking around ideas and looking at different things and trying to find the best way to make it work for your team. I find that to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the job, to think about those things and really, really try to make it fit and make it all work.
What aspect of what you did strategically were you most proud of?
There's a fairly small group of guys who are just going to be successful wherever they go and in whatever system they're in. I mean, they're just so talented or so versatile or whatever it is that, wherever you put them, they're really going to be successful. But I think a great majority of the league and probably some guys that are in and out of the league, it really comes down to getting in a place where you fit what's going on. So my first year here, we had Keith Bogans and Mo Evans splitting time as the starting 2. And they were both really successful. Courtney Lee started as a rookie the next year on a team that goes to the NBA Finals.
If you want them to do things that aren't really going to fit their strengths, then they're not going to be as good. And I think that's why some teams don't like a guy because he doesn't really fit what they're trying to do. And then he goes somewhere else and plays well and people’s first reaction is, "Team A made a bad trade in giving the guy up!"
Well, maybe not. He didn't really fit what they were doing. I think that fit is so important for, I don't know what percentage, 80 percent of the players in the league.
Did the rule changes in the early 2000s change the league a lot?
Coaches are going to adapt to whatever the rules are. The rules certainly change strategy. Even within that, even since that happened, things continue to evolve. People are always trying to find a different way.
One of the big ones that's changed a lot, even more than the illegal defense rules, is what you're able to do with your hands out on the perimeter guarding people. Your team defense became a lot better because it's becomes a lot harder individually to guard guys.
I remember when we had Dan Majerle when I was an assistant in Miami, and Dan, at that part of his career anyway, wasn't the quickest guy in the world but he could certainly move his feet. He was a real, real tough guy, and very committed. But with his strength, and under the rules at the time where you could put a forearm on the guy, Dan could really reroute guys and things like that. And that rule changed. To me, that probably changed NBA defenses.
Look, I mean, I've only been in the league 18 years. I mean, you can go back and talk to guys who were in it a long time ago. But the time I've been in [the forearm rule] changed NBA defense and NBA defensive strategy more than the illegal defense guidelines.
Do the rules have something to do with why centers are less involved offensively?
They've certainly become a lesser part of NBA offense. Now, the reason. I think there's multiple reasons. Most kids growing up don't want to play in there. It's not a lot of fun. There’s a lot of contact. You’re not handling the ball. You’re not getting to shoot it with range. That’s number one. The other reason, there’s just not enough people feeding into the NBA who are low-post players who want to do that work.
It’s always been a defended position. A guard can just sort of get the ball and get himself a shot. A center needs his teammates to bring the ball down into him.
Passing as a skill really hasn't gotten much better. A lot of coaches actually think it's gotten worse, and so that makes it harder to get guys the ball. Certainly the defensive rules have allowed us to do things that we previously couldn't do to make it harder on post people.
I mean, you can front the post and bring another guy over behind him. You could never do that kind of stuff before. Certainly the rules have contributed to that. And I also think, you combine the rules with now, how are you still going to be able to get the ball inside because you don't have a rule that artificially gets your post guy some room? That’s also led to putting more shooting on the floor, and teams playing smaller, because the only way now to prevent teams from doing those kinds of things is to put enough shooting on the floor to get those guys space.
Stan Van Gundy can talk. Away from the sidelines -- and not screaming -- for more than a year, the former Orlando Magic coach no longer sounds like Dwight Howard's famously raspy imitation.
This Van Gundy is still bluntly honest, but he is also more expansive with his comments. He’s been guest-hosting weekly on Dan Le Batard's Miami-based radio program -- training that perhaps has turned Van Gundy's points into paragraphs, sound bites into monologues. Like any radio host worth his Arbitron, he keeps you invested throughout the verbal essays.
On this day, he’s pontificating on a variety of subjects, including his relationship with Howard, media coverage in the NBA, and more.
Why are coaches getting fired so often when they dictate so much of the game?
That one I would have a hard time explaining. You get to the point where you're changing 13 jobs in one year, over 40 percent of your league and three guys [Vinny Del Negro of the Clippers, Lionel Hollins of the Grizzlies, George Karl of the Nuggets] who led their teams to the most wins in franchise history. Look, there's a lot of different reasons and I certainly don't know the ins and outs of each situation, but I think a large part of it is that there's sort of been a new breed of general manager coming into the league. We had younger guys. We've got guys not coming from coaching backgrounds as much. More guys coming from the analytics backgrounds. And they want different things than their head coaches. And I think in large part, I think a lot of them, [you] hire younger GMs without a coaching background.
My theory is that not all, but some of those guys are intimidated by experienced coaches that have their way of doing things and they're more comfortable having younger guys, first-time guys that they feel will listen to them more, that they will have more control over. So, there definitely has been a change. I think it's more coming from the GM side, but all of these things in the NBA tend to run in cycles, so we'll just have to see where it goes.
Why do you and Dwight Howard remain friends? Why do you still frequently text each other after everything that happened?
I do think that one thing that we all do is look at the whole picture when you're looking at something. And there's no one I know, there's no one that I care about, people I'm a lot closer to than guys I've coached like my family, there's not one of them I haven't had major disagreements with.
One, you still love them and everything else, but also you're judging by the whole picture. So, I can look at what Dwight did for me as a coach and for our whole basketball team in Orlando and everything else and I'm very, very appreciative.
Plus, I don't think there was ever a point where I didn't like Dwight personally. I like him. I've had a lot of laughs with him. He's a good guy. We had some things that we disagreed on. We had some things we disagreed strongly on and some times where we pissed each other off. And those were well-documented. But it doesn't negate all of the good things he did and the good times that were there in the five years we were together. So for me, it's not a hard thing to overlook.
Just look back at your life and the people in your life. If you're really being honest about it, then you're going to think of major blowups you had with those people. You're going to think of times you stormed out of the house. But you keep coming back because for the most part you will work off things in the big picture. You have to be careful not getting caught up in the moment too much.
Can media coverage have a corrosive impact on a team?
The media's job is different than ours. Let's put it this way: The media can certainly be a challenge. You're out looking for stories. And that's your job. And for a lot of people, maybe not a lot, but for a few people, the easiest way is to look for the negative.
The whole world has different challenges now with the 24-hour news cycle and just the volume of stuff that's out there. And everybody has to get out there. So you've got all these people now, because it's online 24 hours, if I want to get noticed, I got to have something different. And so the beat reporter writes his story and the team played well and blah blah blah. Well, I can't write that same story now. Nobody's going to read it.
So every angle is going to be covered. Every angle. That's not just in sports. That's in everything. It certainly presents a challenge, but I don't think that that's something you can blame on the media. I think coaches sometimes look at the media as the enemy. I don't think that's fair. It's going to be like any profession. Ninety-nine percent of the people are going to work hard and just try to do a good job. And you're going to find that 1 percent that lacks integrity, will trump up stories, won't be honest, but there's so few of them. I never wanted to look at the media as an enemy, I never wanted my players to look at the media as an enemy.
Do coaches get frustrated by media ignorance of strategy and details?
I never really got that frustrated by that. You have to realize that their level of knowledge is not going to be what a coach's is. The criticism from the media never really bothered me. I'd correct it when I can, but that's their job. If stuff wasn't personal, then it really didn't bother me.
I'm sure I've pissed off everybody I've ever met one way or another. And whether they like me or not, I hope they're at least basing it on the whole picture.
Is watching the NBA more fun now that you’re not coaching?
I would say I probably enjoyed it more when I was coaching because I was more specifically looking at it in terms of, "Wow, that would be good for our team" if I was just watching another game or, "When do we play that team? We're going to have to do this." I enjoyed the deeper analysis more than I enjoy just sitting down and watching a game.
I enjoyed how I watched the games as a coach more than I do how I watch games now.
Why do you respect (Tampa Bay Rays manager) Joe Maddon so much?
