Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Knicks Night #1: New York Does Not Fear the Deer

Key contributor: Tyson Chandler in motion, finishing his clutch alley-oop slam.
New York opened their 2013-14 season Wednesday night, hosting an undermanned Milwaukee Bucks outfit before a lively Madison Square Garden crowd. As noted earlier today, Mike Woodson opted to go small with his starters - matching the Bucks' game plan - placing Pablo Prigioni in the backcourt and Iman Shumpert on the wing, to go with Felton, Anthony, and Chandler. The revamped Bucks squad, who were without reserve point guard Luke Ridnour, looked to run the floor with an undersized setup consisting of offseason acquisitions Brandon Knight, O.J. Mayo, Khris Middleton and Caron Butler, to go with defensive force Larry Sanders up front. Knicks' coach Mike Woodson faced the intriguing proposition of going head-to-head with his former understudy, and the man who replaced him in Atlanta, Larry Drew (whom the Bucks hired over the summer).

The signs were not good early for Milwaukee, as Brandon Knight staggered and stumbled near mid-court on his way to straining his left hamstring and ending his night early. New York unforgivingly exploited the downed man, leaking out on the fast break and easily establishing an uncontested slam for Tyson Chandler. The impending exit of Knight did not make the task altogether easier for the Bucks, either, as he was replaced by fresh-faced rookie Nate Wolters, who earned his maiden NBA minutes. Iman Shumpert inspired the Knicks' defensive effort, smothering the frazzled Milwaukee lineup, swatting the veteran Butler in-close, and displaying stereotypical hustle. Carmelo Anthony did his best to contain Butler, yet his busy hands resulted in him registering two quick, unnecessary fouls, and opened the door for Metta World Peace's MSG debut.

Mike Woodson referred to his depth early in the period, calling on the range of Andrea Bargnani and rookie Tim Hardaway Jr., both of whom were received warmly (at least to begin with, in the case of the Italian) by the home crowd. The bright lights appeared to shine a little too brightly for Milwaukee's motley crew, as the attacking, unrelenting attitude of Beno Udrih and the glass-eating services of Kenyon Martin helped the Knicks to blister the Bucks defensive setup, and create a comfortable 24 to 18 advantage at the end of one.

Andrea Bargnani searched for his offense early and often in the second quarter, to no avail. He sprinkled a handful of clanked jumpers through New York's repertoire, was hastily rejected in a packed paint, and called for a traveling violation - all as part of a zero of four start that drew that frustration of Knicks' onlookers. Nevertheless, Milwaukee continued to put forth a stagnant, stale, overwhelmingly fruitless offense, failing to adequately space the floor and/or find teammates in the painted area. The Bucks' array of offensive issues were confounded by the pressing Pablo Prigioni, whose prodding and pestering of the opposition ballcarriers created a number of chances on the break for New York. The Knicks also exerted a marked advantage at the centre position, where Chandler out-tussled Larry Sanders and allowed him to pick up three fouls early in the piece. Moreover, Chandler's handy work was not limited to the defensive side of the ball, as (much to the surprise of those in attendance) he showed flashes of his summer workouts, deftly netting an 18 foot jumpshot to pad his team's buffer.

Prigioni was seemingly everywhere (eloquently described by announcer Clyde Frazier as the "ubiquitous Prigioni creating havoc"), and all looked lost for Milwaukee when Caron Butler's hard, preventative contact on Iman Shumpert was adjudged to be a flagrant (level one) offence. A potpourri of a prevalent Prigioni, the solidarity of Shumpert, the fast-paced Felton, and the stale, woefully disorganised Milwaukee offense afforded the Knicks a roomy 56-31 lead at halftime.

The plight of the recently-extended Larry Sanders did not dissipate with the change in ends, as he endured a spell highlighted by a missed teardrop and an overly-eager offensive rebounding endeavour, which ended in his recording of a 5th foul in a meagre 12 minutes of court time. The misery was not to be shared, though, as Sanders' squad renewed their focus, established some semblance of an offense, and punished New York's ill-advised shot selection and sloppy ball management in the third period. Neat ball movement and sharp, heads-up passing found a wide-open Caron Butler in the corner, who drilled 3 of his 14pts for the game. Zaza Pachulia, ever the physical force, made his presence known with a heavy foul on Carmelo Anthony, whose verbalised displeasure earned him a technical foul from the officials. Emblematic of the Knicks' underwhelming third quarter, the team grappled with shooting concerns, yet it was Bargnani who was able to net from the elbow, and table his first points as a Knickerbocker. Milwaukee persistently chipped away at the scoreboard discrepancy, slicing the comfortable margin to a much narrower 10pt lead, on the back of a 33 point quarter.

The Bucks continued their emergent, unexpected rampage to begin the fourth, gladly reaping the rewards of errant, misguided passing by Mike Woodson's men, and sweetly transforming it to scoreboard damage - such as Gary Neal's (16pts off the bench) trademark splash from downtown. The sound steadfastness of Milwaukee deemed the unbalanced halftime ledger to be a distant memory, amidst an ugly phase where New York committed more turnovers (9) than they converted field goals (7). Prigioni (7pts, 5 assists, and 3 steals), so positively influential in the opening stanza, had been a primary culprit for the Knicks' blasé ball control, although he eventually fought to make amends by pick pocketing an inbounds pass and assisting Iman Shumpert in getting to the free throw line.

The MSG crowd exclaimed a collective groan in the fourth when the enforcer, Pachulia, eviscerated and annihilated an unsuspecting Felton on a (legal) blindside screen. It took the activity and timely tip-jams of Tyson Chandler - with a line of 10pts, six rebounds, five blocks, and three steals to boot - to spark the Knicks' effort and elicit the energy of the home fans. Chandler's agitation on defense limited the charge of the Deer, and cleared the path for Carmelo Anthony to softly tip home his first points of the period, and solidify his team's edge. Perhaps the possession most synonymous with the constitution of this game arose in the closing moments, when Milwaukee's rookie point guard Wolters looked like a deer in the headlights (pun intended) and had his scoop layup attempt emphatically dispatched by the powerful presence of Chandler.

