Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Some teams get side stripes right

A view of the Pistons' stripes
The New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers provide two recent examples of the benefits of clean uniform sides.

Both ditched side panels on their unis and now have some of the best uniforms in the league. There was more to the alterations than cleaning up the sides – scoop collars and colour changes also helped – but much of the success of those uniforms can be attributed to that clutter removal.

Not all side panels or stripes are detrimental, however. Some of them could even be considered beneficial to a uniform. There’s three rough categories of side panels when it comes to current NBA uniforms.

The first category is terrible side stripes and panels, the sort that are so unattractive that they bring down the uniform. Teams currently sporting this sort of element include the Lakers, Clippers, Kings, Suns, Magic, Rockets, Bobcats and Pelicans. There’s no single reason why the panels in this group are unsuccessful. Problems with colour, clutter and garish shapes exist here.

The second category is acceptable side designs. This is where teams who feature side panels that are neither attractive nor ugly fall. Among those on the list: the Spurs, Raptors, Warriors, Heat, Grizzlies and Bucks. Note that most of the teams here would probably look better with clean sides, but they aren’t in as desperate need of them as the group above.

The final category is the most exclusive: good side stripes and panels. The width of the stripe down the sides of the Nets’ uniforms makes them work well, even with the herringbone pattern. The stripes on the Pistons’ home whites look sharp, particularly with the thin white stripe separating the red and blue. The striping on the Nuggets’ alternate is superb. The simple stripe down the right side of the Heat’s black throwbacks looks great; leaving the left side clean was a good move.

It’s this last group that suggests side designs can work, albeit infrequently, and thus can’t be denounced with a blanket statement.  

Saturday, 18 January 2014

It's time to kill some myths about the miserable Knicks

Woodson and Shumpert have shared a bumpy, tenuous relationship at times.
"If it bleeds, we can kill it."

A jarring notion brought to the pop culture lexicon by the inimitable Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1987 extra-terrestrial, sci-fi/action classic "Predator." Well, in the context of the New York Knicks' roster and 2014 season, there are certain ideals that have been gruesomely seeping blood for some time now -- and the time has come to kill them, once and for all.

Now, to clarify, these premises may not necessarily remain overwhelmed with support and adoration from the basketball community; it is simply the opinion of this writer that they (the misrepresentations detailed below) are best to be buried, post-haste. (Note: The expression "Earl Smith III" was consciously and deliberately omitted from the body of this piece, as there has been ample commentary and hearsay on the happenings of the very "Knicks-ian" enigma. If you are searching for 1500 words on why J.R. Smith is "confounding and astounding," look elsewhere.)

Tellingly, the perils of New York's strategising (or lack thereof) throughout the season have been underpinned by one particular, shamefully stubborn outlook on inter-conference play. Although much of the Knicks' offensive successes in their 2013 fifty-four win regular season emerged via unconventional, three-guard, undersized, perimeter-oriented lineups, this season has largely been defined by an utter refusal to acknowledge said sample size, and a vehement adherence to traditionalistic basketball. The following quotation, as reported by Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal, has come to sadistically hover over the season's play for Knick fans everywhere:
As much as anything else in 2013-14, it would be fair to suggest that head coach Mike Woodson's ill-derived logic, persistent opposition to tangible, comprehensive evidence, perplexing timing, and staunch unwillingness to remain open about his own decision-making have been predominant sources of frustration and bewilderment. The apparent vacuum of guard-heavy units and contingents featuring Carmelo Anthony at the four spot has only exacerbated Woodson's follies. Anthony flourished in new and unfamiliar territory in the role of "power forward," posting career-bests in PER (24.8), ORtg (112), and Win Shares (9.5), yet has appeared in such a position only fleetingly in 2014 -- and typically only when the coach's hands are tied. With the recent downfall of New York's brittle frontline rotation players Amar'e Stoudemire and Kenyon Martin, Knickerbocker enthusiast and contributor to TrueHoop Network's Knickerblogger Robert Silverman rightfully condemned Woodson's quote and wondered aloud if the freshly barren roster would prompt the team to revert to what worked so well just a season ago. A fair question, one would think.
Alas, it was not to be: Andrea Bargnani started in said role and occupied a spot on the floor for 36 minutes. Such an absence of coaching rationale prompts terrifyingly poetic imagery, doesn't it? Thirty-eight days removed from "The East is big, man." and it cryptically clouds all of the egregious coaching decisions that have arrived both before, and since, the words were uttered. You can almost picture Mike Woodson, deep in the bowels of a dusty Madison Square Garden weight room, his knuckles adorned with the words "EAST" on one hand and "BIG" on the other, rampantly completing pull-ups in Max Cady-esque fashion whilst incessantly murmuring "the East," and "size." Shocking, I know, but none more so than the act of continually palming out hefty minutes to Andrea Bargnani in the hope that the Italian's perceived unorthodox style of play will instigate all manner of defensive conundrums for the opponent. Which brings me to my first subject matter...

