Sunday, 23 February 2014

Pau Gasol, and the Long Lost Art of Humility

The realm of professional sports is complex. It's an enigma, too often fuelled and beleaguered by corporatism, self-indulgence, corruption, and a glaring lack of transparency -- a distant reality from the work-a-day world of those who typically come to fund its very existence.

Recently, the lines that separate society and the vaunted imagery of professional athletes have become blurred, with innately political matters such as sexuality, illicit substancesharassment, and spousal abuse flooding industry-based discussions. Sensationalism aside, there is little doubting that the growth of social media as an interactive medium and the immediacy with which one can now access information have overtly influenced the daily dialogue. The vagueness of the idea of "celebrity," and the blissful ignorance of athlete-based adoration may once have made it easy to consume sporting product in a vacuum, yet this is quickly becoming an antiquated pastime.

As much as talking heads and national media outlets drive the agenda and cloud conversation with empty narratives of championships, individual accolades, and meaningless, exhaustive gimmicks, there is always more to the industry than the vanity of these façades. Hidden subtly beneath the canopies of hollow motives and fundamentally flawed institutions is a rare species.

In an age where "any publicity is good publicity," there is a certain humanistic appeal to the oft-forgotten labour of philanthropy. Few public figures exemplify this notion more than Pau Gasol, the Spanish basketball stalwart currently in his twelfth season in the NBA. With his involvement with UNICEF and perpetual charitable work, Gasol could easily be mistaken for a devoted (albeit oversized) Hispanic social worker. Except for the fact that he is the recipient of a $19.2M (USD) salary. The Spaniard's enduring profile of selflessness, understanding, and sympathy is, to say the least, a strikingly uncommon commodity.

Following a frustrating end to his 2013 season where injury and immaturity left Gasol as the Lakers' lone pillar in a swept series -- an abrupt conclusion to a campaign in which he missed 33 regular season games due to various ailments -- the international veteran seemed sure to be headed to a subdued summer of replenishment prior to a "contract year." With some 34,399 minutes of collective (regular season and playoff) NBA mileage and no fewer than ten appearances at senior-level tournaments with the Spanish national team (beginning in 2001) logged prior to 2013-14, an offseason of rehabilitation and solitude would have passed as understandable for the Barcelona native. Alas, it was not to be.

In July of 2013, as part of his ambassadorial role with UNICEF, Pau Gasol ventured to Iraq to provide aid to struggling Syrian refugees. Commenting on what he confronted firsthand in the throes of his visit, Gasol stated, “No child should experience such violence and destruction and be deprived of the basic services that they need to grow and develop to fulfill their potential.”

“Providing these services is a huge job,” he iterated. “While we can see some good results, the needs are enormous. So much more help is needed.”

It's fitting (if not a little token) to admire the fact that Gasol practiced altruism rather than low-post moves this past summer. In a climate where mandated, vanilla community appearances can mask more authentic voluntary work, it's easy to confuse humanitarian efforts amidst the smog of PR campaigns. This is where it becomes worth mentioning that the Los Angeles Lakers forward's journey to Iraq was his fifth "field trip" under his UNICEF-authorised role

Pau playing pickup with children in N'Djaména, in 2012.
The lanky seven-footer has also participated in and supported programs in South Africa (2005), Angola (2007), Ethiopia (2010), and Chad (2012), serving tirelessly as the UNICEF Spain Ambassador since 2003. Reflecting on his time spent in N'Djaména, Wadi, Mao, Kanem, and Miouh, in Chad, Gasol opined, "When I go on these trips, I then have a better and more real opinion about it. It then creates more attention and brings more people to collaborate to help what’s going on here."

Distinct from his own personal interest and compassion toward the projects, clearly, the 33 year-old is aware of the groundswell of positivity and international media attention that his mere presence generates. The resources and funds amassed in the aftermath of Gasol's visits and contributions are still significantly short of those required, however. In his most recent trip, it was reported that medicine, clean water, and school supplies were delivered for "the camp that was built for 15,000 but has [taken in] 50,000." This is tragically emblematic of the discrepancy of materials in the underprivileged regions that Gasol has traveled to, and the sheer weight of the work that he strives to assist with. 