Blessed by the fortunes of steady play of Felton, Shumpert and Chandler, the Knicks' escaped embarrassment and captured a win on opening night, 90-83. Carmelo Anthony concluded with 19pts and 10 rebounds, not able to discover his usual volume of scoring output, and Zaza Pachulia compensated for the foul-induced absence of Larry Sanders by contributing a valuable 13pts and 11 rebounds off the bench for the visitors. This will not go down on the list of timeless classics, but with both teams holding distinct playoff aspirations it will, at season's end, contribute to the final standings.

New York travels to Chicago for a clash with the Bulls tomorrow night, as the Bucks continue their road trip and venture to Boston for their next outing.

FINAL - New York 90-83 Milwaukee

New York 1-0, Milwaukee 0-1

Primo Pasta? Andrea Bargnani Will Not Start on Opening Night for the Knicks

Changing roles: Bargnani started in the preseason, but could come off the bench for New York on Opening Night.
Look away, Knicks fans, Andrea Bargnani appears to be entering the season in a haze of uncertainty. Having started all seven of New York's exhibition games (in which the Knicks managed a 2-5 record), reports have emerged that the floor-spacing big man may open the season as a bench contributor. The 7"0 Italian battled recurring shooting woes through the course of the preseason, including a final outing against Charlotte that saw him finish 2-10 from the field with 7pts, in 27 minutes of playing time. Bargnani arrived at Madison Square Garden in July as part of a trade with Toronto that sent Marcus Camby, Quentin Richardson (both since waived), Steve Novak, and a slew of future draft picks to the Raptors. The executed trade, it is worth noting, was engineered by the then-leading man of the Knicks' front office - Glen Grunwald - who has since been fired. Regardless of reasoning, the fact that the organisation dismissed its President and General Manager (Grunwald held both positions) only 10 weeks after the roster shakeup does not serve as a glowing reflection upon the departing executive. Grunwald exits having assembled a Knicks cast that gathered the team's highest win total (54) since the '96-97 season, and achieved its first playoff series victory in 13 years.

Trialling training camp invitees and experimenting with rookie Tim Hardaway Jr. and recent acquisitions Beno Udrih and Metta World Peace, the Knicks wielded a number of different, eclectic lineups in the foggy irrelevance of October basketball. Unsurprisingly, this produced varying, sometimes eyebrow-raising results, including a 30pt rout at the hands of Boston in Manchester, New Hampshire. Frequently, Bargnani was slotted alongside Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler, asked to provide added scoring punch, stretch the opposition defense, and remain a 3rd or 4th option on offense. The former #1 overall pick holds a reputation of a sharpshooting seven-footer, despite failing the reach the 37% mark on 3pt field goal attempts since 2009. He appeared in only 35 games for Toronto last season, constantly fighting injury and struggling to stay on the floor. This offseason, the Italian missed five weeks with a bout of pneumonia, and managed nagging back complaints in training camp. Meanwhile, Bargnani lofted an unhealthy average of 3.5 treys per contest last year, now joining a team that set the NBA record for the number of long-range attempts (2,371) throughout a regular season

He is a player whom intense scrutiny seems to inevitably follow, if for nothing else but his high-draft expectation and annual $11M salary. Bargnani wrapped up his preseason with numbers of 24 of 63 from the field (38%), and having misfired on 12 of his 15 three-point launches. The Knicks headed toward 2013-14 knowing that three players were assured of starting roles - Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, and Raymond Felton. In the preseason, Bargnani started in lineups with this trio, occasionally with Pablo Prigioni, and at times with the defensive-minded Iman Shumpert. The team's most successful stretch in 2012-13 occurred when Pablo Prigioni was inserted as a starting staple, assisting the Knicks on an historic 12 game win streak in March-April. A confidence player, and one not shy about expressing his opinion on team situations, New York's newfound #77 looks set to have the comfort of his starting role usurped. New York will open their season tonight by hosting Milwaukee, and it appears head coach Mike Woodson will roll out a lineup substituting the Italian for the active hands of either Prigioni, or Metta World Peace. 

With fellow pricy big man Amar'e Stoudemire suffering persistent knee issues, veteran Kenyon Martin unlikely to feature in back-to-back games, and guard J.R. Smith sidelined for the first five games due to a violation of the league's drugs policy, much of the Knicks' early season success will be dependent on the productivity and contributions of Bargnani. New York will hope (pray?) that the somewhat sudden reshuffle does not throw the foreign product further off course, as the franchise looks to build upon its Atlantic Division crown from a season ago.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

What's new on the uniform front for 2013-14

The Pelicans' road gear
Here are thoughts on some of the new NBA uniforms that’ll be worn in 2013-14.

New Orleans Pelicans, home and away

The colour scheme is uninspiring. It's conservative but looks like it’ll age quickly.

The font used for the lettering is likeable, but that’s almost irrelevant given the lettering is too small. It seems odd that ‘Pelicans’ wasn’t used for either the home or road jersey script. Not only is that a new nickname, but it uses less space than ‘New Orleans’ and thus would’ve been a nicer fit for the jersey.

The side panels, clean armholes and V-neck all hinder this set.

The logo – which is so busy it takes a second to spot the pelican – marks a missed opportunity. The Pelicans nickname provided New Orleans a chance to use a happy, cartoon bird logo, like the Baltimore Orioles. That would’ve been a nice change for an NBA team.

Phoenix Suns, home, away and alternate

The use of black really hurts this set. The home uniform is the biggest offender on this front with a black collar and black numbers, when purple would’ve been a more eye-pleasing choice.

The coloured flaps on the neckline and the piping near the armholes and across the back of the shorts are clutter. That design on the hem of the shorts belongs on a misguided teen’s lower back, not this uniform.

The script, numbering and font for the player names are all attractive. There’s something flimsy-looking about that streaks design, but it works.

Some sort of diagonal pattern on the shorts – similar to what they did in the ‘90s – would’ve been a nice touch.

Detroit Pistons, alternate

This looks like something a Saturday junior club with a big uniform budget would wear. It’s unnecessary and generically modern, particularly those side panels.

The new alternate for the Warriors
Golden State Warriors, alternate

Having a sleeved jersey seems particularly unnecessary when you leave the sleeves plain. Some stripes – and the Warriors already have stripes elsewhere on their unis – would’ve looked good on there.