Myth #1 - Andrea Bargnani's "floor spacing" stretches opposing defenses

Perhaps it was merely worthless, obligatory praise from a coach to his former player, but in the lead-up to the Knicks' home-and-home series with Toronto in late-December, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey had this to say about Andrea Bargnani:
I understand that the quotation is -- at large -- meaningless and without consequence, yet I take issue with the idea of any person within the NBA's coaching fraternity expressing the sentiment that Bargnani is a "great three-point shooter." The concept that Bargnani's skills and stylistic tendencies are such that opposing bigs must uncomfortably adapt and lurk on the perimeter is, if nothing else, laughable. At this point in his career, the seven-footer's fan base is as limited as it's ever been, and his supporters are becoming fewer and fewer by the game. Since December 1, a 25 game window,Bargnani is netting a paltry 21.5% of his flings from beyond the arc, on an average of 2.5 attempts per-36 minutes. Moreover, his outside ineptitude is furthered by a conversion rate of 28.6% on threes in "catch-and-shoot" scenarios, a figure that is akin to second-worst in the NBA among eligible players. The only individual beneath him in the measurement is the Pistons' Josh Smith, a notoriously ill-directed "chucker" whose 3PAr (25.3%) is greatly disproportionate to his perimeter prowess. Among special company, no doubt.

The alleged "great three-point shooter"'s difficulties are not limited to shots of the stationary form, either. The numbers highlight that Andrea Bargnani is also among the league's least efficient in the "pull-up shot" department (of players sourcing at least 1ppg for their offense from this shot), too. He has connected on just 32.8% of his pull-ups over 39 games this season, completely removing the usefulness of the so-called versatile, modern offensive approach. It's true that the international veteran's penchant for putting the ball on the floor and firing off the dribble distinguishes him from the vast majority of the league's seven-footers, though it remains a misplaced subplot to his widely inefficient arsenal. For Bargnani, the principles of an idiosyncratic attack exist, yet more often than not, poor application and execution author an unwanted offensive disharmony.

Perimeter play has been far from the only facet of his game to plague the team's offensive efficiency. In addition to this, since the beginning of December, he has hit a lousy 29.4% of his shots from 8 to 16 feet, per NBA.com statistics. In a nutshell, he cannot be relied upon to convert jumpshots from a bevy of spaces on the floor, not simply when extending to the range of 24 feet and beyond. What's more, as was signalled by Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun in the above tweet, Bargnani has failed to exhibit three-point shooting nous in years. Since the 1999-2000 season, league-average conversion on three-point field goals has floated around the 35.0% mark. The last time Andrea Bargnani drilled long-range attempts at an above-league average rate was 2009-10, when he measured at 37.2% across 80 games. Roughly four years ago. It's time to entirely discard the idea that Bargnani possesses a markedly soft touch from the outside and can be deployed as some kind of specialist spacer and/or offensive weapon.

Myth #2 - Iman Shumpert belongs in the conversation of the league's "elite" perimeter defenders

Poor Iman Shumpert. It seems that his performance on the defensive end is much like the confidence of his teammates and his organisation: dwindling and trending in the wrong direction. Following his burgeoning foray into the Association over the past two seasons, Shumpert developed (and earned, for that matter) somewhat of a reputation as a ball-stopper in the wings for the Knicks. He registered a highly respectable individual defensive rating of 101 in his rookie campaign, and showcased the kind of intent, athleticism, and resourcefulness that had been lacking in New York's rotation. Barring a home outing against Indiana in mid-November in which he checked Paul George admirably (in spurts) and generated a DRtg of 92, this season, morsels of defensive positivity have been few and far between for the valued young guard.

Shumpert has upped his defensive rebounding percentage to 17.3% (a raise of nearly five percent), but improvement of this nature has been dwarfed by more worrisome trends. When placed among wing players of similar qualifications (averaging min. 25 minutes, 4.0 rebounds per game, 6"7 & under), the statistics highlight that Shumpert continues to foul at a concerning click. Personal foul rates can be influenced by an array of factors (being part of poorly executed schemes, having to provide excessive help, over-aggressiveness etc.), and granted, Shumpert is in part a victim of covering for the commonplace defensive lapses of teammates, however this figure -- courtesy of Basketball-Reference, and sorted according to personal fouls per-36 -- raises questions.

The third-year guard is a clear first for personal fouls per-36 minutes, and his break-down compares rather unfavourably to other players with established reputations on the defensive end -- Arron Afflalo, Lance Stephenson, and Avery Bradley, for example. Thabo Sefolosha, who failed to qualify for this particular table due to an average of 3.1 defensive rebounds per game, commits just 2.2 fouls per-36 minutes. It's noted that Shumpert is not privy to the luxury of being cushioned among one of the league's leading defenses as the aforementioned Sefolosha and Stephenson are, nonetheless, somewhere in the range between Afflalo's 1.6 and Bradley's 3.1 should be a more realistic, attainable objective for the Knicks' formerly flat-topped wing.

To compound his foul-happy festivities, his individual defensive efficiency standing has ballooned out to 107 on the season, comfortably the lowest such measure of his young career. Whether you wish to attribute his defensive decline to ongoing trade rumours, a revised role within the rotation, the diminishing chemistry within the framework of the team, or simply his own slip in consistency and ball-stopping acumen, the 2014 evidence indicates that including Shumpert in any advanced defensive category is basically unwarranted.