Whilst his efforts have been widely acknowledged in mainstream publications, -- in addition to being named the L.A. Times' 2009 Sportsman of the Year and becoming only the fifth non-American recipient of the NBA's J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award in 2011-12 -- apparently no measure of formal recognition and adorned trophy cabinets can halt the progress of Pau's philanthropy. In near-poetic fashion, a telling parallel can be drawn between the nature of Gasol's work away from the hardwood floor, and his level of production on the court. At age thirty-three, with a faltering offensive arsenal, a weary, waning defensive output, and in the final year of a healthy contract with a modest (at best) supporting cast, Pau Gasol's standing within the league is not what it once was. 

"Father Time" has been stereotypically unforgiving to Gasol's body, and he has battled to cushion his on-court value and failing health with a formerly reliable catalogue of finesse manoeuvres and adept adjustments on the low block. Previously a sturdy silhouette of basketball excellence, the Spaniard has been reduced to being the subject of trade rumours -- at first with the Cleveland Cavaliers (in a proposed exchange for the contract of former teammate Andrew Bynum), and later with the surging Phoenix Suns.

Last season, Gasol wrestled with slumping play, and held a testing relationship with head coach Mike D'Antoni after he was benched in favour of undersized role player Earl Clark in February. For such an integral, high-character piece of the puzzle, it is rare for a player to be discarded with indifference by a franchise, as with the manner that Los Angeles managed their former All-Star. Questioned over his seemingly diminishing role with the team and the decision-making of the team's bench staff, this is what Gasol offered to the L.A. Times:
"So do you ask for a fresh start elsewhere?" 
"It's a possibility," he said, "yes." 
He will not request a trade before this month's deadline, he said, although he knows there is interest from other teams for a starting center and he will be returning to the bench soon. 
"I'm not a quitter," he said. "Just because things look better on the other side of the fence, I'm not going to take the easy way out. 
"I have a certain level of loyalty here, and I've been through a lot of great, amazing things. And there have been others that have been hurtful. But that's life."
Despite having been shopped widely and openly early in the 2013-14 season (and again before the deadline) little could deter the veteran's wisdom and understanding. Gasol provided a trademark, refreshing take on the juggling act between being "Pau Gasol: the player," and "Pau Gasol: the proverbial trade pawn," in December:
[That’s why] Gasol said he’s given it no mind that recently reported the Lakers are open toward trading him amid his recent complaints about his role and his 14.4 points per game average on a career-low 41.8 percent shooting. 
“I’m used to it by now,” Gasol said following the Lakers’ morning shootaround here at Philips Arena. “It’s been a constant thing for me. It’s like getting up from bed and having breakfast.”
Ever the bastion of loyalty, honesty, and a team-oriented philosophy, Gasol was even jettisoned in a complicated, star-laden trade in December 2011 (that was later nixed by the league's head office). Notwithstanding all of this uncertainty, he "survived" the NBA's February 20 trade deadline this season, and remains a member of the Los Angeles Lakers (the team he joined prior to the deadline some six years ago), for now.

It is indicative of Gasol's persona that instead of plying his trade by capitalising on his place in a large-scale market (Los Angeles) and focusing on private endorsements, he continues to be active with UNICEF in Spain, the United States, and abroad. Moreover, it should be noted that his influence and involvement with the non-profit organisation was well entrenched prior to his arrival on the west coast. As a prominent face in his homeland, on the international basketball scene, and within the NBA, Gasol's reach (both physically and metaphorically) extends far beyond conventional borders.

His compassion and community involvement is not simply limited to the offseason or his own down time, either. In the wake of the damage caused to the Philippines as a result of Typhoon Haiyan, Gasol pledged to donate $1000 for every point he scored in a late November game against the Golden State Warriors. He finished with 24 points in that outing, and later confessed, "I definitely had that motivation of scoring points tonight for the Philippines."

Although his status as an "elite" player in the Association may be forever lost in the shadows of his lengthy career, and he is -- at present -- stuck in the swath of basketball irrelevance on an otherwise forgettable outfit, Pau Gasol's value far exceeds the measurement of any advanced metric.