Los Angeles Clippers, alternate

The light blue is attractive and relevant to the club’s past. This uniform could do with a more standard collar and without the piping up the side, however.

Los Angeles Lakers, alternate

They took an unattractive uniform and made it worse with black. That shade doesn’t team well with purple and gold, plus this gear retains the unsightly side panels of the other Lakers unis.

Miami Heat, two alternates

Both are unnecessary. The red one looks terrible, the black one looks good. The scoop collar, trim, and drop shadow on the numbers are all plusses for the black uniform. Hopefully the ‘A’ isn’t actually solid, as it appears in that photo.

New York Knicks, alternate

Its biggest crime is being unneeded, particularly as the Knicks have one of the finest uniform sets in the league without it. This alternate has all the features that make their regulars so appealing, though.

PFP's First Annual Arbitrary Awards Forecast

Kevin Durant will begin the season without his All-Star teammate Russell Westbrook.
Basketball is approaching us. Mere hours away from the tip-off for the 2013-14 NBA regular season, one last matter needs to be attended to. In the contemporary climate, the orthodoxy of being a basketball nerd dictates that one must actively speculate over the outcomes of end-of-season award voting. What remains a relative mystery, and apparently continues to elude popular fan consciousness, is the true structure of NBA award voting. Currently, the voting process (spanning across All-NBA team and individual honours) is shared across a panel of select media members and league head coaches, whereby media alum bear the majority of the responsibility and swaying power. Separate from the alleged expertise of those entrusted with selecting the NBA's foremost honourees is the glaring lack of transparency within the system, as those who tangibly apply their opinion are afforded complete anonymity, removing any possibility of post-award critiquing and/or debate. Pundits and general basketball enthusiasts have often been left confounded by the release of voting tallies, such as with David Lee's third place vote in the 2010 Defensive Player of the Year ballot, and in 2011, when guard Josh Selby surfaced in the Rookie of the Year voting despite having only made 28 regular season cameos that year. There may be deep flaws in the nature of award distribution, yet that shouldn't discourage the common practice of attempting to telepathically foresee the allocation of said accolades.

It is best to begin with the titles regularly flooded in vagueness, in both worthiness and voting, and undertake this naturally trivial task in ascending order, with the league's Most Valuable Player being perceived as the highest honour.

Most Improved Player - Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

Leonard, the rangy, athletic wingman of the reigning Western Conference champions, arrived in San Antonio as the product of a draft day trade, following his selection as the 15th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. Leonard, coming off a season in which his minutes and production were boosted, is now entering his third NBA campaign, and will be hoping to stave off injury concerns and further accelerate the speedy development of his young career. The Spurs managed to win 74% of the 58 regular season bouts that Leonard played a role in, with the 6"7 forward holding very healthy percentages of 49.4% of his field goals, and stroking 37% of his shots from the outside. Without doubt, San Antonio will rely upon the versatile, two-way small forward, seek a further minutes increase, and anticipate their fledgling star to soak up some of the lost production from the rapidly waning game of the ageing Manu Ginobili. Ginobili, the ever-reliable Argentinian whom the settled Spurs have so often turned to for clutch play and ingenuity, witnessed a sharp decline in his performance during the postseason - only managing to make 39.9% of his playoff field goal attempts, and drifting further and further away from the basket with his shot distribution.
Continued progression and fine tuning will be the key to another prosperous season for Leonard.
Health permitting, Kawhi Leonard is on the cusp of a certain spike in shot volume and his usage of San Antonio's offensive possessions - this, on the heels of a season where the former San Diego State Aztec approached two of the three marks required to join the prestigious 50-40-90 club. The Spurs' famed Duncan-Ginobili duo shared the court for just 55 games in 2012-13, a number destined to decrease, leaving Leonard in the wings (no pun intended), ready to formally ascend to star status. Indicative of the flow of the trademark Spurs offense, Leonard been plugged in smoothly, and deliberately, with a noteworthy 98.5% of his 65 three pointers being directly assisted. This should not be viewed as an indication of his inability to create his own shot off the bounce, but to the contrary, as tributary to the refined mechanics of a San Antonio scheme that has borne sweet, juicy fruits over a remarkably lengthy period. That being said, the Spurs' brass would surely not oppose an added aggressive streak and/or creative tendencies, that would merely serve as added, complimentary bows to the analytics idol's already-comprehensive arsenal. San Antonio's #2 comfortably floated on the perimeter during the regular season, with 33.1% of his FG attempts coming from behind the three point line (a cosy fit for this well-oiled offense), yet he was able to up his minutes from 31 to 37 per contest in the playoffs, while honing his True Shooting percentage to a hearty 61.1%, per stats.

The criteria for the player deemed to have displayed the greatest 'improvement' in his game is not always clear or forthcoming, and San Antonio's swingman is bound to confront competition in this inevitably obscure category, however, with the organisation expecting a version of Leonard more closely associated to his proficient postseason outings than that from the 82 game schedule, the sound, ever-productive 3-man is a near-lock to factor in the conversation for the league's Most Improved Player.

Rookie of the Year - Victor Oladipo, Orlando Magic

Joining the Orlando Magic as the 2nd overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, Oladipo is a slender 6"5 guard who flourished in a three year career with the Indiana Hoosiers. Having spent the overwhelming majority of his NCAA life as a defensive-oriented, slashing two-guard, Oladipo comes into the Orlando picture (somewhat) oddly slated to play big minutes at the point guard position. A combination of depth issues, developmental experimentation, and a desire to test the ceiling of a youthful core, the Magic will almost certainly spot Victor Oladipo at both guard positions over the course of his rookie year. The former Big Ten prodigy departed Indiana with 104 games to his name, as a 2013 Consensus All-American, with a junior season defined by a truly remarkable 59.9% field goal conversion rate. Competition for, and public interest in, this award could very well be slim - with #1 overall selection Anthony Bennett fighting conditioning issues, and a host of other lottery names lodged in positional battles with their respective teams. Oladipo momentarily experimented with point guard duties over the 2013 Orlando Summer League, how he fares over the rigours of the 82 game stretch against established All-Stars and wily veterans, though, is another matter. Ideally, he will seek to replicate the wonders of his final collegiate season, in which he showcased a PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of 28.9, and drilled the long range ball at a more than sustainable clip of 44.4%. Volume and a distance adjustment figure to skewer his prowess from downtown, and as with anything, his maiden voyage in the league will be a learning curve. Watch for Oladipo to seize the abundance of NBA minutes at his disposal, and fashion a balanced, complex game that will lay the foundations for a lengthy career.