Myth #3 - Raymond Felton has to play 30+ minutes per game, the Knicks don't have any other alternative

Ah, to be a starting point guard in the Association. After chiseling (pun intended) out a notoriety as the most loathsome professional athlete in the Northwest of the United States, Raymond Felton appears to be making a pastime of wearing out his welcome in cities across the country. Believe it or not, there's a reason that for much of the season, the Knickshave been actively involved in trade conversations for veteran point guards from around the league (i.e. Kyle Lowry, Andre Miller). Lead guard play has been a steadily transitioning locomotive of a problem for New York since the franchise's decision to permit the exile of Jeremy Lin to Houston some eighteen months ago. There are reasons why this has been the case, and Felton is chief among them.

The Knicks' frustrations are not limited to Felton.
Affectionately known to some as Oswald Cobblepot, or "Penguin," Felton's lethargy on boths ends of the floor has reached a tipping point. This season, the advanced metrics have become particularly unkind to Felton; he holds a career-low TS% of 47.7%, a career-worst free throw rate of 13.8% (rapidly diminishing since 2010-11), and a career-low AST% of 26.5%. Allow that to sink in, for a moment. That is a trio of cavernous depths in rounded (pun intended) measures that are key to assessing the aptitude of a given point guard, let alone one whom is allocated nearly 33 minutes a night. The UNC alum is also 29.3% from downtown, and averaging career-worsts 12.3 points and 5.8 assists per-36 minutes.

To recap, that is five varying, distinct measurements by which Raymond Felton can be said to be having the lowest or worst of his (to date) eleven-year NBA career. Consider this table, too.

That illustrates players 6"5 and under, who have registered 700 minutes or more of court time over at least 20 games, with 3P% and AST% under 30.0. It is sorted according to DRtg, with the holder of the worst mark (Felton) at the top. Felton's defensive efficiency ranking is at 111 (as per above), and of the players listed with data comparable to him, none feature in a regular, starting point guard role (with the possible exception of Wroten, who has filled in over a certain stretch in Philadelphia.) Hence, quite clearly Felton's value, production, and efficiency have evaporated. Why is it, though, that he continues to hold an average of 32.7 minutes played when he does hit the hardwood? Pablo Prigioni -- the likely and deserving candidate to usurp the bulk of those minutes -- has been sidelined since December 17 with a hairline fracture of the big toe. Symbolic of Felton's own health queries, though, is that the pair have featured in nearly an identical number of games (despite Prigioni's month-long absence).

The Knicks ostensibly lack roster flexibility, are without Prigioni (in the intermediate), and are otherwise left with veteran Beno Udrih, and the untrusted Toure' Murry. It's an unenviable situation, albeit, but far from one without a solution. With the above in mind, there can be little to no credence to the idea that Felton is deserving of starter's minutes. Whilst handing the reins to Murry in the absence in Prigioni may carry it's own inherent risks, it offers a point of difference. At this point in his career, Raymond Felton is a known commodity -- this is what he is, and the Knicks (and their fans) must adjust accordingly. It's not likely, however, that best practice would dictate that "adjusting accordingly" to knowing Felton's current and long-term value involves persistently doling out charitable, burdensome court time.

If faith in the untried Murry is indeed the issue, then the available pool of D-League players (Pierre Jackson, Ben Uzoh, Seth Curry etc.) always exists, and there is the impending arrival of players whom are due to conclude their seasons abroad soon. The Knicks were rumoured to have expressed interest in point guard Bobby Brown over the summer, and that avenue remains open. Brown, who has spent this season in the Chinese Basketball Association, has averaged 31.4 points per outing on 50.0% 2pt field goal shooting.

At this uncomfortable stage, a three-way, 15-minute-apiece time share may prove a better formula for stabilised point guard performance for New York. Either way, he who discredits the Knicks' availability of options when attempting to address Felton and the issue is not devoting enough scrutiny to the matter.

These Knicks are a mismatched, imperfect, eclectic, fundamentally flawed roster. Nevertheless, there is no need to heighten this pre-determined disadvantaged by recklessly distributing blind faith to players whose performances are among the primary causes for concern.

Author's note: This piece was originally shared as a FanPost for SBNation's Posting and Toasting Knicks blog on January 18.

Friday, 17 January 2014

"Now is the winter of our discontent." - Wolves Chatter with Zachary Bennett

Wolves' Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love, Kevin Martin, and Corey Brewer.
If a team fails in Minneapolis, does it make a sound? Yes, yes it does. In fact, the Minnesota Timberwolves have been quite vocal of late about their lack of cohesion, chemistry, and effort. Following a recent loss on their home floor to the Sacramento Kings, Minnesota's Corey Brewer harangued the team's lack of hustle, insisting "They [Sacramento] are playing harder than us... and when teams outplay you, you are never going to win." From the outside looking in, for the Wolves, things appear to be advancing in the wrong direction -- their play and team balance ranging from "inconsistent," to "concerning," to "messy." For a greater understanding of the Wolves' woes, I reached out to Zachary Bennett, Minnesota basketball aficionado, resident "Timber Pups" blogger and contributor, co-host of the "Break The Huddle" radio show on Sizzlin99.9 in Minny, and the mind behind Hickory High's regular "Rants, References & Revelations" feature. You'll see below why Zachary is a great go-to authority on all matters Minnesota (check out his portfolio here), and is a very worthy follow on Twitter (@ZacharyBD). (Side note: Statistics compiled for questioning were overwhelmingly up to date as at January 14, 2014)

Angus Crawford: After a blistering 3-0 start that included a 19pt demolition of Oklahoma City, the Wolves’ season has ebbed and flowed, lacked consistency, and regularly wrestled with the idea of “.500 basketball.” As John Schuhmann of NBA.com notes, “The Wolves are [now] 0-9 in attempts to get back over .500 since falling to 8-8 on Nov. 25.” How frustrating has it been to follow this fluctuation, and what have been some of the primary causes of Minnesota’s inability to string wins together?