He is very analytical in what he does. Is there any way he can gain an advantage with his shifts, probably the most obvious one, or squeeze bunting? He's not afraid to go against the book. He's not managing worried about what might be said if something doesn't work. He's going to analyze situations and go with what he thinks gives his team the best chance to succeed in that situation and not worry about the possible repercussions. And to me, that's the biggest thing to learn.
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesVinny Del Negro: When affability isn't enough.
The Los Angeles Clippers lost the most successful coach by winning percentage in the franchise’s history when they dismissed Vinny Del Negro, whose contract was due to expire June 30. Del Negro compiled a 128-102 record during his three seasons with the Clippers and for the better part of the past 14 months, had a strong case for a long-term extension, at least ostensibly. The Clippers beat the Grizzlies in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, then finished with a club-record 56 wins this season. No locker room outside of Bexar County, Texas, is perfect, and there were certainly frictional elements in the Clippers’ camp, but the overall culture was decent.
Del Negro was confident in what he was building, and turned down a one-year extension from the team last October. Yet despite the regular-season success, Del Negro could never shake the perception that he lacked the tactical feel for the game required to become an NBA championship-level head coach. Del Negro’s biggest fans during his five-year career have been owners, Jerry Reinsdorf in Chicago and Donald T. Sterling in Los Angeles. Basketball operations people have always been more skeptical of him.
Del Negro is charismatic away from the microphone and well-liked personally. He charmed Sterling at a dinner with the Clippers' brass at the Montage Beverly Hills in late June of 2010. The mood at the table was festive; Del Negro was a pleasure to be around and the spouses had a nice rapport. Del Negro exuded exactly what the Clippers felt they needed to fumigate the place after the final tumultuous seasons of the Mike Dunleavy era -- a happy warrior, both confident and communicative. Charm is infectious, but if it's a person's No. 1 personal attribute, it can also raise suspicions if not accompanied by success.
When Chris Paul arrived in Los Angeles, expectations soared far more quickly than either the Clippers or Del Negro anticipated. The bar was set at contender, and Del Negro would have to prove himself as not only a morale booster but as a coach who could design a plan that delivered.
Del Negro never claimed to be a tactician. He maintained that everyone in the league ran the same basic stuff. He summed up his philosophy best during the winter of 2012 when the Clippers were playing well. "I think it's important for guys to go out there and play off instinct instead of, 'Go here, go there,' or whatever," he said. "I like guys to play. I like guys to get a feel for what we're doing and how we're doing it and work off the instinct and play. I think guys enjoy the game that way a little bit better.”
Paul certainly appreciated his coach’s sentiment, as Del Negro happily ceded most of the play calling. It was also nice to have Del Negro go to bat for Paul’s personnel causes -- free-agent signings, potential trades and the like. But having never reached a conference finals eight years into a Hall of Fame career, even Paul realizes he needs a little help in the final five minutes of a basketball game.
Del Negro’s approval rating has privately been described by those in the locker room as running about 50-50. He had his loyalists, players like Matt Barnes who were grateful for Del Negro’s faith. There were also a few players who felt his strategic shortcomings were tolerable given his affable demeanor. For others, those flaws ran too deep. Then there were the detractors, guys who not only didn’t care to have their minutes reduced, but felt Del Negro was disingenuous in his management and inconsistent in his willingness to communicate. Ballplayers also don’t react kindly when they learn their head coaches advocated trading them midseason. That was one of the unintended consequences of Del Negro assuming a spot at the table as a member of the management team last summer.
Despite falling short in the first round and a desperate coaching performance in Game 6 of the first-round series loss to Memphis, Del Negro still looked as if he might survive. The Clippers aren’t an organization predisposed to spend huge money on a head coach, and as decision-makers took an early survey of the coaching pool, they didn’t find many candidates they considered a dramatic upgrade from Del Negro. For all his imperfections, Del Negro was a known quantity.
Still, the series loss to Memphis confirmed all the lingering doubts that Del Negro was a schematic lightweight. He got better this past season, but the growth trajectory wasn't steep enough, and fell off when it mattered most. Ultimately, the Clippers decided risk aversion carried its own risks. Opportunities are precarious in the NBA, and conservatism doesn’t have a strong track record. Better to explore possibility than embrace certainty.
The Clippers will now have to set a budget, one that will determine the direction of their search. Stan Van Gundy is the best available coach on the market, but he’d give the Clippers sticker shock, assuming he’s even interested. Sterling is currently in San Antonio, scouting Memphis coach Lionel Hollins, the hottest candidate on the coaching market. The Clippers could win the news conference with a Hollins hire, the man who outwitted them in the first round, and someone who’d likely meet Paul’s approval. But Hollins has coached his way into some serious money. Given the number of suitors for his services, he would figure to earn in the neighborhood of $5 million per year, and the Clippers won’t be a favorite in any bidding war. Alvin Gentry would bring the right temperament, along with whiteboard skills and, most importantly, a solid quality-price ratio for a coach with that experience.
Whoever lands the job will encounter a bar even higher than the one Del Negro failed to clear. The Clippers’ job might be desirable, but it’s fraught with pitfalls. The most treacherous of those used to be history. Now it’s expectations.
This empathy isn’t happening at the 2013 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, an event devoted to celebrating our increasing knowledge of the games we love. Paradoxically, the more we know of the athlete, the less we regard the athlete’s personhood. Because we aren’t really getting to know the athlete -- at least that’s not the point. At MIT Sloan, the collective focus is on successfully using the athlete. The ballplayer is a data point. A number. A series of values that can be compared against other values in the dry, info-rich process of reducing gamble to certainty, of taking human performance and extracting every last win from it.
The wages of better information may not mean losing “the magic in sports,” or whatever cliché we’ve used to romanticize the box score. The Moneyball era has seen a spike of interest in games as fans delight in new ways to understand their passions. If the magic is gone, nobody misses it. Well, maybe somebody does, but their concerns aren’t enough to slow down the ever-expanding popularity of live sports.
The issue is that an era of better information means a greater commodification of athletes. At MIT Sloan, the power locus has officially moved from commodified to commodifier. The nerds are no longer begging the jocks for validation. Beckley Mason conveyed the shift when he wrote about the first major event of the conference, one in which no athletes were featured:
“Titled ‘Revenge of the Nerds,’ the panel was something of a victory lap for those who longed to see sabermetricians in powerful roles within sports teams.”
That panel was moderated by Michael Lewis and manned by four sports-conquering non-jocks (Nate Silver, Mark Cuban, Daryl Morey and Paraag Marathe). There was no athlete to be seen because we did not need them in a setting like this. Cuban, Morey and Marathe have the information and the power.
A few hours after that panel ended, I was witness to a howling kind of nerd revenge. Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry hosted a presentation titled “The Dwight Effect,” dedicated to demystifying interior defense. I anticipated that Goldsberry would be the archetypal researcher, droning on in harmony with the hum of his overhead projector as we all suppressed yawns over a topic as superficially riveting as a Phoenix Suns game.
Instead, Goldsberry got the crowd cackling with an energy that would shame the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. He sported a mischievous grin and exuded a roastmaster’s charisma while singling out David Lee as the counterexample of good interior defense. A graphic dubbed Lee “The Golden Gate” on account of his porous paint presence. It felt like a miniature revolution, that signature moment when geeks felt confident enough to rain shame on a tall, PR-savvy millionaire jock.
Goldsberry’s presentation wasn’t just about mocking Golden State’s All-Star. The specific goal was to illuminate how defensively underpraised Larry Sanders is in comparison to some other big men. Sanders has been playing the right way, in an aspect of basketball fans rarely investigate. Perhaps improved analytics can do the social charity of recognizing and rewarding formerly ignored good work. Perhaps this is all just about letting owners and GMs know whom to pay.