Sixth Man of the Year - Andrei Kirilenko, Brooklyn Nets

Curiously declining a $10M player-option for the upcoming season and opting for free agency, Andrei Kirilenko, the Russian veteran, chose to instead accept the Nets' mini-mid level exception of $3.1M, joining a bold new cast in Brooklyn. Kirilenko's decision may have drawn the frustration and bemusement of opposing front offices and league officials, who meticulously scrutinised the finer details in the event that Kirilenko hadn't been privy to under-the-table agreements with quirky oligarch and fellow Russian Mikhail Prokhorov, yet it is one that has positioned him for an instrumental role on an aspiring contender. In his lone season in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, the briefly tenured Timberwolf reminded fans of his menacing defensive capabilities, reverting to a level of focus that allowed him to poach 2.3 steals per 48 minutes, while dismissing 1.5 shots by the same measurement. The long, gaudy international slotted nicely into Rick Adelman's offense, often negating back troubles, and constantly exhibiting a unique understanding of spacing, angles, and all forms of basketball geometry. Kirilenko put up 68 of his perimeter shots for Minnesota on the right side of the floor, where he registered at an above-average rate. The crafty Russian is far from renowned for his outside touch, and his role on a recently renovated Brooklyn roster is likely to be one of a part-time facilitator and periodical lock-down defender, in carefully managed court time. At 6"9, he brandished bountiful percentages up tight and in-close, making 217 of his 347 attempts from 8 feet and in, good for 62.5% and well above league average. It is this succinct, targeted offensive mindset that will prove a bonus for the Brooklyn bench, bolster their seeding and playoff hopes, and neatly nestle Kirilenko into the frame for the Association's premier performer off the pine.

If Andrei Kirilenko is able to adeptly massage his niggling injury concerns and properly place himself as a staple of the Nets' nightly rotation, his production in reserve minutes could not only be a notable difference maker, but act to strike fear into the eyes of opposing bench crews.

Coach of the Year - Frank Vogel, Indiana Pacers

As a well-travelled assistant and video coordinator of the NBA's coaching ranks, Frank Vogel's comparatively brief stint as the coach and schematic architect for the Indiana Pacers has been synonymous with two words - 'defense', and 'playoffs'. A two and a half year window on the job has seen Vogel lead Indiana to three straight playoffs, steadily increase their win total, and firmly affix themselves as the league's stingiest defensive output. According to, Vogel's Pacers held opponents to a mind blowing 42.0% field goal percentage, while conceding a pace setting (again, no pun intended) average of 90.7 points per game. The metrics overwhelmingly measure up well for Indiana, who also affirmed their status as the preeminent rebounding roster in the NBA in 2012-13. More specifically, Vogel combatted Danny Granger's season-ending knee injury outstandingly, masterminding a five man unit of George Hill, first-time starter Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West, and Roy Hibbert, that bore the heavy onus of 19 minutes per game playing together, and was predominantly responsible for the team's dominance on the defensive end.

The team from the Hoosier state was able to capitalise on the absence of Derrick Rose from a key division rival, claim 49 victories, and clinch the Central Division championship for the first time since 2004. Expect Vogel, the New Jersey native, to once again lean on the devastating defensive one-two punch of Paul George and Roy Hibbert, the pair who enjoyed a +/- of +7.5 points per 48mins, and swallowed approximately 74.5% of the team's high defensive rebound totals while playing together. In the 33 month period since Frank Vogel rose to the lead role, everything for Indiana has been incremental - wins, internal player development, defensive adjustments, rotational changes - all while subtly and sneakily rounding out the roster. Adhering to the recent successes and simplicity of this equation could be the path to a bump in the standings, and a necessary step toward formal, league-wide recognition for Vogel's vintage style and coaching vernacular.

Defensive Player of the Year - LeBron James, Miami Heat

What can one say that hasn't already been penned? James, fresh from the Heat's royal heist of the 2013 NBA Championship, is the holder of four regular season MVP's, two consecutive NBA championships and NBA Finals MVP's, and two Olympic Gold Medals. Having featured on five All-Defensive teams, there stands a single, esteemed, elusive honour for the man so regularly thrust into historically comparative debates in the mainstream media - a Defensive Player of the Year award. Aside from the absurdity of '1 on 1'-style debates and frivolous comparisons, the lone, dusty shelf in LeBron James' trophy cabinet is being maintained for future DPOY recognition, the solitary prize that distinguishes the astute and obsessively competitive James from the career of Michael Jordan (DPOY in 1987-88). In addition to amassing 1.7 steals and 0.9 blocks per game and intimidating opposing perimeter players on a nightly basis, James recorded a net rating (Offensive Rating - Defensive Rating) +14.1, while solidifying a 20.8% defensive rebounding percentage. This consistency of effort was enough to earn the MVP eighteen first-placed votes and a second overall finish in last year's DPOY ballot, an outcome that will only require stability and perhaps a minor uptick in the volume of his frightening defensive presence in order to push him over the top in the category. Moreover, in game situations identified by league statisticians as 'clutch' - in this instance, +/- 5pts with 1min remaining - LeBron's net rating, as measured per 100 possessions, skyrocketed to an astonishing +48.6. On the eve of a season with a running storyline of a quest for a third straight championship (and possibly a third MVP in as many years), LeBron James has the capacity to cement his legacy, and attach the moniker of 'LeBron James, 2013-14' to the folklore of the NBA's greatest ever individual seasons.