Zachary Bennett: If you update this statistic, well, times for the Timberwolves have grown dark aside the winter in Minnesota. Someone, not sure who - the press conference was played on 830 WCCO Radio Twin Cities - but someone asked Rick Adelman if Wednesday's loss to the Sacramento Kings put things at, “critical mass.” I don’t want to misquote an NBA Legend, but Adelman mentioned that things had felt this way, “since Christmas.”

The Wolves didn’t play on Christmas day but they did manage to blow a late-lead against the Los Angeles Clippers. Kevin Martin caught an inbounds pass in the backcourt. I thought the play was well-designed, it got one of the league’s best free-throw shooters the ball with a chance to put the game out of reach. However, Martin dribbled laterally, had it stolen, the game was tied and the Wolves missed a three that would have won it at the end of regulation -- overtime.

The Wolves came home for the holiday’s after losing to both Los Angeles teams in Staples Center. This very easily could have been a, “Staples Sweep.” Since then it’s been drama. Close loss, blowout win, close loss, blowout win -- you get the picture.

Here are some of the frustrations buzzing around the Wolves, and my opinion on them.
  • Consistency
    • Whether it’s Ricky Rubio or J.J. Barea playing at the end of games, this team needs a leader guiding them in battle; consistently. 
    • Only the Kings are worse defending the rim (Wolves are 67-and-some-odd percent defending the restricted area) and there’s a lack of consistency on that end of the floor.
    • The bench has played better as of late, but was abysmal nearly the entire season up to January. 
  • Comradery
    • There was a moment in the Wolves two-point loss earlier this month to the Dallas Mavericks (I believe this was the game, but it may have been another -- the incident remains the same). Barea was on the floor and saw Rubio checking into the game with a little over 3:00 minutes remaining. Barea threw up an inexplicable three-point attempt and it was a possession that was wasted in a close loss. 
    • Of course, the Kevin Love incident after the Wolves loss to the Phoenix Suns is the biggest blow-up this team’s had. Love went out of his way, breaking his post-game routine, to call out two teammates (Barea and Dante Cunningham) for not being in the huddle in a late-game situation -- somewhere teammates should WANT to be together. 
To put it simply, I question the coaching. Why is there an inconsistency in late-game execution? Why are there different players playing late-game situations? Why are players failing to restrain emotions on/off the court? Adelman’s been in this game a long time, and to question his greatness is simply foolish -- but has he lost the drive to rally his roster of young players? What’s it going to take for this team to play with a drive to win? Right now, there’s a ton of negative energy and it feels as if the Wolves play without a passion on the court. That’s what this team needs to find, a passion for winning.

If you want to read more thoughts I had on Adelman possibly being a little past his time, here’s a link to something I published at Hickory-High on January 7th. An Old Dog Named Larry.

AC: The proverbial elephant in the Target Center is Kevin Love's ability to opt out of his contract with Minnesota at the end of the 2014-15 season, and what that means for the stability and direction of the franchise. Often times over the past twelves months, the team, it’s fan base, and Love himself have become submerged in the media-led hysteria and paranoia of “what if…?” scenarios, and mesmerised by the romanticism of the notion of Love leaving for Los Angeles. What sort of a distraction has Kevin Love’s contract proven to be for Minny, and how realistic a possibility do you feel a Love exile might be?

ZB: Here’s another self-plug to a piece I wrote on Rubio’s production outside of his scoring, and how his shooting could potentially improve. The piece is called “Rubiowoahs.” In the piece there are references to some interesting quotations from both the Wolves front office and Love himself. I mention these bits in this particular piece because when former General Manager, David Kahn, and current owner, Glen Taylor, got together to budget for Love and Rubio’s contracts, they denied Love a fifth-year and essentially $20-million dollars. Now, it’s not about the money with Love -- it’s about respect, the way things went down. Taylor can be quoted as saying, “I don’t think Kevin Love is a star, because he hasn’t led us to the playoffs.”

Taylor remains but Kahn does not, Flip Saunders is running the show in Minnesota. He’s got plenty of support locally, his daughters attend the University of Minnesota (like their father) and Saunders also has more wins as coach of the Wolves than anyone else in team history. He also knows what it’s like to see a superstar player named Kevin walk out the door (Kevin Garnett, for those who have forgotten).