The two choices are not mutually exclusive, but I do wish we cared more about the former option. If there’s broad interest in making players feel like their professionalism matters, I can feel better about laughing at poor Lee.
Stan Van Gundy is the conscience of the conference, bristling through mustache bristles, addressing the crowd as “you people” and berating them with what they ought to know about the folks they seek to quantify. “It’s not a video game,” Van Gundy harrumphs. Equal parts clarity and honesty, Van Gundy captivates by merely saying what’s on his mind in a casually blunt manner. He wants people to understand that taking a quick (read: bad) shot to spark a 2-for-1 opportunity might be wise statistically, but that it can build bad habits, or resentment towards whichever player gets to take the heave.
Even this rare act of humanizing the player makes the athlete sound irrational and annoying. Why can’t these guys just get with the program?
The program, it would seem, is leveraging better information into a better chance of winning. Since the information doesn’t by and large come from the players, the program can make an athlete less the hero and more the functionary.
A hero doesn’t follow orders. A hero leads via his internal compass. We are used to relying on a certain measure of athletic inspiration. I’ll find myself saying “Where did that come from?” when a player uncorks a surreally violent dunk, or a gracefully contorted layup. When Stephen Curry scores 54 points and hits 11 3’s, it reads less coincidental than it does a man tapping into formerly unplumbed regions of his soul. The idea is that the athlete is reaching far within, and presenting us with something from his subconscious.
But what if “far within” isn’t so far anymore? Psychological profiling was a buzzword at the conference, with Cuban and Morey both referring to that frontier when (obliquely) discussing Royce White. General managers want to know what’s going on in there and how the brain relates to success on the field. Perhaps you see a sports psychologist as someone merely there to help a player optimize his talents, to calm him down during free throws. I see that, but I also see someone whose main function is to manipulate the athlete towards a certain end, one that might not be entirely healthy. It’s obvious that medical trainers carry a conflict of interest, especially in the more dangerous sports. Getting a guy upright to play isn’t necessarily the same as favoring his long-term well-being. The same could be so in the psychological realm.
Moreover, there’s something almost dehumanizing about having your brain profiled and manipulated accordingly. The prospect recalls that amusing, farcical Kayak commercial where a brain surgeon operates on his patient while making the patient’s hands perform travel site searches for the doctor. We’re a long ways from Cuban controlling a superstar’s brain, in-game, with a sculptor’s precision. We’re a long ways from it, but such a scenario is the tacit goal of analytics.
The misnomer is believing that such a top-down statistical push errs in its aim. “You can’t measure will, bravery and locker room chemistry” some say. Wrong. Data beats gut every day and 2.57 times on Sundays. The MIT Sloan conference truly is heralding an era of understanding sports better and making better decisions within the industry. No, the result isn’t that we’ll cease properly accounting for will, bravery and locker room chemistry. The result is that we’ll properly account for all of it and cease connecting these human qualities with the humans involved. As the athlete is better known, he will be less respected. The athlete will be less respected because a win is all that matters, and he’s dictating less and less of how a win happens.
There’s a phrase Van Gundy himself is fond of saying in his weekly spots on the Dan LeBatard radio show. When ruminating on certain harsh coaching decisions, Van Gundy will chuckle: “I liked all my players, but I never met a player I liked more than winning.”
C.W. Griffin/Getty Images
Erik Spoelstra: Master of the process
Name: Erik Spoelstra
Birthdate: November 1, 1970
Is he an emotional leader or a tactician?
A disciple of Pat Riley, Spoelstra likes to set a tone, will traffic in motivational mantras and definitely pays close attention to the emotional pulse of his team. But he's a cool tactician at heart, one who earns his team's confidence with his work ethic. The players generally respect that Spoelstra spends his entire waking life trying to make it easier for these guys to win. Superstars are more likely to respond to that quality than a punchy fight song.
Is he intense or a go-along-get-along type?
Spoelstra projects a quiet intensity. You won't find any bulging veins or hot collars, but he's what you could describe as serious. Despite that, he gets along well with staff and players -- his long-standing relationship with Dwyane Wade the best evidence. He's reserved, but not prickly and can be one-of-the-guys when he chooses to.
Does he rely on systems, or does he coach ad hoc to his personnel?
This is Spoelstra's greatest trial as the head coach of the Heat. He highly values systems -- he spent his summer in search of one. In almost any other context, Spoelstra would develop an offensive architecture designed with clean lines and an orderly flow. But with Wade and LeBron James as the two most important pieces on the board, pious devotion to a system presents all kinds of problems. So instead, Spoelstra spends his time finding creative ways to get Wade and James the ball where they can exact the most damage in the half court. He must accept that a good percentage of possessions will be at the whims of his superstars, often when the stakes of those possessions are at their highest. Spoelstra has an uncanny capacity to accept life's inconvenient realities, but this must torment him a little bit.
Does he share decision-making with star players, or is he The Decider?
He doesn't have much of a choice, does he?
Does he prefer the explosive scorer or the lockdown defender?
Spoelstra tilts radically to the lockdown defender end of the spectrum. Joel Anthony has been a personal project for years and, with Spoelstra's encouragement and attention, has become one of the league's best defenders. The patience shown with Mario Chalmers is, in many ways, an expression of Spoelstra's commitment to defense. When the Heat needed to fill out a spot on the wing, they went after Shane Battier, a Spoelstrite if there ever was one.
Does he prefer a set rotation, or is he more likely to use his personnel situationally?
"The rotation is the rotation," is one of Spoelstra's bread-and-butter remarks for the media scrum. There are constants apparent in his substitution pattern, but Spoelstra is an empiricist, so when there's enough evidence to suggest the sequence isn't working, he'll make an adjustment.
Will he trust young players in big spots, or is he more inclined to use his grizzled veterans?
Spoelstra values longevity and believes there are certain understandings of the game that can come only through experience. The bench is usually populated with oldsters who actually played with a handful of existing NBA coaches. Chalmers has been the rare exception under Spoelstra, and the point guard's development has certainly had its trials.
Are there any unique strategies that he particularly likes?
The Heat are a unique team, one that has produced unique strategies, even if not by design. Take the team's half-court defense, which has morphed into its own thing.
Prior to the arrival of James, the Heat ran a fairly conservative defensive scheme, something more along the lines of what you'd see in Orlando under Stan Van Gundy or in San Antonio. It was a low-risk defense focused on staying at home and clogging the middle. Traps were reserved for only the craftiest point guards to ward off penetration. Better to push up on screens, make the angles more difficult and lure opponents into a midrange jump shot. Little men, fight over that screen and don't tax the time of your big men -- they belong in the paint. Helpers, don't travel from remote locations.
You can find many of these same principles in the Heat's existing defense, but the reality of who James and Wade are as wing defenders has influenced Spoelstra into creating a system that melds all kinds of different looks.
Earlier in the abbreviated 2011-12 season, Spoelstra was engaged in a schematic exercise -- how much pressure should the Heat exert on the strong side of the floor? It's a good question, and any coach who has spent the amount of time Spoelstra has preparing for the Celtics and Bulls has to entertain the idea that elements of those defenses should be incorporated into his. So Spoelstra went into the lab and pursued a lengthy trial-and-error experiment. This is one of the reasons we saw Miami give up so many 3-pointers during the regular season after being decidedly average in 2010-11 defensively against the 3-ball.
Over time, Spoelstra has calibrated the system. His big men often show high and hard, with the rotator coming from the back line. But as opposed to the Thibodeau system that has very explicit instructions about where the back-side defenders should be to zone up the rest of the floor, Miami allows James, Wade and whoever else more leeway to jump out of that zone to disrupt passing lanes, swarm without warning and, at times, leak out prematurely.
This probably wouldn't be Spoelstra's chosen defensive system if you handed him a roster at random, but he's constructed a system that appeals to Miami's ability to disrupt and the need to generate turnovers to maximize their best attributes.