Most Valuable Player - Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

Starkly chosen as the player 2nd to James in 2012-13's MVP race, Durant is neatly placed for yet another insane statistical season. Durant capped off a fine year, missing only 1 regular season game, and gaining admission into the aforementioned 50-40-90 club, with a breakdown of 51.0% from the field, 41.6% from downtown (at a clip of 1.7 made per contest), and an ever-efficient 90.5% at the charity stripe. Narrowly out-jostled in the season-long scoring duel by fellow forward Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant will rebound from a stretch of 'second-best''s in a reality where his All-NBA sidekick Russell Westbrook is sidelined for at least the first 4-6 weeks of the regular season schedule. 12 months removed from the organisation's controversial decision to ship prolific scorer James Harden to Houston, and following an offseason where 2012-13's primary bench weapon for OKC fled for Minnesota, Durant will be looked to - now more than ever - to carry the offensive load and steer the Thunder to sustained success. He endured struggles in the postseason in the wake of Westbrook's absence, undergoing dips in all three primary shooting measures, and flinging typically-automatic jumpers, and even free throws, offline against a feisty Memphis Grizzlies outfit. Westbrook's career has been one of incredible durability, having appeared in 394 straight regular season tussles prior to going down in the first-round series of the 2013 playoffs.

Don't anticipate Kevin Durant to battle without Westbrook to the same extent in the regular season, with the injury and Kevin Martin's departure opening up an average of 29 extra field goal attempts per contest that need to be occupied by Oklahoma City's current roster. Durant is sure to enjoy a bolstered usage rate, up from 29.7% of last year, while his minutes may experience another bump in average, and he is likely to see further decline in the percentage of his baskets that come off teammates' assists - 50.8% in 2012-13, per Discretely blending efficiency and opportunity will be an ongoing task for the skinny, smooth-shooting swingman, as he experiments with the burdens of further offensive responsibility. stats reveal that per 48mins in 2012-13, Durant put up 35.1 points and held a +/- of +11.1, stats that could quite realistically be more symptomatic of his per-game numbers in the approaching season. He ranked second (only to LeBron James) in the PER department, recording a measure of 28.47, also courtesy of Meanwhile, observers can prepare for a re-allocation of shots and a refreshed distribution, with Durant likely to viciously attack the rim at an unprecedented level, reducing the quantity of perimeter shots, refining the deep ball and weaving a scattered array of destructive outside weapons through his polished play. Openings from 22 to 23 feet are likely to be sparse and unavailable as a result of a subpar supporting cast and a lack of collective creativity and fluidity, hence, Durant's approximate rate of 22% of his shots arriving from the top of the key (behind the line) and on the wings could suffer.
An overview of Durant's shot distribution throughout the 2012-13 regular season, via
Mostly, though, analytical experts and casual fans alike are aware of the vacuum of scoring output in Oklahoma City, one that leaves behind a cavernous divide, needing to be addressed. Don't be shocked if, in Russell Westbrook's vacancy, Durant catches fire in the opening months and gradually nudges the 35 point-per-game mark. Whether or not this can be managed without severely harming his trademark efficiency levels is yet to be seen, however. Oklahoma City fans are craving another Top 3 finish in the West, a feat near-impossible without this kind of heroism from the idiosyncratic Durant. The casual, contented position of reigning champion Miami, and the marked malaise that hovers over Kevin Durant's mindset and OKC's unsettled roster, have the potential to fuel an unholy cocktail of rage and individual brilliance from the perceived inconspicuous, milquetoast All-NBA figure. Kevin Durant is going to put the Western Conference, and the Association, on notice, and claim his inaugural Most Valuable Player award.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

'You have six NBA players' - All is Not Well in the City of Brotherly Love

Sixers head coach Brett Brown pondering a season of headaches.
Prior to the team's recent preseason loss at the hands of Cleveland in Columbus, Ohio, incoming head coach Brett Brown offered an honest, foreboding assessment of the status of 76ers basketball, confessing that Philadelphia are blessed with the fortunes of just six legitimate, capable, NBA-calibre players. This explicit denigration of the quality of the roster emerged from a series of comments by Brown, and was not to be lost among the sombre revelation that the first-time coach, and the organisation, do not anticipate highly-touted rookie and #6 pick in this year's draft - Kentucky product Nerlens Noel - to appear at all in the upcoming campaign. Noel, the deeply scrutinised big man who (prior to June's NBA Draft) had long remained in the conversation as a possible #1 overall selection, despite suffering a torn ACL in his left knee in February, joined the franchise as a lone, flickering beacon of light and prosperity on an otherwise disjointed, lacking squad with gaping holes and ill-conceived contractual negotiations. The Sixers' new regime unashamedly ushered in wholesale changes to the team in acquiring the injured Noel, and hitting the restart button by sending All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday to New Orleans, receiving the nimble Kentucky centre and the Pelicans' protected 2014 first round pick in return. All of this shuffling and reshaping, it should be mentioned, occurred well prior to the appointment of Brett Brown as the man in charge. The fact that the organisation withstood a span from April to August without an official head coach is ominously reflective of the state of affairs.

Brown takes the reigns of this undisputed mess following 11 seasons on the San Antonio sidelines, as a recent inductee of the New England Basketball Hall of Fame, and with a four year stint as head coach of the Australian national team under his belt that saw them place 7th at the 2012 London Olympics. Wisely, Brown protected himself and assured stability and job security by insisting upon a lengthy four year contract, displaying a clear awareness of the basketball debris that burdens his new roster. He enters the fray in the midst of discussions and expert opinion that place these 76ers in contention to break the franchise's own mark for the worst 82-game record in NBA history, an unenviable task, to say the least. The declaration that Noel is unlikely to play a part at all in the team's 2013-14 schedule evokes horrific memories for a fan base that endured a treacherous run with the costly, broken down Andrew Bynum, who failed to register a single minute in a Sixer uniform last season, and does little to discredit this level of doom-and-gloom conversation.

With the regular season fast-approaching, Philadelphia figures to put forth a starting crew 'headlined' by holdovers Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner, and Spencer Hawes, a trio responsible for middling, subdued results when sharing substantial minutes together. As lineup regulars in recent seasons, the Turner-Young-Hawes combination appeared in a considerable sample size of 74 regular season outings in 2012-13, managing a meagre +/- of +0.1 points per 100 possessions, per stats. This, if anything, is a harsh truth for Brown and illustrative of what he will have to work with in his inaugural season on the job. Brown will struggle mightily to address the barren offensive output overseen by Doug Collins, which was good for a placement of 30th in the league rankings, with an average of 93.2 points per game, also per The Sixers were able to move the ball relatively freely and establish themselves in the assists department, nevertheless, dishing out 22.8 helpers per game - good for 11th in the league - whilst limiting their turnovers to an honest 13.0 per contest, 2nd best in the Association. Their ability to share, value, and manage the basketball almost certainly followed budding star Jrue Holiday out the door, however. In addition to this, spacing and opposing defense's packing the paint is destined to plague the Sixers play, at least until they attempt to address the shallowness of their outside shooting.