The problem is Rubio hasn’t played well enough to earn a max contract, and Love may still not have the help capable of getting to the playoffs, let alone compete for a championship. Saunders will be faced with the choice of either --
  • Sell Love when he’s at his highest value
  • Get Love everything he needs to win a championship
“Flip” went out and did the things he needed to do for this team to win during the offseason. He signed Corey Brewer, Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic. He got a defensive specialist in exchange for Derrick Williams (This may turn out to have been a bad choice, but it got a part necessary for a championship caliber roster). With the return of Ronnie Turiaf and Chase Budinger, this team is poised to make a run throughout the remainder of the season, whether they do a lot will tell a lot about the potential route Saunders and the Wolves may go about dealing with their most valuable asset.

AC: Ricky Rubio is shooting a career-low 34.3% on 2pt field goals, has a PER of 15.0, and his FTr has sunk from 51.4% in 2013 to 35.0% thus far this season. It’s becoming increasingly popular to lambast the Spaniard’s progress as a player, and to immediately associate his shooting woes with a backwards step in his point guard play. Rubio is, however, averaging a career-best 9.3 assists per-36 minutes, in addition to improved standings of 35.9% from deep and 84.9% at the charity stripe. As someone who has closely followed the Timberwolves this season, where do you see the third-year international’s game at, and what might be the next facet to be added to his relatively limited arsenal?

ZB: The problem is Rubio is that he’s continuing deficient behavior from nearly everywhere on the court, and his three-point attempts diminish with each passing game. His defense is incredible against opposing point-guards, that often is overlooked, and his passing accounts for over 1/5th of the team’s PER GAME scoring. He’s a great player, and his lack-of-scoring has been overblown at times, but this team is looking for answers as to why they’re losing close games. Rubio not being able to execute the pick-n-roll late in games because of teams encouraging him to shoot is an issue, but also, Adelman not living-and-dying with someone that is supposed to be a franchise player could be a problem for his confidence.

Rubio can improve, but he hasn’t stayed healthy - nor has the team - for long enough and we just can’t assess his progression because of all the small sample sizes up until this point.

AC: Minnesota’s leader in bench points per game is J.J. Barea, who has averaged 8.4 such points over 37 games (while only shooting 40.7% from the field). Other than Barea – whose high-volume, low efficiency numbers are somewhat inflated – the Timberwolves do not have any other players in the Top 100 in the NBA for the category, highlighting the dearth of offensive production from the reserves on the roster. Wolves fans may hope that the return of Chase Budinger from a knee injury will help to solve some of these problems, though that is largely yet to be seen (Budinger has played in limited minutes in three games so far). To what extent is the lack of a scoring and creativity punch off the pine a legitimate quandary for this roster, and the key crippler to Minny’s playoff aspirations?

ZB: There has been a number of games where the bench has been abysmal, to the point where they’ve scored five points or less in losses by four or less points (that statistic never goes away). Now, surprisingly, the bench is playing better. Alexey Shved has scored 10 points in 5 of their last 7 games and seems to have turned the corner, I may be guilty of writing him off earlier in the year -- BUT THAT’S HOW BAD THIS HAS BEEN.

Budinger has been short on nearly every shot, we haven’t seen him in two years. However, the return Bud and Turiaf puts veteran presence around Barea, Shved, and Cunningham. Shved and Budinger can space the floor for Barea, who can create off-the-dribble of P-&-R of either Turiaf or Cunningham. Barea has favored dumping balls off to Cunningham at the elbow (that’s his spot) and I think having more experienced players will ultimately help Shved’s development.

The bench is in a position to get better, will they? We’ll see. This question cannot be answered at this time.

AC: Nikola Pekovic has been playing some extremely impressive offensive basketball of late. Over his last seven games, Pekovic has averaged 24.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per-36 minutes, with shooting splits of 55.1% on FG’s and 85.0% on FT’s. How much of Minnesota’s offensive successes can be attributed to the Montenegrin Serb’s continued rise as a force in the low post, and how pleasantly surprised were Wolves fans when Pekovic was not pursued harder (despite restricted status) by rival teams in free agency this past summer?

ZB: This guy has been huge, and worth every penny, so far this season. I don’t think anyone wanted to pursue him in the offseason, though. The market for centers has been inflated recently and there were skeptics, and still are for that matter, that believe Pekovic’s contract was too much (Think about the Love situation, earlier). Pek’s rim defending is abysmal, and the Wolves have looked to him late-in-games at inappropriate times -- causing frustration. He’s been so dominant offensively so much that the Wolves have remained in games because of Pek’s performance. This is our center, and if Love were to leave, this team is going to need to find a power forward that is complimentary of his skill-set.

The worry, Pek is playing a lot of minutes (33 per) -- he’s never done this in his life. The man is 295 pounds and I’m worried about his health in the long haul, for now, he’s our rock of stability in the low-block.

Thanks to Zachary for his time and words on the Timberwolves, I recommend everybody track his Wolves-centric wisdom, and especially recommend his writing over at Hickory-High.com

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Gimmicky weekend suits Nets

Norris Cole's nickname on display
Both Brooklyn Nets games this past weekend had a gimmick attached.

They took part in the nickname game on Friday night versus the Miami Heat, which saw all the players sport nicknames on their jerseys instead of surnames.

Designating games where all wear nicknames is forced fun. If teams want variation with their uniforms, that’s what alternates are for, and that’s why they should be worn sparingly. The enjoyment of nicknames disappears quickly if there is no uniqueness nor tradition sustaining them. And then there’s the fact this sort of nickname display isn’t even fun initially.