As diverse and storied as his on-court résumé is, a scarce handful of athletes could place in a conversation with Gasol with regards to his vast achievements as an activist, role model, and human. So, what does it all really mean?

"Obviously it puts things in perspective, and all the other things I might deal with my team or with my profession are much less important or meaningful than the lives of people that are on the line every day," Gasol suggested.  

Information from the Associated Press (AP), UNICEF,, and the Los Angeles Times was utilised to compile this piece.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

A look at the busy All-Star game uniforms

The 2014 All-Star uniforms
The 2014 All-Star game uniforms were cluttered, and would have been even if the Adidas stripes and logo were removed.

To begin with a positive: the green and blue on the East uniforms contrasted nicely. The green was a tinge too close to fluoro, but the colour combo was solid and an unfamiliar one. The West’s gear didn’t contrast as well.

The number and name fonts were restrained. More of each uniform should have followed that tone.

The chest logos looked a bit messy, probably the result of the fleur-de-lis being oversized and covered by both “E” and “EAST”, or “W” and “West”.

The collars looked particularly poor, both the shape and the coloured flaps. That cut probably wouldn’t look as bad with more detail around the neckline.

The spots on the shorts – far more noticeable for the East – were clutter. The shorts looked more like gym gear than part of an NBA uniform.

The coloured socks were okay, but far too busy to be anything more, particularly considering the rest of the two uniforms.

It is reasonable – although not necessary – for the NBA to have funky uniforms for the All-Star game. The one-night, high-profile nature of the game makes it suitable for trying new designs. But couple one or two edgy elements, if you must, with a more classic look. There’s no need for the uniforms to be so unattractive.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Moulding Klay: Scouting Thompson's Scoring

Golden State will need Thompson's production in the postseason.
The pairing of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in the Warriors’ backcourt is illustrative of trends within the NBA's contemporary climate.

Clearly, it’s a palpable offensive strategy, indicative of the Warriors’ (and Mark Jackson’s, especially) blind faith in their guard tandem, and a major contributing factor to the Warriors placing in the top three in the league in both 3PM and three-point percentage.

Where else, however, has Klay Thompson been able to source his points from, and is the penchant for the perimeter a fundamentally fruitful approach for the team as a whole? Barring a noticeable decline in his free throw shooting, Thompson's basic per-game numbers appear as relative parallels of his first two seasons, which shouldn’t be interpreted as a negative. He continues to connect on his three-point launches at around 41% (a more-than-handy mark). Thompson’s trademark off-ball style, though, shines through in the available player tracking data.

Whilst his usage of Golden State's possessions (21.6%) is near identical to last season’s measure, a concerning pattern lies within the bed of offensive statistics. The 6-7 shooter’s 3PAr (percentage of field goal attempts that come from beyond the arc) has incrementally risen over each season of his young professional career, currently sitting at 44.4%. It may not seem too alarming for a player with such a lethal stroke to be inclined to hoist it from the outside, yet as a result of the growth of the Warriors roster and changes in personnel – including the addition of another ball-dominant guard in Andre Iguodala – it’s a level of complacency that’s proving to be costly.

Klay’s contentedness and developing “hoisting-and-hoping” scoring method is detrimental not only to his individual efficiency, but to the flow and productivity of Golden State’s offense.

Thompson is averaging 18.3 points per game (a career-best), thanks overwhelmingly due to a spike in minutes and attempts. He is also leading the league in "catch and shoot" points per game, generating 9.5 per contest. That is to say, more than half of his points scored in each game played come directly assisted from teammates, with no dribble action involved. It’s a nice, simplistic summary of Thompson’s tendencies. The catch and shoot production is voluminous and an aesthetically friendly wrinkle in his game, but can he really be considered “elite” in the category?

To provide context, the figure below groups the Warriors’ lanky guard with players who show a comparable favoritism toward the catch and shoot mentality.

Thompson’s point production is in the same ballpark as the likes of Korver and Nowitzki (renowned shooters in their own right). Nonetheless, his accuracy (at 43.4%) in this department is more relative to Andrea Bargnani (42.1%) and Channing Frye (42.7%) – two “floor spacing” frontliners notorious for their ill-advised shot selection – than any of the other above-listed players. Sure, it’s possible (and in this case likely) that Thompson is blessed with the perennial green light and license to let it fly from Mark Jackson and the coaching staff. Either way, the unabashed confidence isn’t working too well.