Philadelphia guard Evan Turner's 2012-13 shot chart (where yellow represents league-average, green above-average, and red below-average), courtesy of
Neither Evan Turner nor Thaddeus Young holds the capability to wilfully and/or adequately stretch the floor, with Turner hovering either at or below league-average from all areas behind the three-point line, while of Young's negligible eight tries from beyond-the-arc, he cashed in on only a solitary attempt. These facts, in congruence with Spencer Hawes' admirable gunslinging attitude from the outside and the ongoing knee troubles of reliable veteran Jason Richardson, seem a certain formula for an overcrowded frontline and an inefficiently orchestrated offense. Hawes, despite an obvious willingness to lurk on the perimeter, nailed a melancholy 31% of his 19 hoists from the left-wing, and didn't serve any better on the opposing side of the floor, hitting just 1 of 11. Unquestionably, this does not bode well for Brown or the 76ers, and has the makings of a paltry, below-average scheme, even before one considers the plethora of minutes likely to be handed to incumbent starting point guard Michael Carter-Williams, who netted an eye-gauging 39.8% of his field goals over a 66-game career at Syracuse. Carter-Williams launched a disproportionate 137 long balls over that same span, sinking an uninspiring 42 of them.

How Brown elects to distribute and balance minutes over the course of the season will auger an influence on the team's offensive mould to an extent, yet he more than anyone, though, will be aware of the scarce pickings on hand. Assuredly, Brown will look to accommodate the poor shooting prowess of the roster by allocating starter's minutes to fourth year guard James Anderson, a guard who has nailed 39.1% of his shots from downtown in sporadic time with San Antonio and Houston. The material outcome of this kind of dependence on Anderson will prove a learning curve for both player and coach, alike. Where Brown will not receive any production is from former lottery pick Royce White, previously of the Houston Rockets, whom the Sixers discarded this past week, having only traded for him in July. Philadelphia holds the dubious honour of being the second NBA team to give up on White, the individual who is yet to log any regular season minutes.

Brett Brown will head into Wednesday's opener at home to Miami hoping to complement his likely starters of Carter-Williams, Anderson, Turner, Young, and Hawes, with some form of bench concoction consisting of fourth year big Lavoy Allen, combo guard Tony Wroten, and relative NBA no-names Daniel Orton and Hollis Thompson. Philly will exhibit an ironically thin lineup for an organisation desperately pining for the enthusiasm of a city and a disenchanted fan base, emblazoning the team arena, merchandise and neighbourhoods with the ambiguous motto of 'Together We Build'. Cynicism aside, it will be interesting to the NBA junkie to observe how the faultlessly-honest Brown seeks to massage the veritable mess of a roster at his disposal, and just how low the squad will sink into the muddy waters of the perennial 'tanking' discussions.
Image courtesy of
Don't despair, Sixer fans, together we build.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Caught in the Winds of Change - A Brief Outlook for the 2013-14 Toronto Raptors

Image courtesy of The Canadian Press/Frank Gunn.
In the throws of a nine-month window defined by two franchise-altering (at least in one sense) trades, the Toronto Raptors enter the season undoubtedly beneath the shadows of ambiguity, or so it would seem to the outside observer. Following deals that shipped efficient, linchpin point guard Jose Calderon and former lottery picks Ed Davis and Andrea Bargnani across the border, and brought back anti-media darling Rudy Gay, the soft touch of Steve Novak and a bevy of future draft picks, the organisation is continuing to adjust to realities of the makeover, but does not appear content to settle and embrace its current status. Having failed to make the playoffs in any of the past 5 seasons, Toronto moved hastily to fire General Manager Bryan Colangelo, the man responsible for (among other things) the Bargnani pick, the unsuccessful signing of Hedo Turkoglu, and the team's misfired exchange for injury-prone centre Jermaine O'Neal. Timing aside, Colangelo illustrated an innate ability to attract the ire of Raptor reporters and faithful, alike. Notwithstanding this, the forecast was certain to be grim for the now-former GM as soon as high-rolling businessman Tim Leiweke was brought in as the new President and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment in April of this year.

Leiweke acted sharply in convincing reigning executive of the year, Nigerian-born Masai Ujiri (previously of the Denver Nuggets) to return to Toronto, at the rumoured price tag of 5 years, $15M. Ujiri assumes control of a team with clear identity crisis, clogged in somewhat of a transitional phase, with more than a handful of crucial decisions to be made in the coming months. The Raptors concluded the 2012-13 with a subpar 34-48 record, managing just a 21-20 stand at home, yet contrary to some dreary projections, this writer, for one, believes there is room for subtle, cautious optimism. Removing salaries from the equation, Toronto's showpiece is indisputably second-year, Lithuanian, polished prodigy Jonas Valunciunas - at the centre position - who led his national team to a silver medal at the 2013 Eurobasket tournament, and captured the honour of MVP of the 2013 Las Vegas Summer League. Valunciunas projects to be a prime candidate for a breakout season, with potential to make 'the leap' to the next level of play, and to affirm himself as a fixture of this team for years to come. 

Although uncertainty remains an undercurrent of this squad, one thing is clear days away from Opening Night - the team's starting five. The issue for Canada's team lies at the other end of the spectrum, a murky, unsure bench rotation. Ujiri rounded out the roster with the stopgap signings of former Indiana forward Tyler Hansbrough and fellow Pacers bench player D.J. Augustin, both on short-term deals. The balance of minutes and striving to avoid the overuse of starters figures to be an ongoing challenge for head coach Dwane Casey, who himself is entering the final year of a contract. The ceiling for Casey's team, as currently constructed, would likely be a 7th or 8th spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, while a wayward stretch could leave the Raptors languishing toward the bottom of the standings and looking at the lottery, yet again.