Can we brand it the "Miami system," much the same way hard-core basketball fans know the "Thibodeau" when they see it? Maybe soon.
What were his characteristics as a player?
Spoelstra was a heady point guard who started all four seasons at the University of Portland and was the WCC's freshman of the year in 1989. A proficient 3-point shooter. Willing passer.
Which coaches did he play for?
At Portland, Spoelstra played for Larry Steele, a Trail Blazer lifer (and member of the 1977 championship team) who had a less-than-successful career as a college coach.
What is his coaching pedigree?
Ever since he joined the Heat organization as an intern in 1995, Spoelstra has grown up in the home of Pat Riley. Spoelstra's manner, obsessiveness and attention to detail are products of Riley's tutelage. Spoelstra also credits Stan Van Gundy, the Heat's head coach for two-plus seasons, for guiding his understanding of NBA defenses.
If basketball didn't exist, what might he be doing?
The spirit of the Bill James Baseball Abstracts, 1984 and 1985, was summoned for this project.
For four straight seasons, the Magic ranked in the top five in defensive efficiency -- including first in 2008-09 and second the following season.
Over the five season span that Van Gundy coached the team, the Magic ranked second-best in the league in defensive efficiency, second in defensive field goal percentage and first in points in the paint allowed.
All because of Dwight Howard, you say? Consider that in Howard's three seasons before Van Gundy became head coach, the team ranked 15th, 11th and seventh in those categories.
That could be a product of Howard simply coming into his own and developing into a dominant force as an NBA player. But though Howard reportedly wanted the coach out of town, Van Gundy leaves with several impressive items on his coaching resume.
He reached the playoffs in all five seasons with the Magic and racked up 31 playoff wins. That's more playoff wins than the franchise had in its previous 18 seasons of existence.
Since Van Gundy took over, he led the Magic to a better regular-season record than all but three teams. The only franchsies who were better are the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs.
He's not likely to get mentioned in the same breath as Phil Jackson when discussing the greatest NBA coaches, but there is something big that Stan Van Gundy and Jackson have in common: neither coached a losing season.
Jackson coached 20 seasons and never had a losing record, while Van Gundy's total was just eight seasons. Five with the Magic, three with the Heat. And yes, that includes the year with the Heat where Van Gundy was 11-10 before being replaced with Pat Riley.
But Elias tells us that Van Gundy is in rare company. Along with Jackson, the only others who coached at least eight seasons and never had a losing record are former Knicks coach Joe Lapchick and former 76ers coach Billy Cunningham. Both are in the Hall of Fame.
And Van Gundy's .641 career winning percentage puts him in another elevated group: coaches with a winning percentage that high who have coached at least 500 games. Counting Van Gundy, that group is only six members and includes Jackson, Gregg Popovich and Red Auerbach.
But since the 2009 NBA Finals appearance, Van Gundy's Magic teams just haven't had similar success. They had 13 playoff wins that year, beating LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers, the Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers on their way to the Finals.
Since then, they've tallied just two series wins and been bounced by the Atlanta Hawks and Indiana Pacers in consecutive years.
Even as the Magic fell from the league's elite last season, they still ranked No. 3 in defensive efficiency. Having a presence like Dwight Howard patrolling the paint in the half court certainly anchors a defense, but the Magic's success is predicated on more than just allowing its perimeter defenders to crowd their assignments because Howard can clean up any mess.
As Thorpe describes it, the Magic are committed to a few basic -- but essential -- defensive principles.
You can watch hours of Magic basketball and be hard-pressed a Grade A screw-up defending the pick-and-roll. That foundation, in turn, allows the Magic to defend the perimeter and prevent teams from lighting them up from beyond the arc. When two men can handle pick-and-roll duty or, if they can't, the back-line big rotates swiftly, perimeter defenders can stay at home.
The Magic might have to play under a cloud of uncertainty regarding Howard, but good coaching and a defensive system that works can keep the Magic in the top third of the Eastern Conference ... so long as the roster remains largely intact.
Thorpe discusses his favorite rookies from this year's class with Zach Harper here.
Jim Rogash/NBAE/Getty Images
Could the Orlando Magic benefit from more modest expectations?
Unlike the Western Conference where the Lakers have reigned supreme over the past couple of seasons, the Eastern Conference regular-season landscape has been a relatively open space. Convincing arguments could be made in recent seasons for Boston, Cleveland and Orlando, and each of these three teams made at least one trip to the NBA Finals over the past four Junes.
The Miami Heat have changed all that. Of the 93 prognosticators who took part in ESPN.com's NBA Summer Forecast, 66 predicted the Heat to win the East.
Who's their most serious competition? That was a source of some debate, but three teams were projected to win at least 50 games, and picked to finish second in the East by at least one TrueHoop Network blogger. Those teams were Orlando, Boston and Chicago.
On Wednesday, we asked members of the TrueHoop Network to defend their No. 2 picks in the Western Conference, and invited a dissenting opinion from a fellow blogger.
Now, we look East:
The case for the Magic
Kyle Weidie (Truth About It)
After the Miami Heat, obviously, it will be the Orlando Magic battling for Eastern Conference supremacy ... in front of the Celtics, and definitely in front of the Bulls, Hawks and Bucks. Why you ask? Well, let's start with the depth. There's not much turnover from last season's 59-win team -- they added a more solid backup guard in Chris Duhon, along with veteran Quentin Richardson and rookie Daniel Orton, and really only lost Matt Barnes. Jameer Nelson continues to be a leader by hosting his teammates for workouts in Philadelphia. And don't forget that coach Stan Van Gundy signed a contract extension through 2012-13 (that constancy thing). Did I mention that Dwight Howard has been working with Hakeem Olajuwon this summer? The East has been warned. As Orlando continues to grow as a unit, while Miami tries to Frankenstein a three-headed monster and surrounding parts and Boston hires extra trainers to keep loose ligaments intact, best believe that the Magic will be in the picture to make the NBA Finals.
The case against the Magic
Carey Smith (Philadunkia)
It seems obvious that the East will be much tougher in 2010-11 with numerous teams having improved significantly this offseason. The Magic were not one of those teams because the additions of Chris Duhon and Quentin Richardson do not qualify as major upgrades. Additionally, the Magic were a very healthy team last season as their entire roster missed a total of only 63 games due to injury or illness. With the pounding Dwight Howard takes on a nightly basis, he will not be able to continue playing in all 82 games every season. Also the fountain of youth can last only so long for aging veterans like Vince Carter (75 games last year), Rashard Lewis (72), Jason Williams (82) and Quentin Richardson (76) who seem likely to miss more games than they did last season. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, the Celtics laid down a defensive blueprint during the conference finals for how to beat Orlando. The NBA is a copycat league, so expect more teams to lock down the Magic's perimeter players and dare Dwight Howard to beat them. That's a tough task for even “Superman” to handle.
The case for the Celtics
Zach Harper (Cowbell Kingdom)
The Celtics got away with a lot of malaise and indifference for the greater good last season, only we didn't know it was going on at the time. And while the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference is much improved this season, there is still a huge disparity in team play between the Celtics and the next level down. They may struggle with Miami, Orlando and the top teams in the West during the regular season but I don't think they'll have a problem swinging down on the rest of the East. With nobody ready to jump up a level the Celtics can still get their rest and finish with one of the best records in the conference.