Players either have to shirk the spirit of the gimmick and go with something tame as their nickname, such as their initials, or risk looking silly with something like “Big Ticket” or “King James” on their back.

The next night the Nets played in Toronto, which was hosting “Drake Night”. The Nets were merely the opposition and didn’t have any uniform changes, but it was a second-consecutive night for them where the basketball game itself wasn’t diversion enough.

Fans at the arena received black t-shirts with a gold Raptors’ primary logo on the front and Drake-related designs, also in gold, on the back and sleeve. Drake revealed at a press conference that the lining of his suit jacket was an old Raptors jersey.

The Nets are well-suited to such frivolity because they’ve been in close proximity to the gimmick since moving to Brooklyn. They may on first impression seem like a sensible franchise in terms of appearance, but that’s not really the case.

Their black and white colour scheme, adopted when they became the Brooklyn Nets for the start of last season, was an unnecessary departure from the blue and red of their past. It drew attention to them, not just because it was different for them and the league, but because it was so simple. Not a pure gimmick, but a move that was part of adopting a cool persona at the expense of their history.

There’s also the herringbone pattern on their uniform sides and home floor. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it was a way for the Nets to be stylish and – given the pattern is subtle on their uniform but obvious on their court – sneakily flashy.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Wittman, Witchcraft, & Wizardry: Detailed thoughts on the Washington Professional Basketball Team from Conor D. Dirks

Washington centre Marcin Gortat.
16-19, 6th in the Eastern Conference standings. That's the mark of the Washington Wizards, the literal definition of a middling, hovering-around-.500 NBA basketball team. The Wiz are desperate to make the playoffs, having failed to feature in meaningful, postseason play in more than five calendar years. The phrases "sanity" and "Washington Wizards" aren't always uttered in the same sentence, which is why a sense of humour, patience, an intricate knowledge of the game, and a vague degree of masochism are often requirements of 'Zards fandom. Look no further than Conor D. Dirks, reporter and contributor at ESPN's True Hoop Network Wizards blog "Truth About It", member of the site's D.C. Council, architect of the #MaynorTime flowchart, and your source of all things Jan Vesely and Kevin Seraphin. I implored Conor to share his thoughts on the state of the 2014 Wizards, and he kindly obliged. Here's what the #MaynorTime initiator had to say about the season so far:

Angus Crawford: Backup point guard has been a bit of a problem for the Wizards all season long. Eric Maynor was brought in over the summer to play that role, but has struggled mightily – his numbers make for severely grim reading: 6.8 PER, 36.5% TS%, 4.3% FTr – as your #MaynorTime updates and flow-chart have detailed. Are you confident some extra minutes for Garrett Temple can ease the pain, or is it a position that needs to be addressed prior to the playoffs?

Conor D. Dirks: Such is the chaotic maelstrom of the post-backup era in D.C. that not even Garrett Temple is confident that Garrett Temple can ease the pain seared into the eyeballs of Washington basketball consumers in the wake of the coming (and subsequent self-destruction) of Eric Maynor. Garrett Temple, who has stuck with the team for very Wittman-esque reasons (eye-test defense and effort, selfless play characterised by reluctance to shoot on offense), more or less amounts to the helmet you might wear if you were forced to ride a bicycle on a day an old soothsaying lady predicted you would crash said bicycle. 
Conor's labour of love: the #MaynorTime Flowchart.
Temple's net on/off court numbers per 100 possessions are not good: minus-5.2. Maynor's net on/off court numbers per 100 possessions are the stuff of legend: minus-28.5. Temple, unlike Maynor, has had the benefit of running his offense through Nene, and so his "improvement" over Maynor is a bit skewed. But Temple has been moderately successful...his most popular squadron by minutes played together this season (Temple-Webster-Porter-Vesely-Nene) has an offensive rating of 0.85 and a defensive rating of 0.80. So, a Temple-run (so sorry) offense is painful to watch, but a Temple-led defense has been more than alright against the NBA's substitute brigades.

As for the playoffs? Well, the Wizards need to address a lot of things prior to the playoffs, but Maynor's player option for next season has to give cost-conscious Ted Leonsis pause. Truth be told, the team probably should have signed D.J. Augustin, or Kendall Marshall (they had him on an administrative level after the Gortat trade), and probably still should cut Al Harrington or Chris Singleton (sigh) to sign Rodrique Beaubois. If an Andre Miller deal with Denver is a possibility, as suggested by Amin Elhassan, I would support such a thing.

AC: Where did you stand on the decision to execute the Marcin Gortat trade on the eve of the season? Gortat is averaging a career-low 9.6 rebounds per-36 minutes and is shooting his worst percentage from the field (51.6%) since his rookie season. Has his play thus far justified the move, and should the Wizards front office feel obligated to re-sign him on the basis that they shipped out a first-round pick in the deal?

CDD: From a purely objective standpoint, Marcin Gortat's play has not justified the first-round pick (in a draft allegedly sporting a fine group of young basketmen) the Wizards surrendered in order to acquire him. With that said, it is easy from afar to devalue the peripheral positives of winning basketball games, and Gortat, despite his questionable rim-protection, frustrating lack of efficiency from the floor, and tendency to avoid contact, has made the Wizards a better team than they would have been had they not made the trade. 