The primary case for positivity is the sturdy, defensive-oriented frontcourt tandem of Amir Johnson (the eight-year man who finally has a chance to be an uncontested starter) and the highly-praised Valunciunas. According to stats, the pair boasted a +/- of +8.2 points per 100 possessions, as they shared the floor across 35 games this past season. Moreover, when Jonas and Johnson featured as part of a unit that consisted of Lowry-DeRozan-Gay-Johnson-Valunciunas, the team held a stifling 12.6 point advantage over opponents with solid offensive percentages, also measured per 100 possessions. Toronto does have room to move on the rebounding front, however, ranking a lowly 28th in that department for the season. The organisation will hope that extracting the poor-rebounder in Andrea Bargnani from the equation will constitute part of the solution to this problem. Furthermore, the coaching staff will look for reserve wing defender Landry Fields (gulp) to place a facade before the question marks of the above-mentioned Hansbrough-Augustin combination, who gave away an advantage of 4.9 points per 100 possessions to opponents when they played together in 76 regular season contests for Indiana. 

Ultimately, this franchise is not 'about' the approaching campaign, nor is it truly concerned with championship contention, but rather, it is fully immersed in an overhaul of the roster, team branding, and league-wide respectability. There are glimmers of hope lodged within the mismatched playing roster, though observers will maintain a watchful eye, and anticipate and wonder what the next move will be. Rudy Gay comes at an unwanted price tag, and Kyle Lowry will be playing on an expiring deal, hence, Raptor rumours will be a season-long inevitability. 

This team may not be playoff-bound in 2014, nonetheless, don't sleep on the potential of their prized possession - Jonas Valunciunas.

Friday, 25 October 2013

UPDATE: Ernie Grunfeld & the Washington Professional Basketball Team Liked My Suggestion

Ernie Grunfeld, Washington Wizards General Manager and orchestrator of the awful, awful trade that sent 2009 #5 draft pick (later Ricky Rubio) to Minnesota in exchange for Randy Foye and Mike Miller, took notice of Prophecies from the Parquet's idea and acted quickly. Grunfeld, sensing the pressure and need for a playoff push, moved to bring Phoenix Suns centre Marcin Gortat to D.C., in exchange for Emeka Okafor and his expiring contract. Typically, this may pass as a relatively run-of-the-mill NBA transaction where one general manager feeling the heat attempted to move the needle toward a 6th, 7th, or 8th spot in the playoffs. Not so fast. Introducing one of our scheduled, regular features earlier today (Death by Trade Machine), PFP posted at 11:22 Pacific Standard Time that it would be prudent for Washington to move the Okafor contract, and to look no further than Phoenix for a potential trading partner. The purpose of this feature, as mentioned in the breakdown, is not to stand as a foreshadower of future moves or to capitalise on a raft of rumoured deals, but rather to attempt to use logic and come up with reasonable solutions for unbalanced, misdirected, and/or mediocre teams - with the help of the ESPN Trade Machine.

The fact that this took place within hours of the post/suggestion (with SBNation's Drew Garrison posting about the trade at 5:45 EST) is a gigantic coincidence and highly comical, yet it highlights the future value and potential for our staple of player movement ideas and prognostications.

The mechanics of the deal are far from identical, most notably Dragic is not included, with the Suns sending out Gortat, veteran guard Shannon Brown, Malcolm Lee, and second-year guard Kendall Marshall, and receiving Okafor in return. The teams also exchanged future first-round draft picks, of note for a Phoenix team with a view toward what is considered to be a loaded 2014 Draft.

Ultimately, the man in charge of the Wizards - Ernie Grunfeld - will be judged by Washington's ability to reach the postseason, and whether or not the current construct of the team is such that they are positioned for further advancements up the standings.

Keep a close eye on Death by Trade Machine.

'Death by Trade Machine' is a regular feature running on this blog, where PFP contributors teleport themselves into the minds of NBA front offices (through the wonders of the ESPN NBA Trade Machine), and attempt to conjure solutions to the nagging issues of NBA teams. Trade ideas may be centred on team balance, salary cap questions, rumoured player dissatisfaction, or any combination of these factors. NOTE: These posts in no way are intended to serve as forecasts or predictions for future transactions, but rather as a laid back way of indulging in the insanity of NBA player movement. 

Knicks Night - Preseason Edition: MSG is transformed, but are the New York Knicks?

As is the nature of the NBA's exhibition schedule, the Knicks returned home to New York for the first time to conclude their involvement in preseason silliness. Much has been written and publicised about Madison Square Garden's $1 billion transformation, and the closing game of the preseason - with New York hosting the Charlotte Bobcats - stood as the Knickerbockers' first opportunity to showcase their reformed lineup before the home crowd. Despite fluctuations to the rotation, Mike Woodson stuck with Iman Shumpert in the backcourt, with his top-heavy frontline trio now firmly entrenched as starting staples, while in a contrast, Charlotte put forth an opening five short of household names, predominantly due to pricy offseason acquisition Al Jefferson's persistent ankle troubles. The Knicks also entered the contest having (likely) finalised their 15-man opening night roster, with sporadic preseason participants Ike Diogu, Josh Powell, Chris Douglas-Roberts, and the partially-guaranteed deals of Jeremy Tyler and CJ Leslie being the casualties of cutting season.

Thus far, New York's exhibition outings had produced mixed results, but have nonetheless afforded a chance for lineup experimentation and a window of time to judge those surviving on basic training camp agreements. Of great importance to the Knicks (unusual to say in a preseason context) was the fact that Amar'e Stoudemire and J.R. Smith, who is confronting a 5-game suspension for testing positive to marijuana, were able to hit the hardwood for the first time and log necessary minutes. Kenyon Martin also made a brief appearance, totalling eight minutes.

Good spacing, ball movement and steady defense were the themes of the opening 24 minutes for the Knicks, although controversial offseason addition Andrea Bargnani struggled to shake his shooting slump, and could not find his range from beyond the arc. Even with Bismack Biyombo's bizarre ability to appear to be in all places at all times and his registering of 20 total rebounds, the reliably pesky paws of Pablo Prigioni led the second unit, and with quick hands of Metta World Peace, allowed the home team to get out on the break and capitalise in transition.