The case against the Celtics
Zach Lowe (Celtics Hub)
I'm a pessimist all around, so take my prediction of 49 wins with a small grain of salt and understand it is a prediction about the regular season alone. The Celtics won "only" 50 games last season before visibly turning up their intensity during the postseason and coming within a few minutes of the championship. What objective evidence do we have to suggest they will approach the 2011 season any differently than the 2010 season? The team is built for a run in May and June, not in February and March, and the Celtics likely care less about where they finish in the Eastern Conference standings than about entering the post-season healthy and with a team-wide understanding of Boston's principles on both sides of the ball. The signings of Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal make sense considering the absence of Kendrick Perkins and the problems the team had last season with rebounding and scoring in the post. But those signings also made an old team even older. Boston will play much of the regular season with a lack of urgency. Doc Rivers will limit minutes for the veteran players. Guys will get hurt and miss time here and there. These things will happen. Add it all up, and 49 wins is a reasonable, if low, prediction. No win total between 48 and 55 would be a surprise, but a win total of less than 16 in the playoffs might qualify as a disappointment.
The case for the Bulls
Henry Abbott (TrueHoop)
The Bulls were a halfway decent team with gimpy Derrick Rose, gimpy Luol Deng and gimpy Joakim Noah playing with a bunch of expiring contracts. Now those three return presumably healthy, at ages when they should be better than ever, coached by the guy who led the best defense in the NBA over the last three years, with some nontrivial new firepower. Carlos Boozer did not make the NBA by being taller or stronger than everybody else. He got there in no small part by having a killer work ethic and by being a real-deal adult. That's a wonderful example for this young team. I've always been a Ronnie Brewer fan. People think Omer Asik has real potential. C.J. Watson can play NBA basketball. Kurt Thomas doesn't hurt. And for a team that has needed shooting, Kyle Korver is a marvelous signing. Put it all together, and the Bulls have talented, impassioned players at the most important positions, a good portion of the Utah Jazz (Brewer, Boozer, Korver), and the most interesting new NBA coaching hire of the last few years. I'm feeling bullish.
The case against the Bulls
Jared Wade (8 points, 9 Seconds)
The Bulls had a fine offseason, and the acquisition of Carlos Boozer will give the team the low-post scorer it has been desperately searching for since, roughly, the Carter administration. Next to the defensively solid Joakim Noah, the always-perplexing Luol Deng and second-year forward Taj Gibson, Booz finally brings some stability to the frontcourt. But even with Derrick Rose presumably continuing to ascend toward elite status, the Bulls still have a long way to go to compete with Miami, Orlando and Boston. Even Atlanta's core is more proven, regardless of their ugly playoff exit last season, and the Bucks already play the type of defense that Tom Thibodeau is hoping he can get the Bulls to commit to. The Central Division is a cesspool outside of the Bulls and Bucks, so expect Chicago to win around 50 games — but don't expect much more than a second-round playoff exit.
- LeBron James shoots 76.9 percent from the stripe. How much better would the Cavs be if he could get his free-throw shooting up to an 85 percent clip?
- Ben Q. Rock of Orlando Pinstriped Post on Dwyane Wade's performance against the Magic last night: "And Wade? Stop it. He continued his mastery of the Magic. Let's run through those numbers again: 36 points on 59.2% True Shooting, 10 rebounds, 7 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, and just 1 turnover in 45 minutes, dominating the ball on every possession. He's unreal. Fortunately for Orlando, Van Gundy's decision to double-team him throughout the overtime period -- a look Van Gundy will try against scorching hot perimeter players with the game on the line--paid off. He scored just 2 points in the period, with Beasley and O'Neal ending 2 possessions apiece, with mixed results."
- A bright spot for a Celtics team that's starting to play a little better: Doc Rivers has been able to pace his starters, keeping their minutes in check as the postseason approaches.
- Andrew R. Tonry of Portland Roundball Society: "I miss Gilbert Arenas. I miss his awesome nicknames and yelling Hibachi! after every shot. I miss his blog, where he once even talked about driving home and passing by a bridge, and his thought that, for no real reason at all, he could just drive off and end it all. Another great one: 'Everyone is having sex until they fall in love. When you fall in love, then it’s making love.' Gilbert found commonality in the human experience -- thoughts we all have, but few of us, especially professional athletes, are gutsy enough to share."
- A lot of athletes deny scoreboard-watching -- not Stephen Jackson: "If anybody’s not paying attention they really don’t care about making the playoffs. I know I ask. As soon as we take care of business, I try to find out from somebody around the organization to see if they have any scores.” (Hat Tip: Sports Radio Interviews)
- Want an illustration of how bad the Wizards' offense has been? Check out the trend line on Mike Prada's graph.
- Mark Ginocchio of Nets are Scorching: "[Devin] Harris is a talented player, and you certainly don’t want to lose him for a song -- if he becomes trade bait this summer he has to bring back another building block for a move to be considered, not more expiring contracts. But Harris is also unreliable, and you cannot build around the unreliable."
- Arron Afflalo's favorite things to do in Denver: "I'm downtown a lot, just getting something to eat. Cheesecake Factory, P.F. Chang's, you can catch me there. Banana spring rolls -- I'm going straight for dessert, and maybe some shrimp fried rice."
- Among the many things that excite Jon Brockman? Swedish hatchbacks.
- At one point or another, we've all been where this guy was during Texas' meltdown last night. (PG-13)
- If you're a writer with an interest in the Dallas Mavericks, make some magic with Rob Mahoney.
- Collegiate player I'll be watching today: Oklahoma State's James Anderson, a big guard who knows how to find a shot. He can stroke the ball from the perimeter and draw contact off the dribble. Efficiency Machine.
But what does good chemistry mean? Are we talking about on-court fit? Are we talking about a group of guys that goes to the movies together on road trips? Remember the slew of articles about the Cleveland's team chemistry last season? When the Cavs ultimately lost the Eastern Conference Finals last spring to Orlando was it because something upset that chemistry? Or was it because they ran up against a team that had a unique combination of size, speed and flexibility to offset the Cavs' strengths?
It's one of those classic chicken-and-egg questions: Does good chemistry produce winning, or does winning produce good chemistry? When you stop winning, is it because the chemistry has gone bad, or does the chemistry go bad because you've stopped winning?
Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy isn't a man with a lot of patience for abstractions. He deals in reality. Those blue cards that forever pop out of his inside jacket pocket? They're professional basketball sets, schemes designed to produce opportunities for his players to score two or three points. Van Gundy's initial answer to the "good chemistry vs. winning" riddle prior to Monday night's game against the Lakers was, "It's both." But then he elaborated, essentially saying that if you want chemistry, call a chemist:
We were 17-4 at one point. Your chemistry shouldn’t get worse as you go along. We’re just not playing well right now. People want to point to a lot of psychological reasons and all of these things. I’ve heard hangover from the Finals, but what, it came on late after the first 21 games? I’ve heard chemistry, and so I guess ... we had chemistry for 21 games...
When you’ve had as many people as we’ve had -- and it’s all of us really -- not playing well, you’re not going to look like you have great chemistry because you’re not executing and the ball’s not moving, and everything else. To me, call it what you want, it doesn’t matter. We’re just not playing well.
Matt Barnes has been the most publicly vocal Magician during the team's recent slump. He called out the Magic for lacking heart following their lackluster effort at Portland Friday night. When asked whether good chemistry produced winning or vice versa, he repeated the question to himself, then considered it for another instant before answering.
"You can probably get there both ways, but I’d say when you get on a winning streak, you have good chemistry," Barnes said. "You play consistent and hard, and then you have good chemistry."
Ryan Anderson had a similar response. "Honestly, if you win, your team is going to come together more," Anderson said. "You’re going to have a better attitude. You’re going to want to practice harder. You’ll want to be the best possible team you can be. But when you see everybody struggling, or things just aren’t going our way, that’s when you sort of split apart. Then guys start talking about their own things. I mean, I think good chemistry can make a winning team, but you need to win to get that good chemistry."
The Magic have a lot of things going for them. By the time they're fully engaged in a second round series in early May, this bumpy stretch might be nothing more than a footnote, that rough patch in January before the All-Star break. The slump might even be instructive. If Orlando comes out of it okay and reasserts itself as one of the League's elite teams, will it be because they're able to cultivate better chemistry or because they remember how to perform tasks that produce winning basketball -- things like funneling penetrators to Dwight Howard, making defenses pay for overcommitting on Howard down low, spacing the floor effectively for their high screen-and-rolls, and coming off those screens like they mean it.