It’s not only in the realm of no-dribble flings that Thompson’s quietly slumping shooting touch has reared its ugly head, either. After a scorching hot beginning to the season in the month of November, where he boasted a net rating of +9.3 and a True Shooting percentage of 58.3%, his scoring has become wayward and inefficient. According to the stats database, since December 1, the Warriors’ #11’s conversion has been languishing, with a TS% of 51.5%. In other words, that’s a two-plus month stretch in which Thompson’s scoring arrived at a rate below league-average (league average TS% is approximately 53.7%, according to HoopData).

Over the span of this season, roughly 44.4% of Thompson's total field goal attempts have stemmed from twenty-four feet and beyond. It’s not hard to decipher the inherent sources of the scoring struggles. Due to an enduring propensity to heave shots from downtown, it’s tragically basic – when the shots are falling, all is well offensively, and when they’re not, it is not.

In 2014, for the most part, said shots have not been dropping for the third-year man. How can this overly simplistic problem be arrested for the remainder of the season? Well, as it stands, Thompson is only getting to the free throw line an average of 2.2 times per 36 minutes, with a free throw attempt rate of 14.6%. Even though the rangy Californian is not typically regarded for his ability to orchestrate the offense and attack the rim off the dribble, a slight adjustment in mindset may be the instigator for a refreshed, more efficient offensive arsenal.

It’s a class limited to just Thompson, Washington forward Trevor Ariza, Suns reserve wing Gerald Green, and Orlando Magic point guard Jameer Nelson; an undesirable situation. In the grand scheme of things, another outcome symptomatic of the shooting guard’s perimeter plight is the reality of Golden State’s overall offensive successes. Thompson’s developments (although not a sole cause) have added to the wider woes, and are one reason why the Warriors' offensive efficiency slipped to 16th in the month of January, at 105.5 points per 100 possessions (over 15 games). That’s a mark that is well below that of the laughable New York Knicks, who have a 20-32 record on the season, out of the lowly Atlantic Division.

The patterns threaded throughout Klay Thompson’s season, coupled with Andre Iguodala’s evaporating scoring and the stunted growth of Harrison Barnes’ game, have created a bevy of problems on the Warriors’ wings.

Golden State’s cast of capable shooters can cause any number of strategic issues for opponents. For this to be maximized and the team to excel beyond expectations, however, important offensive adjustments must be made. 

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Add some interest to warm-up gear

Lakers warm-up gear
Adidas stripes and generic designs haven’t plagued NBA uniforms. Instead, those burdens are carried by the warm-up gear. While it’s nice that the unis are untainted, superior tracksuits are worth wishing for.

Warm-up gear is an opportunity for creativity in a spot where it belongs. The clothing must still be functional, but there’s more room for design error with warm-ups than uniforms.

Tracksuits and shooting shirts aren’t worn during the fundamental moments for a team, the actual games, and thus aren’t as essential as uniforms. A few more risks can be taken. But the warm-up gear is still on the periphery of games – worn in pre-game layup lines and on the bench, flung to the floor at the scorers’ table when checking in – and thus is still important.

That’s why it’s disappointing that NBA teams are stuck with three-striped template gear. The problem is twofold.

The three stripes and Adidas logo are prominent on the current warm-up gear. The result is the sense that it’s an Adidas jacket featuring the Dallas Mavericks’ colours and logo, for instance, instead of Dallas’s own gear.

Secondly, the clothing is largely the same for all the teams. Aside from the aforementioned Adidas issues, the warm-ups generally look pretty good, but it’s sterile and boring when they’re all similar.

Collared shooting shirts, striping on cuffs for jackets, plain fronts or backs for jackets and word marks on pant legs all mark examples of missed opportunities.

If the need for league-wide warm-up uniformity were banished, teams could utilize those opportunities and create unique, team-specific garb. There’d likely be some unattractive results, but it’d be superior to the uninspired gear seen currently.