Bobcats journeyman Josh McRoberts, a seemingly unlikely candidate, showed a sweet shooting stroke and canned three from the outside, yet this could not disguise Charlotte's concession of 7 of 11 deep balls on the opposing end. Stability on both ends allowed the Knicks to carry a 55-42 advantage to half time. Given the relative insignificance of the outcome, Carmelo Anthony could not have expected to have been on the floor in the final minutes, but this resulted after the two teams became submerged in a porous display of offense, steadily exchanging bricks with no regard for the viewing audience or Madison Square Garden crowd. Charlotte failed to add to their first half total until the 6:07 mark of the third, as the two teams inexplicably combined for 21 consecutive offline field goal attempts. If such a thing is a possible with October basketball, the third quarter play (or lack thereof) of Mike Woodson's men drew the frustration of an otherwise-buzzing crowd, as the Bobcats' drought-breaking basket instigated a 15-2 spurt, and sliced the Knicks handy lead. Ironically, New York closed the quarter on a stereotypically insane halfcourt heave that was splashed in by none other than J.R. Smith.

The Bobcats remained active on the defensive end in the 4th quarter, with swingman Jeffery Taylor finding a feast of fast break options. This, among other things, was just one of the reasons why the confusion and exasperation of those observing did not subside. It was a case of continued offensive apathy and ineptitude for the home squad, exposing a number of flaws and areas that need to be addressed, not least a 37% field goal percentage. Carmelo Anthony could not hit his tightly contested 16 foot, fading jumpshot to (not to the chagrin of those in attendance) send the game to overtime, thanks primarily to the close checking of Jeffery Taylor. Anthony finished with 13pts and 7 rebounds on a measily 4-17 FG shooting, narrowly 'besting' his Italian stallion companion, Bargnani, who converted just 2 of his 10 tries. Preseason contest notwithstanding, the Bobcats depart Manhattan with an admirable 85-83 victory, a completed 5-3 record in the preseason, and a key cog still to return, while the Knicks (with the roster now set) will hope that their search for answers ends in June, rather than October.

Stoudemire's play was encouraging and efficient, and *if* injuries can be avoided (or at least minimised), he will remain a relevant NBA player and a contributor to this team. The team itself, however, enters the season overshadowed by injuries, a noteworthy suspension, and a myriad of doubts about its ability to put an above-average defense out on the floor. The acquisition of Bargnani is destined for season-long scrutiny, and is an irrefutable factor in the Knicks' quest to defy ESPN's SCHOENE simulator's forecast of a 37-45 regular season record.

FINAL - New York 83-85 Charlotte

Death by Trade Machine #1 - Washington Would Like to Make the Playoffs

Cap mechanics of PFP's proposed trade.
Mired in mediocrity for a number of years, the Washington Wizards have not featured in the NBA playoffs since signing Gilbert Arenas to his infamous $111M contract extension in July, 2008. Former #1 overall draft pick and franchise point guard, John Wall, (with a new contract of his own to boast) would like to change that. Wall does not need any reminding of the status of his Wizards, though, with recent reports suggesting that he intends to label each pair of game shoes throughout the upcoming season with the word 'playoffs'. Amidst a flurry of offseason signings and retooling, Washington appear to have been grouped in at the lower end of the Eastern Conference (along with the new-look rosters of Cleveland and Detroit) as a team considered likely to make a playoff push. This level of newfound optimism is not unique to media circles, either.

Following a strong finish to this past season, the Wizards elected to solidify their roster by retaining three-point specialist Martell Webster and investing the 3rd overall pick in the draft in Georgetown product, Otto Porter Jr. Persistently for Washington, however, health has been a lingering concern, one that has swiftly diminished the brightness of their outlook in seasons past. Despite fans finding solace in an unfamiliar level of stability and direction in recent franchise manoeuvres, a cloud of injury and uncertainty still lurks, with key piece Emeka Okafor sidelined indefinitely with a herniated disk in his neck. This sombre news only compounds the reality that starting centre Nene has struggled to stay on the court, appearing in just 72 games for the team over an 18 month span.

With this in mind, Washington seems a perfect starting place for the introduction of the 'Death by Trade Machine' column, as Prophecies from the Parquet looks for suitable trading partners and the right balance to put these dwindling Wizards back into the May basketball schedule, and restore the team to its former glory. And where better to start the search than one of the teams immersed in season-long indifference, with little desire to win now. I speak of none other than the Phoenix Suns, a team presently stuck in the unwanted quagmire of being an unequivocally bad team, but not quite bad enough. The Suns spent their summer amassing assets for the future, and simultaneously throwing in the proverbial towel for the upcoming season. The team is left with the problem, nonetheless, that the roster still contains a number of legitimate, rotation NBA players - among them are starters Goran Dragic and Marcin Gortat. This Phoenix duo, one of whom has not been shy of publicising his feelings about the organisation and its state of affairs, seem a near perfect fit for an exchange with the injured Emeka Okafor's expiring contract.

A simple swap such as this, perhaps with an added sweetener - such as one of Washington's handful of underdeveloped young forwards - would accelerate the aims for both parties. Placing Gortat in the Wizards' frame would form (health permitting) an intimidating frontline with Nene, while Dragic is a proven player capable of logging heavy minutes at either guard spot. Dragic could conceivably complement the current setup of the Wizards' backcourt, offering a preferable alternative to their present backups, whilst arriving at an affordable, manageable price. For Phoenix, removing two of the primary holdovers from a previous regime, and two competent players at that, would likely result in a shift further down the standings, but not one that the franchise appears altogether opposed to. The cap cost is not too great for a Washington organisation quite clearly grouped into 'win now' mode, with Gortat's deal due to expire at season's end, and Dragic (theoretically) arriving at the aforementioned respectable rate. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how these two situations develop, respectively, as we can expect both to resurface in the Death by Trade Machine clouds across the year.

‘Death by Trade Machine’ is a regular feature running on this blog, where PFP contributors teleport themselves into the minds of NBA front offices (through the wonders of the ESPN NBA Trade Machine), and attempt to conjure solutions to the nagging issues of NBA teams. Trade ideas may be centred on team balance, salary cap questions, rumoured player dissatisfaction, or any combination of these factors. NOTE: These posts in no way are intended to serve as forecasts or predictions for future transactions, but rather as a laid back way of indulging in the insanity of NBA player movement.