Chemistry might help the Magic accomplish some of that. Then again, chemistry might just be a euphemism for understanding how to execute your stuff.
Combo Plate: A ball-handling scorer ... and a scoring ball-handler.
JK: We're definitely seeing a lot of blurring in positional lines, particularly outside of the center position. One thing in particular I like is the rise of the true combo guard. Early in the decade, we got a lot of alleged "combo guards" who were really just superpowered bench gunners given control of teams with mixed results; Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis, et cetera. (Iverson is Iverson.)
But now we're really starting to see effective players who are a cross between the one and the two in a good way, and they're being complimented with other multi-skilled guards rather than going with a strict point guard/shooting guard backcourt. In San Antonio, they put Tony Parker, who's a great scorer for a point, next to Manu, who's a great playmaker for a shooting guard, and things went well. The double-combo backcourt of Mo Williams and Delonte West turned Cleveland's backcourt from a disaster area to a huge strength last season. Even Jason Kidd, the truest of points, is playing with JET and JJ Barea, and has even become adept at knocking down catch-and-shoot 3s off of other people's assists. Phil Jackson's won only 10 championships using an offense that doesn't require a traditional point. And so many young combo guards are coming in with tons of talent: Tyreke Evans, Russell Westbrook, Brandon Jennings and even John Wall, who should definitely be put next to a guy who can pass and shoot when he comes into the league so that he can spend some time in each game going on guilt-free scoring rampages. Wall might be the combo-guard messiah.
KA: This is a beautiful trend because it's created a much more diverse range of basketball styles. Very few teams around the league look alike, even though many of them run much of the same stuff. The fact that so many players can do so many different things on the floor creates an exponentially greater number of things a team can do schematically. On many teams, shots on the floor can be drawn up for almost any player at any spot! Part of this can be attributed to athleticism. One the things that made a power forward or a center a big men was his ability to perform big men tasks -- rebounding, shot-blocking, the ability to routinely get high-percentage shots close to the rim. Today's NBA perimeter players have the athleticism to do a lot of that -- and many of the bigger guys in the league have perimeter skills, as well.
This seems like a nice segue to ...
Do traditional big men have a future?
KA: Whether you chalk it up to the prohibition of hand-checking or the stylings of Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns teams (I'd argue that former rendered the latter), the professional game has undergone a seismic shift over the past decade. Perimeter play has taken over. Today's power forwards have big guard games and two of the top three players in 3-point attempts are 6-foot-10. It's a world gone mad, but you can't complain about the product on the court. The NBA has never been more fun to watch, and we're just getting started...
...or are we?
Trends have a way of feeling permanent while they're being experienced, but they rarely last forever. At some point, laws of macroeconomics take over. Right now, there aren't more than a handful of big men in basketball who have refined post moves and can drain a running right-handed hook with consistency. Teams don't value those attributes as much as speed and 3-point shooting. But as more and more players have the ability to drain 100-200 3-pointers per season at a 40 percent clip, the demand will shift. Kids who arrive on the NBA's doorstep with the ability to dominate the game inside with uncanny efficiency will be shopping skills that few teams will be able to defend.
JK: I'd say the hand-check rules imposed an artificial set of circumstances that forced a change, so I don't think we'll see the pendulum swing all the way back to where it was. But I think guys are finding out that even though big men need to be faster and more skilled than they used to be and can't count on getting minutes just because they can score with their backs to the basket and do nothing else (i.e. Eddy Curry), the post-up game is still a valuable weapon. Look at the Lakers. Andrew Bynum, when he's engaged, defends the rim, gets rebounds and is quick enough to find room and finish off of others, but also posts up. Pau Gasol plays the high-post, runs the floor, gets rebounds, passes beautifully and can knock down the mid-range jumper, but also has a wonderful post game. And of course Kobe can and does do just about anything that's possible for a basketball player to do, but also utilizes the post game.
I'd say that the post-up specialist won't be in vogue again in the foreseeable future, but more and more bigs and wings who can do what's demanded of them in the post hand-check NBA are going to find that the actual post game is still a hugely valuable weapon, especially as fewer and fewer teams know how to defend it.
Of the current young up-and-coming teams, which ones are for real and which ones will provide an entertaining illusion of success?
KA: When sizing up a team's future prospects, the first thing I ask myself is, "Can I imagine this team ranking in the top half of the league defensively?"
Oklahoma City is the quintessential upstart squad. They're fun, charismatic, dynamic, athletic ... and not all that impressive as an offensive unit. It's the Thunder's defense that's led them to a 17-14 record this season. So long as tough, lanky defenders like Russell Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha are patrolling the perimeter (and James Harden too), opponents are going to have a tough time scoring against them. With that Kevin Durant angle pick-and-roll as the anchor of their offense, they're a good bet to win a playoff series sometime soon.
Brandon Jennings has sparked any and all attention the Bucks have received this season, but Milwaukee's frontcourt of Andrew Bogut, Ersan Ilyasova and Luc Mbah a Moute have put up gritty defensive numbers. Mbah a Moute comes as no surprise, but I was shocked by Bogut's stats, until I looked at his figures under Scott Skiles last season -- also really, really good. Once they get a (healthy) shooting guard who can play drive-and-kick off the Jennings-Bogut pick-and-roll, the Bucks could be dangerous under a coach who was booted from his last gig in Chicago after assembling the league's top-ranked defense and the Eastern Conference's 3rd best record the previous season.
Sacramento's lousy defensive numbers don't concern me right now. They strike me as a team that's going to experience a major overhaul over the next 18 months, and a big part of that metamorphosis will be acquiring some pieces around Tyreke Evans who can defend. I have less faith in Memphis, Minnesota, Golden State and, to a slightly lesser extent, Philadelphia, who all have rosters riddled with defensive ciphers.
JK: I think Oklahoma City wins a playoff series when their backcourt clicks into place, and that's close to happening. I love Westbrook's game and think he has a ton of potential, but he just needs to be more disciplined. He pushes the ball, plays great defense, and does all these little things, but then he'll throw up a bad jumper, brick a full-speed reverse layup, or make a silly pass, and his true shooting percentage and turnover rates are way off of where they need to be because of that. It'll be interesting to see if the answer there is Harden maturing to the point where he can play 30-35 minutes a game and cover some of Westbrook's weaknesses with his shooting, playmaking and ability to create off the drive. (Combo guards!) But I think that young frontcourt is the envy of a lot of teams in the league, Sam Presti keeps getting valuable pieces without giving up much, and I'd call the future very bright there.
For Sacramento, the short-term question is how Tyreke is going to work with Kevin Martin. They might cancel each other out or become absolutely unstoppable together, although they might need to do the latter to make up for Martin's suspect defense. But Thompson, Hawes, Casspi, and even Brockman all look like keepers, and Tyreke has given every indication that he can be built around.
In Milwaukee, I think they should be having serious brainstorms on how they can hide Mbah a Moute on offense so they can keep him on the floor longer, maybe even looking for a stretch four so they can put Mbah a Moute closer to the basket offensively and use him like Detroit used Ben Wallace. He's that good defensively.
I agree with you about the rest of the teams, although I give Memphis some upside because I think it's a bit too early to completely give up on Hasheem Thabeet as an impact player defensively; if Orlando could build a defense around Howard and four perimeter guys, there's a chance Memphis can as well. (A chance, mind you.)
What is it about Stan Van Gundy that we like so much?
JK: I think we've got a pretty narrow view of how to evaluate coaches, because we don't see the vast majority of what they do and we're trained to look for their failures and not their successes. Coaches almost exist to be fired, and every time they make a mistake with their play-call or substitution, it'll get talked about the next day.