And that's the key thing: Emeka Okafor, as hinted by Ted Leonsis recently, is most likely out for the season. Can you imagine this team with either Kevin Seraphin or Jan Vesely starting? You think you can, but I've seen seasons of this stuff, and it's enough to break a person. It's also enough to keep a young point guard from the recognition he deserves, as shown by Wall's relative obscurity in the eyes of the nation prior to this season, even though he was producing similar stats to Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook during the first few years of their NBA careers. And more than that, becoming a decent team is a gamble on the part of the front office, that modest success combined with two young star guards will be enough to break the "overpay third-tier players" cycle that so many historically underachieving teams are mired in, including the Wizards.

So: the "too long; didn't read" version? Although I was upset on the day of the trade, it was because I didn't fully understand the extent of Okafor's injury. Now that it seems that Okafor will be out the entire season, I understand the reasons Washington had for making the deal, even if I'm not fully comfortable with their strategy. My hope is that the Wizards will re-sign Gortat (to a contract at or below his current rate) not because of procedural guilt or face-saving, but because his play has caught up with his talk, which resembles Papa John's puffery at this early stage.

AC: The Wiz are 2-4 in overtime games and just 1-3 in games decided by 3pts or less, is there a concerning trend with their late-game execution or a clear explanation for their inability to perform in tight situations?

CDD: This question doesn't even contemplate games in which the Wizards have held insanely large leads (against the Cavs and the Pelicans) but have almost blown them due to holistic breakdowns in their offense late in games. When a team can't hold a lead, can't win close games, and can't beat good teams (the Wizards have only one win against a team with a greater than .500 record), the blame falls with the coach. It falls with the coach because it is a clear failure to adjust. Sure, the Wizards have enough talent (and they do have quite a bit of that) to play pickup offense for three quarters and beat the cellar-dwellers of the NBA, but good coaches are creative, can call plays on the fly that react to adjustments from the opposition, and can draw up late-game plays out of timeouts. Randy Wittman (who absolutely aided in the culture-change brought about in the wake of the departures of McGee, Young, and Blatche) is unfortunately not that kind of coach.

AC: The mysterious Otto Porter made his NBA debut December 6 and has logged 172 total minutes since. How is his progress tracking, and does he have a place in the rotation, per se? It must be painful for ‘Zards fans to be aware of the Greek Freak’s (Giannis Antetokounmpo) existence, is it best to follow Porter’s career in a vacuum at this point?

CDD: Most of us at TAI have joked about Otto Porter's invisibility since his debut, and I really do swear I saw a Bucks player pass through his body during Washington's loss to Milwaukee, but Otto hasn't been a total wash. He has, however, been a disappointment. Prior to the draft, he was advertised as an "NBA-ready" player, and that was simply not the case. Marcin Gortat joked that Porter's calves were half the size of Gortat's forearms, and he's right! More than that, Porter seems as shy on the court as he is behind a microphone. As you might imagine, the former is not as endearing as the latter (and the latter stopped being endearing after draft night). 

Porter does have a spot in the rotation, alongside Martell Webster, on the second unit. He has occasionally displayed some savvy around the basket, the ability to hit a catch-and-shoot midrange J (but not an NBA 3-pointer), and has not been overly embarrassed on defense. I wish I could say nicer things. Going forward, my expectations approach nil, and I'll hope to be surprised. The problem with comparing Porter to other NBA rookies is that Washington has been unable to develop raw players into rotation players over Grunfeld's tenure, and a player like Giannis who has developed well, and rapidly, with Milwaukee (a team that has also been able to develop "raw," Mister Fantastic-esque players like John Henson and Larry Sanders) would not necessarily have developed so well with the Wizards, despite better surrounding talent.

AC: Washington has a pair of five game home stands coming up, how important is it that the team capitalises on the comforts of the Verizon Center in order to generate some consistency?

CDD: As CBS Sports' Matt Moore mentioned today in his NBA power rankings:

They'll get it together, go on a winning streak, and lock up a playoff spot for sure. Any time. Yup. Right around the corner. Just wait. Gonna happen. No question. ... ... ... ...

Sarcasm aside, the observation is spot-on. The Wizards have followed every string of successes with equal or greater strings of failure, weaving a basketball web that is nowhere near up to code. They have yet to "get it together," and even more concerning is their lack of success at the Verizon Center. They have the fourth-best road record in the East (not like that's something to brag about, yet) at 9-10, but are surprisingly below .500 as well at home (at 7-9). Even last year, when they went 29-53 on the season, the Wizards had a winning home record (22-19). If you paid attention to all of those numbers sandwiching dashes, you'll also see that they've already won two more road games this season than they did all last year.

I do expect that they'll improve at home, but that expectation could change if they aren't, as you suggest, able to capitalise on two upcoming home stands.

Interesting. Expertise and colourful, insightful commentary are ubiquitous over at Truth About It. Do yourself a favour and find Conor on Twitter @ConorDDirks, and follow his work at TAI. 