I think the biggest job of a coach isn't to call timeouts strategically or be a genius with his in game substitutions. (Although both are definitely important, especially the latter.) I think the job of an NBA coach is to set up a system that best utilizes the talents he has available to him, and that's where Stan Van Gundy comes in, especially last season. Of his five starters, he had three guys with below-average defensive reputations, Dwight Howard, and a rookie.
Instead of trying to have everyone play straight-up or stick Rashard Lewis at the three, he evaluated what he had -- the best shot-blocker in the league and more quickness on the perimeter than most other teams had. So he stuck Lewis at the 4 and never looked back, and built a defense around running other teams off threes and keeping Howard at home under the basket. What happened? The Magic gave up the second fewest made baskets at the rim, the second fewest made 3s per game, and more shots from 10-15 feet and 16-23 feet than any other team in the league. They also had one of the league's three best defenses in terms of efficiency.
Offensively, he had Dwight Howard, who can catch and finish with the best of them but isn't a great post player, more shooting and playmaking at the forward spots than most anyone, and a bunch of guys who can shoot threes. So he had Howard look for catches at the rim, ran 3/4 screen-rolls, and had his players shoot a bunch of threes rather than try to do what everyone else was doing. Van Gundy's failures last season were there for the world to see, but what he did extremely well was more subtle.
KA: I like his press conferences, too. The irony of Van Gundy is that popular perception sometimes paints him as inflexible. But as you said, no coach sculpted a more sensible system for his personnel last season than Van Gundy. He did a full appraisal of his talent, saw where he had edges over his opponents at each position (ballhanding at the 3, shooting at the 4, mobility at the 5) and designed his offense to exploit those advantages.
This isn't to say there's anything wrong with building an elite team by first implementing the system, then by populating that system with players whose talents most conform to it. Whatever works, by all means. Just win. But the ability to create a system around a disparate collection of talent that was brought together randomly is in many ways even more impressive.
Should LeBron James be playing more power forward?
KA: Despite James’ size, strength and efficiency on the glass, Mike Brown has him firmly situated at the small forward slot. In fact, you have to go pretty far down the list of Cleveland’s 5-man lineups to find units in which James is playing power forward. But in the six lineups that feature James surrounded by one traditional big man and three smaller players for at least 10 minutes, the Cavs outscore their opponents 96-83 (prorated for 48 minutes).
Those numbers are enough for me, but let’s think about it in practical terms. We’ve already discussed how positional dogma is a thing of the past in an NBA that’s much smaller than it was 10 years ago. When thinking about how to best maximize LeBron in the half-court, wouldn't you prefer that he drag a bigger defender out to him in order to create more space on the floor for your offense? And defensively, wouldn’t a team like Cleveland, whose primary weakness has been its plodding frontcourt, be better served by having LeBron cover Rashard Lewis on Orlando’s pick-and-pop or Boston’s bigs on the Celtics’ rotating screen-and-rolls? Doesn’t it make more sense to challenge Stan Van Gundy and Doc Rivers to match up with a more athletic lineup? And wouldn’t Cleveland benefit from more transition opportunities?
Would team rebounding suffer? When you look at those aforementioned six lineups with LeBron at the 4, the answer is no. Apart from the political stickiness of limiting the minutes of the Cavs' veteran big men, I have trouble seeing how making the Cavs a more athletic team around LeBron comes with much downside.
JK: The short answer is that I'm extremely confused as to why LeBron doesn't get more time at the 4 position, at least for around 10 minutes of his time on the floor. I understand some of the reasoning behind not giving him significant minutes down there. The Cavs show hard on every perimeter screen, which would require LeBron expending more energy on the defensive end than the Cavs are comfortable with, especially in the first three quarters. And of course, the Cavs don't want LeBron in foul trouble under any circumstances. And generally speaking, the Cavs' big men are better players than Jamario Moon, who typically plays the 3 in the Cavs' small-ball lineup. But LeBron getting the ball in the 10-15 foot range and making his move from down there is absolutely deadly, and that small-ball lineup should definitely be something used more often to keep opposing teams on their toes.
What confuses me more than anything is that while the Shaq/Varejao frontcourt has some offensive issues and the Shaq/Hickson frontcourt has some serious defensive issues, a Shaq/LeBron frontcourt hasn't been tried at all this season, and I mean at all. I suppose the reasoning is that LeBron would be forced to expend way too much energy on the perimeter defensively as Shaq sags to the paint on pick-and-rolls (LeBron's never gotten minutes at the four alongside Z either), but with the Cavs supposedly looking for a "stretch 4" at the deadline to make life easier for Shaq, it's odd that they haven't at least tried using LeBron in that role.
There are nights when the Mavericks look deadly serious.
KA: Little known fact: Of the 50 5-man units that have played together the most this season, two of the top three in overall efficiency belong to the Dallas Mavericks. Whether it's Jason Terry or J.J. Barea at the shooting guard, the Mavs' big names are absolutely crushing their opponents on both ends of the floor. Dallas is a Top 5 defensive squad and features one of the game's great shotmakers in Dirk Nowitzki. They also have tremendous flexibility to match up with opponents on either end. They can play old-school or new-school. Want to tease the Mavs with small ball? That's fine, because they're perfectly good going with three guards and moving Shawn Marion and Nowitzki into the frontcourt. Want to try to outmuscle them? Erick Dampier may have an outsized contract, but he's also one of the better basket protectors and garbage collectors in the league. Opponents shoot a measly 57.4 percent at the rim against the Mavs -- only Boston, Cleveland and San Antonio are better.
More than anything, the Mavs strike me as a team composed of professionals. These are serious basketball players led by a serious coach. Is it possible that a squad with so many thirtysomethings breaks down physically over the course of an 82-game season? Perhaps. But where some see brittleness, I see experience. In fact, I see shades of the best San Antonio Spurs squads. I see a team that truly understands its collective talents and limitations and puts a premium on execution.
Can they compete with the Lakers in late May? I'm not sure anyone in the Western Conference can, but Dallas -- with its length, smarts, and perimeter prowess -- might just be the toughest competition the Lakers encounter.
JK: Dallas has a ton of talent, Dirk is right up there with the best players in the league, and the team defends. My caveat would be that they're thinner than people think, and much more dependent on Dirk. As of December 26th, Dallas was +11.6 points per 100 possessions with Dirk on the floor and a stunning -16.5 points per 100 with Dirk on the bench. As bad as LeBron and Kobe's benches are, their teams are only -8 when they sit, to offer some perspective.
A lot of that has to do with Drew Gooden; Gooden's plus-minus is -23.1, and as someone who's watched a good deal of Gooden in his life, I can tell you that's not random noise. Drew Gooden is the anti-Battier. I'm also not a huge J.J. Barea fan. He's fun to watch and works fairly well with Kidd offensively, but I believe you were the one who said he plays defense "like a man frantically searching for his car keys," and the plus-minus numbers support the theory that Barea's somewhat of a defensive liability. Dallas can play with anyone, especially when Dirk's on the floor, and if they do something to get a better backup for Dirk than Gooden and hide Barea's defense a little better (maybe play more Beaubois, who's gone through growing pains and will probably continue to do so, but has lockdown defensive potential), I'd call them a true force to be reckoned with in the West. If not, I'd say they have a solid puncher's chance of knocking the Lakers off their Western Conference throne.
How do we begin to make sense of adjusted plus-minus?
JK: Outside of the obvious conclusion, which is "no one stat or metric, no matter how advanced or intricate, is ever going to come close to saying everything about one player," I have two thoughts on adjusted plus-minus.
The first is that I get how the basic +/- you see in box scores and 82games.com's version of plus-minus work, but I still don't totally understand how advanced plus-minus works, and that's a problem. I mean, I get the theory, that it adjusts for having good or bad teammates or playing against good and bad opponents, but how exactly does it define "good" and "bad"? Is "good" based on the other guy's adjusted plus-minus, or is the value of others derived from something like Player Efficiency Rating? Aren't both approaches problematic? Right now, adjusted plus-minus is sort of "He's good. Trust me," which I have trouble swallowing as a fan and certainly can't use to convince friends or readers of a guy's value.
The second problem is one that will get fixed over time, which is that we still don't really know how to read plus-minus type stats yet. We know with a stat like field goal percentage that a shooting guard is going to have a lower field goal percentage than a center, but we also know that the guard is probably shooting more 3s, shooting his free throws better and taking tougher shots than the center. We know how to read that stat.
But because plus-minus is one number and so nebulous, we don't know which plus-minus numbers to take with a grain of salt and which ones not to. I'll bring up the semi-infamous Durant example here. Durant had terrible +/- ratings for his first two seasons, but has been incredible in year three. Was the Durant phenomenon ever even real, or did Durant actually improve this year in ways the stats didn't see? If we want plus-minus metrics to be as legitimate as the box score ones, we have to stress-test it like we have the conventional numbers that came before them.
KA: I'm drawn to adjusted plus-minus because I'm desperate to find any metric that will approximate a player's defensive value, something we just don't have the tools to do right now. I'm more faithful than I probably should be given the lack of stress tests you talk about. Your point is well-taken and I'd add that stats like these are only valuable to the extent that they're predictive. There will always be players who make colossal jumps or experience unusual crashes in productivity, but apart from outliers, a stat must be dependable enough to offer a clear -- if general -- estimation of what that player is worth in the past, present and likely future. I've begun to spend more time examining the adjusted plus-minus numbers of 5-man units rather than individuals, in part because it seems more practical.
I suspect we'll know a lot more in three to five years than we do now. The metric's practitioners (and the people who trust them) will have a better sense of where the numbers skews, what those number might miss and the kind of noise those numbers create. In the meantime, I'll continue to watch the 2-year figures (and eventually 3-year, and 4-year). Any system that values Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant as the five best players in the NBA has to be on to something, right?
Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel spoke to Magic coach Stan Van Gundy about Meyer's reversal:
"Sounds to me like he's taking off the spring game," Van Gundy cracked.
Van Gundy expanded on how the inordinate stress of a high-profile gig like coaching can take a physical toll:
But as a member of the fraternity, Van Gundy can just as quickly take the Florida Gators football coach's plight seriously.
He knows coaching can be dangerous to your health. Relentlessly driven and intense, Van Gundy concedes that he's thought about whether the job could kill him.
"Yeah, I definitely have thought about that. I don't see myself dying on the sideline. That's why I don't see Jerry Sloan in me," Van Gundy said, referring to Sloan, the Utah Jazz icon who is the dean of all pro coaches at 21 years with one team.
Van Gundy is in his third season with the Magic and, in October, signed a contact extension through 2011.
Asked if Meyer's situation hit home, Van Gundy said, "It does. Anybody in the profession can relate. The thing you can relate to is that it's all pretty much self-induced."
Van Gundy said it's the losing that wears on coaches 24/7, adding, "That's what I can't turn off."
Van Gundy might have helped his mental and physical well-being by changing his combustible behavior on the bench this season, "being less demonstrative," he said.
It's a tricky balance, as Meyer's equivocation demonstrates. The job might kill you ... but you can't live without the adrenaline.
Bear Bryant was once asked during the latter days of his tenure as Alabama's football coach what he'd do once he retired. Bryant responded, "I'd probably croak in a week."
Less than a month after his final game at Alabama, Bryant died.
Schmitz brings up Stan's brother, Jeff Van Gundy, who has been both active and rested since he moved into the broadcast booth:
Jeff is planning to run a marathon in Houston next month. When asked if he thinks about exercising, Stan laughs, "All I do is think about it. It's an excuse. It becomes a time thing. I know it's not good, it's not right."
For fans of the Lakers and Magic, that debate had every bit as much resonance over the weekend as the discussion about what, specifically, went wrong in their teams' respective losses against Cleveland and Boston on Christmas Day.
I have trouble embracing the idea that a December loss forebodes anything meaningful about what might happen in May or June. If you follow one of the elite teams, you sometimes fall victim to the belief that only your team is capable of churning out a loss as profoundly ugly and inexplicable as the one you just witnessed. There must be something fatally flawed about the Lakers if they get blown out at home in decisive fashion to Cleveland.
But if the Lakers' effort raises the panic level to Defcon 4 in Los Angeles, then shouldn't the Nuggets, the presumptive No. 2 team in the West, be super-concerned that they lost on their home floor to the team primed to leap-frog them in the conference hierarchy? Shouldn't an Orlando team be chewing on its limbs after watching Dwight Howard and company put up a paltry 77 points in 96 possessions against Boston? And how about Boston's inability to close out a Clippers team that was coming off three consecutive blowout losses?
Yes and no.
No, because pre-New Years basketball is about discovery. If I'm Stan Van Gundy (and can you imagine being Stan Van Gundy for a day? If that were a silent auction item, I'd be hovering over that sign-in sheet until last call, boxing out all comers, money no object), I want to understand and diagnose why Boston's big men give Dwight Howard the yips. Better to acquire that information now rather than later. I get four months to employ my coaching prowess to make an adjustment to the offensive scheme. How do we get Dwight deeper position and buy a little more space and a little more time to go to work on the block?
If I'm the Lakers, I want to use this loss to the Cavs to better understand why my team entered Sunday night tied for 15th in the NBA with the Houston Rockets in offensive efficiency rating. How can a team as long and skilled in the post as the Lakers have this much trouble finishing at the rim? Is there something amiss with the spacing, even though the unit operates in a system that thrives on space? Are the Lakers becoming needlessly impatient trying to pound the ball inside instead of drawing defenders to the perimeter, which would get them cleaner looks underneath? Addressing these questions over the next 50 games seems like a very doable exercise.
Denver can't wring its hands over its first home loss since Thanksgiving weekend, but it should take note of the fact that each of the "Big 4" teams -- along with Dallas -- have five of the top 6 defensive efficiency ratings, while the Nuggets rank 17th. They're giving up a ton of second shots. Is that because they're too eager to leak out in transition? Is Denver's lightning-quick pace hurting them on the defensive end? Considering the number of superior post players on the roster, is it possible that whatever the Nuggets might leave on the table offensively by slowing things down, they'd more than compensate by giving up far fewer buckets in transition?
So far as the Celtics go, chalk up last night's loss to the Clippers in Los Angeles as an outlier. Make a mental note that the vicious strong-side pressure defense that works brilliantly on 95 percent of possessions might need to be tabled in tight late-game situations -- something the Celtics don't encounter all that often. Offensively, understand your strengths and exploit them. Your offense works most efficiently with rotating pick-and-rolls that confound defenses and run big men ragged. Yes, there will be mismatches at times that invite exploitation, but understand that whatever you gain by working against inferior post defenders in isolation might be offset by upsetting your offensive rhythm. The truth, though, is that the no team in the NBA can touch the Celtics' offensive-defensive differential. The Celtics are simply killing opponents on a nightly basis. To make wholesale adjustments after fluke losses would be the equivalent of sending Rajon Rondo to the line for technical free throws because he's drained his last three from the stripe. Play the odds, C's, they're in your favor.
It's unlikely that many of these questions have definitive answers right now. Coaching staffs need to do some trial-and-error and employ the good ol' scientific method this early in the season. Don't worry so much about "rotations being set" -- a common complaint among observers -- in December. Better to arrive at these truths headed into the postseason. Flexibility is a beautiful principle -- one Orlando rode to the Finals last season over a much more orthodox Cleveland team.
Give it some time, Lakers fans. I know, on paper, your team should be infallible. But your center needs a little nurturing. Your star needs to heal. And your coach is on the case.