A season in the dark: Talking Philly basketball with Tom Sunnergren of Hoop76.com

A rare moment of celebration for the 2014 Sixers. 
The Philadelphia 76ers are one of the NBA's more peculiar teams, to say the least. After a miraculous, scorching 3-0 start to the regular season, the Sixers' 2014 journey has encountered some extremely rocky terrain -- including conceding 121+ points on five separate occasions in regulation games, and becoming the "owners" of some unwanted, murky defensive records. Looking for perspective and some semblance of solace for disenchanted Sixer fans, I sought the wisdom of Tom Sunnergren of Hoop76.com, an ESPN True Hoop Network blog, who has the unenviable task of regularly watching Philadelphia basketball. Tom offered his educated, impassioned insights, and I've compiled them below.

Angus Crawford: Michael-Carter Williams did not play from December 4 to December 20, during which time the Sixers lost seven straight games. What changes most about this team’s identity without the rookie point guard in the line-up? 

Tom Sunnergren: Here's the thing about that: Michael Carter-Williams is very good, and the guy who replaces him in the lineup, Tony Wroten, is not. By measure of wins produced, Carter-Williams is the most productive player on the team on a per-minute basis while Wroten’s – 1.39 wins produced make him not only the worst member of the 2013-14 Sixers, but the least productive player in the NBA this side of Anthony Bennett. The calculus is pretty simple: take mediocre team, replace its best player with one of the worst in basketball and…hey presto! You’ve got a seven game losing streak.

AC: As a result of the Jrue Holiday-Nerlens Noel draft day trade, the Sixers will receive New Orleans’ top-five protected first round pick in 2014. The Pelicans are 12th in the loaded Western Conference at 15-20, with the pick currently slated to be in the 11-12 range, however, the team recently lost both Holiday and Ryan Anderson to significant injuries. Should Philly fans be concerned that the pick is in danger of the protected territory, or excited to see it slide to a more favourable spot in the lottery? 

TS: Excited. While Sixers fans are, as you pointed out, in the delicate position of rooting for a very narrow band of outcomes for the Pelicans (the porridge has to be just right) the New Orleans roster is strong enough that, even with the recent spate of injuries they’ve suffered, it’s hard to imagine them finishing 2013-14 with a worse record than the dreadful quintet that’s currently at the bottom of the league standings (Milwaukee, Orlando, Utah, Philly and Boston). Especially if the apotheosis of the 'Brow continues.

AC: Philadelphia failed to win a game in regulation from November 9 to December 29, how tough was it to follow the team during that stretch, and what do you look for when you watch Sixers games in the 2013-14 season?

TS: Losing isn’t fun, but it doesn't sting quite as badly when it’s expected and purposeful. (To test this point: take an informal survey of the mood of Sixers fans and Knicks fans.) And about that "purposeful" losing: The fact that the Sixers didn’t win a game in regulation from Nov. 9 to Dec. 29 wasn’t a failure—it was a triumph of roster engineering. The Sixers were doing precisely the thing they were designed to do: lose enough basketball games to land a difference maker in the 2014 draft.

Until then, I’m paying attention to things that will matter in 2014-15 and beyond: Michael Carter-Williams development as a distributor, defender, and possible first offensive option on a contending team. The trade value of Hawes, Turner, and Young. How Brett Brown’s acquitting himself as a head coach. Frankly, I’m encouraged by all of it. There’s a lot to like here.

AC: The Sixers have been a topic of trade rumours all season long – including Liberty Ballers' report that Thaddeus Young formally requested a trade – with a particular emphasis on Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes, and Young. They were also involved in discussions centred on disgruntled Rockets centre Omer Asik, according to ESPN.com's Marc Stein. Who, of the Turner/Hawes/Young trio, do you expect to remain on the Sixers roster beyond the February trade deadline?

TS: I expect they’ll each be gone by the deadline. Hawes is developing a killer perimeter game (he’s quietly 12th in the NBA in 3-point FG%), but he’s a free-agent at season’s end, and might be expensive to resign. Thad Young is under contract at a reasonable (if not overwhelmingly team-friendly) rate, but will be 28 at the start of his next deal—a point at which he, given the extent to which his game hinges on hustle and athleticism, might be beginning to decline. And Evan Turner is simply a bad player who, because he can score, has greater perceived value than actual value. With Hinkie pulling the strings, Turner is almost certainly playing in a new city by February.

AC: This team is a clear #1 in the NBA for pace of play, per basketball-reference.com, averaging over 100 possessions per game. They’re averaging 102.5 points per game, twelfth in the league, but are also dead last in opposition PPG and ranked 26th in the Association for defensive efficiency. How have you judged Brett Brown’s rookie season as head coach, and do you think the style of play that he’s employed for these Sixers is sustainable beyond this season?

TS: I think Brown’s been tremendous. He’s demonstrated his player development chops (see: Michael Carter-Williams' success) and, in a few short months, transformed the Sixers offense from a slow, plodding, midrange-enamoured catastrophe into the fastest team in basketball and a model of smart shot selection. Not bad. And I expect this approach will pay dividends over the long haul: playing fast forces matchup problems, wears down teams that aren't as well conditioned, and reduces variance. These are all good things.

If you wish to show some love for those in the City of Brotherly Love, you can follow Tom on Twitter @tsunnergren (I recommend), and track the content of Hoop76 @Hoop_76, and at Hoop76.com